Restaurant Reviews

The Triumph of the Lobsters

How a food truck has blossomed into a New England treasure, right in downtown Minneapolis.

Smack Shack
Photo by Katherine Harris
A tray full of lobster boil.

Out of tragedy comes, sometimes, lobster. Cod—food of the Vikings, secret stash of Basque fishermen who kept the existence of North America to themselves, seed of the original 13 colonies—at least in the North Atlantic, seems to be over. The Georges Bank, devastated by advanced trawling technology, was closed in 1994 to allow the fish stocks to rebuild. It’s still closed, awaiting the comeback. Another vast swath of ocean, the Gulf of Maine, is about to be shut down to allow it to rebuild. We’ll see.

The problem seems to have finally been pinpointed: It’s the migratory nature of the fish, plus the shortsightedness and uncooperativeness of humans.

Cod migrate through many countries’ waters and through many permit-holders’ areas. If a school of 1,000 fish swims through four areas where permit-holders are each allowed to catch 300 of them, that’s that. Anyone who read Mark Kurlansky’s masterful 1998 book Cod might have assumed, with such a spotlight on overfishing, that the problem would have been fixed, much like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped reduce DDT and fix the problem of wild birds’ eggs collapsing. No. The damage looks to have been permanent. Read Paul Greenberg’s excellent Four Fish for the devastating update.

This isn’t to say no one learned anything. Take another iconic New England creature, the lobster. It is now managed in a farsighted, cooperative, collaborative, education- and science-based way, and it’s booming. The lobster fishermen divided the ocean into various tracts—each tract organized with its neighbors into a mirror of county, city, and state governments, with small units voting together and regulating themselves and reporting up a management chain. Fishermen are only granted permits if they are residents, own a fishing boat, and have demonstrated a commitment to maintaining the fishing stock. They all agree to follow a laundry list of best practices such as returning egg-bearing females to the water, a practice common in the 19th century, and also setting free the lobster equivalent of 12-point bucks, the super-breeding males. If you go to lobsterinstitute.org you can learn more, though any dairy farmer would happily tell you that without breeding animals you won’t have much of a farm.

Lobster fishing today is a lot more like cooperative farming, based on the idea that if the fishermen take care of the lobsters, the lobsters will take care of the fishermen. Some think that current lobster stocks are high today because baby lobsters can wander freely in and out of the baited lobster traps fattening until they get big enough to get stuck. Some think it’s because baby lobster were cod food. Some think it’s because without the apex predator of cod, small fish are simply dying natural deaths and floating down to become lobster food. Whatever the reasons, the Maine lobster catch is booming, and was certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council in March of 2013, through a rigorous third-party process. This happened at almost the exact same second that downtown Minneapolis got its first new-New England–style lobster shack, Smack Shack.

It’s some kind of wonderful. Red and white tablecloths, a roiling lobster boil, good beer, speedy service, luxury in hot dog rolls. I spent my teenage years working in Cape Cod restaurants, and as far as I can tell the only thing you can fault this new Midwest spot for is a lack of seagulls and fiddler crabs waving at you from the adjacent marsh.

The spot actually lives out of another tragedy, albeit a much smaller and more local one than the tragedy of cod, when Josh Thoma, cofounder of La Belle Vie and Solera and a founding partner of Bar La Grassa and Barrio, got booted from all of his extant restaurants for alleged financial mismanagement and started from scratch again with a truck. A truck enabled by the change to city law in 2010 that allowed food trucks on our streets for the first time since 1895. A truck that sold glorious lobster rolls, and lobster mac and cheese, and some other things, like sausage po’boys.

The truck version of Smack Shack reminded Minneapolis that Thoma wasn’t just Tim McKee’s sidekick behind the line at D’Amico Cucina and long thereafter, but someone with good cooking intuition as well, knowing when to season, when to hold back, and how to curate a good time. The elegantly French-accented lobster roll with broad leaves of tarragon on a butter-grilled milk roll was the signature dish of the truck, which continues, as does the food service at glorious dive bar 1029, which Thoma used as his truck’s legally required commercial kitchen.

