When Isia Shuckman opened Shuckman’s Meat Market and Grocery in 1919, the transplanted Chicagoan brought plenty of retail experience with him. But in the nearly 100 years since, the business that once existed inside a former Oertel’s ’92 tavern has made quite a transition from selling meats, bread and sundries.
Now in the hands of his grandson, Lewis Shuckman, after having been passed down and relocated, the focus at the family business is smoking fish and cheese on site.
The beloved Shuckman’s Fish Co. and Smokery is now probably best known for products like its Kentucky Spoonfish Caviar, which has been featured in publications such as the New York Times, Bon Appetit, the Wall Street Journal, Food Republic and even National Geographic. Other staples include Alder smoked salmon, smoked rainbow trout, smoked Kentucky spoonfish and a variety of spreads and smoked cheeses, as well as salmon sausage and other products.
These days, Shuckman’s sells its wares by mail order, but it also opens weekdays 9 a.m.-3 p.m. for walk-ins. Rather than order online, I decided to make the relatively short drive through Portland to 3001 W. Main St. recently in hopes of buying a few items across the counter. When I arrived around 2:15 p.m., the front door was locked, so I circled around to the back of the non-descript white building on the corner of North 30th Street.
I saw a lone man in an Ale-8 T-shirt shoving trash into a dumpster, and greeted him. When he looked up, I immediately recognized him from online photos as the current owner. He confirmed he was the owner, and I said, “Are you closed? I was hoping to buy some fish from you today.”
He smiled and told me he’d be happy to help, and asked me to meet him around front. He let me in and apologized the store had been locked up, but said he’d sent his employees home early to get a start on their weekend.
“They’ve been burning the midnight oil,” he said.
Before I knew it, he was giving me a personal tour of the smokery, showing me how the smoker worked, where the fish is hand cut by one of his daughters, where it is then wrapped, and also giving me smells of the types of wood used in the smoking process.
In a Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrel, he showed me hickory shavings; nearby in a smaller container were Applewood shavings, and in a plastic container he also had shaved char from a Pappy barrel for bourbon smoking. The aromas that came out of that container were, in a word, incredible.
He then talked about the cheeses smoked at Shuckman’s, noting they are sold under the brand name Mimi’s, rather than Shuckman’s, for a reason.
“The grandkids all call my wife ‘Mimi,’ so …”
I also asked about how his caviar and smoked meats often become part of the menus of local restaurants and beyond.
“They’ve been so supportive of us,” Shuckman said of the restaurants that’ve carried Shuckman products. “We’ve been blessed.”
He finished off by telling me about his grandfather and father, Alvin, who took over the business in 1954, both of whom smoked fish, which led to the current focus of smoked goods, with Lewis Shuckman taking over in 2001.
I thanked Shuckman for his hospitality and went home with smoked salmon, smoked Blacked Mountain trout, smoked cheddar and smoked bleu cheese, not to mention some Benedictine and beer cheese.
My girlfriend Cynthia and I snacked on the Benedictine and beer cheese first. I’m not a Benedictine guy, but her response was, “This stuff is amazing.” I tasted it and found it to be creamy, light and a bit tangy. I preferred the beer cheese, which was mild with just a touch of spice, but with a nice cheesy tang.
We then opened the rainbow trout, which was lightly smoked, salty and far milder than I had expected. I truly went in expecting that “fishy” taste that turns some people off, but I found it to be quite approachable. The skin-on trout was sliced thin but had a meaty, firm consistency. I ate most of it myself, while Cynthia had only a few bites and continued with the Benedictine.
The next day, we opened up the salmon and the cheeses. If the trout was tasty, the salmon was delicious, first hitting us with an amazing aroma that paid off in the moist and tender meat. The beautiful, pink-ish fish on its shiny orange tray, topped with black pepper, was not only eye-catching, it was flavorful and wonderfully textured.
The salmon also paired very well with both cheeses, which pleased our palates immensely. The hickory-smoked white cheddar was, frankly, beyond my expectations. I had expected the smoke to dominate, but inside the smoky shell was a block of white cheddar that excelled in its medium-sharp flavor profile.
Meanwhile, the creamy bleu cheese — aged 60 days and Applewood smoked according to the packaging — was mild enough not to put off those who avoid pungency, and yet bold and just smoky enough to assert itself with a memorable flavor. Interestingly, I also found it to have a salty finish, not usually an attribute I associate with bleu cheeses.
Between the hospitality, the history lesson and the tasty fish, cheeses and spreads, the venture to Shuckman’s was well worth the drive and my Friday afternoon. If you go, just make sure you get there early.