Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve ever looked over a restaurant’s online menu as I did for Mallie’s, mainly because of who I happen to have with me on my travels. As I’ve documented here many times, Amy doesn’t eat beef because she hates the taste of it, and that would seemingly make her incompatible with Mallie’s at first glance, because Mallie’s has made its name on two things in Michigan: being a sports fan’s dream place to watch Detroit sports and some ridiculously huge and delicious burgers.
Over the years, Mallie’s has pushed the limits of burger making, daring to make the biggest burger ever created when Adam Richman came to visit in Season 2 of Man vs. Food. That burger weighed in at 190 pounds and required a team of 40 people to attempt (and fail) to take it down. Mallie’s reaction? It wasn’t to stop there and call it a day. It was to tack on almost another 150 pounds and make that the new standard.
Yes, this behemoth burger that weighs in at 338 pounds and is about the height of what appears to be your average first-grader is actually on the menu at Mallie’s, labeled as the completely accurately named “Absolutely Ridiculous Burger”. The burger requires 72 hours of advance notice and costs $1,999. No, I’m not kidding, this burger is more expensive than my last car. Of course, when we watched this episode, Amy found the burger-making process so unappealing that I quickly switched to a different episode before she could swear off Mallie’s. Throw in the fact that Mallie’s is a good distance south of the Motor City in Southgate, resulting in a lengthy trip down I-75, and I knew this had the potential to be a tough sell if I couldn’t find something she’d enjoy.
I shouldn’t have worried at all. One of the many things I love about Amy is that she is just as skilled as I am at spotting and enjoying a must-try dish. As long as it’s not beef, she’s up for trying just about anything, and if something is unique to an area that meets her one requirement of not being beef or steak, she’s going to give it a shot.
In doing so, she might have found the best thing on Mallie’s menu. Despite being known for its massive and diverse lineup of burgers, Mallie’s also features a nice amount of deli sandwiches, several of which get their own creative twist. One of these was the pretzel club, which Amy found far too intriguing to pass up. On the surface, there would seem to be nothing all that special about a club, which features turkey and bacon with Swiss. However, as their burgers have indicated, Mallie’s isn’t in the business of being ordinary.
This sandwich is epic. First, they don’t just layer smoked turkey onto the sandwich, they actually grill the turkey first. This has the effect of giving a different taste and texture to the turkey, while deepening the smoke flavor. It works fantastically with the Swiss, bacon and honey mustard mayonnaise, and it’s clear that this is no average club. The second difference comes in the pretzel bread. Yes, this is soft pretzel dough turned into a sandwich, without the giant specks of salt. For some reason, the pretzel bread is perfect in this sandwich. It’s chewy and tasty, and it complements the ingredients well. Amy would eventually list this as her favorite restaurant of our Michigan adventure, simply because of her club. I was fortunate enough to try a bit and found it to be incredible.
Having no aversion to beef, however, I was going to go with a burger all the way, and I opted for one of my favorites, the mushroom and Swiss. However, once again, Mallie’s isn’t interested in being ordinary. They encourage you to “go nuts” with your burger by offering the option to slather on a peanut mayonnaise, which is actually made with roasted peanuts and has several chunks of peanuts in the mayo when it comes out with your burger. Of course, I had to throw it on. Peanut mayonnaise? Far too different not to give it a taste.
It ended up being much more than a taste. The nutty flavor added to the mayonnaise is pretty awesome, and it gave a new dimension of flavor to a burger that I already love. Then, there’s Mallie’s beef. This burger is thick and juicy, proving that although Mallie’s might make record-setting sizes of burgers, it knows how to handle the classic, half-pound burger just as easily. Both of our orders of fries were also first-class, crisp and tasty. This place isn’t famous because its meals are huge, it’s famous because it’s good. Big difference, and the latter is how you find a restaurant worth your time and money.
It’s not often that a sports bar is a destination restaurant in a major city, but that’s exactly what exists in the southern suburbs of Detroit. With a shrine to each of the city’s teams inside and a fantastic menu, Mallie’s is what it intended to be: a great place to watch Michigan teams compete while pounding down some awesome burgers and sandwiches. Sometimes, you don’t have to have a highbrow aim to be a success. Sometimes, you just have to know who you are and do what you do best. That’s the way it’s done at Mallie’s, no matter how big the burger (or pretzel club) is.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner, and if you want a festive atmosphere, come when there’s a Red Wings/Tigers/Lions game. The building will likely be packed with fans who couldn’t get tickets to Joe Louis Arena or Comerica Park (most likely not a problem when the Lions are playing in Ford Field) and want to see the game. If you just want to eat in peace, avoid coming when a Detroit team is playing.
Wait during my visit: None. Helps to come in the middle of the day.
Location: Mallie’s is at 19400 Northline Road in Southgate, Mich., a minute or two from Interstate 75.
Cost: Not bad at all. Most Mallie’s sandwiches run about $10. Of course, that assumes nobody orders the Absolutely Ridiculous.
Parking: There is a lot connected to the restaurant. Be warned, it isn’t huge and leaving can be a chore.
Seating arrangement: Plenty of booths, each one with its own television to allow patrons to watch games.
Specialty items: Burgers, turkey club
Great barbecue places can exist anywhere in this country, even in places that aren’t at all known for how they smoke their meat. Of course one would expect to find great barbecue in Texas, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City and the Carolinas, but sometimes you can find some gems in places like Iowa and Virginia, which are definitely better known for other contributions.
