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And when you're traveling and need to look up previous Road Tips reviews of restaurants and eating places, we're now on Urbanspoon! Here's the link -
One of my dealers in St. Louis was telling me about a place that has a pretty good burger, as well as some very good Greek food - Michael's Bar and Grill. Michael's has been a fixture in the Maplewood neighborhood on Manchester Road for nearly 30 years. For lunch one day on a recent visit to St. Louis, I sought out Michael's.
Michael Malliotakis opened his eponymous bar and grill in 1985 serving a mixture of American and Greek food. It has been a favorite place for diners for both business lunches and casual dinners. There is a basement that can also be used as an overflow room, as it usually is on a Friday or Saturday night.
I pulled up to Michael's Bar and Grill on Manchester (see map) just before the noon hour. I parked my car on the street just a half block up the way, but I found that you can also use the parking lot across the street that is shared by a Dollar General store and an O'Reilly Auto Parts store. I walked into the restaurant (past the deserted outdoor dining area that seems rather close to busy Manchester) and the lunch crowd was just getting going. The bar area had a few tables and some booths along the window. There was a dining area off to the east side of the building that was about 3/4's full. The tables were all excruciatingly close to one another, not the kind of floor plan I like at restaurants when you're literally elbow to elbow with the diners at the table next to you.
I was greeted by a gentleman with a thick accent (possibly Michael himself?) who showed me to a small two-seat table near the fireplace in the bar area. It was cramped and I just felt that other people were literally on top of me. He dropped off a menu for me.
Looking through the menu, it was a mixture of Greek and American classics - gyros, burgers, lamb, steaks, kebobs and seafood. They had a number of appetizers on the menu including the St. Louis-staple toasted ravioli, saganaki (Greek fried cheese), spicy chicken wings and the Greek delicacy taramasalata - salted and cured cod roe mixed with bread crumbs, vinegar, lemon juice and olive oil and used as a dip.
Michael's also features their house-signature soup - chicken avgolemono, a lemon and egg based soup - and two sizes of their Greek salad. You can also order a Greek salad with either grilled chicken or gyro meat.
Since I'd heard about the burger, I decided to get that. When my server, Sophia, came by to get my order, I went with the Michael burger - a 10 oz. blended-chopped beef burger. She asked me if I wanted any cheese on it and I got mine with pepper jack cheese. I also ordered a small Greek salad to go with the burger.
It wasn't long with Sophia came out with my Greek salad. It was a heaping plate of lettuce greens topped with pepperocini, Greek olives, chopped red onions and copious amounts of feta cheese. The Greek vinaigrette had a nice tart taste to it and it was a very good salad.
The burger came as I was still working on my salad. It was served open faced with a two slices of pepper jack cheese on the top of the huge burger. Steak fries came with the burger along with a tomato and lettuce garnish.
From the first bite, I could tell that it was a good burger. It was cooked medium with a hint of pink in the middle. It had a good juicy consistency to the burger patty, but it didn't fall apart very easily. The bun was lightly toasted and also held together very well with the burger. The only problem is that I couldn't eat the whole thing. After blasting through a good portion of the Greek salad, I was getting stuffed. I could only eat 3/4's of the burger and it was far from an indictment of the overall taste of burger. I was getting full and I had to push away.
Michael's Bar and Grill is one of those nice little neighborhood places that keeps people coming back. About the only thing I had a problem with at Michael's were the close proximity of tables. I just felt a little claustrophobic and somewhat cramped when I was eating. The burger was very good, however. Since I'd heard it was a good burger, I wasn't disappointed in the least. The Greek salad was very good, as well. Even though it was busy and she was busy waiting on tables, Sophia's service was friendly and personable. The menu was interesting enough to keep Michael's on my "Restaurants to Visit" list when I get back to St. Louis. I'm always up for a good gyro and I'm guessing that Michael's has a pretty good one. I'll have to see on my next visit.
I had been in such a food funk on the road this fall - burgers, pizza, Mexican, I was even getting burnt out on Indian food, my new "go-to" comfort food. Always looking to broaden my culinary horizon, I found myself at a Brazilian restaurant in the Minneapolis suburb of Hopkins not long ago - Samba Taste of Brazil. I was reading about the place online and it appeared that it was an authentic Brazilian restaurant - not a Brazilian steakhouse like I've eaten at in the past - but one with foods that are indigenous to Brazil and their culture. With a bit of trepidation, but still sort of interested what this adventure may bring, I decided to seek out Samba for dinner one evening.
Samba is owned and operated by Brazilian natives Joe Luis and Maria Lucia Pantano and their son, Gabriel. The family took over the space of what was a former wine bar and cafe about four years ago and opened their small casual restaurant - complete with a small market of Brazilian food items. On weekends, Samba Taste of Brazil hosts live music, usually a guitarist who plays Brazilian music on Friday and Saturday nights.
I found Samba Taste of Brazil in the downtown shopping and entertainment area on Mainstreet in Hopkins. (see map) I was able to find a parking spot on Mainstreet (yep, it's one word to those who live in Hopkins), but there are a number of municipal parking lots in the area. I walked into Samba and was greeted by Gabriel Pantano who told me I could sit anywhere I liked. I took a table up toward the front of the restaurant.
The restaurant had a nice contemporary feel to it. The light colored walls were adorned with pictures and artwork with mini-spotlights highlighting the pictures. The wood floor was a nice touch, but it wasn't overly loud in the place like you'd think it could be. (That may be different with more people in the place and music playing on the weekends.) There was a nice bar area to the left side of the restaurant. (above right) The restaurant had a nice comfortable vibe to the place.
At the front of the building on the bar side was the little Brazilian market maintained by the Pantano family. The little area featured shelves stocked with candies, cookies, and other Brazilian snacks along with canned food, bottled juice, Brazilian flour, peppers and Guarana Antarctica - the second-best selling soft drink in Brazil (only behind Coca-Cola). I had to look through the little market area after dinner just to see what they had to offer.
There was a meat case that featured frozen Brazilian meats and sausages, along with a cooler that had juices, coconut water and cheese. I love looking through little ethnic grocery stores to see what people in other countries view as staple food items.
Looking through the menu that Gabriel had left off with me, I saw that most of the authentic Brazilian food they served at Samba featured beef, chicken or seafood. Escondidinho is a Brazilian-style shepherd's pie only instead of the dish being topped with mashed potatoes, they top it with mashed manioc (yucca). Then you have your choice of fillings that included beef (dried or ground), shrimp or a salted cod fish. Hmmm... Didn't know how that would go over. I'd would have liked to try a bite or two of it, but then I would have felt bad that I ordered it and not liked it.
Jaba is dried beef sauteed with onions and garlic, then served with fried manioc and collard greens. Atolado is a spicy dish made with your choice of chicken, beef or pork cooked with peppers, onions and garlic in a tomato sauce and served with mashed manioc. Moqueca is a Brazilian seafood stew made with a coconut milk base with onion, peppers, tomatoes and rice. I'm not big on the taste of coconut (I do like the smell of coconuts, however) so I was leery of ordering that.
They had other things on the menu including pasta dishes, paellas with sausage and shrimp, grilled meat entrees including top and bottom sirloin, chicken, pork and the Brazilian sausage, Linguica; and they even had gourmet Brazilian-style pizzas on the menu. Samba also had a number of appetizers, soups and salads.
