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A North Shore tour of smoked fish

Sep 29, 2017 12:28PM ● Published by Editor

Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais, Minn. Photo: TOM WALLACE • twallace@startribune.com

An Iowan discovers Minnesota's North Shore — and its smoky delights. 

By Betsy Rubiner 
Special to the Star Tribune - SEPTEMBER 29, 2017 — 7:30AM

Several customers appeared to be locals, but others, including me, clutched insulated bags ready to fill for travel. I was heading home to Iowa after my first visit to Lake Superior's North Shore — and to three of its best-known smoked fish purveyors.

My appetite for locally smoked native fish stems from my Michigan childhood, when I fished with my father in the northern Lower Peninsula. When the fish were biting (oh, happy day!), we often took our catch to a smokehouse near Lake Michigan and picked them up later, wrapped in paper, ready to devour.

No surprise, then, that my maiden voyage to explore the 110-plus miles between Duluth and Grand Marais included stops to eat delicious salty, smoky fish, often atop a cracker smeared with cream cheese — as is the local custom, I learned.

North Shore 101

When my husband and I weren't eating fish, we did other North Shore tourist basics. We searched (unsuccessfully) for agates on rocky beaches and hiked through birch and pine forest, along gorges and waterfalls, wondering about the water's yellow-brown color, reminiscent of root beer. (The odd color is caused by tannic acid, a natural plant compound used to tan hides and make dry wine.)

In Duluth, we watched ships pass under the awe-inspiring Aerial Lift Bridge — its mid­section slowly rising parallel to the water, rather than swinging open in two sections — and strolled along the Lakewalk, past a pretty park, a garden and Fitger's, the imposing brewery building now home to an inn, microbrewery, shops and restaurants.

Twenty-seven miles north, in Two Harbors, we checked out Agate Bay's maritime marvels, walking out into the water along the long concrete breakwall for stunning views of the still-operating 1892 redbrick lighthouse and imposing docks where freighters are loaded with iron ore.

Farther up Hwy. 61 in Grand Marais, we admired the art and crafts at Sivertson Gallery and the North House Folk School. Northeast of town, inside the remarkable Naniboujou Lodge's dining room, we were dazzled by the Cree Indian-inspired decor, with a high ceiling boldly painted in red, orange, yellow, green and blue swaths.

But the fish! Oh, the fish! I ate primarily whitefish — my favorite, moist and mild-flavored — and enjoyed it everywhere. The three shops we visited sell other smoked native fish at market prices, such as trout, herring and cisco, as well as several varieties of non-native salmon. (Lake Superior is stocked with salmon but it is not sold commercially.) They all offer fish to take out, eat in or mail-order, and during our visits all had swiftly moving lines near a glass display case of fish. Yet each has its own distinct vibe and a little something extra.

Northern Waters Smokehaus

Located on Duluth's attractive Canal Park waterfront, inside a 1909 warehouse reborn as a bustling marketplace, Northern Waters is a hip urban eatery, sporting a wall covered with signs touting its many sandwich options, from Cajun Finn (the top seller, with house-smoked salmon) to the Squealy Dan (yes, pork).

Although smoked fish gets top billing, this business, begun in 1998, also smokes other meats. During the lunch hour, my husband enjoyed his Silence of the Lambwich, featuring "haus-roasted curry-rubbed leg of lamb."

I was one of the few eating chunks of smoked fish. But Northern Waters proved easy for a purist, thanks to its create-your-own Fish Basket, which allowed me to buy pieces of whitefish and trout accompanied by crackers and scallion cream cheese and served in a tidy box. I did discover, while eating outside on the back deck, that bees also like smoked fish.

(DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace, 394 Lake Av. S., Suite 106, Duluth; 1-218-724-7307 or 1-888-663-7800; nwsmokehaus.com)

Dockside Fish Market

With its outdoor dining area overlooking boats docked in the Grand Marais harbor, this fish market and deli feels like a beach-town hangout. It's open from April through December (the other two shops are open year-round.)

Fish — smoked or fresh — is the main attraction, as well as "Lake Superior Gold Caviar": salty, orange-colored herring roe. I particularly appreciated the sample tray offering free tastes of smoked trout, herring, salmon, whitefish and salmon spread.

Opened in 1998, Dockside also sells frozen seafood by the pound, including shrimp, crab and lobster tails. The deli menu is fish- and seafood-centric, with fish and chips, fish burgers, chowders and a smoked fish wrap.

