Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, Overland Park, Kan./Kansas City, Mo.

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Look at a map of the United States, and it’s not hard to see why Kansas City is world-renowned for its barbecue. Being both in the center of the country and the second-largest metro area in the farm-heavy Midwest (behind only Minneapolis-St. Paul) made Kansas City a logical choice as a center for meat packing and distribution in the era before air travel made it so much easier to get from point A to point B.

With all of the meat both coming in and in their own backyard, it only made sense for Kansas City to develop a signature cuisine based around the meats, leading to Kansas City becoming a mecca for barbecue nationwide. In large part because of the variety of meat available, one of the staples of Kansas City barbecue became the willingness to smoke any and every kind of meat available. Unlike the pork-loving Southeast or brisket-happy Texas, Kansas City has never had one kind of signature meat. Whether it’s pork, beef, ham, turkey, chicken or sausage, the City of Fountains has always put everything in the smoker and doused it in sauce.

The other staple of Kansas City is that legendary barbecue is a longtime family affair. Of the Big Four barbecue restaurants of Kansas City, which include Arthur Bryant’s, Gates, Joe’s Kansas City/Oklahoma Joe’s and Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, only Joe’s Kansas City can truly be considered an outsider, having only arrived in Kansas City in the 1990’s and being started by a group of friends rather than one family. Bryant’s got its start in 1946 when the Bryant brothers of Charlie and Arthur went into business together, and Gates came the same year when George Gates started Gates and Sons Bar B Q.

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But in the case of Jack Stack, rather than being a family affair, this seems to be more of a case of family gone wrong. The origins are similar to Bryant’s and Gates, as Russ Fiorella began Smoke Stack Barbecue in 1957 and had his children work in his modest restaurant, keeping with the family affair theme. But the story took its first turn in 1974, when Jack Fiorella, the oldest son, became frustrated with working under his father and pushed for a second Smoke Stack location, allowing him to run his own restaurant and emerge from his father’s shadow.

But five years later, the shadow still loomed, so much so that Jack decided to open a second restaurant that would not bear the Smoke Stack name in an effort to distance himself from his father’s success. In an incredible bit of foreshadowing, he called the restaurant Hatfield and McCoy’s, using the same menu that had worked for Smoke Stack. It didn’t work a second time. In barbecue-crazy Kansas City, both restaurants suffered because there was nothing noteworthy about either place. It was just the same food they could get at Smoke Stack with a new name, which wasn’t good enough. Predictably, Hatfield and McCoy’s didn’t last, closing after less than two years.

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When he returned to Smoke Stack, Jack and his wife, Delores, decided they had learned their lesson it was time for a change. Doing things Russ’ way hadn’t worked out, so the husband and wife team decided that they would take risks and do things their way. Gone was the small menu, replaced by an extensive one that included sides made from scratch and nontraditional items such as fish, lamb and shrimp. Gone was the traditional barbecue shack, as Jack and Delores opted for a more upscale feel to their restaurants, providing full service and comfort expected from a higher class than barbecue. Gone were Jack’s cost-cutting practices that sprung from a desire to show that he could succeed on his own. Instead, he focused on providing the best food possible, regardless of the cost.

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All of it worked. This time, Jack’s Smoke Stack location became one of Kansas City’s most popular restaurants, which led to the final twist of the story. In his second attempt at success, Jack had created his own identity so well that his siblings no longer believed his restaurant was even a Smoke Stack location. As a result, when Jack decided he wanted another location for his restaurant in 1997, his siblings informed him that he would no longer be allowed to use the name Smoke Stack for his new restaurant. Much like Joe’s Kansas City, which had the pedigree but not the rights to the original name, Jack’s response was to re-brand both of his restaurants. Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue was born, marking Jack’s final step out of his father’s long shadow and his final break from the family business. Actually, he ended up destroying the family business. While the other Fiorella siblings held to the traditional menu and each eventually saw their Smoke Stack restaurants close, Jack Stack continued to innovate and claimed its place alongside Gates, Bryant’s and Joe’s as one of Kansas City’s most beloved barbecue places. Jack even learned from his own frustrations with his father and created a succession plan to allow for his son and son-in-law to gradually take control of the business and be ready to run it when he stepped aside. Given how his risks turned out, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Jack’s probably not the most popular guy at Fiorella family reunions.

Well, Jack’s original family might have fallen apart over the years, but luckily, mine hasn’t met that fate. If it had, I might not have completed my excursion through the Big Four of Kansas City barbecue, because this was actually a recommendation of my youngest brother Zach. Zach’s wife Krista is originally from Overland Park, Kan., which means Zach has made several trips north recently from Texas to be with her and her family. During that time, he’s developed a taste for Jack Stack Barbecue, and proceeded to inform me that he thinks it’s the best barbecue he’s ever had. As I mentioned, Zach lives in Texas, which certainly does barbecue right, so that’s pretty high praise there, and there’s no way that Amy and I could pass up this chance to find out. After previously getting a recommendation from my cousin in Indiana, it was now time to see what my brother had to offer in the culinary world.

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First things first: this is not your typical barbecue place, as Amy and I confirmed once we walked in. It’s not quite The Drover in terms of atmosphere, but it’s definitely high class. The booths are segmented, the lighting and decorations scream fine dining and they’ve got a strong appetizer menu. Appetizers are not usually a strength at barbecue places, but as we’ve established, daring to be different is what makes Jack Stack what it is. Here, you’ve got two highly recommended options based on reputation and sight: the fried mushrooms and the onion rings. We opted for the fried mushrooms, as both of us are noted mushroom lovers and figured that would be our best bet.

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Boy, was that a stroke of sheer brilliance on our part, because these mushrooms are absolutely amazing. At most places, when you order breaded and fried mushrooms, you receive a basket of small mushrooms, which can sometimes lead to a few mushrooms where the ratio is 90 percent breading, 10 percent mushroom or worse. That’s never a problem at Jack Stack, because they don’t use small mushrooms here. They use full-formed, full-sized mushrooms, which are served on a wooden skewer. Never seen that before here, but it’s actually a great form of presentation.

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It’s also a great sign of high quality, because you can’t skewer a mushroom that doesn’t have a strong interior, or it will fall apart. Here, the mushrooms are large and firm, providing the almost-meat taste and texture that you get from a really good Portabella. Plus, the breading is crispy and flavorful, giving it the right amount of seasoning and texture to complement the mushroom. The third element is also perfect, the sublime horseradish dipping sauce. With horseradish, a little goes a long way, and Jack Stack’s sauce provides a small kick that enhances the mushroom rather than overwhelms it. Really, the mushrooms are pretty much perfect. I can’t think of a single thing I would change here. You get five in a half-order, and that’s the right size for two people. I’m guessing a full order gives you 10, which could be a full meal.

But as far as the meal goes, you’re likely here for some kind of barbecue, and this being Kansas City, that likely involves burnt ends. For those who have never been to the City of Fountains, burnt ends are much more appetizing than their name might suggest. Basically, burnt ends are the tips of the meat being smoked that are sliced off and then thrown back into the smoker so that they can be fully tenderized. That results in the outside crisping up and getting a charred, smoky exterior, while the interior reaches the tender texture that well-smoked meat is known for having.

I love burnt ends, but when it comes to barbecue, I love to get myself some brisket. Luckily, Jack Stack provides the perfect option for people like me, offering the barbecue combo lunch, which allows you to choose two different styles of meats in one meal. With four different kinds of burnt ends (beef, ham, pork and sausage) and five kinds of sliced meats (smoked pork, roasted ham, brisket, polish sausage and smoked turkey), three kinds of ribs (beef, pork and lamb) and a bone-in chicken, that gives you 13 choices at your disposal.

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The combo lunch usually comes with fries, but along with its barbecue, Jack Stack is known for two of its sides: hickory pit beans and cheesy corn bake. The hickory pit beans have actually won acclaim from Bobby Flay and are smoked in Jack Stack’s barbecue pit and loaded with chunks of brisket. Sounds like something special, but I had to go with the corn bake on this occasion. There’s just something about the idea and taste of vegetables au gratin that really works for me. To complete my meal, I went with pork burnt ends, mainly so that Amy could try a few.

