A Pastel Pumpkin Field and My Rib Shack

Illinois Pumpkin Fields Canned Pumpkins

So my wife and I went on a mini road trip a few weekends ago to visit an apple orchard two hours from home and then another 45 minutes to The Bar-B-Q Rib Shack in Galesburg, IL. On our way between the orchard and the rib shack we were surprised to pass two huge fields filled with what barely looked like pumpkins.

The pumpkins were so pastel I couldn’t believe it. I had to pull the car over and go in for a closer examination. How could someone mistakenly planted a huge field full of an unseemly variety of seed. My wife suggested they were for canning, which made more sense. But had we stopped our adventure right there, I’d have seen just about everything.

Pumpkins for Canning Illinois Fields

But we didn’t. We continued on to the rib place I’d talked up to my wife since we met but only fantasized taking her. Now the time had come, I imagined, where she might appreciate the unique charm of this place. When we first met, I was relatively certain, however, that she’d have found the neon sign, the mere idea of ribs, and the community seating a little more than off-putting.

To me, this rib shack is just about everything. The food is phenomenal. And the seating, unique. The small town picnic table seating, when packed, has you enjoy your meal side-by-side with complete strangers or soon-to-be new acquaintances.

The Rib Shack Neon BBQ Pig Sign

I was a little nervous. I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to everything I remembered and relived since I’d eaten there last. I was really hoping that their glory was real and not existent only in my head created by time and wishful thinking. The Rib Shack Galesburg IL Community Seating

Luckily, my fears were completely unfounded. It was everything I’d remembered and more. The lady who waited on us made us feel at home. The ribs were beautiful. Succulent, zesty, and not a bit greasy. I was proud as a peacock that my baby lit up and enjoyed herself thoroughly. She loved the slaw and she loved the ribs. I don’t think she would have appreciated The Rib Shack when we met but it made me feel good that she did now.

BBQ Ribs The Rib Shack Galesburg IL

B-Q Rib Shack on Urbanspoon


Great Greater-Chicago Happy-Hour Sushi

So my wife and I drove into the Chicago suburbs for me to attend a conference this weekend. We’d been looking forward to this because we were hoping to go to Nagoya, a sushi buffet that was one of two sister locations we’d enjoyed back in Baton Rouge. We’d never been to the one in Illinois so were were excited to make it to the Naperville location at four yesterday. It was just opening for dinner. Supposedly it had steamed lobster on the buffet, allowing me to rationalize the splurge of $30 a person.

Walking in the door they had a large saltwater reef tank just like the one in Baton Rouge. We were stoked. I asked if we could sit by the fish tank and they said no. The buffet area in Baton Rouge was bright and beautiful. Here it was dark, leaving us uneasy. The deal breaker came when we got to the end of the buffet and there was a hand made sign written in sharpie saying, “One Lobster per Guest per Visit.”

My wife’s terrible disappointment was magnified by her hunger. While I was finishing up the conference, she’d missed lunch. I had one chance to get it right and I was feelin’ my stars. I told her the new plan was to go a mile back down the road to a sushi place we passed on the way here that made my spidey senses tingle.

I had a feeling it would be awesome and was glad we’d get to double back and check.

The restaurant turned out to be Shinto Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar and it hit the nail on the head. The second we walked through the door, everything was turning up us. It was happy hour. All of their regular rolls were half price along with selected appetizers. We went nuts. We were excited to be able to eat sushi like a buffet only with incredible quality accompanying our quantity. The wasabi pork dumplings were a wake up. The wasabi sauce on only two dumplings did it for me. I depended on the hot green tea to reset my palate for the sushi.

My wife and I are generally not impressed by the pomp and fanfare of specialty rolls. Their tempura fried innards, mayonnaise sauces, and high prices don’t do much for us.

We’re quite satisfied to stick to regular rolls. We appreciate the clean, natural taste of the fish, and the rice, and the seaweed. Point in case, the chives in the yellowtail roll, juxtaposed beautifully with the clean white flesh of the fish and the subtle tang of the sushi vinegar. Any more would be less.

The spicy hotate-scallop nigiri turned out not to be what I thought I’d ordered. Though, I thought I’d ordered a plain scallop nigiri, I appreciated its visual presence on the plate.

The salmon rolls were simple and gorgeous. The cucumber crisp. Perfection.

Overall the sushi plate was a dream. The spicy tuna was actually incredibly spicy–a first for me. Great california rolls and tuna rolls.

