Archive | August 2012

Bub’s Burgers and Ice Cream, Carmel, Ind.

If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I love sharing this journey I’m on with the people I care about. It’s why I write this blog, but it’s even better when I get the chance to experience something new with someone I care about, and I do it at every chance I get. While in Boston for the New England Patriots’ playoff game this January, I drove an hour each way to Eagle’s Deli so that my brothers Simon and Zach (and family friend Brian Scannon) could experience the Eagle’s burgers with me. I’ve had restaurants I’ve experienced with great friends, such as when Tim and Adam Kanak (and Tim’s girlfriend Amber Perkins, another friend)  joined me at Aguila’s, or when Stephanie Soukup accompanied me to Melt. Of course, the love of my life, my amazing girlfriend Amy McFann, has joined me at places in Tampa, Chicago, Cicero, Wrigleyville and Iowa City, all of which have been awesome to share with her.

So when my cousin Victoria Swider and her husband Joel suggested a trip to Bub’s Burgers and Ice Cream when I visited them in Indiana earlier this month, I was delighted at the idea. There’s nothing like turning a good trip into a great trip by adding people who matter to you to the equation. Plus, this was a milestone evening for me, as Bub’s was my 80th restaurant from Man vs. Food that I’ve visited, which means I still have a lot of my past to add to this blog since only about 40 of them are up. Joel and Victoria finished our trip only 79 restaurants behind me.

On the burger side of the equation, Bub’s is famous for two things: its elk burgers and its Big Ugly burger, a full pound after cooking of either beef or elk that actually counts as a challenge on its own. Finishing one of these mammoths earns the eater a picture on the wall, and the size of the picture increases with each burger you consume.

Now, finishing one of these is by no means easy, but it’s not impossible. My friend Sam Wilson has finished a Big Ugly on his visit here, and I’ve actually consumed three one-pound cheeseburgers in my life, once at Big Jud’s in Idaho and twice at different Cheeburger Cheeburger locations in St. Louis and New Jersey. Granted, I did that after skipping a meal to clear my stomach, but I’ve also taken down a Thurman Burger after having eaten a late lunch, and those things weigh in at 3/4 of a pound with just the meat.

So a lack of room wasn’t what deterred me from the Big Ugly. What did was the following facts: First, when you’re trying a challenge, you don’t really take the time to enjoy what it is you’re eating. The point of this is to experience what makes these restaurants famous, not try to make myself sick. Second, in case you missed it, this place is called Bub’s Burgers and Ice Cream. Going here and filling up on the Big Ugly would eliminate room for ice cream, and that would leave this review woefully lacking and even worse at getting to the point than Nathaniel Hawthorne.

So I went for the other specialty, the elk burger, in the Not So Ugly size, which is a much-more manageable half-pound. It’s become a trend these days to try meats other than beef in a burger, and what tends to be the case is a juicier and leaner burger because other meats simply don’t have the fat that the cow does.

At Bub’s, that’s definitely the case. This patty is so juicy and has a noticeably different taste than beef. It’s cooked to perfection, and you can tell that it doesn’t have the fat that a traditional beef burger has, but it has just as much taste and flavor. The toppings complement the burger perfectly, as Bub’s uses a less is more approach, going with just lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and your choice of cheese.

Add some waffle fries (definitely order more than you think, we needed two larges for three people) and a sweet tea and it’s a perfect meal. In the summer, you can eat outside at one of several picnic tables, which makes for a nice atmosphere.

That leads us into the ice cream, and Bub’s has a nice range of flavors to choose from, most of which are pretty standard. However, there are a few that you don’t see every day, with one of them being the cinnamon crumb. Once I saw it, it was pretty obvious I had to try it.

It’s simply amazing. Cinnamon is swirled throughout the ice cream, and the addition of the crumbs gives it an extra crunch. It’s a lot like the base of a good pie, with spice flowing through it. It’s some of the best ice cream I’ve had, and after some of the places I’ve been, that’s really saying something. Saving room for the ice cream was a great decision, but even if you don’t, you’ll have a great meal. At Bub’s, ugly has never looked so beautiful.

Recap

Time to go: Earlier is probably better. Carmel is a suburb of Indianapolis, but it’s developed into a night destination for young adults on that part of I-465. As such, it gets pretty crowded at night when people get off work and want to have some fun.

Wait during my visit: Substantial. One tip, if you have an odd number in your party, wait around when your name goes on the list. We put our names on the list, then walked around Carmel, expecting to have a table when we returned. Didn’t work that way. What happened was that our name was called since they had a three-person table, but we weren’t there and had to re-wait. The good news is that Bub’s has a game while you wait, where you try to get a metal latch onto a hook. Joel was substantially better than either myself or Victoria at it.

