Fresh, smoked and fried. That is the holy trinity of seafood offerings at Hagen’s Fish Market, which has drawn loyal customers into a modest, tidy shop in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood since just after World War II. Seven days a week, they walk out clutching brown paper bags filled with fried-to-order wild shrimp, cisco smoked on site, and fresh, lake-caught whitefish filets to make for dinner. Fridays are notoriously busy during the Lenten season, even with current Covid restrictions, and Scandinavian-Americans line up for pickled herring and lutefisk at Christmastime.
Brothers Bennett and Donald Hagen grew up on Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. Before heading off to school each day, they’d haul in walleye, perch, and chubs (a.k.a. lake herring) with their Norwegian fisherman father, Swara. The family moved to Chicago when Bennett and Donald were teenagers, and the brothers spent a few years working in other fish markets before convincing Swara to mortgage his house so they could open their own shop “in the middle of nowhere” in 1946.
Seven days a week, they walk out clutching brown paper bags filled with fried-to-order wild shrimp, cisco smoked on site, and fresh, lake-caught whitefish filets to make for dinner.
To call it a gamble is putting it mildly, but people responded to the high quality of their seafood, and within five years, they were able to repay the debt in full.
The shop is still in the family, run by Hagen granddaughters Tammy Jesse and Julie Johnson and Julie’s husband, Scott. It hasn’t changed much in seventy-five years. “My father always said, ‘It doesn’t matter what the neighborhood is, in terms of its culture or ethnicity, because everyone loves great fish,” says Tammy. They still use the original hardwood smoker that Swara built, which can handle up to 1,000 pounds of fish at a time and is one of the last on-premises fish smokers in Chicago.
“We still get customers who come from all over,” says Tammy. “It’s this generational loyalty that gets passed down. I get such positive feedback. They thank us for helping to keep their own family traditions alive. And this is my legacy, my loyalty. I grew up next door—started working here when I was twelve. All my family was here, my parents, my sister, and then later my husband and our kids. It’s been good to us, and that just means something.”