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

Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, Inglewood, Calif./Los Angeles

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It’s rare for a dish to start in one location and become the delicacy of a completely different location. Sure, you see dishes transported to different cities and become gems in their new homes, as well as knock-offs of the original that show up under a new name. You can even see a dish named after something in one city become a hit in a completely different city. But when one place creates a dish, it’s usually that city’s dish to call its own for as long as it’s around. You just don’t see dishes start in one place and become associated with another.

But when it comes to the case of chicken and waffles, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that it doesn’t exactly follow the traditional rules. After all, the dish itself doesn’t come close to following the traditional rules. Dinner and breakfast at the same time? Fried poultry and a sweet waffle simultaneously? Not exactly what most people expect from their meals. But that’s what chicken and waffles is, and it’s a combination that has been going strong for decades now. The tradition dates back to at least the 1930’s, when according to legend, restaurant patrons in Harlem, N.Y. began to request both breakfast and dinner at the same time. Apparently, it had something to do with getting off after a night on the town and wanting to get both meals taken care of at the same time.

Whatever reason, people loved the idea, and the Wells Supper Club began offering the combination to its hungry guests. But unlike the city’s rich culture and music scene, chicken and waffles didn’t get the attention quality usually causes. The dish was popular in Harlem, but it wasn’t getting attention outside of the neighborhood. The city of New York just didn’t have space for yet another new iconic dish to add to its ever-growing stable.

But in the 1970’s, Herb Hudson saw an opportunity in bringing the Harlem taste to the west, specifically the city of Los Angeles and its suburbs. Hudson, a Harlem native, was familiar with two things: chicken and waffles, and the business of music and television. If there’s one thing that Los Angeles is known for, it’s celebrities. You pretty much can’t walk half a mile without finding some reference to a celebrity in Los Angeles, and that means that celebrities are definitely the best way to get your business out there in the City of Angels.

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In Hudson’s case, that meant getting them to talk up his business and visit at every opportunity. What he did was pass the word along to celebrities that he had a new chicken and waffles restaurant open called Roscoe’s, and they soon informed other celebrities about the interesting combination. Eventually, celebrities started passing on tips that they would be heading to Roscoe’s, and in a star-crazed city, that’s a sure way to get people to come. Through his own connections and some clever planning, Hudson had his franchise and chicken and waffles had officially become a Los Angeles staple.

But as powerful as word of mouth and celebrity sightings are, they’re not going to do the trick forever. That might be how Roscoe’s got its foot in the door, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the results you deliver. Fortunately, Hudson wasn’t all sizzle and no steak, or in this case, all breading and no chicken. As time went on, the reason to come to Roscoe’s became less about the celebrity and more about the simple quality of what you were eating. Travel Channel even called it the No. 2 place in the entire country, only losing to Connecticut-based Louis’ Lunch, the restaurant that invented the hamburger. That’s pretty high praise, and that was why Amy and I knew we had to make this trip on our visit to Los Angeles to see Simon. Truthfully, when we sketched this trip out, this was third on the list of what I wanted to accomplish in Los Angeles, behind only seeing my brother and seeing a UCLA basketball game at Pauley Pavilion. When a restaurant gets to No. 2 in the nation, it’s worth seeing what the hype is all about.

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With that being the case, there was only one thing to do when we arrived in Inglewood: order the dish that made this place famous. Truth be told, Roscoe’s actually has several ways that you can order chicken and waffles, with one of the main ones now being the Obama Special, obviously named for the current president. Previously, it was known as the Country Boy, and it consists of three chicken wings, plus either a waffle, potato salad or french fries. If one waffle isn’t enough for you, or if you just aren’t a fan of chicken wings, no problem. The Scoe’s consists of 1/4 chicken plus two waffles, and Herb’s Special ups the ante by making it half a chicken along with two waffles. Both offer solid values.

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Or you can say the heck with the combos and make it an a la carte order, which is what Amy and I chose to do. What can I say, we each like what we like. She’s always going to choose a chicken breast over any other part of the bird, and I’ve always been a fan of the dark meat, because I just find it so much more flavorful than a breast or a wing. Plus, I didn’t feel like taking my chances on only being able to order certain parts of the chicken if I opted for the Scoe’s or Herb’s Special, so I have no idea how ordering 1/4 or 1/2 of a chicken works here. What I do know is that I had an easy call here for a meal: thigh, leg and waffle. Perfect combination right there, and I couldn’t wait to try it.

As soon as I tasted it, I knew that the hype was totally worth it. This combination was simply as good as it gets, and it started with the chicken thigh. I’ve had some of the best chicken in the world, and this wasn’t too far off. It’s perfectly spiced, breaded well and so flavorful. What makes it so good is that it’s juicy but not greasy, a delicate balance that many try but only a select few achieve. The thigh was so good that it actually made the leg redundant. Don’t get me wrong, the leg is quite tasty, but truthfully, I’d rather have had two thighs instead of a thigh and a leg.