However, one thing that all of those places do have in common is that if they’re not barbecue country, they’re at least somewhat close. After all, Des Moines is only a three-hour shot from Kansas City on Interstate 35, and Virginia shares a border with North Carolina. When you really think about it, it shouldn’t be all that surprising to find good, local barbecue places in those locations, even if they’re not generally known for it.
But a barbecue gem in Michigan, which isn’t anywhere near any of the locations that are known for barbecue? OK, that’s about as different as huckleberry barbecue, and it’s actually a story of far more than just the meats that come out of the smoker at Slows. As you’ve probably heard, Detroit has developed quite the reputation of being a place that you don’t want to be after dark. It probably hasn’t helped that Corktown, the neighborhood of Detroit which housed Tiger Stadium for the near-century that the Tigers played there is considered a disaster, or that parking lots are able to charge and get $30 a car for major events in downtown Detroit because people want their car in a secured facility. Basically, as far as many are concerned, the Motor City has earned its reputation as a lousy place to be.
Slows is an effort to change that. Phil Cooley, one of the owners of Slows, started the business in 2005 on the premise that barbecue was a perfect fit for blue-collar Detroit and opened his doors in Corktown, challenging the idea that people would not come into Detroit for anything but major events. After all, other than the Coney Island hot dog war, Detroit lacked anything resembling a destination restaurant inside the city for years before Slow’s, because nobody wanted to do business in the D.
But Slows succeeded, to the point where Cooley and his family had to open Slows To Go in the Midtown section of Detroit because their original location could no longer come close to meeting the demand of the barbecue-hungry Detroit crowd. Slows To Go features much faster service, a less-crowded building, a much larger kitchen and a safer parking area (although it does still have a shot of graffiti.) Plus, for those who do want to eat there, it even offers a couple bar stools to do so. Basically, it takes what made the original great and makes it even better.
Of course, to have a description like that, I’ve got to explain what made the original great, and that’s a pretty simple thing: sandwiches and sides. While Slows does offer the standard barbecue platters of ribs, brisket, pork and chicken, what really makes it outstanding is its creative barbecue sandwiches. Each one has a creative name, each is available on either Texas toast or a Kaiser roll and each features some combinations that make use of Slows’ barbecue sauces.
Sandwiches include the Reason, which features pulled pork with NC sauce (Carolina pork sauce), cole slaw and dill pickles, the Longhorn, a mixture of brisket, onion marmalade, spicy barbecue sauce and smoked Gouda, and JP’s Revenge, which replaces the brisket with ham and opts for mustard sauce instead of the spicy barbecue.
Following the theme of this blog, Amy and I went with none of those choices. In fact, we had decided on this one a long time ago. Amy opted for the Yardbird, which takes a smoked chicken breast, covers it in mustard sauce and adds cheddar, mushrooms and smoked bacon. Basically, that’s a mix of some of her absolute favorites, and mine. This sandwich didn’t come close to disappointing. The sauce is so good that you don’t even need to add any of Slows’ sauces to it, and the toppings work fantastically. Amy loved every bit of it, even though she was nowhere near finishing it and neither was I after she was done. Slows gives you a LOT of food.
The same was true of my sandwich, the Triple Threat Pork. I knew this one was going to be something I had to try when I saw the combination of ham, pulled pork and bacon, and although it wasn’t the Yardbird, it was still one heck of a sandwich. This time, you do need the sauce, and my sauce of choice was the apple barbecue sauce. Yes, they have one with the distinct apple flavor, which makes for a solid and different flavor that goes very well with pork. Definitely a good experience there.
But the real beauty of Slows comes in the form of their incredible sides. Holy cow, are these things excellent. Amy and I decided to order three sides, opting to try their macaroni and cheese, mashed sweet potatoes and waffle cheese fries. All three were incredible, and I’m going to start with the waffle cheese fries, because these simply stood out like nothing we’d had in a while. The fries are skin-on waffle-cut heaven, topped with real Vermont cheddar rather than the molten orange mess you find in most places. The result is an incredible taste that can’t be even close to healthy, but is six shades of deliciousness. Even the picture can make people jealous, and it doesn’t even do them justice.
The macaroni and cheese was outstanding, which was a surprise to Amy. She is not a mac and cheese fan by any definition, but Slows’ mac and cheese actually worked well in her opinion. That’s because it’s more like a casserole than being like Kraft, and the cheese was perfect with the pasta. I personally haven’t met a mac and cheese I didn’t like, so it was hardly a shock to me that I loved this.
My surprise was the mashed sweet potatoes. Having spend almost two years in Idaho, I’ve eaten a lot of potatoes in my day. But mashed sweet potatoes aren’t something I’ve got a lot of experience with, so this order was more out of intrigue than it was about expectation. But wow, was it excellent. The sweet potatoes have a smooth, creamy texture and a little bit of a kick to them, which makes for one heck of a combination.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other excellent part of eating at Slows, and that would in the small plastic cup you see in the corner. Upon arriving at Slows, I was delighted to see that one of their soda machine’s choices is Vernors, the original ginger ale and the drink of choice in Detroit. Vernors was invented in Detroit soon after the Civil War, and entered into production in the 1880′s. Soon after, it became known as Detroit’s Drink, whether by itself or used for another Detroit treat, the Boston Cooler (why it has that name, I have no idea), which is an ice cream float with vanilla ice cream in a glass of Vernors.