Arriving for a late lunch, we weren't alone — but again, I seemed to be the only person eating just plain smoked fish. I bought a small piece of whitefish, wrapped in white paper, that I ate outside.

(418 W. Hwy. 61, Grand Marais, Minn.; 1-218-387-2906, docksidefishmarket.com.)

Russ Kendall's Smokehouse

Home to a family business begun in 1908, Kendall's looks like a classic roadhouse — a red storefront on the side of a country road, with a neon sign advertising the smokehouse and Royal Bohemian Beer.

Inside, the place seems frozen in another era, with knotty wood paneling, mounted fish trophies and other taxidermy, classic beer signs, faded photos and memorabilia. "Well-known on television" reads a yellowed Kendall's ad for "Wrestling! Orchestra and Dancing!" — entertainment options no longer available, although a bar remains in the storefront, which survived a 2014 fire.

After buying fish at the counter, customers can eat in the adjacent dining area at one of the wooden tables covered with a floral oilcloth, but during our morning visit, no one ate in. Advertised specialties are sugar-cured lake trout and king salmon, but I stuck with whitefish, available that morning as a whole fish, not chunks. I plopped my paper-wrapped, edible North Shore souvenir into an insulated bag and hit the road.

(149 Scenic Dr., Knife River, Minn.; 1-218-834-5995, facebook.com/RussKendalls.)

Betsy Rubiner is a Des Moines-based travel writer.

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  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    01/30/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Open Faced BBQ Beef/Mash Potato/Corn Pudding/Milk


  • The Cook County Community Center outdoor ice rinks and warming house will be staffed and open (we...


  • Bible Prophecy

    01/30/2018
    04:00PM — 05:30PM

    National and International speakers presented by DVD. The DVDs will be shown at the Community Ce...


  • Kids Eat Free

    01/30/2018
    04:00PM — 09:00PM

    1 free kids meal with any paid adult meal Available after 4pm


  • Colvill All-Levels Yoga

    01/30/2018
    05:30PM — 06:30PM

    Join us for yoga. Vinyasa-style yoga set to world music. Come rest your mind and energize your ...


  • Men's Yoga at Cobblestone Cabins

    01/30/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    Iyengar style yoga class for men interested in a well rounded yoga practice.


  • Ojibwe Language for Beginners

    01/30/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 9, 16, 23, 30. 5:30-7pm Cost:$80.00 This 4-session class will provide students with a ...


  • Intro/Beginning Iyengar Yoga at Cobblestone

    01/30/2018
    07:05PM — 08:20PM

    Class suited for introductory or beginning students. The basics of Iyengar style yoga will be tau...


  • Learn to Dance!

    01/30/2018
    07:15PM — 09:00PM

    Learn to waltz, two-step, foxtrot, and swing dance. Tuesdays at the 4-H Building, 7:15 to 9:00 PM...


  • The 100DayProject

    01/31/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    01/31/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Anxiety/Depression Support Group for Women

    01/31/2018
    10:00AM — 11:00AM

    Weekly support group for women. $2.00 suggested donation. No registration required. Please joi...


  • Gentle Yoga at Cobblestone

    01/31/2018
    10:00AM — 11:30AM

    For all with health concerns such as arthritis, high blood pressure, pregnancy or those who just ...


  • First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, inviting community conversation… Aging...


  • 1/2 Price Bottles of Wine

    01/31/2018
    11:00AM

    1/2 Price Bottles of Wine


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    01/31/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Creamy Chicken Casserole/Broccoli/Fruit/Milk


  • Women's Yoga at Cobblestone Cabins

    01/31/2018
    05:15PM — 07:00PM

    Continuing class for all women interested in Iyengar Yoga. Walk-ins allowed with permission from ...


  • Beginning Spanish

    01/31/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 17, 24, 31, & February 7, 2018 | 5:30PM-7PM START LEARNING SPANISH or HELP REGAIN LOS...


