Standing Room Only: Calumet Fisheries
In Standing Room Only, the author visits Chicago's best seatless eateries. Have at it, Nick.
3259 E 95th St, Chicago IL 60617 (map); 773-933-9855
The Short Order: Intoxicating smoked shrimp and freshly fried seafood.
Want Fries with That? They're available, but opt for more fried shimp.
Want Ketchup? Go for the mild and hot sauces.
I must have taken the wrong exit, because after a few odd turns off the I-90, I found myself in industrial Northern Indiana, the landscape spiked by massive smokestacks and decaying metal bridges. I figured I was somewhere between Hammond and Gary, not exactly two places I visit often. I was on the lookout for a simple seafood shack, and all I had to go by was that it was on the Calumet River. So I followed the river's every bend, crossing over it a few times, and always hoping the next street would lead me to the legendary seafood shack.
Why the haul down to the far, far south side for fried food? I was searching for Calumet Fisheries, which apparently had some of the best smoked and fried seafood in the city. This is no joke. I can't be the only one that watched Anthony Bourdain eating smoked trout, salmon, and shrimp out of his car on the Chicago episode of No Reservations.
You can find evidence of both media events inside, along with a few dozen write-ups from local publications proclaiming their love for the place.
This ain't the Red Lobster. There is no seating, and the menu has only two categories: deep fried, and smoked. The smoking is all done on the premises, in a little shack out back. (Great pictures of the process here.) But I didn't want a tour. I wanted lunch.
Their fish offerings include smelt, oysters, catfish, chubs, and salmon. But I was after shrimp this particular afternoon. I had heard that both their smoked shrimp and their fried shrimp were worth the excursion, and the price.
It's not exactly the cheapest lunch in town. A pound of smoked shrimp will set you back $20.99. Even the fried shrimp is more than what you might pay at another joint.
But this isn't your corner fish shack. The shrimp are breaded and gathered in white boxes; only when an order is placed are they tossed in the fryer. Everything is repackaged in the same white boxes, and then slung across the counter. The only real seating options are on the concrete sidewalk or in your car. I settled on the latter.
I don't have much experience with fried shrimp, but these were easily the best I'd ever eaten. The crisp cornmeal coating was all crunch, and the succulent shrimp inside were surprisingly juicy. I'd happily head down to the far South Side just for this.
The smoked food is the real story. Smoked shrimp doesn't immediately sound like a perfect gastronomic match. I worried about overly smoked, grayed shrimp that were flaccid and tepid.
But like perfectly done jumbo shrimp cocktail, they were cool, plump, and crisp. The only difference was that each bite was haunted with a tinge of smoke.
You can dip either in hot or mild sauce (both of which I managed to spill all over my front seat). It's not exactly the easiest thing to eat in a car. But all inconveniences matter little while you're here. I may not make the hour-long drive that often, but whenever I'm returning to the city from a weekend with the family in Indiana, I'm going to have a mighty hard time not making a quick stop here. What an impressive introduction back to Chicago.