Over this past weekend, the Mississippi River topped out at 20.7 feet in the Quad Cities - 5.7 feet above flood stage. Although it never got to the projected 21.2 feet, it was still the sixth highest flood in history. The above picture is a panoramic view of the Mississippi on the left, Le Claire Park along the riverfront (and sometimes in the river) straight ahead, and River Drive along the south side of downtown Davenport to the right. Last Saturday was the nicest day we've had around here for quite sometime, so I decided to take the camera out and get some pictures of the flood.
The pictures I took were in the morning on Saturday and right at about the time the river crested. Below to the left is a picture of River Drive right next to the Village of East Davenport. This is just down the hill from our house and provided a good starting point for a tour of the flood area around the Quad Cities. River Drive is one of the main thoroughfares in Davenport and it has been shut down now for about two weeks. As the water continues to drop, they hope to have parts of it open by this weekend.
Above right is a picture of the corner of Mound and River Drive in Davenport. This is the main entrance to the Village of East Davenport shopping and entertainment area, so having the intersection effectively closed put a damper on business for a number of merchants. Notice the Davenport police car sitting as a lookout for anyone who dared to go around the "road closed" signs and into the water on River Drive. The water depth is deceiving on some of these roads.
The Iowa American Water plant just south and west of the Village of East Davenport was fully prepared to keep the river out. Initial projections of the flood had the river topping 25 feet in the Quad Cities thanks to an abundance of snow up in Minnesota and Wisconsin. However, cold temperatures up north slowed the melting process and the river didn't come up as high as earlier expected. Even with more snow and some rain up north, when the river did flood they knew it would be high, but not as high as earlier expected.
Not wanting to go through what Des Moines went through in 1993 when they lost their clean water for nearly 2 weeks, Iowa American Water built a flood barrier that would keep the river out up to 25 feet. In the past, flood protection consisted primarily of just sandbags. This flood, the City of Davenport bought hundreds of Hesco Bastion barriers to keep the water out. The barriers - used primarily for military purposes, civil construction and security - are also great for keeping flood waters out of areas. The bastions are 4' X 4' X 4' and can be erected, put in place and filled with sand in about a third of the time - and at a much lower cost - than traditional sandbagging efforts. Iowa American had a 200 yard barrier in front of the water plant along the levee just up the river from downtown Davenport. Although the water didn't make it over the levee, they were certainly ready for it to happen.
Heading down along River Drive toward the downtown (it was open westbound only at Mound Street), I went along until I hit the eastern end of the detour that took people around the flood waters in downtown Davenport. Below left is the corner of Federal and River Drive. Hesco barriers are holding back about three feet of flood water over River Drive. Once again, this was at the height of the flood.
Davenport is the largest city along the upper Mississippi River that does not have a permanent flood levee. It's a point of consternation with some taxpayers and with the federal government who is tired of funding clean up efforts in Davenport after major floods. However, if you walk along the Davenport riverfront on a warm summer evening, you'll quickly figure out that having a flood barrier would ruin the view and the ambiance of the river would be significantly altered. Thanks to three of the biggest floods to hit the area over the past 18 years, the City of Davenport really has their act together. They began to mobilize flood efforts back in March when it appeared that this would be a big one. When projections were down-sized, the city workers did a remarkable job of getting the barriers up and protecting businesses in the Davenport area. Still, some businesses along River Drive and in the East Village suffered, but at least they weren't completely closed up and facing a long clean up after the flood.
The above picture is of Lock and Dam 15 along the Mississippi. Between the fencing on the left and the grass on the right is River Drive. This picture was taken from the north entrance to the Government Bridge that takes people over to the Rock Island Arsenal. River Drive dips below the bridge and right under me the water was about 10 to 12 feet deep.
Above left is a stairwell that goes from 2nd St. down to River Drive. The water was up to the second step above the landing and there's another 15 steps or so down to River Drive. Above right, here's a picture of River Drive looking up river from the Government Bridge. The sign, itself, is about 11 feet high to the top, and it's sitting on an upslope that brings River Drive up from under the Government Bridge. This part of River Drive is usually the first place to flood and the last place to get rid of water when it floods on the Iowa side of the river.
I went across the Government Bridge and ended up in downtown Rock Island. They have a permanent flood barrier as well as temporary flood walls that they put in place when the river comes up. I climbed up on the permanent flood wall and took this panoramic picture of the Davenport riverfront. Yeah, it's sort of difficult to see unless you zoom your browser up to about 400%, but the picture stretches from the Centennial Bridge on the left, Modern Woodmen Park just to the right of the bridge, then Le Claire Park, the Figge Art Museum, Rhythm City Casino and on up river to Lock and Dam 15. I've got this panorama program that can stitch some pictures together and it does a pretty good job from time to time. It's just that when you take more than three or four pictures and try to stitch them together that the finish product comes out pretty small.
Speaking of Modern Woodmen Park, this is the first year that Quad City River Bandits games didn't have to be cancelled or rescheduled for later dates due to a flood. The City of Davenport initially built a flood berm along the outfield area when they did an overall renovation to the stadium about four years ago. This effectively helped keep water from engulfing the field from the east and south sides of the stadium. (Photo at right courtesy of Quad City Images.)
This year, the city erected a portable flood wall that cut out the need to sandbag around the west and north sides of the stadium. The flood wall is easily recognizable in the picture above. They placed a series of posts about 10 feet apart around the outside concourse of the stadium, then dropped in six foot high flood gates to keep the water out. The stadium literally became an island surrounded by flood waters, but the games still went on as scheduled.
Unfortunately, the parking lots around Modern Woodmen Park were unusable, as were the sidewalks that took you to the stadium. For this problem, the City of Davenport erected a walkway made from scaffold frames and plywood. People could park in the streets north of River Drive, then get on the walkway at corner of River Drive and Western Ave. to make it to the stadium. It was sort of shaky and wobbly in some parts of the walkway, but it did its purpose. It cost the City of Davenport something like $44,000 to erect the walkway. But if the River Bandits had to cancel games because people couldn't walk through the flood waters to get to the stadium, the city would have to pay them something like $6600 a game. With the River Bandits home during a good part of the flood, the city ended up saving money in the long run.
I ventured over to the Freight House and went up on the second floor outdoor patio of what used to be Nan's Piano Bar. The picture above left is looking east past Union Station and along River Drive in front of the Figge Art Museum. The Davenport sky bridge is in the background and you can see dozens of people who came out to take pictures or gawk at the flood. Sort of like what I was doing that day.