Location: Bub’s is at 210 W. Main Street in Carmel, Ind. Another location exists in Bloomington, home of Indiana University.

Cost: The Not So Ugly’s aren’t bad, costing roughly $10-11 for elk and $8.50 for beef. A Big Ugly is $20 for elk, $16 for beef. Plan accordingly.

Parking: Not so much. Most of it is street parking and walk. There is a little bit behind the restaurant near the Monon Trail, but that’s about it.

Seating arrangement: Chairs inside, picnic tables outside. I say go picnic tables if the weather is good. There are chairs at several of these too.

Website: Bub’s Burgers

Specialty items: Big Ugly burger, ice cream

Bub's Burgers & Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

Hot Doug’s, Chicago

When I told my brothers Simon and Zach the name of the place I’d stopped for lunch in Chicago before heading to O’Hare and boarding a plane to join them in Massachusetts for a New England Patriots game, both of them thought I was making it up. Turns out that in one episode of the King of Queens, always-hungry protagonist Doug Heffernan suggested to a hot dog place’s owner that he should change the name of his restaurant to Hot Doug’s, and my brothers thought it was a joke off the episode.

But Hot Doug’s is no joke in Chicago. It’s one of the city’s best places to enjoy the world of sausages on a bun, in a city known for its hot dogs. While Hot Doug’s keeps to the traditional toppings of Chicago on its sausages, it goes far above and beyond the standard Chicago hot dog. The best way to put it is that Hot Doug’s is, depending on your cuisine of choice, the Vortex, Voodoo or Ike’s of the sausage world.

In addition to the standard Chicago dog, Hot Doug’s expands to Polish sausages, bratwurst, Italian sausage, chicken sausage and several others, all served on the standard bun and topped with any or all of the condiments you find on a standard Chicago dog. For those who don’t know, that means mustard, relish, tomato, dill pickle, onions, celery salt, possibly peppers and absolutely no ketchup. Hot Doug’s is not nearly as strict on that rule, as you can easily use the ketchup available for the fries on your sausage if you so choose.

But that’s only the beginning. Each day, Hot Doug’s cycles through a plethora of high-brow sausages, some of which nobody would ever think of them as ending up in a sausage. Examples on one day include a portabella mushroom and Swiss pork sausage with anchovy mayonnaise, shiitake mushrooms and caramelized onions, a jalapeno and Chardonnay rattlesnake sausage (yes, rattlesnake) with fig cream and Dutch cheese, ale and Provolone chicken sausage with four-cheese dijonnaise and duck confit and foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel.

All specialty sausages come with their own toppings that you will not find on the standard Chicago dog, making for a totally different experience than what you will find elsewhere in the city. However, different experiences had to wait for another day on my visit. The true test of a place is when you have something else to compare it to, so I had to sample some of Hot Doug’s more typical sausages to see if the ridiculous line on a snowy January day was justified.

It is. Both sausages have a great amount of juiciness and firmness, providing a great taste from first bite to last. The toppings all work perfectly with the meat, and the poppy seed bun is an excellent finish. The grilling of the meat adds a nice charred flavor, and the taste makes it clear that you’re in hot dog heaven.

That doesn’t even touch on the other specialty at Hot Doug’s: duck-fat fries. The use of duck sausage means that twice a week on Friday and Saturday, Hot Doug’s cooks its fries in duck fat and offers a large portion to its customers. The taste is excellent, and the fries seem to taste a little closer to the pure Russets that they came from. The skin is clearly still on, always a big plus.

No matter what your sausage preference is, Hot Doug’s can put something on a bun to satisfy any palate. Doug Heffernan might not have gotten his restaurant named after him in Queens, but he’d be proud to share his name with the sausage superstore of the Windy City.

Recap

Time to go: Lunch only. Hot Doug’s is open from 10:30 to 4 p.m. six days a week and closed on Sunday. Shoot for Friday or Saturday if you can to try the duck-fat fries.

Wait during my visit: Substantial. Hot Doug’s is so popular that even on a snowy day in the middle of January, the line was out the door. Do not go if you are in a hurry. You want to set aside time to eat and enjoy.

Location: Hot Doug’s is in the northwestern part of Chicago, at 3324 N. California Avenue.

Cost: Depends. A normal sausage will set you back only about $3. A specialty sausage is going to run you $8. It’s up to you which way you want to go.

Parking: I did it wrong last time. There’s a lot here, but I didn’t know that and walked a mile from the Blue Line on CTA. I do not recommend that anyone do this ever, least of all in 25 degree weather. I didn’t think things through at all.

