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Sitting in the flight path of O'Hare International Airport along River Road in western suburban Schiller Park is an Italian restaurant that I've driven past a few times when I stay at a hotel in Rosemont - Tuscano's. Their sign out front says that they're a Greek and Italian restaurant, a nice Mediterranean combination. It was a cool rainy night when I checked into my hotel just up River Road in Rosemont and I decided to go down to Tuscano's for dinner.
For years, Giannotti's Italian Steak House was *THE* place in the near northwest suburbs for a great meal for families celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, for a guy trying to impress his date, or for a high-powered business lunch. In the fall of 2009, Giannotti's suddenly closed "for remodeling". That's usually the kiss of death for fine restaurants that had gone out of business. The owner of the building, Sam Zarcone, had leased the space in a small strip mall along River Road to the Giannotti family. After they went out of business, he decided to take over the space with his own Italian restaurant. He partnered with Peter Jovanovic and rehired many of the staff of Gianotti's - including chef Javiel Villalobos. They reopened as Tuscano's in early 2010.
On weekends, Tuscano's can get packed. They feature a piano player in the lounge area early in the evening. Then after 9 p.m., they have everything from small bands to a singer who performs with a karaoke machine on a small stage with a dance floor in another part of the restaurant. Tuscano's is one of those neighborhood places where regulars show up each weekend for food and dancing.
It was a weeknight when I pulled into Tuscano's, just south of the Stephens Convention Center. (see map) They have a sort of open dining area with low walls that allows a bit of privacy in some areas, but you can see across the room when you stand up. The lounge area features a large bar and a number of tables with flat screen televisions on the wall. The lights are very low in the lounge area and I took two or three pictures of the room with my camera on my smartphone, but none of them came out.
A hostess asked me if I wanted to sit in the dining room or in the lounge. They had basketball games on the flat screens in the lounge and I decided to go with that. She dropped off a dinner menu and I waited for my server to show up.
The bartender/server that night, Lisa, came over to greet me. She asked me what I wanted to drink and I took a quick look at the taps behind the bar. The lights were so low that I was having trouble making out what they had. Finally, I saw the familiar Samuel Adams logo and I ordered one of those. She came back out with the Sam Adams poured into one of the special Samuel Adams beer glasses that are supposed to be used to drink their beer. I thought it was a petty nice touch and something that I've rarely seen at a bar or restaurant. (Click here to learn more about the Samuel Adams beer glass.)
The dinner menu at Tuscano's features a long list of Italian favorites, Greek specialties, wood-fired ribs and pizza, veal, chicken and pasta dishes, steaks, lamb chops and seafood. I'm always a little leery of places like this who have a large menu because while they can usually do everything just all right, they can't do it all very well.
The veal picante - lightly breaded veal sauteed in lemon juice and white wine - sounded pretty good to me. A choice of soup or salad and a side pasta dish came with the entree. I thought a bit about the homemade fettuccine alfredo, but that seemed a little boring to me. The linguine with clams in a white sauce was another thing that caught my eye. But nothing really jumped out at me.
I looked long and hard at their wood-fired pizza. They had a basic margarita pizza with fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil. They also had the Diavola - spicy pepperoni, fresh mozzarella, black olives and red pepper flakes. Suddenly, pizza sounded real good to me. I hadn't had a good pizza in a while and I ended up getting the Rustica - Italian sausage and pepperoni along with fresh mozzarella, sliced mushrooms, housemade tomato sauce, onions and sweet peppers.
While I waited for my pizza to show up, another waiter brought out a basket of warm bread slices. Olive oil and parmesan cheese were on the table. The bread was soft and flavorful, and dipping it into a combination of the olive oil, parmesan and black pepper was a great taste sensation. It went well with the beer.
I had finished my first beer and was looking for a second one when another server brought my pizza out to me. Lisa was busy behind the bar and having to wait on patrons in the lounge area. But after she got my pizza order, she just forgot about me. I looked over and it appeared that she was talking with a couple guys who were probably regulars at the bar. She just completely forgot about me. I had water with my pizza.
The pizza was about 10" in size and the crust looked like it was pre-formed and not hand tossed. The crust was thick toward the edge and thin in the middle.
The toppings were a little disappointing. There was little Italian sausage on the pizza, as well as only a few slices of pepperoni. Strips of sweet red pepper were on the top of the pizza - a plus in my book. Small slices of onion were prevalent, but not numerous. Same with the mushrooms. I could taste some of the fresh mozzarella, but overall I was disappointed in the pizza. The crust did taste like a preformed crust - sort of lifeless and hard to chew. This was a pizza that had a lot of promise, but didn't live up to the billing of a good wood-fired pizza. I only ate 4 of the six slices before I called it quits.
On top of all that, Lisa completely forgot about me. She was still paying attention to people sitting at the bar so much that I thought I should go over with my pizza and just sit at the bar. When the server who brought me my pizza came back to inquire if I wanted the rest boxed up, I declined and told him I'd just take my check. I sat an waited for another five minutes or so and no one brought me that check. I finally had to go up to the bar, interrupt Lisa and ask for my check. I almost gave her a bad tip and with a note on the receipt "Don't forget your customers." (I've done that a few times in the past.) But I gave her what was basically a ten percent tip and called it good.
I do want to go back and try Tuscano's again at some point. Everything started out so nice, but went downhill after the basket of fresh bread came out. I'd probably go with my first instinct and get the veal picante or a pasta dish, but I was far from impressed with my pizza at Tuscano's. I couldn't even give you an answer if it passed my "Does it taste good with beer" test because I didn't have any beer with the pizza thanks to Lisa forgetting about me. Sitting in the dining room may be a better plan if I do make it back at some point. I just hope the rest of the food is better than the pizza.
During our company's annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, we're always happy to spend an evening with our friends from Cambridge Audio who treat us to a nice dinner. To say that their choice of restaurants is interesting is an understatement. Sometimes it works out, sometimes not - such as the place we went to with them last year, Austin's Steakhouse in the somewhat sketchy Texas Palace casino. (Click here to see my entry on Austin's Steakhouse.) Not only was it a long drive to Austin's Steakhouse, the food was mediocre, at best. This year, they proposed taking us to a place that was even further away from our hotels on the Las Vegas Strip - Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House. With much trepidation and a little bit of grumbling, we drove 30 minutes north of our hotel at The Mirage to be treated to a meal at Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House.
Bob Taylor was born in California in the early 1920's. His father had wanted to open a small market in Los Angeles, but the Great Depression came and wiped out any hope for the family-run market. The Taylor family moved to Kansas City and opened a small family restaurant. His mother would bake pies in the early morning hours and they were so good that they were usually sold out of pie slices by 1 p.m. It was at the small restaurant that the young Bob Taylor got his first experience in the restaurant business.
The Taylor's eventually moved back to California, running small restaurants in Bakersfield, then in Ventura. World War II came around and Taylor served in the Army Air Corps as both a mechanic and as an armored gunner in airplanes. After the war, Taylor scraped together enough money to buy two properties - 80 acres of desert land north and west of Las Vegas, and a small get-away cabin in Jackson Hole, WY.
Bob Taylor became a master skeet shooter and hosted many friends to come out to his Nevada property - where he'd built a small ranch house - for shoots. After the shoots were over, Taylor would barbecue meat over mesquite wood that was abundant on the property. Coaxed by his friends to open a restaurant, Taylor turned the small ranch house he was living in into a restaurant/supper club, opening in September of 1955. Las Vegas' burgeoning tourist industry helped the initial growth of Bob Taylor's little supper club with people making the 20 mile drive out to have some of his steaks. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Elvis Presley and other Las Vegas casino performers loved to drive out to Bob Taylor's for a great meal and to get away from Vegas for a short time. Taylor expanded his steakhouse in the 1960's to its present day size.