Holy cow, was this incredible. First, there’s the burnt ends, which are simply amazing. Burnt ends usually involve brisket, but the pork version is just simply amazing. The meat just melts in your mouth, and the smokiness of the exterior is perfect with the barbecue sauce. The brisket itself is also wonderful, juicy and full of the kind of flavor that comes from smoking meat over hickory firewood. As I know from working for a decade with my father in his firewood business, quality hickory wood produces great barbecue, and Jack Stack’s commitment to quality is definitely evident here. This brisket is simply outstanding.

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But the best thing here was the cheesy corn bake. Jack Stack’s website says that it’s a combination of cream cheese, cheddar, corn and smoked ham, and however they bring that combination together, it’s basically liquid gold. The cheeses melt perfectly, and the smoked ham provides a nice contrast with the creaminess of the cheese and corn combination. This is seriously one of the best side dishes I have ever eaten, and I’d come here for just the corn bake. The only side dishes I can think of that are on this level from a barbecue place are the white cheddar macaroni and cheese at Jethro’s and the sides at Slow’s, and I’d honestly put this ahead of Jethro’s and on par with Slow’s. I never thought any side from a barbecue restaurant could beat those out, but this one does.

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Amy had a hard time making her selection, but eventually, the idea of a barbecue baked potato caught her eye. Amy loves potatoes, and trying one with Kansas City barbecue involved was a combination that she couldn’t resist. However, although the combination works, it wasn’t Amy’s favorite. She was much more enamored with the burnt ends and ended up wishing that she had ordered those instead, preferably with some fries. Unfortunately, the fries were one thing we had to skip on this trip, and that’s a shame because of how good Jack Stack’s French fry seasoning is. We took a bottle back with us, and discovered that it’s incredible on potatoes. As soon as we tried it, Amy and I agreed that on our next trip, one of us is getting the fries. Probably her, because I don’t see myself giving up that corn bake.

That brings me to the major question about the Kansas City barbecue Big Four: how does it compare? Personally, when it comes to just the meat and sauce, I have to give a slight edge to Joe’s Kansas City. There’s just something about that brisket that makes it a little more juicy and a little more flavorful, in my opinion. But when looking at the restaurants as a whole, I have to say that Jack Fiorella had it right when he chose to expand the menu, because the sides and appetizers are what push Jack Stack over the top. As good as Joe’s fries are, I’d choose the corn bake over them, and the mushrooms are an appetizer without an answer.

High-class and creativity might not have been what people first expected from barbecue, but Jack Fiorella has never been one to play by the rules. After all, he played by the rules once, and it nearly bankrupted him. Rewriting the rules and doing things his way has proven a much better strategy, and it’s made an already fantastic barbecue town even better. Clearly, this place has earned its spot in the Big Four, and my brother knows what he’s talking about in the Kansas City culinary world. Good call, Zach, good call.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Jack Stack opens daily at 11 a.m. at all five of its locations and closes no earlier than 9 p.m., which only occurs on Sunday. On all other days, it’s open until at least 10 p.m.

Wait during my visit: None. Overland Park is a good-sized Kansas suburb, but it’s not so large that traffic is always an issue. It could get busy at the right times, but at 11:30 on a Sunday, it’s not going to be bad unless the Kansas City Chiefs are playing.

Location: We visited the location at 9520 Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park, Kan. Other locations exist in Kansas City on the Missouri side and in Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Cost: Upscale barbecue doesn’t come cheap. You should plan on about $15-20 a person for lunch and $20-25 a person for dinner. But trust me, it’s most definitely worth every cent.

Parking: Not an issue, Jack Stack features a large parking lot on site and is in a fairly decent-sized shopping and restaurant center.

Seating arrangement: The upscale format means that they want to keep things classy, and that means nice booths and tables.

Website: Jack Stack

Specialty items: Burnt ends, breaded mushrooms, cheesy corn bake

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Stroud’s, Fairway, Kan./Kansas City, Mo.

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When one thinks meat in Kansas City, there’s a good chance that they’re thinking about barbecue. After all, this is a city that not only brings in barbecue lovers from across the country year after year for the World Series of Barbecue, but the local media managed to stage a 64-restaurant bracket competition this March, consisting solely of barbecue restaurants in Kansas City. Put simply, the City of Fountains is well-known for smoking its meat and doing it well.

But there’s more to Kansas City than just barbecue, as there often is in cities known for one famous dish. When everyone else is doing one thing, the easiest way to stand out is to do your own thing and make it the best that you can. Since the 1930’s, while most of Kansas City has elected to focus on pulled pork, ribs and Kansas City strip steak, Stroud’s has opted for poultry, shying away from the smoker in favor of old-fashioned pan-fried chicken at four locations on both sides of State Line Road. Yes, for those who have never been, there really is a road called State Line Road that serves as the dividing line between Missouri and Kansas until you get to the Missouri River. There are also two Kansas Cities, one in each state, known respectively as KCMO (Missouri) and KCK (Kansas). This place can get very confusing very quickly for the out-of-towner.

What isn’t confusing is the chicken at Stroud’s, and oddly enough, that specialty wasn’t a decision that Guy and Helen Stroud reached on their own. In fact, back in the 1930’s, Stroud’s was yet another Kansas City barbecue restaurant, serving mainly beef, not chicken. But in the 1940’s, World War II began, and suddenly, beef was being rationed. Well, that wasn’t going to work if the restaurant was going to stay in business, so the Strouds took advantage of the fact that chicken was not being rationed and began serving pan-fried chicken instead of barbecue. When the war ended, the Kansas City strip returned to the menu, but the brisket never came back. The Strouds had discovered that their chicken was worthy of carrying the menu as their flagship entree, and 70 years later, that hasn’t changed. They’re still choking their own chickens, as their shirts proudly say.

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In fact, it’s only become more entrenched in Kansas City culture. Since embracing its status as the home of pan-fried chicken and changing owners in the 1980’s, Stroud’s has proceeded to win accolades from across the country. The restaurant has shown up on numerous restaurant shows, and esteemed judge and food blogger Simon Majumdar, one of my favorite Food Network personalities, has gone as far as to claim that if he had his choice for his last meal, he’d pick Stroud’s. Considering that he’s got one of the most sophisticated palates in the world, that’s pretty high praise. I also knew it to be warranted, as I’d been here once before in 2011 with my friend Sam Wilson and absolutely loved this chicken. With that being the case and Amy’s love of all things chicken, this was definitely something that she had to try for herself.

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The first thing you notice about Stroud’s is the smell, which isn’t exactly what you would expect from a fried chicken place. Instead of the savory smells of chicken, you get the very recognizable sweet scent of warm cinnamon. There’s a great reason for that, but I’ll get to that later. Instead, the first question is how to start your meal, which depends on how adventurous you’re feeling. If you’re up for the so-called garbage parts of the chicken, the livers are actually quite delicious, fried the same way as the chicken and providing the perfect amount of both meat and skin. I got these on Sam’s advice on my first visit and very much enjoyed them, proving that when it comes to chicken, Stroud’s knows what it’s doing.

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If livers and/or gizzards aren’t your thing, your best bet is to stick with either the soup or salad that comes with any meal here. Personally, I’m a big fan of Stroud’s homemade chicken noodle soup, which is made with wide, thick noodles, just like a good noodle soup should be. Even better, the soup contains big chunks of chicken and the broth is spiced perfectly. I honestly prefer cream-based soups to broth-based soups, but a well-spiced broth can work very well, and this one certainly does. This soup is an absolute must for me.

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Amy, on the other hand, opted for the salad, which is also very well done, with multiple kinds of lettuce, fresh cucumbers and olives and plenty of shredded mozzarella cheese. If not for the quality of the soup, I would highly recommend this salad. It’s very good and a great way to start a meal with a taste of freshness. It’s just the soup is on a really high level, which makes sense given the chicken that has made this place famous.

