Friday, June 26, 2009

Exploring & Eating SW Michigan

-Grubbing in Michigan
Where the locals eat.

It took almost all of June but I think summer weather is finally here. The heat index was high this past weekend and the reason people from Chicago deal with nine bad months of weather a year is for the amazing three months of summer has begun. Chicago might be the best city on the map when it comes to traveling during the summer months. There isn't a place on earth with more stuff going on from the festivals to the baseball to the beaches there's always something to do and visitors come by the 100's of 1000's everyday. With all that said one of the reasons the locals love summer so much is because we get to leave the traffic and tourists here and head out to the many summer vacation destinations that surround Chicago. The people of Chicago are very lucky to have access to so many different areas via a short car ride and the shores of Michigan might be the most popular stop for us FIB's.

Freshwater coastline is abundant in Michigan

I'm sure that by now you've heard or seen the "Pure Michigan" ad campaign that's been going strong for at least three years now. I don't know about you but Tim Allen and the people behind them do a damn fine job in making me want to get out of the city and head up to Michigan. It's no doubt one of the prettiest states in America over the summer period and like the commercials say there is no place in the world with more fresh water coastline so its also got the beaches. I happen to be big on beaches and have been to quite a few all over Florida and the Caribbean and I still think Michigan has the best beaches in the US without question. The sand is perfect and jumping into the fresh water of Lake Michigan and Superior are about as refreshing as it gets on a 100 degree day. Fresh water is much better than salt water and you don't have to worry about any crazy creatures swimming around looking for lunch.

Michigan has great summertime produce and many master micro brewers

The people of Chicago travel all over Michigan but a huge percentage can be found in Michigan's Harbor Country. Its just 90 minutes from Chicago and a totally different world where people party and relax. It doesn't matter if your 19 or 59 everyone has a good time up there over summer. Its collection of quaint little beachside towns is the perfect summer getaway without getting on a plane. In fact I have yet to come across a place in all of Michigan that I didn't like and yes I've been to Detroit a few times-great eating and interesting sites in Detroit and Windsor.

Pure Michigan = lots of green

Over at the Pure Michigan website they describe Harbor Country as a place "where five star dinners go with flip flops and the day's agenda can change on a whim. Where the fast pace of life slows down and yields to the lazy luxuries of sunsets over Lake Michigan, plankwood sidewalks and dockside cafes. Of art and antiques and long afternoons whiled away in the tasting rooms of world-class wineries. Just 90 minutes from Chicago is Harbor Country, a treasure of lakeside towns, shabby-chic shops, countryside communities, heavenly beaches and the most spectacular sunsets in the state.' I told you they do a good job because that's a head on description of whats its like. But what about the food? oh that's pure too.

The Food Stops of Michigan's lakeside towns

South Haven's blueberry Fest is a blast...the pies and ice cream shine

Whenever I head up to Michigan over the summer I make it a point to get off at the Warren Dunes State Park exit on I-94. The first reason for this is the beach at Warren Dunes. It just might be the best beach in Michigan. It has perfect everything so I like to stop there and get some water and sun and then continue my journey by taking the bi-way's of the state so I can get a real feel for it. On my last trip up there I was rewarded heavily for my ways by coming across a heavy smell of BBQ in the air as I rode Blue Star Memorial highway into St. Joseph's. The smell was strong and I knew there was some BBQ to be had somewhere and then out of nowhere I passed Dale's Donut Shop. Dale's is a popular independent donut shop that I have yet to get too. Its closed on Sunday's but making up for it is the state of the art BBQ pit parked in the lot serving out smoked meat sandwiches. The Hickory Pit people can be found serving their real smoked meat BBQ sandwiches in the parking lot of Dale's from Thurs.-Sun.

Pulled Pork was good with a nice hint of smoke

The Smoked Bologna was my favorite

Smoked and chopped ham was also mighty good

So as you continue down the scenic Blue Star highway further into Michigan you will pass by Roxy's Hamburgers which is also located in St. Joseph. Roxy's is an old school drive-in that play's the 50's style of the genre. When you walk in there's all sorts of memorabilia from the '50's along with those little jukeboxes at each table. I'll be the first to say it felt a little gimmicky upon entering but there was something about it that also made me think it was at least worth trying. maybe it was the old school sign or maybe it was the fact there were many locals eating in there right between dinner and lunchtime. I figured if it was busy during the off-season it must have something going for it.

