Reeling in a two-for-one that measures up

When I pulled up to Carmen's Dry Dock West last Tuesday, I thought I was at the wrong place. I thought maybe the sea of cars signaled a major hockey rivalry was underway nearby.

When I pulled up to Carmen's Dry Dock West last Tuesday, I thought I was at the wrong place. I thought maybe the sea of cars signaled a major hockey rivalry was underway nearby.

But as my guest, Lynn Twite, and I soon discovered, we'd stumbled into Tuesday two-for-one burger night when we'd come for the walleye fingers.

This presented a dilemma: half-price appetizers or two-for-one burgers?

"I don't care, we can have both, or the burgers instead," Twite said as we took our table in the packed dining room.

We opted to split an order of walleye fingers and each ordered a hamburger topped with blue cheese and green olives.


Although she's a regular at Carmen's, the Tuesday evening crowd surprised Twite because she's usually there during off hours. She and her husband, Rich, dine out fairly frequently, but they use Happenings and WKLK radio "auction" coupons to soften the budget impact. They like Mexico Lindo in Cloquet, where the Burrito California is a favorite; the tortilla soup at Duluth's Tejas is noteworthy, and she also likes Eskimo Pies, an Esko pizza joint.

Eventually, though, it comes back to fish -- like the fish sandwich or fish basket at Gordy's High Hat, a seasonal restaurant in Cloquet. "We grew up on that," she said.

Our walleye fingers basket and burgers arrived after about 15 minutes, and the fingers were audibly sizzling. "They hand-bread this fish," Twite said. "I've heard the cooks don't like to make it because it's so much work."

She broke into a piece. "It's usually not this crispy," she said. "But it tastes real, and good, like they're not trying to hide anything."


Walleye fingers are made by cutting a large fillet the short way into ¾-inch slices, then battering and deep-frying them. I was introduced to the concept by Ron Berg, North Shore chef, Boundary Waters guide and author of "Northwoods Fish Cookery." His batter was well-seasoned, with paprika and cayenne, and the texture combination was incredible -- a crisp batter encasing succulent, just-done walleye.

That's a tough yardstick to measure against, and I'm glad to say Carmen's walleye fingers do quite well. The batter's texture, although crispier than usual, was just to my liking. (I've decided that if I'm going to eat battered food this year, it must be uber-crispy and uber-hot, which these were.) The seasoning was quite mild, almost toward bland, but the fish tasted lake-caught fresh. It was all the better for dipping into the old-school, homemade-tasting tartar sauce, which I'd swear was made with mayo, minced pickles and a few splashes of pickle juice.

The hamburger was thick, homemade-tasting and slightly juicy despite being done a little past my preference, which is some pink in the middle. The blue cheese and green olives tasted intensely wonderful, but I realized how salty they were as we waited for our check. Despite having drained my 16-ounce beer, I was parched. Water, please, for the ride home.


The dining room's pine-paneled walls enclose a few dozen tables and a completely smoke-free dining area. Smoking is allowed in the separated bar only after 2 p.m. The restaurant needs the seating during the lunch hours and food may not be served in areas that allow smoking, according to Cloquet smoking regulations.


Paul Line, head cook at Carmen's, said the fish is a freshwater "pike perch" that arrives frozen. (According to my research, a pike perch looks a lot like its cousin, the walleye, but isn't officially in the species. For the record, I was fooled.) A large fillet is thawed, cut to order, dipped in flour and then a homemade beer batter. "We let 'em soak a little, then drop 'em in the deep fryer," he said. "It's a really easy procedure but they sell really well. They come out really crispy and crunchy, and they're one of our best sellers."

Line said the restaurant is swamped every Tuesday for burger night. "It brings the customers in to check out the rest of our menu, too," he said.

The ground beef from the nearby Fond du Lac reservation store is hand-formed into half-pound patties. "We make them fresh every day; the hamburger's not frozen and we use a little Montreal steak seasoning in the meat," Line said. Burgers are grilled on an "older char-broiler that brings out the taste," he said.

Line said the restaurant is also known for its barbecue ribs and prime rib specials.

Carmen's was the name given to the restaurant and bar by owner Carmen Zezulka when she bought the former Museum restaurant in 1997. Her business partner Mike Van also owns the original Dry Dock on Midway Road.

TOM WILKOWSKE is a food reviewer and copy editor for the Wave. Reach him at 723-5396 or by e-mail at .

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