But where Roscoe’s really stands out is the waffle. I’ve had outstanding chicken and waffles before, but what makes Roscoe’s even better is the taste of the waffle. Little-known fact about me: I absolutely love the taste of butter pecan flavoring. I’m not the biggest fan of pecans themselves, but something about the butter pecan flavor just absolutely works beautifully. As soon as I drenched my waffle in syrup and took my first bite, I noticed a very familiar flavor permeating throughout the sweet mix of waffle: butter pecan. Perfection right there. The waffle texture is soft, fluffy and absorbs syrup beautifully, providing the perfect combination with the chicken. I loved every bit of my waffle, and really, I would come to Roscoe’s just for the waffle, and yes, I mean I would fly from Davenport to Los Angeles just for a waffle if I could afford it.

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Back on the chicken front, Amy’s chicken breast was just as outstanding as my chicken thighs. Much like the thigh, it was a step behind the absolute top that is Willie Mae’s, but a step behind Willie Mae’s is still pretty dang amazing. The chicken is absolutely wonderful, breaded well, juicy and flavorful. But that was something that she was expecting. What she wasn’t expecting was the quality of the macaroni and cheese that I ordered as a side.

On first glance, the macaroni and cheese is the dark side of Roscoe’s, because the most obvious thing about it is that it’s expensive. When you pay five dollars for macaroni and cheese, you expect a huge portion of it. Instead, it’s a regular-sized side dish. When it comes out, you honestly wonder how in the world it could be worth five bucks. But when you taste it, you realize that it’s worth every cent, because the pasta is perfect and the cheese is both melted throughout and flavored perfectly.

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I’ve never met a macaroni and cheese I didn’t love, and this might be the best I’ve ever had. Amy, on the other hand, hates macaroni and cheese in all forms…except this was her Drover. Much like the whiskey-soaked steak in Nebraska, Amy didn’t hate this macaroni and cheese. When Amy doesn’t hate your macaroni and cheese, you’ve really done a great job with it. The cornbread was also fantastic, having all of the necessary savory and sweet flavors that make up a good cornbread. Soul food is just something special.

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Breaking with our tradition, Simon opted for a chicken sandwich with potato salad, which truthfully is another fine choice. I’ve never been the biggest fan of potato salad (I blame my father for always having it around growing up), but sometimes it works well, and this was one of those times. Potato salad, to be done right, must be creamy and properly spiced, almost always with dill, and this hit the mark. As for the chicken sandwich, this place simply knows chicken, bone or no bone.

Harlem might have been the place that started the idea of chicken and waffles, but it’s Los Angeles that has perfected it. Roscoe’s is what made it mainstream, and that’s because Roscoe’s made it outstanding. It’s really not a stretch to say that you haven’t really been to Los Angeles until you’ve made it to Roscoe’s.

Recap

Time to go: Morning, evening or late night. Roscoe’s opens at 8 a.m. in six of its seven locations and stays open until midnight at five out of seven, with some staying out until as late as 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Chicken and waffles are meant to be an evening meal.

Wait during my visit: None. Seven locations and a late trip pretty much means no wait.

Location: We went to the location at 621 West Manchester Boulevard near the former Great Western Forum (which had to be the best corporate name for an arena ever) in Inglewood, Calif. Others exist in Hollywood, Pasadena and Anaheim.

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Cost: It’s not anywhere near as cheap as you’d think. If you stick to chicken and waffles, it’s not expensive at all, running about $10 per person. But when you add sides, that’s where the costs really add up. On the other side of the coin, the sides are worth every cent. Also, skip the Sunrise and Sunset drinks. Lemonade and orange juice mixed together could be a good thing. Paying more than two dollars for lemonade and orange juice mixed together is definitely not.

Parking: It was a challenge, but not too terrible. We just had to grab the last spot in the lot and park.

Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs or booths are your options.

Website: Roscoe’s

Specialty items: Chicken, waffles, macaroni and cheese

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Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles on Urbanspoon

UPDATE: Gray Bros. Cafeteria, Mooresville, Ind.

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This is a first at Dan vs. Food, as I present my first update post after a return visit to Gray Bros. to try the meatloaf that I missed on visit no. 1. Rather than re-hash everything from the original, I’ve updated the original post with information from the new visit that Amy and I had in November.

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In addition, as you can see, I’ve added some pictures here as a preview for some of the new things we experienced on our return trip. Enjoy.