A couple things sort of jumped out at me on the menu. There was a Brazilian strogonoff with your choice of beef, chicken or shrimp sauteed with mushrooms in a creamy paprika sauce. And the espetinhos were interesting - your choice of skewers of grilled steak, chicken or vegetables with onions and red peppers that was served with rice, beans and farofa. Farofa, I found out later, is a toasted manioc flour mixture, sort of like a corn meal. I thought I'd try that. I had ordered up a Palma Louca pilsner-style beer to go with my meal, even though Samba had a nice little wine list.
Gabriel brought the espetinhos to me and I was sort of intrigued what it was all about. It featured two small skewers - one with chunks of grilled steak and veggies, the other with chunks of grilled chicken and vegetables. There was a big ball of steamed rice with herbs on top, the farofa and sort of a pico de gallo on the plate. A small bowl of beans in a sauce finished out the meal.
I tried the steak first and the meat was overcooked. As someone who likes his beef rare to medium-rare, this was medium-well to well. It was sort of tough to chew, but it still had a nice grilled flavor. I decided to take a chunk of the grilled steak and dip it in the beans to get it a little more moist. It helped tremendously. Just a little bit of moisture made the meat more easy to chew.
However, as I went down the skewer, the meat was not as overcooked as it was on the one end. It was much more juicy and flavorful. The sweet red peppers had a great grilled taste as did the wedges of onions.
The chicken skewer was similar to the beef - on one end the chicken was overcooked and dry. Dipping it in with the beans helped, once again. But as I went toward the center and other end of the skewer the chicken was more moist and tender.
Not exactly knowing what the farofa was for, I dipped chunks of the beef and the chicken in the beans then rolled them in the farofa. The grainy mixture had sort of a corn meal taste and texture to it. I'm not big on corn meal, but I thought it was fine for what it was. I had to give it a try.
Quite actually, the beans were good and interesting. They sort of had a similar taste to Campbell's Bean with Bacon soup, a staple in our household when I was growing up. The beans had a nice texture to them and I liked the overall taste of the side.
I decided that the meal at Samba wasn't too bad. Part of the beef and chicken were overcooked, but the rest of it was moist, tender and flavorful. I certainly liked the beans and the farofa had an intriguing taste and texture. I'm still not certain if rolling the meat in it was the proper way to eat farofa. There were enough interesting items on the menu that I wouldn't be quite as apprehensive trying authentic Brazilian food if I make it back. Samba Taste of Brazil is one of those places where it's fascinating enough to give it a try again at some point. (Picture left courtesy Urbanspoon.)
When I first began to travel working for my present company over 11 years ago, I had been told by a friend that I needed to try Kroll's West in Green Bay for one of their burgers. When I finally got there about 8 years ago, I remember the burger was good - juicy and tasty - and I even gave them a mention in my first Best Burger List back in 2007. Since then - and dozens of burgers have blurred my memory of the one I had at Kroll's West and it dropped out of my Best Burger List long ago. On a recent trip up to Green Bay, I had a morning meeting before a drive down to Milwaukee. I decided to have some lunch before I left town and headed back over to Kroll's West for a burger.
There is a Kroll's East in Green Bay, but there is different ownership between the two. The common denominator is founder Harry Kroll and his wife, Caroline. Harry Kroll began to serve meals in a family hotel in 1931 and his food became so popular that his wife and he opened their first restaurant in downtown Green Bay in 1936. Kroll would take a grilled quarter pound burger and top it with onions, ketchup, pickles and butter. Harry and Caroline were joined by their daughter, Pat, in the business that had opened a second location the basement of the old Labor Temple Auditorium just before World War II.
The war years were tough on the Kroll's. Getting good beef for their burgers was a challenge due to rationing. But they were able to make it through the tough years and in 1945 Harry and Caroline sold the original Kroll's location to his sister, Isabel, and her husband, Dick Schauer. Pat Kroll continued to work for her parents in the other location.
In 1974, Pat Kroll - now Pat van der Perren - was forced to move the business from the downtown location to a new location in the shadow of Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The new Kroll's West was much bigger than their old location, so it was a challenge for the family to keep up. It was about that same time that Pat van der Perren's daughter, Bobbie, and her husband, Mike Weir, came in to the business. Today, the Weir's continue to run Kroll's West.
Kroll's West is located on South Ridge Road just across the street from Lambeau Field. (see map) It is a popular hangout before, during and after Green Bay Packers games. There's not much to the description of the building - it's a squat, long building with a series of smaller windows on the front. There used to be an awning that adorned the front of the building, but on this visit I noticed that the awning had been taken down and it appeared that some new lighting bases were being built in front of the restaurant.
There's a dining area and a bar area at Kroll's West. The dining area is off to the left as you walk in and it looks for like a family restaurant than a tavern. As I did on my original visit, I ended up going to the bar area - known as Kroll's Lounge - and taking a seat on one side of the long rectangular bar. You actually take a couple steps up to sit at the bar and they have upholstered chairs to sit in instead of bar stools. There are booths along the wall and tables toward the back area of the bar if you're with a group of people.
A bartender greeted me and gave me a menu. She asked if I wanted anything to drink and I noticed that they had something called Kroll's Special Ale on tap. I inquired about that and she said, "It's made by Leininkugel for us. It's sort of like Leinie Red." I thought I'd give that a try. She was right - if it wasn't Leinie Red, it was damn close.
I pretty much knew that I was going to get a burger, but Kroll's menu has a lot more to offer. In addition to appetizers, soups and salads, Kroll's has a long list of sandwiches, as well as comfort food such as a shredded hot beef dinner, broasted pork chops and a number of fish and seafood dishes including baked salmon and deep fried walleye.
All of Kroll's burgers are cooked over Kingsford charcoal. The restaurant goes through hundreds of pounds of charcoal each week. "Everything" on a Kroll's burger is the same as it was nearly 80 years ago - ketchup, raw onions, pickles and butter. When the bartender came back around, I ordered up a burger and added bacon, mushrooms and Swiss cheese to it.
Kroll's cuts their burgers in half before they serve them to their customers. My 1/4 lb. burger patty was pretty thin - I could have had the Big K burger which is a larger version of the original Kroll's burger. The crown of the bun was hard on the outside - once again a Kroll's signature - and very chewy. In fact, it was almost too chewy.
One thing I forgot about the Kroll's burger is that when they put ketchup on the burger, they put ketchup on the burger. It was slathered in ketchup, so much so that it overpowered nearly everything else that was on the burger. I couldn't taste the mushroom that were on the burger because of the ketchup. Heck, I couldn't even tell it had been cooked over charcoal because there was so much ketchup on it. They could have considerably cut back on the ketchup and it would have helped the overall taste of the burger.
The bacon was way too chewy - I had to remove one of the pieces from my mouth because it was so tough to chew. And I decided the bun was also way too hard to chew. I'm not a fan of hard roll buns for burgers. I know some people like them - Kroll's has served their burgers on the hard buns since day one. But a good burger needs to have a good bun that stays together with each bite and is softer than the one they sell at Kroll's West.
Over time, your memory gets a little fuzzy with places you've gone to and foods you've eaten. I remember the first burger I had at Kroll's West being better than the one I had on this visit. Kroll's West is an institution with people who live in and visit Green Bay for Packers games. I don't doubt their popularity, but the burger is definitely an acquired taste. One of these days, I'm going to try Kroll's East and see if the burgers are any better - or if they're the same as the ones at Kroll's West.
During our trip to Estes Park, CO earlier this year, we stayed at the Appenzell Inn, a quaint Swiss-style villa on the east side of town. The Appenzell Inn has a nice little pub that had a pretty interesting, but short, menu. We were talking to the young lady at the front desk at the Appenzell telling her our need to explore for food choices. She said, "There's a handful of nice places around here, but my go-to choice is the Twin Owls." She told us where it was and we went there later that evening.