Lately, however, I have a bad habit of judging a sushi place based on their white tuna. Done right, it is simple, buttery, and amazing. Here it was just that.

We enjoyed ourselves throughly. Though we’re not sushi snobs, we seek to maximize quantity and quality while managing cost. Here, for happy hour at least, we were able to address all three considerations in a way I’d only envisioned but never encountered.

Even during happy hour, the quality and beauty of the rolls were phenomenal. Based on our time at Shinto, we’re tempted to make the three hour commute again soon.  Shinto made our day, and your’s too, I hope:)

Shinto Japanese Steak House Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

Madison’s Got It’s Thai

So my wife and I were up in Madison, WI last weekend for her to take some graduate tests. We got a chance to do a little hanging out and exploring. I got to check out about every tropical fish pet store the city had to offer and she got to thoroughly enjoy her massive, reasonably-priced Frugal Muse bookstore.

While we were in Madison we thought we’d scout the place to try our hand at finding a hidden gem in a pretty trendy town. I had my doubts but ended up hitting the jackpot. On urbanspoon I found Suwanasak Thai Cuisine, a place that’d only been open since March with 12/12 likes, no reviews, and one dollar sign indicating most entrees are under $10. This told me it was probably as authentic as it gets, and we wouldn’t be paying for any pretense, which is nice every now and again.

So this place is it. It’s mostly carry out with a couple of tables to wait at while the food’s being cooked or eat at when it’s ready. The wait’s twenty to thirty minutes, but it’s a nice wait. Between the gap in cloth curtain separating the dining area from the kitchen one can watch the whole family work feverishly together preparing the orders while speaking Thai.

I only know enough about Thai food to know that I love it. Though I hope to one day spend some time in Thailand letting my taste buds indulge me on a culinary orgy, I imagine this food’s about as close as it gets to approximating what I’ll find. My wife got the pad see ew gai and I got a squid stir fry. They were both awesome and both had some amazing spices I’d never seen before.

I was impressed. Anyone who checks out Suwanasak Thai Cuisine will not be disappointed. In fact, I imagine, just about everyone who tries it will be scheming to get back before they finish their meal.

Suwanasak Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Louisiana Style Employee Appreciation

So toward the end of spring my work had an employee appreciation crawfish boil one day after work. My pics kind of got lost and I forgot to post. It was a good time, yet  culturally distinct. Well, that is, in addition to the whole crawfish thing.

In the midwest, as in a lot of the country, I imagine, it’s common for every occasion, party, and get-together to have lots of food. Everyone could eat as much as they’d like and there’s plenty for everyone to take home.

In Louisiana, I was chuckled to find the reverse. When the cooked crawfish showed up, half’a everyone grabbed two or three styrofoam to-go containers, filled them to the brim, struggled to close ’em, and then hurried out to put them in their cars and get back to eat crawfish before the crawfish disappeared.

Not to suggest everyone did it. They didn’t. But a lot did and the rest were offended but said nothing. Everyone worked to secure enough for themselves and their friends and at the end of the afternoon everyone was able to eat and squirrel away as much as anyone could have wanted. The order was reversed, from what my experience had taught me to expect, but it didn’t make any difference.

Summer Froyo In The Berg

So Galesburg, Illinois is one of currently struggling midwestern towns that had formerly been brought to glory by the railroads. What distinguishes it from other railroad towns is that in Galesburg you can set your clock to the many trains that still bisect the city day and night.

Though the town’s reinvention remains uncertain as it struggles to survive in a post-Maytag era, Galesburg has more than a couple things going for it.  In addition to being the birthplace of the American poet Carl Sandburg and home to Old Main, the only remaining structure from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it also claims a handful of great fooderies. One of our favorite is the seasonal frozen yogurt stand we’ve been pinning for   for the last three years. Coming back from a wedding in southern Illinois a weekend or so ago, we had the lucky chance to nab a couple cones at our little Kastle Kreme.

Whatever the flavor, chunks are speckled throughout, giving the cone texture, body, and flavor. Though lighter and smoother than ice cream, you wouldn’t guess it’s yogurt. And a whole cone leaves you full.

My wife lights up for peppermint. And no peppermint makes her light up better than the beautiful little flakes of peppermint throughout the smooth, creamy, tasty peppermint froyo at Kastle Kreme. In the pic above it doesn’t look like much, but it is. Other places would add the artificial color necessary to signal to your eyes what your taste buds are in store for, but this place serves it it up as-is. And as-is is pretty amazing.

