The proud and ancient lobstering traditions of Minnesota have until now remained relatively obscure. But from the Chippewa pulling bugs out of Lake Superior to the Minnesota food truck sourcing certified Lake Calhoun crustaceans, it’s been one of the state’s best-kept secrets.
Well, the last part is sort of true. Smack Shack started as a mobile lobster-roll concern, serving poor man’s chicken shipped from Maine, and blossomed into a popular brick-and-mortar spot employing the seabed scavengers in all sorts of dishes. Now it’s expanded to Chicago, joining the ranks of modish casual seafood outfits such as Oyster Bah, Angry Crab, Lowcountry, and Cold Storage, the latter with which Smack Shack impertinently shares real estate on the ground floor of Google’s Chicago headquarters in the Fulton Market District.
But presented with the choice of the Boka Group’s broad and sophisticated approach and Smack Shack’s more focused and populist one, it’s difficult to imagine either drawing from the same customer base. Still, you might wonder what, if anything, a midwest import can prove to us about lobster.
All the nautical ornaments of your standard New England lobster shack are in place here: red-checked tablecloths, decorative lobster traps, and front and center a roiling cauldron of stock saturated with onion and Old Bay Seasoning, into which the living creatures are plunged from the cool waters of their fiberglass Dura-Tech holding tanks straight to hell.
This 100-gallon stockpot produces one of two main signatures at Smack Shack: a straightforward lobster boil with the arthropods scalded red and sold by the pound, served on a metal tray with corn on the cob, red potatoes, slaw, a Leon’s Polish sausage, toasted milk bread, drawn butter, and a cup of the brew in which the beast was boiled. Your enjoyment of the lobster itself depends on whether you think this time-honored method is a smart way to cook lobster meat. A hard boil tends to destroy the delicate flesh, rendering it stringy and tough. And that’s exactly what happens at Smack Shack.
A better way to go is with the restaurant’s other main offering. Its original lobster roll is of the creamy, mayo-drenched variety, here lightly dressed and flecked with tarragon. The lobster itself is plentiful, chunky, and sweet, served on two slices of sweetish toasted milk bread joined on one end. Smack Shack’s Connecticut lobster roll is a similar proposition, but it comes on a bun and lacks much of the promised warm butter it’s meant to be dressed with.
From there Smack Shack does all sorts of unsurprising and questionable things to lobster meat. Appropriately enough, the restaurant applies it to mac and cheese, Cobb salad, and bisque. But chief among the stranger delivery systems on the menu is an otherwise classic Minneapolis Juicy Lucy, the menu promising a burger stuffed with lobster and Taleggio. Instead a whole piece of claw meat appears on top of the patty, an absurdly inharmonious topping that’s easier to eat off the bun. On the other hand, the burger, topped with griddled onions and tarragon aioli, is bursting with juice and molten cheese, and, not surprisingly for a Minneapolis-born restaurant, is among the best things on the menu.
Something similar happens with the lobster guacamole: perched atop the avocado are large, unintegrated chunks of claw meat. Lobster also keeps company with mussels, clams, and halibut in a watery, bland cioppino, presented in a cast-iron skillet, which retains plenty of heat to overcook the seafood.
Padding the menu are quite a number of items unrelated to lobster, both surf and turf. Oysters from both coasts are shucked in a suspiciously midwestern style, the living creatures often shredded and devoid of liquor, gasping in the air on top of the ice. A fresh sea bass ceviche punched up with fruity Fresno chiles is a welcome diversion, as are sweet, meaty crab cakes served atop the creole corn salad maque choux.
Po’boys and fish and shrimp entrees round out the selections along with terrestrial-
based proteins like fried chicken and steak, while desserts stay close to all-American archetypes such as red velvet cheesecake, banana cream pie, and a misshapen but otherwise lovely, lip-puckering key lime pie with vanilla-flecked whipped cream and painstakingly peeled lime wedges.
On the surface Smack Shack certainly sets itself apart with its nominal attention to the lobster. But in our current seafood-saturated dining environment, it’d be more effective if the restaurant focused on the two things on which it was established: lobster boils and lobster rolls. The rest is just chum. v