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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Beyond Breakfast: Yesterdog | Grand Rapids, MI

In some ways, I can’t even begin to write about Yesterdog, because it’s such a major part of my upbringing. This little hot dog joint has been around since my dad was younger, so he and my aunts and uncle and grandmother remember going there long before I was born. Yesterdog is one of those decades-old institutions that every city brags on, where regulars flock regardless of how good the food really is. Oftentimes, the less complicated the food, the more people love it. Hot dogs are probably one of the least complicated of American staples, so any visit to a hot dog joint is easily justified by, “Let’s go for lunch” or “Let’s go out with the family” or “Where do we eat at 1 am?” Under that guise I’ve eaten at Yesterdog countless times: parties and family occasions growing up, late night college runs, and now nostalgic visits when we’re home.

Yesterdog is a centerpiece of Grand Rapids’ Eastown district, a budding little neighborhood with brick streets, big murals, and an eclectic mix of shops and bookstores and restaurants (including a very good breakfast at Wolfgang’s). The main entrance is a barely-visible screen door, with your first sign warning you that they are a cash (and oddly, check) only business. Seriously, don’t even ask about using a debit card.

The entryway leads into a long, crammed space facing the “kitchen.” If you’re a regular, you know to shuffle in and wait until the next employee starts taking orders. If you’re a newbie, it can be a little intimidating, because it’s typically packed and people are yelling at you. Some tips on your first visit:

1. Line up to the left if you haven’t ordered. Line up to the right if you have.

2. They’ll start with hot dogs, then do drinks and chips. Don’t even try to customize your dogs. Just order from the menu. Seriously, there are only five hotdogs. Odds are, you’ll find one you like. (Hint: they’re all good.)

3. After they’ve taken all the orders, they’ll collect payment. Remember, cash or check only. Marvel at the employees adding up your order in their heads (I’ve never seen them get it wrong), and then they’ll ring you up at the old cash register complete with real “cha-ching” sound.

While you wait, see if you can sink some coins in the tip jar (upper right corner, above). You can begin taking in all the retro decorations and passive-aggressive signage. The small space is crammed full of them.

5. Remember your order. They make giant trays of hot dogs all at once and bring them to the counter to divvy up into orders. They’ll ask you what you had, so don’t forget.

Then take your tray laden with hot dogs (be careful not to spill your drinks – I speak from experience) and find a seat in the restaurant. Take time to absorb all of the old signs. There are multiple boards filled with photos of customers who got their pictures taken around the world or with famous people while wearing their Yesterdog T-shirts.

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The service may be a little surly at times, but that’s part of the experience. If you’re concerned about absolute cleanliness or about being treated like a king while you order hot dogs, you’re in the wrong place. It’s a hot dog joint, for goodness sakes.

One of the restrooms.

The Yesterdog space hasn’t changed much over time. It boasts big wooden floors, sweeping from the front of the store to the back.

Lots of signs. Old booths. Tin ceiling.

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The booths have been carved up with initials and messages over the years. It didn’t used to be like this when I was younger, but over time it started and couldn’t be stopped. I saw an interview with the owner in which he said they once tried painting and fixing the carvings up, only to have it happen again. Given that the restaurant is run by a small crew and open late into the night, it just wasn’t worth their effort to constantly repaint all of the booths. Too bad, I guess, although it adds some of the “charming” rough-around-the-edges feel.

The hot dogs themselves are boiled and the buns are steamed. The menu includes five items:

Yesterdog: chili, pickles, onion, ketchup, & mustard

Cheddardog: chili & cheese

Veggiedog: cheese, sauerkraut, onion, pickles, ketchup, & mustard

Krautdog: sauerkraut, ketchup, & mustard

Ultradog: chili, cheese, onion, pickles, ketchup, mustard

As you can see: simplicity. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that their ingredients all come from Gordon Food Service. Nor would that stop me from visiting. Aside from the hometown comfort factor, I love these hot dogs because they’re soft and the ingredients are generously piled on. The chili has a little bite to it, the kraut is sour enough, and I love the texture of shredded dill pickles. It’s impossible NOT to make a mess of yourself when eating these (there are stacks of napkins on every table). I typically order a handful of Ultradogs, and they are always, always good. Time of day, time of year, company, occasion, doesn’t matter. I’ll always eat more of these.

Speaking of which, if anyone from Grand Rapids is headed through Ohio soon, let me know…

If you want to visit:
Yesterdog
1505 Wealthy St. SE (map it!)
Grand Rapids, MI 49506
(616) 262-3090

yesterdog.com
Also on Facebook and @Yesterdog1505
Open Mon-Sat, 10:30a-2:30a; Sun, 10:30a-9p
Cash/check only!