Above right and to the immediate left is a view of Le Claire Park and the ornate band shell that is completely surrounded by water. This is where a number of festivals take place including the Mississippi Valley Blues Fest and River Roots Live. However, if the water doesn't recede quickly, it could damage the grass and the park could become off-limits for a couple months as the city tries to re-seed or re-sod the damaged turf areas. They're supposed to be doing some renovations to the backstage area of the band shell at some point - I had hoped it would be before the River Roots Live event in August. But that may be put on hold for the time being. I'm guessing the park will be ready for River Roots Live, but the Mississippi Valley Blues Fest in early July may be touch and go.
A lot of people joke that the sky bridge - also derisively called "the bridge to nowhere" - is worth the price it cost to build during the floods. Originally touted as a bridge to connect a downtown parking garage with the Rhythm City Casino, it sort of just stopped just short of the casino's entrance. The City of Davenport said that patrons of the casino could use the sky bridge to get over flood waters. But during the double crest flood of 2008 (see my entries on that flood here and here) city officials deemed that the casino had to be shut down as there would be no way for emergency vehicles to make it through the flood waters up and down River Drive if a medical situation occurred on the boat. So the sky bridge is basically just a long lookout tower that gives great views of floods. Well, and it is a great place to view the Davenport riverfront during normal times, too.
But the sky bridge and the adjacent top of the parking garage are both good places to get some pictures of the flooding. The top picture at the beginning of this entry is taken from the sky bridge and stitched together with my panorama program. Above left is the woebegone and long-closed Levee Inn - sort of an iconic structure when it comes to historic floods in Davenport. The Flood of 1993 saw river waters come up to just under the red-outlined awning around the building. They have marks on the side of the building that denote the height of certain floods.
Above right is Lock and Dam 15 with the equally woebegone and long-closed Dock Restaurant in the foreground. Too many floods have made the building unusable. And that's too bad. As the building is right up next to the river, it was a pretty neat place to take people from out of town for a good meal and a drink while you watched the river roll by. And they used to have some of the best clam chowder that I've ever had.
Before I left the downtown area, I had to stop by the Front Street Brewery to see the efforts the City of Davenport employed to keep that restaurant open during the flood. The city erected a number of Hesco barriers along River Drive and encased them in plastic with sand bags on top and along the base of the barrier. There was some seepage from the base of the barriers, but the city had crews on site 24 hours a day to man pumps and to look for any breaches in the portable dam. The water was still about a foot below the top of the barrier at its crest on Saturday about 11:30 a.m. - about the time this picture was taken.
I took these three pictures from up close along the barrier until I was told by a city worker that I couldn't be anywhere near the area. I was actually out in the street up next to the Hesco barrier and he said that I wasn't supposed to venture off the sidewalk. The city didn't want anyone walking in the flood waters as the water had been tested and found to have low levels of fecal matter. I told the guy, "Even when it's not flooding there's low levels of fecal matter in the river. It's the world's largest toilet!"
He sort of laughed when I said that...
After the river crested on Saturday, it started a slow descent that saw the river levels go down about a foot by Monday night and it should be down below 19 feet later today. Projections are that the river will continue to slowly recede and be close to 17 feet by next Monday. That is if we don't see any more heavy rains in the region before then. This has been a soggy April with more than half the calendar days seeing measurable precipitation here in the Quad Cities so far.
While the flood is a big event and it does cause some hardships for people who live and work along the river, I have to say that I was overly impressed with the planning and efforts that local municipalities and private companies put forth in combating the flood waters. I've lived here for nearly 20 years and they just seem to get better and better with each flood that occurs.
Willy Theisen is the godfather of pizza. That is, Theisen turned a bar that he was the owner of - Wild Willy's - into the first of what has turned out to be the 4th largest chain of pizza restaurants in the U.S., Godfather's Pizza. Theisen became a multi-millionaire long before he sold Godfather's to Pillsbury in the early 80's. He is famous for building a huge mansion in the Regency area of Omaha, complete with its own helicopter pad - a house that I've been in before, and one that is no longer there. Theisen sold it to Terry Watanabe, then the owner of Oriental Trading Company. Watanabe, in turn, had to sell the mansion to help pay off $127 million in gambling debts and it was subsequently torn down and three or four houses were built on the lot. But that's another story for another time.
Theisen has since dabbled in real estate, owned farms that raised English jumping horses and has invested in and helped develop restaurant chains such as Famous Dave's, Fuddrucker's and Green Burrito, which was subsequently sold to and absorbed by the Carl's Jr. chain about 10 years ago. Theisen, who is 65 years of age, never really slowed down and decided to re-invent the pizza business when he opened the upscale pizza restaurant - Pitch Coal-fire Pizza - in the Dundee-Happy Hollow neighborhood of Omaha back in November of 2009.
(Update - Theisen sold his interest in Pitch to Aaron McKeever, Marcus Hebert, Jay Musil and Jason Dale in 2013. The group opened a second location in West Omaha in the summer of 2015.)
It was a cold, snowy night when I got into Omaha. I asked the girl at the front desk what would be open that late in the area. She suggested steak, and I had steak the night before. She mentioned Italian, but I wasn't in the mood for Italian. But I did mention pizza back to her and another desk clerk at the hotel said, "There's a great pizza place not too far from here called Pitch. It's relatively new and I think it's the best in Omaha." I took that recommendation, got directions and made my way to the corner of 51st and Underwood (see map).
The Dundee-Happy Hollow neighborhood in the central part of Omaha has gone through a big transformation since the days that my sister and brother-in-law lived just blocks north of the area back in the late 70's. I remember a lot of the shops were these little "mom-and-pop" establishments with a handful of blue-collar bars in the neighborhood. Today, the area has gone through a nice transformation and is home to hip little shops, restaurants and bars. But tradition still rules as the long-established Dundee Dell, a great bar/restaurant that has been in existence since 1934, still anchors the heart of the neighborhood. (I need to go get a meal at Dundee Dell. It was a fun place to go when I was a young guy in my early 20's during some of my visits to Omaha.)
Pitch is in a corner building on Underwood that was transformed into a restaurant that features a modern industrial look to the interior. It's a long, narrow restaurant with a number of booths and tables, many of the tables will sit up to a dozen people in a communal-style atmosphere. It reminded me a lot of The Publican in Chicago where total strangers are seated next to one another at a long table. I'm not big on that as I would rather focus on who I'm with and not trying to learn about people that may or may not be interesting to talk to. (Pictures above and to the right courtesy of Eat Chic Lifestyle.com)
The hostess at Pitch tried to get me to sit at one of those long tables and even though it was close to 9 p.m., there was a pretty good crowd in the place. She also offered to seat me at the bar and I took her up on that. Thankfully, there was one seat left at the bar - between a couple of 20-something girls who were waiting on a friend, and a couple in their late-50's/early 60's enjoying a pizza. Yeah, yeah - I know. I won't go sit at a communal table with a bunch of strangers, but I will go sit at a bar next to perfect strangers. I feel more comfortable at the bar as the person across from you is the bartender who is willing to bring me beer.
