My unusual work travel destinations often take me to some of the less traveled corners of the United States. Most recently, one of my projects has me taking several trips to South Bend, Indiana, a region (“Michiana”, in the local parlance) that I hadn’t actually visited since the late 1990s. South Bend itself is a bit of a difficult destination: the downtown area is one of those classic Midwest industrial cities that hit their heyday around WWII (with Bendix and Studebaker having extremely large plants there), but they’ve been in a state of decline since the 1960s: the downtown area is filled with all sorts of abandoned industrial buildings. But the area is also supported decently by University of Notre Dame (north of town in their own municipality of Notre Dame, IN). So it’s a mixed bag. Despite some of the economic challenges, the region has several things going for it. First of all, it’s actually a rather good region for beer, with quite a few beers from Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan being ubiquitous in local bars and restaurants. It’s very easy to find even fairly rare beers from such well-regarded breweries as Bells and Founders, and the region itself has several good local breweries, including Bare Hands , Iechyd Da (Elkhart), and the nationally famous Three Floyds. But while it’s a very, very good beer destination, I’m still figuring out the food scene. My first stab at figuring out the local food scene was a popular Celtic pub downtown that caters to the Notre Dame scene, Fiddler’s Hearth.
It seems that most of the restaurant openings around here happen when I’m out of town. In this case, while we were in Belgium, Worthy Kitchen, the sister restaurant to Worthy Burger, opened up in Woodstock. While Worthy Burger had some startup issues like most any restaurant, they hid their stride and have been wildly successful (sometimes to the point of being a victim of that success, with my personally experiencing 20 minute lines just to check out, and having them stop taking orders long before closing because the kitchen was backed up. Oh well, there are worse problems a starting business can have). So I wasn’t surprised to hear a few months ago that the Worthy Burger were looking at opening new locations, and then hearing that they had a specific spot picked out in Woodstock. Located on the east side of town, Worthy Kitchen is in a slightly odd spot sharing a building with a physical therapist (who must be thrilled with the arrangement) in a restaurant location I had previously considered cursed since it’s had several failed restaurants in it in my 13 years of living in the area (remember the EastEnder or the Lemongrass Cafe? Apparently nobody did.). But basically, they’ve done up a similar concept: the interior is focused upon the bar, with an impressive list of taps, and then they’ve got a chalkboard menu (like Worthy Burger, some of the items are constant, and others rotate in and out).
Despite being one of the smaller European countries, Belgium has a rather extensive beer brewing and drinking culture that goes back centuries. As a result Belgium is rather famous as one of the world’s top beer countries, and the Belgian beer styles are getting increasingly popular in other countries as well. With several hundred Belgian brews available, you are never far from a beer bar most anywhere in a Belgian city, and in Brussels, our rental flat was just down the street from one of the more regarded ones, À la Mort Subite. It was our first destination upon arriving in Brussels (after a short walking tour), and, on our last evening in Belgium, it was also one of our last, since we all decided another trip to À la Mort Subite was in order.
After we did the Cleveland Museum of Art, it was time for a late lunch. We wanted something interesting, but not something that was going to be heavy enough that we wouldn’t be hungry come dinner. After a little bit of discussion, we decided that it was time to check out Happy Dog on the West Side, known known for their wide variety of hot dog toppings. Okay, I can already feel the skeptical vibe coming from some of my readers. The world has a lot of hot dog places, what makes a place like Happy Dog worth some of your precious stomach sapce? And I’ll be the first to admit, hot dogs as a menu item are often a high-risk item: while there are a lot of really great hot dog places out there (Indeed, I’ve reviewed about 20 on this site), there are a lot of dubious ones as well, and for every lovingly-assembled Gold Coast Chicago Dog, or pepper-relished-covered Blackie’s hot dog I’ve had, I’ve also been served up more than my share of Oscar Mayer 10 per lb hot dogs slapped onto a stale bun with ketchup and mustard to know that hot dogs generally aren’t the sort of thing I get without doing some research first. But I’ll tell you that from my visit, Happy Dog isn’t one of those places, instead, they are a great dive-ish joint that’s serving up some really great hot dogs with some good toppings.
After an afternoon of work in Minneapolis, and a quick trip over to St Louis Park to visit The Four Firkins (one of the finest beer stores I’ve ever been to), it was time to have some dinner. I decided to meet up with my friend Andy from my MSU days, along with a former FIRST robotics student and intern of mine, Mas (and his fiancee) for dinner at Butcher and the Boar, one of Minneapolis’ newer bars located on Hennepin Avenue on the edge of the Loring Park neighborhood (looking at a Minneapolis Map, I guess technically most folks call this the “Harmon Neighborhood”). Opened by Jack Reibel, formerly the chef at the well-respected La Belle Vie in Stillwater and the Dakota Jazz Club, Butcher and the Boar is really about two things: beer and meat. First of all, the beer: one of the two centerpieces of the restaurant is their large bar (the other is the open kitchen across the dining area), with a rather impressive tap list, indeed, the beer list was one of my main reasons for coming. With a good list of American beers, with particular emphasis on regional brewers, it’s one of the best beer lists I’ve recently found in the Twin Cities. Indeed, I was able to have some local Surly, some “Goes to 11” by Bells, and some Deschute Mirror Pond. They’ve also got rather good wine and whiskey lists, although I wasn’t in the mood for indulging those that particular night.
