“I carry the delicate porcelain beauty of Charleston like the hinged-shell of some soft-tissued mollusk. . . . In its shadows you can find metal work as delicate as lace . . . it’s not a high-kicking, glossy lipstick city.”
These words from legendary author Pat Conroy display two important truths. First, Charleston is truly a southern treasure. Second, Pat Conroy is a much better writer than I am. Given that he also put out a cookbook, he also might be a better chef than I am. Not that that’s anything to be ashamed of; I’m a big fan of Pat Conroy and I’m well aware of my limitations.
But luckily, I don’t have to know how to make Lowcountry cuisine from scratch to know how to enjoy it. Truthfully, Charleston is one of the best food cities in the country because of its abundance of options. Much like New Orleans is a fantastic place to eat because of its cultural influences and access to natural resources, the same is true of Charleston. If you can’t find something to enjoy in this city, you simply haven’t spent enough time looking.
Truthfully, you shouldn’t have to spend much time looking, because it doesn’t get much better than the Hominy Grill. Located in downtown Charleston, Hominy Grill has been winning rave reviews ever since it opened in 1996. It doesn’t hurt that chef and owner Robert Stehling’s story is the ultimate example of hard work winning the day. He began his restaurant career washing dishes at a restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C. and ultimately rose to eventually open his own place. When he did, he showed that he knew what he was doing, winning acclaim as the best chef in the Southeast from the James Beard Foundation. That’s pretty high praise, and it’s why this place has been high on my list for many years.
From the moment you sit down to get started at Hominy Grill, you know that you’re not in the typical restaurant. One of the most obvious signs is the opening appetizer that greets its diners. At many restaurants, you start out with bread or crackers, which can range from quite good to forgettable, but usually don’t impress anyone that much. At Hominy Grill, much to Amy’s delight, you’re presented with a bowl of boiled peanuts.
If you’ve never been to the Southeast, boiled peanuts are about as Southern as you can get. The peanuts are boiled in their shells and then served, and when they’re done right, they are fantastic. These peanuts are most definitely done right. The taste and texture of them can best be described as like a good mashed potato. I’d never had peanuts boiled this well, and I loved every bite of them. However, boiled peanuts can also be a trap because if you eat too many, you’re going to miss some of the great things on Hominy Grill’s menu.
One example was our appetizer. Amy loves fried green tomatoes, and it was pretty obvious when we saw them on the menu that we’d be trying them here. Fried green tomatoes can be tough to pull off because the key to them is the breading. If the breading doesn’t work well with whatever you’re frying, the dish suffers, and that’s especially true with fried green tomatoes because of the moisture in the tomatoes.
This breading, however, was crispy the entire way through and didn’t interfere with the taste of the tomato. If you’ve read my work before, you know that I am very particular about my breadings. I want to taste what’s inside the breading, and Hominy Grill absolutely delivers with these tomatoes.
With her appetizer choice out of the way, it was my turn. From the moment that Amy and I decided we were going to Charleston, I knew that I’d be getting some she-crab soup. She-crab soup is a Charleston staple that gets its name from the fact that it can only be made from female crabs. That’s because a good part of its flavor comes from the roe (eggs) that are only found in the female’s body. The roe and crab meat are blended with milk or cream into a bisque, and the most important non-crab addition comes in the form of sherry.
I’m not a wine drinker, as has been well documented here, but I do love when alcohol in my food makes something better. The flavor of sherry is a major bonus in a good crab or lobster bisque, and I knew that I had something good coming when I could smell the sherry as it was brought to our table.
I’ve had some good crab soups before. This was unlike anything that I’ve ever had before. This bisque is creamy and full of crab meat in every bite. The flavor is simply perfect, and if not for what I knew was coming, I would have wished I’d ordered a bowl instead of a cup. It’s definitely one of the best soups I’ve ever had.