By itself, Vernors is wonderful. This isn’t your typical ginger ale, and the taste is nothing like Canada Dry. Vernors actually calls itself ginger soda, and it has a sweeter taste than ginger ale. Amy likened it to a mix between ginger ale and cream soda, and she might very well be right about that. We ended up buying a case of Vernors to take back with us to Iowa, where we had our own versions of the Boston Cooler, which were outstanding. Much like with Coca-Cola in the South, you have to have Vernors at Slows. It’s just a Motor City tradition, and a great one.
Barbecue might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Detroit, but Slows has given the D something to be proud to call its own. It says something when people willingly pack into a less-than-great neighborhood on a regular basis to try the food you’ve created. When something is this good, people will seek it out, and Slows is completely worth the journey.
Time to go: Anytime, and this is a really cool feature with Slows to Go. Want to skip the wait? All you have to do is go online to Slows’ website, and you can place your order and decide what time of day you want to pick it up. Then, when you get to Slows, your order will be hot and ready right around when you arrive. Much like Lou Malnati’s system of order while you wait, it’s a feature more restaurants should implement.
Wait during my visit: Minimal. Even ordering online doesn’t guarantee you won’t have a small wait if Slows gets busy. We only waited five minutes past our time, though. At the Corktown location, though, you want to budget a LOT of time.
Location: Slows’ original Corktown location is at 2138 Michigan Avenue in Detroit. Slows to Go, where Amy and I visited, is at 4107 Cass Avenue, in Detroit’s Midtown section.
Cost: Not bad at all. You’ll pay $8.50 for a sandwich, and each side will cost you $3. You can easily get a full meal on less than $15 here.
Parking: If you’re at Slows to Go, this isn’t bad at all, there’s a small lot that doesn’t get too packed. If you’re in Corktown, hope and pray. Slows actually advocates parking behind a nearby bar, which features a guarded lot and costs $3. That’s never a good sign about a neighborhood when the restaurant is advertising a paid lot with some proceeds going to pay the guards, but that is the Motor City for you.
Seating arrangement: You’re not in a good situation there at either location. Slows to Go is mainly intended to be to go, but there are about four stools there for people who do want to eat there. Luckily, nobody else wanted to join us in that. In Corktown, you might wait a while for a table.
Specialty items: Barbecue sandwiches, waffle cheese fries, Vernors
Without question, the thing I love most about college towns is that virtually every one has at least one iconic restaurant near the university’s campus. Short’s in Iowa City is as good as it gets, Shakespeare’s Pizza in Columbia, Mo., isn’t bad, I’ve heard good things about the Varsity in Atlanta, and my brother swore by Tolly Ho in Lexington, Ky.
On the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the place to be is the appropriately-named Maize and Blue Deli, named for the Wolverines’ iconic colors. The restaurant is a relative newcomer as far as iconic college town eateries go, since it was only established in 1988, but in the past quarter-century, it’s established itself as one of the top places for Michigan men and women to enjoy quality sandwiches after Wolverines games.
Of course, there is no bad time to enjoy a deli sandwich, but the question here is figuring out just which one to enjoy. The first thing one notices is the giant menu, which is up against the wall and takes up a full six white boards. Each sandwich is broken into categories by which meat is the big star, and the Maize and Blue has so many sandwiches that one of the chicken sandwiches actually got moved into the roast beef category because they ran out of room.
This is what happens when you boast an arsenal of 86 sandwiches. During our visit, Amy and I calculated that if a Michigan student visits once a week from their first week as a freshman and gets a different sandwich on every visit, he or she will have tried every sandwich on the menu just before the end of their junior year. Perhaps the Maize and Blue could start a card with the number of every sandwich to give to students, with a free T-shirt awarded to those who consume all 86 within four years of college, plus possible discounts on every 10th sandwich or so. You know college students would get jazzed about that kind of competition, and it would be another way to tie itself to the university. Maize and Blue Deli, we encourage you to do this.
Outside of the giant boards of sandwiches, the other noticeable thing is the walls of Michigan autographs. It seems that just about everyone who has worn the maize and blue over the past 25 years has stopped in and signed the wall, and it’s a nice tribute to Michigan’s rich athletic history, which is pretty outstanding even with Chris Webber’s ill-fated timeout.
Back to the sandwiches. The names of the sandwiches are one of the oddest things about this place, because they’re very creative, but you don’t use them when ordering. Instead of telling the guy at the counter you want a Foul Shot (chicken, ham, havarti, cheddar, Dijon mustard, lettuce, tomato and onion on grilled challah), you ask for a No. 37. Courtney’s Conversation (turkey, roast beef, havarti, cheddar, honeycup mustard, lettuce and tomato on grilled sourdough pumpernickel) becomes No. 33. Most of the subs don’t get names at all, they just have numbers.
Other named subs include the following:
No. 43: Kelly’s Tuna (tuna salad, lettuce, tomato, onion on pita)
No. 50: Running Back Lunch (turkey, salami, provolone, honeycup mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion on a New York onion roll)
No. 11: Amanda’s Moonlight (corned beef, colby, jarlsberg, Dijon, tomato and onion on grilled seeded sourdough rye)
No. 18: Where’s Bo? (pastrami, egg, Canadian cheddar, mayonnaise, onion, green pepper on grilled challah)
No. 44: Triple Play Reuben (corned beef, pastrami, swiss, jarlsberg, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on grilled sourdough rye)
Many of the names are from the sports world, but a lot have nothing to do with sports. That was the case with my sandwich, which I knew I had to try as soon as I saw the name. Sandwich No. 20 is entitled Amy’s Renovation, an ironic name given that the sandwich is in the pastrami section, and of course, Amy won’t eat the smoked cured beef. But there was nothing stopping me from ordering it, which also comes with smoked turkey, colby, havarti (her favorite cheese), cole slaw and Russian on grilled sourdough rye.