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Gray Bros. Cafeteria update

Philippe the Original, Los Angeles

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This is a blog that’s been a long time coming. Years ago, when I had just started my first adult job covering Idaho State men’s basketball, I quickly discovered two major perks that came with covering a Division I team: traveling to road games and free meals in different cities. Of course, with the newspaper industry drowning, those benefits are fading fast for those still in the business, but at the time in 2009, the rule at the Idaho State Journal was that if I could justify the expense and keep the costs as low as possible, any road game the Bengals played was fair game for me to cover.

That was both the right and wrong thing to say to me, because I am very good at planning and scheming to achieve whatever goal I want. If I knew a flight somewhere would be expensive, I’d skimp on the hotel to knock the cost down. If the hotel was costly, I’d fly into a further away airport and add an hour to my drive. I even once drove from Pocatello, Idaho to Cheney, Wash. (eight hours, 15 minutes each way) because flying into Spokane would have been too expensive, but I wanted to cover a game at Eastern Washington. On top of wanting to be at every game because I loved my job and wanted to do the best job I possibly could with it, I also wanted to get to as many cities and restaurants as I could. There aren’t many opportunities in life to travel a certain region and not have to pay for it, and both the Big Sky and the Bengals’ schedule each year was full of enjoyable places to travel.

One of those places was Los Angeles, where I knew that a visit to Philippe the Original was a requirement. Since 1908, Philippe’s has been a Los Angeles icon as one of the two restaurants (Cole’s is the other) that claims to be the birthplace of the French Dip sandwich. As Philippe’s legend has it, in 1918, owner Philippe Mathieu was constructing a sandwich for a hungry police officer and accidentally dropped the sandwich in the roasting pan that the meat had come out of, soaking the sandwich with juice and broth from the meat. The officer told Mathieu he would take the sandwich anyway, and Mathieu handed him the wet sandwich. The next day, the officer came back with some of his friends and asked for more “dipped sandwiches”. As usually happens with mistakes or special requests being served and enjoyed, a light went on for Mathieu, and the French Dip was born.

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Why is it called the French Dip? The answer is as much an unsolved mystery as the question of who came up with the sandwich first. Philippe’s offers three possible explanations: it was named in homage of Mathieu, a French immigrant, it was named for the French bread that the sandwich is served on, or the officer’s name was Officer French and the sandwich was named after him. Nobody knows for sure, and even Philippe’s says that the true origin has been lost to history. So much for finding out the answer to that question.

What hasn’t been lost to history is tradition and taste, which I found out for myself back in 2009 before watching Idaho State play at Southern California. So why so long to blog about it? Two reasons: First, by the time I had started this blog, too much time had passed since my visit to Philippe’s that I didn’t think I could fairly and accurately write about my experiences. Second, I couldn’t pass up the chance to introduce two important people to something I knew was outstanding. If you’ve read any previous posts on this blog at all, you know that my wonderful fiancee Amy is with me for all of these trips, and I love finding blog-worthy places with her. In addition, my brother Simon moved out to Los Angeles from Virginia in 2013, yet hadn’t made the trip up U.S. 101 to Philippe’s. Needless to say, that’s an opportunity that I could not resist, and when Amy and I headed to the City of Angels in December for a visit with Simon, a trip to Philippe’s was in order on our second day in Southern California.

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The first thing that makes Philippe’s different is the way that they get your meal to you. At most places, the line forms at two or three cash registers, and the order is prepared in the back while you move to a separate part of the restaurant to wait on your meal. At Philippe’s, the lines can get so long that doing it the normal way would cause a ridiculous amount of time to get your sandwich, so they feature 10 different stations for customers to order, pay and receive. Each station featuring its own carver, who handles everything from taking your order to making it and delivering it, and it’s not like you’re dealing with your average teenager who’s learning the business here. Many of Philippe’s carvers have been working at Philippe’s for decades, with one having worked at the counter since the Nixon administration. In case you weren’t sure how long that’s been, that’s 42 years of experience there. When you do anything for that length of time, you’re bound to get pretty good at it. Also helping is the fact that if you want to add a side or dessert after paying for your meal, there’s a separate spot for ordering and paying for all non-sandwich items. Very efficient.

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The next difference comes after you’ve handed your cash (Philippe’s is cash only, again done in the name of speed) to your carver, because a quick glance at the dining room reveals that Philippe’s doesn’t have small tables. Instead, it’s grab a seat wherever you can find one at a long table that stretches across the room. Unless you have a large group, there’s a decent chance that you might find yourself sitting next to a complete stranger while you’re enjoying your lunch. It’s just the way it is here, and it’s as much a part of their history as the sawdust on the floor, which is used to help neutralize any spills and has been for decades.