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Speaking of the chicken…oh, the chicken. First off, Stroud’s doesn’t go light in any sense of the word when it comes to chicken. The smallest chicken meal they have is three pieces, with one being a breast and the other two being whatever you choose that isn’t another breast. For bigger appetites, you can choose to go for a four-piece meal that includes all dark meat, all white meat or one of every major part. There’s also an option for nothing but chicken breasts, which lands you three of them. Second, all of their chicken remains pan-fried, which means that it can take some time to prepare, but the result is well worth it.

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The keys with pan-fried chicken are to make sure that the crust is crispy but not soggy, the breading works with the chicken and that the meat itself remains moist and juicy rather than greasy. That takes time and experience, and that’s why Stroud’s has been doing this for as long as they have. The breading is perfect, nice and crisp without being too greasy or too messy.

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The chicken is perfectly moist and flavorful from first bite to last, and this is honestly probably the second-best chicken that I’ve ever had. The only place I can think of that’s better is Willie Mae’s, and when the only place that can beat you out of the long list of chicken restaurants that I’ve visited is a New Orleans legend, you’re doing something right.

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Stroud’s doesn’t stop there with its chicken, however, because it includes a sizable helping of gravy with every chicken dinner. Trust me, you definitely want their gravy. The gravy is the classic pepper gravy that goes on a good country fried steak, which gives you an idea of what you’re getting with this gravy. Much like the chicken noodle soup, it’s spiced perfectly. The pepper presence is fantastic, and this is also a perfect complement to the mashed potatoes or even the fries, depending on what kind of potato you’ve chosen with your meal. I don’t even really like most gravy, but I absolutely love this stuff and could have it on just about anything. The green beans include chunks of ham, a nice surprise, while the potatoes are again strong and flavorful. Meanwhile, the fries are similar to those of Five Guys, but thicker. Absolutely full of potato and flavor, while served at the perfect temperature and texture. One other thing, if you’re ordering with more than one person, rather than bring out individual portions of their duplicate side items, Stroud’s will fill larger bowls and allow you to take as much as you want. We found that out when we again had a little too much food, but neither of us minded at all. Actually, too much food is kind of how things work here, because Stroud’s will bring side refills if you ask. I don’t know if they charge extra or not (I’m betting no) because I’ve never actually taken them up on that offer.

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But I haven’t even gotten to the best part about Stroud’s yet. If you thought the chicken was the best thing about this place, think again. Remember that cinnamon smell that I mentioned when you walk into Stroud’s? Yeah, there’s a reason for it: Stroud’s homemade cinnamon rolls. Most places serve you bread with your meal, but at Stroud’s, the bread is covered with sweet cinnamon sugar and served warm, creating an absolutely wonderful taste. The sugar melts onto the bread when it’s made, and the bread’s texture is perfect. These are soft and almost seem to melt in your mouth. Stroud’s offers the option to have these rolls either with your meal or for dessert, and even though they’re very sweet, I actually recommend taking them with your meal. These things are so good that you want to be absolutely certain that you have enough room to enjoy every bite. Even a day later in the hotel room when they’re no longer warm, these are awesome, but when they come out hot and fresh, there’s nothing like them. Totally worth the trip on their own.

It’s not quite the best chicken in the world, but it’s pretty darn close, and the generous portions of quality sides more than make this a must-visit on either side of State Line Road. Sometimes, things happen for a reason. I’m sure Stroud’s could have been a very successful barbecue place, but after more than seven decades in the chicken business, I don’t think they’re complaining about how things worked out. Throw in those ridiculously awesome cinnamon rolls, and you’ve got something that’s truly special here.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Make sure you bring an appetite, though, because Stroud’s usually does not offer a lunch portion. I think the Overland Park location might, but Fairway definitely does not.

Wait during my visit: Minimal. We were seated right away, the wait comes when you’re waiting on the chicken to be fried and served to you.

Location: There are four of them in the Kansas City area, two on the Kansas side in Fairway and Overland Park and two in Missouri in Independence and in Kansas City proper. Our location was at 4200 Shawnee Mission Parkway in Fairway.

Cost: Providing a lot of food doesn’t come cheap, so you shouldn’t be surprised that this is on the expensive side. Plan on about $20 per person here. One strategy you can try if you’re not that hungry and can agree on types of chicken you want is to order one dinner and two sets of sides. If you do it that way, it’s $9 for the additional person and you’ll end up at about $30 for two people.

Parking: Not a challenge in Fairway. Finding it can be a chore because of how Shawnee Mission Parkway is set up, but there’s a lot there once you do find it, so no worries.

Seating arrangement: Tables and booths against the windows, chairs elsewhere.

Website: Stroud’s

Specialty items: Pan-fried chicken, chicken noodle soup, cinnamon rolls

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UPDATE: Schmidt’s Sausage Haus, Columbus, Ohio

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It’s time for another update post, this one referencing one of the most popular blogs I’ve ever done, that being Schmidt’s Sausage Haus in German Village in Columbus, Ohio. If you’d like to see the original, you can find it here. As is the case with update posts, these will not follow the traditional format and will just focus on what’s new on our most recent visit. This is meant to tie in with the original post.

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If you remember the original, you’ll know that one of the most famous things about Schmidt’s is the half-pound cream puffs. On my first visit, I had the chocolate peanut butter, and found it simply sublime. The chocolate was perfect on the pastry, and the peanut butter cream was just incredible. That was back in 2012, and I’ve talked about it quite a lot since then. Of course, 2012 was before Amy lived with me, so she wasn’t there for that first trip and made no secret of the fact that she wanted to experience a cream puff for herself. Like any good significant other, I promised her that when we got an opportunity, she would get her cream puff. As luck would have it, this year we needed to go to Ohio to get our wedding rings, and my beloved Seattle Sounders happened to land a match at Columbus on a Saturday evening in May. Opportunity knocked, and it was time to fulfill a promise.

Luckily, the cream puff was the part of my promise that she focused on, because when we arrived at Schmidt’s 90 minutes prior to kickoff, we learned that the wait for a table was going to be over an hour. Like I said last time, lines get long here, but I hadn’t counted on them being that long. As much as I love Schmidt’s sausages (especially the Milder Mama), the Sounders were the priority (hey, I am a proud member of the Emerald City Supporters), and it was time to call an audible.

Fortunately, there’s no wait for Schmidt’s desserts. The only issue is that when there’s no meal attached to them, they happen to cost a lot more. Actually, they tend to be double the price, jumping from $3 with the Autobahn buffet to $6 on their own. That’s quite a difference, and it’s a cost that you’d expect from a high-end restaurant’s dessert menu. But given that we are talking about a jumbo half-pound cream puff, this isn’t an ordinary dessert. If you remember from last time, Schmidt’s always has three options: the aforementioned chocolate peanut butter, vanilla and chocolate. A fourth option exists, but it’s a rotating seasonal flavor, so it’s never for sure what it will be. Having had the chocolate peanut butter before, I knew that this time, I wanted to try something new, and knowing Amy, I had a pretty good feeling that this trip would allow me to experience all three of Schmidt’s crown jewel desserts.

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She’s a chocolate lover through and through, which meant I knew she wanted chocolate, leaving me to go for the vanilla. Like I’ve said before, one of the many things I love about her is that we can work together seamlessly to allow ourselves to try a little of everything.

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One taste was all it took for Amy to understand what I’ve known for three years: these things are magical. First, there’s the design, as Schmidt’s covers the cream puff in powdered sugar and whatever toppings it deems appropriate for the flavors, and oh, the flavors are something special. The chocolate filling in this thing was incredibly rich, with the creamy, fluffy texture of a mousse. The chocolate has the strong flavor that hints at dark chocolate being used to make it, and if that’s the case, that would be something even more unique than it already is. I’ll be honest, it’s better than the peanut butter cream puff. This is dessert perfection.

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How about my vanilla? Just take a look at all that cream. The vanilla’s flavor is very pronounced from first bite to last, giving it that smooth taste that shows vanilla is anything but vanilla. This cream puff works beautifully with the shell, allowing you to get some of all the elements of the cream puff in each bite if you choose. If you’re not concerned with the pastry, then just go for the cream and the sugar. This is like the world’s best whipped cream on steroids, the texture is incredible and so is the taste. Wow, these things are worth every penny.