Seating arrangement: Could get dicey. It’s seats and stools, but the restaurant gets so crowded that finding space is a challenge. Find a table and don’t give it up.

Website: Hot Doug’s

Specialty items: Sausages, duck-fat fries

Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

Al’s No. 1 Italian Beef, Chicago

It’s a good thing I got this trip out of the way on my first trip to the Windy City, because it’s the one of Chicago’s three iconic foods that Amy won’t touch because of her distaste for beef. Along with pizza and hot dogs, Chicago is also well-known for Italian beef, a sandwich that is native to Illinois, only venturing outside the Prairie State on rare occasions.

Most of these occasions have been when stands have been set up in Wisconsin or Indiana, as these states are close enough to Chicagoland that having the beef sandwiches there is an absolute necessity for residents of these places. But the sandwich is so popular that Chicago natives, after moving away from the Windy City, have taken it far away from the shores of Lake Michigan and set up shop selling them in places like Florida, Texas and California. There is even a website that tracks where people can find authentic Chicago Italian beef, with the sandwich now being available in 46 states.

So what exactly is an Italian beef sandwich? It’s a roast beef sandwich, with the beef sliced paper-thin, and the sandwich topped with any or all of giardiniera, peppers and beef broth, served on a thick roll of Italian bread. The bread has to be thick by design, because of the broth soaking into the bread, which would otherwise cause it to fall apart, similar to the Thurman Burger or the Polish Girl. The creator of the sandwich isn’t for sure, but the oldest known vendor of the sandwich is Al’s Italian Beef, which has been around since 1938.

Basically, the sandwich traces its roots back to before World War II, and likely comes as a result of rations. The founders of Al’s decided that if they could slice the beef incredibly thin, a slab of roast beef could feed five times as many people. From there, the sandwich was born. There really isn’t a lot to the sandwich in terms of complexity, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Every sandwich at Al’s starts with slow-roasted beef blended with Al’s own blend of spices before it’s sliced and loaded on the roll.

From there, you have the option of going with either a hot or sweet flavor to the sandwich, or even both. For those who like it hot, giardiniera is the condiment of choice. Giardiniera is kind of a mix of relish and mixed vegetables, with a little heat thrown in for good measure. Celery forms most of the base, along with vinegar, while other vegetables and spices are added to the mix to create the flavor. Sweet peppers are also an option, giving you a sandwich topped with a couple of the mild green peppers.

Finally, the sandwich is dipped into the beef broth, creating the need for the thick Italian bread mentioned earlier. Depending on how juicy you like the sandwich, it can be dipped just slightly, multiple times or it can become so juicy that even the Italian bread has trouble staying in one piece. I’m not sure who needs that much broth, but whatever works for you.

For me, what worked was one dip with sweet peppers. It’s a wonderful combination. The thin beef has been cooked to perfection, and when the juice is added to give it extra flavor and help the sandwich go down easier, it’s simply fantastic. Throw in the natural sweet and mild taste of the sweet pepper, and you have a sandwich that stays hot and juicy from start to finish.

I also have to say, you definitely need at least some broth on this sandwich. The beef is good on its own, but it’s the juices that really make this thing stand out. Without the juice, you just have a regular sandwich and fries that you could get at any sandwich store. With it, you have a true taste of Chicago. If beef is something you enjoy, you’ll find a great meal here.

Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Al’s does have a few locations that are open until well past midnight, but not all of them are. Check before you go.

Wait during my visit: None. Came right after a Chicago Cubs game, and was far enough from Wrigley that ballpark traffic was nonexistent.

Location: Al’s can be found all over Chicagoland. My location was in Wrigleyville, at 3420 N. Clark on Chicago’s North Side. Its site also says locations are coming to Las Vegas and San Jose.

Cost: You should be fine for around $10 here.

Parking: At some locations, there will be plenty. At others, dream on. This one falls in the “dream on” category. Your best bet for those in the city is to take the CTA train (everyone calls it the L for “elevated train”, but that looks confusing in print, so I stick with calling it CTA. Plus, the train isn’t always elevated, as the Blue and Red Lines both go underground. Accuracy counts to me.) to the closest stop and walk from there.

Seating arrangement: It’s chairs and stools here.

Website: Al’s Beef

Signature items: Italian beef sandwich

Al's Beef on Urbanspoon

Hamburg Inn No. 2, Iowa City, Iowa

If you want to be president of the United States, you pretty much have to visit the Hamburg Inn. No, I’m not kidding. Iowa’s status as the first caucuses in the nation for presidential elections means virtually every hopeful for the Oval Office has to do some campaigning in Iowa, and the Hamburg Inn is basically a required stop for those folks. The restaurant features a presidential table and runs a coffee bean caucus (which means absolutely nothing) where patrons vote for their candidate of choice.

