We’ve Got a Pound of Smoked Shrimp, It’s Dark and We’re Wearing Sunglasses…

The James Beard Foundation sure knows how to pick ‘em.  The annual induction of the 2010 American Classics restaurants is hands-down my favorite part of the James Beard festivities and inspires me to plan creative travel routes for the year ahead.  How can I travel from Brooklyn to Los Angeles with a layover in Albuquerque to go to Mary & Tito’s Café, consume a lot of pastrami at Langer’s and return to a homecoming pie at Totonno’s, but only after a pit stop at Weaver D’s in Athens?  If there is a will (and a bank of frequent flyer miles and carefully rationed vacation days), there is a way.

One of the American Classics Award class of 2010, though, never required much forethought or planning.  When living in Chicago, all I needed to do was make sure it wasn’t New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas, avoid rush hour on the Dan Ryan Expressway and head over to the 95th Street Bridge with a few extra napkins in the glove compartment and some cash in my pocket to enjoy one of the greatest foods in existence from a (now Beard-certified) Chicago treasure:  Calumet Fisheries’ smoked shrimp.

Look, this is not to say that their smoked fish isn’t extraordinary and their fried seafood a great treat (smelts!), but, for me, it all comes down to their smoked, shell-on shrimp.  Sold by the pound packed into Chinese restaurant carry-out containers, it is as impossible to walk to the car from their Calumet River shack without peeling one as it is to drive more than five miles without ripping off a piece of an Old Chicago Pizzeria Chicago-style deep dish slice.  If you somehow have the willpower to resist, I would advise locking the smoked shrimp in your trunk if you intend to eat it at home, because you won’t make it once that shrimpy smokeness starts to permeate your car’s interior.  Otherwise, do as I and most of Calumet Fisheries’ customers do and simply turn-up the stereo, leave the doors open, and enjoy an al fresco dinner on the bridge.  You certainly can’t beat the view:

Calumet Fisheries has been around since 1948, when two brothers-in-law opened Calumet Fisheries in order to fulfill their dream of serving high-quality fish to the South Side.  And succeed, they did.  To this day, it is still run by the same families, and both families will be represented in person when accepting the American Classics Award in New York on Monday, May 3, 2010.  Their official James Beard biography, courtesy of Phil Vettel, Restaurant Critic for the Chicago Tribune, reads as follows:

Calumet Fisheries

3259 E 95th Street, Chicago
Owners: The Kotlick and Toll Families

Chicago’s 95th Street Bridge, which spans the Calumet River on the city’s South Side, is known for two things: One, in the movie The Blues Brothers, Elwood demonstrated the capabilities of his new car by jumping the bridge. Two, it’s the home of Calumet Fisheries, a stand-alone hutch that has been frying and smoking seafood since 1948, when brothers-in-law Sid Kotlick and Len Toll opened the place.

To this day, the Kotlick and Toll families run the joint. It’s strictly carryout. No seating, no bathroom, no credit cards. And, if you believe the ominous street sign, no parking.

The place draws a working-class, melting-pot crowd, and a fair number of amateur fishermen. (The murky Calumet is a good place to find bluegill.) Fried perch, smelts, and frogs’ legs are big here, but they also bring in scallops, crab, catfish, and oysters.

The fried stuff is very good, but what you really want is the smoked fish, smoldering in the bunker-like smokehouse around back. Salmon steaks, shrimp, chubs, and trout, all kissed with wood and cooked with care.

—Phil Vettel, Restaurant Critic, Chicago Tribune

Amen, Brother Vettel.  Amen…

So, let’s raise a glass (or, if you’re lucky enough, a smoked shrimp) to Calumet Fisheries on the eve of their induction as a well-deserved American Classic.  And, when you have the opportunity, peel back one of those shrimp, take one bite and you will know the truth:  they are on a mission from God.

Calumet Fisheries
3259 E 95th St
Chicago, Illinois
(773) 933-9855                                                                                                                                                                                           Recommended:  Everything, but the smoked shrimp is a necessity.  I would suggest a pound of smoked shrimp and a couple of fried dinners to eat on the spot along the Calumet.  To take home, another pound of smoked shrimp and the smoked fish of your choice (I would recommend at least two different types) for truly one of the greatest snacks ever.  If you are truly being indulgent (and you should), all varieties of Calumet Fisheries smoked fish also make excellent brandade, so maybe you should take home a bit more.  Don’t forget to check-out the May 2010 coupon.  In the words of our former Governor, it is golden and a “f’ing valuable thing.”  In terms of soundtrack while eating your delicacies car-bound just short of the bridge, I highly recommend anything by The Black Keys.

Old Chicago Pizzeria                                                                                                               742 E. 79th (79th and Cottage Grove)                                                                  Chicago, Illinois                                                                                                                                                                                 (773) 873-7428; (773) 873-2888                                                                                                                                                                            Chicago-style deep dish extra cheese  is highly recommended.  Allow 45 to 50 minutes for a whole pie by phone order.  Slices available on-site.  Tell them “Chris and Erin” sent you and Paul will hook you up with the greatest Chicago-style pie you’ve ever had.  Paul’s thin is truly excellent, too, but it is hard to top his Chicago-style (just order both).  If driving, put the pizza in the trunk for the drive home or you will get into an accident trying to resist reaching into the seat next to you to grab a molten slice.  Plus, your car will smell deliciously of Paul’s garlicky red sauce for one month if you keep it in the passenger zone and it does have a tendency to seep its deliciousness into upholstery and/or laps.  Stop at Dat Donuts on the way out of the neighborhood and grab a chocolate-frosted cake, a plain yeast and a strawberry-glazed (trust me on this one — this isn’t your standard strawberry-glazed) to go.  If you’re lucky, someone will try to sell you a set of bongos while you’re waiting for your order.  Listen to Jimmy Smith while you take your first bite.

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