Monday, June 24, 2019

Southern Illinois Roadtrip

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Exploring the Southern region of Illinois

Towards the end of October of last year I took a trip down to Southern Illinois to visit a friend who was working down there at the time. It had been a good ten years since my last trip to this part of the state that's far enough away to where you cant take any daytrips down there. It's a good 5+ hour ride from Chicago. But it's a ride I recommend taking at some point before the Fall turns into winter.

Metropolis, IL (Birthplace of Superman)

Most people from Illinois have heard how there's really two different parts to the state. Chicagoland and then everywhere else. This is true to an extent but whats also true is the lifestyle down in Southern Illinois is more like that you'd find somewhere in Tennessee or Kentucky than what you'll come across in all the other parts of Illinois. They don't get Cubs games down there. The Cardinals are who most of them root for if you catch what I'm saying. Haha. I joke. I joke. The truth is this is maybe the most beautiful region of our state and the Shawnee National Forest is the heart of it.

 Shawnee National Forest

The Shawnee National Forest lies between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The big draw to the forest is the Garden of the Gods. The wilderness area is blanketed with rock formations overlooking the Shawnee Forest. It's one of the most photographed locations in the state and by far the best wilderness area the state of Illinois has to offer. The views are breathtaking. We ended up going over there twice in three days as it's truly one of the most scenic landscapes in the States. Visiting felt therapeutic in a way. I'm not a camper but this area is said to be as good as it gets for that.

Sights from Garden of the Gods

Another almost mesmerizing trip one can take is a ride through the town of Cairo (Kay-ro). The southernmost city in the state is virtually abandoned after experiencing a boom during the river boat industry's glory days. It's location on the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meant it was in the middle of all river related industries. But as boats became secondary forms of transportation the town started to decline. It has an unfortunately dark history that includes more than just economic downfall. A ride through downtown Cairo today reveals a ghost town with a very eerie feeling. You have to experience this for yourselves to understand what I'm saying. It's not in great shape but I've read there are plans to restore many of the abandoned buildings with hopes to attract history buffs.

Sights from Cairo, IL

Speaking of historic Illinois towns how about a visit to the oldest town in the state? Old Shawneetown is a village located along the Ohio river. One record suggests it was established in 1748. Lewis & Clark stopped here on the way to Fort Massac in 1803. The states first bank was built here with logs and later replaced with a still standing brick structure in 1822. Another historic bank that went by Bank of Illinois, was constructed in 1839-41 to house the offices of the Bank of Illinois at Shawneetown. It later housed numerous other financial institutions before it was closed in the 1930s. This fine example of Greek Revival architecture survives as the Shawneetown Bank State Historic Site. Legend has it the Bank refused to buy the first bonds issued to the city of Chicago on grounds that no city located that far from a navigable river could survive. Ha. These days the town itself has a population of less than 200 as major floods over the years have driven most folks out.

Sights from Old Shawneetown, IL

Lastly I recommend taking in the areas along the river. They're home to some wonderful parks as well as the almighty American Bald Eagle of which we saw two while at the park where the Mississippi meets the Ohio. You can also spend the day in the cute little art town of Paducah, Kentucky located across the Ohio River. We did just that and you can check out my trip report HERE.

Enjoy Illinois

E-Town River Restaurant (Elizabethtown, IL)

Our first order of business was to head down to the Ohio River. There's a spot there that was long on my list. The E-Town River Restaurant in Elizabethtown, IL sits right on the Ohio river. I'm not sure what it is about river towns but they fascinate me. Do to their location on big rivers which were once the main highways of America there’s lots of history to be had in each one. Plus there's most always a cool bar as well as a place selling fresh fried catfish. That's where the E-Town Restaurant comes in.

a peek from the balcony

The restaurant itself it literally floating on the river. You can feel it moving back and forth when you enter. Inside it's as if nothing has changed in years. It almost had the feel of an old church cafeteria or something to the likes. Diners order at the counter and then go find themselves a seat either inside or outside up top. That's where all the views of the Ohio River are to be had. Aside from the beautiful views people come here for the fresh fried catfish. They offer two different types. Both farm raised and wild from the river. We didn't get to try both bc they were out of the river catch. Oh well the farm raised catfish was done really well and probably tasted a bit cleaner than the river stuff would've been.