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So which one is the best? Honestly, it’s a tough call, but I have to give it to the chocolate. The texture and flavor combination is just so perfect that every bite is simply wonderful. The pastry holds everything together, and the cream is amazing. The chocolate peanut butter marks second on my list, putting the vanilla in the most outstanding last place of all-time. Seriously, the vanilla is incredible, it just happens to be paired with two desserts that are even better. Honestly, these cream puffs are as if there was a soccer group created of Chelsea, Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Someone outstanding has to finish last with such a stacked lineup, and unfortunately for the vanilla, that’s the hand it was dealt. It’s still an absolutely amazing dessert.

Someday, we’ll have enough time for Amy to experience the savory part of Schmidt’s, which is also incredible. But man, those cream puffs are something extra special. They’re easily three of the best desserts I’ve ever had in my life, and it’s honestly worth driving from anywhere for one of these. If nothing else, you’ve got to try one of these cream puffs if you’re in Columbus.

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Katzinger’s Delicatessen, Columbus, Ohio

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I’ll be honest: I’m not very big on celebrity endorsements. Maybe I’m jaded because I’ve seen how celebrities will say one thing, and then reverse course a week later, such as at the 2004 Olympics when U.S. gymnast Carly Patterson famously said she couldn’t really have McDonald’s while training (despite officially endorsing the Golden Arches), then talked about the health benefits of McDonald’s a week later. Wonder what changed her mind?

Or maybe it’s because I grew up in the era where television and sports exploded into a full and total partnership, which led to Michael Jordan advertising virtually every product under the sun, up to and including batteries, which have absolutely nothing to do with basketball. Jordan was so ridiculous that after winning the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics (do you get the sense that I don’t much care for the Olympics?), he draped an American flag over his shoulder for the medal presentation…to cover up the Reebok logo on his jacket, because he had a contract with Nike. Whatever the reason, I’ve always figured that when a celebrity gives an opinion, it has a good chance of being fiction, done either to help a friend or for a truckload of money. As a result, I’ve always taken endorsements by celebrities with a handful of salt, rather than a grain.

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When it comes to food endorsements, however, the rules change a little. They don’t change at all for advertisements, of course, because there’s still money involved. No matter what Bobby Flay says about this Greek yogurt being the best he’s ever used, he’s still being paid by their people to say that (and I’ve never used Greek yogurt in a recipe anyway). But they do change for restaurant-centric television shows, because to those programs, credibility is a must. If an expert such as Simon Majumdar or Alton Brown proclaims a restaurant wonderful when they know it isn’t in order to help a friend and the public soundly rejects it, their endorsement carries less weight in the future, which leads to reduced roles. In this day and age, it’s become easier than ever for serious foodies to test the claims of the experts, so there’s a lot of incentive for them to tell the truth now.

With that being the case, a celebrity’s restaurant endorsement in the right setting sparks a feeling of cautious optimism. I’m certainly not going to trust anyone blindly, but if a credible food expert praises a restaurant, my attitude is along the lines of, “OK, that sounds like it could be good…but I want to be the judge of that myself.” Such was the case with Katzinger’s Delicatessen, located on the edge of German Village in Ohio’s state capital of Columbus. Among other things, Columbus is the hometown of Chopped host Ted Allen, who certainly knows a thing or two about the culinary world after the amount of time he has spent hosting one of the Food Network’s signature programs. Recently, while doing one of my many searches, I noticed that during one program, Ted Allen actually proclaimed Katzinger’s to be one of the best places he has ever eaten. Well, that’s not exactly a statement that’s going to be made lightly. This was an endorsement worth exploring for ourselves.

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The first thing to note about Katzinger’s is that this is more than just a restaurant. It’s a legitimate deli that sells multitudes of cheeses, meats and bread. What isn’t made fresh on the premises is delivered fresh each day from as close as possible and made according to Katzinger’s standards. The bread, for example, comes from a bakery in Pittsburgh that makes its bread a certain way only for Katzinger’s, which then slices each loaf when it arrives in Columbus after three hours down Interstate 70. Not as great as if it was made fresh on site, but considering it’s made close by and driven in fresh, still a pretty good sign.

But it’s what’s between the bread that makes a great sandwich, and not only does Katzinger’s deliver here, it also throws in some creative names on top of it. Want a BLT? Here, it’s called Frank’s Reincarnation. Ham and turkey with mustard and mayonnaise? It’s called Sam Lives Here. Make it corned beef and pastrami and add Swiss, and you’ve got Jeff’s Soaring Super Sandwich. I love creative names, and some of these are so in depth that they actually open the door for some commentary. Here are some of my favorites:

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No. 8, Mom and Granny’s Harbor Hero: chicken salad, Muenster, lettuce and tomato on Challah. I wonder how Amy’s mom and grandmother feel about chicken salad?

No. 21, Gene’s Free Lunch: Hot corned beef, roast beef, Swiss, cole slaw and Russian dressing on pumpernickel. If it’s supposed to be Gene’s Free Lunch, why does it cost $12.50?

No. 59, President Bill’s Day At The Deli: Hot corned beef, mustard, Swiss on pumpernickel. Yes, this sandwich was created by President Clinton on one of his visits. Apparently, Bill Clinton is not a big fan of menu restrictions.

No. 65, Rachel and Nicki Got Stuck In A Closet: Beef brisket with barbecue sauce, cole slaw and Swiss. So Rachel and Nicki created a barbecue sandwich in a closet? Well, that’s one way to pass the time while you wait for help.

No. 69, Jack Does The Funky Chicken: Grilled chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and honey mustard on sourdough. Sounds like Jack’s got a good beat going here.

No. 79, Todd Is My Co-Pilot: Grilled chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado, red onion and homemade ranch dressing on farm bread. So you’re the one flying the plane while Todd’s making a sandwich? Love the sandwich idea, but not sure I want to take that flight.

No. 80, Misty and Stef Rule The World: Bacon, lettuce, sun-dried tomatoes, provolone and pesto mayonnaise on farm bread. Could Misty and Stef really do any worse than our current leaders? I mean, if they can make laws as well as they do sandwiches, they’ve got my vote.

There are no sandwiches with Dan or Amy in them, which is a bit of a disappointment. However, it didn’t really matter, because being the ridiculous planner that I am, I already knew what I needed to experience on this visit: the pastrami Reuben. Officially, the name is No. 39, Bill, Gary and Beuford’s (as a journalist, I love the lack of the Oxford comma) Upper Yough Reuben, which is your classic Reuben with pastrami instead of corned beef. Apparently, the name comes from a contest held where three guys who loved whitewater rafting on the Upper Yough River (which actually goes through Maryland and does not enter Ohio) won the right to name a sandwich, and that’s the name they came up with for what is best described as a pastrami Reuben with either sauerkraut or cole slaw. This is the sandwich that Ted Allen called the best he’d ever had, and I knew that this was what I wanted to experience for myself. To complete my meal, I added a knish, expecting it to be merely a supporting player in this meal.

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Yeah, about that: the knish is absolutely incredible. The classic knish is a mixture of onions and mashed potato inside a pocket of dough, much like a pasty with a different filling. The potato is cooked perfectly, soft and full of flavor, and it really is what makes this side dish something beyond an ordinary side dish. The pastry itself is light and flaky, and you honestly can’t even taste the onions, which made Amy a fan of this as well. This thing is simply amazing, and truthfully, I think it’s better than my sandwich was.

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And that’s really saying something, because this Reuben is a fantastic sandwich. I’m not sure what it is about Ohio and Reubens (or maybe it’s Ohio and sandwiches in general). First, the pastrami is heated up before it’s placed on the sandwich, and the sandwich is further heated by being placed on the grill. This, of course, gives the Swiss cheese the beautiful melt that creates a wonderfully creamy texture and enhances every bite. With the sauerkraut and Russian dressing adding to the flavor of the excellent rye bread, this is simply an awesome sandwich. Apparently, their classic and turkey Reubens are every bit as popular, which is pretty impressive. This sandwich is nothing short of wonderful.