Because we were trying to do the trip to Frankfurt on the cheap, my tickets had what most people would consider to be an inconvenient 21 hour layover at London Heathrow. For me, this was an opportunity; my brother and sister-in-law live in London (hence all my frequent London and UK entries), so it gave me a nice opportunity to meet up with them, have some dinner, drinks, and pudding, get rested up, and get back to the airport in plenty of time for my flight. As far as dinner goes, it allowed me an opportunity to finally cross one major food destination of my to-do list: going to Hawksmoor, get a seat at the bar and try their famous Kimchi Burger. It was recommended to me a few years ago by someone on Flyertalk.com, but it’s been resilient to my efforts to actually get one; my first attempt was thwarted by my travel schedule (I was stopping off in London on the way to Spain), and my second thwarted by the large numbers of other people visiting Hawksmoor for Christmas festivities. But this time, I finally managed to pull it off, with my brother and sister-in-law in tow.
Back in August (while Carol and I were in Iceland), one of the greater Upper Valley area’s most anticipated restaurants, Worthy Burger, opened for business. The location itself has been the source of a bit of drama in recent years; originally it was supposed to be a bar run by Freighthouse Brewing, but then as the plans for the brewery got scaled back, plans adjusted, and several folks including local chef Jason Merrill, Dave Brodrick (known for the well-respected Blind Tiger in New York), and Kurt Lessard decided that the South Royalton region was ripe for a gourmet burger bar. So after several months of extensive renovations while locals kept peering in and spreading rumors about the impending opening (some accurate, some not), Worthy Burger finally opening in August.
After our most succesful trip to Husavik for whale watching, we headed back down to the Myvatn area. It started to rain pretty heavily, but we still had a nice hike through Dimmuborgir. After seeing many cool lava formations, and be regaled with the stories of the Yule Lads. After some reading up on it from the various signs at Dimmuborgir, I learned that the Yule Lads are the result of a head-on collision between old Norse and Christian traditions: the Yule Lads are the sons of the mountain trolls (Grýla). Unlike the Grýla themselves (who search out and scare naughty children), the Yule Lads only come at Christmastime, and are more mischievous than anything else: they have names like door-slammer (Hurðaskellir), bowl-licker (Askasleikir), sausage-swiper (Bjúgnakrækir), and meat-hook (Ketkrókur, he looks down chimneys and steals roasting meat with a long hook). The supposed way to get the Yule Lads to leave you alone is for your parents to give you lots of clothing at Christmas. I swear I’m not making this up, this is from the signs at Dimmuborgir! But after all that hiking, we were again a bit wet, a bit tired, and really wanted some dinner. While Vogafjós almost lured us in again, we decided to mix it up and try another of the area’s (very few) restaurants, Gamli Bærinn, a pub located next to the Hótel Reynihlíð.
When I started blogging, I decided that my blog would be pretty focused, with just restaurant reviews. Well, over the years I’ve made a few exceptions, like blogging a few special events, and some places that aren’t really restaurants. But during my trip to San Antonio, I finally went to a bar that was “offbeat” enough that it made me ask myself, “Why haven’t I reviewed any bars yet?” The reasons were twofold: while I’ve been to a lot of great bars that I have reviewed here, I still always reviewed them for the food. And the second was my self-imposed rule. Well, the greatest thing about making your own rules is that you can change them… So I’m presenting my first bar review. Last Friday, I was in San Antonio, having joined Carol for a conference. After tooling around the outskirts of town, we ended up going down and doing a fair bit of walking on San Antonio’s pleasant Riverwalk. After a bit of walking and seeing the sights, we decided we were thirsty, and a quick check of online reviews gave really mixed results for places on the riverwalk… but pointed us to one particular place that’s off the Riverwalk. Located in a converted bank building on Crockett Street just barely off the Riverwalk at street level, it’s actually the sort of place you could walk by without much notice (indeed, I didn’t originally think it was open when we first approached it). Inside, it’s rather a funky space: what normally would be a really spacious bar area is broken into two spaces by the presence of the old bank vault, which currently serves as Soho’s wine cellar. The result is a main, but somewhat crowded, bar area, and two quieter seating areas.
For those that have been following along with my travels in May/June, it was a rather hectic time, especially when I found myself having just gotten back from Austin and having to turn around again and leave for Washington, DC. Since the pace was so hectic, I decided it would be a good idea to take an evening off (albeit an evening on my way to the airport) and have a nice dinner with Carol. We ended up picking Mint Bistro in Manchester, which has been on my hit list for a while. Located on Elm street, just a little around the corner from Red Arrow Diner, Mint Bistro is basically a “contemporary fusion bistro”. It’s a rather nicely decorated space, centered around a prominent bar, with a reasonably good amount of seating. Menu-wise, Mint Bistro is one of those fusion places that seems to take a bit of the “shotgun” approach to fusion cuisine, in that they’ve got both “Tapas” and “Sushi” on the same menu with upscale pot roast. This approach always makes me a bit skeptical, but I’ve read several good reviews of the place, so we figured it was worth a try…