Fried Catfish Plate at E-Town River Restaurant

 Golcanda Dari-Bar (Golcanda, IL)

As always I left on my journey with a large list of burger spots to seek out. One of the places that sounded pretty good to me was the Golcanda Dairy Bar. It's located along the Ohio River Scenic Byway in the river town of Golconda. This has to be one of the Southernmost burger shops found in the Land of Lincoln. I cant find much history on the Dari Barr but I could tell it's been around awhile. The burger itself was ok but nothing to get too excited over. The burgers found down south arent on the same level as those found in Central Illinois and other regions of the state. Not exactly sure why.

Burger at Golcanda Dari-Barr

 Johnson's Southern Style Barbecue (Harrisburg, IL)

It had been basically a decade since my last trip to Johnson's Southern Barbecue in Harrisburg. My friend insisted we stop here on day 1 bc he too hadn't been here in a minute but it was nothing close to the extent of the gap between my visits. Southern Illinois has a deep BBQ tradition and Johnson's is my pick for the best place to experience it. Rupert Johnson is a fourth generation pitmaster now in his 35th year of business in Harrisburg. Like so many other African American families his family migrated to Illinois from further south. The signature vinegar based bbq sauce from here is the perfect compliment to the hickory smoked meat. Pork butts are smoked, stored overnight, sliced and crisped up making for a unique texture in their barbecue sandwiches. Though it was close to a decade between visits it was just like I remember. Consistency is crucial in BBQ and they nail that here.

BBQ Sandwich at Johnson's Southern Style Barbecue

 17th Street Bar & Grill (Marion, IL)

When it comes to BBQ in Southern Illinois no one is more well known than Mike Mills and his 17th Street Barbecue brand. Mike is on OG of the competition BBQ circuit where he built a reputation for himself as one of the country's best pit-masters. The original 17th Street is in Murphysboro, IL where they also host the largest BBQ competition in the state each year. Mike won many awards for his ribs on the competition trail and those are at the minimum what you want to try here. I stopped in at the second location in Marion while waiting for my friend to finish up some business. Bc it was toward the end of the night my slab of baby backs was a bit dried out. I would still go back based on previous visits I'd just maybe try to go to the original location during peak hours. At least the beer was cold.

 Baby Back Ribs at 17th Street Bar & Grill

 Harbaugh's Cafe (Carbondale, IL)

The college town of Carbondale is a breath of fresh air down here. At least for a city boy like myself. With it being the home of Southern Illinois' campus there's a different set of people in this town compared to others. I'll just leave it at that. Many a SIU alum will vouch for the biscuits and gravy from the locally loved Harbaugh's Cafe. It's an old timey spot that's probably very similar to the diner you frequented in college. Well if you went to college in the North like I did you couldn't find biscuits and gravy this good. These were low key one of the more memorable bites of my trip.

Biscuits and Gravy at Harbaugh's Cafe

Shemwell's Barbecue (Cairo, IL)

As mentioned in the opening of this post there isn't much of anything left down in Cairo, Illinois. There is however one place that I had my eyes on for the last decade. An old time BBQ spot that left a mark on me when I first read about it over at LTHforum in a post by the great Peter Engler aka Rene G. The family matriarch first turned this former laundry house into a smokehouse in the early 1940s. The signature dish at Shemwell's is the smoked pork shoulder sandwich. They smoke the shoulders bone-in for up to 10 hours using a mix of oak and hickory in an old antique smoker. The meat is sliced and placed between two pieces of bread and then toasted on a sandwich press. Then there’s the sauce. The peachy colored concoction is a mystery to many myself included. There has to be some mayo in there though. I didn’t love it but I did like the sandwich as is. I found this cool little article from the Tribune circa 1993 that features Shemwell's and other BBQ spots in Southern Illinois.