After getting a dinner menu from the hostess and sitting down, a bartender came up to me and wanted to know what I wanted to drink. In addition to the normal staples of American beer, Pitch also has a number of eclectic beers to choose from and a pretty extensive wine list, as well. I told the bartender that I was thirsty and I would just take a Bud Light for now as I figured out what I wanted to eat and what type of beer I wanted to step up to. He said, "We have Stella Artois on tap. $4.50 a pint."
I said, "Stella on tap? Well, sure!"
As I looked through the menu, I found that in addition to pizza, Pitch has a number of interesting appetizers including calamari, spicy rosemary chicken wings, Calabrese meatballs with a homemade tomato sauce and an olive bowl sampler with three different types of Spanish, French and Greek olives. They also featured three different types of pasta dishes including butternut squash ravioli in a sage butter sauce with candied walnuts; macaroni pasta with Comte cheese from France, served with pancetta, spinach and truffle oil; and a homemade version of their spaghetti and meatballs.
But pizza is what brings the people in to Pitch with their hot, coal fired ovens cooking up thin crust pizzas that can be topped with homemade fennel sausage, house-cured pancetta, white anchovies, roasted chicken and arugula. There's only one size to them - about 12" - so two people can enjoy one pizza.
They have a number of specialty pizzas on the menu including a margherita with fresh mozzarella and basil, the "Shrooms" pizza with fresh roasted mushrooms, thyme cream, truffle cheese and oven dried tomatoes, and something called the "Leonardo" - slow roasted pork loin joined with toppings such as sporessata salami, peporanata (roasted tomatoes, onions and peppers) and fontana cheese.
But the one that caught my eye was the "Mia", also known as "Willy's Favorite" - fennel sausage and pepperoni with fresh mozzarella cheese. Now, at that point, I had no idea who "Willy" was as I didn't know this was Willy Theisen's restaurant, but I had a good idea as that you mention the name Willy anywhere in Omaha, you're probably talking about Mr. Theisen. I asked the bartender if I could get the Mia and then also have some of the fresh roasted mushrooms tossed on with the other toppings. He said that would be no problem. By that time, I was ready for another Stella Artois.
As the bartender sat another Stella in front of me, the lady next to me who was finishing up a pizza with her husband leaned over and asked, "Is that good beer?"
I said, "Stella Artois? Yeah, it's a pretty good beer. I'm not big on Belgian beers, but this is more of a lager. It's similar to some German lagers I like, but it has more of a bite than most American lagers."
She said, "Oh, that's a Belgian beer? I always thought it was French! I may have to try it next time."
When my pizza was brought out about 10 minutes after I'd ordered it (the coal-fired ovens cook at about 800 degrees), the waiter placed it on an old coffee can that they use as a stand for their pizzas at Pitch. It was loaded with fresh toppings - big chunks of fennel sausage, large pepperoni slices and the biggest chunks of chopped fresh mushrooms I think I've ever had on a pizza. And from the first bite, I was hooked. It was an OUTSTANDING pizza. My only complaint is that the crust may have been a little too thin as it was pretty limp and the toppings and cheese would fall off the crust. But it was more of a fork-style pizza where you really needed a fork to eat the pieces.
Usually, thin crust pizzas don't fill me up that much. But with all the toppings - and it was LOADED with toppings and cheese - it was a very rich and filling pizza. I was able to eat three pieces and asked the bartender to box up the remaining pieces. I had an early morning meeting the next day, but I had a fridge in my room along with a microwave. I did my early morning meeting and after I was done at 10 a.m., I went back to the hotel and heated up the three pieces for a late morning breakfast. And it was pretty good reheated the next day.
The pizza at Pitch was exquisite. And it should have been. The price of the pizza alone was $19 bucks. With three Stellas and a nice tip for my bartender who told me that Willy Theisen was, indeed, the guy behind Pitch, my bill came to just under $40 bucks. It's not a cheap place, by any means, but it was one of the best pizzas I've ever had in my life.
I've had a few people tell me since I came out with my most recent "Best Burgers" list about four weeks ago that I needed to come up with a "Best Pizza" list. I would have to say that Pitch may not be the best I've ever had, but it would be worthy of a Top Five mention. Other than the crust being a little limp, it was still a top-notch pizza and I look forward to enjoying another one at Pitch on subsequent visits to Omaha.
The "Rest in Peace" category of Road Tips is one of the more popular links that I have within this blog. One of the earliest entries had to do with the closing of one of my all-time favorite Mexican restaurants, Raul's in Des Moines. Raul Hernandez was in his late 70's and found that his health couldn't allow him to keep up with and compete against many of the small taquerias that had sprung up around the Des Moines area. The Hernandez family shut the doors of his original restaurant on East Grand and the one out in the suburb of Urbandale. I was really bummed because Raul's was the place where I was introduced to real authentic Mexican food, not the American-ized version of such that you find at most Mexican food chains. And I am proud to say that I turned Raul's on to a lot of friends during their existence.
So, it was to my delight to hear that Raul's daughter, Connie Hernandez-Limke and her husband, David, re-opened Raul's in a new location in West Des Moines (see map) last May using many of the same recipes that Raul and Josephine Hernandez used at their original East Grand location since 1962. Since Raul's had closed in 2005, Connie Hernandez-Limke was selling Raul's enchiladas, salsa and other items at area farmers markets. She was convinced by many who continually bought her goods to open a new restaurant. Luckily for many of the fans of the original Raul's and those who were buying her food at the farmers market, she and her husband decided to re-open Raul's. I was in Des Moines recently on my way to Kansas City early one evening and decided to stop into the new Raul's for a bite to eat to check it out.
Along with the help from Jackie Hernandez-Wells, the Limke's opened the new Raul's in a building that used to house a number of restaurants along 8th Street in West Des Moines, including Fratellos, which became the Coaches Lounge, then was sold and turned into the Skybox Lounge. They had a soft opening in May last year, but had a grand re-opening on June 12 - Raul Hernandez's 82nd birthday. And the Hernandez sisters brought back one of the most popular aspects about Raul's - the lunch buffet served between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday's through Friday. (Raul's is closed Sunday and Monday.)