What a sandwich. The deli meat comes in large quantities, and it’s cut perfectly and works so well with the rest of the ingredients. The pastrami is simply perfect, and the smoked turkey is as good as it gets. Both cheeses melt wonderfully, and the fact that they grill the sandwich makes the flavors just that much better. The cole slaw is a surprising success here, as I hate cole slaw by itself. But for some reason, it works well when it’s on a sandwich, and as I discovered with this sandwich, that remains the case even when it’s not surrounded by french fries. The dressing is creamy and tasty, and the sourdough rye is one of the best breads I’ve had. I love sourdough, and I knew I had to get a sandwich on sourdough rye when I saw it on the menu here. Once again, sourdough is amazing. As I told my wonderful girlfriend after eating, this was definitely a sandwich worthy of her name.
Amy went in a different direction, opting for sandwich No. 32, the One on One. Hey, it’s not that big of a shock, she likes basketball. She also likes turkey, which this sandwich combines with a fried egg, colby and havarti, honeycup mustard, tomato and black olives on grilled challah (it also adds green pepper, which she omitted). For those who are unfamiliar with challah, which included me until last week, it’s a Jewish egg bread that’s braided and tends to be served around holidays. Apparently, Maize and Blue decided that this bread was too good to restrict to holidays, and I have to say that I agree. I briefly sampled her sandwich, which had a bit too much mustard for my taste, but was overall awesome. Amy, who has no problem whatsoever with mustard, absolutely loved her sandwich, especially the grilled challah.
One bit of advice here: you don’t need to get chips or any sides. These are big sandwiches, and they all come with a sizable dill pickle, which means that if you get any sides, you might not have room for all of your sandwich. That would be a darn shame, because these sandwiches are the reason you come to Maize and Blue. This small shrine to all that is Michigan might be difficult to stomach if your allegiance is to another school, but even a Buckeye or a Spartan could appreciate the Maize and Blue’s sandwiches. They’re that good.
Time to go: Lunch, and not after a Michigan sporting event. When the Wolverines play a football game, Michigan Stadium holds up to 109,000 people without getting the fire marshals involved, which would make it the seventh-largest city in Michigan on game day. Given that a lot of those people come to Maize and Blue after the game, it’s probably a good idea to stay far away when the Wolverines are done playing.
Wait during my visit: Minimal. We came with students preparing for graduation, which meant that tables were available. This is key, because there are not many tables to go around here.
Location: The Maize and Blue Deli is at 1329 South University in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Cost: Most sandwiches are around $10 and worth it.
Parking: None around the restaurant, but Ann Arbor and the university have several garages. It’s $1.20 an hour to park in one, and on Sundays, it’s free. It’s about a five-minute walk from the nearest garage to Maize and Blue.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs, and not very many of them. If it’s crowded when you get there, you might be waiting a little while until a table opens up for you.
Website: Maize and Blue Deli
Specialty items: Deli sandwiches
While driving through Kentucky’s largest city in March with Amy, I couldn’t help but notice Louisville’s newest slogan: Keep Louisville weird. It seems that the new slogan is an effort to convince Louisville residents to buy local, and keeping Louisville weird means keeping it unique. I’m not sure why they chose to use weird, but I guess weird is a good way to describe a city where the local university is joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, despite it being closer to Oklahoma than it is to the Atlantic Ocean.
Whatever definition of weird you choose, however, it doesn’t get much weirder than the Dragon King’s Daughter, a local favorite that features both Japanese and Mexican on its menu. Yes, Japanese and Mexican. I shouldn’t be surprised, since I’ve seen Chinese and Mexican together, but that was in Phoenix, where Mexicans are plentiful and Asians aren’t that uncommon, given Arizona’s proximity to the West Coast. This is Louisville, where 95 percent of the population is neither Asian nor Hispanic. Given that it’s two cuisines that seemingly don’t go together at all, the first question to ask is why.
Well, truth be told, that’s the wrong question to ask, but I’m going to answer it anyway. The story of the Dragon King’s Daughter actually starts with a beloved Japanese place in Louisville called Maido, where DKD owner and chef Toki Masubuchi first developed her creations. Eventually, Masubuchi sold Maido to focus on the Dragon King’s Daughter, named for a character in mythology. According to the legend, the Dragon King is the ruler of the ocean, with the ability to become human, while his daughter was the first one to reach enlightenment.
Perhaps this was Masubuchi’s way of claiming she had reached the level she wanted to reach as a chef, and perhaps it’s just because the name sounds cool, but either way, the Dragon King’s Daughter took the sushi and other Japanese favorites that made the now-closed Maido a favorite and brought them onto a menu with Mexican and Western favorites that Masubuchi had picked up through her years of work.