I love the berry. Be it the raspberry in the top picture or blackberry or pineapple, all boast beautiful chunks of fresh fruit mixed right in the machine and twisted into the cone. Whenever we have the rare pleasure of finding ourselves down in The Berg, we enjoy a little froyo at Kastle Kreme.

Kastle Kreme on Urbanspoon

Louisiana Plate Lunch Mecca

So, growing up in the midwest, I’d been accustomed to school and work lunches consisting of not much more than a cold cut or a PB&J. On my own, I’d grown to like taking left overs from the previous night’s supper for lunch at work. It was, at least, a step above a cold cut.

Louisiana, however, had me one-upped. There, along with the south more generally, seem to be the last remaining hold-out of the sit-down hot lunch. In the south, food and rest often take precedent to work. To say things are laid back, would be an under statement.

My wife and I soon learned of the plate lunch phenomena. Leave work with your colleagues around lunchtime and come back an hour later. Or leave and come back with stacks of styrofoam to-go containers for yourself and everyone else. Though we forwent the ritual during the week to save money and heath by packing our own lunches, one weekend, outside of Beaux Bridge, we managed to enjoy the best plate lunch place I can imagine. Period. We spotted the above white sign, and knew we had to stop. We found Glenda’s Creole Kitchen definitely tops the who’s who of southern creole cooking.

So the hot lunch is alive and well in the south. It remains largely the last holdout in the nation practicing the tradition of the hot lunch.  The southern hot lunch phenomenon was recently chronicled in an episode of the NPR radio program The Splendid Table. Feel free to click on the above link for their take on it.

We pulled in five minutes after two. Coming up to the door a kind middle aged lady opened the door and greeted us as if she’d been expecting us and was glad to see us. “Are you Tony?” she said. After the initial confusion, we learned Tony’s loss was our gain. Where we otherwise would have been there after close, we were able to buy the phone-in order Tony hadn’t picked up.

Every day has a set menu. They make large batches of two or three dishes, sides, and desserts. The hours are from 10:30 am to 2 pm but when the food is gone, Glenda’s done. Amazing business model. Amazing food. We were there on a Sunday and Sunday means BBQ. I had the BBQ stuffed brisket, my wife the BBQ half chicken, and we both got another chicken for the road.

The dirty rice was so rich and tasty. The creole flavor’s so foreign to my tongue. It was reminiscent of the bahamian rice we’d had on vacation the year before. Whatever mashed animal parts and seasons make there way into that rice are heavenly. The cornbread stuffing was good, too.

The brisket and the chicken were delicious. The brisket and the rice went well together. Juicy, tender, and tasty. I’m now scheming how I can make it back every day of the week to get to enjoy the whole menu. Only problem is, it’s a thousand miles further.

Glenda's Creole Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Our Not-So-Camping Experience at Wyalusing State Park

So my best friend from high school and his wife live up in Minnesota and went to a woodsy far northern university for college. They are outdoorsy and do some pretty serious camping on their time off with their old college friends.

When we knew we were moving back from Louisiana, I gave him a call to suggest we plan a weekend this summer for my wife and I to go camping with them. They had a pretty tight schedule so it worked out that the weekend after we moved up here was the best time for them. So up to the Wyalusing State Park it was.

I was excited to see the Native American effigy mounds and the view from the top of the five hundred foot high palisades overlooking the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.

We all arrived at 11pm on a Friday. I soon learned that when I suggested we should go camping together, I hadn’t really meant camping per se. But camping we were.

My wife and I had a never-opened two person tent she bought in college while thinking to the day she would be backpacking alone in the mountains of Thailand. I had mentioned to my friend I was considering picking up an inflatable air mattress, but he made fun of me so I foolishly scrapped the idea.

There we were with our tiny tent, no mattress, no pillows–we had forgotten them–and a complete lack of ventilation that made it so hot we were practically naked on top of the sleeping bags trying to get to sleep. They, on the other hand, brought a 5+ person tent with plenty of ventilation, a double air mattress, and no intention of inviting us over.

Two of the most sweaty, miserable hours ensued. We shifted from position to painful position and vacillated through all levels of consciousness yet never reaching that most coveted of levels: sleep.

The weekend before we pulled an all-nighter driving 18 hours back to Illinois and I was not about to endure another all-nigher, knowing it would make it impossible for us to function the next two days.