Beyond Breakfast: Little Africa | Grand Rapids, MI

I didn’t grow up an adventurous eater. It wasn’t until college and grad school that I began discovering world cuisines beyond Americanized Mexican or Chinese, with the occasional foray into Indian or Japanese food. And my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI isn’t exactly known (or at least wasn’t 10 years ago) as a hotbed of international cuisines. But just as my wife and I were finishing up college, a friend introduced us to a little restaurant just east of downtown called Little Africa. That’s where we first tried Ethiopian food, and it blew us away. Nearly every visit to my hometown includes a stop here to see the owner Loul Negash and enjoy a platter of his vegetarian food. His food is so incredibly rich and flavorful that eating it is almost like revisiting an addiction. I could easily consider Little Africa one of my favorite restaurants of all time.

Saying that sets the bar high, so maybe I should add that hometown restaurants tend to have a special place in my heart. So there’s a comfort factor that other places just can’t replicate. The Little Africa is simple and quiet, a single room with a few rows of booths. Ethiopian music (I’m assuming) plays quietly over the speakers. Loul clatters around in the back.

Every meal starts with tea. Loul serves other beverages, but we’ve never gotten them. Why? Because this tea is a delicious, complex, steaming, crack-laden drink of the gods. It’s hot and heavily spiced. We once tried asking him for the recipe, and he quietly deflected the question (understandably). From what we can taste, there are hints of cinnamon, clove, ginger, mint, and everything else that is delicious in this world.

This is perhaps one of the most beautiful sites in the (culinary) world to me: a fresh platter of Little Africa’s vegetarian fare (they only serve vegetarian dishes, although a lot of Ethiopian cooking does involve meat. But just look at it. The colors. The textures. The variety. Different legumes and vegetables and spices. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single one of these dishes; we just tell Loul that we’d like the vegetarian platter, and he brings out enough for the number of diners. But I know that there are dishes made with lentils, peas, injera, grape leaves, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, beets. We’ve had items made with pumpkin, too. Probably my favorite of the bunch is the dark orange/brown pile, just above center. It’s made with shredded injera mixed with a fairly hot spice.

Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands. Before the meal, Loul brings out small plastic bowls with a pinkish liquid: a lightly soapy concoction in which you wash your hands. The food is served on top of a bread called injera, made by fermenting teff flour, a grass that’s indigenous to Ethiopia. Injera is moist and spongy and a little bit sour. You tear off pieces of it and scoop up the food.

Ethiopian food is rich with spices and oils, so by the end of the meal the injera is soaked, which keeps any of the deliciousness from going to waste. I have never not left an empty plate for Loul to clean. I simply can’t. There is always more room in my stomach; my tastebuds are always eager for another a bite. My family still makes fun of me for the one time I polished off the leftovers by rolling the injera into a burrito and downing it. But I stand by my decision.

We’ve had other good Ethiopian food, but nothing has come close to Little Africa. Perhaps, because it was our first foray into the cuisine, it automatically became the standard by which we judge all similar fare. Regardless, this food has such special meaning to us, to the point that I think it has healing properties.

If you want to visit (and trust me, you do):
Little Africa
956 E. Fulton St. SE (map it!)
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
(616) 222-1169

Little Africa on Urbanspoon

Beyond Breakfast: Da Levee | Columbus, OH

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For a white kid who grew up in the Midwest, it’s surprising how much spicy cajun and creole cuisine feels like comfort food to me. We never made it growing up, I’ve never been to New Orleans, but as long as I can remember I’ve loved this style of food. I love the heavy load of spices. I love how it’s filling. And I’ve had some great examples, from Creole Kitchen in Columbus to the amazing Bourbon N Toulouse in Lexington, KY. But just as worthy is Columbus’ Da Levee.

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Da Levee has a small storefront in Short North, just north of Buttles Avenue, and in the winter months the warm food and atmosphere make me want to hole up there for hours. It’s probably good that we don’t live closer to Da Levee, because if we did I’d find myself justifying multiple visits per day.

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The specials rotate regularly, so it’s best to keep an eye on their Facebook page. The owner Justin Boehme is good about posting an image of the day’s menu, so it’s easy to find out what they’re slinging. The menu shifts between varieties of etouffee, chowder, red beans & rice, maque choux, gumbo, jambalaya, po boys, and burritos. I’ve never had a bad meal at Da Levee, but my personal favorite is the chili cheese etouffee with crawfish. Here’s a sampling of some of the other dishes we’ve enjoyed:

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Spinach and mushroom etouffee. A good etouffee is probably my favorite dish in the repertoire of creole/cajun food.

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Red beans and rice with sausage.

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Spinach and mushroom etouffee again. All entrees are served over rice, with a side of toasted bread that’s heavily buttered and seasoned. Perfect for scooping up bites.

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White chilikin’, aka white chicken chili.

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Two bonuses about ordering: you can pick small plates ($5), large plates ($7), or half-and-half plates ($8). This lets you adjust to your appetite, and it allows you to easy sample and share with a table full of friends. The second bonus is that many of these dishes are vegetarian and can be made vegan, so it’s an easy go-to with group of varying tastes and needs. Okay, I lied. There are three bonuses, the third of which is that this type of food blends flavors and spices so well. Most dishes are some version of a slow-cooked stew, so the meat, veggies, beans, and heavy dose of spices have time to combine. In single-digit temperatures like today’s, a plate of spicy hot meat and vegetables piled on rice sounds like a bit of home to me.