The result is that the menu contains things like Tilapia Tempura and Tuna Tataki…in tacos, fusing Japanese culture with Mexican. It’s a bold move, but Chino Bandido certainly taught us that bold fusions can pay off in a big way. Other options include Shrimp Tempura, Asian barbecue and Ginger Chicken, all of which sound like they’d work out pretty well inside a tortilla. Outside of the Mexican touch, the Dragon King’s Daughter caters to both alcohol fans and dry customers alike, serving a large amount of alcoholic libations while putting their water in a wine glass. Pretty cool.
But at its heart, the specialty of the Dragon King’s Daughter remains its work with its Japanese roots, and Japanese cuisine in America means one of two things: hibachi or sushi. At the Dragon King’s Daughter, that means sushi and a lot of choices. It also means a lot of creativity on the menu. Many sushi places will explain their entrees in a straightforward manner in the name, given that a lot of Americans are unfamiliar with sushi and want to know exactly what they’re consuming.
The Dragon King’s Daughter goes the opposite direction. They’ll give you the description of each, but they’re assuming that if you’re coming there, you know what you’re getting into as far as sushi is concerned. This place is the Voodoo Doughnut of sushi, and here’s a few examples:
Red-tailed Hawk: Salmon and spicy crab inside, red tuna and escolar outside
Sushi and the Banshees: Cream cheese, garlic and avocado inside, salmon and basil outside
Sarah Said: Red tuna and hot sauce inside, salmon and avocado outside
There Went Drew: Salmon, crab, cream cheese and avocado tempura fried
Frosty Sunbeam: Mango and cream cheese inside, salmon and avocado outside
Mikey Ain’t Right: Shrimp tempura outside, lobster salad and unagi outside
I’m not sure what any of those names have to do with their descriptions, with the possible exception of the Red-tailed Hawk having red tuna. But as usual, Amy and I opted to go with a few different choices than what you see above, which does tend to be the case when we’re trying to bring you the best picture of a place we can without setting our wallets on fire.
As always happens when having Japanese with Amy, we started with some edamame. Amy absolutely loves these salted soybeans in the pods, and they were again high-quality, although she was surprised to find out that it’s served cold here. Edamame tends to be served hot, but here, it’s a cold appetizer. It still worked as well as usual.
With that out of the way, we turned our attention to the real reason we fought through Louisville traffic and a car issue to make it here: the sushi. Given that sushi isn’t exactly the most filling food in the world, we decided to go with three different types, along with some spicy mayonnaise that Amy wanted to add for dipping.
Quickly, she decided that given the name of the place we were at, we had to try the Dragon King’s Daughter, while I opted to add an order of Steve’s Kryptonite. Our third choice was made after great deliberation, since Amy has a higher spice tolerance than I do, but we opted for a Chupakarla Roll, which neither of us was quite sure how to pronounce.
All three were outstanding. I’ll start with the namesake, the Dragon King’s Daughter, which happens to be the most visible one in the above picture. The interior is filled with tempura fried shrimp, while it’s topped with both avocado and unagi, a Japanese freshwater eel. While eel isn’t the first thing most people think when it comes to sushi, Amy and I discovered a while ago that we had a taste for eel, and this was awesome. It’s further topped with a unagi sauce, which only added to the flavors. I loved every bit of this one, and Amy named it as her favorite of our three choices.
On to our second choice, Steve’s Kryptonite. Ironically, despite it being my choice, it finished third among my voting of the three. That doesn’t mean it was bad at all, but it wasn’t quite as amazing as the other two. That said, Steve’s Kryptonite is still pretty wonderful. I’m not sure who Steve is or why this is his kryptonite, but it includes unagi outside and salmon, avocado and cream cheese inside. There’s nothing in that description I didn’t like, and those flavors work fantastically together. The creaminess of the avocado and cream cheese is outstanding with the fish and rice, and it works great with the mayonnaise as well. Love it.
But that said, it wasn’t quite as good as the Chupakarla, which I’m still not completely sure how to pronounce. What I do know is it tastes incredible. The interior is filled with spicy crab meat and cream cheese, and it’s topped with salmon, shrimp and basil for a truly different taste. I was worried about the heat of the crab, but the crab actually isn’t that spicy and the cream cheese works against that anyway. Plus, the bit of heat works well with the heat of the spicy mayonnaise, making this a perfect choice to dip in the sauce. It was an excellent choice, and something I wouldn’t have experienced if not for my amazing girlfriend. She is the perfect complement to my blog, if you haven’t figured that out already (as well as the rest of my life).
As far as the sushi goes, it’s so hard to find it made correctly that when a place does succeed, it’s truly valuable, especially in a spot that’s nowhere near Japan. Almost nobody thinks of Kentucky when they think of great sushi, but the Dragon King’s Daughter shows that the right people can make things work anywhere. This is truly enlightened sushi. If this is what it means by keeping Louisville weird, I’m all for it.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Try to avoid rush hour, as the Dragon King’s Daughter is in a very busy part of town and traffic can get ridiculous here. If you can avoid that mess, it’s best to do it.
Wait during my visit: None. Busy part of town does not always mean packed atmosphere, and that was a welcome thing here.
Location: The Dragon King’s Daughter is at 1126 Bardstown Road in Louisville, Ky. There’s also a location in New Albany, Ind.
Cost: Depends. You can get some budget sushi for no more than $6, or you can go high-brow and get creative for about double the cost. It’s fairly affordable no matter what you do.
Parking: Keep dreaming. Remember how I said this is a busy part of town? Yeah, that means there is no parking lot at all, and you’ll be lucky if you can find anything on the street. Hope and pray even more so than at Hattie B’s.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs, and be careful. Our table wobbled all night.
