Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Beef with Baltimore's Pit Beef

It’s a question for the ages, and for many of us in the food world, a proverbial hermeneutic Gordian knot of epicurean semiotics and vexation, whose elucidation often seems as enigmatic and ultimately unknowable as that final, all-too-distant digit of Pi. Men have fought over the question. Marriages have ended because of it. And the food press has debated the issue with a rancor and invective usually reserved for the most politically binary questions of national identity and matters of state.  

The question I’m talking about:  is Baltimore's pit beef actually barbecue?

For the uninitiated, a quick note of explanation:  pit beef is made of minimally-seasoned top round (that’s the rear leg of the cow, yo), usually grilled over charcoal—not smoked—then sliced, deli-thin on an I’ll-take-your-fingers industrial slicer, and served, medium rare, atop a Kaiser roll.  Baltimore’s pit beef is many things.  It’s emphatically local.  It’s insistently sauceless.  And it’s ferociously working class.  Many familiar with its charms have even gone so far as to call pit beef their favorite kind of barbecue.

But is pit beef actually barbecue?

To know Baltimore is to know (intuitively, at least) the answer to that question.  Baltimore is the wackadoodle yen to sister-city (and just 40-miles to the south) Washington, D.C.’s buttoned-up yang.  But the city is an object of deep and abiding adoration for me, and the once-home to heroes of mine.  Fitzgerald lived—and drank—there.  Poe drank and died there.  A few years ago, I filmed an episode of Netflix’s House of Cards there (Season 3, Episode 3, in case you’re wondering), and once, well before that, very nearly got into a fistfight with Cry Baby-era Iggy Pop at Baltimore’s infamous 8 X 10 Club during a Joe “Don’t Mess with My Duck Tail” Clay show (though that story will have to wait for another time and place, friend-o). 

Baltimore is where Washingtonians go to let their hair down and their freak flags fly.  Baltimore is a John Watersian bizarro world of rococo cultural and culinary oddities—think Frank Zappa; think of the mighty and gender-bending Divine—where the Four C’s of local gastronomy reign supreme:  coddies (puck-like cakes of salt cod and potato), crab cakes, corned beef, and chocolate tops (cookies coronated with crowns of chocolate frosting).  But arch among these deeply unctuous gastronomic curios is Baltimore’s divisive take on barbecue:  the venerable pit beef sandwich.  

To settle this is-it-or-is-it-not-barbecue debate (in my own mind at least, and for all the perpetuity it would take for me to digest my sandwich) I visited the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it Expressway Pit Beef (of the “Beef “Stand” as locals call it) in Odenton, Maryland, about thirty-minutes outside Charm City, but at the very epicenter of Maryland’s pit beef country.  Expressway is a function-over-form kind of place, contiguous to an Ace Hardware store, and, not surprisingly, egalitarian in the extreme.  Walk up to the “order” window.  Order. Pay.  And wait.  After a few moments of sunshine, car noise, and birdsong, your food—in my case, a pit beef sandwich with a side of house-made fries—is unceremoniously slid from out of the “pick up” window for you—and for you only—to adorn with the requisite and don’t-even-think-about-skipping-these pit beef condiments of horseradish, malt vinegar, and Baltimore’s very own Old Bay seasoning; a holy trinity of added flavor if there ever was one.  You then sit at a plastic picnic table outside the beef stand and eat.  Simple enough, right?  But what comes next is anything but familiar.  Because nothing is quite routine about what happens inside your mouth when you bite into a pit beef sandwich.  For what comes with the actual eating part of this transaction is a culinary epiphany and a lesson in gastronomic minimalism wherein we learn that two simple ingredients—meat and bun—can be transformative in our lives as eaters in ways that make us more perceptive to nuance in textures and the slightest gradations in flavor.  The pit beef of Expressway Pit Beef is wonderfully delicious.  It’s more than delicious, actually:  it’s revelatory in its pure and unadulterated “beefiness” and it teaches those eaters astute enough to pay attention all that beef—simply prepared and left well enough alone—can be.  I love the pit beef of Expressway.  My adoration for their no-fuss, Charm City charm is keen.

But the question yet remains:  is pit beef actually barbecue?

My answer, in a word: NO.  It’s not. Emphatically so.  