BBQ Sandwich at Shemwell's Barbecue

Quatro's (Carbondale, IL)

After a few brews at the Pinch Penny one night we headed over to the local favorite for pizza in Carbondale. Quatro's is a straight forward college town pizza parlor. They call themselves a Chicago style deep pan pizzeria but my buddy says the thin is the way to go. It's not tavern style as far as the cutting goes but it was pretty similar as far as the dimensions. Southern IL is too far from Chicago to have good sausage so we got pepperoni. Not bad at all considering your other late night options. 

Pizza at Quatro's

The Red Onion (Equality, IL)

I have a google maps guide of spots worth checking out in Illinois. I dont know how this spot ended up on it but I'm glad I added it to the map. The slogan for The Red Onion goes "Yes! It's worth the Drive!" which we took East from Marion. My buddy really wanted to check out this old timey steakhouse as he had never been nor heard of it despite having spent lots of time in this region. They don't share too much info on their website but they're known for steak, prime rib, and pork chops. We wanted prime rib but it wasn't available yet so my friend had the roast turkey special while I decided on one of the signature 2 inch pork chops. The smoked chop was fantastic. It was cooked perfectly and was arguably the best thing I ate this trip. My buddy enjoyed his turkey and blueberry cobbler dessert.

Lunch at The Red Onion

Ned's Shed (Vienna, IL)

I had a handful of hamburger spots to check out on this trip. I always do. Ned's Shed was down at the crossroads in Vienna. From the looks of the pictures it was an old time spot that was calling my name. While it has been a burger shop since the 50's it's been owned by a few different people so it's tough to say whether or not they all carried on tradition or created their own menus and such. I got a double cheeseburger with their special relish which was kind of like chow chow. The problem was the meat itself was low quality frozen patties. Not sure why but this seemed to be the case for a few burger favorites down this way. Maybe its to keep cost down as they're dirt cheap as far as pricing.

Cheeseburger at Ned's Shed

Taqueria Pequena (Cobden, IL)

You wont find much Mexican down in these parts. That was evident when I listened in on a local country guys order. He wanted to know what a torta was. Another guy said he was visiting his brother from Channahon. He was telling the other guy how this was the best Mexican restaurant he's ever been to. That you couldn't get anything this good where he was from. Well maybe not in Channahon but Joliet isn't that far my guy. Anyway the family behind Taqueria Pequena aka "The little house of tacos" is doing an admirable job bringing real tacos to the locals. That said we noticed a heavy Hispanic community in Cobden so it wasn't a surprise to find this cool shop with a walk-up window. They were busy so the steak was out so I tried a carnitas taco which was good for where we were.

Carnitas Taco at Taqueria Pequena

Scratch Brewing Company (Ava, IL)

About 30 minutes Northwest of Carbondale is the tree heavy town of Ava, Illinois. Home to one of the States, scratch that, home to one of the nations most exciting breweries. This was perhaps my most anticipated stop this trip. First off the drive here is wonderful. It felt alot like some of the heavily wooded areas of the Sonoma County region. Scratch Brewing Company has been called the coolest brewery in America by various publications. Scratch is about as local as a brewery can get as all of it's beer is brewed mostly with ingredients foraged from the 75 acre wooded site the brewery sits on.

a peek inside

It's location on the fringes of the Shawnee National Forest make for a diverse ecosystem that's always changing with the seasons. Thus they have lots of beers one day you may not see the next. The focus here isnt on creating the next crazy IPA or any of that but instead they're foraging the property for stuff like edible bark, fruits, flowers, roots, mushrooms, and more. All this while growing other ingredients in their brewery garden. Some of the ingredients are unorthodox but the beers are really well made. It looks like they also have food and much of it too is local. A destination brewery.

Flight at Scratch Brewing Company

The Country Cupboard (Carterville, IL)

On my last night in the area we had dinner from this classic American diner. I bet damn near every county in this country has a place called the Country Cupboard. At least all those in Middle America anyway. Nothing special at these spots other than they're usually reliable places to get an honest cooked meal whether it's breakfast or lunch. One thing I like to do at the mom and pop country spots is get whatever is on special. They all have daily specials and it's usually a good bet it was made fresh. On this visit the Swiss steak was the special. I'll have that with corn and mashed potatoes and gravy please. Like I said - good country cooking. I wasn't expecting my Swiss steak to come bathed in a tomato sauce but this is how some places make them so I wasn't complaining. It hit the spot. As did some homemade pie which is a given for me if you're serving such. Pecan and banana cream seen below. So that's it for this trip but stay tuned in the coming weeks to read about the legendary Central Illinois burger spot that I hit up on my way back to Chicago. See ya next time @chibbqking.