I pulled into Raul's about 6:30 that evening and went inside the front door. A long bar is situated on one wall of the building and on your right as you walk in there's a little "den area" that has a fire place and a few tables to eat or to just relax over a margarita and some chips and salsa. There's a main dining area with an open kitchen (the kitchen at the original Raul's allowed you to look inside to see the food being prepped, as well). A hostess came up to greet me and asked if I wanted to sit at the bar. I decided that I would rather sit in one of the booths toward the back of the restaurant. She dropped off a menu for me and a bus boy came over with a basket of chips and a bowl each of Raul's homemade mild salsa and somewhat more spicy salsa. I like to add both of them together for an added taste sensation to the mild salsa.
My waitress soon came over to get my drink order. It turns out they were having a margarita special that evening - a 16 oz. "Grandpa Margarita" that Raul's was/is so famous for $5.00. Their Grandpa Margarita consists of Cuervo Gold tequila, triple sec and Raul's homemade lime juice, shaken together and served over ice. (They also have a version of the Grandpa Margarita where they add Grand Marnier on top. Cindy really likes that one.)
The waitress came out with my margarita and told me that she'd give me a little more time to look at the menu. Des Moines is famous for their deep fried flour tacos and Raul's had some of the best around. And they also had what I deem are the best chile rellenos I've ever had. They take an poblano pepper, stuff it with cheese and seasoned ground beef, dip it in a batter and deep fry the chile relleno for a few moments. Then they top it with Raul's homemade relleno sauce. I ordered a couple of the beef flour tacos and a chile relleno - ala carte. By that time, I had made short work of my margarita and ordered up a Sol.
When the waitress came out with my food and my first impression was, "Oh, my GOD! That's a lot of food!" My second reaction was that the fried flour tacos weren't exactly as I remember at the original Raul's. The ones I remember were sort of more enclosed than opened as the ones that are pictured below left. And they were smaller than these. And from my first bite, I knew something else was different. The meat was different. I couldn't quite place the taste, but it was sort of spicy and wasn't what I remembered from the original Raul's beef taco. It wasn't that it was unpleasant, but it sort of jarred me a bit because I didn't think it was the same.
But the chile relleno was exactly as I remembered. A big poblano pepper stuffed with Mexican cheese and beef, dipped in an egg batter and deep fried for a moment. The chile relleno came with three soft flour taco shells to dip into the tasty relleno sauce. The chile relleno, on its own, is a meal and a half. I was able to put a significant dent into the chile relleno, finish one of the tacos and a portion of the second one. Note to self - next time, get just ONE taco with the chile relleno.
The waitress came over and asked me how my dinner was. I told her that I thought there was something different about the taco meat - I didn't remember the beef tasting that way. She seemed sort of perplexed and said, "Well, it's the same recipe that we've had for years. I don't think they've changed it."
I sort of shrugged my shoulders and said, "Well, it's not exactly as I remember. But, then again, it's been six years since I've had a Raul's taco. But, I'll tell you. The chile relleno was exactly as I remember as just as good as I remember."
It's not that the tacos were bad. I was just expecting something else as far as the taste of the beef was concerned. But the trip to Raul's for the chile relleno was worth every cent and more. I've eaten in a number of Mexican restaurants over the years and have tried a number of chile rellenos and I have yet to find one that is as good as the one at Raul's. I'm overly happy that Raul's has re-opened. It gives me another place to eat when I get to Des Moines.
Being a big baseball nut, I was sorry to hear about the closing of the original Ozzie's Restaurant and Sports Bar out in Westport Plaza about a year and a half ago. (See that post here.) But almost as soon as I wrote that entry on Road Tips, I was informed by a number of people that Ozzie's would soon be reopening in downtown St. Louis in an area of rehabbed and gentrified buildings along Washington Ave. (see map) It so happened that I had an appointment with a prospective dealer just down the street one day on a recent trip to St. Louis and I made it a point to have lunch at Ozzie's new location.
The original Ozzie's out in the Westport Plaza featured a plethora of baseball memorabilia courtesy of Ozzie Smith, the former St. Louis Cardinals shortstop and Baseball Hall of Fame member. It was the ultimate sports bar with televisions throughout the place and a menu that was above average for a typical sports bar. Over the final couple three years of its existence out at Westport, the food had seemingly gone downhill and Ozzie's was getting a lot of pressure from another sports themed restaurant in the area, Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols' own Pujols 5.
Ozzie Smith was associated by name only in the restaurant, and owner Ray Gallardo - who was the founder of the Casa Gallardo Mexican food restaurants based out of St. Louis - was the owner of the establishment. Gallardo had a contract with Golub and Co., the Chicago-based owners and developers of Westport Plaza, which said his establishment would be the only sports-theme bar in the complex. In 2006, Westport allowed Puhols to open a restaurant and told Gallardo that it would be an upscale restaurant with a sports theme. It turned out that Puhols 5 was closer in theme, style and menu to Ozzie's than it was to an upscale sports restaurant such as Mike Shannon's.
After three years of losses that totaled nearly $500,000, Gallardo filed suit against Golub and Co. for allowing Puhols 5 to open. He dropped the suit against the developers before he ultimately closed down the original Ozzie's after 20 years of business. I believe, however, that Gallardo was counter-sued by the owners of Westport, but I never heard of what happened with that particular suit.
In the meantime, Gallardo's son, Roberto, spearheaded the move of the original Ozzie's to what was once an old garment manufacturing building in the Washington Ave. Lofts District in downtown St. Louis. Ozzie's occupies the first two floors in the building with the main floor being the restaurant and the upper floor being a large party/reception/over-flow room that features a number of autographed jerseys from former Cardinal players on the wall, along with Smith's 13 Gold Glove awards in a large display cabinet along the front wall of the room.
It was around 1:30 when I made it into Ozzie's. Parking was available just up the street from the restaurant and I went in the front door. Just behind the hostess stand was sort of an artsy display of baseballs suspended with wires. It was actually kind of cool. A hostess asked me if I wanted a table or if I wanted to sit at the bar. I decided to sit at the bar and she handed me a menu and I made my way toward the left side of the large rectangular bar.
As I sat down, I looked over to my immediate left and noticed that they had a television literally implanted into the bar (above right). It had a plexiglas top over the screen which was angled down for better viewing as you sat there. I thought it was a neat little touch to the place. I took a quick look behind me at the wall of booths in the place and noticed that each of them had their own personal flat screen television. A number of larger flat screens were distributed throughout the main floor at Ozzie's.
