I’m originally from the north suburbs of Chicago, and I’ve been living in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood for about a billion (ten) years now. And I think I was probably the last food nerd I know to go to the lonely-looking Calumet Fisheries on the 95th St bridge. Yes, it’s located on an actual bridge, which certainly makes it unique. I kept putting it off since it was a haul, but one day my pal Brett Hickman (of Rock and Roll Ghost and Eater Chicago) and I just trucked it the hell down there on a beautiful day.
It’s kind of an amazing place; they sell a ton of smoked seafood, smoked on-site in a little smokehouse out in the back. Anthony Bourdain visited once with my friend Louisa in a Chicago episode of No Reservations. It’s the kind of place with two little picnic tables outside; if they’re full, then you can either plunk yourself down on the curb and eat away, or move the party to the hood of your car and just relax. There’s not much to see other than the industrial skyline, but even then, there’s something about roughing it, urban style, to make your food taste that much better.
If you’re going to get just one thing — go for the smoked, shell-on shrimp. It’s plump with an interesting tender/soft texture that comes from its trip to the smoke-sauna, and it’s definitely hands on; you’re going to smell like you got to third-base with The Little Mermaid (if she smoked a ton of wood cigarettes), but that’s just part of the fun. The smoke itself is distinct and lives mostly on the shell, but it lends every bite of shrimp an irresistible wood-seasoned flavor that you just can’t get anywhere else. Yes, they aren’t de-veined, but you can either push the vein out with your thumbnail or go all-in. The vein adds a muddy, sea-floor flavor to each bite. They serve Louisiana Hot Sauce on the side for that vinegar-spicy kick if you need it.
The fried items aren’t nearly as good. The breading is fried hard, creating an armor shell around the precious seafood (in our case, the clams and smelt). A friend told me I missed out on the fried shrimp, so chime in if you feel the same way. In terms of the smoked fish, the pepper-garlic salmon, studded with coarse spicy black peppercorn was actually a little dry that day, but the sturgeon was really something else. Sturgeon, the fish mainly known for its expensive caviar, is fatty, rich and velvety. I didn’t even know you could get it smoked. We downed that motherfucker like there was no tomorrow. The smoke clings firmly to a fish that fatty, and despite how it may sound, smoked gelatinous fatty fish bits are really good to eat, especially with your hands.
Brett and I sat there on the bridge, wind blowing away our napkins, catching up over smoky mouthfuls of fish and hard-fried breaded clams. A young Latino couple sat at the picnic table next to us and asked us what to get. The girl was shy and pretty, and the guy was just happy to be seen with her. They called me “sir.” I laughed. “Everything is good,” I said. “But the shrimp is awesome.”
I ran after some runaway napkins, and we left.