The list of those who have been is long and includes Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and several others. There will be no opportunity to test the theory that you must visit the Hamburg Inn to be elected, as Mitt Romney is also on the list of politicians who have made the trip to the Iowa City diner.

Politics aside, the restaurant’s name is slightly unusual because there are no other Hamburg Inns, at least, not anymore. At one point, there was both a Hamburg Inn No. 1 and a Hamburg Inn No. 3, located in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids respectively. Both those locations are gone now, and they chose not to remove the number, leaving the No. 2 in as a reminder of what used to be, I guess.

Reminder or not, the one remaining location is famous for three things: omelets, burgers and milkshakes. Specifically, it’s famous for pie and cake milkshakes, which are exactly what they sound like. You choose from one of the Hamburg Inn’s pies or cakes, and the staff will take a piece and blend it into the milkshake. Options include fruit pies, cream pies, their special chocolate bourbon pecan pie and red velvet cake. All can be blended into a large milkshake, served in a big tin topped with whipped cream.

 

Luckily, this was a restaurant where I had my wonderful girlfriend Amy McFann with me, which meant I got to enjoy a little of two shakes (Don’t worry, she did too). She chose the red velvet cake shake (top), while I opted for the apple pie. Both are simply wonderful. The cake or pie dominates the taste of the shake, with the blending stopped before it gets completely ground into the shake. This means it’s likely you might find a piece of apple or part of the crust or something while you’re drinking your shake, which is a pretty nice touch.

Besides the shakes, the Hamburg Inn is also famous for its omelets and breakfasts. The Hamburg features 15 omelets available, with options ranging from the Iowa (ham, hash browns, American) to the Cheesesteak (yes, it’s basically a Philly cheesesteak as an omelet) to the Garden Florentine (a veggie lover’s in hollandaise sauce). I decided to go with the Garden omelet, which basically excludes only spinach and the hollandaise sauce from the Florentine. It’s pretty awesome. The American cheese complements the vegetables well, and anything with mushrooms and tomatoes is usually a big plus.

Amy opted for their corn dogs, which aren’t well-known, but according to her, they were high-quality. She was a little bit annoyed by the presence of their “Cuban”, and the quotes definitely belong. That’s one of the few flaws about the Hamburg, their Cuban is anything but. Neither of us tried it, but we didn’t need to in order to know it’s not Aguila’s. Being from Tampa, Amy knows what is on a proper Cuban, and what is not. A Cuban is never made with sourdough bread, except here. I’m not sure what they were thinking on that one, but not a smart decision there.

But with a strong menu and great shakes elsewhere, you don’t really need everything to be perfect. This place is pretty historic, and as long as you stay away from the Cuban, it’s worth the hype. After a long search, I’ve finally found a high-quality restaurant in eastern Iowa.

Recap

Time to go: The Hamburg is open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., and I believe breakfast is served all day.

Wait during my visit: Not long. The restaurant is small, but Iowa City isn’t all that big either.

Location: The Hamburg Inn can be found at 214 North Linn Street in Iowa City, Iowa.

Cost: Plan on about $15 for entree and shake, and you need to order at least one shake, even if you split it.

Parking: There is a small lot, although it is hard to see. Off to the side is where you find it. On another note, who decided to call it a parking lot, given that you could be saying there is a lot of parking available? People, think before you make words.

Seating arrangement: Booths, chairs and stools. The restaurant is cramped, and it might not be easy on bigger customers.

Website: It was down when I wrote this, but it’s The Hamburg Inn No. 2

Signature items: Pie shakes, omelets, burgers

The Hamburg Inn No. 2 Inc. on Urbanspoon

Cozy Dog Drive In, Springfield, Ill.

It might be the most well-known food item at fairs across the country. It’s probably the best-known food to ever be served on a stick, which wasn’t always the case. It’s the corn dog, an iconic part of American culture that really needs little introduction. Almost everyone has eaten a corn dog at some point in their life, because it’s the ultimate fair food, a comfort food that you can carry with one hand.

Who actually invented the corn dog is a point of debate, as three different places claim to have sold the first ones, which debuted around the time of World War II. If you’re in central Illinois, however, there’s no debate. It’s widely accepted there that the corn dog was invented in 1946 at what became the Cozy Dog Drive-In, and saying otherwise could lead to a fight in the state capital of Springfield. There’s also no debate because they don’t call them corn dogs at Cozy Dog. The call them, you guessed it, cozy dogs.