It appeared the items on the menu weren't much different from what the original Ozzie's offered before. Actually, it might be a little smaller than before, but Ozzie's still featured some burgers, sandwiches, the typical bar-type appetizers, salads, and a number of specialty entrees such as steaks, a marsala pork chop and a garlic and herb grilled chicken breast. One thing that I don't quite remember from the original Ozzie's was breakfast served on the weekends. The new Ozzie's location features breakfast on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. - something worth thinking about during an upcoming baseball weekend this summer.
I just wanted to get something simple and I ordered up the marsala mushroom burger - a 1/2 pound burger topped with provelone cheese and a mushroom marsala sauce. Lettuce, tomato and onion slices came with the burger and I got a side of Ozzie's seasoned fries. I also ordered up a cold Budweiser to go with my burger for lunch.
It was well past the lunch rush and there were only a few people in the place when I was there so my burger came up relatively quick. I remember the burgers at the original Ozzie's to be pretty good and this one was just as good as I remember. I was a little worried that the sweet marsala mushroom sauce would be a little overpowering, but it was a nice fit with the burger and the provolone cheese. The burger was thick and juicy, full of flavor on its own. The lightly toasted bun didn't disintegrate from the juicy nature of the burger and the somewhat sloppy marsala mushroom sauce. It was a multiple napkin burger to say the least.
The burger, itself, was more than enough for lunch, but I tried a few of the fries. They were OK, but the burger was much better.
Before I left, I went upstairs to the second floor room to look around. It was exceptionally bright up there due to two huge south-facing windowns letting in abundant sunshine into the room. I couldn't get a good enough shot of all the Gold Glove awards that Smith garnered during his illustrious career, but I was able to get a close-up shot of one. And it took my time looking around the room at the jerseys and other memorbilia that Ozzie's had up on the wall. Sitting in front of the display case with the Gold Glove awards, Ozzie's had three double sets of seats from the old Busch Stadium that Smith played in during his career.
I'm certainly glad that Ozzie's is back in business. Not so much because I think the food is great (it's not - but it's good bar food) or the ambiance is all that inviting and cozy (it's not as nice as the old Ozzie's). But it's Ozzie's - one of my all-time favorite sports bars. While the new location appears to be a little smaller than the original, the upper floor offers more space for Cardinal fans to enjoy a few beers and some food before, during and after a Cardinals game. It's a little bit of a walk from the new Busch Stadium - about 15 or 16 blocks in all - but it's not far from the Scottrade Center, home of the St. Louis Blues, major concerts and other sporting events. Ozzie's was always a "must visit" when we came to Cardinals games in the past. I'm sure we'll be back to Ozzie's at some point in the near future.
(Update - This Ozzie's location has been closed and it reopened at the Lumiere Place Casino.)
I've written about the Charcoal Grill once before (see that entry here), but it had to do with having the surprisingly good pizza rather than having anything grilled during that visit. I've had their burgers before at Summerfest, but have never tried one inside one of their eight locations throughout Southeastern Wisconsin. I happened to be driving by the Racine West location recently just after the noon hour and decided to double back and go have a burger. (see map)
The origins of The Charcoal Grill go back to the early 90's in Racine. Dr. Constantine George, a local orthopedic surgeon, owned a restaurant in Racine that wasn't doing well. He brought in a friend of his son, Jeff Marsh, to try and turn things around. Marsh, who had a degree in hotel and restaurant management, took over the restaurant but was sort of floundering until one day he came up with a concept to change the restaurant into one that featured food that was cooked over charcoal. "It seemed like everyone in Racine had a Weber Grill," Marsh explained. To him, it seemed like a natural fit to transform the restaurant into a new concept.
Marsh turned that restaurant into the original Charcoal Grill restaurant in 1993. The concept immediately took off and a year later a second Charcoal Grill restaurant was opened in Kenosha. In 1995, Marsh's longtime friend, and the son of Dr. George, Paul George, came into the company. Paul George was developing a chain of vision clinics across the state of Wisconsin and took over the George family's stake in the company with the death of Dr. George in 1996. In addition to running Wisconsin Vision, Paul George is the CEO of Char Grill, Inc., with Jeff Marsh serving as President.
The Racine West location looks like it was formerly a Mexican restaurant - quite possibly a Chi Chi's - with sort of a Spanish mission theme to the outside architecture of the place. That seems to be the "m.o." for Charcoal Grill restaurants - find existing restaurants that have gone out of business and transform them into a new location. It makes perfect business sense and there's little remodeling that you have to do to get a new restaurant up and running.
The interior of the Charcoal Grill on the west side of Racine is open and airy, and has a distinctive sports bar theme to the place. There's a large bar area with sort of an atrium feel to the left as you walk in. With a lot of windows throughout the restaurant, you didn't need much lighting during the daytime, even on a cloudy day.
Toward the back of the restaurant is their wood-fire oven for cooking pizzas and their rotisserie for Charcoal Grill's somewhat famous chicken. The pizza prep area is out in the open and you can easily watch the pizza chefs prepare the pizzas and cook them in the oven. As I said in my earlier post on the Charcoal Grill location on the west side of Milwaukee, their pizza is surprisingly good.
I took a seat at the large, rectangular bar and was given a menu by the bartender. They had a number of burgers to choose from on the menu including buffalo burgers, turkey burgers, a new burger called the "Crabby Louie" that features crab meat and avocado on top, a "Black and Bleu" burger with Cajun spices, crumbled bleu cheese and bacon, and their famous Wisconsin Cheddarhead burger with ample amounts of cheddar cheese on top of a burger served on an English muffin. They also have a breakfast burger called the "Egg-licious". It's a burger topped with American cheese, bacon, a fried egg and served on an English muffin, as well. That almost made me jump out of my seat.
But I've been on kind of a mushroom-Swiss cheeseburger kick lately and I decided to give Charcoal Grill's version a try. I had my choice of either waffle fries, kettle chips or onion straws to go along with it. I opted for the onion straws - I'm a sucker for good onion straws.
And they didn't hold back on the number of onion straws they brought out with the burger. The burger, itself, was nestled on an egg bun that was slightly toasted. A fresh sliced onion and a number of kosher dill pickle slices were hiding the cheese and mushrooms. There's a "fixin's" bar at Charcoal Grill where you can add a few more things like tomatoes, lettuce and jalapenos, but nothing looked that great as to where I wanted to add it to the burger.
