Big Fish: Calumet Fisheries keeps the smokehouse tradition alive on the Far Southeast Side

The menu at Calumet Fisheries; Veronica Gonzalez

The menu at Calumet Fisheries; Veronica Gonzalez

Calumet Fisheries is the pride of local foodies. This shack, excuse me, smokehouse, is touted by the owners as one of the only authentic smokehouses left in Illinois. This disappearing art involves marinating the fish in brine overnight and then stoking fires with special oak logs in the smoking process. Take-out and cash-only, the place is known for its smoked and fried fish, and no matter your taste, it’s all good. Recently “Coastal Living” named it one of the magazine’s “25 favorite seafood dives across the country,” and, as quoted in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” trip to Calumet, “It’s destination: smoked fish.”
As you walk in you are greeted by the lightest, least offensive fish smell you’ve never thought imaginable. With the temperature dropping at nightfall, that along with your close proximity to the deep fryer will warm you to your bones. With only enough room for standing and placing orders, you’ll have to take your fish and go. And from a look at the regulars walking in and back out to their cars, you will come back. The loyal fans of Calumet have kept the place open for over sixty years now. Reading a sign on the wall, “This is our one & only location. We have no other stores,” it seems that change isn’t coming any time soon, and customers like it that way.
Do not invite your vegetarian friends to join you in gritty Calumet. If it’s smoked fish you desire, try showing up around 9:30 or 10am to watch the smoking process for yourself. This also allows for you to get freshly smoked fish at the proper (not straight from freezer) temperature. Offerings include chubs, salmon, shrimp, and trout, with the smoked garlic-pepper trout coming in as the most economic choice at $8.15/lb. This fish-eating experience is dominated by textures, as the flaky exterior holds in a powerful, fleshy, salty center. Locals also report that the salmon collar has a truly memorable fatty flavor that makes you happy to wrap up and bring the remainder home. With your take-out sitting in your lap, you might not be able to make it home (or to your local watering hole for the ever-so-complementary pale ale pint) before you break into your meal.
Some fried favorites include fish chips ($6.45) and shrimp ($8.79), with fries, coleslaw and sauce included in the dinner order. However, if you’re feeling a little daring, Calumet also serves fried clam strips, smelts, and frogs’ legs. The old favorite fish chips were fried to perfection. The meal is light and dry until you sink your teeth into one of those bad boys. The fish itself is delicate and moistened only by its natural fish oils–not drippy from the fryer at all. To accompany the fish you get a choice of mild or hot sauce, which although watery contains a surprising sweetness that adds another layer to the fish. Finally, the element that has all my companions jumping is the fries.

These thick babies are evenly cut, firm and again devoid of any fryer greasiness. Lightly salted (only requiring two pinches for my salt-fiend taste) but full on potato, they just tie the basket meal together the right way.
So whether it’s the smoked collar by the river on a hot summer day, or warming up with some fried smelt before the winter’s end, bring $10 to $20 cash (with the smoked fish on the more expensive side) and a bunch of friends to try it all.

Calumet Fisheries, 3259 E. 95th St. Sunday-Wednesday, 10am-9:45pm; Thursday, 9am-9:30pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-9:45pm. (773)933-9855. calumetfisheries.com