Outside of central Illinois, what is accepted is that Cozy Dog was the first to put the corn dog on a stick. Yes, hard to believe, but at one time, a corn dog was nothing more than a hot dog with batter instead of a bun. It was still dipped and deep fried, but customers held it the way they did a regular hot dog. Cozy Dog changed that by using tongs to impale the hot dogs before dipping them into the batter, which became their own special mix of the famous cornbread we know today.

Today, Cozy Dog uses the standard sticks, and uses a very nifty apparatus to load them and dip them into the batter. The hot dog is placed on the stick, and then loaded into a rack that was created by Ed Waldmire, the original founder of Cozy Dog. It’s then dipped in the batter and placed in the oil to be deep-fried, but it’s not dipped and fried until you order.

A lot of corn dogs made this way end up with the batter either being too soft and feeling like a greasy pillow, or too tough and end up with a flavorless crunch. Not the case at Cozy Dog. When you bite into the cornbread batter, it’s crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and tasty all the way through. The cornbread comes out a pure golden brown, which is always a good sign. Plus, the hot dogs have the spice and snap of a good sausage, adding an unexpected and welcome level of flavor.

You might remember from Superdawg that in Chicago, ketchup is never allowed on a hot dog. That isn’t the case at Cozy Dog, because the cornbread has a sweetness that works as a natural partner to the ketchup, which is known for being a sweeter condiment. On a regular hot dog, the ketchup’s sweetness overwhelms the non-sweet hot dog and more tart and spiced toppings that are accepted. But when it’s already sweet, it’s merely a delicious and acceptable complement to the bread and meat. Of course, if you can’t bring yourself to add ketchup to a hot dog in any situation, mustard is available, and the Cozy Dog is very delicious plain.

Along side it, Cozy Dog also serves high-quality fries, cooked skin-on the way good french fries should be. They’re a great addition that make it a full meal. The corn dog has come a long way since its introduction, but simple is sometimes better in the culinary world. Their way has worked for nearly 70 years at Cozy Dog, and a trip here always feels a little like a visit to the fair.

Recap

Time to go: Anytime between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Monday through Saturday works. Cozy Dog is not open on Sundays.

Wait during my visit: None. Springfield is not exactly Chicago, and you won’t have to fight huge crowds.

Location: Cozy Dog is on what was part of historic Route 66. It’s located at 2935 S. Sixth Street in Springfield, Ill.

Cost: OK, it’s not 1946, so you can’t get a Cozy Dog for 15 cents anymore. But these prices aren’t bad. Two Cozy Dogs with medium fries and drink cost about $8. Not quite Aguila Hall-worthy, but not bad.

Parking: Not bad. The lot isn’t big, but it’s Springfield.

Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs

Website: Cozy Dog

Signature items: Cozy Dogs

Cozy Dog Drive In on Urbanspoon

Superdawg Drive-In, Chicago

We’ve touched on the pizza of Chicago before, but they take their hot dogs just as seriously in the Windy City. The Chicago hot dog is legendary to people who have never set foot in Illinois, and several Chicago landmarks will include souvenirs that say what goes on a standard hot dog, and what should never go on a hot dog.

Each place has their own way of doing it, but it’s generally accepted that ay Chicago hot dog includes mustard, sweet relish, onions, a dill pickle and a dash of celery salt on a poppy seed bun. The hot dog may or may not include sliced tomatoes, but absolutely never includes ketchup. In Chicago, ketchup on a hot dog is seen as a sin, and many vendors will not put ketchup on the hot dog. If a customer wants ketchup, they are either refused or handed a bottle and told to apply it on their own, because they believe ketchup ruins the taste.

The latter is the route taken by Superdawg Drive-In, which is one of the most iconic places in Chicagoland to get an authentic Chicago hot dog. Superdawg has a few differences from the standard places to get a Chicago dog, the most obvious of which is the ability to have car service, similar to the 1950′s. Superdawg offers the standard ability to eat inside the restaurant, or you can simply order your meal from your car, as you do at Sonic. The other obvious difference is the two iconic Superdawg figurines on the restaurant, designed in honor of Superdawg’s founders.

Once you get ready to place your order, make sure you’re using the correct name. The restaurant is proud of its hot dogs, so much so that they do not call them hot dogs. They are always referred to as Superdawgs, and the employees will inform you of this if you call it a regular hot dog. The Superdawg, like all true Chicago dogs, is an all-beef hot dog, placed on a poppy seed bun. The frank has a hint of garlic in its flavor and has a bit of resistance in its casing when you bite into it, like a good sausage would.

All toppings on the Superdawg are optional, but if you choose to get them all, you’ll find mustard, sweet relish, a dill pickle spear, hot peppers, onion and celery salt on a poppy seed bun, along with a green tomato on the side. I’m not sure why they used a green tomato, or why it’s not on the Superdawg itself, but that’s the way they choose to do it. The green tomato isn’t obvious as a part of your order, but it is there for a reason, along with your fries that surround the dog.

