Québec, Ontario, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois on the way to the grand Festival of Cheese in Chicago. Much of the trip was in quest of eating miles and the food was what was there when the driving stopped, although we hoped for the best. The best (aside from the festival itself); we were able to choose — St. Elmo’s in Indianapolis, Aja Steak House in Chicago, and my sister’s home cookin’. The worst; we just had to eat something: Wendy’s in Logan, Ohio. We just stumbled onto the Palace Grill in Chicago’s North Loop — by far the best value. The yawning middle of quality included novel destinations — Hooters, Harry Caray’s — and restaurants on an agenda in Lancaster (see also Ohio Eats).
In mid-June, Eric, cheesemaker at Monroe Cheese Studio, and number one son, emailed to say he was driving the Maine Cheese Guild‘s entries to the American Cheese Festival in Chicago at the end of July. He wondered if I wanted to come and help drive. I’m a sucker for a road trip and had nothing pressing on my plate, so I said, “Why not?” The fact that my wife Carol hates road trips and I hadn’t been on one since ought-four made the decision easy.
It turned out that the best way to make a connection was for me to fly from San Francisco to Montreal where Eric would pick me up and we’d be off across southern Canada to points west. Come with me for a plethora of food experiences, warts and all.
Air Canada Flyover, USA
Air Canada is nice. I was able to pre-purchase my meal with my ticket. Of three choices offered, I chose an ‘Egg macmuffin’ sort of thing that came with a generous bag — not packet — of cashews. Am I giving ratings in this treatise? I think not.
Bud’s Place Brockville, Ontario
We checked into a Day’s Inn (free wi-fi was the clincher) and went to dinner down the road toward the St. Lawrence River at Bud’s Place. We walked into a big, dark barn of a place with a big center bar, occupied by only a few people. It did not look promising, but the bartender suggested the roof terrace where we enjoyed the service of Katy, our smiling, enthusiastic waitress, and a decent view of rooftops falling away toward the river. The menu was straight from Fred’s Frozen Foods (I know, my brother used to work for Fred’s), but nicely prepared and cheerfully served by the wonderful Katy. I had the Cajun Catfish and Eric, the Steak Sandwich.
During dinner, spectacular clouds built up over a thunderstorm in the distance. The setting sun and occasional lightening bolt washed the clouds in white, purple, golden, red and pink. DRAT. I left my camera at the motel. A couple at the adjoining table got out a big Canon DSLR (guy) and a mini camcorder (gal) and commenced taking pictures of the incredible cloud formations. After dinner, I gave my card to the guy and asked him to email a cloud picture to me. He said, “It might take about six weeks until we get back to Germany.” How about that, an SF guy, Maine guy, German guy and gal in Brockville, Ontario, bonding over clouds; that’s a good start.
Kings Chinese Buffet Cambridge, Ontario
After the Day’s Inn complementary breakfast buffet and a good lot of driving, we chose Cambridge, Ontario for lunch. It seemed big enough to have a downtown and was only three kilometers off the big road. On a new, nondescript, suburban parkway, we spied a young woman in a red and black waitress uniform climbing down a steep grassy bank from a parking lot.
“Where is downtown, or places to eat lunch?” I asked.
“Next set of lights, turn left for downtown, turn right for tons of lunch places.”
We took the left. I said to Eric, “I always look for a Chinese buffet in a strip center, can’t go wrong. It’ll be air conditioned, reasonably good, and cheap.”
On the next corner we spotted Kings Chinese Buffet. I felt like I had been there before in Santa Clara CA, not to mention Tifton GA. It’s a huge place, largely populated by grandmothers with grandchildren. The long buffet had every Chinese dish you can imagine, most pretty good, none really good. No pretension — one has to ask for chopsticks. And it was cool inside.
Buffalo Wild Wings East Lansing, Michigan
Once our wheels touched the USA, we drove like hell to get as far across Michigan as possible so our Friday trip into Chicago would be EZ. It looked like we would get to Lansing some time after seven, a good place to stop, East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, big time college town; college joints, co-eds, Woo Woo. We found the town-gown strip and hot and tired, we stopped at practically the first place we saw, Buffalo Wild Wings.Turns out, it’s a big chain restaurant that we hadn’t heard of… hasn’t yet made it to California or Maine. Big place, it had flat screen TVs everywhere, some big, some very big, some ordinary. The cheerful buzz of college youths filled the air. We ordered wings and popcorn shrimp and some beers. Eric got interested in the Detroit/White Sox game on two of the big screens. I was interested in the Tour de France, on another big screen. The food wasn’t as interesting, but it filled us up.
Palace Grill Chicago, Illinois
The Breakfast Buffet at our Hampton Inn set us up to get off to Chicago.The Cheese Society had arranged to receive the cheese at a refrigerated warehouse in the North Loop of Chicago, or Greektown, depending on which map you like.
Just down the block we had passed the Palace Grill, a pretty nice looking lunch place, so we popped inside. Framed pictures of celebs and local sports teams adorned the walls and signs hanging from the ceiling pronounced this their 70th anniversary. A table of Chicago police was a good sign. Good show!
that’s me in the pink shirt
Eric ordered the Skirt Steak Sandwich and I had a hankering for the Open Faced Meatloaf Sandwich with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy. When it arrived at the table, I said out loud, “No way I can eat all that!” But I did eat all that. The meatloaf was thick sliced, fine grained, and spiced just enough to be tasty without offending anyone. Y U M. Eric declared his, “The way a steak sandwich is meant to be.”