Website: Dragon King’s Daughter
Specialty items: Sushi and tacos
No matter who created a dish first, when it becomes the signature food of a city, there are going to be plenty of places who claim they do it better than the original. In Louisville, that’s the Hot Brown. In Minneapolis, it’s the Juicy Lucy. In Butte, it’s the pasty, and in Nashville, it’s hot chicken.
Hot chicken has been a part of Nashville lore ever since Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack created it and unleashed the fires of hell on the Music City, burning lips across the country music capital with its combination of quality meat and spices at every level. It’s meant to cause pain, but the taste brings so much pleasure that it doesn’t even matter how much you’re hurting, you have to finish it.
Prince’s might be the one who created it, but that doesn’t mean other places can’t master it as well. The latest to discover the secret is Hattie B’s, a place that has all of the ability and flavor of Prince’s with none of the location problems that plague the original. I’m not honestly sure how it found a spot when Hattie B’s is almost in both Music Row (the area where country recording studios are located) and the campuses of both Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, making it a much nicer area than Prince’s seedy strip mall. As Amy was making her move north, the idea of being in a more protected area was appealing to us, and since you can’t go through Nashville without having experienced hot chicken, Hattie B’s was the choice.
It proved to be a great one. Hattie B’s might be new to Nashville, but its owners are no strangers to the restaurant business. The Bishop family got its start running Bishop’s Meat and 3 in Franklin, just south of Nashville, and bring over 50 years of experience to the table. Given their long ties to central Tennessee and their experience with serving quality meals, they decided to give Nashville’s legendary bird a try, naming it after Nick Bishop’s great-grandmother.
It’s safe to say that they know what they’re doing. Like most hot chicken places, Hattie B’s offers various levels of heat, offering guests the chance to choose just how much pain they’re willing to put themselves through. At the lowest level is regular southern fried chicken, completely devoid of the blazing spices of hot chicken. This is not necessarily a standard at hot chicken places, as some restaurants only go as low as mild, but Hattie B’s philosophy is that some like it hot and some don’t, so those who can’t take the heat have an option.
From there, the levels keep increasing. Mild is the lowest level of heat, followed by medium, hot and Damn Hot. From what I’ve heard, Damn Hot is basically like someone lit a match inside you and decided to burn you from the inside out. As far as my preference, if you remember my escapade at Prince’s, mild felt like I had licked a spark plug because of my low spice tolerance. But at Hattie B’s, the spice is reined in a little to a more sensible level. With that being the case, I decided to give medium a shot.’
This was excellent. The bird was still painful, but it wasn’t as ridiculously spicy as my first experience with hot chicken. At Hattie B’s, the spice of medium doesn’t hit you right away. Instead, it takes a couple seconds before the burners kick in, taking your experience from tasty to spicy in a matter of seconds. But again, with hot chicken, pain is pleasure. Despite the heat, I had to keep going and finish the whole bird, plus the bread they serve you to soak up the grease and heat.
That’s because inside that heat is one juicy and moist chicken. I’ve had some really good fried chicken before, but this is some of the best there is, hot or not. The meat is so tender and filled with so much juice that you just have to keep going beck for more. The spice does not soak in from the skin to the meat, which means that all you taste once you get through the skin is one delicious bird. I love dark meat, and this chicken’s leg and thigh were simply incredible. When I was done, I just wanted more of it.
Amy opted for a different kind of hot chicken that’s not always available, going with chicken tenders. She has a higher spice tolerance than I do, so she opted to make it hot, which is the most common order at Hattie B’s. She greatly enjoyed it, finding the heat to be exactly to her liking. Personally, the hot is a little too much for me, but it still tasted pretty good. These guys really know what they’re doing on the chicken.
However, it doesn’t stop there. Other than its fries, Hattie B’s makes all its sides in-house, and I had to sample their pimiento macaroni and cheese. This was a very different and very outstanding taste. The pasta is creamy and cheesy, and the pimientos add a new layer of flavor which fits perfectly at a hot chicken place. I was very impressed with what I found. I also enjoyed some of Amy’s cole slaw, which she was not as pleased with. Turns out, she’s used to slaw being a bit sweeter, while the vinegary taste of it at Hattie B’s worked well for me. I don’t even like slaw, and I found theirs excellent.
It doesn’t end there, either. Amy decided that while she was still in the South, we had to get some banana pudding, and since I’d never had it before, it was something I had to sample. It was outstanding. The cool, creamy pudding with real whipped cream is the perfect finish after a round of hot chicken, allowing you something sweet and satisfying after you’ve put your mouth through a meal of sheer torture to get the taste you wanted. With vanilla wafers, it’s simply perfect.
If you want the original hot chicken, you’re simply not going to find it here. But if you just want a high-quality bird spiced the Nashville way, Hattie B’s is definitely worth making a stop. It might not have been the first place. But it’s definitely one of the best. There will be pain, but hey, some like it hot.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Hot chicken is best eaten at one of these times, although it can be consumed very late at night.
Wait during my visit: None. Surprising, given that Hattie B’s is not exactly big, but we were fine.
Location: Hattie B’s is at 112 19th Avenue South, near Nashville’s Music Row.
Cost: Most plates will run you about $10 total. Not bad at all.