The Twin Owls Steakhouse is named after a rock formation in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. The Twin Owls rocks look like two large owls roosting side by side. The 200-foot-high rock edifice is a popular destination for hikers and rock climbers.
The Twin Owls Steakhouse is part of the Black Canyon Inn, but is wholly owned by the husband and wife team of Thad Eggen and Sandra Huerta. The building in which the Twin Oaks is located was originally built in 1929 as a mountain retreat for a family. About 35 years later, a Dr. Meyers purchased the property as a guest ranch. He converted the house into a restaurant and called it the Black Canyon Inn for its vistas of the nearby Black Canyon.
The restaurant underwent a number of ownership changes before former Estes Park High School Spanish teacher Thad Eggen bought the restaurant in September of 1999. The Black Canyon Inn - owned by Jim Sloan - and the Twin Owls became one of the top destinations for weddings in the whole state of Colorado, helped by Eggen's wife Sandra Huerta's planning and execution. In fact, the Black Canyon/Twin Owls is where Eggen and Huerta had their wedding ceremony performed before they bought the restaurant.
Twin Oaks Steakhouse is located on MacGregor Ave. on the north side of Estes Park. (see map) If you aren't familiar with the place, you will probably pass it - like we did - as it's off the road and up a winding driveway. There's a large parking lot for both the Black Canyon Inn and the restaurant. An outdoor swimming pool - complete with steam rising from the pool - is situated next door to the restaurant.
We were greeted by a hostess who told us that it would be a 10 to 15 minute wait to get a table in the dining room. She invited us to get a drink in the bar while we waited. The only problem was that a wedding party was gathering in the bar for drinks before we got there and it was nearly impossible for the bartender to get to us before we were called for our table. I was fine with that.
The main dining room at Twin Owls is a rustic, mountain-themed room made out of logs and flat boards. There is a small upstairs dining area along a landing that overlooked the main dining room. Cindy immediately liked the place because of the old time mountain lodge decor. We were seated at a window table overlooking the pool for the Black Canyon Inn. The hostess dropped off menus and a wine list for us.
We were soon greeted by our server, Valera, a young man with a heavy Eastern European accent. He took our drink order and was back a short time later to talk to us about some of the specials they had that evening. He said, "One of our most popular items on the menu is our Elk kabob. If you've never tried elk before, I highly recommend it." Cindy said that we needed to give it a try, so he put the order in while we looked through the menu.
Steaks, seafood, pork and lamb chops and chicken dishes were prominent on the Twin Owls menu. They also had roasted duck and elk medallions on the menu. I wasn't completely certain what I wanted, but the buffalo New York strip au poivre sort of stuck in my mind as I looked through the bulk of the menu. They also had prime rib and a blackened New York beef strip, all served with their green chile-white cheddar mashed potatoes.
Valera brought out the elk kabob appetizer. It was off the skewer and featured six nice chunks of elk meat along with chopped peppers, red onion, and other veggies. I've had elk before and I found it to be somewhat gamey in taste. This was completely different. Whatever they marinade the elk meat in took away any gamey taste and helped break down the toughness of the meat. There was a side of a sauce that, while I couldn't quite figure out what was in it other than a bit of soy and Worcestershire sauce, it was very good. In fact, when we finished the appetizer and Valera came to pick up the plate, I grabbed the small square dish of the sauce. "You aren't going to take this," I told him.
I had pretty much decided upon the buffalo New York strip steak au poivre, but Cindy was still up in the air as to what she wanted. The signature dish at Twin Owls is the Filet MacGregor - a beef tenderloin filet, served over a balsamic demi-glaze, then topped with bleu cheese, chopped pistachios and a bearnaise sauce. She thought that sounded pretty good. But she was also looking at the 5 oz. lobster tail dinner or the seared scallops topped with a red pepper and coconut sauce. And she liked the elk kabob appetizer so much that she contemplated getting the elk medallions served with balsamic onions.
When Valera came back to take our order, Cindy was stumped. But he came to her rescue and suggested the Twin Owls 4X4 - a four ounce Filet MacGregor and a 4 oz. lobster tail. She said, "I saw that and I think that will be perfect." Roasted rosemary potatoes came with the dinner. We both passed on getting salads as we had already had the elk kabob. And I ordered up a bottle of the Luigi Bosca Argentinian malbec to go with our meal.
Valera brought our meals to the table after about 20 minutes and we were ready to dig in. I was a bit apprehensive getting the buffalo New York strip steak au poivre as buffalo meat is so lean and can get overcooked rather quickly. But the first cut into the steak showed that it was a perfect medium-rare and still had some juices inside. The au poivre sauce was rich and creamy with a wonderful cracked black pepper taste. The sauce and the lean buffalo steak were a great taste combination.
Cindy's plate was a jumble of colors and flavors. The Filet MacGregor was covered in a bearnaise sauce, bleu cheese with chopped pistachios. And the lobster looked to be more generous than 4 oz. with a large chunk of lobster meat sitting in the fanned-out tail. Cindy declared the steak to be "fantastic" and the lobster tail as "excellent".
My white cheddar/green chile mashed potatoes were good and rich. I thought of how easy it would be to make these at home. We both got a medley of grilled vegetables that we didn't concentrate on as the rest of the items on our plates overshadowed the veggies.
I was able to finish my steak and have a bite of Cindy's lobster tail. She was right - it was excellent. I left about half my mashed potatoes and the bulk of the grilled veggies on the plate. When Valera came back to take our dishes, he asked if we wanted any dessert. I sort of groaned, but Cindy said, "Well, it depends on what you have."
He mentioned a homemade creme brulee and she stopped him right there. "We'll take that with a couple spoons." And I'm glad she decided to get it. The creme brulee was very good - topped with an assortment of strawberries and mint leaves. The presentation was almost as good as the taste of the creme brulee.
Things had settled down enough for Valera to strike up a conversation with us as we enjoyed our creme brulee. He said he was from Moldova, sandwiched between the Ukraine and Romania. He said that in addition to English - which he learned within the last four years, and spoke rather well - he spoke his native Moldovan dialect, which, he told us, is basically the same thing as the Romanian language, and Russian. He said, "The difference between Moldovan and Romanian languages is sort of the difference of how people talk in the south part of the U.S. compared to people in the north."
He said that he made his way to Estes Park to visit friends. We had noticed during our short time in Estes Park that there seemed to be a number of Eastern European workers in the service industry. He said, "Oh, yes. I have lots of friends from Romania, Moldova and Bulgaria who live here." He said that he fell in love with Estes Park when he first came here and decided to stay. He said, "Moldova is a poor country." And he said with a laugh, "And the skiing is better here."
Valera acknowledged that it was probably a four-hour drive to the nearest ski resort in west central Colorado, but he said that when the winter comes, the downtime is more plentiful. "We may as well shut down in the winter time," he lamented. "It gets very slow. In fact, I sort of hate the winter around here other than the skiing. But the summer time business more than makes up for the slowness in the winter." He was a great young man who got a nice tip from us that evening.
Less than a week later, Estes Park was ravaged by relentless mountain rains along the front range of the Rockies. Valera's winter season came early as access in and out of Estes Park was disrupted for weeks. We couldn't help but think about him and the others in the Estes Park area that we met while we were there.
We ate at a lot of very good restaurants during our Colorado visit this past September. But I think my wife would agree with me as I say that Twin Owls was the best meal we had on our trip. Everything was just absolutely wonderful about our experience. The solid mountain ambiance of the restaurant, the unique nature of our excellent meals, and the solid and friendly service we had from Valera all contributed to a very memorable meal. Since then, more than once my wife has said, "Boy, I'd love to go back to Estes Park and eat at the Twin Owls..."