The 1/2 pound patty was cooked medium and it was still juicy and flavorful. Very good, as a matter of fact. The mushrooms tasted good and the Swiss cheese was a nice complement, but didn't overpower the taste of the burger. As I said, I've had the Charcoal Grill burger at Summerfest in the past and I didn't think it was all that great. They seem to overcook them at Summerfest, then let the burgers sit in a tray until they're ordered up. This one, however, was nothing like the ones at Summerfest. It pleasantly surprised me as to the overall taste of their burger.
OK, so I know now to just skip the Charcoal Grill burger at Summerfest (I like Major Goolsby's much better, anyhow) and that I can get a good burger at one of their locations in the Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha area. I can't call it one of the best burgers in the great Milwaukee area, but they can hold their own against some of the more established and well-known places in the area. It's very good if you're in a pinch and need to get an above-average burger if you're close to one in Southeast Wisconsin.
My Uncle Jack used to make what I thought was the best fried chicken in the whole world. One or two times a month he'd get out his lard and beef suet, put it in his well worn electric skillet, batter up some chicken and fry the pieces to a dark golden brown. Oh, man, was it good. I was telling a friend of mine in the St. Louis area one time about my uncle's chicken and he said, "The next time you get to St. Louis, you've got to go into Hodak's and try their chicken."
Hodak's is a long-time restaurant landmark in St. Louis, one that has been around for nearly 50 years (and also one that I've driven past hundreds of times over the years). It started out as a little tavern on the corner of 14th and Emmett where the owners, Tony and Helen, would occasionally bring in their own home-made fried chicken for the patrons to enjoy. Progress, in the form of Interstate highways, forced Hodak's to move from their 14th and Emmett location (which, today, is right smack in the middle of the I-55/I-44 interchange) to 18th and Russell, where they began to serve their fried chicken full time. More Interstate roadwork a few years later forced Hodak's to eventually move another three blocks to the Southwest to their present day location at Gravois and McNair. (see map)
In 1988, Ralph and Charlene Hegel bought Hodak's and put in a few of their own little touches to the place. Within the next few years they purchased properties around Hodak's to put in parking, expand their dining room to include a larger dining area in the back (pictured at right from Hodak's web site), and eventually put in a banquet room over the main dining room. But fried chicken continued to be the main draw and even with the expansion over the years, lines still begin to form for lunch at Hodak's well before noon.
That's why I went around 8 p.m. on a cool Tuesday evening during a recent trip to St. Louis. Even at that hour, there were still a good number of people in the place. And even though tables and booths were available in both the original and in the expanded dining area, I opted to sit at the rectangular bar. I ordered a Budweiser and asked for a menu, even though I knew I wanted to try their fried chicken.
Actually, the menu surprised me. It was a pretty extensive menu other than chicken. They featured steaks, pork chops, seafood, sandwiches, burgers - just about anything other than chicken if you don't want chicken that particular visit. But I was there for the chicken and I ordered up the simple chicken platter - four pieces of chicken with a side of fries and cole slaw.
It was less than five minutes after I ordered that the chicken platter showed up. First of all, there was a ton of chicken - way too much for me to eat. It was a mixture of white and dark meat, and the pieces were huge and meaty. Now, I don't know my backs from my thighs because I usually just eat legs and wings when I get chicken. But I think I had all four of those pieces on my plate.
I bit into one of the pieces and it was piping hot like it had just come out of the fryer. The initial taste was eye-opening. The chicken meat was moist, but the batter they used on the outside was, well, I have to say that it was about as close to my Uncle Jack's fried chicken. It's been years since I last had it, but the taste sensation awoke memories of those Sunday afternoons of eating piece after piece of Jack's chicken and savoring every bite. Even though it was a lot of food, it was tough to put down the chicken.
The crinkle cut French fries were pretty basic, similar to what you'd find at most other restaurants like Hodak's. On the bar near me was ketchup and some of Hodak's barbecue sauce. I tried some of the spicy barbecue sauce on the French fries and it really helped zip up the taste. Actually, I probably found myself eating the fries more for the taste sensation of their sweet and zippy barbecue sauce than I did for the enjoyment of the fries.
The cole slaw at Hodak's was, well, sort of bland. A quick bite of that and I determined that it wasn't much too my liking. That's OK, between the chicken and the barbecue sauce drenched French fries, I was more than stuffed before 3/4's of the meal was gone from my plate. There was a lot of food for $7.25 and I definitely couldn't eat it all. But it certainly tasted great with the ice cold Budweiser that they poured from the bottle into a big frosty mug for me.
I was in one of my dealer's stores the next day and I told them that I had gone to Hodak's the night before. One of the guys said, "I grew up in Wisconsin and when I moved here over 25 years ago, I went to Hodak's for chicken. It was like this epiphany - 'You mean there's better chicken out there than Kentucky Fried Chicken?' "
The other guy - a lifelong St. Louis native - said, "Hodak's is good, but we went in there a while back and I don't know if they changed their seasoning in their batter or what. It didn't seem to be as much of what you like to describe as a 'taste explosion in your mouth' like it used to be." He still said that he liked it, but he didn't think it was as good as it used to be.
I thought the fried chicken at Hodak's was very good. I've read a bunch of reviews on line about Hodak's from a number of sites and I'm amazed at the number of people who think their chicken is just plain bad. Look, it's fried chicken, people. It's supposed to be greasy. It's not fine dining in the least at Hodak's. They're known for their chicken and it's kept people coming back for years and years. There should be no surprises that they actually deep fry their chicken (although a grilled chicken entree is available on the menu). This is the gateway to the South where fried anything is a staple! My uncle grew up outside of St. Louis in Eureka and this is probably a recipe that has been handed down from generations to generations of families in the greater St. Louis area. No, it's not overly healthy - but damn! Healthy stuff doesn't taste this good!
If you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you've learned that debates rage across the state of Iowa as to who has the best loose-meat burger. I'm partial to the Maid-Rite from Newton, many people who grew up in Ottumwa and that area say the Canteen Lunch is the best there is, and there's a large contingent of Central Iowans who say Taylor's Maid-Rite in Marshalltown is the best Maid-Rite style sandwich. On a recent trip between Cedar Rapids and Ames, I had the chance to stop into Marshalltown and have a couple Taylor's Maid-Rite for dinner.
Once again, a quick primer for those of you who aren't familiar with what a Maid-Rite is. It's basically a burger, only with steamed loose ground beef. It's served in a wrapper with a spoon to pick up the loose meat that falls out of the sandwich. And while you'll find Maid-Rite shops around the Midwest, it's definitely an Iowa phenomenon. The original Maid-Rite was founded in 1926 in Muscatine. The second Maid-Rite was founded a year later in Newton and the third Maid-Rite opened in 1928 in Marshalltown.
