Smack Shack serves up splendid seafood
Crustacean station: The lobster boil, lobster mac 'n' cheese, and lobster guacamole
Benjamin Carter Grimes
There's a wonderfully crisp, food-magazine-editorial, pearly-white-smiles kind of feeling that takes over when you're presiding over a whole lobster dinner. Regardless of what the real world looks like outside, when corn on the cob, boiled baby potatoes, and especially that spiny, shiny red shell are all tumbled out before you, you immediately start thinking of East Coast summer, rolled-up chinos, and all things breezy-chic, as though you're living on the set of a Nancy Meyers movie. It's an image that remains intact only until you have to actually break into the lobster, at which point you realize why this particular crustacean historically had a reputation as "poor man's food." In a snap you go from feeling ruddy and rustic to basically barbaric, but to properly indulge you have to submit to the messy ceremony of it all. So tie on the plastic bib that reads "Let's Get Crackin'," take inventory of all the little bowls of boil broth, distinctively spicy slaw, and drawn butter, and do away with the notion that a cloth napkin should be used only to dab the corners of your mouth. Then get to it. Who cares how you look? Little in this world is more satisfying than digging a tiny fork into an open claw and removing, in one fell swoop, a massive piece of sweet lobster meat. It's like successfully getting out the trickiest piece in a tense game of Operation, but instead of empty bragging rights, you get edible rewards.
The sweetness, satisfaction, and slick, buttery fingertips are all part of the experience at Smack Shack, the latest and largest incarnation of Josh Thoma's growing lobster roll kingdom, which, much like its star ingredient, has humble roots. If you aren't familiar with the legend, Smack Shack started off as a popular food truck and decided to diversify by bringing its menu indoors to be served year-round at 1029 Bar in northeast Minneapolis. When Smack Shack announced a dedicated brick-and-mortar location with an expanded menu and full bar, devotees rejoiced. But they were then subjected to what felt like an interminable wait, while the sign outside the North Loop space changed from "Opening June" to "This Summer" to "January," which only helped to build anticipation for the official opening early last month.
The new space is massive and impressive, full of equipment rarely (if ever) seen at Twin Cities restaurants, like custom-built, multilevel tanks with the capacity to hold up to 400 live lobsters, and a 100-gallon steam jacket kettle, which is in full view from the moment you walk in, wafting the scent of brine and Old Bay as you wait for your table. Early weeks have been busy busy busy, but the staff seems to have worked out some of the kinks with seating and reservations that resulted in 90-minute wait times. Late dinner and in-between meals, when the beer prices dip way down but the signature lobster rolls and po' boys are still available, seem to be the way to go during this period when everyone is still clamoring to get in. The vibe is casual, the staff is helpful (especially in giving tips about the best plan of attack for cracking into dinner), and the lobster is present in everything from the decor on the walls to the guacamole and the mac and cheese, which you simply must try at least once, no matter how full you are. The taleggio cheese adds depth and complexity, and the lobster and golden breadcrumb-baked topping make the whole thing a grown-up, luxurious dish that has rightfully earned a reputation as some of the best mac and cheese in the Twin Cities.
One of the ways Thoma and executive chef Jason Schellin (formerly of Muffuletta) have expanded the menu at the new location is by smartly offering some less expensive, non-lobster-laden items. The braised leg of lamb sandwich and chicken wings, with their signature sweet-spicy glaze, have made the cut from the 1029 menu, but the new Smack Shack also boasts a selection of small, street-food-inspired tacos with fillings like mahi mahi (which was mushy mushy), smoked pork with tomatillo (fine, if a little dry), and beef short ribs (the best of the bunch). But who comes to Smack Shack in the mood for tacos? Similarly, the lobster corn dogs, a venture into the deep-fried world of State Fair fare, were a miss, eliciting a simple "No" at first bite. The breading itself was great — sweet from the whole bits of corn and not too heavy, with just enough grit. But the whole treatment overpowered the delicate, sweet lobster meat. I would have liked it much better if the breading had been around one of Smack's spicy Cajun sausages, like the one that comes on the po' boy or the milder Polish sausage that comes with the lobster boil.
This is all a good reminder that sometimes it's okay to stick to the greatest hits: the boil, the rolls, and maybe a sweet, Bourbon Street-reminiscent cocktail or two. Though the original New England-style lobster roll, slathered in cold mayo with bits of cucumber and faint hints of licorice-like tarragon, still reigns supreme, I also fell in love with the Connecticut-style lobster roll, which is served warm and tossed with just butter, lemon, and a smattering of chopped chives. It may not be the best bet for a lobster roll purist, but it is for the mayo-averse. That, or the delicious and fresh rock shrimp roll, dressed simply with hot Fresno peppers and a chiffonade of mint. The po' boys in general take a backseat to the rolls, but I did appreciate the existence of the vegetarian one with sliced fried green tomatoes and pickled peppers piled atop a chewy baguette.
There's more to love at dinner, where Schellin flexes more fine-dining muscle, preparing a beautiful and bountiful lobster, clam, and shrimp cioppino in a deftly balanced broth; a hot-and-cold plate of tilefish (abundant in the Gulf of Mexico) and roasted beets; Southern-fried chicken with sausage gravy (a steal at under $12); and beef short ribs served with potato puree to please the seafood-shy. Raw items, like the simple striped bass ceviche, were also a refreshing option, and the small but well-chosen array of East and West Coast oysters should not be overlooked. Have them on the half-shell or submerged in a creative savory shot from the bar, like the one with Bulleit bourbon, barbecue sauce, and bacon.
And speaking of the bar, Smack Shack tends to mix drinks sweet and strong, such as the Chambord and gin martinis or the New Orleans favorite Hurricane, but I mostly stuck to the wine list, especially the whites, which are your best bets with this type of fare. Because lobster contains lots of natural iodine, it really doesn't react well with red wines. Try one of the sauvignon blancs — one is more grapefruity, the other more dry — or a vanilla-y chardonnay. I'm hoping by summer there will be a vinho verde, which would be lovely to enjoy with any and all of the lobster dishes in Smack Shack's planned outdoor seating area.
Are there more refined places to get seafood around these parts? Yes. But there's still no better place in the state — maybe the entire Midwest — to get a lobster roll, which Thoma and his team seem to realize is still the backbone of this hip new haunt. It was our favorite sandwich of 2012, one of Bon Appetit's six best lobster rolls in the country, and still the best thing on the menu.
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