Now at the brick and mortar Smack Shack—a former warehouse where farm equipment, manufactured next door, was kept before being loaded onto train cars that pulled right up to the big open doors—Thoma has stepped up his game, putting together one of those spots that tries only a few things but hits an out-of-the-park home run with nearly all of them. For instance, the Connecticut lobster roll: merely lobster removed from the shell, tossed with clarified butter, scattered with scallions, and tucked in a simple lettuce leaf, which protects the simple hot dog roll from becoming soggy with butter—perfect! Add a beer or a glass of something bubbly (the place has a reserve wine list, if you truly feel like celebrating), and it’s as satisfying a meal as you can get in Minneapolis—on par with a burger at the Nook or Matt’s, noodles from Broders’ Pasta Bar, or pizza from Black Sheep or Pizzeria Lola. If you live here, you know the restaurants I’m talking about, the places with a small and defined mission, the places whose reach and grasp are equal. These are rare restaurants.

If you’re not going to get the Connecticut lobster roll, already on my list for a potential dish of the year, get the lobster boil: a metal tray with a whole boiled lobster, small red boiled potatoes, a sausage, an ear of corn, coleslaw, and buttery toast—you pay about $30 a pound for the lobster, and the rest is thrown in. Go with a big group, get a five-pound lobster, and the math starts to work out quite reasonably. Add steamed clams or mussels if you want to.

And yes, I did sample nearly the entirety of the rest of the menu (but never got past the splendid buttery, sweet, and exquisite gluttony of the excellent lobster roll). Thoma, the restaurant’s chef and owner, developed all the recipes, and he is at his best doing small things rigorously—a rock shrimp salad gets a bit of spine with Fresno peppers, while a Skuna Bay salmon lox is minced and spreads like silk. I thought the clam chowder was potatoey, thick, and not my favorite—but I’d say that of half the clam chowders in New England. I wish the place had better french fries—but again, you could say that of half the seafood shacks on the Atlantic. The crab cakes were loaded with fresh crab, but they were a little indistinct and mushy. The warm smoked duck salad, by head chef Jason Schellin, who made his name at Muffuletta, could have come straight off the menu at that quiet locavore spot: The duck was nicely cooked, and the dried cherries and spiced maple-glazed pecans were a nice, if not particularly groundbreaking, touch. It was an utterly solid salad, and I don’t know who goes to a lobster shack for a duck salad, but that person will be happy. A few of the lobster dishes seemed strange. A lobster Cobb salad and the lobster guacamole, for instance, had a desperate sense of: Well, what else can we do with lobster!? What if we put it on a hat? And since it's lobster, that would probably be a tasty hat.

If you're not the kind to find a lobster hat tasty, or if you're looking to conserve cash, get the tacos; the mahi mahi ones and the smoked pork tacos with tomatillo salsa are as good as any tacos in town, including those at Barrio, Thoma’s old place. Vibrant, intensely seasoned, well-balanced, and fresh, if these tacos were at a standalone restaurant they’d be worth a special trip.

The desserts, by rising star Kayla Baumler, are shockingly good. A key lime pie served in a Mason jar was the best key lime pie I’ve had in Minnesota, perhaps ever, with a well-balanced gingerbread crust and a just-juiced-tasting lime filling with zing. The bread pudding drenched in a lush caramel whiskey sauce is so good it’s better than the one at Manny’s—and yes, I know I’m starting a blood feud with that one.

So what's not to like? I've heard gripes that the new place, as massive as a Cheesecake Factory, doesn't have the same sense of secret excellence that the old truck and dive-bar combo had. That's certainly true. However: That's also certainly life. The Smack Shack can't be your secret lunchtime spot anymore—but as of this summer, the place will add 80 seats for patio dining and a Sunday New Orleans–style brunch with live music. They're also working on having a late-summer crawfish festival which could allow Minneapolis to eat the invasive crayfish that are messing up our wild rivers. As the world seesaws between mistakes and advances, between cod troubles and lobster triumphs, you'd have to be a glass-half-empty person to put this down as anything but good, and tasty, news. 603 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-259-7288, smack-shack.com

Get a taste of Smack Shack. Visit mspmag.com/smackshack.

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