Tradition aside, the reason people have been coming here for the past century is in the French Dip sandwiches, and you’ve got several options to choose from, as long as it’s not too early or too late. Philippe’s opens at 6 a.m., but only the beef and ham dips are available that early. For pork, turkey or lamb, which round out the lineup, you’ve got to wait until 9 a.m. Don’t wait too long, however, because if Philippe’s runs out of a certain kind of meat, they’re done selling it until the next day. Hey, when you’ve been around 107 years in a place like Los Angeles and survived two relocations, chances are you’re not sacrificing on quality.

Once you’ve decided on your meat, the next choices are whether you want cheese and how wet you want your sandwich. Despite the name of French Dip, Philippe’s does not serve their au jus in a separate side for you to dip throughout your meal. Instead, they dip the meat to get the au jus on it before it’s even served to you, simply because they would not have enough au jus to satisfy the demand if they served it on the side. You can get it single dipped, double dipped or wet, which are varying levels of broth on the sandwich, as the names imply. I haven’t seen the wet one, but I’m guessing that at that stage, it requires silverware to eat.

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Truthfully, a single dip is enough, and as soon as I sank my teeth into my dipped beef with Jack cheese, a lot of great memories came rushing back. The beef is so tender and the jus gives it both the perfect flavor and the perfect texture. The meat practically melts in your mouth and the bread soaks up the jus beautifully to take on its flavor as well. The crustiness of the French bread means that unlike Italian beef, which is also a great sandwich, the bread is going to stay together in the face of all of that broth rather than get soggy, which makes French bread the perfect vessel for all of that flavor.

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Amy, of course, despises beef in all forms, so she opted for turkey, and it turns out that Philippe’s is as skilled with poultry as it is with beef, and the jus works just as well with turkey as it does with beef. Her sandwich was incredible, and made even more so with the addition of Philippe’s homemade hot mustard. Contrary to both popular opinion and the opinion of my taste buds, there actually is no horseradish in the mustard. The mustard does taste like it has horseradish in it, which Philippe’s says is because the mustard seed is in the same genetical family as horseradish and other plants.

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Instead of adding horseradish, Philippe’s simply allows the mustard seed’s naturally sharp flavor to shine, creating a good amount of heat that is best enjoyed in small doses. Amy was very pleased with the added flavor once she figured out how not to overwhelm the sandwich, and it worked just as well on Simon’s pork, which was also incredible. Following the rule of keep it simple, there’s a reason Philippe’s sticks to only five meats on its menu. It’s because it knows what it’s doing with those meats, resulting in a quality sandwich every time.

That’s how you stay in business in the country’s second-largest city for over a century. That’s how you get customers to accept open seating, cash-only registers and lines out the door. Quality and innovation are crucial for any restaurant to become beloved, and Philippe’s has both of those for sure. Whether or not they actually invented the French Dip is disputed, but there’s no doubt they’ve perfected it. I just hope I don’t have to wait another five years for my next visit.

Recap

Time to go: Depends on the time of year. If at all possible, avoid going between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., because lines can get very long during this time frame. Also, if you’re going during the summer, check the baseball schedule first to make sure the Dodgers aren’t at home. Philippe’s is one mile away from Dodger Stadium, and as such, it is a very popular hangout spot before and after Dodger home games, so it’s likely to be very packed when the Dodgers are playing. Otherwise, it opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. Remember, if you’re going for lamb, turkey or pork, don’t go before 9 a.m., because it’s not served until then.

Wait during my visit: None this time, shockingly. The first time, the wait was lengthy, but thanks to the fast ordering system, the long lines do go quickly.

Location: After being forced out of its second home by U.S. 101, Philippe’s has been at 1001 North Alameda Street in Los Angeles since 1951.

Cost: Very reasonable. Philippe’s isn’t as cheap as it was decades ago, of course, but a sandwich and drink can be had for about $7 per person. Of note, iced tea and lemonade are both under $1. Keep in mind, though, no plastic accepted unless you’re buying a shirt or mustard from their gift shop after your meal (yes, you can buy jars of their mustard). At the counter, it’s cash only.

Parking: Have hope, there are spaces here. Philippe’s operates two lots, one directly behind the restaurant and one just across the street from the restaurant. Parking is free to Philippe’s customers only and cars must be moved when one leaves the restaurant so people don’t try and use it to get free parking for Dodger games.

Seating arrangement: As discussed above, it’s long tables and open seating, with a few counter areas. You might end up sitting next to or across from someone you’ve never met, and if it’s crowded, you probably will.

Website: Philippe’s

Specialty items: French Dip sandwiches, hot mustard

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Philippe, The Original on Urbanspoon

Bazbeaux, Indianapolis

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One of the realities in the sports world these days is that the word “dynasty” is thrown around far too often. It used to be that dynasty was reserved for true feats of long-term success, such as John Wooden’s unthinkable 10 college basketball national titles in 12 years at UCLA in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Nowadays, with free agency and college stars leaving for the pros at the first chance they get, true dynasties don’t happen anymore, which is why so many sports experts are quick to slap a dynasty label on a team who wins three titles in a decade, no small feat but certainly not the kind of dominance associated with the traditional meaning of dynasty.