For years, St. Louis has been famous for their butcher cut-style of ribs, but there weren't many true barbecue places that actually smoked their meats. Most of the places that served ribs cooked them low and slow in a sauce that didn't allow for the flavor from wood-fired smokers to permeate the meat. That all changed a few years ago when a handful of barbecue smokehouses began to pop up around St. Louis. Over the past couple of years, nearly a dozen barbecue places have opened in St. Louis and a lot of people think the best of the new ones is a place called Sugarfire Smokehouse. I'd learned about Sugarfire earlier this summer on a previous trip to St. Louis and put them on my "restaurants to visit" list. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to give Sugarfire a try.
Unlike most barbecue places that get their start from someone starting out on the barbecue competition circuit, Sugarfire has a more refined background. Chef Mike Johnson started out his career studying at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. After graduating from there, he went to Europe to try his hand at cuisines served at restaurants in France, then he moved out to Napa Valley, then down to Los Angeles before settling in at the highly-regarded (and now closed) Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. Johnson then went to work for another celebrity chef, Emeril Lagasse at Emeril's in New Orleans.
Johnson settled in St. Louis and worked at a handful of restaurants before he ended up at Boogaloo as chef/owner serving Caribbean and Creole food. Johnson then sold his share in Boogaloo and went on to Cyrano's in Webster Grove working with Charlie and Carolyn Downs. Johnson eventually became a part-owner in Cyrano's, but he had other ideas for another restaurant.
(Pictured right - Mike Johnson and Carolyn Downs. Photo courtesy St. Louis Magazine.)
Johnson decided that he wanted to get into barbecue and he began to travel to New York to learn more about that city's exploding barbecue scene. Eventually, Johnson went down to Georgia to study under legendary pit master Myron Mixon who heads Jack's Old South Barbecue cooking school that takes place once a month over a long weekend at Mixon's home.
With barbecue in his blood, Johnson then found a location in the Olivette area of St. Louis that used to house a former Dickey's Barbecue franchise that had gone out of business. He went out and bought a smoker - the same smoker that Pappy's Smokehouse uses (click here to see my entry on Pappy's). And along with Carolyn Downs who was in charge of making pies, cookies and pastries for the new endeavor, Sugarfire Smokehouse opened in the fall of 2012.
It was just after 6 p.m. when I pulled into the parking lot of the Price Crossing shopping complex, a strip mall on the south side of Olive Blvd. just a half mile west of the I-170 innerbelt freeway. (see map) The parking lot was nearly full as there were some other businesses still open including a pub next door to Sugarfire. I walked past the deserted outdoor seating area (it was a cool evening) and into the front door of Sugarfire. It was there that I encountered a line snaking down the long hallway.
The place was full of diners even at 6 p.m. Many were seated at tables pushed together in the center of the room, sort of communal style-eating. A few four-seater and a couple two-seater tables were available along the walls.
The line curved around in front of a drink dispenser and an iced-tub of beer and bottled soda pop. They had local beers available at Sugarfire from Anheuser-Busch products to Schlafly and other local microbrews.
It took about 15 minutes for me to make it to the front of the line. The menu was on a chalkboard above the front counter. In addition to ribs, Sugarfire features brisket, turkey breast, pulled pork, and smoked sausage. One of the things I immediately liked about Sugarfire is that they had a number of different portion sizes that you can order. You could get just a quarter-pound of pulled pork or brisket, all the way up to a one pound serving. You also had your choice of getting a four-bone rib sampler, a half-rack or a full-rack of baby back ribs.
Sugarfire also touts their grass-fed burgers. They get their beef for their burgers from Rain Cow Ranch just outside of Cape Girardeau, MO and the hand-pattied burgers are a proprietary mix of chuck, brisket, and boneless short rib ground together. The burgers are cooked on a flat-grill using only salt and cracked black pepper for a seasoning and served on a Fazio's Bakery egg bun. Each burger comes with lettuce, tomato, sliced red onions and pickles, and Sugarfire also features homemade ketchup and mustard. Add-ons such as in-house smoked bacon, balsamic-sauteed onions, smoked portobello mushrooms, a farm fresh eggs and three different types of cheese are an extra charge. I saw a couple burgers getting made when I was going through the line. They looked damned good.
When it came time to place my order, I told the guy behind the counter that I wanted to try a little bit of everything. I ordered 4 oz. of pulled pork, 4 oz. of brisket, and 4 bones of the baby back ribs. He said, "We have a special tonight that if you add the smoked sausage, it will be $20 bucks for the whole tray." I thought about it for moment and decided that I didn't want any smoked sausage. This was going to be enough meat for me.
The food is served cafeteria style with the ribs and brisket cut on a board, and the pulled pork fished out of a pan in front of you before it's placed upon a piece of wax paper that's on top of a rectangular tin pan. For my side that I got with my four bone sampler, I got their baked beans. The list of sides at Sugarfire is not extensive - in addition to the baked beans, they have potato salad, fries and cole slaw.
I had my eye on a two-seat table that was open near the second of the two cash registers, but a large crowd had gathered around it who were waiting to pick up to-go orders. I found an open seat at one of the large tables in the center of the room - actually, they're three four-seaters pushed together - with a number of sauce bottles sitting in front of where I was seated. A large roll of paper towels was placed near the sauces.
The brisket was cut thick and I got about four healthy slices. The pulled pork was stringy and the guy had given me a nice amount to try. It was more than 4 ounces, I figured. The ribs were cut into one small slab with a nice bark on the outside and a nice pink ring around the edge of the meat.
One of the problems with the food being served cafeteria style - and with a lot of people standing in line to get food - the ribs and the brisket are sitting out on the cutting board. The ribs were lukewarm - at best. They had a nice seasoning flavor on the outside bark, but I didn't get much of the hickory and cherry smoke that Sugarfire uses in their smoker. The pork pulled away from the bone rather easily and it was very easy to chew.
The brisket was even more cool in temperature than the ribs. They, too, had a nice flavoring on the bark with a nice pink ring toward the outside of the meat. The brisket was tender and had some good flavor, but it was just served too cold for my liking.
The pulled pork was warmer than both the ribs and the brisket, but not by much. The pork was moist and had a nice pork flavor to it. The clumps of pulled pork held together well when I'd pick it up with my fork. While it was good, I couldn't call it outstanding.
I tried some of the different sauces with the meats on my tray. The sweet sauce was similar to a Kansas City-style sweet sauce. The Texas Hot was not all that hot - to me, at least. They had a vinegar-based Carolina sauce that was interesting on the pork, but it wasn't my favorite. There is also a white sauce at Sugarfire that is sort of a horseradish base. I tried some on the brisket, but I found that I liked a mixture of the sweet and the Texas Hot barbecue sauces the best on all the meats. But the most interesting barbecue sauce on the table was the coffee barbecue sauce. You could see small flakes of ground coffee in the sauce. It had sort of a sweet and coffee taste to it. I remember nodding approvingly when I tried it on some of the pulled pork and the ribs.
The baked beans side was all right. There was a mix of black and Navy beans in a somewhat runny sauce. As I'm wont to do, I added a mixture of the sweet and Texas Hot sauces to both thicken the beans and zip up the taste. After I did that, I was much more happy with the beans.
I made it through the four ribs, all the brisket slices and a good portion of the pulled pork. I left about half of the beans. I got two beers with the meal, but found that I probably could have gotten by with only one. I was full and completely satiated.