Cliff Taylor was living in Newton in 1928 and liked the new Maid-Rite there so much that he decided to open a Maid-Rite in Marshalltown. He paid founder Fred Angell $300 for the franchise rights for Marshalltown and soon opened his Maid-Rite. Taylor, his wife and his son, Don, ran the small shop on S. 3rd St. near the downtown area.
In the late 1930's, Fred Angell had decreed that all Maid-Rite locations add a special seasoning that he came up with to the steamed ground beef. Cliff Taylor didn't like the seasoning and didn't add it to his Maid-Rites. Angell tried to get Taylor to add the seasoning, but under the terms of their original contract signed in 1928, no seasonings were mentioned and Angell couldn't force Taylor to add the seasonings. I believe the same thing was true with the original owner of the Maid-Rite in Newton, as well. Both the Marshalltown and Newton Maid-Rites used - and continue to use - USDA Choice beef for their Maid-Rite meat with no preservatives, additives or spices. A little salt is included in the cooking process.
The original Maid-Rites were also designed to be served with yellow mustard, pickles and onions only. No ketchup. Taylor's Maid-Rite adhered to that core principal since day one. And they were militant about it, too. That's why I was overly surprised to see ketchup bottles on the counter during my recent visit. It turns out that Taylor's Maid-Rite did a survey a couple three years ago as to whether or not to bring in ketchup. Over 2000 people responded and by a very short margin ketchup won. Taylor's Maid-Rite began to provide the condiment to their patrons.
After Cliff Taylor's death in 1944, Don Taylor and his wife, Polly, took over the day-to-day operation. The shop was so small that Don Taylor had to store their fresh daily ground beef in a refrigerator in his basement. The Taylor's also baked their famous homemade pies in their home and ferried them to the restaurant to serve to their customers.
In 1958, Taylor built what is the existing location for their Maid-Rite directly across the street from the original shop (see map). The cooking bins were stainless steel, it offered seating for over 40 people and it was certainly a modern facility for its day.
Don Taylor continued to run the business up to his death in 1973. For the next 12 years, Polly and a handful of longtime employees ran the day-to-day operation at Taylor's Maid-Rite. In 1985, Polly's grandson, Don Short, took over the company. After running the company for 25 years, Don Short recently ceded operations back over to his mother, Sandy Taylor Short.
Don Short kept the traditions in place that his great-grandfather and grandfather made famous over the years. When other Maid-Rite locations were adding items to their menu, Short relied upon just having Maid-Rites, pies and ice cream. He never brought in French fries because he didn't want to have to clean a deep fryer. Keeping the steam bins clean was enough work for him.
Those steam bins have caused Short a lot of anguish over the past few years. In 2006, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals (D.I.A.) decided that the bins that Short and other older Maid-Rites around the state used were deemed to be "unhealthy" as they allowed for the cooking of raw meat next to fully cooked meat. This is a process that Maid-Rites have used for well over 70 years, and they usually have a stainless steel partition in the bin to keep the cooked meat from the raw meat. Once the raw meat is cooked through, the partition is removed and the meat is all mixed together. As far as I know, no one has ever gotten sick from this type of cooking method.
It has been said that this ruling by the Iowa D.I.A. was prompted by the head of the Maid-Rite franchise company, Bradley Burt, who wanted all Maid-Rites to have a uniform way of cooking their meat. In other words, Burt wanted all Maid-Rite franchises to buy the meat already cooked, then frozen, from him and then warm it up in a cooker as needed. I've had this type of Maid-Rite sandwich and I have to tell you quite bluntly, they really suck. They have no life in the meat, it's tasteless and bland. It's like they have sucked the soul right out of the sandwich.
At the time of the initial ruling, the head of the Iowa D.I.A. said that he thought it would be foolish to make the old time Maid-Rites change their method of cooking considering they've been doing it the same way for so long. However, when Chet Culver was elected Governor of Iowa in 2006, he cleaned house at the D.I.A. and installed Dean Lerner as the new director. Lerner immediately ordered the removal of all the existing steam bins in Maid-Rites that were still using them and replace them with a new cooker for the meat - one similar to what Burt was using in his "new" Maid-Rites.
Don Short appealed the Iowa D.I.A.'s decision saying that the new $7000 cookers there were required to install were inadequate and too small for the volume of business they did. He also maintained that a number of Maid-Rites in small towns - including Taylor's - that continued to use the steam bins could go out of business if they had to bring in the new cookers. Last year, a judge ruled against Short's motion saying that even though no one had gotten sick during the two-year appeal process, the ruling was a "reasonable reversal of policy" by the Iowa D.I.A.
A state senator who lived near Marshalltown drew up legislation to allow the original Maid-Rites to continue to use the steam bins and the measure was passed by the Iowa Senate. However, state representatives from the Des Moines area - and who may have been friendly to the interests of Bradley Burt - took the measure out of the bill it was attached to and it was never passed by the Iowa House of Representatives.
In the meantime, it turned out there was some connection between Iowa D.I.A. head Dean Lerner and Maid-Rite corporate chairman Bradley Burt. Citing a conflict of interest on Lerner's part, Short asked the Iowa State Department of Public Health to step in and take over the process of appeal. However, DPH director Tom Newton issued a ruling that Taylor's Maid-Rite was in violation of administrative guidelines for having the steam bins in his establishment.
With the recent election of Terry Branstad as Iowa's governor, Lerner was let go as the head of the Iowa D.I.A. and Rod Roberts was installed as the new director. There is hope among the Short's and other old-style Maid-Rite owners that he will reverse the directive handed down by Lerner. As of now, nothing has changed, and it's business as usual for Taylor's Maid-Rite in Marshalltown.
(Update Sept. 2011 - After numerous warnings and threats to shut them down over health violations given by the Iowa State Department of Public Health, it appears the new administration has given Taylor's a clean bill of health with their cooking methods. Click here to read the story from the Food Safety News web site.)
Taylor's Maid-Rite may be the most famous of all the Maid-Rites in existence, not only due to the Short's spearheading this appeal process against the State of Iowa, but for the way they market themselves. Their web site is simply www.maidrite.com, something that probably has to stick in the craw of the Maid-Rite corporation that has www.maid-rite.com as their web site. Not only can you order Taylor's Maid-Rite shirts, mugs and glasses on the web site, but you can have their Maid-Rites shipped nearly anywhere in the United States. The Maid-Rites are made at Taylor's, frozen without pickles or onions (those are included in a plastic container), then shipped 2nd Day Air in a reusable cooler with frozen gel packs inserted in with the sandwiches. You can un-thaw the sandwiches and then re-heat them in a microwave (sort of sounds like what the current Maid-Rite corporation is trying to get the franchises to do). Maid-Rites are orderable in quantities of one, two or three dozen at a time. I understand their mail-order business for Maid-Rites is a big enterprise for them, but I can't imagine that they'd taste anywhere as close to having one at the counter at Taylor's Maid-Rite.
