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By Marcy Harris

Fresh Great Lakes Whitefish at the Roadhouse

A classic taste of the Midwest on Ann Arbor’s Westside

By Ari Weinzweig

The Roadhouse has a menu that includes a wide, rarely-seen-in-the-same-place, range of regional American dishes with roots all over the country. But one regular Midwestern menu item is a lifelong favorite of mine: fresh Great Lakes Whitefish. My grandmother used to cook it for us fairly regularly, and, because I grew up on it, it’s easy for me to take whitefish for granted. That would be my mistake. Whitefish is wonderful! If you don’t live in the region, it’s something you’re not likely to see elsewhere. New Yorkers will have had it only in the form of smoked whitefish (it’s an interesting history that Great Lakes fish became so famous in smoked form so far away on the east coast). Recently, I succeeded in getting a couple of first-time visitors from France to order “the local Great Lakes’ specialty.” They loved it.

In Wild Caught and Close to Home, chefs Deborah Pearce and Chris Kibit write,

The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world, with over 95,000 square miles of surface area and 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. These waters are home to many fish species that have sustained the people of the Great Lakes region for centuries. At the top of that list is Great Lakes whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis). The silvery fish weighs an average of 2–4 pounds and has a sweet, light flavor, making it the perfect portion and perfect base protein on which to build a delicious, nutritious meal. Great Lakes whitefish are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, B6, B12, and other vitamins and minerals.

The story behind whitefish.

Whitefish has been an important part of the eating tradition of the Native people of this part of the world for thousands of years. The name in Ojibwe is adikameg. Whitefish and other fish became big trading items when Europeans began to invade Ojibwe lands. A fishing boom in the 1930s diminished the population drastically by the time President Kennedy gave his inaugural speech in 1961. Thankfully, in the spirit of contributing to the greater good, well-designed regulations and caring self-management by many community-minded fisherfolk have helped to restore the fishery. 

About our whitefish.

At the Roadhouse, we get our whitefish, sustainably caught, from the Great Lakes, through one of our long-time distributors, Fortune Fish & Gourmet in Chicago. It’s been consistently excellent on what must now be many, many hundreds of orders, for many years now. As Jon Rezny, the VP of Purchasing who handles all the fish buying, explains:

There are two main reasons why Fortune excels at Whitefish. The first being that we only buy whole fish, and we filet product daily. Although we have looked at a precut Whitefish filet from our suppliers, the quality is never as good as when we do it ourselves. Also, we purchase from a variety of suppliers out of Lake Michigan, Huron, Superior as well as Winnipeg. Our suppliers know Fortune only demands the best quality and we will return when it does not meet our standards. 

You can get the whitefish regularly at the Roadhouse. It’ll be on the menu on its own, au naturel—order it cooked as you like. I go for broiled or floured and pan-fried the way my grandmother used to do it. It’s also regularly on as a Roadhouse special, Herb-Crusted Whitefish, with a delicate layer of Dijon mustard, chopped fresh herbs, and housemade breadcrumbs atop each filet, cooked until it’s golden brown. Either way, it’s an excellent, happy taste of what human beings have been eating and enjoying in this part of the world since before recorded history. Like I said, I love it. As Deborah Pearce and Chris Kibit say, “It’s good to be from the Great Lakes!”