As I cleaned up my tray and took it over to the trash, I took a quick mental inventory of my experience at Sugarfire Smokehouse. The meat, although flavorful on its own, was not very smoky, nor was it very warm. The sauces were good - the mixture of the sweet and hot were the best - and the coffee barbecue sauce was very interesting. The beans were all right, but better when I added both sweet and hot barbecue sauce.
Compared to other St. Louis-area barbecue places like Pappy's, Bogart's Smokehouse (click here to see my entry on Bogart's), and 17th Street Barbecue in O'Fallon, IL (click here to see my entry on 17th Street BBQ) (Update - 17th Street Barbecue closed their doors in O'Fallon at the end of November, but their two other locations in Murphysboro, IL and Marion, IL are still open), I thought Sugarfire made a gallant effort, but came up short. Another thing - eating dormitory-style in a place like this as a single person made me feel somewhat hurried to finish my meal and get up to allow other parties with more people use my space. I didn't care for that at all. If I get back to Sugarfire - and I'm actually planning on doing so - I'm going to try one of their burgers. But I'll think twice about getting the barbecue during peak times. (Picture courtesy Trip Advisor)
On our way home from our trip to Colorado, we stopped in North Platte, NE to get some gas and a bite to eat for lunch. North Platte is almost exactly half-way between Denver and Omaha, the place we were going to end up for the night. We asked a lady at the gas station if there was a good place to eat nearby and she offered two suggestions. The first suggestion was across the road and in a hotel. We pulled up to the place and found that they're closed for lunch on Saturdays. The second suggestion was the North Platte location of Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill. We went back across the road to have a sandwich at Whiskey Creek. (see map)
I've eaten at a Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill a couple times before. I first visited the Kearney, NE location on my own a number of years ago, and I took a dealer out to dinner to the Whiskey Creek in Fremont, NE (now closed) not long after that. I don't remember much about either place because it has probably been 14 years since I'd been there. But I did remember that it was a casual restaurant with sort of a Western theme to the place. Even though it was a small regional chain, I thought it was worth another try.
The original Whiskey Creek opened in 1995 in Casselberry, Florida. Larry Terrell's concept for Whiskey Creek was to offer high quality food with good sized portions at a reasonable price. In 1996, a group of investors headed by restauateur James "Jim" Gardner (pictured right) bought the Whiskey Creek concept from Terrell and moved the corporate headquarters to Kearney, NE.
Jim Gardner had been in the restaurant industry since he was 15 - first working at a Country Kitchen restaurant as a dishwasher and moving all the way up to manager by the time he was 19. He ended up being one of the youngest franchisees for Country Kitchen and eventually owned a number of Country Kitchen locations throughout the Plains and Upper Midwest. In the mid-90's, he divested himself from his Country Kitchen franchises and became the principal stock holder in Wild West, Inc. - an investment group that eventually became one of the two investors in the Whiskey Creek concept. Five years after teaming together to start Whiskey Creek in Nebraska, Gardner's Wild West group bought the remaining shares of Whiskey Creek from the other investment company. Gardner also develops and owns hotels in the Plains states, and along with his wife, Sue, they run a small Christian broadcasting network based out of Minnesota.
Sensing a need for a family-style and somewhat upscale restaurant in small markets, Jim Gardner focused on putting Whiskey Creek locations in smaller towns in Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota. (There is a location in Port Charlotte, FL, as well.) The largest city you'll find a Whiskey Creek in the Upper Midwest or Plains states is in Rochester, MN. He has locations in places such as Scottsbluff, NE; Hays, KS; St. Joseph, MO; and Mason City, IA. Wild West, Inc. had hoped to add as many as 38 more locations over a five year period beginning in 2008, but the economic slowdown crippled their plans. They opened their 13th location in Brookings, SD, about a year ago.
Whiskey Creek sources their meat from ranchers close to their restaurants. The fresh meat is seasoned with a proprietary blend of spices and cooked over a wood grill featuring oak and ash wood. They say this way of cooking meat allows for a more healthy alternative as the fat from the meat will drip into the fire, giving it a signature taste of wood smoke and fat drippings. Yeah, OK. I get it. But it's not like Whiskey Creek has the concept cornered as their own.
The North Platte location is similar to the other Whiskey Creek's that I'd been to. It featured wood floors with large wooden booths and a large wooden bar. The smell of oak wood smoke emanated from the kitchen as we walked in. We were greeted by a young lady who ushered us to a booth near the bar. She left off a couple menus and took our drink order.
One of the signature themes at Whiskey Creek in addition to the Western motif is the inclusion of hard-shelled peanuts at the table. As we were greeted by the server, she grabbed a bucket and filled it with peanuts from a big box toward the front of the restaurant. I had ordered a beer (Cindy was driving) and was cracking peanut shells, then hungrily devouring the peanuts inside.
The lunch menu isn't much different from the dinner menu at Whiskey Creek, but there's more of an emphasis on sandwiches, appetizers, soups and salads. I had promised Cindy that I would take her to The Drover in Omaha that night (click here to see my entry on The Drover), one of my favorite Omaha steakhouses that I had never taken her to before. I didn't want a big lunch and Cindy only wanted a salad and a sandwich, as well.
Their burger is called "The Hoss". It features a half-pound hand-pattied ground steak burger topped with colby jack cheese, applewood-smoked bacon and a bacon-mayo sauce. It's served on a ciabatta bun and fries come with it. That sounded good, but I saw they also had a French Dip sandwich, as well as a prime rib sandwich. I went back and forth thinking about both the French Dip and the prime rib sandwich in my mind. When it came time to order, I got the prime rib sandwich. I don't know why. I just heard myself saying it.
Cindy went with the Hoss burger, but she also got a house salad instead of the fries because she felt she needed some greens to go along with it to help offset the healthy negatives of having a cheeseburger. I think there was a two dollar upcharge for substituting the salad for the fries. She also asked for the bacon-mayo sauce on the side.
The salad came out first and it was huge. It featured lettuce greens, fresh red onion rings and large grape tomatoes. Cindy had me share it with her as she was worried that I'd get too filled up on the peanuts I was cracking and slamming back. The salad was fine - nice and fresh.
Our meals showed up at the table and Cindy's burger was huge. She said, "Oh, my God! There is no way I can eat all this." The bacon criss-crossed across the top of the burger that was enveloped in what looked like a slab of colby-jack cheese. She cut it in half and after he first bite she said it was good. "It's almost too smoky in taste," she decided. "But, yeah, it's fine."
My prime rib sandwich wasn't exactly what I had pictured in my mind for a prime rib sandwich. The prime rib had been grilled and it was more like a traditional steak sandwich served on a toasted hoagie bun. I had asked for the prime rib to be as rare as possible, figuring that they had to cut the piece of meat off a large shank of prime rib. Upon further review, it looked like they just took a steak cut - hopefully from a prime rib - and cooked it over the wood grill fire.
The taste was fine with the sandwich, but it wasn't great. It was sort of thin and did have some pink in the middle. I wasn't certain if I liked the seasonings they used on the meat, but it didn't overpower the taste. The meat was tender and easy to chew. For a steak sandwich, I'd give it a B. As a prime rib sandwich, I'd give it a C-.
For what it is, Whiskey Creek is all right. It fits its niche in small markets quite well. The menu is full and varied, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the service we had was good. It's not world-class food, but it's fine for what it is. There's probably better places to eat in each of the small cities where there's a Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill, but it would be worth a visit if you were in quandary where to go for lunch or dinner.
