By Kevin Pang and Tribune reporter Chicago Tribune • Jul 07, 2011 at 12:00 am
In 1917, George Troha opened a tavern near 26th Street and Keeler Avenue, offering patrons "a stein of beer and a bowl of chili for 5 cents."
In the 94 years since, everything around them changed, even if the name on the door didn't. Prohibition put an end to steins of beer. The Depression arrived, meat became expensive, and Troha's stopped serving chili in favor of seafood. German surnames on neighborhood mailboxes slowly turned Polish, then Spanish.
How a humble bar founded five generations ago became Chicago's classic fried-shrimp house is the story of a restaurant that adapted to changing times and stayed exactly the same.
Three years after George Troha opened his tavern, Prohibition became the law of the land. It was 1920. Fisheries — the popular name for seafood shacks in Chicago — gained popularity among the working class, particularly near steel mills along the Calumet River.
Lake trout and chubs were cheap and plentiful, and many of these freshwater lake fishes had an oily quality, so the preferred cooking method was wood smoking. Troha converted his bar to a fresh fish market, smoker and restaurant.
In 1935, the restaurant received its first barrel of shrimp from the Gulf Coast. The shrimp were boiled and smoked, then the unfamiliar crustaceans were handed out as free samples. They were a hit with customers.
A decade later, Troha's son, Joe, visited New Orleans and noticed cooks were battering and deep-frying the shrimp. He brought the method back to Chicago. Frying shrimp in stove-top pots of oil was laborious, but patient customers were rewarded with something that was, at that point, a novelty.
With the advent of the commercial instant recovery fryer in the 1950s — a cooker where oil temperature self-regulates — the burgeoning trend of "French fried shrimp" took its greatest leap forward. Keating, of Chicago, a manufacturer of deep fryers, was down the street and allowed Troha's to test its latest cookers. The bulk of Troha's business was fried seafood and chicken, so much so they abandoned the wood smoker altogether in the 1960s. The age of fast food (well, faster) had arrived.
These days, Troha's is a member of Chicago's "Dashboard Dining" movement. It's defined by takeout joints serving hot foods that don't travel well, necessitating in-vehicle eating, accompanied by a fistful of napkins (similar spots include Harold's Chicken Shack, Barbara Ann's and Fat Johnnie's).
Its wood-paneled interior looks like it was last updated when John F. Kennedy held office, bedecked with the anchors, nautical ropes and historical photographs that seafood shacks are obligated to display. Several of the white plastic letters on the menu board have taken on the color of fried batter. The one relic from the joint's Prohibition days sits behind the refrigerated counter: A nickel and brass-plated cash register that rings up only to $3.99.
The menu is devoid of frills. Everything here is offered in quarter-pound increments. There are a dozen creatures from land and sea to choose from — frog legs, scallops, catfish, even pork tenderloin — but all end up with the same deep-fried fate.
If you're used to the gritty bread-crumb or tempura style of shrimp, Troha's version ($9 for a half pound) is different: The breading is a proprietary combination of three flours (its golden sheen suggests cornmeal is one). The shrimp emerges from the hot oil as smooth commas of fried batter, greaseless with the occasional crispy protrusion.
It looks so harmless, so innocent, and you think dipping it in the tangy house-made cocktail sauce would help cool matters. But cocooned inside is magma. Bite in and your ears steam like in the cartoons. That's the downside of not waiting until you get home to eat.
When your tongue recovers, you'll notice flavors are surprisingly neutral. My gripe with most fried-shrimp houses is the cooks get trigger happy with garlic powder or seasoning salt.
Here, the breading is an intermediary, serving more as protector of the flame: the Campeche Bay shrimp of Mexico, known for its firm texture and clean white flesh. The shrimp is also chopped into Troha's black-pepper-speckled, mayo-heavy shrimp salad, an especially creamy and sweet version.
Short of undercooking, it would be awfully hard to ruin fried shrimp. So I take pleasure in knowing a version deemed "great" can exist, one that allows its main ingredient to sing, and not exist only as an afterthought to a heavily seasoned facade. Reliable sources have informed me the taste of Troha's fried shrimp has not changed in decades.
4151 W. 26th St., 773-521-7847, chicagoshrimphouse.com