A Smokehouse Legend
September 19, 2011
It’s early morning in Rockaway Beach, and 75-year-old Karla Steinhauser B.S. ’58 fires up the propane burner, preheating her black refrigerator-sized smoker to 140 degrees. She loads fish—filleted, salted, and seasoned the day before—onto eight 20- by 40-inch racks.
“I usually prepare 80 pounds,” she says. “Some days I add oysters and prawns.” In the smoker’s bottom firebox, she covers eight gallons of native alder chips with two vine maple limbs “as big around as saucers” and waits for the smoke to rise. One by one, she hefts the heavy trays into the smoker and closes the door.
“There’s no electricity, no computer controls,” she says. “I run the smoker by hand—the old-fashioned way.”
After 47 years as owner and operator of the now legendary Karla’s Smokehouse on U.S. Highway 101, Steinhauser is slowing down and entertaining thoughts of retirement. But not before she passes along the knowledge that is her legacy.
In December, Steinhauser published I Am Karla’s Smokehouse Volume II—a combination autobiography and detailed instruction manual with four-color photos and illustrations, and scenic area photos.
“I’m willing to teach everything I know in this book,” says Steinhauser. “The building and property may eventually be for sale, but not my name, not my reputation. It’s taken years and years of dedication to take a little homemade smoker and do what I do.”
Steinhauser’s culinary odyssey began in 1964 when she spotted a “for sale” sign on a defunct crab shack at the north end of town. Her dad bought the building and property for $3,000, and she set up shop.
At first, she cooked crabs over a scrap-wood fire in an old iron pot filled with seawater her father hauled up from the beach. She also sold smoked fish procured from an area merchant, whose simple curing recipe is similar to the one she uses today.
It’s taken years and years of dedication to take a little homemade smoker and do what I do. Karla Steinhauser B.S. ’58
Steinhauser is a stickler for using impeccably fresh product. She buys 90 percent of her fish from a highly recommended sushi broker in Hawaii, who procures product from Canada, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. Dipped in a sugar glaze inside and out aboard ship, the fish are vacuum sealed and frozen immediately to preserve quality and prevent the growth or slime or bacteria. “I buy 2,000 pounds a time,” she says.
Karla’s Smokehouse is open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday. She loads the smoker in the morning, and her fresh products are ready by early afternoon. Then she sits down to rest and lets her two employees take over the cleanup and sales.
“We’re usually sold out within a couple of hours,” she says.
Respectful of all her customers, Steinhauser sells in small quantities. She also takes mail orders for her products and book at Karla’s Smokehouse.
Salmon, tuna, oysters, and black cod are customer favorites, in that order. She says black cod (her personal favorite) is the most flavorful because of its 17 percent omega oil content.
Growing up, Steinhauser spent endless summers romping and fishing in the Rockaway Beach area under the watchful eye of her grandmother and guardian, Luisa. Steinhauser’s parents were alcoholics, and she unfortunately inherited their addiction. She says it almost killed her.
“In July of 1981, I got on the floor of the old crab stand and begged God to hear me … to please save me and heal me,” she says. “I got up off that floor to a new life.”
When Steinhauser eventually retires, she plans to stay in the Rockaway Beach area, possibly teaching informal art and smoking techniques. She studied art and geology at Lewis & Clark and also learned to play trumpet, organ, and piano.
“The beach has been my home since 1964,” she says. “I have no children, no brothers or sisters. But I have many friends and acquaintances, customers and suppliers who’ve become like family. I never want to leave.”
—by Pattie Pace