The Racine area in Southeastern Wisconsin is home to one of the largest population of Danish descendants in the United States. Both Racine and Chicago claim the largest number of Danish-Americans in the United States, but Racine is probably known more for its Danish heritage. One of the trademarks of the Danish community is the pastry known as "kringles". There are a handful of places that bake and sell kringles around Racine - Larsen's Bakery claims to be the first to sell kringles in the city. But the most famous of all places - and the favorite of many locals and visitors - is the O&H Danish Bakery.
A kringle in America is a hand-rolled pastry that features layers of flaky dough filled inside with a fruit, nut or other flavored ingredients. After they're baked, kringles are usually topped with icing and sometimes with nuts. They're light and flaky and damned good. They're so good that earlier this year kringles were named the "state pastry" of Wisconsin.
My first experience with a kringle came from a co-worker of my wife's who brought back an O&H kringle from Racine for us to try. I remember it was a blueberry kringle and it was absolutely fabulous. In fact, we polished it off in less than an hour. And we felt so remorseful afterward. I've had kringles from other places, but the one I always remembered was my first one from O&H.
On a recent trip between Milwaukee and Chicago, I stopped off at the original O&H location in Racine (see map). In addition to the Douglas Ave. location, they have a larger O&H on Durand Ave. in Racine, as well as a satellite location as part of the The Dish Cafe in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek, and another "kringle only" location at the Petro Travel Plaza along Interstate 94 near the town of Sturtevant, WI near Racine.
O&H Danish Bakery has been in business since 1949 when Danish immigrant Christian Olesen and his bookkeeper, Harvey Holtz, opened the doors to their little bakery. Christian Olesen's son, Raymond, was there with his father from the beginning, learning the baking techniques that would eventually make O&H famous. In 1963, Ray Olesen bought Holtz's percentage in the business, eventually taking over the business from his father. Joined by his wife, Myrna, and their sons, Dale, Michael and Eric, Ray Olesen expanded the business over the years but continued to focus on making O&H Bakery the most authentic Danish bakery in America. Today, Ray and Myrna's grandchildren are involved in the Olesen's Family Bakery company making four generations of Olesen's who have made kringles.
In addition to kringles at O&H, they have a wide selection of donuts, Danish breads and other pastries to choose from. They are also famous for their cakes at O&H, with a wide variety of specialty cakes for weddings, birthdays and special occasions. With milk, juices and other drinks in a cooler near the front door, O&H is truly a full service bakery.
But I was there for the kringles. They have nearly 30 different types of fillings for kringles at O&H, both year-round and seasonal offerings. O&H had about 25 different kringles to choose from the day I was there. They make the kringles fresh each day, making the kringle dough the night before then setting it to rest until the next day. After the filling is put in to the dough, they're formed into an oval, baked, and then topped with a vanilla sugar frosting. They actually have a kringle where they don't put salt or sugar into the mix. Now, what kind of fun is that?
My wife has been on a diet and I knew that she'd kill me if I brought one home to her. But what the hell. I knew she liked apricot, so I got an apricot kringle for her and I got a blueberry one for me. And I was thankful because it was the last blueberry kringle they had that day. I came about *that* close in getting a third one - pumpkin caramel, a seasonal flavor. But I resisted. Each kringle was $8.50 and there was no tax on the sale.
When I got them home the next day, my wife just about killed me. "Darn it," she sort of half-seriously said in disgust. "You know I'm on this six week plan!" And then she looked at the tag on the bag. "Ooooo... Apricot. I love apricot." Then she sort of stopped and said, "But what I REALLY would have liked is pecan!"
The kringles are packed with a cardboard ring in the middle so that you can stack them on top of one another for shipping. A plastic sheet goes over the kringle to help keep the frosting from running. Even 24 hours after I picked them up, they were still a fresh as if they were made earlier in the day.
Now, doesn't that just look unbelievably sinful? The layers of the flaky dough with the blueberry filling and the sugar frosting were just heavenly with each bite. The texture of a kringle reminds me somewhat of Greek baklava. Only better. And I love baklava.
You can order kringles on-line from O&H Danish Bakery, but it's expensive to do so. It's more than double the price per kringle to get them sent to you rather than picking them up at one of the O&H bakeries or outlets. Kringles can be addictive - it's almost like heroin-laced pastry. But they're light, astonishingly flavorful, and shamefully delicious. This time I was able to keep my kringle around for four days before I unhappily had the last piece of it. (It was getting a little soggy after three days - better to eat them more quickly.) My wife had a few bites of hers, but doled the majority of it out to the neighbors. The only thing I can say is that I'm glad I don't live anywhere near Racine because a kringle from O&H Danish Bakery is that good. I'd be there all the time.
During the recent CEDIA Expo that was held in Denver, I had a couple of busy days in a row. We had a dealer event on a Thursday night and after a long day of talking with dealers on Friday we were supposed to go out to dinner with the people from Focal to a sushi restaurant. I was beat. I was tired of talking. I didn't want to go out and do anymore talking. And as much as I like sushi, YOU KNOW that I had to be beat to not want to go eat sushi. After everyone left to go to dinner, I sat in our suite that we had at the Marriott City Center and enjoyed a couple three beers in peace and quiet. Finally, around 8:15, I decided that I needed to get something to eat. I thought about getting something simple from room service, but decided to try and find something close by. I used the "Around Me" application on my smartphone and found an Indian restaurant - Little India - not far from the hotel. I set off into a cool damp night to go to Little India.
Little India is a family-owned local restaurant chain with four locations around the greater Denver area. There is also a Little India food truck that pops up around the city from time to time. The first Little India opened on S. Downing Street in Denver in 1998 and has regularly been voted "Best Indian Food" in Denver. The chefs employed by the Baldwin family all got their start at restaurants in Northern India before coming to the U.S. and eventually to Denver.
From my hotel, it was basically a two block walk down 17th St. to Champa St. and a block and a half walk down to Little India. (see map) It's just a half block off the touristy 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver. When I got into the place around 8:30, it appeared that I had the place all to myself. However, I spied another man eating alone in the dining room, and another man came in by himself about five minutes after I got in there. It was quiet - just what I wanted.
The interior of Little India had a contemporary look to the place. Subtle lighting made it warm and inviting. A large and colorful mural greeted diners as they walked in from the outside.
My server for the evening, Rekha, came over with a menu and asked if I wanted anything to drink. I asked if they had Kingfisher beer and she began to rattle off a list of beers that they had in addition to Kingfisher. I stopped her and said, "I'll just take a Kingfisher."
The menu at Little India had the full gamut of Indian food - vindaloo, saagwala, tandoori, buryani, masala, etc. - with your choice of seafood, lamb or chicken to go along with the dishes. Little India also has a number of vegetarian dishes on their menu, as well as specialty entrees such as chicken or lamb madras - a very spicy dish for those fans of Indian food who like to have their faces burned off while they eat.
I ended up ordering the lamb saagwala - medium-hot - with some garlic naan. After Rekha took my order another server came out with the crisp flatbread that I finally found out what it is called - papadum. I call it "Indian Chips" like you'd get with chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant. It came with the mint chutney that I like so much - when it's done right - and a slightly hotter tamarind chutney for dipping. The mint chutney was very good and the tamarind chutney had a nice kick.
The lamb saagwala showed up, served in a little serving bowl with rice on the side. I combined the two on my plate and dug in. The lamb saagwala had a wonderful flavor to it. It had a hint of a spicy taste, but it wasn't overwhelming to me. The lamb was tender and easy to cut and chew. It was the ultimate in comfort food for me on a cool, drizzly night in Denver.
