Diners at the Smack Shack, the packed-to-the-rafters restaurant and bar in Minneapolis’ hopping North Loop neighborhood, consume roughly 3,000 pounds of lobster a week. “We go through more lobster than the rest of Minnesota combined,” said owner Josh Thoma.
I’m delighted to report that this is both a quantity- and a quality-minded venture.
At least a third of that tonnage is funneled directly into a variety of lobster boils, a heaping platter of whole lobster (sold by the pound) paired with a slew of well-prepared sides. What an enjoyable way to share a meal.
Very little tastes like an afterthought. That each lobster meets its maker with precision should come as no surprise — practice makes perfect, right? — but it’s such a pleasure to also encounter a red-skinned potato that has been boiled to an ideal state, or a gently seasoned Polish sausage that exudes such a pleasing umph. To call the portions generous is an understatement, and take my advice and pop for the $2 that the kitchen charges to do the shell cracking. It’s worth it.
But the Smack Shack (the name is derived from the smack, an open-hold lobster boat) is far more than a source for a well-prepared shore dinner. Thoma ingeniously and prodigiously incorporates lobster into dishes up and down his large placemat menu, and the results almost always underscore how lobster improves just about everything it touches.
There’s a creamy, brightly composed guacamole. A super-rich mac-and-cheese. A riff on cioppino, its herbaceous, nose-tickling broth wafting up from its cast-iron pot. And a hilarious yet slightly addicting play on Minnesota State Fair shtick in the form of lobster (from the claw), stuck on a stick, dipped in a fresh corn batter and deep-fried, corn-dog style.
The logistics are impressive. Live crustaceans arrive daily and are tanked in 2,000 gallons of 41-degree water. It’s no wonder that the star of the show remains the lobster roll, first the anchor of Thoma’s thriving food truck business (and its cold-weather home at the 1029 Bar in northeast Minneapolis) and now the kickstarter for this sprawling seafood funhouse.
One bite is enough to instantly transport a person’s taste buds to the Maine coast. That’s a testament to the notion that simplicity — correction, a highly discriminating simplicity — is often the most beguiling form of cooking.
Here’s the drill: Brioche-like bread is toasted, slathered in butter and blanketed with generous chunks of what feels like a pound of sweet, succulent lobster that has been tossed with cool English cucumbers, a tangy lemon aioli — Thoma really nails the critical lobster-to-dressing ratio — and garden-fresh tarragon. It’s a good thing that the restaurant and Target Field share such proximity, because if there was ever a banner pre- or post-Twins fare, it’s a Smack Shack lobster roll.
Something for all fans
Not that the kitchen doesn’t hand baseball fans — and everyone else — plenty of non-lobster reasons to stop by. There’s the crab roll, for starters, with its luxuriously long pulls of cool, sweet meat tossed with crunchy celery, chives and occasional bursts of lemon.
Or the overstuffed po’boys, which spotlight a kicking andouille sausage, delicate beer-battered perch, mouth-melting fried oysters and fried green tomatoes, their crunchy coating revealing a sneaks-up-on-you cayenne pepper bite.
All are models of careful construction, and, like their counterparts across the menu, Thoma treats each sandwich as a separate entity, garnish-wise. You know, a mustard-infused tartar sauce here, a roasted tomato there and sharply composed aiolis of all stripes everywhere, the opposite of the one-size-fits-all mentality that too often plagues this brand of easygoing fare.
Let’s pause for a moment of praise for the triumph that is Thoma’s fried chicken, its brazenly juicy meat (thanks to a 15-hour salt/sugar brine) hiding beneath a golden brown and absurdly crunchy flour-buttermilk batter coating. It’s served on a fantastic yeasted waffle, leavened by a pair of spent malts from nearby Fulton Brewing Co. Add a maple syrup drizzle, and the combination becomes eye-rollingly good.
Another non-lobster notable from the kitchen’s Southern side? An exceptional shrimp and grits combination. Lucking into shrimp that retains its snappy juiciness is a rarity, at least here in flyover country, and the dish’s other components — an intensely rich brandy pan sauce, that fiery andouille sausage and sublimely creamy grits —work in effortless harmony.
Call me a bit crazy for the sizzling, aggressively seasoned lamb burger and the free-form crab cake.
A beef tartare isn’t much to look at, but the pristine, velvety meat, accented with citrus and garlic notes, makes for an ideal starter. The oyster selection is first-rate. Even the side dishes are attention-getters: pork belly- and bourbon-fortified baked beans, a lively cumin-kissed slaw, expertly prepared cornbread, crisp fries seasoned with Old Bay.
A delicious sense of fun
Disappointments are few, and minor. Tacos are fine but could have come off any of a number of food trucks; ditto the overdressed salads. I question the wisdom of serving flavorless, mushy, off-season sweet corn. As consistent as I found the lobster, I did encounter a tough, flavorless clunker among the riches.
And, despite their obvious quality, what this town truly doesn’t need is a couple more steaks.
Desserts, semi-homey in concept and scrupulously executed, include a mouth-puckering Key lime pie, a swoon-inducing blueberry crisp hiding a marvelous peach surprise and an appealing Boston cream pie/red velvet cake mash-up. Again, nothing complicated, but wholly delicious.
“I basically am doing exactly what I’d want to make at home,” said Thoma. “Just bigger batches.”
That good-natured sense of fun permeates every square inch of the wide-open setting.
Although originally built as a farm implement factory warehouse, the column-free space was born to be a restaurant, and Thoma — with an assist from longtime buddy and restaurant consultant Patrick Weber — doesn’t miss an opportunity to play showman. The impressive lobster-boil operation sits center stage, a riveting bit of dinner theater surrounded by a bar of front-row seats. A second bar places its seemingly endless variety of tap bars on display, behind glass, alongside a popular and populist pulltab and church basement-style roulette operation — mimicking the 1029’s charitable gambling — with proceeds benefiting a northeast Minneapolis food shelf.
A model for success
The airy dining room is way more urban hipster honky-tonk than Red Lobster, with gigantic doors that open to what will probably become — if it isn’t already — the neighborhood’s Patio of the Moment.
My favorite seat? Aside from that animated front bar, it’s a table on the slightly subdued mezzanine. But then again, I’m older, with a preference for conversation while shamelessly ripping through a lobster.
If it all feels a bit chain-like — that’s not an insult, honest, it’s admiration for launching a one-of-a-kind, highly clone-able operation — it’s because Thoma said he’s hoping to launch more Smack Shacks, at least outside the Twin Cities.
Not bad for a business plan that was launched out of the back of a truck.
Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib