Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Smell My Fingers--The Stinkiest Food Porn Ever!

Fish crack. It was all it promised to be and so much more. Join me and SWC regular, Luke Baggins, on a Food Porn Field Trip to Chicago's rarely-referenced East Side. We arrived at Calumet Fisheries, located on 3259 E 95th Street at around noon on Saturday.

Tucked away in an industrial corner of the city that smells like the Calumet and sun-baked steel mills, it was hard to believe such an unimpressive shack could house such historic gustatory hedonism. One of only three riverfront fish shacks left in Chicago, CF has earned quite the reputation. Even my fake boyfriend and sole celebrity crush, Anthony Bourdain came to sample the fish crack. How could we go wrong?

Upon entry, we were greeted by two friendly guys who were more than happy to indulge our desire to know more about the famous Calumet Fisheries. As we looked into the refrigerated cases at the offerings, they gave recommendations. I immediately zoned in on smelt, remembering those little silvery fishes, deep fried and delish, from my youth. I'd long since forgotten what they tasted like and I asked to try one to see if we wanted a batch. They threw down a sample for us and continued fielding questions. They were eager to tell us about the process and tell their favorite selections.

Renowned for their smoked chubs (tee hee--smoked chub!), our gracious host allowed us to sample one. Apparently, they weren't representative of the best and biggest chubs they usually offered, but we had to try the house specialty. Here's what it looked like before Luke and I set upon it like vultures.

Our Guy instructed us on the proper chub-eating technique. First, snap off the head and tail (thank you for taking on that task, Luke). Then peel the skin, flake gently and begin to eat. Look out for bones!

The meat was smoky, tender and quite delicious. Luke was enamored, but I quickly bypassed the chub when Our Guy brought out a hunk of salmon for us to sample. Soon, we were picking over the scraps like alley cats.

The salmon was incredible. Sweet, buttery and perfect; the smoke couldn't even begin to overwhelm that incomparable salmon flavor. About the time we were starting in on the salmon, they brought us our "sample" of smelts. We each got a healthy handful of fishies, about the size of steak fries. They were awesome. We were given the house's signature "mild sauce" for dipping, but the french-fry-esque fish didn't require condiments.

We got on the topic of salmon, and I decided to get my parents a huge chunk-ola of garlic and pepper smoked salmon as a thank you for watching my little Baby Cakes while we were on our food adventure. Then we got down to the business of ordering. We decided to try an order of their famous smoked shrimp, a batch of smelt in place of french fries, a thing of cole slaw and tartar, hot and mild dipping sauces. We were already full from our samples, but we weren't about to walk out of the place without trying the smoked shrimp.

Calumet Fisheries doesn't offer seating, and I didn't want to stink up my car. We looked around the side of the building and decided sitting on the concrete staircase by the dumpsters and the smokehouse was the way to go. We figured we'd be good to go after we ate about three pounds of fish.

Downright giddy, I set up our food on the steps so we could eat and enjoy the scenic vista of the Calumet River.

Just looking at this picture makes me itch for more fish crack. I was unsure about the smoked shrimp, but let me tell you how wrong I was to doubt. They were huge, sweet and succulent.It had the taste and texture of lobster and crab together as one, a combination I often dream about. I loved them dipped in my hot sauce/tarter mix. Luke was so obsessed, he wouldn't dare dip after he finally managed to get them peeled.

The only thing more beautiful than our feast was our view.

At a certain point, I was so full I wanted to rock out like the Romans. But the thought of insulting such fabulous food seemed so wrong that I refrained. I just kept eating. That's my look of shame.

Luke didn't even have the decency to pretend he was ashamed. This is him ripping the shell off the last of the smoked shrimp.

After the shrimp was killed, we were left with the only casualties of our binge.

It hurt so good. It was hot as hell on those concrete steps, and I immediately began to sweat smoked fish. We cleaned up our mess and hit the road to tour the East Side. My grandpa, Juderonomy's dad, used to live in the East Side and she gave us some addresses to see if we could find out more about his old stompin' grounds.

Driving up and down Ewing, looking for Lakeside Tavern, we realized that we stunk. Bad. Like a waterfront whorehouse at low tide. We sniffed our chub-laced fingers and reared back from the potent stank, yet kept going back for more.

