Faced with a shrimp cocktail, I am powerless. It doesn’t even have to be a good version. I’ll still drop whatever I’m doing and attack. This is even though sometimes my brain questions the whole concept (do I really want a ketchup-based sauce with some terribly expensive seafood?). But any hesitation is but a split second pause before I have a shrimp in hand ready to dunk.
Shrimp cocktail is, to my mind at least, the quintessential appetizer — not the best or most creative — but the one that pops to mind first whenever appetizers are mentioned. This is probably because the shrimp cocktail can be found all over the place, from seafood shacks to fancy steakhouses. It’s so common that when I decided to research the dish, I knew I’d end up in neighborhoods all over Chicago.
That said, when most of us think about shrimp cocktail, the version you get at steakhouses comes to mind first. Honestly, it feels like you could almost revoke a steakhouse’s license if it doesn’t have a shrimp cocktail on the menu. You’ll find the dish at Gibson’s (1028 N. Rush St.), Chicago Chop House (60 W. Ontario St.), Maple & Ash (8 W. Maple St.) and Gene & Georgetti’s (500 N. Franklin St.), and you’ll pay mightily for each order ($22.50, $23, $25 and $22, respectively).
These versions trend toward the defiantly straightforward. You have cold shrimp and bright red cocktail sauce, and maybe a slice of lemon, that’s it. Usually the shrimp will be hung around the perimeter of a glass, with cocktail sauce poured in the middle. That’s how you’ll find it at Chicago Cut Steakhouse (300 N. LaSalle Drive), which serves three massive shrimp ($25) around a chilled silver bowl with cocktail sauce in the middle. It’s simple, sure, but the cold shrimp are as plump and satisfying as lobster, and the horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce provides the appropriate kick.
But steakhouses being steakhouses, they’ve found ways to differentiate themselves. Morton’s The Steakhouse (65 E. Wacker Place) has nearly the same setup for its jumbo shrimp cocktail ($26) as Chicago Cut, except it also stuffs some dry ice in the cup, so the dish billows fog for a few seconds as the waiter brings it out. It’s a move that, honestly, looks impressive, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with how the dish tastes. Personally, I think they should spend more time working on their overly sweet cocktail sauce.
Before I started, I assumed jumbo shrimp were the biggest option out there, but Prime & Provisions (222 N. LaSalle St.) now serves what it refers to as a colossal shrimp cocktail. For $17 you get exactly one shrimp, which at first sounded like a crime I should report to the police until I realized that the one shrimp weighed a half-pound. “It took us a long time to find shrimp this big,” says Prime & Provisions’ chef Joseph Rizza. After looking around, he was able to find a fairly regular supply through Supreme Lobster, though he often has to order them in 500-pound shipments.
Prime & Provisions’ cocktail sauce also stands for out its outrageously spicy horseradish. The restaurant adds a hefty dab of Atomic Horseradish to the cup of cocktail sauce, which brings a whole new meaning to the phrase sinus clearing. I love this sensation, but can understand if you favor a milder experience.
While steakhouse shrimp cocktails are all about making an impression (bigger is always better there), high-end seafood restaurants offer a far more measured approach. They are also, in my research, better. (These places have mostly dispensed with the traditional presentation, favoring laying the shrimp on a bed of crushed ice, with the cocktail sauce in a small saucer.)
When I asked Bill Nevruz, executive partner at Shaw’s Crab House (21 E. Hubbard St.) why the shrimp cocktail served at the Oyster Bar was so good ($5.25 per piece), he said that the success of the dish is 90 percent about the quality of the shrimp.
“We source Mexican brown shrimp from the Pacific side of the Mexican coast,” says Nevruz. “A whole bunch of shrimp can be used for shrimp cocktail, but we think these are the absolute best.”
Nevruz notes that most shrimp are chemically treated, but that Shaw’s gets it shrimp from a co-op called Pacific Shrimp, which refuses to use any chemicals. He believes this results in plumper, more delicious shrimp. If I had to pick the best traditional version of the shrimp cocktail right now in Chicago, it’d be here.
But a number of seafood restaurants are starting to push at the edges of the dish. At Giuseppe Tentori’s GT Fish & Oyster (531 N. Wells St.) in River North, the absurdly juicy shrimp ($8 each) arrive lightly tossed with herbs, which I realize doesn’t sound like a huge deal, except that no other place downtown tosses their shrimp with anything. Portsmith (660 N. State St.) takes it a step further with its version ($16), charring the shrimp slightly before chilling it, which gives each bite an intoxicating smoky aroma.