Country Dinner at the Country Cupboard

Friday, June 21, 2019

Interurban Boathouse

-Grubbing in Chicago
The OG Restaurant of Lincoln Yards

If the Lincoln Yards development ever gets going the folks at Interurban Boathouse might hit the jackpot. Then again their location on a large empty lot on the river on Cortland street could also mean demolition. Lets hope not bc the nautical themed restaurant was quietly one of the areas best openings around the Fall of last year. It sits in an place all too familiar to me. It's location is the old Joe's Fisheries which was a favorite of a young me back in the mid to late 90's. Let's check it out.

Newly Opened in Lincoln Yards?

The folks at Interurban were already a part of the Chicago restaurant scene. Or at the very least they were a part of the city's baking scene as the original iteration was a bakery in Lincoln Park. They kept the bakery going over here and they offer fresh baked pastries daily. Their homemade pop tarts are pretty damn fantastic and a great snack to stack up on. As good as the pop tarts are the ode to Okonomiyaki in the form of a Japanese vegetable pancake is my favorite thing on the menu. They don't call it Okonomiyaki as it's more like an homage to that dish. A terrific one at that. I noticed broccoli and green onion amongst other greens that are binded together into the form of a buttermilk pancake and cooked until crisp like a potato pancake. The Nori, katsuoboshi flakes, and soy based BBQ sauce definitely give it the character of Okonomiyaki. It's worth a trip here for this dish alone. 

Japanese Vegetable Pancake at Interurban Boathouse

With me being a big fan of that Japanese pancake I haven't ventured too far from it on the menu. But two things I have tried that I also thought were really good are the fish and chips and their ode to Joe's Fried Shrimp. The fish is tempura battered and fried real nicely and served alongside some well made fresh cut fries. The shrimp if I remember correctly is pretty similar to Joe's and maybe even better as far as it's quality goes. The pieces are huge with the cornmeal batter bringing me back to the spot that made me fall in love with the dying Chicago style shrimp shack. We recently dined in on a Friday evening and they were a bit understaffed which had me thinking they weren't expecting a nice crowd which was what they had. Hopefully things are picking up for them bc the location makes for an odd spot as far as foot traffic goes. But if you live on the Northside or near there it's worth the ride.

Fish 'n Chips at Interurban Boathouse 

Interurban Boathouse
1438 W Cortland St
Chicago, IL 60642
(773) 698-7739

Monday, June 17, 2019

5 More Northwest Indiana Favorites

-Exploring NW Indiana

I'm still a huge fan of Da Region. I might not have posted from there in a while but I'm still heading over there now and then. Over the last year or so I've visited a handful of spots that all had me asking "how come I didn't know about this place sooner?" There's so many gems in this still very industrial part of Indiana that's more so a part of Chicagoland. The dining scene here reflects the area in that it's very working class and pretty much no frills. But they're also the type of spots that are becoming rarer to find in a cosmopolitan place like Chicago. Don't get me wrong you still can find them but you need to head towards Indiana to do so. So let's head into Da Region to check out some regional eats.

 Marquette Yacht Club (Portage, IN)

I was a good Catholic boy this past Lenten season. I ate fish fry every Friday night but one. There were a couple of memorable ones including this low key "yacht club" found out on the canals of Portage Indiana. The Marquette Yacht Club is a super rundown spot that’s open for dinner just once a week on Friday’s. The day of the week combined with the location in Great Lakes country means they do a Friday Fish Fry. A very good one at that. The Lake Perch was on point. Go with a classic baked potato over the frozen fries and be sure to add some of the cheese spread that comes with the bread to your potato. I was told blue gills and walleye make appearances here and there. I can’t believe this was my first time here. But with this being year round I’m sure I’ll be back this summer.