Because what is missing from the litany of pit beef’s ingredients and processes is the one primary and irrefutably essential component to barbecue that makes barbecue, well, barbecue.  And that one missing ingredient:  time.  As any pit master will tell you, time is the low-and-slow ritual of culinary supplication by which the dissolution of connective tissue and fat is petitioned and teased out from meat for the truly deserving from those all-too-fickle gastronomic gods of flavor through the sacramental imploration of wood smoke and fire. Without time as an ingredient, cooking meat over fire is just…grilling.  

But so what if pit beef isn’t actually barbecue?  Who really cares?  Baltimore doesn’t care.  That much is sure.  Baltimore has always been, and still remains, proudly immune from the too-cool-for-school castigations and food envy of other American cities; it’s utterly impervious to the culinary judgement of visiting food nerds.  Baltimore gives no fucks that pit beef isn’t considered “real” barbecue outside the city, and neither should you.  Eat it.  Enjoy it on its own terms and for what it really is.  Because what Baltimore’s pit beef really is is really, really good.

Your link:  Expressway Pit Beef

Friday, June 22, 2018

A Ride On the Mothership - Lunch at Vienna Beef Factory & Cafe - Chicago

The Japanese know it as satori.  To the etymologically-giving Greeks, the word is epiphany.  But for this journeyman eater, standing there, as I was, in Terminal 3 of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, watching two grown men (one being my traveling companion) throw down and go mano a mano across the steam table of a rolling food cart, locked in what appeared to be a no-holds-barred death match to settle that age-old debate as to whether or not ketchup belongs anywhere near a hot dog, that, that, my friends, was what we shall call my momentary of clarity.  Because at that exact moment, I understood, truly and irrevocably, that in no other American city is the orthodoxy of canonical hotdog condiments so deeply entrenched than in Chicago.  For atop the Chicago dog, ketchup is blasphemy.  It’s sacrilege.  It’s the Miltonian fist of culinary defiance raised against the deific sky of better judgment.  Little wonder, then, that the response my traveling companion’s puffed out, bro-chested insistence that his hotdog receive ketchup should be one allotted for infidels and heretics of the highest order; for his spluttering indignation and dogged pursuit of the red stuff, my traveling companion received violence:  a quick shove to the thorax; a laudable and open-handed swipe at the jaw.  Bedlam ensued.  Punches were thrown.  Police were called.  And my traveling companion went—however briefly—to airport jail.

To explain.

I was traveling through Chicago with Polish Paul.  Co-worker.  Friend.  And fellow culinarian gifted with such protean talents and prodigious good looks that saddling him with such a silly nickname—it was believed by my then-employer—might somehow blunt the edge of his indefatigable Euro-swagger, his Ivan Drago-esque I-must-break-you under bite and mien, and his industry-wide (and much-deserved) reputation as a Lothario par excellence with its too-cutesy-by-half alliterative charm.    

We were on our way home from Missoula.  A way-beyond-wealthy client had flown us to Montana from our base of operations in Washington, D.C. to oversee a Missoula restaurant’s attempt at catering their son’s Montana wedding (re: plated, seated dinner) for three hundred guests under a tent, in a field, mere feet from the banks of the Bitterroot River.  Polish Paul was then just recently arrived to America from his perennially dishwater-colored city of Krakow, and his enthusiasm for all-things-American (including despoiling its rural maidenry) bordered on the maniacal.  Within just forty-five minutes of touching down in Missoula (his very first time being west of the Mississippi), Polish Paul had managed procure a cowboy hat, the complete Sun recordings of Johnny Cash, a fifth of Jim Beam rye, and (for the hour or so following) a toothsome, fire-haired bartender named Becky.  Polish Paul’s embrace of American culture was that of a zealot’s belief in a newfound faith:  total and all consuming.  So when Polish Paul learned our return from Montana to Washington, D.C. would be bifurcated by an hour’s layover in Chicago O’Hare, he could hardly contain his glee.  For Polish Paul, that quixotic and self-invented Americanist he was most certainly was, the great megalopolis of Chicago clearly signified one thing above all else:  the Great American hotdog.  Nowhere else in America were hotdogs any more delicious than in Chicago.  Polish Paul knew this, and with unequivocal and I’ll-fight-you-motherfucker-if-you-disagree certainty.  How so?  Because a then-adolescent Paul had once come across a well-thumbed Krakow edition of Perestroika Today, filled with all manner of visually titillating images of uniquely American foodstuffs.  Moon Pies.  Banana spilt sundaes.  Cotton Candy.  Arousing as those photographs were, it was what the monthly’s editors used as their money shot that Paul could never—and indelibly—unsee.  That’s right, friends:  Miss September 1987 had been a hotdog, a Chicago dog, no less, replete with its signature iridescent green relish and poppy seed bun.  However clumsy was that glossy, gatefold, proto Soviet full-color stab food porn, it worked:  the pimple-faced Paul popped a veritable culinary boner, so have one the now-in-America Polish Paul absolutely must.  We pinkie-swore over successive (if ill-advised) in-flight Bloody Mary’s that once aground in O’Hare, Paul would realize this most American—and by his telling—almost preternatural culinary experience.  Polish Paul would eat a Chicago dog.  And I would help.