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Amy wasn’t in the mood for a Reuben, and she opted to keep things simple and go for a No. 46, Repast Of The Robber Baron, which is a simple turkey, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Normally, it comes on rye, but she’s not a fan of rye and opted for challah, which she discovered a taste for on a previous trip. It might be simple, but it’s really good. The turkey is sliced well, flavored perfectly and is moist throughout the way it should be. Nothing says that good food has to be complicated, and this sandwich proves it.

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She also decided to follow my lead with a potato-based side dish, opting for a potato latke with sour cream and applesauce. The main difference here is that for the latke, the potatoes and onions are grated and then deep-fried into a pancake, creating a crispy texture rather than a soft one. I’m not sure why applesauce works so well with a potato pancake, but it really does. This is also awesome, ranking just a notch below my knish in my opinion. I really recommend the knish, which comes in at just $2 with a sandwich to the $3.25 latke, but it’s a matter of preference. Either one is a great choice.

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What we weren’t fans of was the only thing Katzinger’s gives away for free: its pickles. Katzinger’s offers a help-yourself station to both dill and garlic pickles, but we didn’t really enjoy the taste of either one of them. The dill flavor just wasn’t pronounced well, and the garlic gave the pickles kind of a weird taste.

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I’m not sure what it is, but for some reason, they just didn’t work and one each was all we wanted. Truthfully, this isn’t really a bad thing, because a subpar pickle leaves more room for great sandwiches and potato products. That’s a trade I’m happy to make, especially given that the pickles were free. Can you really complain about something free? I can’t.

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Here’s what else it gives you more room for: dessert. Yes, in addition to their array of sandwiches, salads (with homemade dressing), soups (Ted Allen claims the chicken noodle soup is the best possible side, although it would be hard as heck to beat the knish) and sides, Katzinger’s also offers homemade pies, cakes and other good stuff. Seeing that, I decided to do what I usually do, which is pick the most pronounced peanut butter and chocolate flavor and go with that.

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If nothing else, that’s something I apparently have in common with my future mother-in-law and sister-in-law. So of course, that meant going for a slice of chocolate peanut butter pie.

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This time, however, I might have ruined it for all future experiences, because this pie was even better than the knish. The filling is pure peanut butter taste, with the perfect light whipped texture that you expect from a silk pie. Just the peanut butter on its own is amazing, but Katzinger’s then adds a wonderful chocolate ganache that provides a contrast in style and a perfect complement the the peanut butter. The finish is an Oreo crust, which was so good that Amy decided to go for the crust quickly to make sure she got some of it. Truthfully, I had to stop myself from ordering a second knish in order to get this pie, and I am so thankful that I did. Wow, was this amazing.

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Amy opted for a homemade chocolate chip cookie, which was also incredible. Both of us prefer cookies that are fresh out of the oven and have the chips melting when you break them apart, but this was so good that we loved it even with it being cold. The cookie is soft, flavorful and very chocolate-filled. Man, if you could get one of these fresh out of the oven, it might even rival the pie.

I’m not sure what it is that makes German Village the home of great restaurants in Columbus, but there’s no doubt after my third visit, German Village is the place to go for some incredible meals in Ohio’s state capital. If it’s between two slices, involves a potato or it’s sweet, there’s a good chance that you’re going to find it at Katzinger’s and it’s going to be an amazing experience. Well done, Ted Allen, well done.

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Recap

Time to go: Brunch, lunch or dinner. Katzinger’s is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays and opens an hour earlier on weekends.

Wait during my visit: None. We came on a Sunday, so it wasn’t crowded.

Location: Katzinger’s is located at 475 South Third Street in Columbus, Ohio, right at the beginning of German Village.

Cost: On the pricey side for sure. Katzinger’s stuffs their sandwiches to be pretty full, which means that the sandwiches will not come cheap. Only one sandwich on the menu is under $10, with most being $11-13 for a regular and $13-15 for a deli-size, which is double the size of the regular. Most desserts cost around $3, as do most sides, which makes the $2 knish an absolute steal.

Parking: This can be tricky. Katzinger’s does have a small lot near the restaurant, but it doesn’t look big enough for a large crowd. If you can’t get in the lot, you’ll be stuck trying to find somewhere in German Village…and that isn’t a particularly enjoyable challenge.

Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs

Website: Katzinger’s

Specialty items: Pastrami Reuben, peanut butter pie, knish

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Katzinger's Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Hash House A Go Go, San Diego/Chicago/Las Vegas

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I’ll be honest: if I hadn’t taken a look at their website, I never would have guessed that San Diego is the original home of Hash House A Go Go. It’s not that the city isn’t known for great food. On the contrary, San Diego is an excellent food city, one that I hope to get to sooner rather than later. However, when one thinks of San Diego’s cuisine, what usually comes to mind includes seafood, Mexican, Asian, tri-tip barbecue and possibly pizza.

Creative farm food that specializes in the unexpected, on the other hand, seems to fit much better with Las Vegas, a city that goes all-in on doing the unexpected in an attempt to bring in the tourists and get them to leave without their money. Sin City is where I first encountered Hash House A Go Go, which at the time was located inside Imperial Palace, which might have been the best bargain on the Las Vegas Strip back in 2010 when I stayed there for three nights…and spent $54 total. Yes, an $18 a night hotel, one of the best things about Las Vegas.

Unfortunately, Imperial Palace no longer exists (it now operates under the name The Linq), but Hash House has done nothing but thrive in the 15 years since Craig Beardslee and Johnny Rivera came together to create a menu that includes creativity, uniqueness and some of the largest, most fresh and highest quality brunch items there are. That was true five years ago when I experienced it for the first time in Vegas, which made it one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had when I experienced one of their scrambles in 2010. Ever since that, I’d wanted to get back to Hash House, and when I saw that its operations had expanded to Chicago, a mere three hours away from myself and Amy, I knew this was something that I needed to share with my lovely fiancee.

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The first thing to know about Hash House is that they don’t do what’s expected here by any stretch of the imagination. Honestly, you wouldn’t expect the expected from a place that bills itself as “Twisted Farm Food”. For example, among their pancake roster, only the traditional buttermilk and apple cinnamon could be considered standard. The rest include options such as strawberry frosted flake, blueberry pecan, brown sugar banana, blackberry granola, butterscotch almond, mango coconut and Snickers. I can honestly say I’ve never seen any of those flavors with pancakes, even at the most creative breakfast places, which meant that these were a must-try.

However, the second thing to know about Hash House is that these portions are HUGE. We found out the hard way because as usual, we couldn’t decide between sweet and savory and decided to try both by each placing an order for an entree and sharing a Snickers pancake. Usually, this strategy has worked pretty well for us in the past. This time, however, the waiter laughed and said, “Are you sure about that order? That’s a lot of food.” Well, that’s quite a warning, but we decided that the idea was too good to pass up.

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Turned out, he wasn’t kidding. Yeah, that pancake literally covers an entire plate that stretched from my spot to Amy’s beverage, and both of us immediately realized what we’d done as soon as the pancake came out. This thing is a meal in itself, which is why they charge $8 for it. You know, in retrospect, that was kind of a flashing neon warning sign that we were placing a breakfast order that might be enough to feed the state of Delaware.

But one bite told us that it was completely worth it, because this is one amazing pancake. The batter is light, fluffy and holds together beautifully, and the chunks of Snickers spread throughout put it over the top. I love the taste of chocolate and peanuts, and the combination basically turns this into a chocolate chip pancake with chunky peanut butter, which is something incredible. No, we didn’t come close to finishing because of how much we had in front of us, but we really, really wanted to, because this was incredible.

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That said, it wasn’t even the best thing that we had, because this time, I knew that I had to try Hash House’s specialty: the sage fried chicken benedict. Yeah, there’s no part of that sentence that I didn’t like. What makes this thing special is pretty much everything, but it starts with what might be the best thing on the menu, the foundation of griddled mashed potatoes.