The burgers of Southwest Michigan

The burgers at Roxy's are typically served in a deluxe manner but I decided to try my usual first order for a burger spot. I got a cheeseburger with mustard, pickles and onions and passed on the fries since I could see they were plain old freezer fries. I thought the burger might of been a tad dry like they were using 85/15 beef but it wasn't so dry it was inedible. In fact it was a perfectly fine variation of a old school cheeseburger. If I passed by again and was hungry for a burger I might stop in again.

Roxy Burger

old school style with just mustard, pickles, onions

Back into the car and back along the road of M-140 aka Blue Star highway into one of America's most historic little towns you've probably never heard of. I spend a week or two each summer in Sister lakes, Michigan which is a nice little town on a lake minus the chaos of the Harbor Country. Its great because its made up of a bunch of lakes and is still close to the great lake. It's not too far from M-140 and so I'm very familiar with the area. One thing you know about this site is we dont BS-I'm telling you if your looking for peaceful harmony with no traffic jams and want to get away from the people in harbor Country who you already see everyday in the city then try the many little lakes of Sister Lakes, Michigan. The small little vacation community takes you back to a time when life was simple. So ride a boat, swim, fish, BBQ, take a walk around the lakes and take in the scenery-it doesn't matter the only activities involve some form of relaxation.

The view of Big Crooked lake from the lovely Hilltop Resort

About four or five years ago we took a little road trip from Sister lakes just to cruise around and see what was encompassing the area so we hopped on M-140. My buddies dad took us to Covert, Michigan to see if the local library was open on this specific trip. It was right after the civil war that both black and whites came together in this town that was a popular stop on the underground railroad. But its history goes all the way back to the 1860's when its settlers-also both black and white- lived as peers, friends and even family.

There's not much much going on in Covert these days but there are still a number of people both black and white living together and quite a few food stops in the outlying communities. I swear as soon as stepped foot and drove thru the neighborhoods and cemetery I could feel the history and became immediately enamored with this little farming community. Its history attracted historian Anna-Lisa Cox where for more than a decade she traced the trails of the pioneers and released a book in 2006. I would recommend checking out this story from to learn more about Covert and its past. Its a good read.

Covert is a history lesson within a little town

I go back to Covert every year to just to take a drive and see what happening during summer. I imagine its pretty much the same as it ever was. Not much going on but anyone that knows basketball knows the state of Michigan produces talent and the tiny little town and high school of Covert has won what I believe to be four state class D titles. So as you continue on M-140 in Covert going towards the lake you will come into South Haven, Michigan and if your lucky enough catch a sign for Bob's Processing just off M-140 a mile or two down on 16th ave. Luckily for you there is no luck needed because I'm telling you to go there.

Click here to check out Bob's website

It was on the trip thru Covert that we first found this five star smoked meat shop run by Bob Filbrant, who also happens to be a member of the AAMP cured meat Hall of Fame. Bob grew up working in various meat departments as a youth and for almost 30 years now as operated Bob's Processing in South Haven, Michigan. Items available include hams, turkeys, chickens and the bacon. Yes Bob is bringing in the bacon. As in bringing in the best bacon I have ever had in my life. I've done quite a few award winning bacon from the various gastro pubs around Chicago and my days in Wisconsin. You'll get the idea when you walk in and see ton's of blue ribbons on the walls.

as a lifelong resident of South Haven...Bob and his smokers are well known

Bob knows bacon

If you have a place or are taking a vacation in Michigan this summer then you best get on over to Bob's and fill your basket with breakfast meats like bacon, ham and sausage. Not only will you thank me but whoever your traveling with will thank you...every bite they take. Just make sure to call ahead as the hours are on the early side.


I hope you like pig because our next stop is Ranch House Ribs right down the road from Bob's along M-140. The little BBQ shack can also be missed in the blink of an eye but if you catch it you'll be lucky. Like any other true BBQ shack it can be different each time in that when you smoke BBQ its never an exact time they come off when there ready and taste better fresh out of the smoker. With all that said its always been good on each one of my visits.

