Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Eating and Exploring the Screw City
Other than the google search results you won’t find a bigger collection of Illinois restaurant reviews than you’ll find over here. I’ve covered countless spots from DeKalb to Carbondale and beyond. So you shouldn’t be too surprised with todays stop - Rockford. The Screw City aka Forest City aka Reaper City is the largest city in Illinois outside of the Chicagoland area and is the states fifth most populated overall. It’s not the first spot in the Land of Lincoln that you might think of visiting and it’s probably not the second or third spot either but it’s a compelling place with lots of history and some stuff worth seeing including the Anderson Japanese Gardens which many consider the best of its kind in the Midwest. Rockford's location on the Rock River along with over 4000 acres of public parks means there’s lots of outdoor activities on offer too. I’ve never actually spent the night in Rockford in part due to its proximity to Chicago (80 miles) but I’ve stopped thru there plenty of times on the way somewhere else and have also taken a few daytrips over the years. Todays post is a culmination of all of the times I’ve stopped in Rockford to explore the area through food and what not. The food scene reflects the city itself - it's nothing fancy and definitely not trendy but it is interesting.
Our first stop is perhaps Rockford's most popular breakfast spot. If not the most popular it's certainly one if the most well known. The history of the Stockholm Inn is traced back to the 1940's when a husband and wife team with Swedish ancestry opened it under a different name. The people they sold it to kept the homestyle Swedish recipes and renamed it after Sweden's capital city. Decades later it brings alot of cultural and historical value to the people of Rockford. Locals pack the place on a daily basis. Many come for Swedish specialties like kroppkakor (potato dumplings), kaldomar (cabbage rolls), Swedish meatballs, salt herring, fruit soup, rice pudding and nut cake. Their most popular menu item are the Swedish pancakes which are a cross between a pancake and a crepe. They're thinner and lighter than their American counterparts due to the use of less flour and more butter when making them. It's common to eat these with a lingonberry sauce but I enjoy them as is with butter.
At the time of it's opening The Norwegian was Rockford's most ambitious restaurant project. It's housed in a historic building that was bought by a local woman who grew up in the area and rehabbed it with the help of the local who donated more than $100,000 to a Kickstarter so that it could be cleared of asbestos and turned into a brunch pub and live music venue. They serve brunch with a Nordic twist with dishes like Æbleskiver. These delicious Danish pancake balls are made from a fried batter and basically a cross between a donut and a beignet. The Norwegian serves theirs with a fantastic made in-house raspberry jam and some maple syrup for dipping and I would highly recommend starting your meal with these or ending it with them. The Lyonnaise salad is a good option as far as starters go as is the gravlax Smørrebrød. They do a little Nordic twist on the smash burger called 'The Frikadeller' which is a smashed Danish meatball patty with Jarlsberg, sauerkraut, lingonberry bbq sauce and caramelized onion aioli on local baked rye. Definitely worth a stop.
One of my favorite things about the food culture in the Midwest is the abundance of local butchers that are still around. There's not as many as thee used to be but it seems like most towns in the region still have a locally owned shop for meats and more. Meads is that spot in Rockford. The family owned butcher shop has been serving the community for nearly 85 years. They didn't have a ton of meat on offer when I went in there but they do a daily sandwich special which is what really seems to bring the customers in. The hot roast beef sandwich was the special on my visit. House roasted beef is placed atop onions, cheddar, and hot peppers served on a locally made Italian roll. Not bad at all.
I once stopped at Lino's back in my college days riding to and from Madison. So I went ahead and got reacquainted as I was recently in the area. Lino's is Rockfords most popular pizzeria dating back to 1972. They shred their own cheese blend and the sausage is made on-site. Pizzas are cooked in an old Faulds Oven which is a defunct Chicago company, lots of local pizzerias still use them. They call this “Rockford style” as it’s thicker than cracker thin but still much thinner than deep dish. Actually it’s similar in girth to most thin crust spots in and around Chicagoland. It’s also a place of celebration as they cater and do banquets so lots of people in the area have a connection to the pizza and their house special salad with sausage. You can get a pizza, a salad, and a 2 liter of pop for $20 (takeout). I was most impressed with the sheer amount of people visiting be it for dine in or for takeout where they run a Chick-Fil-A type of ship getting customers in and out in an impressive amount of time.
If you're riding through Rockford and looking for a sit-down type of spot for dinner you should check out the Olympic Tavern. It's a Rockford institution dating back to 1945. It's got a very Wisconsin tavern and supper club type of vibe as far as the food and the atmosphere goes. You don't see fried bluegill around too often so I like to get it when I have the chance to do so and Olympic Tavern has it available regularly so that was an easy decision for me on my visit. If you've never had bluegill it's similar to lake perch in flavor and texture so it's best served lightly breaded like those seen below.
If you're a Chicagoan passing through Rockford and thinking about stopping for some food you might want to consider Lao Kitchen considering there's no Lao restaurants in Chicago (there's one ghost kitchen). To my knowledge there's a small Lao community in the Rockford area which could be due to its proximity to Wisconsin where there's a fairly large Lao presence. Lao food has slowly become one of my favorites going back to my college days in Madison which is where I was first introduced to the flavors before falling even further in love with the food while in Northern Thailand with whom Laos shares a border as well as many different ingredients and recipes. Since then Lao food has become pretty popular across the country with more and more spots identifying as Lao and not Thai. Lao Kitchen has a relatively small menu with mostly standard offerings including Lao sausage which might be my favorite encased meat these days (it's top 5 for sure). I love how Lao sausage packs all the wonderful flavors and aromas of Southeast Asia both in the link itself and also from the spicy and sour jeow sauce that it's typically served with. Add in some sticky rice and you got a meal in of itself but I also rec the Lard Na which is typically found on Thai menus but is traced back to Laos where Chinese people would cook stir fried noodles covered in gravy. Lao Kitchen makes a very good version.
Rockford might not be Illinois' Second City when it comes to tacos, that's Aurora, but there's still lots of taco options. I came across Tortacos Soto while browsing the menus of local taquerias. They have a couple of guisada (stewed meats) offerings with chicken and I enjoyed both of them.
I've been making summertime stops at Zammuto's for more than 20 years now. But its history goes back way further than that. It was opened as a grocery store in 1925 by a local Italian who may or may not have had a connection to the head of the Rockford mob family ran by a man with the same surname. The grocery was transported into a granita / ice cream stand at some point in the 50's or 60's and was later sold but the granita recipe lives on with the current owner. Granita is a product of Sicily, a cousin to Italian ice in that it's a semi frozen dessert made from fruit, water, and sugar. Zammuto's serves both granita and soft serve and they combine the two of them for their signature menu item - the "Unusual". They're so well liked that other dairy stands around town also serve them.
Click 'Illinois' under tags for more than 50 posts including...
Eating BIG in Peoria
See ya next time @chibbqking