The garlic naan didn't disappoint, either. It was a misshapen flat bread cut in half and had a wonderful flavor to it. The garlic was more of an afterthought in the taste of the naan. The bread was light and fluffy, and when I dipped it in the saagwala sauce it was a wonderful taste combination.
About the only thing that went wrong with the meal was that Rekha disappeared. The spicy nature of the lamb saagwala made me drain both my beer and most of the water in my glass. I wanted another beer, but she was nowhere in sight. There was another young lady who was cleaning up in my area and I asked her if I could get another beer. She cheerfully said, "Yes!", and left to presumably get me my beer from the bar. But it was Rekha who brought it back out to me. She asked me how my meal was. I had to tell her that it was excellent.
And it was excellent. I liked everything about Little India. The food was a spot-hitter in terms of comfort food for me. The service was a tad spotty, but it didn't detract from the overall experience. The restaurant, itself, was very comfortable and - as I needed - very quiet. Even though it was a Friday night, I relished my solitude, not having to carry on a conversation or hear multitudes of voices talking in unison until it turned into a sea of white noise. Little India was my oasis of good comfort food in a quiet setting that evening.
On my culinary radar for quite sometime, I finally had the chance to try Frank and Helen's Pizza in St. Louis recently. St. Louis has some pretty fine pizza places and Frank and Helen's has been in business for nearly 60 years. It's one of those places where the older locals will tell you that Frank and Helen's was their first pizza. After a day of travel and meetings, I sought out Frank and Helen's before going to my hotel to check in.
Frank and Helen's is really old school when it comes to their pizza. In 1956, Julius "Jule" Seitz opened the door to his little pizza place at the corner of Olive and Midland in the St. Louis enclave of University City. It was called "Jule's Pizza" and was on of the first pizza places in the city. In 1959, Jule's brother, Frank Seitz, took over the operation of the pizza joint, helped by his wife, Betty. A year later, Frank and Jule's sister, Helen Wetzel, joined Frank and Betty in the business. The sign on the front of the building was changed to Frank and Helen's Pizza.
Business was growing for Frank and Helen's and they decided they needed to move to a larger location. Wanting to stay in the U City area, they found a business up the road on Olive that had once been a car wash, but had been converted into a food vending and catering company. Frank and Helen's moved to this new location - their present day location - in 1967 (see map) while maintaining the original restaurant for a short while. In 1968, they sold the original Frank and Helen's to Ennio Cardinale who put in his own pizza place, the now-defunct Pino's Pizza.
Frank and Helen's was a favorite hangout for U City policemen and when the brother and sister were ready to hang up their aprons, they sold the business to former U City police officer Scott DePolito, and his wife, Mary. The DePolito's continued the tradition of Frank and Helen's thin crust pizza and their famous broasted chicken. In 2008, the DePolito's sold out to Patrick Horvath and his wife, Rebecca. Horvath had also been a former University City policeman and he became the manager of Frank and Helen's in 2002.
It was close to 6 p.m. when I got into Frank and Helen's. I was greeted by a young lady who told me that I could sit anywhere. I took one of the booths along the wall. My server for the evening, Ashley, dropped off a menu and asked if I wanted anything to drink. I ordered a Budweiser. When you're in St. Louis and in a 60's-style pizza joint, Budweiser is the beer you gotta have.
It seriously looks like Pat and Helen's hasn't been updated since they moved into the place 46 years ago. But it has a retro charm to the place - large glass-shaded lamps hang from the paneled ceiling. Formica topped tables and curved-backed chairs were interspersed throughout the main area of the dining room. In the booths, ornate fixtures with dimly lit faux candle bulbs hung from the wall.
In addition to Frank and Helen's pizza and broasted chicken, they also feature sandwiches, soups and salads, appetizers - including the requisite toasted ravioli, and a handful of pasta dishes and entrees such as a top sirloin steak, chicken Spedini, and a lightly grilled grouper with your choice of lemon pepper, Cajun or garlic-butter seasonings.
The pizza at Frank and Helen's comes in three sizes - 10", 16" and 18". You can order the crust three ways - extra thin, thin and thick. They have a choice of six different sauces that include a traditional red, a zesty marinara, and a barbecue sauce. St. Louis-style pizzas feature provel cheese, but Frank and Helen's also gives you the choice of having mozzarella, cheddar, parmesan and gargonzola cheese on the pizza. And they have the traditional ingredients to go on the pizza, but they also feature special ingredients such as artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, grilled chicken and meatballs.
When Ashley came back with my beer - served with a frosted mug - I was ready to order. I ordered a small, extra-thin crust, Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza with the traditional red sauce and mozzarella. Ashley asked, "Is that a 10" or the 16" pizza?" I thought that was sort of a weird question to ask. I told her the 10" pizza was the size I wanted. I was curious as to why she would ask that question, but it was soon answered when I got the bill after I finished. The 10" is listed as a "midget" pizza. So, the 16" pizza must be the "small", and the 18" must be the "large".
As I waited for my pizza, the place slowly began to fill up. I also noticed that I was - by far - the youngest person in the place, save for the young grandson of a man who came in not long after I arrived. And the people in the place all seemed to be regulars with the servers greeting customers by their names when they came in the door. Frank and Helen's was truly a neighborhood gathering place.
The pizza showed up about 15 minutes after I ordered it. Ashley got me another beer in the meantime and brought out a new frosted mug to go along with it. The pizza was served on a pizza tin and compared to the round shape of the tin, it was almost oval in shape. It was topped with an abundance of sausage, pepperoni and sliced mushrooms, and cut into party squares.
After letting it cool for a bit, I took the first bite. The chunks of sausage were like little meatballs and had a nice fennel taste. The pepperoni was spicy and salty, and the sliced mushrooms were fresh and flavorful. The traditional red sauce was tangy and had a hint of sweetness to it.
The crust wasn't cracker thin as I expected, which was fine. Sometimes a St. Louis-style thin crust pizza will get too mushy in the crust and become limp. The crust at Frank and Helen's stayed crisp, but was light and flaky. It was very good.
As I was eating my pizza, I heard one of the other servers talking to some regulars seated behind me. She said in passing, "You know, we used to make our own sausage here, but stopped a few years ago. But I think we're going to start making our own sausage in house." I thought the sausage they were using was very good. It had that great fennel flavor with a bit of a spicy bite. I was thinking that it would be tough to make the Italian sausage on their pizza even better than what it was.
I loved everything about Frank and Helen's - the pizza was excellent, as was the service, and the retro charm of the place was wonderful. There are some pretty good pizza places in St. Louis, but something about Frank and Helen's jumped out at me for the old school feel to the place. The place wasn't slick or contemporary, and that's almost a welcome change for me some times. I have three or four favorite pizza places in St. Louis, but Frank and Helen's may have become my most favorite pizza in town.
After taking the Cog Train to the top of Pikes Peak during our visit to Colorado Springs, we got back to the hotel to change clothes courtesy of a late check-out provided to us. It was around 1:30 and we were getting hungry. We had thought about getting German food the night before, but we ended up getting Italian at Paravicini's (click here to see the entry on Paravincini's). This time, we decided to go seek out a German place toward the east end of town - Uwe's - primarily because it was close. But we got there just after 2 p.m. and they had already closed their lunch serving. We then plugged in the address in the GPS for a place toward the south side of Colorado Springs - Edelweiss. Pulling up there about 15 minutes later, we found that it was definitely open.