So we debarked on Concourse C of O’Hare’s Terminal 3 and engaged the first red, yellow, and blue Vienna Beef steam cart we met.  Our hot dog vendor, himself a newly arrived Polish national and doppelganger for a circa-1980 Lech Walesa, replete with a side-cocked solidarist’s scowl and an omnivorous walrus ‘stache hell bent on consuming his entire face, was palpably unimpressed.  For in the tipsy Polish Paul now standing before him, the vendor recognized a fellow countryman, clearly corrupted by first-world appetites run amok, for which Paul’s present leering desire for a Chicago dog with ketchup was emblematic of all that was wrong with the West.  So the vendor said “no.”  He did more than say no, actually; he crossed his arms and stepped away from the cart.  Polish Paul was incredulous.  He repeated his order, more loudly this time, with less request in his voice, and more command.  The vendor again shook his head.  Keczup?  No.  He would not do it.  Polish Paul glared at the vendor, choking on his own spluttering rage.  There were threats.  Insults.  Indignations of labyrinthian complexity.  All in Polish.  But the hot dog vendor remained as serene as a Poznanian Buddha.  He could not be moved.  It was only when Polish Paul had plunged his hand into the steaming cart water to cobble together his own Chicago dog did the vendor change tact.  He came forward, wordlessly, and administered a withering karate chop to Paul’s throat.  That blow was followed by another to Paul’s face.  Paul swung back, blindly, and the two Poles grappled over the Vienna Beef cart like two bears trying to hug it out.  Police were called and Paul was zip-tied into surrender and remanded to an airport holding cell, where he remained, unsated and Chicago-dogless, until our return flight to D.C. was allowed to leave O’Hare.   

I thought little of the incident in the intervening years until I recently moved to Chicago, splitting my time between it and my hometown of Washington, D.C.  Only then, and only after I had encountered, and purely by chance, an incredibly delicious—nay, transcendent—hot dog on a just-in-town run to my Chicago-area Home Depot for a hacksaw, did I realize that in Chicago, more than in any of the other dirty water dog capitals I’d ever eaten—New York, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C.—the Chicago hot dog transcended its own perfunctory utility as grab-and-go street food, while remaining fixedly central to the city’s own culinary identity as an internationally renowned food destination. 

For those of you who have yet to have the pleasure, the Chicago dog is made a “Chicago dog” by the requisite addition of several essential and post-maximalist savory toppings:  yellow mustard, chopped white onion, iridescent green pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices (or wedges), pickled “sport” peppers, and an ample dusting of celery salt, all atop a poppy seed bun.  And as for ketchup:  fuck that noise.  The Chicago dog does not abide the red stuff.  Ever.

I went for years without ever really considering—or eating—the dirty water dog in the many American cities in which I lived or traveled.  Its sheer ubiquity— with it being on each street corner of every major American city I had ever visited—somehow debased its value as regionally specific foodstuff and made it a cringe-worthy lunch option deserving of pure culinary contempt.  The hot dog represented total surrender to a hunger which could not be outfoxed with either cunning or wit, nor felicity with one’s own iPhone restaurant apps; the hot dog meant defeat.