For years, there was no telephone service to Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House. He didn't take reservations and the only way people knew he was open was if a blinking light on his sign was on. Taylor would tell his friends and good customers, "Come early or come late, but don't ever come at 8:00 p.m." I'm guessing that was when he was at his busiest.
Taylor was somewhat of a showman who once paid for a Chicago stockyards grand champion steer with a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars. During the filming of "Viva Las Vegas", in the scene in which Presley and Ann-Margret were shooting skeet, it was Bob Taylor off-camera breaking the clay targets with his shotgun. By the 1970's, Bob Taylor hosted one of the biggest trap shooting tournaments in the United States, hosting celebrities, pro football players, and the best trap shooters in the world.
The one constant at the Ranch House supper club was Bob Taylor. Nearly every night you would find Taylor cooking steaks over an open grill fired by mesquite, drinking Scotch and spitting ice cubes into the mesquite fire. However, as Taylor grew older - and after multiple divorces that yielded no children - he began to sell off the surrounding property and slow down his involvement in the restaurant. In 1980, Taylor sold the restaurant to the first of a handful of owners who went through management rather quickly. The food suffered greatly and the solid foundation of local customers and entertainers who patronized the restaurant in the 60's and 70's quit making the trek to the middle of the desert north and west of Las Vegas.
(Bob Taylor lived one day shy of his 88th birthday, passing away in March of 2010. He developed emphysema, possibly brought on by years of standing over mesquite fires cooking steaks. Between the time he sold the restaurant in 1980 and his death in 2010, he traveled the world with his wife, Dotti, hunting wild game in South Africa, seeing the sights of Europe and Australia, and taking an annual camping trip to a small bay in Northern Canada to salmon fish. Throughout the later years of his life he continued his love for cooking, even catering his own 85th birthday celebration in 2007.)
In 1983, Bob Ratner bought the restaurant and started to turn things around. With Las Vegas' outward expansion, business began to boom again with the restaurant serving upwards of 150 to 250 meals an evening. However that progress ended up hitting Ratner over the head. In the mid-90's, highway construction on nearby U.S. Highway 95 disrupted access to Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House. Business began to fall off dramatically and Ratner was forced to shut the restaurant in 1996.
Two young entrepreneurs - Jeff Special, who had a background in the restaurant business; and Steve Mikrut, who had no previous restaurant experience - bought the building and reopened Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House in October of 1997. They kept the same Western-style decor, even adding some Western artwork on the walls of the restaurant. Today, Jeff Special is the sole owner of the restaurant.
My colleagues are somewhat enamored with my built-in GPS superpower I possess, but on the trip from the Strip to Bob Taylor's, my inner GPS had a hiccup. It was because they were working on Nevada State Highway 215 and the exit I tried to take to double back to Bob Taylor's was closed. (Hmmm... Wasn't that a previous problem with people getting to Bob Taylor's?) However, with some backtracking and a couple of keen eyes we were able to pull up to the entry to the parking lot of Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House around the appointed hour of 7:30. (see map) One van load of colleagues had already shown up, the first of two loads of Cambridge Audio people were already disembarking in the parking lot as we pulled up. Five minutes later, the second load of Cambridge Audio people showed up. In all, there were 20 of us that evening.
After getting drinks at the bar and looking at some of the Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia on the walls (I'm guessing the owner must be a Steelers fan), we were taken into the somewhat Western-style, rustic dining room. High beamed ceilings were prominent in the front dining room, while the back part addition had a drop-ceiling with tile. A large fireplace was the prominent feature of the front dining room along with pictures, Western movie posters and other Western-style paraphernalia.
Before we were seated in the back dining room around three large tables, we had to pass the open grill at the front of the restaurant. The menu at Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House features steaks, ribs, pork chops, rack of lamb, seafood, and chicken entrees. They're famous for their 16 oz. tenderloin filets, their bone-in rib eyes and their 32 ounce "Diamond Jim Brady" New York strip.
Because of the size of the group, they decided to give us a fixed menu that evening. The choices were all fine - an 8 oz. filet, the 12 oz. New York strip, or the rack of lamb. With the filet came some grilled shrimp. Baked potatoes were offered as a side.
I was seated between two young ladies from Cambridge Audio - Emma, who grew up in Western Australia and was very familiar with good outback beef; and Rebecca, on her first trip to America and who grew up in Scotland in a family where everything was overcooked making sure there was no sign of life left in any meat. Emma ordered the New York strip - medium. Rebecca also ordered the New York strip - well done. I looked at her in horror almost with as much horror as she looked at me when I ordered my filet rare. She explained later on, "I just don't like the blood in the meat."
When we - meaning the North American guys in my company seated at the table - explained to her that the redness in the meat was not blood as it was the colored juice of the meat, she began to waffle a bit. My colleague, Ian, said, "You want to have some moisture in the meat. That's what makes the steak flavorful." Rebecca was beginning to get second thoughts at that point and it was somewhat serendipitous when our server came back out to the table to make sure she had the right orders for us. It was then that Rebecca changed her steak temperature from "well-done" to "medium-well". We felt it was a minor step forward in showing a young Brit visiting America for the first time the proper way to order a steak.
The wine list at Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House is pretty limited. I was asked by one of the guys from Cambridge Audio to pick out a red wine. About the only thing that I saw that I recognized and was familiar with was the Clos du Val Napa Valley cabernet. One of my colleagues concurred with me on the choice and they ordered bottles for the table.
Starting out the meal, we were served a small serving dish of grilled shrimp in a spicy cream sauce. It was actually very good. The cream sauce had a nice little bite to it and it went extremely well with the four or five grilled shrimp that were dunked inside.
A small dinner salad with their house dressing - a sort of creamy ranch dressing with a little pepper in it. The salad was actually pretty non-descript, but it was a nice preamble to the meal.
Our steaks showed up at the table and the tenderloin was accompanied with a couple three grilled shrimp, a baked potato and an onion ring garnish on top of a small green lettuce leaf. The presentation wasn't much, but it was pretty much similar to what you would find at most Midwestern supper club/steakhouses.
The New York strip also came with a baked potato and an onion ring/lettuce leaf garnish. This is my colleague Ian's New York strip cooked medium rare. Notice the large amount of juice on his plate. Rebecca's New York strip didn't have any of that juice on her plate.
The evening before, some of us in our company went out to dinner at The Steak House at Circus Circus. It's one of my all-time favorite steakhouses and it's turned into an annual treat for us when we get to Vegas. (Click here to see my entry on The Steak House.) I ordered a filet that night, as well - rare. It turned out to be more medium-rare than rare. However, the filet at Bob Taylor's Original Steakhouse was cooked perfectly for me. It had a deep red tint with a cool center. The steak was cooked nearly blue (almost completely rare), but it was very, very good. It was easy to cut, easy to chew and had great flavor both from the meat and the mesquite smoke. I was extremely happy with my cut of meat.
Everyone else at my table had the New York strip. From medium-rare to medium to medium-well, everyone raved about their steak. Even Rebecca was happy with the juicy nature of her medium-well steak. Too many times I've run into situations where the food suffers when there is a large party. But the grill cook at Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House had it down perfectly. It was a wonderful meal, much better than I anticipated or even hoped for. We all agreed it was worth the long trip out to Bob Taylor's.
Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House is the billed as the oldest restaurant in Las Vegas. Granted, a number of the old time Las Vegas supper clubs and steakhouses have given way to four star restaurants owned and operated by celebrity chefs from around the world. And while Bob Taylor's is no longer surrounded by miles of desert, it still offers a very good meal at a great price in a setting that hearkens back to the 50's and 60's. Even though it is a long way from the action in the heart of Las Vegas, I would have no problem making the 30 minute one-way trek to have another steak at Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House. Its "old-school" charm is a complete antithesis to the glitz and over-done glamour of Las Vegas.
One of the very first entries on Road Tips over 8 years ago (Wow! 8 years? Some blogs don't last 8 weeks!) was on a restaurant that was one of my favorite places to get Italian food in St. Louis - Candicci's. A lot has changed since that original blog post - I finally figured out a format and voice to the blog, and Candicci's moved not once, but twice since I was last in for a meal. I was staying out in the West County area of St. Louis on a recent trip to the area and I decided to go to Candicci's for dinner and do an updated entry for Road Tips.
Bob Candice (pronounced can-DEE-chee) got his start as restaurant owner when he bought the old Deli D'Italia in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton. In 1980, he founded his own little Italian restaurant using a variant of his last name. He designed the little restaurant to be similar to the small neighborhood Italian restaurants that he visited in New York. Candice brought in Chef Rodney Ledbetter to oversee the menu. It became one of the best Italian restaurants in St. Louis that was not located on The Hill.
In 1995, Candicci's opened their second location at the Heritage Place Shopping Center along Olive Blvd. in West County. A couple years later, Candice sold the Clayton location to focus on the West County restaurant. (Fortunately, I was able to eat at the Clayton location of Candicci's for a Christmas party right before he sold the place. It was quaint, cozy and had an old world charm to the place. Oh, and the food was outstanding.)
We'd been to the West County Candicci's a number of times during the time I worked for a company in the St. Louis area from 1995 to 2002. If we didn't go to The Hill for Italian food, we went to Candicci's. And we were there more often than we went to The Hill. It was one of my wife's all-time favorite Italian restaurants and we took a handful of friends to Candicci's at points along the way to turn them onto the very good Italian food at the place.
When I took the job I have now in 2002, I had stopped into Candicci's a couple of times for dinner. The food was still outstanding, full of flavor and garlic. Wow - the garlic! They love the garlic at Candicci's. But I had begun to get deeper into this blog and I sort of made it my mission to seek out different restaurants on my visits to St. Louis. Candicci's - sadly and stupidly - sort of fell out of favor.
In 2006, Bob Candice closed down the Olive Blvd. location and about three or four months later he reopened a spot in Clayton. Realizing that West County had a void of good Italian restaurants in a metro area that was known for Italian food, he ended up selling the Clayton location and moved out their present location in Ballwin in the late Spring of 2009. Chef Rodney Ledbetter is still in charge of the kitchen, assisted by his son, Zach.
Candicci's is located off of Manchester Road on Holloway Road just east of the Target store on the north side of the road. You can't see the building from Manchester, so you pretty much need to know where you're going if you want to go there. I pulled into the parking lot and the lot was nearly full of cars. I thought, "Oh, boy. This place is gonna be packed." When I went in to the restaurant, I was surprised to see that it was less than half full. The larger location of Candicci's was very deceiving.
I was greeted by a hostess and she showed me to a booth in what I deemed as the front dining area. The front dining area had a step up bar and a number of tables and chairs in the middle of the room with a number of booths along the wall. The back area was more quiet and featured a smaller number of seats and booths. One thing that I've always liked about Candicci's is that they have televisions at the bar and there's always sports on them. When I eat by myself, it's a nice little distraction. They had a St. Louis Blues hockey match on the flat screens when I was in there that evening. (Photo courtesy Yelp.com)
The hostess handed me a menu and after a bit my server for the evening, a pleasant young woman, came over to greet me and ask if I wanted anything to drink. It's sort of a tradition for me to get a Budweiser for my first drink at Candicci's. Hey, when in St. Louis. (Later on, I got a glass of the William Hill chardonnay to go with my dinner.)
The menu hasn't changed much from the first time I'd been into Candicci's over 15 years ago. I'm a big fan of their fettuccine alfredo - the alfredo sauce is always flavorful and full of garlic. Chef Rodney Ledbetter doesn't skimp on the garlic in his dishes at Candicci's. The linguine tutto mare with their homemade seafood sauce is outstanding, as well. But the veal piccata with a lemon and white wine sauce with mushrooms is probably my favorite. They also have a full complement of seafood, chicken, steak and pasta dishes. They have a number of appetizers - including their great toasted ravioli - and a handful of salads including their house salad - the Candicci's Salad - that features chopped romaine and iceberg lettuce, provel and parmigiano cheeses, red onion slices, pimentos, black olives and Italian salami with a housemade Italian dressing.
That night, I decided to go with the Tortellini alla Carne - small tortellini shells stuffed with their special recipe ground and seasoned Italian meats, and served in a thick and zesty cream sauce with peas and mushrooms and topped with fresh parmigiano cheese. I'm a sucker for a good meat filled tortellini and I remembered Candicci's tortellini to be pretty damned good. I also wanted to get an order of toasted ravioli, but I knew that I would only eat three or four, at most. They usually come 9 or 10 to a plate. I asked my server if there was such as thing as a half-order of toasted ravioli. She said, "Oh, well, tonight with each entree you get a free appetizer of two toasted raviolis." That was perfect for me. I also had to get the Candicci's salad.
The toasted ravioli came out with two large toasted ravioli with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. The toasted ravioli at Candicci's is larger than most other St. Louis area Italian restaurants and two were more than enough for me. I would have left over a half-dozen on the plate had I ordered an appetizer of toasted ravioli. The meat filling had a nice seasoned flavor to it. The marinara sauce that was served with the ravioli was sweet and tangy. I've always liked the marinara sauce at Candicci's.
The Candicci's salad was served with a small loaf of housemade baked bread and a plate of garlic oil and basil. Wow! The garlic in the oil was pungent and very flavorful. It was a reminder that Candicci's likes garlic. I like garlic, too, but this was such a forward taste that it was almost too much. Dipping the soft and chewy bread in the garlic oil went well with the Candicci's salad. Large chunks of salami were scattered on top of the chopped romaine and iceberg lettuce. The sweet Italian dressing that Candicci's makes is a great compliment to the fresh lettuce, the zesty salami and the assorted pimentos and black olives on top of the salad. It was also too big to finish. I was only about half done when my server brought my tortellini out to me.
The portions at Candicci's are not small, but they're not over-the-top with their serving sizes, either. The tortellini was plump, filled with the ground meat and served in Candicci's heavy white cream sauce. Slices of mushrooms and peas were scattered in the tortellini that was finished with a topping of fresh parmigiano cheese. I like fresh ground black pepper - lots of fresh ground black pepper (as you can see) - on any cream sauce dish that I order. I told my server that she was going to get carpel tunnel from turning the black pepper grinder so many times. She said, "Oh, I like pepper, too!"
The first bite of the tortellini - WOW! The garlic just jumped out from the first bite. Now I know why my wife and I like Candicci's so much - the garlic is just stunning. For some, it may be too overwhelming. But my wife and I joke that we're garlic monkeys and there can never be too much garlic in a dish. Well, Candicci's came close to hitting that threshold.
