Smoked Fish and Tradition at Calumet Fisheries, Part 2

By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 4, 2010 4:00PM

Yesterday, we discussed the smoking process used at Calumet Fisheries, Chicagoland's premier location for smoked fish and shrimp. Today, we'll talk about history, stories and fried fish.

There was a time, Kotlick says, when the smoked fish business was huge. In the 1940s and 50s, river traffic was much more important and the neighborhood was largely scandinavian - big consumers of smoked fish! As the neighborhood and the economy changed, they saw a dropoff in sales, and introduced their extensive menu of fried specialities, which did well and kept the business afloat. Calumet Fisheries' smoked fish business had been on a slow decline for many years. Kotlick told me that, eventually, they would probably have stopped smoking altogether because the demand simply wasn't high enough to maintain the operation. CF had gotten some press attention over the years as a classic Chicago institution, but nothing could compare to the day Anthony Bourdain came walking through the door.

The folks at Calumet Fisheries barely knew who Bourdain was. Kotlick had accidentally caught No Reservations on TV, but when Bourdain came for his trip through Chicago, he didn't understand why this was an important visit. He got wise fast. As he describes it, "For a few days after the episode aired, not much happened. When we arrived that Saturday, there was a line out the door and down the street. We sold out of a week's worth of product in 2 hours." Ever since, Bourdain groupies have continued to arrive, begging to eat exactly what their hero ate.

Calumet Fisheries continues to get noticed. After the appearance on No Reservations, the James Beard foundation awarded Calumet Fisheries with a 2010 America's Classics award, proudly displayed behind the counter. Despite the accolades and increasing sales, nothing is set to change. They still don't take credit cards, there is no seating for eat-in dining, and if you want to order fish, you'd better have a friend who lives in Chicago, since they don't ship anything anywhere.

The smoked fish business isn't the only part of Calumet Fisheries. We were very skeptical about the fried fish, but Kotlick took us through the entire process to change our minds. The fish is breaded and battered by hand in-house, using a secret recipe that Kotlick wouldn't even hint at. The sauces (hot and mild) are also homemade, and every dish is fried to order and served fresh and hot. They have, bar none, the best fried shrimp we have ever tasted. The prices are right, at $6.79 for a half order of shrimp.

So, if you love fried fish, smoked fish, or just want to get a taste of a grand Chicago institution, make the trek down to 95th street. Tell them we sent you.

Calumet Fisheries is located at 3259 E 95th St. Remember, no credit cards and no seating.