But not here in Chicago.  Here, the hot dog remains the very acme of excellence in street eating.  It’s something the laboring classes have always had over on white-collared stiffs for generations.  Cab drivers.  Bookies.  Waiters.  Firefighters.  Cops.  They’ve known for decades what the rest of us in the American hinterlands are only now just discovering:  that the Chicago dog reins supreme.

I come late to this party.  Way late.  I didn’t purposefully, deliberately eat my first Chicago dog until the autumn of 2017.  Sure, I had spent most of the 90s in Chicago, and in that decade, unwittingly consumed hundreds of the things.  In those days, for this then-college student, eating wasn’t deliberate or even political; my gastronomic decision-making was rooted, purely, in economy and survival.  But upon moving to Chicago in summer 2017 as a food industry professional with seventeen hard years in, everything about what I then—as now—chose to eat was now invariably fraught with judgment and implied decree.  And after eating my first Chicago dog since the riotous Polish Paul incident at O’Hare, I knew it was true love, and I eat them every chance I get.

Founded in 1893 by Austrian immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany, and made locally famous at the Columbian Exposition of that same year, Vienna Beef has long been heralded as the gold standard in Chicago street eating.  And while the Windy City hosts other several other venerable hot dog manufacturers—the Eisenberg and Red Hot brands come to mind—the sheer near-omnipresence of the Vienna Beef dog suggests that it holds a special place in the hearts (and major arteries) of Windy City eaters.  And with so much of Chicago’s culinary identity encased in its eponymous dog, I decided that for my first hotdog as a newly returned and re-minted prodigal son of Chicago, I would go directly to the source.  The fountainhead.  The mothership.  I went to the Vienna Beef Factory Café and got myself a hotdog.

If there exists in this world of gastronomy a more pure and proto-Marxian archetype of a happy-worker’s paradise wherein the sleeves-up proletariat consumes, bodily, that which it has just produced, I’ve yet to encounter its kind anywhere in America.  Located in the street-level underbelly of the Vienna Beef Factory, with the wheels of meat-in-tube-form industry humming ceaselessly overhead, the factory cafe itself occupies a liminal (if deeply egalitarian) mixed-use, culinary-and-retail space where Vienna Beef factory workers lunch elbow-to-elbow with eaters from the outside world in a florescent-lit, red-yellow-blue confluence of nagahyde-and-formica break-room-based insouciance and ennui so deep and vexed that the hum of refrigerated cases of just-made meats and cheeses is all you hear.  But so what if conversation is not on the menu?  It’s not for the witty banter and persiflage that eaters hunger and come.  It’s for the hotdogs, boy-o, and the Vienna Beef Factory has them a’plenty.

I ordered the classic.  I ordered the Chicago Style Hot Dog.  What I received was nothing short of sublime: a fresh-from-the factory Vienna Beef dog “fully dressed” on a just-steamed poppy seed, served with a side of impeccable, perfectly salted, just-dunked fries.  Crinkle cut no less.  And as I chewed, blissed out, as I was, on what surely must be among the crowning achievements of proletarian gastronomic glory that filled my mouth with a blunt-force-trauma umami-bomb of flavors—salty, sour, and sport-pepper hot—I realized the genius of the Vienna Beef Factory Café lies not what it is—a hushed culinary haven for a work force seeking a moment’s reprieve from their noble toil above—but for what it’s not.  For nowhere among my fellow eaters—middle aged men, mostly—was there a whiff of irony, nor any miasma of hipness.  Nowhere among them were sardonic hipster beards or the too-cool-for-school strains of Father John Misty issuing from the speakers overhead.  Nowhere among them was any palpable longing for culinary “betterment” from, say, the andouilles and boudins of the world.  No way.  Not here.  The Vienna Beef Factory Café is a sarcasm-free, no bullshit zone offering the quotidian best of what surely must be one of life’s keenest culinary pleasures:  a perfect American hot dog.

It really is that good.

I haven’t spoken to Polish Paul in a while—years, maybe—but when I do, I’ll be sure to invite him back to Chicago.  And when he makes the trip—as I know he will—I’ll be take him to the gloriously inglorious Vienna Beef Factory Café, where we will sit in the wan florescent light, among our fellow food industry brethren, and laugh about the bad old days over a meal of Vienna Beef hot dogs.

