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Over the past 40 years Villa Park-based Supreme Lobster, which supplies fresh fish to many of the top restaurants and retailers in Chicago, from Grace to Eataly, as well as vast quantities of frozen product in the food-service sector, has grown into the largest fish distributor in the U.S. A few years ago I shot video of its massive warehouses and spent a good deal of time talking with Carl Galvan, a former chef and line cook who handles the high-end restaurant accounts and made a name for himself back then pioneering the use of some new gadget called Twitter to let chefs know what was fresh off the boats (by way of O'Hare).
Meanwhile, as fast as Supreme grew—it also has facilities in Las Vegas for clients like Caesar's Palace—its west-suburban headquarters hardly indicated what it had become. The retail outlet at the company's base looked like any 1970s-era suburban grocery, with a shingle facade and decor consisting of, you'll never guess, fishing nets and taxidermied marlins and other nautical gewgaws. There was a sophisticated operation behind it, capable of selling you fish that's as fine as what's served at the best restaurants in Chicago (all you had to do was ask and someone would go into the depths of the place and bring it up for you), but you wouldn't have known that to look at it.
Starting at noon on Saturday Supreme will throw a grand opening for its revamped retail store in the same location, 220 E. North Avenue in Villa Park. To hear Galvan describe it, this will be one of the all-time great events for schnorrers with a taste for seafood. In front of the store there will be tents with a sushi station slicing up raw fish, a plancha grilling swordfish tacos and miso-glazed cobia, a fry station, a shrimp cocktail station, wine from Southern Wine & Spirits, and Pipeworks Brewing serving beer, including one that Galvan collaborated on and that has Supreme's logo on the label. Inside—the interior has been completely refurbished—staff will be giving out tastes of everything from caviar to smoked fish to oysters.
Galvan takes me on a quick tour. The first two walls are freezer cases carrying the frozen shrimp and cod in food-service-sized packaging that are Supreme's bread and butter, so to speak, served in country clubs and Chinese restaurants all over the land. But even here you can see a difference from your neighborhood Jewel, as Galvan points out a half dozen different kinds of frozen lobster tails, all of different origins, all at different price points. There's also a serve-yourself case of Alaskan king crab legs—"During the holidays, we'll sell 15,000 pounds of king crab legs a day. We'll have guys back there," he says, gesturing to the warehouse, "who'll be replenishing it every ten minutes all day long."
Things get more intriguing still with the wall of cured and smoked products from every seafood culture—everything from high-end smoked salmon from Scotland and Ducktrap in Maine, to pickled and creamed herring from Chicago-based deli supplier Noon Hour, to bacalao, aka salted cod, a common ingredient in Italian and Spanish dishes. There's a lot more to how seafood is used in world cuisine than entree-portion fillets, and Galvan reels off some of the seafood products that you'll be able to find in the store (and rarely if ever outside it, in the Chicago area)—"Daniel Boulud smoked salmon, the Browne Trading caviar line, Spanish mojama [dried tuna], tuna bottarga, bottarga di Muggine, that we sell to restaurants but retailers have no call for, they have no source."
One of the Noon Hour products is one that tickles both Galvan and seafood buyer Mike Weijhner, maybe because it's so obviously an old-school bar snack being sold under a name that suggests your drinking day should start early. "This is an item you don't see too often," Weijhner says. "It's a piece of herring, wrapped around a pickle in a wine sauce. They're called rollmops. It was big in the 1940s and 1950s. I think even just before and after Prohibition, it was an item that they used to put on the bar, just like caviar. Because caviar, paddlefish or American sturgeon, was huge in the early 1900s, just like peanuts or popcorn, to get people to drink more."
But it's the fresh seafood counters that will draw the most attention, and there's forty-plus feet of glass cases packed with seafood on ice, starting with Italian salads and smoked Great Lakes fish from Susie-Q Fishery in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, to live lobsters, oysters and clams to fresh and saltwater fish. Galvan shows me a cool bit of gee-whiz technology in the case—if the guy behind the counter touches the sign for a particular fish, the price and the fish's image displays on the scale.
One of the things that is likely to make Supreme's retail operation a destination even for city cooks in search of something new and unusual is the fact that Galvan and others serving the restaurant accounts are clearly invested in the retail side, even if retail isn't their direct responsibility. "I've got that eye, when I'm walking through looking for things for my restaurants, I'm thinking, this is going to look awesome in the case, I got this at a great price, so it'll move through," Galvan says as he shows me the whole fish display. "So you're not going to find this New Zealand scorpion[fish] anywhere else. Idaho trout, rainbow trout, walleyed pike, Florida grouper, I've got some tiger mackerel, bronzini and dorade from Greece, local white striped bass from Lake Erie—this will change daily."
Savvy shoppers in the city have long known to come to the Italian-American groceries in the near-western suburbs, like Caputo's in Melrose Park, for high quality goods and the kind of service where you negotiate the slicing and purchase of every item with a skilled butcher or cheesemonger to get it just so. The kinds of places where if you're going to buy things pre-shrinkwrapped, you might as well just go ahead and be buried now. Supreme's new shop gets the glitziness befitting the sophistication of its operation today, crossed with that kind of hands-on, I-wasn't-born-yesterday approach to shopping. Owner Dominic Stramaglia, beaming for visitors a few days before the official opening like a proud papa, tells me, "It looks like a Michigan Avenue store, it could fit down there real easy. But we wanted everybody to just feel comfortable, the way it used to be. It's dramatic, but you feel comfortable. Just a nice friendly store."