Once considered a lesser kind of salmon, pinks are finding more and more fans, thanks to a Washington state-based hands-on reef-net fishery and the work of savvy chefs who prize the fish for its delicate flavor and tender flesh.

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OK, ALL YOU Northwest fish snobs. It’s time to stop sneering at pink salmon.

Once considered ugly-bumpkin cousins to glamorous sockeye and kings, Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, or pinks, are transcending their traditional $2-a-can destiny to debut as the new, eco-friendly, sustainable darlings.

Carefully caught in solar-powered reef nets off Lummi Island and handled with kid gloves, these shimmering beauties are showing up on the menus of locavore restaurants such as Taste, Toscana and Poppy. (Heads turn, whispers overheard: Who is that sweet young thing?)

Key word? Young.

Unlike sockeye and king salmon that are harvested when they’re 4 or 5 years old, pinks have a two-year life cycle. They eat from the bottom of the food chain and spend most of their lives in the Bering Sea, one of the most pristine bodies of saltwater on the planet. “Pinks are the cleanest protein on earth,” says Riley Starks, innkeeper, restaurateur and reef-net fisherman whose Lummi Island Wild Co-op harvested 100,000 pounds of pinks last season.

“It’s a much more delicate-flavored fish than kings or sockeye, and lower fat,” says Jerry Traunfeld, chef-owner of Poppy and former Herbfarm executive chef. “It has that wonderfully flaky, mild flavor like a really good trout.”

At The Herbfarm, Traunfeld favored an old-fashioned preparation, dusting fillets with flour and browning in butter, slow and gentle over low heat. At Poppy, he plans to float the golden fillets atop a creamy leek marmalade.

“The consumer doesn’t appreciate pink salmon because it’s not bright red,” says Darin Leonardson, executive chef of Toscano in Bellevue.

Leonardson, who discovered pinks while executive chef at Google for Bon Appetit food services, uses the delicate flavor and color of pinks to advantage, adding a fresh-grated horseradish crust, lemon herb crème frâiche and butternut-squash risotto. Grilled pinks and chili aioli anchor his BLTs.

I first swooned over pinks prepared tempura-style by chef Vincent Schofield, on the porch of Starks’ Willows Inn. Schofield topped the crispy medallions with glistening salmon roe that glowed like jewels in the sunset. On the tongue, it was a perfect combination of crunch and creamy flesh, rich salmon accented by bursts of salty eggs — the taste of tears without the sorrow.

Restaurant chefs also appreciate pinks for their terrific price. At $2.50 to $5.50 a pound wholesale, pinks cost three to four times less than their premium-salmon cousins.

“Pinks, they just look like a neglected salmon stepsister,” says Jon Rowley, a food marketing consultant named “Disciple of Flavor” by Saveur magazine. “They lack a certain elegance, but they eat pretty well.”

Of course, not all pinks are created equal.

“They’re an ephemeral fish,” Traunfeld says. “You have to take care of them.” Pinks have more blood per pound than any other salmon, Starks says, and if not handled properly, that blood quickly turns rancid, tainting the meat.

The trouble with Alaska pinks, says Starks, is that they start off small, without the body fat of Fraser River pinks. Then, they’re mistreated: Caught by the ton, bruised, not bled on the spot, not quickly frozen.

In Legoe Bay, off the west coast of Lummi Island, Starks and his partners anchor their solar-powered salmon gears offshore, a flock of rafts mounted with gangly ladder-towers rising 15 feet high.

Swaying with each swell, a fisherman perches for hours on a small cedar plank atop the ladder, scanning the water with the intensity of a hungry blue heron on a piling. Underwater, an artificial reef of plastic ribbon and line stretches between pairs of boats. When fishermen spot salmon swimming into the reef, they pull up the net, spilling fish into an underwater pen in the boat’s center.

Then, they cradle each fish in hand, snap its gills and set it gently back in the seawater well where it swims, tail flapping, heart pumping until it has no more blood. From there, it’s a short hop into a decktop ice chest for slush cooling, then on to flash freezing.

Leonardson, of Toscano, says the fillets, properly defrosted, are nearly indistinguishable from fresh-caught, and far better than “fresh” that’s been “sitting on a boat for six days already deteriorating” before it gets shipped out.

Last summer, pinks had a record run on the Fraser River — something of a consolation for Lummi Island Wild Co-op, given the season’s baffling sockeye collapse.

Home cooks can start looking for wild pinks in local high-end markets or order Fraser River pinks from $5.50 to $7.50 a pound directly from www.lummiislandwild.com. In Washington state, shipping is $1 a pound by FedEx Ground. Shipping goes up out of state, but buying clubs get wholesale rates. The co-op ships thousands of pounds of pinks to buying clubs in Rochester, N.Y., Ann Arbor, Mich., and Madison, Wisc. Dave Hansen, a co-op partner, laughs: “They don’t have the nose-in-the-air attitude that people in the Northwest have about pinks!”

Paula Bock is a former Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.