Without ketchup, of course.   

Your link:  Vienna Beef

Thursday, October 20, 2016

South Side Communal - Eating at Chicago's Legendary Valois

Consider this the culinary last stand of a golden age of American dining.  Consider this the fucking Alamo.  Because almost nowhere else do places like this any longer exist.  Places that effortlessly celebrate, with an unflappable—and unwavering—generosity of portion size and heart, the convivial confluence and comingling of a spectroscopic multiplicity of class and culture over the once-sacrosanct shared experience of the deeply delicious, deeply affordable, hot meal eaten at a square Formica table among fellow diners with whom we might otherwise, in our own socially myopic lives, have precious little traffic.  Black.  White.  Rich.  Poor.  Students.  Day laborers.  Windsor-knotted portfolio managers.  They’re all gathered here, in this shining last bastion of a soon-to-be bygone era of American restaurantism, blithely unaware of anything approaching too-cool-for-school gastronomic irony, and happily impervious to hirsute hipsters and the douchbaggery of frat boys and popped-polo-collar bros now endemic—and with the seeming ubiquity of a near-biblical pestilence—to most big city food scenes.  Not here.  No way.  Not here on South Side of Chicago.  This place will suffer none of that.  Why?  Because it doesn’t have to.  Because this place is the one, the only, Valois.


Opened in 1921, Valois (which the local South Side Chicago-ese patois requires you to pronounce as Val-oiz) is an ethnographic study in Eisenhower-era dining milieu and the-future-is-now gastronomy of post-war America.  Valois is also a cafeteria in the best—and truest—sense of the word.  Enter through the East 53rd Street egress, join the s-shaped line (because there is always, always a line at Valois, yo), and behold the menu board mounted above the service line.  There, you’ll discover such hallowed dine-o-classics as the chopped steak sandwich and the perennially-venerable patty melt on rye.  There are opened-faced sandwiches, of course—hot turkey with mash [sic] potatoes, for one—and breakfast, always breakfast, served all day; omelettes [sic] pancakes, and breakfast meats in their forever-glorious and sundry forms, all at low, low Carter-era prices. 

[To wit:  despite the undeniable scrumptiousness of its culinary offerings, spelling is evidently not Valois’ forte.]

And as dazzling in sentimental wonder as the selection on the menu board might be, it’s the daily specials served up from the steam table for which South Sider Chicagoans line up and clamor, enduringly.  For there, behind the fogged-up glass of the age-old metal pass, are piles of pre-seared T-bones and New York strips (and brought up to serving temperature with a few, well-spent moments on an incendiary flat-top grill).  There, too, on the steam-heated line, are heaps of baked chicken, pre-fried catfish, and barbeque ribs—all of it a bona fide cornucopia of comfort food hall-of-fame classics.

For my meal at Valois last week, I ordered a time-honored cafeteria favorite:  I ordered the roast beef.  With my order came a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, peas and carrots, and a roll.  What I received after my order was served was a platter of food the size of a small dog bed and weighing as much as a boat anchor.  And, yes, the baby-shit colored brown gravy might have been straight from the jar; the mashed potatoes might very well have been reconstituted from dystopian-resistant dried potato flakes; the peas and carrots might have tasted, however vaguely, of a BPA-lined industrial-sized can.  With that said, however, I will avow, with a preacher’s deep solemnity and a missionary’s mighty zeal, my meal at Valois was—if not finest in culinary accomplishment in recent memory—then certainly the happiest in many months well-crowded with gastronomic merry-making contenders.  But how, you ask.  How could Valois—given its limited culinary capability and scope—be so insistently popular with South Side eaters, and—now—one of my all-time favorite places to eat in the food-lovers Brigadoon that is the megalopolis of Chicago? 

That’s easy.