The tortellini pasta was round and full, and the meat filling - similar to the same meat filling they use for their toasted ravioli - was very flavorful. But the garlic almost overpowered the overall taste of the tortellini. I just loved the white sauce, but even for a garlic hound like me, they could have backed off just a bit.
It was great to reconnect with Candicci's. It brought back many great memories of excellent meals in the past. My server did a good job taking care of me, I liked the ambiance of the "new" location (even though it is double the size of the Candicci's on Olive Blvd.) and the food was, once again, very good for me. If you live in (or are staying in) West County or out in the Chesterfield Valley, you don't have to drive all the way to The Hill to satisfy your Italian food craving. Candicci's didn't disappoint once again. (Photo courtesy Foursquare.com)
Staying in the northern suburbs of Indianapolis on a recent trip to the "Circle City", I was sort of hungry for something warm and comforting. Since Indian food is my now "go-to" comfort food, I decided to seek out a place that I hadn't tried before. I found a place during an online search that had a unique name - India Sizzling Indian Restaurant - and it wasn't far from my hotel. I decided that would be my eating destination for the evening.
Owner Basil Vaz has been involved with ownership and management of other Indian restaurants in the Central Indiana area. He was the involved with the popular Passage to India restaurants in northwest Indianapolis and in Columbus, Indiana, just south of Indianapolis. He opened India Sizzling in 2010 in a strip mall off of Allisonville Road in Fishers. In 2013, the Passage to India location on Lafayette Road in Indianapolis became India Sizzling II.
Main Street in Fishers, IN is 116th Street and just south of the corner of 116th and Allisonville Road is the Village at Main Street shopping complex. India Sizzling is on Village Square Lane just east of Allisonville Road. (see map) It's back off the street and tough to see from Allisonville, so don't expect to be driving by and being able to see it if you head that direction. Parking is available in front of the restaurant.
I was greeted at the stand up front by a young man who introduced himself as Basil. It turns out it was Basil Vaz, himself. The dining area was less than half full - their lunch buffet is evidently a huge draw during the day - and I pretty much got to pick out where I wanted to sit. I took a table back in the corner. Basil asked me what I wanted to drink and I told him that I'd take a large Kingfisher beer.
The dining room at India Sizzling features a silk canopy hanging from the ceiling. Not only does it help with the acoustics in the place, but it gives the impression that you're dining in a somewhat opulent tent. The tables all have glass tops with table cloths underneath. It's a welcoming and somewhat cozy atmosphere at India Sizzling.
The menu at India Sizzling is not unlike your typical Indian restaurant - tandoori entrees, curry dishes, vindaloo, and more. They also have a number of vegetarian entrees at India Sizzling. But that evening I decided that I'd get lamb saag - made with a creamy spinach and mustard leave sauce - along with some garlic naan.
Basil brought out some of the papadum bread - the thin, brittle bread that I used to call Indian chips until I found out what the name of it was. Two different chutneys - a mint chutney and a tamarind chutney (once again, I recently found out the name of that type of chutney that I'd been eating over the past couple three years, but never knew the name of) - were included along with the papadum. The mint chutney had a little spicy bite, but a very fresh and flavorful overall taste. The tamarind chutney was a little more bold in spiciness and in overall taste. They were both very good.
The lamb saag was delivered in a rectangular ceramic bowl on a matching ceramic plate with a mound of steamed rice included. Now, 30 years ago, I would have run away screaming if I saw this set down in front of me. This is a color not of the earth. It had sort of an olive green tint to the saag and looked rather drab. But from the first bite, any misconceptions of the look versus the taste went out the window.
The lamb chunks were moist and easy to chew. The saag was a bit spicy, but very flavorful. The chopped mustard leaves and spinach sauce was hearty and savory. The rice was steamed perfectly, easily separating from each morsel. This was a fine comfort-style meal.
The garlic naan was similar to other garlic naans I've had. It had a forward garlic flavor with a hint of cilantro. Along with dipping it in the saag sauce or adding some of the tamarind or mint chutney, it was a perfect compliment to the meal.
During many of my experiences at Indian restaurants early on, I found that service was spotty to downright horrible at times. I heard a couple guys at a table near me complain about their service before they got up to leave and when I was finished with my meal, I was the only one in the dining room (it was around 8:30 p.m.). Basil was nowhere in sight and I was ready to get my bill and pay it. There were a couple other guys that were back near the bar area talking, but I couldn't get their attention. I finally had to go over near them and announce that I was ready for my bill. It took Basil another three or four minutes before he showed up with my tab.
So, other than the service hiccup at the end of the meal, I thought my meal and experience at India Sizzling was fine to very good. I thoroughly enjoyed the lamb saag, the garlic naan and the chutneys. It was a very elegant setting for an Indian restaurant and I felt comfortable eating by myself. Basil's service was quick and efficient up to the time he served me the meal, but then he forgot about me after that. I've eaten at a couple three good Indian restaurants on the north side of Indianapolis and I was pleased enough with my experience at India Sizzling.
Always on the lookout for new places to try while I'm on the road, I ran across a contemporary Mexican food place in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park during a recent visit - Frida's. It wasn't far from my hotel and it seemed to get glowing reviews on both Urbanspoon and Yelp. I took off to go find Friday's one windy and cool fall evening.
In many cases, Tex-Mex food is starting to become boring. Ivan Marquez believed that to be true and he wanted to have his own restaurant where the Mexican food had a more contemporary twist complete with using the freshest ingredients and a combination of different foods for a more modern flare. Marquez, his wife, Mary, along with an investment from Victor Esquada, the like-minded owner of Ixtapa in far northern Kansas City and Guadalajara Cafe in Lee's Summit, opened Frida's - named after the famous 20th century Mexican artist Frida Kahlo - in a small strip mall near 148th and Metcalf on the far south side of Overland Park in January of 2010.
Business was immediately off the charts. Marquez knew that he would have to relocate his business eventually and when El Espolon went out of business in 2012, Marquez quickly moved into that location. It featured more than double the space of the original Frida's, a larger bar area, an outdoor patio seating area, and it was closer to the center of the Kansas City metro area. The new and improved Frida's opened in June of 2012.
Since opening the new location for Frida's, Marquez opened Frida's Taqueria on 119th Street in The Fountains shopping and entertainment complex just east of Metcalf in nearby Leawood. It featured a stripped down menu and more of a casual fast food atmosphere than the more sleek and contemporary Frida's. And in the summer of 2013, Marquez teamed with with his General Manager at Frida's, Marco Diaz, to open Diego's Bar and Grill in the north Kansas City, MO suburb of Gladstone. Diego's is named after Frida Kahlo's artist husband, Diego Rivera, and features a more American menu with a few Mexican items tossed in.
It was around 7:30 when I found Frida's in a shopping complex just south of 119th on Metcalf. (see map) It's located on the corner of the complex and there was sufficient parking in front of the place. I went in and was greeted by a hostess who asked me if I wanted to sit in the dining room to the left, or in the bar area to the right. I went with the bar area and she led me to a booth along the wall. She dropped off a menu and it wasn't long when my server for the evening, Rob - a fast talking waiter - came over to ask me what I wanted to drink. I was going to just get one of Frida's house margaritas to start off with, but he immediately talked me into getting one of their signature jalapeno/cilantro infused margaritas. Sure, why not?
Frida's menu is a tantilizing mix of modern and authentic Mexican food with entrees featuring skirt steak, seafood, pork and chicken. While the menu isn't long, it's certainly interesting and diverse. If you're looking for ground beef tacos, combination plates and fajitas, Frida's ain't the place you're looking for. Frida's features a half dozen appetizers that are big enough to share including tamales that are stuffed with your choice of either Poblano pepper strips and topped with a chipotle sauce, or stuffed with pork and topped with a chile verde sauce. That, on its own, sounded great.