This was precisely the moment I realized that when I had suggested we meet up to go camping, I had really envisioned staying in a hotel or couchsurfing. I couldn’t take it any longer. I told my wife it wasn’t worth it and asked if we could go to a hotel. She said she could make it through the night but said she thought she was going to be the first one to crack. I insisted, both because I was about to go insane and because I didn’t want the smoke building up in our tent from the surrounding campfires to upset her asthma.

We sent a quick text to their tent to inform them we were heading out to Prairie du Chien to find a hotel and would be back for breakfast.

Now although it felt like we were wussing out on our friends and had failed to impress them with our ruggedness, I suggested that while they live in the suburbs and occasionally go camping, perhaps we’d been the ones to live a little too rustically for the past three years. Their tent, I noted, was more bug proof than our shotgun house in Louisiana and I’m sure they’ve never had a bug in their house. I for one, felt we were okay.  Our friends, initially gave us a little flak, but understood and had a good time with us.

The weekend went on. We enjoyed hiking, the views, and the park’s observatory where we caught an impressive view of Saturn in the night sky. I learned that polaris will only be our north star for another 10,000 years or so. Not to worry, it will return as the north star in 35,000 years.

We ironically caught Prairie du Chien’s 2nd annual Cajun Fest and ended up making some great pizza sandwiches on the campfire with square sandwich pie irons. Take that marshmallow roasting sticks! So all in all, all’s well that end’s well.

The Most Amazing Pizza Man in the World

So my wife wife and I thought we’d try a NY Pizza place out in Prarieville, LA that had raving reviews on Urbanspoon. We happened to be in Baton Rouge late one Friday night, and I thought perhaps it’d be a sit-down restaurant we could sneak into, before they closed, without bothering anyone.

Well, rather than finding a large establishment with a waitstaff, we found the owner himself sitting alone watching a baseball game with the chairs up and the lights off. Instead of being able skirt our rudeness by anonymously sneaking in, I had to face it, if only in the form of a sheepish inquiry as to whether or not it was too close to closing to bother him for a pizza. To my relief, we were welcomed without the slightest hint we were either presumptuous or imposing.

When we thanked him, he said that anytime anyone wants a pizza, he’ll make them one, whether it’s three a.m. after he’s cleaned up or nine in the morning before he opens. It is what he knows, and it’s what he does. He confessed his philosophy was that of the former Starbucks CEO saying, “I’m not in the pizza business serving people, I’m in the people business serving pizza.” I was humbled.

After living in Brooklyn for the majority of his life, he’d come to Baton Rouge seeking warmer weather to better cope with arthritis. I imagined the menu’s claim to have the best NY pizza in the south, stood a good chance at proving true.

As my wife went to the restroom, I watched Omar at work while trying to seem like I was watching the game. He pulled the pizza from the oven so naturally and with such care, he might as well have been a mother with a newborn [granted the analogy surely has its limits]. After slicing it with a pizza cutter, he took a pair of kitchen shears and carefully cut the crust at each slice where the slicer didn’t reach because of the pan.

Such attention to detail seems rare. Few might overtly notice the difference, but when it’s the symptom of an approach to life and work, it is that attention that makes for quality and makes Omar a master in the people business.

Omar is an amazing person and I am fortunate to have met. He made us feel special and said he hoped we’d come back before we moved. Before leaving the parking lot, we were already anxious to return. We did, a week before we left, and Omar obliged my request to take his picture. I’m a little ashamed to say that it’s a picture I’m a little too proud to own. Thanks for the pizza, the garlic knots, and sharing your flow.  We wish you the best.

Roma Pizza on Urbanspoon

Our Last Louisiana Hurrah

So my wife’s father made the drive down to help us pack up and drive our stuff back north. We worked on it Memorial Day weekend and thought, with a little luck, we’d have it all packed up ready to go for Tuesday morning. One recliner and a few boxes into it we realized we were wrong. It wouldn’t all fit. Not even close.

We had to wait until Tuesday to rent a U-haul trailer. Picked it up to find out that the brake lights only worked sporadically and after much unsuccessful troubleshooting in the hot sun decided we’d test our luck without them on the way to Illinois. It’d be okay, after all, my wife and I’d be following in our car.

We had the trailer filled in a hour or so since everything was already boxed up and then waited for 5:00 to come around when we were meeting friends from work at Hot Tails for our last little hurrah.