Yes, mashed potatoes placed on the griddle and cooked to perfection, giving them an extra crispiness while keeping the fluffy texture that always comes with good mashed potatoes. Plus, the flavors of the benedict soak into the potatoes, taking it to a higher level. With the potatoes in place, Hash House then adds biscuits, fresh spinach, bacon, tomato, eggs and fried chicken, the last of which is coated in corn flakes for a slightly sweet crunch. Griddled mozzarella is added, and then the whole thing is covered with a chipotle cream sauce.

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Holy cow, this thing is awesome. The chicken is cooked perfectly and works beautifully with every ingredient, especially the chipotle cream sauce. The sauce penetrates every part of this dish, which creates both a creamy and spicy taste that creates the good kind of pain from start to finish. The bacon is cooked to Amy’s liking, hot and crispy, while the spinach, tomatoes and cheese help keep this dish from crossing the line from good pain to blistering regret. We’ve made two visits here now, with each of us going for this dish once because of how awesome it is. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the size of this meal, as this benedict is so gigantic that it needs a large steak knife to hold it all together. Pretty incredible.

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On our first visit, Amy opted to go for the lunch side of brunch, opting for a salmon sandwich with chili mayonnaise, avocado and tomato. Sound simple? Maybe, but the taste is incredible. The salmon is wonderful with the cornmeal coating that they bread it with, and the chili mayonnaise works just as well with the salmon as it does with good sushi.

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Throw in the wheat bread and the vegetables, and you’ve got a great experience that might actually be somewhat healthy at the same time, at least before you get to the mountain of fries that comes with it on what has to be described as an absolutely beautiful plate. That’s another sign of how they do things differently at Hash House, everything with the food is done perfectly to the last detail.

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For our second visit, while Amy opted for the benedict, I decided that it was time to revisit the scramble I’d had five years earlier, opting for ham, cheddar and spinach along with my griddled mash. Honestly, that griddled mash is one of the best things I’ve ever had, with or without the benedict and the cream sauce. I’ve never once had one of the hashes here, mainly because those come with crispy potatoes instead of the griddled mash…and I’m actually someone who normally enjoys crispy potatoes/home fries over just about any other form of breakfast potatoes. These mashed potatoes are just that good.

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So is the scramble, which is loaded with toppings from start to finish. The most important thing about a scramble is the balance between the eggs and the toppings. Too much of the eggs and the toppings get completely lost and might as well not be even there, while too many toppings cause it to be nothing more than a loose-jointed collection of toppings that lacks the eggs to hold them together. The proper scramble, therefore, features every element in the bite with the toppings each bringing something to the table. That’s exactly what happens here, as the fresh spinach and salty ham pairs well with the creaminess of the melted cheese and the flavor and texture of the eggs. It’s hard for breakfast to get better than this.

My one regret here is that unfortunately, in our two experiences here, the service simply has not matched the quality of the food. On both occasions, we’ve received a server who started off attentive, but eventually forgot we existed, forcing us to wait a while for drinks or ask other servers for help. That’s really sad for a restaurant of this quality to have issues with its servers like this, and it’s really the only flaw we’ve found here. Basically, we’ve yet to have a server that will be anywhere close to reaching the Jimmy Lopez Hall of Fame.

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But when it comes to breakfast, Hash House knows what it’s doing for sure. From the griddled mash to the awesome scrambles to the sheer awesomeness that is the fried chicken benedict, there really isn’t anything here that’s going to be bad. No matter where it is, you can pretty much guarantee high quality food with a little creativity thrown in, and that’s a great way to start any day.

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Recap

Time to go: Brunch. Although Hash House does stay open late in most locations and does have a dinner menu, it’s known for breakfast food. It does lunch well too, but breakfast is the star.

Wait during my visit: None. Sometimes you might have a wait, but we’ve been lucky so far.

Location: Hash House a Go Go’s original location is at 3628 Fifth Avenue in San Diego, while the location we’ve been to is at 1212 North State Street in Chicago. I’ve also been to the location inside what is now the Linq at 3535 Las Vegas Boulevard in Las Vegas, and Orlando and Uncasville, Conn., also have locations.

Cost: Expensive. The fried chicken benedict costs $15, and many other dishes check in at around $8-12. That’s high for breakfast, but it’s also very much worth it. Definitely plan on about $15-20 per person, though, and more if you care to partake in a mimosa or another of Hash House’s alcoholic beverages.

Parking: This will range from “available” to “don’t even think about it” depending on where you go. In Vegas, it’s definitely available but probably unnecessary. Here’s one thing to know about the strip: the casino wants you spending money on fun stuff, not boring stuff. That means games, shows, food, drinks, luxury accomodations and entertainment. It does not mean parking. I’m pretty sure that parking at Vegas casinos is always free on the Strip, and since the Linq is in the center, you can just park at your hotel and walk there if you’re not staying there.

In Chicago, there’s almost no parking to be had. Your best bet is to take the Red Line of CTA to the Clark/Division stop just north of the Loop, then walk two blocks east to State Street and head slightly north. Much more simple to do that than try for a spot on a Chicago street.

Seating arrangement: Tables, chairs and booths, depending on where you are in the restaurant.

Website: Hash House a Go Go

Specialty Items: Fried chicken benedict, scrambles

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Hash House a Go Go on Urbanspoon

Hickory Park Restaurant Co., Ames, Iowa

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When the time came to take college visits, one of the main things I remember my mother talking about quite frequently was the importance of the college town. Whenever we went to any college on either mine or my siblings’ wish lists, my mother’s main priority was to see the college town portion of the city. At the time, I didn’t honestly understand the fascination. To me, the town was secondary, the college was the main reason I was interested.

Now that I’ve been able to do some traveling across the country and seen a lot for myself, I can understand why the college town meant so much to her. It’s because the presence of all of those college kids means that the town has to be able to cater to them. Even though college kids don’t have a lot of money, they also don’t have a lot of willpower when it comes to spending. They want to be able to go out on the weekends, and if they’re not able to do that, that’s going to cause a real problem.

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As a result, when it comes to the restaurant scene, college towns often punch far above their weight in terms of offering quality. Granted, some of them should, such as Columbus and Madison, because they’re legitimate cities on their own (and they’re actually the capitals of Ohio and Wisconsin respectively) and should have good food scenes. But then you get a place like Ames, Iowa, which is really an afterthought in the Hawkeye State, or at least it would be if not for it being the home of Iowa State University.

Ames is only home to 60,000 people and lives in the shadow of the state capital of Des Moines (40 miles to the north, but admittedly, Des Moines casts quite a large shadow over the rest of Iowa), but this college town has some legitimate options for Cyclones to visit. Creative pizzas convinced Man vs. Food to include an Ames restaurant in its Des Moines episode, and Iowa State’s football press box features what might be the best-kept secret in the sport: its wonderful buttermilk brownies. Those things are so good that I can only conclude that Iowa State is not smart enough to give them to football recruits; otherwise, the Cyclones would be dominating the Big 12 instead of languishing at the bottom of the table.

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But one of the older members of that food scene is also one of the best: Hickory Park Restaurant Co., located in downtown (or as close to downtown as it has) Ames. Since 1970, Hickory Park has been the place to go for sandwiches, barbecue and ice cream in Ames, and its standards haven’t slipped at all over 45 years. On the contrary, ever since David Wheelock opened Hickory Park, he’s had to close his doors and relocate twice…because the building he operated in wasn’t big enough to meet the demand.

When Hickory Park opened in 1970, Wheelock was setting up shop in a previously failed barbecue restaurant’s building that had capacity for between 60 and 80 people. He decided that he could succeed where the previous restaurant had failed by sticking with barbecue and adding ice cream to the mix, and somehow or another, it worked. In fact, it worked so well that in 1981, Wheelock closed his first location and opened a new one that featured 250 seats, hoping to appease his customers that found themselves waiting an hour or more for a table.