Rob came back with the jalapeno/cilantro margarita and while I did get a hint of jalapeno taste in the mix, I couldn't really taste much - if any - of the cilantro. It wasn't spicy, but had a nice little aftertaste that was pleasing. It was worth the try, and, quite actually, it was pretty good. But one was enough for me.
He also brought a small basket of fresh chips and salsa. The salsa was a dark red color and had a strong hint of chili powder and one other spice that I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. But it was a very pleasing taste sensation.
I was looking at a number of things on the menu. The Puerco Oaxaca featured a grilled pork loin that was topped with Oaxaca cheese and a spicy tomatillo sauce with sauteed onions and garlic. They had fish tacos, too, but they were "Baja style" - battered and deep fried. However, I noticed that they did have grilled fish entrees on the menu and I'm sure that chef Deigo Rios (who has worked with celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey) could have made grilled fish tacos for me if I asked. But I decided upon the "Chile Relleno de Callo al Cilantro" - a roasted Poblano pepper stuffed with lime and cilantro sauce-sauteed scallops and topped with a tomatillo sauce. I was finished with the margarita and I ordered up a Dos Equis Amber to take me through the rest of the meal.
Rob brought out the chile relleno with scallops and the picture above left is how the meal was presented to me. It featured two large Poblano peppers flanking a bed of green rice. A light and spicy tomatillo sauce was ladled on top of the peppers. The picture above right is what the scallop stuffing looked like. Chunks of tomato were part of the stuffing. The scallops weren't big, but they were meaty enough for the stuffed pepper.
The taste was magnificent. The Poblano's had a smoky flavor to them, the scallops were tender, and the tomatillo sauce had just a hint of a spiciness - not enough to take away from the overall taste of everything that was involved in the stuffed pepper. The combinations of tastes that went into the dish were unlike anything I've come across with Mexican food. It was truly a unique culinary experience.
Frida's is the ultimate change-up when it comes to Mexican food. And because of that, some people who are used to American-ized Mexican food with cheese melted on top of a combination plate of a burrito, enchilada and cheese stuffed pepper may not care for the food at Frida's. But if you have an adventurous spirit and go into the place knowing that the food at Frida's is truly different, I'm guessing you'll enjoy the experience like I did. (Photo courtesy Pitch.com)
A place that has been on my culinary radar for a couple years has been Black Dog Smoke and Ale House, a barbecue joint located near the University of Illinois campus in downtown Urbana, IL. I had a morning meeting with one of my dealers in twin city Champaign and decided to head over to Black Dog for an early lunch before I hit the road.
Mike Cochran had been a bartender at the Esquire Lounge in Champaign since 1993. One of the co-owners was a guy by the name of Pedro Heller. Cochran got into smoking meats about three years later when he bought a small backyard water smoker. He started to work some shifts in the kitchen at the Esquire, and once a week he made ribs to sell at the bar. The ribs were an immediate hit.
Cochran began to dream about one day owning his own barbecue place. But for an area like Champaign/Urbana, there was no dearth of barbecue places. The people in Chambana really like their barbecue. Cochran knew that his barbecue joint would have to be different and he partnered with Heller with his plan to have his own style of barbecue in a restaurant that would serve craft beers from all over the Midwest. In February 2009, Cochran and Heller opened Black Dog Smoke and Ale House in what was the former Tod and John's, a tavern that was popular with the locals. The barbecue joint was named after Cochran's two black dogs, Lola and Oscar.
Cochran was influenced by many different styles of barbecue - Memphis-style with the seasoned rubs, Carolina-style with pork and vinegar-based sauces, and the sweet and smoky Kansas City-style barbecue featuring burnt ends. Cochran wasn't very big on adding sauces to his smoked meats, saying that the meat should stand on its own. But they offer seven different types of barbecue sauce that can be served with the meats.
Black Dog Smoke and Ale House is located on the corner of Walker and Broadway in downtown Urbana. (see map) They share the parking lot on the north side of their building with Bunny's, another popular and long-time eatery in Urbana. I could smell the wood smoke when I got out of my car.
It was just after 11:30 and they had been open since 11. When I walked in, the place was already packed and there was a wait at the door. A guy was manning the stand up front and he asked me how many there was in my party. When I told him, "Just one," he looked toward the bar and asked me if I wanted to have a seat at the bar. I had no problem with that whatsoever.
Black Dog is not a large place. There are some tall tables up front and a row of booths along the wall opposite the bar. The bar, itself, is an old ornate structure that looked like it had been made back in the 30's or 40's.
After I sat down, a personable bartender came up to greet me. He said, "Welcome to Black Dogs. We're out of burnt ends, catfish and ribs today. I hope you didn't come for those."
I said, "Already? You guys are out of the ribs already?"
"We got some smoking right now," he explained. "We had a catering job that came up that left us short."
But they still had pulled pork, brisket, smoked Polish sausage and smoked chicken available. They also have smoked salmon available at times, as well as smoked duck on occasion. Black Dog also features locally-raised grass-fed beef for their burgers, brisket burritos, Cuban sandwiches, vegetarian food items, as well as a slew of appetizers. For a cold beer, I ordered up a Bell's Two Hearted Ale.
They had a two meat platter on the menu that I ended up ordering. I got a couple sides with it and I ordered the pit baked beans, but was sort of torn between a couple of other things. The bartender said, "You can't go wrong with the spicy potato salad." OK, I'll sign up for that.
He asked me, "What kind of barbecue sauce do you want?" I asked what he had and he started to rattle them off - Georgia Peach, Hot Georgia Peach, Milo's Mustard, Carolina Red... I stopped him and asked if I could have a little bit of everything. He said, "For a two buck upcharge, we have a sauce flight that we serve." Sure! You bet!
The pulled pork, brisket and sides were served on a deep metal tray with wax paper covering the bottom of the pan. There was a healthy sized glob of pulled pork and about four or five slices of thick cut brisket. The sides were good sized and looked interesting.
The sauces were also served in a similar pan inside small plastic tubs. In addition to the ones I named before, there was a Carolina vinegar sauce, a Texas barbecue sauce, and a chipotle sauce. More on the sauces in a bit.
The pulled pork was moist and tender, and had a great smoky flavor. The brisket was not quite as tender as I like, but it was still very good. The rub on the bark of the brisket had a nice tangy appeal. Both the pulled pork and the brisket were well above average.
The pit beans, on their own, were good. But I mixed some of the Hot Georgia Peach and the Texas BBQ sauces in with the beans and they got zipped up in taste pretty well. But the highlight was the spicy potato salad. The bartender didn't steer me wrong - it had a zippy and tangy taste. There appeared to be hot peppers mixed in with the potato salad and it was some of the finest potato salad I've had. I really wanted to get the recipe for it.
The sauces were, well, interesting. If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you'll know that I'm big into the different barbecue sauces, going more toward the sweet and spicy sauces (sometimes having to mix both together to get the desired taste), and not too particularly fond of the mustard or vinegar based sauces. Both the hot Georgia Peach and the regular Georgia Peach sauces were very good. The hot Georgia Peach had the nice mixture of sweet and hot that I like. It was just excellent.