But in the food world, there’s no such thing as top chefs leaving early for a higher level, so true dynasties can happen in terms of unmatched quality, and in Wooden’s home state of Indiana, Bazbeaux is the owner of a dynasty mark that makes Wooden’s success on the court look puny by comparison.

Since it opened in 1986, Bazbeaux, named after a French court jester who chose to flee the country for Italy rather than serve under teenage king Charles VIII, has been the gold standard for pizza in Indianapolis. Despite the fact that Bazbeaux’s original location was in the former home of the gravedigger for the town cemetery, Hoosiers have loved this place from the beginning. In its first year in business, Indianapolis Monthly named Bazbeaux the best pizza in the Circle City, an honor that Bazbeaux would proceed to win every year until 2007, a streak of 21 consecutive years as Indianapolis’ top pizza. Yes, if you’re scoring at home, that’s a streak that stretched from the Reagan administration to the next-to-last year of George W. Bush’s presidency. That kind of consistent excellence over that long a period is simply remarkable, and Bazbeaux isn’t a place that rests on its laurels either. When Dom DiCarlo’s finally broke the streak in 2007, Bazbeaux stepped up to the challenge to reclaim its title the very next year. Pretty impressive.

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Plus, it’s not like we’re talking about a place in the foodie black hole known as Davenport, where Harris Pizza wins acclaim year after year, despite serving a concoction (calling it a pizza is an insult to pizza everywhere) that ranks among mankind’s most awful crimes. Indianapolis actually has a good food scene, so to spend two decades as the top pizza in the Hoosier State’s capital is quite an achievement. With that kind of buildup, plus a ringing endorsement from my cousin Victoria, who lives in Indianapolis with her husband Joel, Amy and I were really excited to make this visit.

How you begin your visit depends on whether or not you enjoy alcohol. If you do, you’ll want to get yourself started with a bottle of banana bread beer. Yes, that’s right, Bazbeaux serves a beer that has the flavor of banana bread. I’d never seen it before this trip, and neither had Amy. With that uniqueness and Victoria making sure to tell Amy it was a must-try for her, it was an easy choice for the love of my life.

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From what Amy tells me, it’s absolutely worth the hype. I don’t drink alcohol, so I obviously can’t describe the taste for you, but Amy describes it as exactly what you would expect from a good piece of banana bread. The scent from the bottle was very pleasurable, and were I a drinker, this would probably be a must-try. Although an alcohol list is not on its website, Bazbeaux features a pretty robust selection of interesting beer and wine, which is about what you’d expect from a place named after a jester who was tasked with making whimsical culinary creations to amuse the Italian king.

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If you’re not a drinker, the best place to start is with Bazbeaux’s wonderful garlic bread. They say it’s award-winning, and although just about every restaurant claims something of theirs is award-winning and yet I never see an award anywhere except Oklahoma Joe’s (or Joe’s Kansas City, as it’s now known), I believe it in Bazbeaux’s case. This bread is served hot, flavorful and has the perfect texture, with the interior being soft and the exterior crisp. It’s everything you want from proper garlic bread. But to take the garlic bread as it is would be a mistake, because the best part of it is the pesto.

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Basically, pesto is to Bazbeaux’s garlic bread what Dirty Sauce is to the sandwiches at Ike’s Place: it’s the thing that takes it to the next level and makes the item legendary. The pesto is baked into the bread so that every bite of bread is infused with the flavor, and the result is fantastic. I absolutely love the taste of pesto, and to have it flavoring a piece of hot, fresh garlic bread is an awesome culinary experience. They’re definitely not kidding on the menu when they say that trying their garlic bread with pesto is a real treat.

But of course, the real reason to come to Bazbeaux is the pizza, and this is definitely a place where you can let your imagination run wild if you choose. Besides its basic cheese pizza, Bazbeaux features an incredible 59 toppings, eight of them being cheeses along with their house blend of mozzarella, provolone and pecorino romano. To put it another way, you could eat here every day for the rest of your life and never get anywhere close to trying every possible combination. With that many toppings, it’s literally impossible to try all of them.

Bazbeaux further breaks up its toppings into traditional, exotic and premium, with different charges for each one. Traditional includes exactly what you would expect to find at a pizza place, with basic toppings like pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, green peppers and olives making up the lowest and cheapest tier. Exotic branches out to include high-brow cheeses such as fontina, goat cheese and blue cheese while adding in toppings like eggplant, avocado, albacore tuna and black bean dip that you wouldn’t expect to find on a pizza. Premium goes even further, as lump crab, Cajun shrimp, smoked turkey, barbecue chicken and other meats join the lineup. Assuming they could actually get all 59 toppings onto one pie, a large pizza with literally everything on it here would set you back $163.25. Having almost as many toppings on your menu as the NCAA tournament has teams will do that.