Probably the best way to describe the quality of the Superdawg is that my lady Amy McFann, who hates the taste of beef in all its forms, enjoyed her Superdawg, which served as her first experience of the Chicago dog. While she was willing to try the all-beef dog,  she does have her limits and chose to pass on the onions. I went without the peppers, which is a good decision for me because as we’ve seen before, I’m not much for heat.

Even without the heat, the Superdawg is super. The hot dog snaps well and provides a juicy texture in every bite, and the condiments work perfectly with the meat, which is exactly what all good condiments are supposed to do. With a side of crinkle fries and ketchup to pair with those (the only real reason Superdawg even has a ketchup bottle), it’s a perfect meal at any time of the day.

When you stay in business for decades, it’s a great sign. When your business was around from the carhop days and still has them in service, that’s an excellent sign, especially in a town that demands as much from their dogs as Chicago. Superdawg is definitely worth the drive.

Recap

Time to go: Late night is perfect. Superdawg opens at 11 am and stays open until 11 pm at their northern location and 1 am in the city, with both extended an extra hour on weekends.

Wait during my visit: None. This happens when you go at night.

Location: Superdawg is found at 6363 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago and 333 S. Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling, Ill., north of Chicago proper. We visited the second location.

Cost: A Superdawg and fries with drink costs about $7.50. I’m putting them in the Aguila’s Sandwich Shop Hall of Fame for cost.

Parking: Plenty. Unlike the rest of Chicago, driving here in encouraged because of the car service, which is optional.

Seating arrangement: Inside the place, it’s chairs and stools, with room to sit.

Website: Superdawg

Signature items: Chicago-style hot dogs

Superdawg Drive-in on Urbanspoon

Crown Candy Kitchen, St. Louis

In today’s world, it seems like restaurants go for whatever they can to get attention and customers. There are places that put together an insane menu, places that make outrageous claims and places that manufacture a food challenge, all in the name of business.

But there are some places that don’t need to resort to those kinds of gimmicks. They keep things simple because they can, having built up a reputation from simply doing a job right for many years. That’s what you have with Crown Candy Kitchen, which has been in business in the Old North part of St. Louis since 1913, closing in on a full century in business.

During that near-century, Crown Candy has been famous for one thing: milkshakes. Crown Candy also serves sandwiches and gets busy for lunch, but the main thing you’re here for is an old-fashioned malted milkshake, the way it’s been made for 99 years.

Crown Candy starts with real ice cream, allowing you to make any flavor you want from their ice cream choices on the menu. Coffee, Oreo, black walnut and chocolate-raspberry are a few of the choices not listed among their shakes, or you can go with one of the classics, such as marshmallow, vanilla, strawberry and chocolate.

Each shake starts with three scoops of smooth custard-style ice cream, which is as popular in Missouri as it is in Wisconsin. From there, toppings can be added, such as bananas, butterscotch and hot fudge, or you can keep it simple and stick with additions of milk and malt powder. The malt sweetener adds a new dimension to the shake and alters the flavor a little. If you’ve ever tried Whoppers candy, that’s what the malt flavor is.

So naturally, with that bit of information, I had to go with chocolate, topped with whipped cream. This is a bit of a difference between Crown Candy and most places. Normally, when you order a milkshake, you’re given a glass of your shake and the tin with some leftovers. At Crown Candy, the shake is assembled in the tin, and you’re given an empty glass to pour the shake into, if you so choose.

Either way, spoon is recommended over straw. These shakes are thick and delicious. With the malted powder, the chocolate shake tastes exactly like a Whopper with whipped cream. The shake is ice-cold, and it didn’t come anywhere close to becoming sippable during my visit. This could be because I made the choice to visit in December, but I have no way to know. The point is, it seems to be more sundae than shake, and it’s so good despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s so simple.

Each tin has enough milkshake to fill the glass three times over, and this glass checks in at 8 ounces, making for a 24-ounce milkshake for those of you who swore off math after college. The sheer size led Crown Candy to create what might have been America’s first food challenge. Almost 50 years before the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas created what is now recognized as the premier eating challenge in the country, Crown Candy began its famous challenge, which has been around since the restaurant’s beginning in 1913.

For those brave or foolish enough to try it, Crown Candy requires a competitor to drink five of its malted milkshakes, with the ability to change flavors if they wish, or go with one flavor the whole way. That comes in at a full 120 ounces of milkshake, which would be roughly about two gallons of dairy. Oh, and did I mention that you have only 30 minutes to accomplish this monstrosity of a feat? Yeah, there’s a reason that only 30 people have beaten this thing in 99 years. If you can manage it, you get your name on a plaque in the restaurant.

