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.
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