But the main thing I was here for was the Charleston Nasty Biscuit, which might have a terrible name, but is one of the best creations I’ve ever tasted. If you’ve ever had chicken-fried chicken, you’ve got a basic idea of what makes the Nasty Biscuit so outstanding. Basically, the Nasty Biscuit consists of fried chicken breast on a biscuit, covered in cheddar cheese and sausage gravy. As for the name, it comes from Stehling’s mechanic.
Apparently, Stehling and his mechanic would occasionally go to breakfast together at Hardee’s, and the mechanic would flirt with the Hardee’s workers in an effort to get them to pour sausage gravy on his chicken biscuit. The workers would jokingly tell him he was “so nasty”, and inspiration struck Stehling, as it does with the best chefs. Soon after, the Big Nasty was born. There was one hitch, however: national chain McAlister’s Deli already had that name trademarked for its open-faced roast beef sandwich. So in 2013, Stehling avoided a lawsuit and changed the name to the Charleston Nasty Biscuit.
Under any name, the Nasty Biscuit is fantastic. The biscuit is perfect, firm on the outside and soft on the inside. In my opinion, the mark of a good biscuit is that it can be eaten and enjoyed on its own, without any additions. If you’ve ever had a biscuit at a hotel’s continental breakfast, you know that most biscuits there are incredibly hard and require gravy or jelly just to make them edible.
Not so with these biscuits. The gravy is simply making an already good thing better, which is how a good biscuit should be done. As far as the gravy goes, it’s unlike any that I’ve ever had before, and that’s because of the cheddar cheese. While in the restaurant, I didn’t realize at first that the cheddar was there. I looked for the cheddar briefly before deciding that I didn’t care if it was on there or not because the biscuit was so good.
It was only when I sat down to write this blog that I looked at the photo and realized the cheddar had been there all along. First, they use white cheddar here, not the orange that many American establishments love. That’s a big plus for me, because white cheddar is one of my favorite cheeses. Second, the cheddar actually melts into the gravy, taking the flavors to another level. I’m not the biggest fan of gravy on its own, but this was more than gravy. This was more of a Mornay sauce, and the flavor was spot on. With some onions, peppers and chicken stock thrown in, the gravy was simply perfect.
Amy opted for the shrimp and grits, the other major specialty of the Hominy Grill. In fact, when we placed our order, our waitress immediately told us that we knew exactly what we were doing. That’s always a good sign when the staff compliments your order after you’ve placed it, because they’re not in any kind of sell at that point.
They don’t really need to sell this dish, either. The shrimp and grits are fantastic, and truthfully, with their name and location, they should be. Charleston is well-known for quality seafood, and hominy is actually the basis of grits, as it’s ground up to make the dish. So this should be a signature dish, and it absolutely delivers. The shrimp are plump, juicy and well-cooked, while an addition of bacon and mushrooms provides great flavor and texture to work with the base. Amy is hard to please on her bacon, but this bacon worked perfectly for her, as did the rest of the dish.
If you’ve read this far, you might notice that I haven’t even mentioned sides yet. That’s because sides don’t come standard at the Hominy Grill. Truthfully, in terms of eating, you don’t need the sides because portions are pretty large, and one entree is going to be enough for one person. But if you have a side or two that you want to try, Hominy Grill offers 16 different standard options, plus a couple specials. To get the most diversity, you can opt for a plate of three sides with a piece of cornbread, which is what we chose.
Sides can range from the expected, such as the macaroni and cheese, which is still quite good, to the truly unique of deep-fried grits. Yes, you can actually get cheese grits battered and fried here, and while they are heavy, they’re definitely delicious. I’d recommend sharing them so that you get the great taste without overindulging on them. Our third choice was one of the specials, which was squash and hominy with feta in a tomato base. They’re all good complements to your main dish without stealing the show from the entree. I’d order any of them again.