Parking: Hope and pray. Hattie B’s has the tiniest lot possible, and you have to go up a curb to reach it. It can be done, but it’s tricky. Also, you are out of luck if there’s no open spot. All you can do is find a place to park and walk if possible.
Seating arrangement: Picnic tables
Website: Hattie B’s
Specialty items: Hot chicken
In the grand scope of things, the Reuben sandwich isn’t exactly rocket science. Take corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and dressing, throw it on some rye bread, slap it on the grill and call it a day. Amazingly, the origin of such a straightforward, if unusual, sandwich is disputed (I probably shouldn’t be surprised). Some believe that it was the creation of a Lithuanian grocer, Reuben Kulakofsky, in Omaha, Neb., in the 1920′s at one of his poker games. Others claim that Arnold Reuben created the sandwich at Reuben’s Delicatessen in New York in 1914, despite his Reuben special not containing half of the main ingredients and skipping the grilling step.
I don’t know which one of those stories is true, or who made the original. But I do know who makes it the way it’s supposed to be made, and that’s Izzy’s, a deli that has been located throughout the Cincinnati metro area since 1901. If you’ve done the math, you know that it’s been in business for 112 years, which says that it’s got to be something really special.
If you’ve really done the math, you also know that Izzy’s predates the earliest Reuben date by 13 years and makes no claim that it’s the original home of the Reuben. That means we can only conclude that Izzy’s didn’t figure to add the Reuben to their menu until it gained widespread acceptance, and since Izzy’s built its reputation on corned beef and still uses founder Izzy Kadetz’s recipes, they somehow never discovered this combination until it had already caught on across the country. If they had, who knows, delis might be serving Izzies today. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t figure it out first.
Despite not being the ones who invented the sandwich, Izzy’s knew a good idea when it saw it and built itself around the Reuben. What resulted was some of the best Reubens around, going far beyond the standard corned beef. For those who want something else, Izzy’s is well-known for much more than just corned beef, offering seven other kinds of Reubens. Turkey, cod, vegetarian, pastrami, beef franks and the Cincy staple goetta are all available, plus a double-decker of the standard Reuben.
From my point of view, this is a very good thing, because that means that whenever Amy and I venture to Cincinnati, she’ll be able to have a Reuben of some kind if she so chooses. Actually, I’m not the least bit surprised by that, because Izzy’s appears to have been designed with Amy in mind, and I mean that literally. There’s a sandwich on the menu called Izzy’s Mex, which normally takes the corned beef and Swiss combo and adds jalapenos and chipotle sauce on rye. However, if you want, you can “try it Amy’s way”, which substitutes turkey for the corned beef and puts it on whole wheat toast. Fits her perfectly.
For me, not having an aversion to beef, I had to go with the original. The special touch comes in the quality of the ingredients and in the dressing. Normally, the Reuben is made with either Russian or Thousand Island dressing, but Izzy’s actually makes their own dressing and keeps it a secret. They give you the dressing along with your sandwich, allowing you to slather on as much as you want to go with the kraut, Swiss and corned beef.
One bite tells you why they’ve been in business since the end of the McKinley administration. The dressing is creamy and flavorful, the Swiss cheese melted perfectly, the kraut provides a nice bite and oh, that corned beef. It’s simply delicious, cut and cured exactly the way it should be done. Izzy’s uses the best brisket around for their corned beef, and it shows. There’s plenty of it on there, and there’s plenty of kraut as well. My aunt Margaret, a lover of Reuben sandwiches, would definitely approve.
But Izzy’s doesn’t stop there. Potato pancakes are a large part of Jewish cuisine, and when Izzy opened up shop, he brought his family’s recipe for the delicacy with him. What happened became a thing of beauty, as every sandwich on Izzy’s menu is served with a large potato pancake (and some pickles, which aren’t bad either). These are hot and crispy, full of flavor and full of potato. For a really different taste, try dipping the pancake in the dressing on the side. It’s pretty good, and it’s just magnificent plain.
With the quality of their Reubens, one could easily forget that Izzy’s is a full deli, not just a Reuben shop. Roast beef, turkey and pastrami all star in their own sandwiches, and all three of them combine to form the “Barry Larkin”, after the beloved Hall of Fame Reds shortstop. There’s even a meatloaf sandwich with mayonnaise and American, which Amy would find absolutely disgusting but I think is quite intriguing.
However, I highly doubt I’ll ever find out if it’s any good or not, even if I were to one day move to Cincinnati. That’s because Izzy’s is so darn good at the Reuben that you can go every day and not get sick of it, especially with enough Reubens for every day of the week. Izzy’s might not have invented the Reuben sandwich, but the Kadetz family has certainly perfected it. They call it the World’s Greatest Reuben, and I think this might fall under the category of it’s not bragging if it’s the truth. As current CEO and non-Kadetz family member John Geisen likes to say, what you get when you cross a Jew with a Catholic (Geisen) is success, and it’s definitely the case for Izzy’s.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Izzy’s does have one location that serves breakfast, but you’re not going to Izzy’s for breakfast.
Wait during my visit: None. Being eight hours from Cincinnati, I hit it at around 3:30 p.m. for perfect timing.
Location: The Izzy’s I visited can be found at 1198 Smiley Avenue in Cincinnati, in the Forest Park portion of the city.
Cost: Most sandwiches will cost you between eight and 10 dollars. Not bad at all.
Parking: Depends on the one you go to, as Izzy’s has seven Ohio locations and one in Kentucky, but mine had plenty of parking.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs.
