Truth be told, I didn't stumble upon this place. I saw it, like many others, on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. On the show, it seemed like an intriguingly hidden spot with spectacular smoked fish. However, in the months since viewing the episode, I had completely forgotten about this place altogether. Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I was scouring Yelp for places to dine in Chicago, I noticed rave reviews for Calumet and images of Bourdain passing a half-eaten salmon steak to his Chicago guide came flooding back to me. And that's how we ended up at Calumet Fisheries.
Well, I make it sound much easier than it actually was - this was truly destination dining. Through a very long bus ride, a seemingly endless transfer, another bus-ride weaving in and out of a southern Chicago neighborhood, and a half mile walk in the snow, we finally ended up at this bridge-side shack to feast upon smoked fish (over 2 hours later).
The storefront of Calumet is kind of like a deli, except with fish being the product, not cold cuts. A large case proudly displays salmon steaks, smoked chub, and buckets of shrimp. To the right of the store they had their frying station. I had my mind set on the Salmon before we even got there but the friendly cook, Carlos, advised me to go with their garlic and peppercorn crusted salmon steaks rather than the plain variety. Kins went the route of smoked shrimp.
I was a little caught off guard by the fact that the Salmon was served cold. Seeing as how it's completely cooked, unlike lox, I expected it to be warm like barbecue after being smoked. The other surprise (although it shouldn't have been) was that the bones of the salmon were still in tact. Once I got over these two issues, I menacingly tore into the steak (avoiding the actual string used to hang the steak in the smoker) with my fingers popping the pulled morsels in my mouth. Carlos hooked me up with some hot sauce for the Salmon, but I found that it only took away from all the smokey flavor. My experience with smoked fish is severely limited, but I will be doing a comparison very soon between Rolling Bones' Salmon steaks and Calumet's.
The shrimp were darned good. As a non shrimp fan, I was happy that the smoking erased the real shrimp-like flavor that I normally have to avoid (even when fried). If anything, the shrimp tasted a bit like ham, but I would describe the flavor as solely unique to smoked shrimp. The fries were standard frozen issue, but freshly fried for each order which makes a huge difference.
I wish I could have tried some of their fried options, but alas there was only so much we could eat and take with us. Funnily enough, our cab driver for the ride back (yes, we weren't going to spend another 2 hours getting back) picked up some fried catfish for the road. After asking us why we travelled all the way out there and explaining to him all the blow-by-blow details of our adventure, he turned to us and said in his slavic accent, "Eh, it's not that special." Take that for what it's worth, but the catfish did look very, very good to me.
Pricing was fair, considering the size of the Salmon steak I ordered (enough for two), but it certainly seemed a little more pricey than it should be considering it was served cold in a non sit-down environment. While I really enjoyed the food, the travel time made our journey seem like a quest for the Holy Arc. For visitors of Chicago, I'd recommend skipping this hot spot because of the travel time involved. There are just too many other great options to spend so much time getting out there and back - at least without a car rental. However, I highly recommend locals and smoked fish fans alike make at least one trip to Calumet for an unusual and tasty treat.