The thing that does steal the show from the entree, however, is the dessert. Hominy Grill has several homemade desserts to choose from on their board, but if you’ve never been here before, you absolutely have to try the chocolate pudding. In fact, once we requested it, our waitress said that she all but forces her customers to order it if they haven’t decided on dessert. Well, then.
After one bite, I could see why. This is the best pudding I have ever tried, period. The texture of the pudding is more like the interior of a truffle. It’s the perfect mix of not being too firm and not being too soft, and the chocolate flavor is simply sensational. The whipped cream on top is a beautiful complement, and the only complaint I had with this dish was that I wanted more. This has to be one of the best desserts that I’ve ever tried.
Apparently, their other desserts are every bit as good. I had about five desserts I would have loved to try, including the chocolate peanut butter cake and the brown sugar pound cake, both of which sound like they’d be instant favorites of mine. Brian Hurst swears by the pecan pie, and after seeing this picture that he was kind enough to share, I can see why.
Hominy Grill might have only been around for the past 21 years, but they’re not kidding when they say it feels like it’s been around for generations. This is exactly what I think of when I think of eating well in the Southeast. The best way I can probably sum up their reputation is this: On my way out to my car to retrieve my phone, I was stopped by a man on vacation with a simple question, “Is this the place that serves the famous shrimp and grits?”
Yes, it is…along with a lot of other great stuff.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. You’ll be able to get a lot of great breakfast options at breakfast, including the Nasty Biscuit and shrimp and grits, but lunch and dinner are when you can try the desserts and the plate of sides. It’s open from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for breakfast
Wait during my visit: None. That could be because of the small parking lot, or it could be because we were fortunate. I’m not entirely sure, but plan on a possible wait just to be safe
Location: Hominy Grill is located at 207 Rutledge Ave. in Charleston, S.C.
Cost: It’s not cheap, but it isn’t too terrible either. The most expensive thing on the menu for brunch is the shrimp and grits, which comes in at $19. However, be warned: you will spend a good amount of money here, not because the cost is so much, but because you’ll want to try so many things. Plan on about $30-35 a person to allow for sides, soup and dessert.
Parking: There is a very small lot by the restaurant, and you basically just have to hope you catch it at the right time. Charleston is not a car-friendly city, so you’re in for a mess if you have to search for street parking. I gave it two circles before getting lucky, and you might want to do the same.
Seating arrangement: The tables are kind of old-timey, like you’d expect in the old South. They are, however, designed for today’s customers, so you shouldn’t have issues with them.
Website: Hominy Grill
Specialty items: Nasty Biscuit, Shrimp and grits, Chocolate pudding
Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve been active here, but I had a great reason for that. I simply haven’t had time to blog as of late, mainly because I spent the majority of the past three months undertaking the most important change of my life: giving Amy a new last name.
Yes, after almost a year and a half of being engaged, my wonderful fiancee is now my wonderful wife, and I am even luckier than I already was. Of course, with a wedding comes a honeymoon, and it simply wouldn’t be our lives if the two of us didn’t find ourselves a great restaurant or two while enjoying the start of our lives as a married couple.
One of those places proved to be in Greenville, South Carolina, the largest city in the Upstate region of the Palmetto State. Located along Interstate 85 between Charlotte and Atlanta, Greenville has quietly positioned itself as an underrated gem in the shadows of its two larger neighbors, mainly because of the sheer beauty that is its downtown. After all, there aren’t too many places that feature a downtown with a natural waterfall, and it’s even rarer for such a situation to occur in a city of 400,000 (OK, technically Greenville has a population of 62,000, but that’s only because of South Carolina’s very weird laws on city annexation that make it virtually impossible for cities to grow their official populations in the state), which has helped make Greenville an attractive place to live.
