Shad Roe—Washington’s Favorite Weird Fish Dish—Is Back on Restaurant Menus

Egg sack season is upon us.

Shad roe at Martin's Tavern. Photograph courtesy of Martin's Tavern.

Spring marks the culinary return of shad roe, the egg sack of a shad fish.

Did we lose you at egg sack? Stick with us here—when temperatures start to rise, shad begin their migration along the East Coast to breed (hence the eggs), and die-hard fans of the old-school dish begin searching for their fix. Already, we’ve got sightings. 

“The phone’s been ringing for the last few weeks with people asking ‘Is the shad roe in? Is the shad roe in?,’” says Billy Martin, owner of Martin’s Tavern, which has served the dish for over 70 years. “We get it, and it’s gone quick.”

The fish itself has a long history: Native Americans introduced shad to early colonial settlers, and Washington’s starving troops jumped into the Schuylkill River to eat them while at Valley Forge.

Traditionally served on the Eastern Shore with (chicken) eggs for breakfast, the roe has a quiche-like texture to it when cooked. And unlike caviar, the eggs are small, so there’s no fishy pop while you eat them.

“It’s kind of like a scrambled egg inside of a sack,” says John Rorapaugh of ProFish seafood distributor, cringing over the use of “sack.” (Really, though, there has to be a better word.)

This year, ProFish is selling the dish to several local spots, he says, including Martin’s Tavern and The Tavern at Ivy City Smokehouse. It’s also a hit at the retirement communities, says Rorapaugh. “It’s really more of an older crowd that eats it.”

While the shad that ProFish has now is from the Carolinas, it’ll start carrying locally from the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay in three-to-four weeks, when the fish make their way further up the coast, Rorapaugh says.

But eating locally is a secondary concern to its fans, who are more focused on getting their fix while they can. After all, shad goes out-of-season around mid-May.

If you can make it to Martin’s before then, you can try the roe at brunch, with eggs and toast, or lightly-floured and sautéed with applewood-smoked bacon come dinnertime.

It takes a little education on the staff’s part to sway newcomers to the dish, says Martin, but once they try it, they usually become fans.

“I wasn’t really fond of the fish or the roe [the first time I tasted it],” says Martin, “but I found myself craving it the next year.”

Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Home & Features Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She’s written for The Washington Post, Garden & Gun, Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Del Ray.