Beyond the ice cream, Crown Candy also offers a basic sandwich menu, full of classic deli favorites. In fact, their BLT is considered so good that it found a spot on a different Travel Channel show, possibly making Crown Candy the only place that has been on different shows for different menu items. It’s definitely something I’ll have to try when I find myself in St. Louis again.

But the main reason you’re here is the shakes, because after 99 years of doing it one way, if they’re still doing it, they’ve got to be doing something right. Even in the dead of winter, Crown Candy is always worth a trip.

Recap

Time to go: Avoid lunch at all costs. Crown Candy goes 10:30 to 9, and the lines thin out drastically when you’re not there for the lunch rush. It closes at 5 on Sundays.

Wait during my visit: Minimal, but I was there at 5 p.m. on a weekday in the winter. Might not always work that way.

Location: Crown Candy is at 1401 St. Louis Avenue in St. Louis.

Cost: Most shakes cost a little less than $5, and most sandwiches are about $6. Not too bad.

Parking: Not much. It’s only street parking, which is because the restaurant was built so long ago. Still, you can get lucky.

Seating arrangement: This is a new category suggested by Carli Carson, and it’s very appropriate to begin it here. Being 99 years old, the booths are wooden and very small. Fitting into them can be difficult.

Website: Crown Candy Kitchen

Signature items: Milkshakes

Crown Candy Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Melt Bar and Grilled, Lakewood, Ohio

When you think of grilled cheese, it’s likely you think of the most basic sandwich that exists, just two slices of bread with some kind of melted cheese. Maybe your version used American, maybe Swiss, maybe cheddar, but while growing up, that was simply what grilled cheese was: a simple and delicious sandwich that could be prepared in a few minutes and was always a favorite in the days of elementary school.

But a grilled cheese has the potential to be so much more, and that’s what Melt Bar and Grilled in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood brings to the table. Here, a grilled cheese is defined as anything between two slices of bread that includes some kind of melted cheese. At the top of that list sits the Melt Challenge, which includes 14 different cheeses on three slices of artisan bread and weighs about four pounds. The cheeses on the sandwich are: herbed cream cheese, sweet cream cheese, smoked gouda, cheddar, cheddar-Jack, goat, blue, feta, Swiss, pepper Jack, provolone, American, Muenster and havarti. In case you haven’t guessed it, that equates to every cheese available on Melt’s menu. I think I once had 11 of them in my refrigerator at once.

For those who aren’t crazy enough or hungry enough to try this challenge, Melt offers a wide range of sandwiches, such as the Parmageddon (pierogies and kraut with cheddar), the Turtle Pizza Roll Melt (pizza rolls with marinara, provolone, cream cheese and basil pesto), the Godfather (lasagna), the North Coast Shores (crab cakes with garlic spinach) and the Porky Cheese (honey ham with bacon and Swiss). Basically, it’s the grilled cheese version of Ike’s Place. You receive your list of sandwich options on the back of what was once an album cover. I’m not sure why Melt chooses to do it that way, but all Melt menus have the album’s front on one side and the menu on the other, with a slot for inserting the record, if anyone ever had one lying around.

From the abundance of options available to me on a visit with my friend Stephanie, I decided to go with the Summer Chicken, a grilled chicken sandwich with lettuce, tomato, roasted garlic herb dressing and, in honor of my lady Amy, havarti. Amy loves the creamy taste of havarti, and although I probably would have ordered that sandwich anyway, I liked the idea of having a small reminder of her while she was in Florida.

The sandwich is fantastic. Chicken works well with a lot of things, and a garlic dressing is certainly one of them. The chicken is grilled to perfection, and the havarti provides a perfect complement to it with a taste that isn’t too light and doesn’t overwhelm the chicken either. With garlic added on, the combination is perfect.

Every sandwich at Melt also comes with a heaping portion of hand-cut fries and a smaller portion of cole slaw. The slaw was good for slaw, which I admittedly tend to not eat unless I’m having it on a sandwich. The fries were also fantastic, similar to the style one finds at Five Guys, which will never be reviewed here but I would love to have in Iowa. They go great with vinegar. The one issue is that they give you a ton of these fries, and finishing is very unlikely.

Finishing goes from unlikely to impossible if you order one of Melt’s starters, such as their tomato soup. I figured it was worth a try, but it wasn’t really a soup. It wasn’t bad, but probably the best way to describe it is that it’s like eating marinara sauce. If that’s your thing, go for it, but if not, it’s not a necessity.