The sign along M-140

Looks legit

I like Ranch House for both their spare ribs and rib tips. Orders come with wonder bread and an assortment of sides along with mild and hot BBQ sauce which I ordered on the side. The smoke ring was perfect and while they weren't jello like (they smoke them) they also weren't the type you have to chew and struggle with like a dog. The hot sauce wasn't all that hot and the mild was very tangy and a little sweet, I always go sauce on side so that I can taste the meat. I prefer to just dip it and get a little sauce on each bite. Ranch House is a good bet for any BBQ fan in the area, The sides are decent and the chicken is good but the smoked pig parts are the reason to stop in.

Rib tips with hot BBQ sauce on top

Spareribs with sauce on the side

One thing you can expect to find on a cruise along Blue Star highway are bars/roadhouses. The choices are plenty but there's one spot where that the locals seem to fill up on a regular basis. The Curve Inn is a spot that I found with a friend on a cruise to the beach hone day and by the looks of the packed parking lot at midday on a weekday it was pretty obvious they did something right in there. Its the definition of a locals hangout so when you walk in you may get a stare or two from the regulars that don't recognize you.

Curve on in for some good eats

Grubbing in Michigan: Where the locals eat

The menu at the Curve Inn features plenty of fried foods and sandwiches but this isn't the fried food found in your grocers freezer. On top of the beer, pool and it being a place for locals to hang it is also a nice spot to eat. During my 3+ visits I have been anything but disappointed with the food. In fact I was as impressed as your going to get with the food from a little shack/roadhouse such as this. The majority of the menu features freshly fired items including the signature dishes of fried catfish and fried bluegill. Nothing comes from a freezer bag and the fresh cut fries and hush puppies are right on par with the best I have had. Another interesting item that seems to be popular with the regulars are the pig wings. They take a piece of pork and put it on a skewer and deep fry it and then toss it in one the sauce options. Think chicken wings but with pork.

fried catfish basket

Fried bluegill with hush puppies

Pig Wings

So if your looking for me this 4th of July, I'll be in Michigan.

Dale's Donut Factory (BBQ pit in the parking lot)
3687 S Lakeshore Dr
St Joseph, MI 49085-9205
(269) 429-1033


Roxy Hamburgers
2629 Cleveland Ave
St Joseph, MI 49085-2203
(269) 983-1172

Roxys Hamburgs on Urbanspoon

Bob's Processing
70705 16th Ave
South Haven, MI 49090-9762
(269) 637-5739

Ranch House Ribs
23090 M 140
South Haven, MI 49090-9427
(269) 637-3589

Ranch House Ribs on Urbanspoon

Curve Inn
10336 Blue Star Memorial Hwy
South Haven, MI 49090-9401
(269) 637-5070

Curve Inn on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bahn Mi from Ba Le

-The Sammy's of Chi

Summertime is the time when certain foods shine like the sandwiches at our next stop in Chicago's uptown neighborhood. The businesses of Argyle st. in Uptown have long been known for their Asian goods. The street goes by the community name of The Argyle Asian business district. Most of the shops along and around the street are Vietnamese owned and all our Asian of some sort. So you better believe theres some good eating to be done in these parts and its an easy get-to since the red line drops you off right there.

Land of Good Eats

Located right at the corner of Broadway and Argyle is Ba Le-a French/Vietnamese bakery that's one of the areas most popular eateries. The shop is loaded with all sorts of goods to eat and special drinks but the star of the show are the Banh Mi sandwiches. These foodie worthy subs can best be described as a Vietnamese baguette. I want you to think of everything Subway is-awful bread, gray colored meat loaded with fillers and tasteless toppings. The people at Ba Le do it the exact opposite way and guess what? It's cheaper than five dollars and they have no annoying commercials.

an Uptown staple

Besides the subs Ba Le has many different selections of ready to eat Vietnamese style lunches, noodle salads, a hot case with egg roll's, wings and other hot appetizers, a fresh bakery that bakes their own bread-used on the sandwiches and available to go by the roll along with many coffee drinks and dessert drinks made with tapioca, yogurt and other interesting items. The store is small but you would be amazed if you haven't been on how much stuff they pack in there. Since there's not much room to eat its mostly takeout but that's ok because everything is easily eaten on the go. With the weather warming up, there's no really no excuse not to.

yogurt mixed with fruit and other random dessert drinks

so many different choices packed into the shop

salads and takeout lunches are quick, cheap, easy and great

sausage, different egg rolls, crispy pork stuffed in rice and wrapped in banana leaves etc...