I thought the Texas BBQ sauce was a little bland, but I did like the chipotle sauce. Mixed together, the combination was very good. The Carolina red was a vinegar-tomato mix that was all right, but not my favorite. And although I'm not fond of the mustard or near pure vinegar-style of sauces, I did try the Milo's Mustard (found it tangy, but a little sour to my taste buds), and the Carolina vinegar that was all right, but not my style of sauce. It's definitely an acquired taste.
For $12.95 for the two meat platter (a three meat platter is $17.95), plus $2.00 for the sauce flight, it was a lot of food for lunch. And good food. In 2013, Maxim magazine named Black Dog one of the top five hottest BBQ places in the United States. It's not that they needed more accolades - they were doing fine well before getting the national recognition. But in the fall of 2013, Cochran and Heller announced they would open a second - and larger - Black Dog Smoke and Ale House in an old railroad freight building in Champaign.
I liked everything about Black Dog, save for the fact that they were out of ribs on my visit. But the brisket and pulled pork were both very good, the sauces were, as I said, interesting, and they had a wonderful selection of craft beers from all around the Midwest. Getting in early doesn't always guarantee a seat and they may be out of some meat. But I'd go back to Black Dog Smoke and Ale House in a moment's notice.
On a recent trip to Fort Wayne to see a couple dealers, I had the chance to stop into the city's first brew pub - Mad Anthony's Brewing Co. - for lunch. I was told by a couple of the locals that the food was just "all right" and I have to admit that while I'm not fond of many of the Mad Anthony beers, I think they're serviceable beers that are all right to drink. But I still wanted to give Mad Anthony's a try at some point.
The concept for Mad Anthony's began in 1995 when friends Todd Grantham - a homebrewer - and Blaine Stuckey - who had restaurant experience working for Chili's and local Fort Wayne music bar/pub Columbia Street West - got together to work on a plan to open their own brewpub. It took three years before the pair found a place in which to put their brewpub, a funky restaurant called the Munchie Emporium. Taking over the restaurant and turning it into a brewpub was no small task, so Grantham called an old college buddy, Jeff Neels, to come in and help run the operation.
Eventually, the brewpub was brewing 2,000 barrels of beer annually. And because it went over so well, they began to expand into other smaller markets near Fort Wayne. The Mad Anthony's location in Auburn - about 30 miles north of Fort Wayne - opened in 2003. A location in Warsaw - an hour west of Fort Wayne - opened in 2006. And a fourth Mad Anthony's opened in Angola in extreme northeast Indiana in 2012.
Mad Anthony bought a building to house a 15,000 barrel-capacity brewing facility and they began to bottle their beers for distribution throughout Indiana. During the course of their history, Mad Anthony's has brewed up to 50 varieties of annual and seasonal beers. As I said, I've bought some of their beer on trips to liquor stores in Indianapolis over the years and I thought they were just all right.
It was around 1 p.m. when I pulled up the original Mad Anthony's location at the corner of Broadway and Taylor just south and west of downtown Fort Wayne (see map). Mad Anthony's is named after Fort Wayne's namesake, Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne, who got his nickname - Mad Anthony - for his fiery personality. (Some pundits after the war was over thought that Wayne got his nickname for reckless and wild behavior. History has proved Wayne to be more of a disciplinarian - a somewhat sadistic disciplinarian as you look back. So maybe he was somewhat "mad" using the parlance of the times.) The original Fort Wayne, a garrison built during the Northwest Indian Wars that escalated after the Revolutionary War, was named for Wayne who was named by George Washington as the Commander-in-Chief of the American Army to lead troops in the uprising. That's how Fort Wayne got it's name.
We're gonna have a test on this later in the week...
There's a parking lot in the rear of the Mad Anthony's, but it's not very big. I had to wait for someone to pull out before I could get a slot or I would have been driving around looking for parking on the street near the brewpub. There's two different areas of Mad Anthony's. The main dining room (pictured below) featured the main bar area, a stage area for music, a number of industrial restaurant-style tables and chairs and a handful off booths along the windows. The brewing tanks were visible in a window next to the bar.
The back room (below, left and right) was kind of a kitschy collection of signage, stop lights, faux graffiti on the ceiling and similar tables and booths in the much smaller space. The back room was more cozy and lighthearted.
I took a seat in a booth in the main dining area up front. The main dining room was about half full and starting to wind down from the lunch rush. After a short wait, I was greeted by Tiffany, my server for this visit, who dropped off a menu. She asked me if I wanted anything to drink and I took a quick look at their beer list. I settled on the the Oktoberfest that they still had available on tap, even though it was deep into November.
The menu at Mad Anthony's is typical of most brewpubs - appetizers, soups and salads, sandwiches (including wraps and pita sandwiches) and they also have "gourmet" pizza served in a pan. They had a pineapple pizza, a jambalaya pizza, and something called the "Lagasse" named after famed chef Emeril Lagasse that featured ham, bacon, Italian sausage, red onions and tomatoes. The pizzas weren't cheap - the lowest priced medium specialty pizza was $15.49 with prices going up to near $24 for a large.
They also had a couple pasta dishes including a jambalaya fettuccine, as well as entrees such as pork tenderloin medallions, traditional bangers and mash, and something called Tacos Montezuma - smoked pulled pork, sauteed onions, roasted whole jalapenos and cilantro. That sounded pretty interesting to me.
They also have something called Mad Anthony's Un-Wraps - it's a 10" thin piece of crust with assorted toppings on it. They had one that was topped with pepperoni and sausage, mozzarella and provolone cheese, with a tangy sauce. Ooo... That was interesting. The Jambalaya Un-Wrap featured sausage, shrimp, diced tomatoes and what they called "a million spices". It was topped with a three cheese blend and it came with a side of a housemade jalapeno tartar sauce. The was even more interesting.
I began to focus on the sandwiches. I was getting a little burned out on burgers - and they did have a lot of burgers on the menu - so I thought a change of pace was in order. They have a Cuban sandwich on the menu, but I've never found a Cuban sandwich outside of Miami that comes close in taste. I didn't want to chance it with the one at Mad Anthony's because I knew I'd be disappointed.
They also had a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich - you gotta have one if you're in Indiana. There was also a reuben sandwich that I thought about, as well as the Club Brew, Mad Anthony's club sandwich that featured ham, turkey, bacon and melted Swiss cheese.
When Tiffany came back to take my order, I decided upon getting their version of an Italian Grinder - spicy capicola, Genoa salami and pepperoni topped with mozzarella cheese - sort of how I make my Italian sandwiches at home. They then top it off with lettuce, tomato slices, red onion slices and Italian dressing. It's served hot on a toasted hoagie roll. I also got a choice of a side with the sandwich. I had a choice of red beans and rice, pasta salad, cole slaw or cottage cheese. For an upcharge, I could get fries or onion rings. I ended up going with the red beans and rice.
As I was waiting for my sandwich to come out, a couple seated near me had both ordered Un-Wraps. It was evident from their conversation that the young lady had ordered an Un-Wrap before. The man with her - it may have been her father - was completely confused as to eat it. "How am I supposed to eat this," he asked in sort of a angry tone. "Do I pick it up? Do I use a knife and fork?"
Her basic answer was, "Yes. However you want to eat it." Actually, the Un-Wraps they'd ordered looked pretty good.
The sandwich came out to me a little later on, about 15 to 20 minutes after I ordered. It was a basically a six to seven inch hoagie with the Italian meats, cheese and veggies. It easily cut it in half with a regular knife.
The outer part of the bread was soft and chewy, but crunchy inside where it was toasted. The meat had that great Italian spiciness that I look for when I pair capicola and pepperoni slices with salami. The meat was piled high it was a substantial sandwich. For a basic Italian sandwich, it was very good.