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Of course, with that many options, there’s bound to be a few planned specialties, and they all seem to have an ingredient lineup that works well together. Some of the ones that I think I’d enjoy include the Garden (spinach, artichoke hearts, avocado, green pepper, black olive, red onion, ricotta), the Margherita (fresh tomato, fresh basil, fresh garlic and fontina), the Basilica (sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, feta and pesto sauce), the Genova (eggplant, mushrooms, fresh tomato, fresh basil and goat cheese) and the Neptune (crab, shrimp, snow peas, black olives and green peppers), with all of them coming on Bazbeaux’s three-cheese blend. Take out the onions, and Amy would likely be a big fan of the Luke, Bazbeaux’s buffalo chicken and blue cheese pizza.

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But the one that’s gained them the most attention over the years is the misnomer that is the Pizza Alla Quattro Formaggio, which Zagat has called Indiana’s best pizza. It’s a misnomer because Quattro Formaggio traditionally means four cheeses, but this one throws in a fifth cheese for free, as romano, cheddar, provolone and mozzarella combine with ricotta to make the quintet of dairy greatness. Bacon and mushrooms are added to finish off the five-cheese creation that has become a Bazbeaux specialty.

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Oh, my god. By itself, this pizza is good enough to win a restaurant some deserved honors. The crust is perfect, not too thin, not too thick, not too crispy, not too doughy, just perfect. We went with the white crust, as Bazbeaux offers white, wheat or gluten-free for its crust, catering to every need. There wasn’t a thing I’d change about this crust, it kept its texture throughout and held its toppings beautifully.

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As for the toppings, you had better like bacon, because Bazbeaux definitely does not skimp in that department. Good thing, too, because the bacon is crisp and has the perfect salty flavor to counteract all of the cheese, which is creamy and fantastic. Ricotta isn’t often used as a pizza cheese, but here, it’s really the most underrated ingredient by a wide margin because of how much it adds. The taste is wonderful, and the ricotta melts perfectly to create a creamy texture from first bite to last. I honestly spent my meal searching for those beautiful white spots on the pizza because I knew those were going to be both the creamiest and the best parts of an outstanding pie. Amy loved this as well, and she’s not even a big fan of ricotta. This pizza is that good.

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For her pizza, Amy wanted to keep things relatively simple, opting for bacon, mushrooms and shrimp on the basic three-cheese blend. Even when you don’t add cheese to it, Bazbeaux piles it on and it flows beautifully. Amy was pleasantly surprised to see the melting mozzarella blend coming off her pizza as she took her first slice, and wasn’t the least bit disappointed when she actually tasted her creation.

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Much as with mine, there’s bacon and a lot of it. It’s crispy and salty, and it works well. The shrimp is perfectly cooked, giving a great texture and a meaty taste. The only complaint with the shrimp is that it’s not strong enough to really stand out on a pizza like this, getting overpowered by the bacon. Perhaps it works better when paired with other flavors that aren’t quite as powerful. Even with that, though, this is a really good pizza, and we both enjoyed every bite.

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I’m not sure what inspired the beginning of a pizza restaurant inside an abandoned house 28 years ago, but wherever it’s been in its history, Bazbeaux has been one of the Hoosier State’s gems, mainly because its mindset has been the same from the beginning. According to the legend, Bazbeaux the jester’s journey ended in the New World on a journey with Amerigo Vespucci that he never returned from, and Bazbeaux the restaurant’s goal is to continue his philosophy of whimsy, originality and excellence. When you have those three things working for you, it’s a recipe for success, and after nearly three decades, it’s safe to say that Bazbeaux is living up to the standards of its name.

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Recap

Time to go: Depends on the time of year. Each of Bazbeaux’s three locations open daily at 11 a.m., with the downtown location staying open until 10 p.m. and locations in the Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis and in Carmel, Ind., open until 9 p.m. In the summer, all locations are open one hour later.

Wait during my visit: None. We got in there near the end of the evening.

Location: Bazbeaux’s downtown location is at 329 Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis. Be careful trying to find it, it’s a challenge. Massachusetts Avenue is a diagonal street and there are several one-way streets in the area. Be careful, you could easily end up lost and driving around in circles, which is exactly what happened to me.

Cost: Not bad at all. Most specialty pizzas are $12 for a 10-inch, and creating a pizza starts at $7.25, with traditional toppings costing 80 cents, exotic costing $1.40 and premium $1.80 for a 10-inch. Throw in $3.50 for pesto garlic bread and you’re at about $25-30 for two people without drinks.