  • Beginning Spanish

    01/31/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 17, 24, 31 and February 7th on Wednesdays 5:30-7pm Focus on vacation and travel languag...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    01/31/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/01/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/01/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/01/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Lunch At the Senior Center

    02/01/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Meatloaf/Baked Potato/Peas/Dessert/Milk


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    02/01/2018
    06:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • Film Night at North House

    02/01/2018
    07:00PM — 09:00PM

    Winter Series returns every Thursday in February at North House with film nights. We’ll revisit f...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    02/01/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/02/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/02/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/02/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/02/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Brats/Sauerkraut/Mash Potato/Dessert/Milk


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/02/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Brats/Sauerkraut/Mash Potato/Dessert/Milk


  • The 100DayProject

    02/03/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/03/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/03/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Voyageur Brewing Company Brewery Tour

    02/03/2018
    11:30AM — 12:30PM

    We offer tours on most Saturdays beginning at 11:30am but you need to reserve your space online i...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    02/03/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/04/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/04/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/04/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Alcoholics Anonymous

    02/04/2018
    06:30PM — 07:30PM

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and ho...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/05/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/05/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/05/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Band Instrument Drive

    02/05/2018
    08:00AM

    The Cook County School band is looking to expand our program and include all 5th graders. Current...


  • 1/2 Price Burgers!

    02/05/2018
    11:00AM — 09:00PM

    1/2 Price Burgers at Moguls Grille and Tap Room


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/05/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Sloppy Joes/Baked Beans/Coleslaw/Fruit/Milk


  • Overeaters Anonymous

    02/05/2018
    04:15PM — 05:15PM

    Overeaters Anonymous is a fellowship of individuals who, through shared experience, strength and...


  • Co-Dependents Anonymous

    02/05/2018
    05:30PM

    Co-Dependents Anonymous is a Fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healt...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    02/05/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/06/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/06/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/06/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Story Time at the Library

    02/06/2018
    10:30AM — 11:15AM

    Every Tuesday, January 9-February 27, story times are open to all ages and feature songs and othe...


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/06/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Soup/Sandwich/Dessert/Milk


  • Bible Prophecy

    02/06/2018
    04:00PM — 05:30PM

    National and International speakers presented by DVD. The DVDs will be shown at the Community Ce...


  • Kids Eat Free

    02/06/2018
    04:00PM — 09:00PM

    1 free kids meal with any paid adult meal Available after 4pm


  • Colvill All-Levels Yoga

    02/06/2018
    05:30PM — 06:30PM

    Join us for yoga. Vinyasa-style yoga set to world music. Come rest your mind and energize your ...


  • Men's Yoga at Cobblestone Cabins

    02/06/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    Iyengar style yoga class for men interested in a well rounded yoga practice.


  • Intro/Beginning Iyengar Yoga at Cobblestone

    02/06/2018
    07:05PM — 08:20PM

    Class suited for introductory or beginning students. The basics of Iyengar style yoga will be tau...


  • Learn to Dance!

    02/06/2018
    07:15PM — 09:00PM

    Learn to waltz, two-step, foxtrot, and swing dance. Tuesdays at the 4-H Building, 7:15 to 9:00 PM...


  • The 100DayProject

    02/07/2018
    12:00AM — 12:00AM

    January 21 - April 30, 2018 The 100DayProject is an effort to motivate participants to commit ...


  • MOVE IT!

    02/07/2018
    12:00AM

    MOVE IT is about moving towards good health in lots of ways, including being physically active. ...


  • Terra Bella Floral fall hours

    02/07/2018
    12:00AM

    Monday and Tuesday Noon to 5 Wednesday through Friday 10 to 4 Saturday 10 to 2 Sunday Closed


  • Anxiety/Depression Support Group for Women

    02/07/2018
    10:00AM — 11:00AM

    Weekly support group for women. $2.00 suggested donation. No registration required. Please joi...


  • Gentle Yoga at Cobblestone

    02/07/2018
    10:00AM — 11:30AM

    For all with health concerns such as arthritis, high blood pressure, pregnancy or those who just ...


  • 1/2 Price Bottles of Wine

    02/07/2018
    11:00AM

    1/2 Price Bottles of Wine


  • Lunch at the Senior Center

    02/07/2018
    12:00PM — 12:30PM

    Chef's Salad/Fruit/Dessert/Milk


  • Women's Yoga at Cobblestone Cabins

    02/07/2018
    05:15PM — 07:00PM

    Continuing class for all women interested in Iyengar Yoga. Walk-ins allowed with permission from ...


  • Beginning Spanish

    02/07/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 17, 24, 31, & February 7, 2018 | 5:30PM-7PM START LEARNING SPANISH or HELP REGAIN LOS...


  • Beginning Spanish

    02/07/2018
    05:30PM — 07:00PM

    January 17, 24, 31 and February 7th on Wednesdays 5:30-7pm Focus on vacation and travel languag...


  • Square Dance Lessons

    02/07/2018
    07:30PM — 09:00PM

    Modern Western Square Dance Schedule for January 4 through February 15. Time: 7:30 – 9:00 PM ...