Of course, when that’s the case, that means there are going to be good restaurants to be found. In Greenville, that’s especially true because of the city’s competition not only with Charlotte and Atlanta, but also with fellow South Carolina city Charleston. The Lowcountry (South Carolina is divided into the Lowcountry, the Midlands and the Upstate) has long had a reputation for great cuisine on the beach, and although the Upstate can’t do anything about its geography, it can certainly compete on the restaurant scene. In fact, according to an Esquire article in 2013, Greenville has 110 restaurants within a mile and a half of its Main Street, and that’s just downtown.
Appropriately, one of the best downtown options is The Green Room, located right on Main Street just north of the center of downtown. Unlike the rivalry of Nashville vs. Memphis, the rivalry of Upstate vs. Lowcountry appears to be a friendly one, as The Green Room claims that its style is “Upstate Casual”, which supposedly blends the “casualness of the Lowcountry with the sophistication of the Upstate.” Hmm, that was subtle. Maybe this rivalry isn’t quite so friendly after all.
Friendly or not, it was good news for me, because I’ve clearly learned nothing from my experience in Louisville and headed downtown in shorts, which meant that my wife and I needed a place that doesn’t have a dress code to enjoy our evening in the Upstate. Luckily, not only does The Green Room oblige, but it has a reputation for being home to some of the best fries in the country. Well, that certainly got our attention, considering how much I love famous things and Amy loves potatoes. Possibly the best fries in the country? This was something we had to try for ourselves.
But the fries wouldn’t come right away, because first on the agenda were The Green Room’s mini crab cakes. Amy will choose crab over almost anything when it comes to seafood, and crab has been one of my favorites too for as long as I can remember (thank you, growing up on the Eastern Seaboard), so this was definitely high on our list. It proved to be well-justified, because these crab cakes are some of the best you’re going to find anywhere. What makes them work so well is the chipotle remoulade sauce they’re served with, which provides the perfect amount of zing without overpowering the crab, a delicate balance to manage.
The crab cakes are blended together perfectly and hold both texture and flavor in every bite. About the only negative is that they aren’t very big, which is both a positive and a negative in the fact that they leave you wanting more. It’s a negative because you’ll wish you had more crab cakes, a positive because it’s a perfect preparation for the rest of what The Green Room has to offer.
For me, that included the other thing that The Green Room is well-known for: the TGR Meatloaf. Apparently, this is by far their most requested dish among regulars, and it’s an order of two pieces of chipotle-glazed meatloaf, a side of jalapeno macaroni and cheese and a side of bacon-creamed peas. Considering that two of those include some heat and I readily admit my low spice tolerance, you would think that this dish would actually be a nightmare for me, rather than something on my list. But actually, I really enjoy a good meatloaf and only have it very occasionally because it’s Amy’s worst nightmare. Given the reputation, heat or no heat, I had to give this a try.
It’s good. It’s very good. First off, the heat is nowhere near the level of Prince’s or Hattie B’s, it’s more of a burst of flavor than anything. It’s very well done, because the key to any good meatloaf is the glaze, and the chipotle glaze is different but excellent, making this an outstanding entree. As far as the sides go, the real star is the bacon-creamed peas. The inclusion of bacon is a stroke of genius and creativity that adds a nice unique layer of flavor to what could otherwise be fairly mundane. The macaroni and cheese is also good, opting for the less is more approach to heat as well with only a small amount of jalapeno noticeable. It’s then topped off with a slice of corn bread and some really good honey butter, which is an excellent finish. The honey butter works beautifully with the corn bread as a nice touch of sweetness, a necessary component to proper corn bread.
To that, we added a Southern staple, fried green tomatoes, which are very well done here because of the addition of an herbed cream cheese as a topping. These can be had as either an appetizer portion or a side portion, with the side portion giving you two tomato slices and I believe the appetizer being at least four. The tomatoes are excellent, as the breading is neither over the top nor totally bland, and the cream cheese counteracts the red pepper relish very well. I’d definitely get these again.