Because the food of Valois attains a nirvana-like state of deliciousness in ways that other contemporary restaurants sired amid the zeitgeist of the post-post-modern culinary world of Food Network fetishism simply can’t.  Because Valois occupies—nearly alone—the liminal space of middle distance in the gastronomic world that is both unfettered by food trends (bone broth, anyone?), and purely undaunted by that mirrored Orwellian funhouse of culinary doublespeak wherein diners prattle on and on about “flavor profile” and “mouth feel” and “uniformity of chew.”  Because the food of Valois feeds you—fills you up—in ways that are almost Aristotelian in their nourishment of the soul so rarely—if ever—found beyond the four walls of your own mother’s kitchen.  Because the food of Valois is served by a standing army of Greek men—young and old—outfitted in standard-issue polyester snap-whites and peaked, paper hats.  And because—and this, perhaps, above all else—Valois is among the very last of its kind: a final holdout of cafeteria-style communal dining, whose penultimate mission, however tacit or implied, is driven by the provision of wonderfully tasty, deeply comforting, food priced affordably for any who should crave an open-faced sandwich smothered in gravy, or a slice of banana cream pie. 

Go to Valois while it’s still there.  I urge you.  I implore you.  Because nothing this good ever lasts forever.

Your link: Valois

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Smoke On the Water - Calumet Fisheries

Smoke.  It’s from whence those first flavor gods of gastronomy came, and where they have since remained.  From the first cook fires of our human ancestors 2.3 million years ago (fire being that exothermic evolutionary-cum-culinary primogenitor and prime mover which greatly reduced the time/energy quotient for chewing and digestion, and which then allowed—through that seismic act of cooking food—our earliest bipedal and newly big-brained cousins to walk, upright, into the happy spotlight of anthropological modernity) smoke has endured as the primary flavoring agent in world cuisine.  “This art of mine is an empire of smoke,” says Demetrius in The Areopagite.  And while our own contemporary cuisine has recently emphasized more “molecular” methods of preparation like, say, the thermal immersion circulators of sous vide cooking, nothing, and I mean nothing, boy-o, sets an omnivore’s mouth to watering like the olfactory bouquet of smoked animal protein borne up on a sunny, summer wind. 

The ancient art of smoking animal flesh to preserve it and render it magically delicious lies at that culinary confluence and crossroads where science and sorcery always seem to meet.  Find fuel (ideally low-resin hardwoods, in our case, like hickory, like oak), drop a match on it, then kick back in your lawn chair—cold can of PBR in hand—and watch the magic happen to your favorite hanging meat.  Because what happens is this:  the antimicrobial agents in wood smoke (phenol, formaldehyde, acetic acid) launch a withering series of Bruce Lee roundhouses at the thorax of the rancidification forces found in protein (with a priori concomitance and all-around bro-hugging with salt-curing or drying, yo) while the cellulose and hemicellulose in the smoke (they being aggregate sugar molecules in the hardwood) caramelize the meat and impart the sweet and fruity signature aromas (and flavors) of wood smoke.  Whew.  But only the white-belted hipster disciples of Harold McGee would care about such food nerdism, yes?  What we care about—you and I—is that the smoking of animal proteins invariably produces foods of such elemental savor, that some of us—deep in the reptilian swamps of our ancestral brains—will gladly stab our fellow dining companions with a fork should our shared meal experience ever devolve into a contest as to who gets that last smoked filet.

In traveling over 7,500 miles by car across the United States this last summer, I came across dozens of renegade culinarians and roadside restaurateurs who have gone apostate in forsaking most of the cooking methods of culinary modernity to instead make glorious and sublime—with nothing more than the simple caress of wood smoke and time—the most quotidian of animal proteins.  A few of these purveyors come to mind:  the whole-hog goodness of Parker's in Wilson, North Carolina; the unctuous low-and-slow mutton of Old Hickory in Owensboro, Kentucky; the Kansas City-style beef at The Piggy in the one-stoplight town of Walker, Minnesota, just an hour-and-change south of the Canadian border, where the burnt ends were so good I wanted to Keith Moon the joint, trash it, lest the secret of their supremacy ever make it to their maple-leafed neighbors but a stone’s throw to the north. 

But among the temples of gastronomy I visited this summer—and wherein the ancient gods of flavor yet live in perfect equipoise inside a tango-white veil of pan drippings and wood smoke—just one of these houses of the holy stood above its culinary brethren in eminence and the primacy of its proteins.

Calumet Fisheries of Chicago, Illinois. 

That’s right, friend-o:  we’re talking fish.

