Sea Salt Eatery
4825 Minnehaha Ave. (in Minnehaha Park), Minneapolis
There are fish people, and then there is Chris Weglinski. Weglinski thinks an ideal summer day involves getting up early to spend a couple of hours on Lake Harriet, going after muskie. After which he proceeds to his restaurant, Sea Salt, for 10 hours of picking, packing, shucking, cooking, and otherwise being elbow-deep in finny or hard-shelled critters. After which he has a few beers and speeds out with rod and reel for last light, casting a line into the Mississippi below Ford Parkway for pike, or even now and then a bass. Yes, I said a bass, on the urban Mississippi.
"The river is cleaning up," Weglinski told me, when I talked to him on the phone for this story. "It used to be nothing but dirty foam and a lot of garbage, but every year I've been noticing the water clarity getting better and better. When I was a kid I used to swim in the Mississippi up by I-694, and I'd stink when I was done. Now, though, the water clarity—you can actually see a couple feet down. You never used to see muskie or pike on the Mississippi up this far; usually they were downriver past Hastings. But now there's a lot of them, and bass, too. I never saw them before this year, but now they're there." There are walleye too, says Weglinski, especially where Minnehaha Creek enters the Mississippi, just a little downriver from the restaurant—in fact, he says, that's where some walleye spawn.
Does all this urban fishing talk leave you frenzied as a spawning walleye, and in need of proof that such fishing can be done? Then proceed to Sea Salt, the restaurant Weglinski co-owns with business partner John Blood, and check out the pictures of remarkable fish on the walls—all caught within 15 minutes of the restaurant in Twin Cities lakes and rivers. Does all this talk of fish make you yearn for lunch? Then proceed to Sea Salt as well, because this unassuming little restaurant in Minnehaha Park has the freshest fish in the Twin Cities, at prices appropriate for the setting.
Like what? Like a plate of soft, warm tacos filled with inch-thick Marlin fillets ($5.95) enlivened with fresh chopped cilantro, onions, and tomatoes, and served with little squares of lime. I've never had such fresh, real fresh fish tacos in town, not even in white-tablecloth restaurants. Each bite was clean and energetic, as only the freshest fish is. Incredibly crisp, thinly cut strips of Alaskan haddock star in a fantastic fried-fish basket ($9.95), in tacos ($4.95), and in a big, sloppy charmer of a po' boy ($9.95), made light, creamy, and drippy with plenty of add-ins like mayonnaise, sliced tomato, and lettuce. A basket of cornmeal-crusted "clam fries"—the meat of the clam without the belly, also known as clam strips—($5.95) were so crisp they were crisp squared; crisp from the frying and instant delivery to the table, and crisp from the teensy facets of the crisped cornmeal. They were more devourable than potato chips.
Even if Sea Salt, in all its deceptively lowbrow counter-service humility, only had these deliciously simple ocean treats, it would be worth your time. However, it has a lot of highbrow waterborne joys as well, like the lake herring that stole my heart.
How's that? Oh, you should have seen it. It was a Lake Superior herring, about 10 inches long, silvery, cleaned simply, and grilled hard, hot, and fast so that it was blackened beautifully on both sides. It was served beneath a rough-chopped sauce of tomatoes, thickly sliced giant pimento-stuffed green olives, and whole black calamata olives. And oh, how tender it was, how fresh, how roasty, how delicious, the flesh pulling away from the bones with the merest pressure of a plastic fork. I haven't had fish like that since I last dined in Portugal, on the beach—and that fish was enhanced by being in Portugal, on the beach. At $9.95 it was without question the best affordable fish I've ever had in the Twin Cities.
When I was eavesdropping on kitchen staff chatting with another table, I heard someone say this marvelous herring would probably become a staple. And my date and I locked eyes and slightly widened them, in the mode of co-conspirators who spy a $100 bill on the floor, and don't want anyone to know they've seen it. We'd be back! Daily! Especially before the review ran! Unfortunately, this turned out to be a red herring, as well as a Lake Superior one, and the fish has yet to reappear.