Friday Night Lake Perch Special

 Dan's Pierogi's (Highland, IN)

The pierogi is probably the signature snack of Northwest Indiana. The annual Pierogi fest in Whiting is one of the Midwest's biggest festivals. I had a chance to sample some from Dan's at the festival last summer. I then decided to stop into their storefront in Highland not too long ago. The Polish community has a huge presence in the area with quite a few old time Polish restaurants and delis still hanging on. Dan's is part restaurant and part deli. They sell most of what they serve in case you want to take something home and make it yourself. We were dining in and decided to try the loaded pierogi, Polish sausage sandwich, and a cabbage roll. The loaded pierogi were potato pierogi topped with sour cream, cheese, bacon. It wasn't what I was expecting. The cheese should've been melted and what not. Stick with the pierogi as is which are delicious by themselves. The Polish sausage was a cooked link from one of the Chicago producers. It hit the spot. Best item of the trio was a moist cabbage roll which they sell by the piece which is nice. I'll grab some next time I'm passing by.

Polish Food at Dan's Pierogi

 Harvey's Restaurant (Hammond, IN)

It took me quite a few rides by to finally try Harvey's. As soon as I walked in I knew it was going to be good. Of course I read some reviews and those were positive too. Lot's of talk of classic this and classic that. From the dining room itself to the menu and it's prices. Look at those single seat booths!

 a peek inside

Harvey's was empty when I visited but they were only open for another 30 minutes or so. The waitress had mentioned it was a busy one and she was ready to go home. That said she happily sat me down and took my order which ended up being the "Harvey Club" as it's called. You know how I like to check out the somewhat unique menu items that can give a place part of it's character? Well this is a perfect example of such. It's a club sandwich made with a burger and fresh ham cut from the bone. Inspection of the burger revealed what looked to be a fresh hand formed patty. As far as the construction of it goes that too was good with the proper triple decker. Just $5.95 with fries. Wow.

The Harvey Club at Harvey's

 Chuck Wheeler's Vienna Beef Red Hots (Gary, IN)

It had been a good five years since I was at Chuck Wheeler's in Gary. It's of my favorite lil spots to indulge in a Polish sausage. It’s either that or a hot dog (natural casing) and some chips if you want them. That's all they do. The stand is housed in a little kiosk connected to a mall that's half empty. So you have to enter the mall to get a sausage but bc they have such a limited menu and use the natural casing encased meats it's a classic little spot. Everything on your dog or sausage includes mustard, relish, onion, sport peppers, and some pickled green tomatoes. Served this way since 1958.

Polish Sausage at Chuck Wheeler's Vienna Beef Red Hots

 Panini - Panini (Michigan City, IN)

Last stop is in Michigan City. Is that even the Region anymore? Doesn't matter bc this is a spot people from the Region should be driving to. It's got more the feel of a restaurant somewhere in Europe than the Rust Belt. Honestly it's probably the nicest casual spot in the area and just bc it's not a fancy sitdown spot doesn't mean the food quality here is lower than steakhouses in the area. The folks that run Panini - Panini put in alot of work bc much of the stuff they serve is made in house. As the name suggests they feature sandwiches but aren't exclusive to just that. This is classic Euro style bistro with a cheese case and curated wine selection. It fits in a place like Old Town Chicago more than Michigan City but they seem to have been embraced by locals and summertime residents.

 Roasted pork loin with bacon, lettuce, & tomato with Provolone cheese

I'm not sure if they make the bread in-house but if not they must be getting it from a local artisan supplier. Either that or they source from a few different people bc their sandwiches come made in variety of ways. The roasted pork is made from thinly sliced pork tenderloin that works great with the melted provolone, but it's that bread that really brings the sandwich up a notch. Our favorite here is the grilled white fish with lettuce, tomato, and cheddar cheese which we add bacon to. It reminds me of the fish sandwiches down in the Florida Keys which always bring good memories to me.

White Fish Sandwich at Panini - Panini

See ya next time @chibbqking


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