Specialty items: Reuben sandwich, potato pancake
As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, this blog is all about finding the signature restaurants of any city I happen to find myself in, regardless of where I get that information. Man vs. Food shows are a must, but whenever I find out about a city’s staple, I’ve got to try it.
When I moved to the Quad-Cities two years ago, the restaurant I heard about over and over again was Ross’ Restaurant, located just off Interstate 74 in Bettendorf, in the shadow of the bridge that connects Iowa and Illinois. The restaurant’s claim to fame is its Magic Mountain, which one writer has described as the food that could most be identified with the Quad-Cities. Given that Ross’ is open 24 hours a day, it was only a matter of time before I headed over to Ross’s to see what the hype was all about.
And trust me, there is plenty of hype about this place. President Barack Obama made local headlines here when he immediately followed up a speech in the Q-C by heading to Ross’s and getting one, which basically shut down the restaurant. With that kind of endorsement on the table, you would figure that this has to be an epic meal.
You’d be…wrong, actually. Wait a minute. This? This is it? This is the food that’s most identified with the Quad-Cities? An open-faced ground beef sandwich that’s covered in fries and cheese sauce, possibly topped with onions (as snow)?
Hmm, that certainly looks familiar…and it should. The Magic Mountain is nothing more than Springfield’s Horseshoe sandwich, with a new name and different packaging. The ingredients aren’t exactly the same, but they’re so similar that this is nothing more than a copy of the ones who had it first.
There’s nothing wrong with taking one city’s dish and making it your own. In fact, some of those places have wound up famous and made an appearance on this blog. The difference is that nobody is going to claim that coal-fired pizza is Tampa’s signature dish, or that the overstuffed sandwich is a Chicago tradition. Those dishes belong to New York and Pittsburgh, respectively, and those will always be part of their culture. The versions of Tampa and Chicago are merely quality examples of taking a dish from their home and bringing it to their new city because they missed it. Nothing wrong with that at all.
But to straight-up copy another city’s meal, give it a new name and call it your own? That’s just not something that should be done, especially when the real thing is merely a couple hours away by car. That would be like Indianapolis taking Louisville’s Hot Brown, using ham instead of turkey and calling it the Brickyard Sandwich. Note to Indianapolis: Please do not do this. That does sound like it might turn out to be a good meal, but originality is always prized.
Here’s why: when you make your dish the same way that someone else does, you’re always going to get compared to the original. In this area, Ross’s just doesn’t measure up. The french fries are fine, cut in a homestyle version instead of crinkle-cut. I don’t really care how they’re cut, just that they taste good. Here, Ross passes the test. The same applies to the bread, which is Texas toast. Again, it’s quality and it works well with the sandwich. No complaints here.
Where Ross’s doesn’t stack up to a truly epic place like D’Arcy’s Pint is on its cheese sauce. D’Arcy’s covers their horseshoes with a decadent and velvety white cheddar-based cheese sauce that ties everything together and gives the obvious clue that real cheese was used in putting it together. Ross’s sauce looks and tastes like Cheez Whiz. Whiz has its place at times, notably on the cheesesteak in Philadelphia (although even that’s up for debate, as the former owner of Geno’s, one of the three South Philly legends, said provolone is the real cheese and never ate a cheeseteak with Whiz). But in a situation like this, having Whiz just doesn’t work. I don’t know for a fact if Ross’s used real cheese or Whiz, but the fact that there’s even a debate here tells me that the cheese sauce just isn’t up to par.
The other factor is loose ground beef, which is the only way you can order a real Magic Mountain. You can go vegetarian or get a Morning Mountain with other ingredients, but if you want the original, beef is your only choice. That’s because for some reason, loose-meat sandwiches (called Rossburgers at this place) are popular in the Midwest. I’ve never understood their appeal, and that and the fact that I love options means I’m not a huge fan of the meat. It isn’t bad, but it isn’t fantastic either.
That lack of variety also means there’s little reason for me to ever return, because as we’ve established many times, Amy doesn’t eat beef or onions. I suppose we could always try one of their breakfasts if we so chose (as Ross’s does have a large lineup of those), but as far as this goes, I don’t have to worry about her missing out on an iconic food. She wouldn’t eat it anyway, no matter how good I thought it was, and if I feel the need to have an open-faced sandwich with cheese fries and meat, I can drive to Springfield and share the real thing with her, with a meat she’d actually like.
Truth be told, she isn’t missing much. It’s not that the Magic Mountain is bad, it’s that it’s not an original and it’s not worthy of the high status it’s been handed. When that gets factored in, it’s honestly a disappointment, especially when you consider what Iowa City has to offer an hour away and that we do have places like Whitey’s and Woodfire that are worthy of praise. Instead, we highlight Harris Pizza (which is nothing short of an abomination) and the Magic Mountain, a sandwich that isn’t bad, but isn’t worth its reputation. It’s certainly not a must-stop if any of you ever visit here.
Time to go: Anytime you want, as Ross’s is open 24 hours a day and serves its full menu.
Wait during my visit: None. At 1 a.m. in Bettendorf, no place is close to full.
Location: Ross’s is at 430 14th Street in Bettendorf, Iowa.
Cost: Easily one of the best things Ross’s has going for it. Most meals will fall well short of $10.
Parking: Plenty. It’s Bettendorf, the only time there’s not parking is at a high school sporting event.
Seating arrangement: Booths and stools
Specialty items: Magic Mountain