The lines of people waiting for a sandwich is pretty much a regular but don't let that deter you because the sandwiches take 2-3 minutes to make. There quick with the sandwich like Wild Bill was with his gun. A bahn mi sandwich is the above mentioned French bread with a Vietnamese twist and the most popular meat toppings are usually pork and chicken in various forms. What puts the exclamation point on the whole thing is the fresh veggies. Usually consisting of julienned carrots, onions, cilantro, bean sprouts and my favorite the spicy thinly sliced jalapeno. The choices are many at Ba Le with a heavy does on the pate, pork and chicken ones but also a lovely fried tofu vegetarian version. These subs are the perfect lunch on a hot summer day-the veggies make it a really fresh sandwich on a hot day.

banh mi from Ba Le

I don't have a go to sandwich from Ba Le because I'm still busy trying to taste them all and I have yet to find one that I cant stand. Some people cant take the pate and headcheese and various cuts of pork they don't normally consume but I'm not normal. I think I even remember not liking the first banh mi I ever ate and so I threw it out immediately after my first bite. Within two minutes I wanted to dig it out of the trash when I realized my stupid mistake. Now its one of my favorite sandwiches to enjoy during the summer months. Even better is they have nice pictures on the wall of every sandwich just in case your not sure whats in it looks like.

Vietnamese Lunch

Get at it

Ba Le Bakery & Restaurant
5018 N Broadway St
Chicago, IL 60640
(773) 561-4424

Ba Le Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Big Star Drive In

-Got beef?
The Burgers of Wisconsin

Its back to Kenosha for more good eats as we check out my favorite Drive-In food stop of all time. So attention please to Mr. Guy Fieri-you haven't been to the best until you've been to Big Star Drive In of Kenosha Wisconsin. I cant really explain why but Kenosha has quite a culture of classic old school Drive-In's located throughout town. I have heard elsewhere that a few of them have shut down in the past few years but Big Star is still going strong and that's all that matters to me. I have a real crush on this place and the people of Kenosha are lucky to have so many choices as far as classic food stops go.

Classic Drive-In sign that lights up the night

Big Star shines brighter then most

The Big Star is a family owned business that's been going strong since the 60's and it plays a huge role in Kenosha summers. Since its only a summertime operation the locals like to get it in as much as possible before they close for the season and its easy to see why they like it so much. When I made my first stop of the summer to Big Star last month it was already in full swing. I stopped in for a double cheeseburger ($2.20) and a drink one Sunday afternoon and became an even bigger fan if that was at all possible. This has to be one of the best burgers your going to get anywhere for under $2.50. There wasn't a spot open on my second trip of the day (read on) and on both visits it was packed with families, groups of high school kids, bikers and everyone in between. It was really rocking with lines of people at the takeout and carloads of people eating with not one spot available for any other cars.

The menu extends much further along the building with many other options

Bikers cruising the lake love a food stop at Big Star

During my first few visits to Big Star I couldn't order anything but a signature burger. As you may notice on the menu above they have a few types of burgers from a single cheezeburger to a double to a 1/4 pound patty. While the beef is the same fresh meat used on all burgers the only way to go for me is the double cheezeburger. Its in a league of its own when it comes to Drive-In burgers and one of the best in Wisconsin. You might be wondering why I'm calling them cheezeburgers? well they use real cheeze whiz for the cheese.

My standard burger order double cheeze with mustard, onions and pickles

Real whiz in between makes for quite a treat

It was on this trip as I was waiting for my burger that I got a few whiffs of a biker crews freshly fried chicken-another Big Star Specialty-and it was making me go crazy. All I could think about was fried chicken and I remembered hearing from a few people just how good it was. After exploring other parts of Kenosha looking for old school Italian joints-I headed back for a chicken dinner.