The red beans and rice, however, were a major disappointment. They were rather bland and boring. Some Tabasco would have helped liven the red beans and rice up a bit, but Tiffany was busy with other tables and I couldn't get her attention. That was OK, though. I was concentrating more on the sandwich and it turned out that the sandwich, alone, was fine enough.
Their Oktoberfest beer was similar to other Mad Anthony beers I've had in the past. Competent, but a little bland in taste. As I said, the beers are serviceable, but they don't knock my socks off. The Oktoberfest had little carbonation and had a slight malt flavor to it. Not the best Oktoberfest I've ever had and definitely down the list of Oktoberfest beers I've tried.
Well, other than the beer, my first experience at Mad Anthony's Brewing Company was a pleasant one. The surroundings and ambiance were nice, Tiffany's service was fine, as well. Even though it was I pretty much what I expected from a brewpub of this type, I enjoyed the sandwich and thought that I'd like to try an Un-Wrap at some point. If you're looking for a brewpub experience in Fort Wayne, Mad Anthony's is worth the stop.
Sometimes when I travel, I try to find a place that is a local landmark that isn't pretentious or overly high brow. A good dive bar, if you will. Every city seems to have one, sometimes more than one. But for the years that I've been traveling to Kansas City, one bar kept coming up in conversations with the locals as to what would be the quintessential dive bar in the area. And the consensus has been the original Peanut at 50th and Main. (see map) It had been years since I'd been in the Peanut and I wanted to stop in and get a burger on a recent trip to Kansas City.
The Peanut started out in the early 30's as a speakeasy that transformed into a legitimate bar after Prohibition ended garnering one of the cities first (and currently oldest) liquor licenses. It was called the Peanut for not only its small size, but because of the two story apartment building directly behind the place that was known as "The Peanuts", a take-off on the stately "Walnuts" apartment building three blocks west. In the 40's and 50's, it was a barbecue joint, but began to get run down in the 60's into the 70's. The owners quit serving food in the late 70's and it became just another run down gin joint.
Enter Rich Kenny. Kenny and a fellow Omaha native, Gregg Johnson, founded the Minsky's Pizza chain in 1974 not far from the original Peanut. By 1980, they had six locations and it was at that point that Rich Kenny wanted to get out of the Minsky's deal because he thought they were growing too quickly. Plus, he had just gotten married to his wife, Melinda, and they were looking to start a family.
Pictured right - Rich Kenny. Photo courtesy Business Journals.com
Rich Kenny had taken a job as an industrial waste equipment salesman, but had his eye on purchasing The Peanut to fulfill his dream of running his own bar. In 1981 - with a $20,000 investment - he took over the failing Peanut's assets and lease. One of the first things he wanted to do was to start serving food and it didn't hurt that Melinda was a caterer.
The couple struggled at first, Rich held onto his sales job while Melinda ran the kitchen. But her food started to garner a following and Rich was able to eventually quit his sales job and run the Peanut full time.
In 1987, Melinda asked Rich, "Do you want to be a bartender when you're 50 years old?" His answer was a resounding, "Of course I do!" With that they set their sights on expanding the Peanut empire. In 1990, the Kenny's found another bar in downtown Kansas City that had fallen on hard times, the Quality Hill Bar and Grill. He put an offer in on the place, but found out that someone else had beaten him to the punch. When the other party's financing fell through, Rich Kenny was able to swoop in and pick up the property for a mere $23,000. The second Peanut location opened soon after that.
In 1997, a developer of a new strip mall in Overland Park, KS came to Kenny and asked him if he'd like to put a Peanut location in his new building at 127th and Metcalf. Kenny immediately said, "No," but the developer came back with an offer he couldn't refuse. The third Peanut location opened later that year. (A fourth location opened in north suburban Gladstone in 2003, but that has since closed up.)
In 1998, Rich and Melinda Kenny began to license out the Peanut name. Two additional locations - one in Lee's Summit, MO and another in Olathe, KS Overland Park (thanx, Renee M.!) became licensed Peanut locations.
In 2005, Rich Kenny and two partners - one the developer who owned the building in which the Overland Park location was housed - opened an upscale "Peanut" venue called "The Cashew" in Kansas City's Crossroads Arts and Entertainment District. The menu featured appetizers, wraps, panini sandwiches and, interestingly, pizza, harkening back to Kenny's days with Minsky's.
Sadly, Rich Kenny passed away in 2007 from pancreatic cancer. Melinda continues to run the Peanut empire today. However, she sold the Overland Park location to three partners a couple years after Rich passed away. The local licensees pay Melinda Kenny a percentage of their monthly revenue for the use of the Peanut name and concept.
But everyone tells me that the original Peanut is the best, both in food and atmosphere. Actually, I tried to get lunch at the Peanut earlier in the summer of 2013, but there was a lot of construction going on in the immediate area and parking along Main and the side streets was at a premium. On a late fall trip to K.C., I decided to give the Peanut another shot after having a meeting with one of my dealers who is located about three minutes away by car. Heavy construction behind the Peanut was still going on, but I was able to find a parking spot on a side street a block to the west of Main.
It had been - shwooo, I don't know - maybe 8 or 9 years since my dear and now deceased friend Jim Mitchell had driven me to the Peanut for a beer one night when I was in Kansas City for business. I immediately liked the kitschy nature of the place with the mismatched bar stools, the old pictures and beer signs on the wall, and the cozy nature of the bar, itself. Plus, the fact that I was sitting in the oldest bar in Kansas City.
Since it was part of the lunch rush and many of the tables were filled with diners, I ended up sitting at the bar, possibly in the same place that I sat my previous visit with Jimmy. The bartender asked me if I would like to have a menu and something to drink. I ordered up a Boulevard Pale Ale in tribute to my late pal Jimi.
Jimi had told me that the Peanut had pretty good burgers on my initial visit and I always sort of kept that in the back of my mind. The menu at the Peanut was not extensive - at least at the Main and 50th location. They had the one burger on the menu, a pork tenderloin sandwich, a tuna melt, and their famous reuben sandwich - something that helped put the place on the map when the Kenny's took over in the early 80's. Interestingly, they also had BLT's on the menu - bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches topped with cheddar cheese, black pepper, red onions and mayo, served on toasted whole wheat bread. For an extra cost, you could get extra bacon, or a fried egg on top. Or, you could go for the TRIPLE BLT - same thing as the single (there's no double) - only much bigger. Quite honestly, I stopped and thought about getting the BLT with extra bacon and an egg. But I had it in my mind that I was going to get a burger on this trip.
And that's exactly what I ordered. I ordered it with pepper jack cheese and bacon - medium. It was a good thing I wasn't in a big hurry because it was over 20 minutes - and ordering a second Boulevard Pale Ale - before my burger was brought out to me. But good things do take time and the burger from the Peanut looked good upon presentation. And it was good at the first bite.
The burger wasn't overly big, but they still stuck a knife in the center of the burger should you want to cut it in half for easier handling. I got some sliced onions on the burger, as well, and dill pickle slices came on the plate along with some crinkle cut fries. The burger was juicy and tender - the taste of it showed that it was cooked on a flat grill, my choice of the best way to cook a burger. The crispy bacon was a nice compliment to the burger and the pepper jack gave it a nice little after buzz in spiciness. Even the bun was good - it wasn't large and chewy, but it held together well with everything that was going on with the burger.
