Where there's smoke, there's fish

February 23, 2012

Last Saturday morning, at 7:07 a.m., I learned chubs were back at Calumet Fisheries. At that moment, my day—perhaps my year—changed. It's been seven months since the James Beard award-winning so-called fish shack has had the elusive little golden fishes in house. These are indeed the fish—and I do understand the risk of repeating this today, but I'd be remiss if I didn't—once dubbed fish crack.

They were back by wildly popular demand just in time for Lent, the Fisheries' busiest time of the year. By the way, I find it miraculous that it's considered abstemious to eat "only fish" on Fridays.

The Friday night fish fry is the more famous seasonal ritual, but its stronghold lies north, in Wisconsin. While Calumet Fisheries' specialty is smoke, they do a fine fry nearly every day of the year. 

Smokemaster Mundo Campos first started smoking at Calumet when he was 14, and is still doing it now over 40 years later. On Saturday mornings, Mundo chops oak logs—with an axe—then carefully feeds the smokehouse wood and seafood, the latter brined overnight. The chubs, he pins—on a nail by the tail—to long, skinny wood strips. The rest—from catfish to sustainable sturgeon—are hand-threaded, each portion, with cotton kitchen twine, then strung up. The shrimp, are laid out on metal racks—the same ones made by co-owner Mark Kotlick's father, when he and his brother-in-law opened the store back in 1948. The building dates back to 1928.

While the smokehouse looks like a fiery beast, with a hellish black and tarry mouth, smoking is actually a delicate art, especially with seafood. Too much smoke or heat and you've killed it. Mundo leaves it tender, flaky, and fatty. 

I don't know how I missed the chubs back in July, but I wouldn't again. Mark and manager Carlos Rosas have told me for years how rare they are now.

The "kitchen table" at Calumet Fisheries, with smoked salmon and shrimp; fried smelt, pollack, and more shrimp; and the house hot sauce. With the smoke drifting in from the side door, next to the smokehouse, my coat and bag smelled of smoke for days. I wish it would have lasted longer.

Smokemaster Mundo Campos (left), co-owner Mark Kotlick (center), and manager Carlos Rosas (right). During Lent, they'll smoke on more days than Saturdays to keep the store stocked well, with or without chubs.