Amy felt the same way about her Green Room Salad, which included delicacies such as gorgonzola cheese, cranberries, apples and a homemade black fig balsamic dressing, which gave an interesting level of sweetness to the flavors. She also added blackened salmon to her salad, which came out well seasoned and meshed with her salad perfectly. I’d just had a rather bland salad a couple days ago in Georgia, and she made sure to note the contrast between that salad and this one she had. Nothing says that a salad has to be boring, and with a perfect blackened salmon on it, this salad was anything but.
As far as the fries? They’re parmesan truffle fries with parsley seasoning, which is what makes them such a great experience. The key to using truffle as a seasoning is to be very light-handed, because a little bit of truffle oil goes a long way, and too much of it can totally overwhelm the flavors. But The Green Room didn’t get its reputation by failing to balance the flavors on its fries, and it’s the parmesan and the potato flavors that are allowed to shine through here. These are outstanding and well worthy of their lofty billing. The only danger is that you might not want to order these if you’re on a first date, because the multitude of dried parsley can and will stick in your teeth upon consumption.
But if that’s the worst thing that happens, that’s a pretty enjoyable meal. Greenville might not yet have the reputation that its more famous neighbors do, but it certainly has the quality that earns such recognition. With excellent entrees and some incredible sides, The Green Room is absolutely worth the trip to the Upstate.
Time to go: Brunch, lunch or dinner. The Green Room has different menus for each time of day, so be sure to check before you go.
Wait during my visit: None, but I have heard the lines here can get very long at peak times, so plan ahead.
Location: The Green Room is at 116 North Main Street in downtown Greenville, S.C.
Cost: It really could be a lot worse in some areas, while a tad high in other aspects. Most entrees will cost about $15-20, while the sides can get expensive at $6 each. However, the fries and tomatoes are quite worth the extra cost.
Parking: Not that bad, considering that Greenville’s downtown offers free parking after 6 p.m. and two-hour free parking during normal work hours.
Seating arrangement: Booths and bar stools
Website: The Green Room
Specialty items: Parmesan truffle fries, meat loaf
Looking at the name of the city, you’d expect Des Moines to have a strong French background. After all, the city’s name literally translates to “of the monks” in French, a connection to the River of the Monks (the Des Moines River) during colonial days, and Des Moines itself was part of the Louisiana Purchase from the French during the Jefferson administration. It’s also one of only a handful of major cities gained in the Purchase to have a French name, and the others (New Orleans, Baton Rouge and St. Louis) certainly have a strong French influence.
But in Des Moines, the French influence, if there is one, really isn’t apparent in any of the visits we’ve made. Don’t get me wrong, Des Moines is a city I quite enjoy, easily my favorite thing about the Hawkeye State that isn’t either Amy or our cat Willy. It’s got a lot of things going for it, including a great sculpture park, a gorgeous state capitol building and some excellent restaurants to boot. But European, it doesn’t appear to be, and French it isn’t, at least from what I’ve seen. Apparently, Des Moines didn’t even have a real French restaurant until the 2000’s…and it took a man of Italian descent to fill that void.
Wait a minute, what? A chef of Italian descent tackling French cuisine? Well, George Formaro isn’t exactly your typical Italian chef. A lifelong resident of Des Moines, Formaro has never been one to let himself be defined by any one cuisine, which is why his name has become possibly the most respected in the culinary world of Iowa. He’s been part of the Des Moines restaurant scene for nearly two decades now ever since he opened South Union Bakery in 1996 to fill a need for freshly baked Italian-style bread, and through 19 years, he’s held to a simple philosophy: do it right and be creative while doing it.
It’s a philosophy that Des Moines has totally embraced, as evidenced by Formaro’s six restaurants in Des Moines, several of which are among the biggest names in the state capitol. For instance, Zombie Burger, thought by many to be the best burger in the Hawkeye State (at the very least, it’s definitely one of the best) as well as the home of creative shakes, is a Formaro creation. So is Centro, his Italian restaurant that consistently wins top awards. And so is Django, a French restaurant that Formaro opened in 2009 to fill a void downtown next to the Hotel Fort Des Moines that has become the place to go to find some high-quality authentic French meals. Popularity usually means run far away in our part of Iowa, but Des Moines actually has a pretty legitimate restaurant scene and its residents know good taste. That was enough for me and Amy, as we needed a new place to stop on our way to a friend’s wedding in Kansas and decided this would be perfect to experience.
