Monday, September 14, 2020

Eating BIG in Peoria

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

- Exploring P-Town and the Surrounding Area

I've taken a handful of roadtrips over to the Peoria area the last decade or so. It's an interesting place. River towns always are. I've always felt a certain mystique with them and Peoria definitely brings that to the table. The Illinois river town is only about a 2 hour and 40 minute drive from Chicago. I think it falls in right around number eight for most populated places in the state however it has more history than most of the spots ranked ahead of it. A good place to learn of the city's history is at the Riverfront Museum which we visited a couple years back during the IHSA Basketball playoffs. Exhibits switch up but on our visit there was some truly interesting stuff including a hall totally dedicated to the IHSA and it's history as well as one dedicated to both Peoria's past and also the life of a River Rat which there were once plenty of with the Illinois river cutting right through town.

Sights from the Peoria Riverfront Museum 
(DYK that before prohibition Peoria was the country's top producer of whiskey?)

Unless you have family or some sort of outdoor weekend planned you really only need one day to get a good feel of Peoria. If you're a stand up comedy fan you probably already know that it was the childhood home of Richard Pryor who's one of the best to ever tell jokes on a stage. He has a statue in town so that's really cool and worth stopping for a snap if you're a fan. If you're into otherworldly activities the nearby Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville has a haunted past and you can feel that if you visit the area. Over in, or should I say up in, Hopewell Illinois rests a cool view of the entire area. There's all sorts of old school stuff from buildings to old relics and such found around town. So if you're a photographer you may enjoy taking the day to snap photos of this always interesting place.

Sights from Peoria

Castle's Patio Inn

This little dive bar has been dishing out drinks in one form or the other since the end of prohibition. The current owner has had it for more than 25 years but it's the previous owner before her that made what was then known as Ray's Patio Inn to be the cheesiest place in town. It was then owner Ray who introduced free cheese spread (with crackers) back in the 60's. No one knows the origin but it's been a part of the bar ever since. These day's Castle's Patio Inn is owned by a widower who continues her husbands legacy. The cheese is so popular they make more than 4000 lbs during the holiday season. Much of it shipped out as Xmas gifts across the country to people from Peoria who miss it. I cant remember if it's still free but I don't believe it to be. But nothing is expensive in these parts. We actually visited here a handful of years ago but it's the type of spot that hasn't changed much since the Castle's took over. Thus it makes for a cool spot to stop for a beer. The cheese spread is your reward. Next time I'm in the area I plan on stopping by for some to take home.

Pub Cheese at Castle's Patio Inn 

Kabab G

The Metro Peoria area is home to more than 8000 Lebanese-Americans. They've become a primary anchor of local business success. One form of this is in the local restaurant scene. Peoria has a handful of Lebanese options and if online reviews are to be believed they're all pretty good. I can vouch for Kabab-G which we went to a couple years ago and enjoyed both fresh fried falafel and beef shawarma cut directly from a spit. The same trip I'd seen a couple signs for local businesses and communities that were holding Kebab fundraisers and such. Like they do with brats in Wisconsin.

Falafel and Beef Shawarma at Kabab-G

Emo's Dairy Mart

Peoria has a nice little drive-in / dairy culture. Emo's Dairy Mart is just one of a few popular Peoria summertime destinations. These places signify the start of spring for locals. Each spot has a menu item or two that people line up for while they all serve ice cream which people line up for all summer. Emo's is one we happened to be driving by. Look at this place. How could I not stop? The most popular food items at these Peoria dairy shacks seems to be hot dogs, tamales, and loose meat sandwiches. I got a loose meat from Emo's bc I wanted to see how it compared to another spot. I liked the other place better but I'll never not stop for a spot like this. We don't have them in Chicago.

Loose Meat Sandwich at Emo's Dairy Mart

Twistee Treat

Here's an interesting piece of Fast Food Americana located in East Peoria. Twistee Treat is a corporate chain from Florida that has changed hands a few times following bankruptcy etc. The original was found in 1983 with it's signature buildings shaped in the form of an ice cream cone. The story of how one of those buildings got to East Peoria can be traced back to the original owners who opened an ice cream shop in a vacant Dairy Queen. That land was eventually sold to the state and the couple went on vacation to Florida. It was there they saw the Twistee Treat building. Since the company had gone bankrupt they purchased it for $25,000 and had it shipped to East Peoria. It came in 19 pieces according to a story I read online. They eventually sold to the current owner who has added her own touch. I tried a house special chili dog which comes with a bright tomato forward chili and relish and onions. Not my favorite chili dog ever but I loved everything else about this place.