I tell you this simply to explain the true enthusiasm this constant diner truly felt about this wonderful fish. So good. Sigh. The very memory of such a wonderful, and briefly available, fish is enough to drive a girl to drink. And, happily, Sea Salt just got its strong beer and wine license, so there is an ever-growing abundance of options to quaff, such as plastic pints ($4) or full pitchers ($13) of local gems Summit, Surly Furious, or Grain Belt beer, as well as affordable, drinkable wines.
What, wine and beer is not enough to distract you from thoughts of that herring? Me neither. Fortunately, there are lots of other daily specials to content a committed pescatarian. For example, one day's special of soft-shell crab, another's of whole Dungeness crab ($22.95), and, every day, oysters so fresh you can watch them shucked in front of your eyes. I tried some briny beauties from Hog Island in northern California, and huge, chilly, silky, cucumber-and-mineral delights from the Nootka Sound in British Columbia. (Oysters at Sea Salt generally cost $2 each, $11 a half-dozen, or $20 a dozen.)
One of my first restaurant jobs had me spending 80-hour weeks over a utility sink shucking oysters and bearding mussels—an experience that left me both with a fierce scorn for people who smash oysters as they open them, and an unshakeable commitment to never opening another oyster with my own soft mitts. So I'm very, very picky about the way the rocklike, delicate things are opened, and it was an absolute joy to witness the gentle folks behind the counter whip through them in exactly the right way: swiftly, but unhurriedly. I know it takes a lot of mangled oysters to achieve that sort of proficiency, I just don't want those oysters to be mine. I want Sea Salt's oysters to be mine.
So, how do they do it? In addition to being fish obsessives, it turns out that Weglinski and Blood are also fish insiders. Insiders at Coastal Seafoods, the Cities' most prominent retail and wholesale fish company. John Blood worked at Coastal for 11 years as the retail manager, and Chris Weglinski was there for six years as wholesale manager. So now? Now they're in like the proverbial Flynn.
"We get the pick of the litter," Weglinski told me. "They let us go in there and whatever is just coming out of the box [from the airplane] we can get. One day it was smelt, so we had smelt. Most [restaurants] are just kind of at the mercy of the distributor, who's going to send the old stuff out the door first. But [Coastal] lets us take the new stuff because we go up there and pack it and ice it ourselves. If they have the choice between packing the order and letting us do the work, they'll let us do it. So we do. Usually I go in and shuck a few oysters to see how they shuck, and if they break in my hands I don't buy them.
"We originally wanted to be like Al's diner, but with oysters; just beer, wine, raw oysters, and maybe a chowder. But we just couldn't pass up the [fish], so here we are. On a Friday night it's a zoo—you can come in and see the terror on the cooks' faces. We always get four or five people who get pissed off that the wait is so long. I call it the cheese curd booth at the State Fair."
How's that? Yes, as sure as catfish have teeth, Sea Salt has one big drawback: You can't get in there. Or at least not on a beautiful weekend during dinnertime. Lines, bulked up by double-strollers, snake out the door from 6:00 on most weekends, and waits for food can top an hour. If you want a pleasant experience, dine Monday through Thursday, or before 5:00 p.m., advises Weglinski.
Or, you can do what I did. Remember that Friday early-evening freak thunderstorm a few weeks ago, the one with the hurricane-like gales of water and quarter-sized hail? Well, once it blew through the city, once the sun had returned, the neighbor's dog had been restored to his yard, and the windows were judged to have withstood the assault, my date and I looked at each other, and.... Within minutes, with the mere expenditure of a few extra napkins for wiping off the chairs, we had a park table all to ourselves, a nice cool drink, and fresh fish on the grill. As I sat, the adjoining tables filled up with like-minded folks, all gleeful over our prizes, so easily procured. I considered my good luck. Here I was, an urban type who wouldn't know a crappie from a sunny if one splashed out of my Champagne, engaged in the happiest form of urban fishing: The kind where you are guaranteed a successful catch.