While it probably wasn't the best burger I've had in Kansas City, the one I had at the Peanut was still very good. The burger wasn't cheap - with all the fixings I got on it, it was about $10 bucks in cost with the fries. But, honestly, I thought it was worth it. Actually, just having the chance to be in the oldest bar in Kansas City is worth a couple extra bucks in my mind. I haven't been to the other Peanut locations, but I can't imagine that any of them have the character - and the history - of the original at 50th and Main. And I am going back for one of their BLT's at some point.
As I write this early morning, it's a -20F (-29C) at the Davenport Municipal Airport and -18F (-28C) at the Quad City International Airport over in Moline, a new record low temperature for this date. While it's not quite as cold here in Davenport as it was yesterday - the temperature at the National Weather Service office at the Davenport airport got down to -22F (-30C). As I've said before, if it's -2F or -20F, it's just cold.
This is the 26th day this winter season that we've had temperatures under 0F (-18C). On over a dozen of those days, the temperature has reached below -10F (-23C). Considering we normally have just 10 days where the thermometer dips below the 0F mark on average during winter, this has truly been an extraordinary winter around here.
And it's been a long winter - we had our first snow on October 22 of last year. Average temperatures have been well under normal for the last four months. And we're inches away from hitting our all-time snowfall during a winter season. While we haven't had many large snowfalls this season - most have been in the 2 to 4 inch range (5 to 10cm) - we've had a lot of those little clipper systems that keep piling up snow depths that I haven't seen in years. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we haven't been above freezing for over two weeks.
The good thing is that we're not seeing high winds with these low temperatures, so we're not getting the brutally cold wind chills that we were getting back in early January. Still, authorities are cautioning people to bundle up to guard against frost bite.
With all this snow, the moisture content isn't high. Usually, most snows have a 10 to 1 ratio (10 inches of snow equal 1 inch of rain). But because of the cold temperatures and low moisture content, the snow moisture ratio is around 17 to 1. That's going to help when it begins to melt.
And it looks like it will begin to melt starting this week. We could see high temperatures on Thursday above freezing for the first time since late January. And long-term forecasts show that after another small dip in temps at the start of the coming weekend, we could see temperatures moderating into the 40's (F) (5 to 7C) next week. And I'm ready for it. As are millions of others around the Midwest.
Oh, and since I started writing this entry, the temperature at the Quad City airport in Moline has dipped to -21F (-29C). Brrrr.... indeed.
One of my wife's favorite places to eat in Iowa City is The Bluebird Diner. We spent the night in Iowa City after the wedding of our friend's daughter and before we headed back to the Quad Cities, we stopped in to have breakfast. It had been probably close to four and a half years since I was last in the place, but my wife probably eats in there three or four times a year.
The Bluebird Diner is owned by restaurateurs Jon Wilson and Thomas Connelly. The two opened the Bluebird Diner in 2008 serving what they like to call "Midwestern Soul Food", taking down-home favorites and adding an urban twist to them. Their food is all housemade and, when they can, they use locally sourced food products. They have alcohol at the Bluebird Diner and they feature a number of Iowa craft brews. The Bluebird Diner is open from 7 a.m. when they serve breakfast to 11 a.m. (1 p.m. on the weekends), then they serve their lunch items from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (1 p.m. to close on weekends), and their dinner entrees are served from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. daily. In the summer of 2012, Wilson, Connelly and Iowa City Bluebird manager, Lacie Willis, opened a second Bluebird Diner location in nearby North Liberty.
The Bluebird Diner sits at an iconic intersection in Iowa City - Gilbert and Market streets. (see map) It is caddy-cornered from the infamous John's Grocery Store (click here to see my entry on John's Grocery) and across the street from the venerable Dave's Fox Head Tavern. The Bluebird Diner is in what used to be the old Gilpin Paint and Glass. A friend of mine is a member of the Gilpin family and it's still rather strange walking into the building remembering the times I'd go in there to see him 25 years ago. The Riverside Theater is housed in the back portion of the building.
Cindy knows the routine well and she suggested that we get to The Bluebird Diner early, especially on the weekend. We pulled in around 8 a.m. and the place was already about 3/4's full at that time. We were seated at a table and given menus. Our server, Devon, came by to great us and to pour some coffee for Cindy. The atmosphere at The Bluebird Diner is decidedly retro in its feel and appearance. Old diner style tables and chairs are used in the restaurant and they have an old style counter with swiveling seats. Within 30 minutes after we arrived, there was a crowd of people waiting for tables to open.
The breakfast menu features a number of egg-based entrees as well as a number of interesting omelets. Waffles, pancakes and French toast are also available as well as a breakfast croissant and good ol' biscuits and gravy. One of the more interesting egg dishes is the Ouefs Louis XIV - three scrambled eggs with truffles, served with what they call a "rustic root hash". It's not cheap - $18 bucks - but eggs with truffles is an interesting twist to breakfast.
I was thinking about getting an omelet - the Rajun Cajun was the one that caught my eye. It features a mixture of housemade andouille sausage, smoked ham, the Cajun holy trinity of onions, celery and bell peppers, and a lemon-herb cream cheese. It's finally topped with smoked cheese. That's a lot of stuff going on with an omelet.
Then this thing reached and grabbed me - the Huevos Epsteinos. The make their own chili verde with smoked pork at The Bluebird Diner, then they pour it over parmesan polenta and eggs over easy with hash browns. Oh man! I love a good green chili and I had to give that a try.
Cindy has had a lot of things on the menu thanks to her many visits to the diner. This time she settled on the Eggs Benedict with crab cakes. Sliced tomatoes and their housemade hollandaise sauce came with the Eggs Benedict.
Our food showed up and Cindy was sort of taken aback by the towering spectacle on her plate. It featured fluffy poached eggs sitting on top of thick cakes of crab meat. The crab meat patties were placed upon a sliced tomato and an English muffin. Liberal amounts of hollandaise sauce topped the towering concoction. She was like, "How am I gonna eat this without making a mess?"
My Huevos Epsteinos were an interesting presentation, to say the least. The chili verde was covering the two eggs and the polenta. The hash browns were off to the side, but it didn't matter. Nearly every bite I was going to take was going to have some of the chili verde with it.
The chili verde at The Bluebird Diner was delicious. It had a bit of a spicy bite and a smoky taste, thanks to the chunks of smoked pork. Because the chili verde was so present in each bite, it was really tough to taste anything else on the plate. But if the chili verde would have been ladled over raw brussels sprouts, I would have still eaten them. It was very good. I would have been happy just having a bowl of the chili verde for breakfast. Even though I wasn't hungover, I thought that it would be the ultimate in a hangover cure.
Cindy thoroughly enjoyed her Eggs Benedict with the crab cakes. But they were very rich and she was having trouble finishing even one of the two stacks. She did offer me a bite of the combination of the poached egg, crab cake and hollandaise. I'll have to say that the combination was very good. I'm not usually big on seafood at breakfast, but the crab cake was very tasty. What I didn't eat of the second stack of poached egg and crab cake, she made a dent in it before she declared herself as full.
Although there are some reasonably priced items on the breakfast menu, we went a little toward the high end of the scale. With our food, drinks and a nice tip for Devon for his stellar service, our breakfast bill was over 30 bucks. But for the food and the service we got, I couldn't complain about the price. I thought my breakfast was excellent and we could have easily split Cindy's breakfast and it would have probably filled up both of us. I've had breakfast and lunch at The Bluebird Diner and one of these days I'll have to come back for dinner. The housemade meat loaf they have on the menu sounds like it would be killer.