But the grilled cheeses are excellent. It’s the adult version of everyone’s childhood sandwich, and boy, does it work great. Whichever way your tastes take you, there’s really no wrong choice.

Recap

Time to go: Lunch/dinner. Melt can get very busy, as it has become very popular in a brief amount of time.

Wait during my visit: Minimal, but I was also working with a storm in my favor. I’d assume that it’s not always a short wait.

Location: Melt operates at 14718 Detroit Ave. in Lakewood, Ohio. The suburbs of Cleveland Heights and Independence also have a Melt location.

Cost: A little on the high side, but you do get a lot of food. Most sandwiches are near $10. If you want to save money, you can get 25% off for life at Melt by getting a sandwich tattoo. No, I’m not kidding.

Parking: There is a lot behind the restaurant.

Website: Melt

Specialty items: Grilled cheese

Melt Bar & Grilled on Urbanspoon

Steve’s Gyros, Cleveland

The public market is much more associated with Europe than with North America, but in huge cities, it’s not uncommon for one place to showcase many of the city’s vendors in one spot. There are places such as the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Eastern Market in Washington, Pike Place Market in Seattle and the West Side Market in Cleveland.

Most of the vendors sell things you’d find in your local grocery store, and it’s actually possible to get all of your shopping done at these places. Some spots have fruit vendors side-by-side, competing for your dollar, while in others, you can purchase fresh fish or cheeses you’ve never considered using in a recipe. Along with that, you can find restaurants in these markets, and one of the best at West Side Market is Steve’s Gyros.

Cleveland doesn’t have a large Greek population (although a large chunk of my mom’s side of our family is Greek and live in other parts of eastern Ohio), but the Greeks do have a fair presence in the area, and Steve’s is a great example. This is one of the most popular food places in the West Side Market because of the quality ingredients and the quality tastes that come after using them.

The first thing one notices about Steve’s are its rules. These aren’t to the extent of Al Yeganeh’s rules at Soup Kitchen International (for those unfamiliar, it was a New York place famous for its homemade soup and was parodied by Seinfeld in the form of the Soup Nazi, which Yeganeh still refuses to discuss over 15 years later), but they are short and to the point. The main rule is simply, “Because we said so.” Other rules are that they don’t cut gyros and they don’t wrap any items separately, and they don’t want you asking them to do it. Why? Because they said so.

Rules aside, where Steve’s stands out are in two areas: its tzatziki sauce and its meat on the sandwich. The sauce is made with sour cream rather than Greek yogurt, which adds a nice bite to the Greek cucumber sauce that is a standard on the gyro. I’m not sure what really makes it as creamy and smooth as it is, because I’ve had gyros that use sour cream, and the sauce is simply too thick. Not the case with Steve’s, which has a sauce that flows perfectly.

The other thing that makes Steve’s stand out is its meat. The traditional lamb that makes a proper gyro is cooked on a rotating spit in plain view of Steve’s customers, and large pieces of it are shaved off and placed on the sandwich. Steve’s uses so much meat that the sandwich is literally too big for the pita bread it’s served on. I had to work to get any pictures of it at all, as any move to let go of the sandwich for even a second meant meat would start falling off the pita.

Lettuce, tomato and onion finish off this wonderful creation, and the pita is cooked perfectly to add another element of taste to the sandwich that results in very long lines. The West Side Market usually allows anyone to go up to any stand and buy whatever interests them with almost no waiting. The one exception in the entire market? You guessed it, it’s Steve’s.

The lines get ridiculously long here, and all you can do is make sure you’re there early. The market might have lots of options available to give you a taste of what Cleveland has to offer, but it’s hard to match the quality of what Steve’s is selling. It’s the perfect place to enjoy Greek cuisine the way it’s supposed to be.

Recap

Time to go: Pick your day carefully. The market is only open on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and it closes at 4 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. on weekends. The close doesn’t matter, because the time to go is noon or earlier. After noon, the lines get exponentially longer.

Wait during my visit: Minimal, because I hit the noon cutoff. When I started in line, I was the third person in line. When I received my gyro, 20 people were in line. I’m not even close to kidding.

Location: The West Side Market is at 25th and Lorain in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood on its west side. Steve’s is in the market.

Cost: Not bad. You can get a gyro with drink for $10. You can also go for a jumbo gyro for a few dollars more. I do not recommend this.

Parking: There’s a fair amount for the market.

Seating arrangement: None. It’s an open market, and there are no seats. There are some benches outside the market.

Website: None. It does operate a Facebook page, but as it’s part of the market, it does not have its own website.

Signature items: Gyro

Steve's Gyros on Urbanspoon

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