Being attached to a nice hotel certainly means one mark on the positive side of the ledger, because it sets the mood right from the beginning of the meal. Decor isn’t exactly key to a quality restaurant, but it’s always a nice touch that certainly doesn’t hurt anything. In a place like this, the French are well-known for being high-brow, so the look works perfectly with the atmosphere that Django is trying to establish. When you visit a place that looks like this, you tend to expect quality, and quality is exactly what you get.
For us, that started with something that I was quite familiar with, but Amy had never experienced before: duck-fat fries. Basically, they’re exactly what the name says they are: french-fried potatoes cooked in duck fat instead of oil. If you’ve never had them before, think french fries with more flavor. Here, they’re called frites instead of fries in keeping with the French theme, but these are definitely the smaller fries that Americans are used to rather than the giant steak frites that originated in Belgium. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because thin fries can work just as well as thick ones.
These fries certainly do. The duck fat means that the fries don’t even need to be seasoned to be full of flavor, but rather than resting on its laurels, Django offers a nice spectrum of choices by featuring four different dipping sauces available at your disposal. The standard ketchup is of course one for those who just aren’t that adventurous, but if you’re willing to try something new, Django also includes curry ketchup, harissa aioli (second from left to right) and Béarnaise sauce for your pleasure. Curry ketchup is self-explanatory, but harissa aioli is a new experience if you’re not familiar with the Rocky Mountain condiment known as fry sauce. Basically, aioli is a mix of garlic and olive oil with egg yolks, kind of similar to mayonnaise, and harissa is a chili pepper paste, which isn’t like ketchup but is close enough to make this kind of a high-brow version of the ketchup-mayonnaise combination.
Béarnaise sauce, on the other hand (furthest right), is best described as kind of a lemon butter sauce. Basically, it’s made by emulsifying egg yolks with clarified butter and some herbs and flavors, with vinegar usually involved. Truthfully, this was probably my favorite of the four sauces, as the lemony flavor just worked perfectly with the crispy and flavorful fries. The aioli was also excellent, and Amy and I both very much enjoyed the appetizer. Definitely something that we would get again.
As far as a choice of entree, this menu has a lot of options going for it. I wouldn’t expect to see burgers in a French restaurant, but you can definitely order one here with no worries, considering that Formaro has more than proven that he knows what to do with burgers elsewhere in the city. The sandwiches are definitely a closer fit to a French place, and I debated quite a while about the possibility of getting a Croque Monsieur or Madame (which, much like the Polish Girl, is kind of interesting that the female version is bigger and better than the male version), which would have fit perfectly here. But in the end, my choice came down to between the two most creative sections of Django’s menu: pasta or crepe.
When one thinks high-brow pasta, macaroni probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, but Django manages to make the dish that most of us knew as children into something that fits perfectly in a fancy establishment. Consider, for example, the spinach and goat cheese macaroni gratin, which adds Parmesan, tomatoes, fresh thyme and bread crumbs to the spinach and goat cheese. Yeah, we’re not exactly dealing with the stuff out of a box (granted, that does have its place sometimes), these are legitimate culinary creations.
But when it came down to it, I knew that for my first visit to Django, I had to get something French, and that meant a crepe. I’ve only had really good crepes in one other place, and they’re very difficult to find because of how tough it is to make a thin batter and have it hold together on you to allow you to properly fill the crepe. But if any place knows how to master it, a French restaurant would be the place, and so after going through a lengthy process, I finally decided on the mushroom crepes, which feature spinach and goat cheese underneath a red pepper cream sauce. Basically, there’s no part of that description I didn’t like.