The cheese had been delivered, but the conference didn’t start until the next Thursday. Since we were already in the great Midwest with a few days on our hands, we extended the road trip to include a visit to my sister in Mannington WV and Carol’s family in Lancaster OH. Some names will be thrown around; just pretend you know who they are.
St. Elmo’s Steak House Indianapolis, Indiana
I suggested we stop in Indianapolis for the night, about two hours to the southeast. Maybe we could get a tour of the new stadium for the Colts that will open this fall. Besides, I’ve never been there — except passing through on US-40 on the way to an OSU v. Illinois football game in 1960.Stephanie, the Hilton desk clerk, told us we would find plenty of places to eat on Illinois Street, the street just outside. Indeed, McCormick & Schmick’s was in the hotel and we passed at least four steak houses, including Weber Grill Restaurant and the ubiquitous Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s. St. Elmo’s Steak House was about three blocks down and looked local, maybe because of the plain, old time sign. Lots of cops were on the street — something about a Black Congress rally on the weekend — so I asked a cop about St. Elmo’s. “Great,” he said. “Be sure and have the Shrimp Cocktail.”
Our waiter Billy, sporting muttonchops, was really nice and very thorough. But once he had started his spiel, there was no stopping him. That was okay with the “world famous shrimp cocktail we grind our own horseradish daily,” because we weren’t familiar with that and contemplated ordering it. But the, “Founded in 1902 as the country’s first Steak House. Although we are a steak house, for those of you who are not fans of red meat,” I said, “Billy, you can stop there, we love red meat.” But he continued, “,we have a terrific selection of seafood, flown in daily. Our vegetables are fresh, not frozen, from local Indiana farms.” Billy gave good spiel, and good service.
world famous shrimp cocktail
Since the servings were Midwestern huge, we split the Prime Rib (I cut and Eric chose) and an order of the world famous Shrimp Cocktail. The horseradish was indeed piled high and freshly ground. We were warned to take it easy on the first bite and I did, but piled it on the second bite — ooooweee! That’s a sinus cleanser! Loved it! The Prime Rib was everything a Prime Rib should be, moist and perfectly medium rare. Primo baby!
The sommelier recommended Mauritson Zinfandel, Dry Creek, Healdsburg, and it perfectly complemented the food.
Hilton Hotel Indianapolis, Indiana
Breakfast buffet in the Hilton was elaborate, that’s what the Hilton does. Omelets to order (not good) and the best part, smoked salmon, chopped red onion and capers. Yum. But it cost twenty bucks, which is not as good as free.
White Castle/Union Café and Bar Columbus, Ohio
Columbus marked the end of a hundred-miler (we changed drivers each hundred miles), and since Eric was driving, the car went straight onto north High Street, Short North and White Castle.
As we were driving through Short North I had a brilliant idea, “Let’s get the sliders to go and take them to a bar to eat. Guys that hang at White Castle are kinda creepy.” We did that. Trouble was, the nearest bar was a few blocks walk in the hot sun. When we got to the Union Café and Bar, I ordered a beer and explained that I was long gone from Columbus (sob) and miss my White Castles, “I hope you won’t mind if we discretely eat them here.” The waiter wasn’t thrilled, but didn’t know what to say, so he went away and we commenced eating. As I was eating my second, the manager hurried up and said, “You can’t bring food in, it’s against the Health Code Regulations.” He agreed to keep the offending burgers in the kitchen until I finished my beer. Alas, we were obliged to repair back to White Castle and finish our lunch in their creepy dining room.
Home Cookin’ by my sister Amy Mannington, West Virginia
Ohio, east of Columbus, was just as hot and flat, and I-70 just as featureless, as Ohio west of Columbus; until we got to Zanesville, that is. All of a sudden there was a hill and a curve and another hill and a valley and some scenery and maybe even a breeze. Hot damn.
We turned south on US-250 at Wheeling and that was as curvy and hilly as one could want, all the way to Mannington, Walnut Street and Amy and Gary’s house. We arrived at 5:30, eight hours from Indianapolis. We sat on the porch — hot and humid on the porch, but shady.
eric and gary
A BBQ was going on in Morgantown, but we didn’t want to be in the car another minute, so Amy whipped up some pulled pork sandwiches with cucumber yogurt, macaroni salad and potato salad. Yummy.
Home Cookin’ by my brother-in-law, Gary Mannington, West Virginia
Amy regaled us with Martha Stories while I could see Gary in the kitchen moving about and putting together black bean soup with just-picked Swiss chard, garnished with chopped red onion, cucumber and Eric’s White Gold Yogurt. We’re talking seriously fine Sunday brunch here.
Home Cookin’ by my sister Amy Mannington, West Virginia
At 4:05 it started pouring rain and stopped abruptly 6 minutes later. The sun came out and there was a rainbow. Then from 5:45 to 6 we experienced a wicked thunderstorm. I built my porch in Newton just so I could sit and watch thunderstorms. Amy and Gary’s porch is big and deep and we were dry and thrilled by the weather. Then the lights went out. That’s okay; Amy cooked a lovely pot roast on the gas range.