Calumet Fisheries is one of two smokehouses still allowed to burn wood and smoke fish in Chicago. The shack, plopped between Lake Michigan and the Chicago Skyway, has become an icon of the city’s South Side.
With views overlooking the Calumet River, this roadside seafood smokehouse is one of the last of its kind. The menu consists of seafood divided into two categories: smoked or fried. The housemade “mild sauce” goes well with everything on the menu. The business, barebones and compact, boasts the absence of indoor seating or bathrooms on its official website. There are a couple of outdoor tables (weather permitting), but dining inside a car is a popular option.
As is suggested by the 2010 James Beard Award in the America’s Classics category and Anthony Bourdain’s sun-bleached, hand-written love note on the wall, experiencing this dying breed of fishcraft is well worth the trip. Brothers-in-law Sid Kotlick and Len Toll opened Calumet Fisheries in 1948, and it’s still run by the Kotlick-Toll families today.
Out back, a tiny smokehouse yields thick steaks of fatty salmon, trout, sturgeon, and sablefish, as well as giant, smoky shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico. Pending availability, there might be eel, to boot. Employees brine the fish overnight, then smoke it for hours over all-natural oak logs. Patrons pick up the finished product, a multi-day affair, perfect in its simplicity, by the pound. Proper picnickers complete the feast with a sleeve of saltines (to accompany the fish) and containers of hot sauce (to top the shrimp), both of which are sold inside.
Parked besides the 95th Street Bridge—the very same one featured in the original Blues Brothers movie—diners will find digging into the contents of their carry-out container elucidates a rare truth: critical acclaim and prestige have little to do with the clientele streaming in and out of Calumet Fisheries. Now, just the same as 70 years ago, it’s simply about the food.
Know Before You Go
Calumet Fisheries is cash-only so be sure to stop at the ATM before your visit.