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It worked, but not in the way Wheelock intended. Instead, 16 years later, he found that he needed even more space and closed his second location for a location that almost doubled the space of the second…and it still hasn’t been enough to satisfy the demand. Even today, the waits at Hickory Park can get quite long. In a town of 60,000 people, that’s pretty dang impressive, and that says that this was a place Amy and I had to check out.

As expected, we got caught in the lengthy wait when we entered the building, but it really could have been a lot worse. The wait system is different here, as rather than the usual pagers, Hickory Park will give out numbers to each group and invite five or six numbers at a time to line up to be seated. One hard and fast rule here is that you can get a number at any time, but you can’t sit down until your party is complete. That’s one way to keep the line moving, and it works quite nicely.

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Once you get into your seat, you quickly find out that Hickory Park is basically where restaurant meets old-style ice cream fountain. This is the first place I’ve ever been that puts a phosphate on the menu, although interestingly enough, our waitress chose to talk us out of ordering it. When we asked what one was, she told us verbatim, “It’s really gross.”

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Undeterred, Amy was still curious, so we were given a free sample of a bubble gum phosphate, which actually didn’t suck as bad as the waitress suggested. Turns out, a phosphate is a sour flavored soda, so if you can handle sour, this might be a decent way to go. For me, I just thought it was okay, but still, considering what was suggested, okay isn’t bad at all.

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The main things we came for were dinner and ice cream, and here, we had some high expectations. We decided to start off with a breaded variety plate, which includes mushrooms, cauliflower, onion rings and cheese curds breaded and fried to perfection. Basically, the four items go from the healthy things to the unhealthy, with the cheese curds definitely not going to win any health food awards any time soon. But all four of them have two things in common: great breading and great taste.

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When you fry anything, no matter what it is, the breading is crucial. It’s got to stick to the thing being fried, and it’s got to actually add something to the thing being fried. Too much breading can overpower the thing that’s been fried, which is made even worse when a breading isn’t seasoned properly. This breading, however, worked wonderfully. Light, crispy, not too crunchy, not too oily, not too soft and not flavorless. This was good, and the vegetables and cheese were all excellent as well. This is something I’d order again, and I don’t say that about a lot of fried appetizers. Amy and I were very pleased with these.

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As far as dinner goes, there’s one major special here: garbage. Specifically and thankfully, the Garbage Burger, which features an array of toppings that would put a lot of other burgers to shame. Bacon, Swiss, American, mushrooms, sauerkraut and ham combine to form the Garbage Burger, which could probably also be called PETA’s Nightmare. There’s three kinds of meat and two kinds of cheese on this burger, which makes for one interesting experience. Of course, I knew this was the one to get.

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It’s pretty awesome. Really, the ham and the sauerkraut stand out here, as the ham is cooked well and merges well with the flavors, while the sauerkraut provides a decent texture change and a major flavor change. On top of that, the burger is absolutely nailed perfectly. There’s a lot to like about this burger. Really, the only negative here is with the mushrooms. For some reason, Hickory Park doesn’t treat the mushrooms with the respect they deserve when they’re thrown on to the Garbage Burger. Everything else is grilled properly, flavored properly and heated to the right temperature. But the mushrooms honestly have the taste and texture of the canned mushrooms you can find in the canned vegetable aisle at any grocery store. I’m sorry, but that’s not what mushrooms are supposed to be in a restaurant. They’re supposed to have a different texture and taste than the canned version, usually in a pretty noticeable way.

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Amy, never a fan of burgers, opted to go with a different kind of garbage meal: the deli sandwich. Once again, this list reads like some pretty impressive ingredients: ham, turkey, bacon, kraut, mushrooms, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, topped with some hard-boiled egg slices. Normally, it comes with beef, but Amy, of course, has no interest in beef and asked to have it removed. Again, this sandwich is excellent because for some reason, the flavors work. It’s so hard to integrate kraut into a sandwich and have it not suck, but Hickory Park manages to pull it off for the most part.

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I say ‘for the most part’ because this sandwich also suffers from mushroom issues. On the Garbage Deli sandwich, the mushrooms aren’t treated any better than they are on the burger. To their credit, they use fresh mushrooms and not canned mushrooms on the deli sandwich. To their discredit, the mushrooms are not sauteed or flavored. They’re just sliced and served. I have no problem with raw mushrooms and enjoy eating them, but on a deli sandwich, raw mushrooms just don’t work with the rest of the sandwich. The flavors have to work together, and not sauteeing the mushrooms damages that cooperation.

But otherwise, that’s about the only thing wrong with what we found here. The sides are decent, but not fantastic, mainly because only a few of them are actually prepared in-house. That’s because Wheelock’s philosophy from the beginning has been that if you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all, and he’s stuck with that to this day. Only the salads and barbecue beans are made in the restaurant, so there won’t be anything memorable about the fries or the mashed potatoes, which are real but not mashed in house.. Heck, it might be a better idea to just ditch them entirely in order to save room for the ice cream, because that is definitely worth sticking around for at Hickory Park.

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Basically, they focus on taking ice cream they know is good and turning it into some awesome sundaes. There are no fewer than 54 on the menu at Hickory Park, and some of these sound pretty awesome. In order to make the process easier, Hickory Park breaks their sundaes up into categories, such as Peanut Lovers and Candy Bar Sundaes. Some of the selections include the the Streusel Coffee Cake (coffee ice cream on top of streusel coffee cake), Thin Mint (mint chip ice cream mixed with Oreos and topped with a hard chocolate shell), the Golden Roof (vanilla topped with butterscotch and peanuts), the Pink Panther (vanilla and peppermint ice cream) and what I’m sure would be my future mother-in-law and sister-in-law’s favorite, the PB Paradise (fudge brownie topped with peanut butter fudge ice cream, hot fudge and more peanut butter. Wow.

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I was tempted, but I had to stay true to my taste buds, and that meant toffee. I love toffee anything, and with the Toffee Park sitting in my sights, there was no way I wasn’t going to try this thing. Much to my pleasant surprise, I found out that the Toffee Park, which features butter pecan ice cream, caramel and hot fudge, making it a lot like what I had at Sucre, features little pieces of English toffee. English toffee might be my greatest weakness (I LOVE Heath Bars), and there was no way I wasn’t going to enjoy this sundae when I saw what ingredients were involved. I loved every bit of this thing.

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Amy chose to go for the cake, opting for a Pound Cake Delight that mixed chocolate and vanilla ice cream with hot fudge, marshmallow and pound cake. Cake and ice cream just belong together, and this combination was pretty outstanding as well. The flavors just work from beginning to end, and the multiple ice cream flavors make it a different experience as you get deeper into the sundae and the ice creams melt together to meld the flavors. The vanilla wafer also appears to be a special touch on every sundae they serve, and I’m never going to complain about a free vanilla wafer.

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Really, there’s not a lot to complain about here. I would love to see the mushrooms taken care of better, but even with that flaw, that merely downgrades it from “perfect” to “excellent” because of the outstanding ability to succeed with both dinner and dessert. Getting to Ames can be a chore if you’re not already on your way to Minneapolis or Des Moines, but Hickory Park will make sure it’s worth the trip.

Recap

Time to go: The short answer is any time between 10:30 a.m. and 9 p.m., or 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The honest answer is to check Iowa State’s schedule on the day you plan to go. If the Cyclones play a home football or basketball game (and that’s either gender, as women’s basketball was for a while the one sport Iowa State did not totally suck at playing), either plan to wait or don’t go that day.

Wait during my visit: Lengthy. Have hope, it does move somewhat quickly for a waiting area this large, but you still probably won’t be seated right away.

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Location: Hickory Park is located at 1404 South Duff Avenue in Ames, Iowa.

Cost: Not too bad, Hickory Park doesn’t have most of its entrees top $10. Ice cream costs about $3-4 (and you probably don’t need a large, a small each was enough for us). You might escape getting out for $13-14, an excellent value for the cost.

Parking: There’s actually a lot. Hickory Park thought ahead on this one and went with a big lot that can be accessed in two directions. Good work.

Seating arrangement: Mostly tables and booths, pretty standard.