Chili Dog at Twistee Treat

Ernie's Dairy Dream

Here's yet another old school dairy / sandwich shack. Ernie's Dairy Dream sits in a residential part of town. I actually wrote about it in another Illinois Roadfood special I did a couple years back but I'll include it in this list too since it's in Peoria. From August of 2018. "According to an article in the PJ Star Ernie's reopened last year after a three year hiatus. Ernie's was born in South Peoria in 1959 in what was a bustling area. They had as many as 20 employees. As times changed and other businesses shut down so did Ernie's. But with it's recent rebirth I got to try one of their famous Castle Burgers which is really just a loose meat sandwich. Loose meat being exactly what it sounds like. Crumbled up ground beef served on a bun. A Sloppy Joe without the slop. Ernie's makes a good one that reminded me a bit of White Castle. It had that smooth slider taste. Dare I say it was great."

Castle Burger at Ernie's Dairy Dream 

"The Original" Wonderdog

The "Original" Wonderdog is the premiere spot for chili dogs and tamales in East Peoria. The latter of which have a rich history in the area. There was a time when downtown Peoria would be flooded with Tamale Men. Not the Mexican kind but the Mississippi Delta variety that kind of morphed into a Chicago style hot dog stand tamale. In fact a while back I did a feature on a wonderful spot in Sparland, IL (outside Peoria) ran by a man named Willie Smith (RIP). Before him there was a guy Art Knutsen who started selling tamales from a cart back in 1932. His tamales went onto to become a local treat found at grocery stores all over town but the state shut it down. Somebody new bought the licensing and recipes and brought them back last year. They're similar to Tom-Tom and such. Now back to Wonderdog which also closed down for a while when it was known as the Velvet Freeze. The owners who supplied the Freeze with the meat for their chili dogs took over the space and switched it up by adding some menu items. But the chili dogs and the tamales are staples of the spaces past.

Chili Dog and Tamale and The Original Wonderdog 

B's Drive-Inn (Farmington, IL)

About 30 minutes west of Peoria lies the small farm town of Farmington, IL. This spot is one of 100+ places I have listed on a Google Maps of Roadfood in Illinois. So we made our way over a couple summers ago. B's Drive-Inn is the most Central Illinois dining destination I've ever been. I'm not even exactly sure what I mean by that but if you ever need to shoot some film in the most Midwest of farm town looking places possible this is it. Not just the restaurant itself but the surrounding area too. There's very little on the history of B's but it's an old school spot housed in what feels like the middle of nowhere or maybe the middle of a corn field. That said I'm sure B's is the place to be for Farmington teens and such. Online reviews rave about the breaded pork tenderloin which is very popular in these parts. The BPT is often mentioned with Iowa and Indiana but it's also very big in Central Illinois and parts of Missouri. B's serves a real homemade tenderloin and not a fritter. So I was interested in trying it even though the peak for one of these can only go so high. Everything about B's was looking good but the seasoning was lacking. As you can see below this one pops way out of the bun but it's more so a big rectangle than a big circle. There's mustard, onion, pickles on there but bc the breading wasn't seasoned it was pretty damn plain. Very good lemon soft serve though.

BPT at B's Drive-Inn

Susie's Hot Dogs (Morton, IL)

Some biz down in Delavan last year allowed me to hunt down an elusive white whale on the Illinois roadfood trail. Susie’s is a small little shack that’s been slanging chili dogs for the last 32 years in Morton - pumpkin capitol of the world here in Central Illinois. The Peoria area has quite a few old time chili dog vendors but Susie’s keeps very limited hours (Mon-Sat 11-2) so I’d never had a chance to check them out until now. Everything includes chili, mustard, onion and they’re small enough to where people eat a few. Of course I had to have a taco too which is made with the chili. Fun little stop, literally. There’s enough room for maybe 8 customers inside. Line was out the door as we left.

Menu, Taco, Hot Dog at Susie's Hot Dogs 

Burger Barge 

Peoria is a river town which means there's more than a few spots to enjoy food and booze down by the river. Burger Barge is one of the most popular spots to do so. They have a nice setup and it has the feels of some random bar on the Floribama Coast or somewhere. So if that's your scene you will feel at home over here. I wish I could say something good about the burgers but they weren't anything special by any means. No idea why they have a reputation for such but I'd stick with the High Lifes.

Cheeseburger at Burger Barge 

 Pottstown Meat and Deli 

I've always enjoyed checking out mom and pop type butcher shops across the Midwest. Pottstown Meat and Deli is a good one. It's been a local family meat business for more than 100 years. Much of their beef comes from Kilgus Farms in Fairbury, IL and all the chicken is locally raised. Both of those are worth grabbing as is some of their sausage. They must have over 50 varieties on offer. One that I really like is their breakfast sausage links. Bring a cooler bc you can stock up the entire fridge here.

Sights from Pottstown Meats and Deli

See ya next time @chibbqking

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