Parking: Not great downtown. There are spaces, but Massachusetts Avenue is a popular destination and they fill up fast. However, New York Avenue, which borders the other side of Bazbeaux, has street parking. You might have a better shot at finding a spot there, and it’s free on weekends.

Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs, or booths and chairs, whichever one will be more comfortable for you.

Website: Bazbeaux

Specialty items: Quattro Formaggio pizza, pesto garlic bread

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Bazbeaux Pizza on Urbanspoon

Zombie Burger and Drink Lab, Des Moines, Iowa

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I’m not really sure why zombies are so popular in this day and age. I’m not really sure anyone is, but there’s no doubt that the mystery of the undead is quite the phenomenon. Maybe it’s just as simple as people really enjoying a good scare, and there are few things that bring one up like a creature who was previously here, died and now only has a single purpose of feasting on the brains of the living. There are even articles that try to analyze it, and nobody’s come to anything resembling a consensus.

The one thing that is for sure is that zombies are very popular, and it only makes sense for someone to try to cash in on that theme with a restaurant based around it. It doesn’t exactly make sense for that someone to be based in Iowa’s state capital, but then again, Des Moines is also home to Asian-inspired pizza, so it makes about as much sense. Given how some of their restaurants are going with their choices, Des Moines might want to steal Louisville’s slogan of “Keep (City) Weird”.

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But what makes Zombie Burger worth the trip isn’t the decor or the theme. They aren’t minuses by any means, but the reality is that Zombie Burger isn’t a one-trick gimmick restaurant that’s all flash and no substance. No, what makes this place special is the same thing that makes any special restaurant worth visiting: they know what they’re doing when it comes to food. After all, that’s kind of the entire point of a restaurant.

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As you probably gathered from the name, Zombie Burger’s meal of choice is the humble hamburger, which becomes anything but humble once Zombie Burger’s creative chefs get their hands on it. Really, it seems that every burger on the menu has been designed with two things in mind: what are the most interesting ingredients we can use and still have a good burger, and how do we make those flavors meld together to create that perfect taste?

OK, there’s a third thing in mind: what kind of undead themed name can we come up with for this burger? Every burger has some kind of name that brings to mind a zombie invasion, with the menu including options such as the T-Virus (portabella mushrooms and Swiss), Planet Terror (bacon cheeseburger with barbecue sauce and ranch), Raygun (bacon and guacamole with fried jalapenos, Jack and chipotle mayonnaise) and the Dawn of the Dead (bacon, egg, cheese and red onion).

That sampling doesn’t even begin to get into the ridiculousness of the Zombie Burger lineup, as on some burgers, Zombie Burger will even do strange things with the bun. Ever wanted to try a burger made on a breaded mushroom for a bun? The East Village of the Damned does exactly that. How about two grilled cheese sandwiches? It’s called They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara. You can even do deep-fried macaroni and cheese, as my friend and former colleague Doug Green did on a trip here in 2012, going with the Walking Ched. All of these choices are printed on what appears to be a newsletter, but the stories are all about zombie-related things. Don’t worry, the menus are on the other side.

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Basically, it’s not quite The Counter in terms of burger freedom, but you’ve got a lot of room to go crazy here. I didn’t want to go too crazy and go Cutthroat Kitchen on this burger, but I did want something creative. With that in mind, I opted for the Dead Moines, which combines ham, prosciutto, smoked Gouda and truffle mayonnaise, figuring that the combination of salty pork, creamy Gouda and mushroom-inspired mayonnaise would be a winner for sure.

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Yeah, it absolutely is. I’ve got to start with the beef here, which really is as good as it gets. Zombie Burger’s beef is simply amazing. It’s juicy, it’s well-cooked, it’s flavorful, it’s the perfect size, it’s everything that you want a burger to be. There’s a reason Zagat named it Iowa’s best burger, and it’s not because Iowa is the foodie black hole (that’s eastern Iowa, not central). It’s because everything on the burgers is outstanding, and the beef is where it all begins. The heartland is one of the best places to get beef, which makes these burgers fresh and of very high quality as a result. You can get one, two or three beef patties, with different prices charged accordingly. I recommend two, which comes at a good price and is a satisfying amount for most people.

But if you don’t have toppings, you don’t have a quality burger, and that’s where the Dead Moines really continues to shine. The main thing is the Gouda, which melts perfectly on the burger and provides a stark contrast that melds with the ham and the prosciutto, creating a smooth and flavorful bite from first moment to last. The mayonnaise provides extra creaminess, and being infused with truffle oil only multiplies the flavor. Then there’s the ham and prosciutto, which counteract the cheese and condiments with flavor and texture, while somehow not being an overwhelming meat bomb.