Website: Hickory Park

Specialty items: Garbage burger, sundaes

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Hickory Park on Urbanspoon

Over Easy, Scottsdale, Ariz.

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Good breakfast places can seem to be a dime a dozen, but in reality, they’re really not that easy to find. That’s because while lunch, dinner and dessert can go off in almost infinite directions and work out perfectly, breakfast has more of a narrow scope. The concept of eating breakfast for lunch or dinner is a common one, but the reverse is almost never true, and most places won’t even serve lunch items before a certain time of day. As a result, no matter where you go for breakfast, odds are the menu is going to be built around the same core items in one way or another.

That means that in order to be a great breakfast place, you’ve got to be really good at what you do and you’ve got to be at least a little creative, because even the best bacon, eggs and pancakes can get lost in a sea of like meals if there’s no reason for them to stand out. Whether it’s by using fresh high-brow ingredients such as Brie or stuffing flavors into hash browns to make an already good dish better, the great breakfast places all find a way to separate themselves from the standard fare and make themselves a morning destination.

In the Valley of the Sun, the destination is definitely Over Easy, which has possibly the most perfect name for a breakfast place that I’ve ever seen. Since it opened in 2008, Over Easy has become the place to start your day in the East Valley, which includes the affluent Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale as well as Mesa, Gilbert and college town Tempe, and that’s mainly because when it opened, it had credibility before it had served a single customer.

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That’s because in Phoenix, and especially in the East Valley, the name of chef Aaron May is about as good as it gets on the culinary scene. May has been the brains behind several top restaurants in Scottsdale and Phoenix, and with Over Easy, he simply wanted to try his hand at putting his creativity into the most important meal of the day and see what he could come up with to serve the Valley. Of course, given a background that includes a tapas bar and a burger that was named Arizona’s best before the restaurant’s landlord forced May out to convert the building into housing, expectations of what May could come up with were pretty high, to say the least.

As it turns out, the expectations were well-warranted, because it didn’t take long for May to prove the pundits right. Despite only being open for seven years, Over Easy has already earned national acclaim for some of May’s creations, including landing Food Network’s spot as the best breakfast in the state of Arizona. With those kind of credentials to its name, it didn’t take Amy and I long to decide that a stop here was a necessity when we headed out to the Grand Canyon State.

Figuring out what to get here, however, can be quite the challenge, because May has come up with a menu that features the perfect mix of creativity and quality. First, there’s the sweet stuff. How waffles, pancakes and french toast made it into the breakfast family is a mystery nobody will likely ever solve, but as long as they’re part of the menu, it’s important that they’re done well. In addition to the classics, Over Easy includes a strawberries and cream waffle (seems that it could be called a Wimbledon Waffle), blueberry pancakes with both powdered sugar and maple syrup and pancakes with candy mixed into the batter. The lineup also includes banana french toast with brioche as the bread, something Amy decided she had to try.

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Truthfully, this is a pretty awesome combination. For starters, using brioche as the bread ensures that you’re already working with a sweet foundation even before you get to any of the toppings. When it comes to the toppings, Over Easy doesn’t skimp at all, going heavy on the syrup, bananas, nuts and sugar, creating an incredible taste that’s full of sweet flavor. The large amount of syrup and the egg-based brioche makes sure that every bite is soft and has the gooey and slick texture that a good French toast should have. What’s more, the bananas are caramelized and the pecans appear coated in powdered sugar, which only adds to the flavor. That’s how you take an ordinary dish and make it something special.

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As good as the French toast is, however, you can find good French toast in a lot of places. Over Easy certainly succeeds in putting their own touch on a classic dish and making it memorable, but for something really different that you can’t find anywhere, the only direction to go in is that of the waffle dog.

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What is a waffle dog? Basically, Over Easy has taken the corn dog and turned it into a breakfast food. Given that a corn dog is basically a hot dog wrapped in sweet cornbread batter, this isn’t as big of a stretch as you would think, but it certainly is unique and delicious. Instead of a hot dog, Over Easy uses a link of breakfast sausage, then dips it in waffle batter and fries it, finally topping it with powdered sugar and providing you with syrup to use as you see fit.

The taste is simply amazing. The idea of sweet and savory at the same time isn’t a new one, but when most people think of savory and sweet, sausage is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, given that other pork products have worked well with sweet elements (maple bacon bar, Monte Cristo), it stands to reason that sausage does too, and that’s exactly what happens. The tastes work with and play off each other, creating a perfect bite from start to finish that might seem weird, but is absolutely wonderful. What’s more, Over Easy allows you to order the waffle dogs as your meal or as a complement to your main meal by ordering just one waffle dog instead of the three that come with a full order.

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As tempting as it might be to order three waffle dogs, going with one on the side is definitely the way to go, because that allows you the chance to experience one of Over Easy’s great entrees. After all, this place is called Over Easy for a reason, and that means that coming here and not ordering some kind of egg dish would be a major mistake. The best one just might be the restaurant’s namesake, the Over Easy. When a dish is named after a restaurant, that means one of two things: it’s either really bland, or it’s really awesome.

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The Over Easy definitely falls in the latter category, mainly because of how fresh everything is in this dish. They start with the brioche that’s used in the French toast as a base, then add plenty of sauteed spinach and its natural juices to it. Once that’s done, the dish continues with plenty of bacon and scallions, providing texture, flavor and that little bite that a good dish usually has. The entire thing is topped by two fried eggs, of course coming over easy.

Man, was this amazing. The spinach is really the star of this dish, as it’s sauteed to perfection and works so fantastically with the flowing yolk and the toasted brioche. You’ve got all the bacon you could possibly want and plenty of scallions, so the ideal flavor of this dish is going to be present from first bite to last. This is how breakfast can be done when it’s done right, and there’s a reason this was the dish named Arizona’s best breakfast. If you like spinach and breakfast, you will love the Over Easy.

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And if you love potatoes, as Amy does, then you’ll want to go for the Wolfpack, which takes breakfast as we know it and brings it to the next level. Much like the French toast, the Wolfpack isn’t the kind of dish that wows you with the fact that you haven’t seen it before. Instead, it wows you by being better than the familiar dishes you’ve had before. The Wolfpack has all of its components join together to create a great taste, and it does that in between two layers of hash browns. In between the hash browns, you’ve got bacon, you’ve got cheese and you’ve got eggs the way you want them. At least, you do somewhere under that pile of hash browns, which are awesome in their own right. It’s all cooked perfectly, and the flavors work together so beautifully.

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Given their ability to make flavors work well with the special dishes, it’s not a surprise that they can also make the mundane ones outstanding. Amy’s mother and grandmother each chose to go for a less adventurous but still excellent choice in the two-egg breakfast, which features much of the same things as the Wolfpack, just in a more traditional form. It’s still an excellent flavor, and it’s still totally worth trying.

Really, there isn’t anything bad on this menu, and that’s something that really makes for a great experience to start the day. When it comes down to it, being a great breakfast place comes down to two things, quality and creativity. If you’ve got both, you can take something everyone is familiar with and create one heck of an experience. That’s what makes Over Easy such a gem in the Valley and a required stop in the Grand Canyon State.

Recap

Time to go: Breakfast, obviously. Over Easy’s focus is only on breakfast, and as such, they close their doors at 1 p.m. most days, staying open until 2 p.m. at some locations.

Wait during my visit: None. Scottsdale is a bit out of the way from parts of the rest of the Valley, so the wait isn’t bad.

Location: There are four locations in the area, we visited the location at 9375 East Bell Road in Scottsdale, Ariz, next door to a hockey practice facility operated by the Arizona Coyotes. Phoenix, Gilbert and Mesa also have locations.

Cost: Reasonable. Entrees average about $9 here, so it’s not bad at all for the quality. High-quality, mid-range budget.

Parking: Quite a bit. Being next to the Coyotes’ facility will do that.

Seating arrangement: Mostly tables and chairs or bar seating.

Website: Over Easy

Specialty items: Waffle Dogs, the Over Easy

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Over Easy on Urbanspoon

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