There’s also no part of the crepe itself I didn’t like, because these things are simply incredible. Holy cow, are they awesome. The goat cheese is perfect, providing the signature creaminess, the crepe itself is light and does not overpower anything, the vegetables are done perfectly and oh, man, that sauce. It’s a nice little kick combined with creaminess that really gives this dish its full flavors, and I really wanted more sauce as soon as I finished this, it is that outstanding. Egg-based dishes simply don’t come in quality for this unless it’s breakfast, and even then, the places that are on the level of these crepes are very few and far between. The salad also adds a nice bit of freshness to everything and gives your palate a quick change-up so you’re always ready to have more of the crepe.
That wasn’t the only thing worth savoring here, because I also had to try some of Django’s Onion Soup Gratinee. Truthfully, it’s a fancy name for French onion soup, but it’s very well deserved. The keys to French onion soup are a flavorful and onion-filled broth, a quality bread component and a good amount of melted cheese on top. Django absolutely delivers, as this hot soup is one of the best I’ve had. The only French onion soup I can think of that might be better is at Bern’s, and that’s pretty elite company here.
Amy chose to go a different path, opting for one of Django’s daily specials. We came on a Friday, so that meant the special was crab cake sliders, which come with the aioli from the frites as well as lettuce and tomato. They’re filled with great crabmeat and great flavor, and Amy really enjoyed both the sliders and her house Caesar salad, which is exactly what you would expect from a standard Caesar.
If you’ve still got room following your meal, Django has you covered with a nice cheese tasting menu, which features 13 different cheeses, most of which are imported from Europe and can either be set in a predetermined pairing as to similar styles, or you can pick your own. You can also follow Amy’s lead and get some cafe au lait, which was a lot like what we remembered from New Orleans. No beignets, unfortunately, at least not from what we could see. Django does offer a very extensive dessert menu, but I just didn’t have room. What can I say, I had to make sure I had space for that crepe.
Des Moines probably isn’t going to get national accolades as a foodie paradise, but it’s really an underrated city as far as its restaurant scene goes, and a lot of the credit for that has to go to George Formaro. Whatever the man has touched in the kitchen has turned to gold, and he’s definitely got another hit on his hands with his foray into French cuisine. Maybe the NCAA tournament’s arrival in 2016 will allow Des Moines to get some of the national recognition it deserves for its restaurants, but I certainly won’t mind if it doesn’t. As long as Amy and I are living in Iowa, I’m absolutely fine with Des Moines being my hidden gem as long as it continues to deliver the great food, and Django certainly does. French by name, DSM now has a place that’s worthy of representing French cuisine.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner, unless it’s a Saturday. Django is dinner only on Saturday as it doesn’t open until 4 p.m. that day. Otherwise, Django will always be open by 11 a.m. and close no earlier than 9 p.m.
Wait during my visit: None. Friday lunch isn’t the busiest time to be in Des Moines if you’re a little bit behind the lunch crowd.
Location: Django is at 210 Tenth Street in Des Moines, part of the city’s downtown.
Cost: For a nice place like this, it actually isn’t that bad. The soup and salad can get a bit expensive at roughly six dollars each, but otherwise, appetizers are close to $10 and entrees around $15. Plan on about $20 per person and you should be fine.
Parking: This could be a problem or not too bad. Des Moines has metered parking near Django, and garages are not that far from its location. If you have change, feed the meter, you should only have to pay for about an hour.
Seating arrangement: Tables, chairs and open booths are options, plus a bar.
Specialty items: Crepes, frites, crab sliders, French onion soup
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.
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.
When he returned to Smoke Stack, Jack and his wife, Delores, decided they had learned their lesson, and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Specialty items: Pan-fried chicken, chicken noodle soup, cinnamon rolls
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Specialty items: Pastrami Reuben, peanut butter pie, knish