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What about Amy, though, who doesn’t eat beef at all and despises beef in all forms except that of The Drover’s steak? Not to worry, as Zombie Burger allows you to swap out the beef patty for chicken, a vegetarian patty or a portabella mushroom as your protein if you want. Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or just plain don’t like beef, Zombie Burger has you covered. And if you hate sandwiches, Zombie Burger still has you covered, offering deep-fried hot dogs as well. Basically, if you want it, they probably have it.

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With that being the case, Amy opted for the Trailer Trash Zombie with a chicken breast, which features cheese curds, ranch, fried pickle, American cheese and chicken-fried bacon. Before this, I’d heard of chicken-fried steak, but never chicken-fried bacon. Then again, considering this is a city that came up with bacon-wrapped tater tots, it actually makes sense, and it’s really good. The ranch works well with the chicken and the bacon, and the cheese adds an excellent touch to the existing flavors. This was an excellent sandwich, and truthfully, even though I love beef, I’d probably get this one with chicken too, because it really works.

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As far as sides, be warned that Zombie Burgers do not come with fries automatically. You’re going to have to order them separately, which makes this a great opportunity to get a creative basket to share with a friend. In addition to the standard fries, Zombie Burger offers chili cheese fries, garlic bacon and blue cheese fries and even honours our friends to the north (see what I did there?) with poutine, which is fries with cheese curds and gravy. We opted for the loaded fry basket, which tops the standard fries with cheddar, cheese sauce, sour cream, bacon and green onions. It was absolutely outstanding, as the flavors worked just like they would on a good baked potato. Just like the burgers, this is high-quality.

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But as good as the burgers and fries are, they’re not even the best thing on the menu here. No, that would be the Drink Lab portion of Zombie Burger, which features an impressive roster of milkshakes. Creativity in the names isn’t pronounced here, with the exception of the Zombie Joe (coffee syrup) and the Zombie Bride Wedding Cake (yellow cake in milkshake form), but what is pronounced is the commitment to quality of ingredients and the taste. I had the since-discontinued apple maple cinnamon shake on my first visit a couple years ago and found it incredible, like a really good apple pie. With it no longer available, it was time for plan B, so I opted for the coconut cream pie shake, hoping for the best.

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What I got was beyond my expectations. The main thing that sets this shake apart is the whipped cream. Zombie Burger actually goes the extra mile here and uses fresh, real whipped cream. The taste is so much better than the kind of whipped cream you get already made. It’s smooth, creamy and the perfect addition to the vanilla and coconut flavors taking place in the glass. The coconut is pronounced throughout, and the texture gives off the impression of pie crust, even though this is a straight milkshake rather than a pie shake. This honestly tastes like a really awesome coconut cream pie. It’s absolutely incredible.

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Amy opted for a cereal milkshake, going with the Fruity Pebbles. Yes, it’s exactly like it sounds, a milkshake with Fruity Pebbles mixed in throughout. I’m not a fan of the cereal at all, but the shake is actually really good. It looks pretty psychedelic with all those colors, but it really works. If you’re the kind who likes something extra in your milkshakes and you’re over 21, Zombie Burger has you covered there too. For an additional $3, any milkshake on Zombie Burger’s menu can be made into an alcoholic shake.

I don’t know about the popularity of zombies themselves, but the popularity of Zombie Burger is a pretty easy explanation. The theme might be weird and the names are creative, but that alone is not enough to keep people coming. What makes Zombie Burger so beloved is simple: there isn’t a bad thing on the menu. When creativity meets quality, you’ve got a certain recipe for success…undead or alive.

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Recap

Time to go: Lunch, dinner or late night. Zombie Burger is open until midnight on Sunday through Thursday and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Wait during my visit: Extensive. This used to be a small restaurant that had some downtime occasionally. Those days are gone. We waited 45 minutes to get a table, while the take-out portion was just as busy. Like Blue’s Egg, Zombie Burger uses a text messaging system to let you know when your table is ready.

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Location: Zombie Burger is at 300 East Grand Avenue in Des Moines, Iowa.

Cost: Expect to pay a good amount, because although the burgers are reasonable, you need to get a milkshake here. Most burgers are between six and 10 dollars, while shakes go for five apiece with no alcohol. Trust me, worth every cent. Plan on about $15 a person.

Parking: Hope and pray. While Des Moines has garages, none of them are over here. You’re dealing with street parking, and that’s no guarantee at all. The good news is on Saturday and Sunday, street parking is free in Des Moines.

Seating arrangement: It’s a typical setting of tables, chairs and a bar. We were seated at the bar and had no issues with our stools.

Website: Zombie Burger and Drink Lab

Specialty items: Burgers and milkshakes

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Zombie Burger + Drink Lab on Urbanspoon

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