Edelweiss has been around since the 60's when Eric Grundel opened the restaurant in what was formerly an old two-room school house. The school house, originally, was just up the street, but was moved to the present day location to be a residence. The sub-terranean foundation of the building features three-foot-thick rock walls because it sits on land that used to be a pond before it was filled in with ash from a power plant in downtown Colorado Springs. It had turned into a building for commercial use before Grundel bought the building and established Edelweiss in 1967.
Two years after Edelweiss opened, German immigrant Helga Schnakenberg began to work at the Edelweiss as a waitress because she believed the place and the people made her feel more at home. Trained in business and tax consulting in Germany, Helga soon got more responsibility within the restaurant, eventually becoming the general manager of Edelweiss in the 70's. In 1979, Schnakenberg's husband, Gary, took a job in Montana and she left Edelweiss to follow him there. But she stayed in touch with many people at the restaurant.
In the late 80's, the chance to buy the restaurant came up for the Schnackenbergs, and along with their son, Dieter (who had been born in Montana), they moved back to Colorado Springs and bought the restaurant in 1989. The family lived in a small house next door to the Edelweiss on land that is now that parking lot. Dieter Schnackenberg began his career at the restaurant as a young boy folding napkins and sorting silverware. He became a dishwasher in the restaurant in his early teens, then eventually spent his summers as a line cook at Edelweiss. Dieter then took a three-year culinary apprenticeship program at the prestigious Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs before returing to his family's restaurant. Today, Dieter Schnakenberg runs the day-to-day operations of Edelweiss.
Head chef Ana Perez, a native of Panama, was first hired by Helga Schnakenberg (when she was the G.M of Edelweiss) as a dishwasher in 1975. Sensing that she had a good feel for food, Schnakenberg eventually paired Perez with Wolfgang Kaufmann, the first executive chef at Edelweiss. Perez learned all there was to know about German food and preparation from Kaufmann.
And head pastry chef, Alfred "Freddie" Hiltbrunner has been associated with Edelweiss off and on since the business opened in the 60's. Hiltbrunner, a Swiss native who was trained as a pastry chef in his hometown of Zurich - where his father was a baker - is in charge of the delectable pies and pastries that Edelweiss has become famous for.
Edelweiss is not on the beaten path, but it's a couple blocks off Nevada Ave, a main north-south street on the south side of Colorado Springs. The GPS had us take a right on Ramona Street and we pulled up to the restaurant at the corner of Ramona and S. Tejon Street. (see map) We were greeted by a woman with a heavy German accent at the hostess counter and asked if we wanted to eat inside the restaurant or on the patio. It was a glorious sunshiny day in Colorado Springs - one of the over 330 sunny days they see on an annual basis. The patio featured tables with umbrellas and shade awnings to keep diners cool on even the hot days. We decided to eat on the patio and enjoy the day.
We were seated at a blue-checkered cloth-topped table near a thermometer on a post that showed the temperature at 91 degrees in the shade. But with low humidity in the air, it felt wonderful. Our server, Susanne, who also had a bit of a German accent, came to greet us and take our drink order. I took a look at Edelweiss' beer menu and at the top was the Paulaner lager. I ordered a stein of the Paulaner and Cindy got an iced tea.
Looking through the lunch menu, we saw a number of sandwiches, soups and salads available, along with smaller portions of favorite German dishes such as weinerschnitzel, jagerschnitzel and zigeunerschnitzel - a breaded and sauteed pork cutlet topped with a tomato, mushroom, onion and bell pepper sauce. I found the sauerbraten on the menu and decided that I was going to have that.
Cindy was in a bit of a quandary. She was hungry, but was afraid to go hog wild on lunch as I had promised her that I would take her to Chianti Ristorante near where we were going to stay in Denver that evening. (Click here to see my entry on Chianti.) She decided to get a sandwich and ended up ordering the reuben when Susanne came back to take our order. She also got a dinner salad to go with her sandwich. I got a couple sides with my sauerbraten - the red cabbage and the bacon potato dumpling.
Cindy's house salad consisted of a mix of lettuce greens, cold green beans, pickled beets and German potato salad. She said, "Well, this is interesting." A large tomato wedge rested on top of the German potato salad. She said the concoction was very good. She had me try a pickled beet and some of the German potato salad and I'll have to say that both had very good flavor.
Susanne brought out our lunch plates and we were ready to eat. Cindy's reuben was stacked high with thick cut corned beef topped with Swiss cheese and an ample amount of sauerkraut. The light rye bread was lightly toasted. From her first bite, Cindy was impressed with the sandwich. "I wasn't certain I wanted a reuben," she said. "But the meat is so tender and has a lot of flavor. I'm glad I got this."
My sauerbraten featured two cuts of their marinated beef and topped with a sweet and sour brown sauce that was delicious. The meat was tender and I could easily cut it with a fork. The red cabbage was wonderful with a nice sweet and sour taste to it, as well. The two small bacon potato dumplings were good, but I couldn't get much of a taste of bacon with them.
The first beer had gone down rather easily, so I ordered a second beer from Susanne to help close out my meal. This time, I ordered a Warsteiner pilsner beer. I like the taste of Warsteiner with German food. And I have to say that I was more than impressed with the selection of German beers Edelweiss had at the restaurant, both on tap and in bottles.
The amount of food was just right for me and I wasn't stuffed, nor was I wanting for more. But Cindy had designs of looking through the dessert menu. Susanne brought out a dessert menu for us to look through and I immediately saw the bread pudding and the tiramisu - all made in house Freddie Hiltbrunner. They even had a tray of both for $20 bucks, probably for large groups of diners. Then I saw something else on the dessert menu - the lemon mousse torte, a multi-layered lemon cake from Freddie Hiltbrunner's in-house bakery. Cindy saw they had a hazelnut torte, as well. I told her that I really didn't want anything, doing my best to push away the dessert urge that I was having. But then we compromised - Cindy suggested we get a piece of the lemon torte to take with us. We had a cooler in the car and we had it later that evening after dinner. It was absolutely and sinfully wonderful.
Before we left, I wanted to take a look through the restaurant. While Cindy went to the restroom, I popped my head into the west wing room of the restaurant (below left). The ornate room featured some interesting woodwork on the ceiling in an elegant and cozy setting. I then looked over into a room across from the west wing room - the middle room (below right). Like the west wing room, the equally ornate middle room also had an interesting ceiling and a fire place.
While I was browsing about in the middle room, a guy came out of the kitchen and asked if he could help me. I explained that we had just eaten on the patio and I wanted to look around at the restaurant. He said, "Be sure to go downstairs to take a look at our downstairs Rathskeller." I took the stairs down to the Rathskeller area and it was dark. But I found this picture (below left) of the downstairs lounge area on Edelweiss' web site (along with the other interior shots of the restaurant). I wish I would have found a light switch because the lounge at Edelweiss looks like it would be a great place to have a beer while waiting for a table in the main dining area upstairs.
Before we left, I took a quick gander into the large east wing room at Edelweiss. Used primarily as a party/reception facility or overflow on a busy night, the room was set up that day with long tables like it was getting ready to host a banquet. The brightly lit room was the antithesis to the other dining rooms at Edelweiss with light-colored walls and a high ceiling, but still possessed the same style of interesting ornamental artwork throughout the room.
We loved a everything about our visit to Colorado Springs. And Edelweiss was no exception. The food was very good, the patio area was comfortable - even on a 90 degree day, and the service we received from Susanne was impeccable. We were very happy that circumstances brought us to Edelweiss or we wouldn't have enjoyed one of the better meals we had on our trip to Colorado. Edelweiss' great authentic German food and interesting decor is worth the visit.