It was just before six p.m. on a cold, rain-swept evening when I pulled into the parking lot at Taylor's Maid-Rite. There were five people seated at the counter when I got there, but a number of people were walking in and getting Maid-Rites to go. When the waitress came over, I ordered two Maid-Rites with everything - mustard, pickles, onions.
I was sort of shocked after I ordered to look up at the menu board and realize that Taylor's now featured cheese Maid-Rites. This was also something that the Short's recently added to their menu. You couldn't get ketchup or cheese on a Maid-Rite at Taylor's for, well, since they opened up. But within the past couple of years, you can now get both. I was sort of glad I didn't get the cheese on my Maid-Rites, for tradition and old times sake.
The Maid-Rite at Taylor's is not much different from the one in Newton or the Canteen in Ottumwa. You can order it wet (I got mine a little wet) with a little of the beef broth added to the meat. It sort of clumps the meat together and gives it a little more of a moist - and flavorful - taste.
And both of the Taylor's Maid-Rites I had were very good. They have a slightly different taste from the ones I get in Newton or at the Canteen in Ottumwa, but it's all good. The old steam bins, no doubt, have a lot to do with the taste of the Maid-Rites and/or Canteen burgers. It would be a shame - and quite probably the death knell - of these places if they were forced to change their method of cooking their beef.
While I'm still partial to the Maid-Rites in Newton, and God knows that I've been chastised by people from Ottumwa for that, I think which one tastes the best is all about with what you grew up with. Now, that's not particularly true for my cousin who grew up on Newton Maid-Rites - he thinks that Taylor's have the best Maid-Rites between all of them and he'd rather drive to Marshalltown and have one up there rather than eat at the one in Newton. But it really doesn't matter which of the three you try, you'll be indulging in a large slice of Iowa tradition and history. And Taylor's Maid-Rite is quite possibly the most famous of them all.
Chasers Sports Bar and Grill in the Northwest Chicago suburb of Niles (see map) is one of those surprising places that I've found out about within the past few months. Surprising in that the food is actually pretty good for a sports bar, including their pizza which is some of the best in a city that has world class pizza all over. I was first turned on to Chasers by the guys from Abt Electronics last fall and I have now been there about five or six times over the past few months.
Chasers originally opened about 20 years ago and quickly became THE destintation to watch sports on TV soon thereafter. Chasers has over two dozen flat panel televisions and two large projections televisions - one in the main dining room as you walk in and the other in the little dance club toward the back. If there's a game on, they have it.
Their menu is typical sports bar food - sandwiches, appetizers, burgers, and salads. They also feature a number of sub sandwiches - or "authentic East Coast grinders" - and Greek specialties such as gyros, saganaki and spinach pie. And, as I said, the food is surprisingly good. Especially their chicken wings and pizza.
I'm not a huge chicken wings fan, but I have to say that the wings at Chasers are some of the best I've ever had. The wings are big and meaty, juicy and not overcooked. They are offered plain, or with a mild or hot sauce. They also feature barbecue sauce chicken wings and an over-the-top hot sauce they call "Ay Carumba!" You can order the wings either in lots of 10 or 18, or for a couple bucks more per order you can get small chicken drumsticks instead of wings. I've had both the mild and hot sauce chicken wings. While I wouldn't call the hot sauce all that hot, it has more of a peppery taste to it.
We stopped into Chasers after the Iowa/Northwestern football game last fall to get a little something to eat and to watch some football. I got an order of chicken wings - mild - thinking that someone would help me eat them. No one else did and I think I had about seven before I got to a point where I was full. You don't get cheated on the chicken wings at Chasers. They're a meal in themselves.
But the biggest surprise at Chasers is the pizza. It's a thin crust pizza, loaded with mozzarella and plentiful toppings. They use the big chunks of Italian sausage on their pizza at Chasers, and the vegetable toppings are all fresh. It's a very good pizza.
I first had their pizza last fall when I met up with a bunch of guys from Abt Electronics after an in-store event they were having. One of the veterans from Abt, Brian, was telling me about Chasers and how good the pizza was. I had a piece of just a basic pepperoni pizza when I got there and I was absolutely floored by the taste. The tomato sauce was tangy and sweet. The cheese was perfectly caramelized on top and the crust was thin, but not too thin where the slice would droop under the weight of the toppings and cheese. I've been back two more times since then and had the pizza and I have to say that I'm overly impressed with Chasers pizza. Sure, there are a number of sports bars that feature pizza, but I've not found a similar place that has as good of a pizza as Chasers. Chasers pizza is better than some pizza joints I've visited in the Chicago area. And that says a lot about their pizza!
The only caveat about the pizza at Chaser's is that they use canned chopped mushrooms instead of fresh chopped mushrooms. They have sort of an earthy taste to them and can almost overwhelm the taste of the fennel sausage and pepperoni. But it's definitely not a deal breaker by a long shot.
I also want to point out that the service at Chasers is pretty damn good. The young waitresses are on top of things, friendly and overly attentive to your needs. And they're pretty quick at bringing a cold beer to the table after you order one.
After nine p.m. on some weekends, the back room turns into a dance room and the age skews well under 30 in the place. It can get pretty loud in the place - as well as pretty crowded. Dance clubs that play urban music aren't quite my scene and I prefer to be out of there soon after the music starts. I've never cared for places that play loud music when you're trying to carry on a conversation with friends without having to scream above the music level. However, on nights when there are UFC fights being telecast, Chasers shuts down the dance floor and cranks up the big screens to show the fights.
Chasers is also one of the few places in the NW suburbs that is open to 4 a.m. and their kitchen is open until 3 a.m. Maybe a few years ago that may have been a good selling point for me, but I'm long past my urges for late night carousing. Plus, as I've heard many times, not a lot of good happens after 2 a.m. But Chasers has an ample staff of bouncers to help keep the peace from any alchohol-fueled incidents that may arise.
But, to me, sports and the pizza is the draw for Chasers. The wings are excellent, the pizza is outstanding and if you can't find a game to watch at Chasers, well, then it just ain't on. Throw in some excellent service and cold beer and you've got a good sports bar to hang at in Northwest Chicago.