To say Calumet Fisheries is in the city limits of Chicago might be technically bang on, sure, but that simple declarative misses the fact—and badly—that Calumet Fisheries is situated at the extreme south end of the city, next to a drawbridge, above the miasmic Calumet River, in an insistently infecund stretch of industrial wasteland more evocative of the god-doesn’t-live-here-anymore wilds of Gary, Indiana, than the yankee-hotel-foxtrot triumphs of Chicago’s magnificent megalopolis, at city center, twenty (or so) miles to the far more prosperous north.

But step into Calumet Fisheries and you’ll know on a bio-molecular level palpable in your own teeth and skin that you, my friend, have entered the sactum sanctorum of American smoked fish houses.  The holiest of holies.  A Delphi of good eating.  And the place you need to experience this kind of cuisine.  Because there’s a fucking James Beard award on the wall, for one thing (the 2010 recipient’s medal in the Beard’s America’s Classic category, to be precise) and the immediate redolence of wood smoke and fish oil so thick that one can taste it through the simple act of breathing.

Founded in 1948 by brothers-in-law Sid Kotlick and Len Toll (and it’s still family owned), Calumet Fisheries offers the kind of straight-no-chaser methodology in the purveyance of pure protein for which south-siders and intrepid Chicagoans at large have long and quietly clamored.  Step in and step up:  there’s only a counter and a person or three to take your order.  No tables.  No chairs.  And certainly no doting waiter to treat you like that rare and decidedly special snowflake-of-a-patron you undoubtedly are.  Not here.  No way.  Eating at Calumet Fisheries is eating at its stripped-down, proletarian best.  Get in, get out, and get busy with the business of filling your belly with almost impossibly good food from both river and sea. 

I first visited Calumet Fisheries on a sunny day last June.  I went with friends:  Chef Shin Matsuda, that fast-rising star of Chicago gastronomy, and he of Ani fame.  With us, too, came our constant companions, Gabrielle and my beloved X, to play, as per their usual, a two-person Tenzing Norgay tag team to our collective Edmund Hillary routine, with us, as they often are, up this and each of our sometimes-incautious culinary climbs.  We parked on the street in front of Calumet Fisheries, we four, and went inside.

To say Calumet Fisheries is a kind of Wellsian time machine borne to us from the culinary past is an understatement in the extreme:  the single-room interior is a Truman-era study in Sullivan-esque form-follows-function aesthetics, whose post-war, no-snark-zone austerity is merrily offset by a veritable bounty of workaday smoked fish.  Sable.  Eel.  Sturgeon.  Trout.  Everything the modern-cum-primitive pescetarian could possibly hope for, and everything every erstwhile pack-a-day habitué of no-filter Camels could ever dream, such is the amount of smoke on Calumet’s fish.  Take-away lunches are in the offing as well:  smelts, clam strips, and calamari are fried-to-order and served up in Styrofoam clamshells with a complimentary (if implicit) side of don’t-overthink-this-because-we’re-all-just-polishing-the-brass-on-the-Titantic polemic on consuming the fried culinary arts.

We ordered food—smoked and fried—and went outside into the sunshine to eat, cross-legged, in a campfire circle around manhole cover, atop a poured-concrete slab, in the middle of a field overgrown with jimson weed.  Chef Matsuda and Gabrielle ate fried whitefish with fries, while X set upon her fried shrimp.  I went with the fried frog legs and cole slaw because, well, because I’m utterly defenseless to the charms of cuisses de grenouilles anytime I see them on a menu, even one molly-bolted to the wall of a restaurant that sits next to an industrial canal.

I think we can all agree that the soundtrack to any great meal is that of the stunned silence of eaters contemplating the culinary sublimity in their mouths.  And that’s how the four of us ate:  happily, wordlessly, while blinking away the happy June sun.  There was unanimity in our loquacity:  the food was delicious—all of it—especially the smoked stuff, the salmon, the trout, elevated to greatness, as it was, by those great giving gods of gastronomy, and through the gentle anointment wood smoke and time.

That Calumet Fisheries still exists—defiant of all laws governing restaurant longevity—is reason enough to make the pilgrimage, I tell you.  But that it yet remains as a high-temple of the ancient praxis of smoking fish should cause you to drop to your knees and genuflect before its glass-encased shrine of smoked fish like the culinary acolyte you know you are. 

Your link:  Calumet Fisheries