You can also get baskets with various amounts of pieces at under a buck a piece.

Seeing as though it is fried fresh you need to give them at least 20 minutes for an order. The chicken is lightly coated and fried to perfection from leg to breast each piece is crisp on the outside and perfectly cooked to juicy in the middle. I would have to say that this is in the top five for fried chicken dinners I've ever eaten. The chicken dinner comes with a perfectly fried piece of breast, thigh, leg and wing, an an order of crinkle cut fries and a buttered roll and at $4.50 its got to be one of the best meals under $5 anywhere. No need to go too McDonald's down the road.

The breast was a great next day snack...tasted just as good cold.

The chicken is fresh fried so it takes 20 minutes but is worth every minute. Its even better when Chicago Cubs baseball is on the air. Even though they SUCK.

Big Star is on Washington Rd. which is just off Sheridan ave along the Lake Michigan circle tour.

The Big Star Drive In is a real treasure that I hope lasts another 40 years. Kenosha also has a Drive In movie theater just down Sheridan Rd. Its still open and they switch up the movies a couple times a week with current Hollywood blockbusters. I'm hoping that they will be showing Public Enemies which opens in theaters on July 1st and was filmed mostly in my neighborhood of Lincoln Park in Chicago and parts of Southern Wisconsin and Indiana. It seems like it would be a great movie to see at a Drive In theater with a box of chicken from Big Star. Click here for showtimes.

Big Star Drive In
1500 Washington Rd
Kenosha, WI 53140-2416
(262) 658-1572

Get Directions

Big Star Drive In on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Tasty Tacos of Las Asadas

-Got Beef? taco's de carne asada

Chicago has so many great taqueria shacks that there are probably more bad ones alone in the city than there are entirely in any other Midwestern state. Luckily for us there also happens to be hundreds of good ones throughout the Chicagoland area. It also happens that many of the popular little spots have seen their amount of locations double and triple. Las Asadas is a good example of this as they currently have five locations in Chicagoland. It happens to be run by the owner of the La Pasadita empires son. They fit the old saying "like father, like son" perfectly as Las Asadas prides itself on its fire grilled skirt steak tacos.

Las Asadas in Brookfield

The menu at Las Asadas is small and that's ok because there's one thing they do there that will have you coming back day and night. The tacos de carne asada are done the way steak tacos are supposed to be done. In order to achieve the perfect steak taco one must use tender well cut skirt steak-cooked with flames-and topped with fresh cilantro and onions. Since there are so many fresh corn tortilla suppliers in Chicago that part isn't hard and neither is a nice salsa verde. The steak is better than good when it comes fresh off the grill, the toppings always fresh and the verde has some kick to it. My usual order at any place specializing in carne asada tacos is 3 steak tacos-two with cilantro and onions and one with cilantro, onions and cheese.

perfect flavor combination

I know the purists will say that cheese ruins the flavor and I agree that it makes the taste different but not for the worse. It doesn't make it any better, just a little change of pace for me. I love the combo of the barely melted cheese and fresh charred skirt steak mixed with the salsa. Las Asadas strives to make the product taste the same at all five locations which can be hard and isn't always going to happen. With that said I haven't tasted much of a difference at the Brookfield, Des Plaines and Western ave locations. The Western ave. spot moved down the block a little bit into a nicer little more upscale looking sit down type place but don't let that fool you-the tacos are the same. The key to getting a nice juicy fresh off the grill taco anywhere is going during peak hours or when there are quite a few people eating. The steak wont be sitting in a container if there are lots of people then there is a fast turnover.

authentic steak taco

Rating Scale 5/5

steak: 5 (when fresh off the grill)
cilantro/onions: 4
tortilla: 4
salsa: 3

Score: 16/20

Las Asadas
2045 N. Western
Chicago, IL 60647

Other Locations:
3834 W 47th in Chicago, IL
782 W. Oakton in Des Plaines, IL
356 Lee Ave in Des Plaines, IL
8863 Ogden in Brookfield, IL

Las Asadas Restaurant on Urbanspoon


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