Lakeside Tavern was no more, but I remembered hearing stories about T's Tap across the street. I pulled into the parking lot looked over where Lakeside used to be. It's now a day care center. I later remarked to the bartender, it always was a day care of sorts. Smiling to the heavens, I knew Papa would have approved of our journey.

We entered the classic Chicago tavern, dark and cavernous, lit by neon beer signs and three televieion screens. We beelined for the toilets. Handwashing was priority number one. After several pumps of pink soap and scalding hot water, I still smelled fishy. But no matter, I was thirsty. It was indeed Miller time.

I bellied up to the bar, and two guys looked at me.

"Wow. You two musta had to go, just running to the bathroom like dat."

"Nah, we went to the fish shack and it stunk our hands up." I walked toward the guy and lifted my hand. "Here. Smell my fingers."

He backed away with grimace. His eyes watered. "Been a long time since anyone's said dat to me," he said. His friend and the two bartenders laughed.

Luke emerged from the washroom sniffing his fingers. "Man, three washes and I still smell."

Mmm, fishy!

Just call it a souvenir, Luke.

After a few of the most refreshing beers we've ever had, and a few more futile handwashings, we bid T's Tap farewell. I promised to return, and the bartender shouted a goodbye after us, labeling me forever "Fish Fingers." I don't know how I'm going to top that filthy, dirty food porn in the future, folks. I'd have to say the East Side adventure to Calumet Fisheries is the new standard bearer. Smell ya later, everyone! But not unless you smell me first.


Jude said...

It sure isn't Tin Fish,but it IS great for what it is.I think the place has been there for at least 70 years,and how many joints can say that? Thanks again for the tasty treats,I did share,but then hid a large chunkola just for me!

Nora said...

Good, Mom. You should always have a personal stash. After all, you're the brains of the operation. Thank you for being such a nice mommy and grandma.

You're right--its tenacity and uniqueness, combined with the utter deliciousness of the smoked and fried food, is what makes it a winner.

We should take a field trip to the east side. A historic walking/driving tour. Are you in?

Jude said...

I am all over it....if we choose our times right I can take you for a tour that not many have been on..you can see the old Avalon Theatre,now I think it's the Regal(but I could be wrong) The original Minor Dunne Hamburger joint(long since gone..prob a day care)the original Alexanders..and a host of other great places,and some rather shady,but fun places.It would be a long walk back in time...but I know some of the "joints" and houses and Apts. are still there. South Shore country Club now belongs to the city,but the bldg is still there right on the Lake at 75th and Exchange Ave. Pick a day....

Luke Baggins said...

That trip has permanently altered my attitude toward beer. I'm still primarily a whiskey drunk, but the way those beers at T's fizzed their icy goodness onto my fulla fish stomach after sitting in the sun for a bit has got me thinking of beer differently. I can totally feel it now. What a day!

Jude said...

Oh Luke, you have no idea of the great places that are unknown to the outsiders that Chicago has to offer!Now I also am not primarily a beer drinker..but I can guide you to some of the best "hidden"JOINTS around the Chicago area.Who would have suspected "T'sTap"??? It is a trip that takes a lifetime....and I'm a good guide..but Nora has to drive!!!

Nora said...

Jude, it's a sad day when we have to make a date over my blog comments!

Let's do our East Side walking tour soon. Next week maybe.

Luke, when it's hot and you've just had a fish crack binge, only cold draft beer in a frosty mug will do. Bottom line.

Ratherto said...

It's times like this that make me wish I wasn't allergic to fish. That looks awesome!

FYI...Cutest picture of Nora EVER!

Nora said...

Aw, thanks, Ratherto. Which one, my Look of Shame or where I'm huffing my fingers?

Ratherto said...

The look of shame...it is adoraqble

Nora said...

Awwwwww. Thanks, Ratherto.You're muy adorablo, too, homie!

Patrick said...

Sounds like two smelly thumbs up. Absolutely one of the best things I've read in a long time.

Nora said...

Thanks, Pat! It was a blast. I can do a reprise any time you feel like having some fish crack!

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