Since my first time there, I’ve imagined ordering the Cajun Burger a hundred times or so. I failed to get a good picture the first time so, to me, it was more than enough of an excuse to dream of a redo. Tonight, I was determined to capture the spicy, juicy burger topped with sauteed crawfish, if it was the last thing I did [in Louisiana].

But it wasn’t. My wife’s father was poised to order a fried shrimp, crawfish, and catfish platter. I proposed we one-up and split the gulf platter which’d also have frog legs, oysters, and a soft shell crab. He agreed, and my cajun burger officially became unfinished business.

Almost everyone made it.  To our enjoyment, we went though more than one plate of Hot Tails fried pickles, which as far as I can tell, give many a fried pickle a run for their money. They are crisp and spicy with addictive dipping sauce. The food was good. The fried catfish. The frog legs. The steak. The jumbo shrimp sensational salad. It was all amazing. We spent a good couple hours carrying-on, exchanging cards, memories and promises of seeing each other again under the watchful guise of the house elk.

As dinner progressed, it startled us as we began to realize how close we’d become in the last couple years. It was hard and sad trying to say goodbye. But as dusk approached we made it final and left for what lie ahead.

Savory Nawlins Alligator Cheesecake and the Pursuit of Phò Tàu Bay

So the minutes are counting down. I’m scrambling to squeeze in a couple final hurrah’s in Louisiana before we head out the state Wednesday. I’m pleased to report I got in one item I thought there’d be no way for me to get: Alligator cheesecake.

Enter my beautiful, brilliant wife. She suggested we drive the hour and a half to Gretna for lunch the next day at Phò Tàu Bay. It’d be our last chance to pull it off and complete some unfinished business, as we’d tried unsuccessfully to eat there twice before.

I was stoked. Not only would I get a sexy date with my wife and the best Vietnamese food in Louisiana, but also I could–just maybe–pull off sneaking in the piece of savory cheesecake I’d previously thought impossible.

Though I’ve always loved cheesecake, now that I know there exists more than just dessert cheesecakes, I really love cheesecake. New Orleans is home to variations of shrimp, crawfish, and alligator cheesecakes. These savory cheesecakes are typically lighter than their dessert brethren, being made from Ricotta or Curd cheese rather than Philadelphia cream cheese.  I imagined experiencing a piece of such cakes would give me a good starting point for my own culinary foray into the realm of the savory cheesecake.

This whole endeavor was risky business. My wife doesn’t like seafood. I had a delicate mission. Get the cheesecake without ruining the date or her good favor. I accomplished the former but barely salvaged the latter.

We got down there and, against all odds, our Vietnamese restaurant proved out of our reach once again. It had closed an hour before for a private party. Though we were tempted to try to bribe a member of the party, we moved on to another Vietnamese restaurant in the area. The grilled pork spring-rolls were phenomenal but the chicken in the pho was suspect.

It was fun. The day had been beautiful. We enjoyed the time to talk and smile at each other on the drive. So we got back in the car as the sun was beginning to move lower in the sky, making everything more golden, especially my wife’s beautiful eyes and wavy hair. On our way through New Orleans, I called Jacaque-Imo’s to order a piece of the alligator cheesecake to-go.

We drove along the street cars, under the live oak covered streets, and past the unique old New Orleans architectural homes. Strike one, was piggybacking a quest for anything seafood onto our date. Strike two, was parking the car in a slightly no parking zone. Strike three, was stinking the car up of alligator cheesecake.

My only salvation was that the bartender generously gave me three cornbread muffins with my order. The muffin satisfied her where the pho and our original restaurant had failed. So my savory cheesecake was just that. The cheesecake had a nice light texture  with a rich smoked Gouda and light goat cheese flavor. The alligator added the slight seafoody taste I can’t help but seek in most every meal. It added chewy bites to the cake. Though imagine the alligator could have been more tender, I appreciated the slightly extra time it took to chew. Bits of Andouille added the expected creole flair as did the creamy remoulade-like sauce under the cake. Topped with a couple sprigs of baby mixed lettuce and grated parmesan, it did me right. I enjoyed every last little bite of it and even enjoyed the smell of car the next day.

I was relieved to have gotten my first piece of savory cheese cake, a pretty good cornbread muffin for the misses, and a golden drive back through the cypress trees in early summer. Here’s to inspiration, realized dreams, and a few of the finer things in life.