For most people, this style of the shrimp cocktail, where cold shrimp are served with a cocktail sauce, is the only version worth considering. But this is really just the beginning. As I mentioned in my history of the dish, Mexican coctel de camaron (shrimp cocktail) and coctel de mariscos (seafood cocktail) actually have far more in common with the original oyster cocktail, which predated the shrimp cocktail by about 50 years, than anything you’d find in a steakhouse.
Forget any notions of a dainty appetizer; these are feasts. Order the coctel de camaron ($12.99) at Alegrias Seafood (1024 N. Ashland Ave.), and you'll get a large goblet filled to the brim with juicy shrimp swimming in a liquid of tomatoes with crunchy chopped cucumber and onion, which is crowned by half of a sliced avocado. You also get approximately a dozen fried corn tostadas, a stack of saltines, lime wedges, a habanero-laced salsa and four different hot sauces. That’s essentially the same setup you’ll get at Mariscos de Kora (5207 S. Archer Ave.), except that you get two fresh salsas.
Eating one of these is an active event, in which you can start with either a cracker or a piece of tostada, and then add as much shrimp and salsa as you see fit. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to those who know me, but if I had to choose my favorite variation of the shrimp cocktail, this would definitely be it.
Move past the coctel de camaron, and we are left with lots of dishes around Chicago that could be included or excluded depending on how strict your definition of shrimp cocktail is. If it’s as simple as shrimp served with cocktail sauce, then you can find the dish in nearly every neighborhood. At Hagen’s Fish Market (5635 W. Montrose Ave.) you can order boiled shrimp ($23.99 a pound) and a cup of cocktail sauce, and you’d have a totally solid version. But Hagen’s also serves smoked shrimp ($17.49 a pound), which I think taste even better with the horseradish-heavy sauce. Does that count?
What about fried shrimp? Chicago has dozens of old-school fried shrimp shacks and many still dish out little plastic cups of cocktail sauce. That’s what you’ll find at The Fish Keg (2233 Howard St.) on the far North Side, where the shrimp have an extra crunchy coating ($18.99 a pound), and at Haire’s Gulf Shrimp (7448 S. Vincennes Ave.) on the South Side, where the shrimp ($11.76 for a small order) have a shockingly delicate crust and a perky marinade, which pairs nicely with a mild cocktail sauce.
But what about the jumbo shrimp platter ($16.99) at Fisherman’s Island (432 E. 87th St.) in Chatham? This seafood spot serves shrimp bathed in butter and coated in a house seasoning, and comes in a container heaping with potatoes, corn and broccoli. Surely, no one would call this shrimp cocktail, yet it does come with cocktail sauce.
My usual line of thinking is that imposing my own arbitrary definition on a dish is mostly worthless. If a restaurant describes something as a specific dish, who’s to say it’s not? Since Fisherman’s Island doesn’t call what it serves a shrimp cocktail, you can safely say it’s not (even though it was tasty).
Which brings us to Lena Brava (900 W. Randolph St.).
At Rick Bayless’ West Loop restaurant you’ll find Baja coctel 2.0 ($17) on the menu. Order it, and you’ll receive something that doesn’t look like any version of the dish I’ve ever encountered. This one features grilled sepia (a type of cuttlefish that tastes sort of like squid) and lime-cured Florida pink shrimp on a plate with a smear of a dark red salsa macha, a toasted ancho chile salsa spiked with Ancho Reyes liqueur.
According to culinary director Andres Padilla, the restaurant had a slightly more traditional coctel on the menu before (hence the 2.0). “But on a recent staff trip to Puebla, one of the cooks became obsessed with Ancho Reyes liqueur, a spicy concoction,” says Padilla. “What really shines is his version of salsa macha. It has a nice kick of heat, with a little toasted ancho chile and a punch of arbol chiles. You have an expectation of what a shrimp coctel is, but once you taste this, it’s not what you expected. It’s so fun and playful.”
He’s certainly right about that. I loved the interplay of the different textures, and the brightness of the acidity matched with the ringing chile heat. I finished the whole thing within a minute or two, and would have licked the plate clean had there not been people sitting nearby to judge me.
Was it a real shrimp cocktail? Considering that the shrimp cocktail is a variation of the oyster cocktail, which was originally served as a drink, I wouldn’t fuss over the strict definition of what you think a shrimp cocktail has to be. All that matters to me is the irresistible draw of the dish, the pull that lures me in no matter what I’m doing, and this one certainly has that.