Aaaaaaaand… now that I’ve finished this post, I’m hungry and want to go there for lunch today.

Plan your own visit:
Da Levee
765-C N. High St. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43215
dalevee.com
Also on Facebook and Twitter @DaLeveeCajun

You can sometimes catch Justin at the Da Levee Express food cart, or during late night hours out the backdoor of the restaurant at Backdoor Burritos, serving Fridays and Saturdays until 3 a.m.

Da Levee on Urbanspoon

La Chatelaine | Worthington, OH

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La Chatelaine (Facebook / @LaChatColumbus)
627 High St. (map it!)
Worthington, OH 43085
(614) 848-6711
Open Mon-Sat, 7a-9p; Sun, 8a-7p
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.

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La Chatelaine is one of those restaurants that is easy to look over. It’s been around for some time so maybe it doesn’t seem flashy and new like other restaurants, and it tends to blend into the landscape of Columbus eateries. But their three locations – and in this case, specifically, their Worthington store – offer some unique dishes, a warm sense of hospitality, and they hold the corner of the market on popular French cuisine in Columbus.

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Expect to be greeted in person or over the phone with a hearty “Bonjour!” Much of what they do seems focused recreating the experience of visiting a rustic French cottage. The decorations include lots of wood, stonework on the walls, wooden beams across the ceiling, tall-backed chairs, copper accents. There’s even a fireplace in one room, as if you’re crowding around the kitchen table with the family. And if you’ve ever had the chance to meet owners Stan and Gigi Wielezynski or any of their four children, you know that’s generally the intention.

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La Chatelaine is set up cafeteria style: you find your way to the beginning of the line, load up with a tray and silverware…

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…and then you move past rows of pastries…

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…and baked breakfasts like quiches, croque monsieur, cocottes…

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…and yogurt, and fruit, and drinks…

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…and desserts. It’s a smart model, when you really think of it. Just when you’re hungry and lining up for a meal, you pass by shelves of eye candy.

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Once you get to the end of the line, you pay, take a number, and find a seat. Made-to-order dishes are brought out to your table, while you simply load up side items on your tray. While we visited on a busy Saturday morning, the line moved pretty quickly and the food came out fast.

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We ordered the simple breakfast special: eggs, potatoes, bacon, bread, and a drink. All of it was good. Nothing mind-blowing, but good: eggs and bacon were well done, the potatoes well seasoned.

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We also picked up a side of beignets, which were fluffy and sweet, maybe a little dry, but not at all greasy.

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We also tried the special of the Oktoberfest French toast. This was probably one of the richest, sweetest French toasts I’ve ever had. The bread slices were thin and custardy, plus it was served with a scoop of a fruit custard, dusted with powdered sugar and dolloped (is that a verb?) with whipped cream. One of the gimmicks of the meal was a marshmallow beer stein: a big marshmallow covered with white chocolate and with a Cheerio as a handle.

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We also ordered an omelet to go. This is the Parisienne. Again, very good although not amazingly spectacular.

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Every time I’ve been to La Chatelaine – and I’ve just been to their Worthington and Lane Avenue locations – I’ve had good experiences. They serve a solid breakfast, and not many places offer the beautiful dishes like the cocotte (baked in little dishes and with carved vegetables on top) or the layered quiches. And you can’t argue with the shelves of fresh pastries, a cup of hot coffee, or any of their range of teas. In addition to the cozy interiors, each location has some outdoor seating, and Worthington’s is arguably the best. Their big patio is is a prime spot, especially on Saturdays when the Worthington Farmers Market is in full swing.

La Chatelaine French Bakery on Urbanspoon

Photos: Dutch babies

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My boys are early risers like their father, so when I find myself suddenly awake and active at 6:45am on a Saturday, I’ve got the time to fix something more than just a bowl of cereal. Just recently Sam over at Pie Are Round (which I just got, Sam: pie are round, as opposed to pi ‘r’ squared – ha!) posted a recipe for Dutch babies. I haven’t had a Dutch baby since we visited Helser’s in Portland a couple years ago. But the simplicity of Sam’s recipe was tempting, since you make it with ingredients you’re likely to have around like flour, eggs, milk, sugar, salt, etc., and with the extra time I decided to give it a go. I’ll let you look up the specifics of the recipe on Sam’s blog, but here’s the end result. I was amazed at how much it puffed up, starting from a small pour of batter in the skillet.

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Following Sam’s lead, we filled the pancake with apples (canned apples, boo – next time we’ll use homemade ones), plus a sprinkling of cinnamon and powdered sugar, and a slight drizzle of syrup.

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Look at how high it expands. I’m adding this recipe to the repertoire, although I might drop the cooking time from 20 minutes to 18, and I’ll lower the pan to the bottom rack of the oven, as the top edges were a little crispy. Still, this is an easy and tasty recipe that’s versatile: you could dress it simply with sugar, lemon juice, or syrup, or choose a variety of fruit toppings (the apples are very good), or even with savory bites like scrambled eggs and sausage.

And I had to look up the origins, given my Dutch background. Dutch babies are also frequently called German pancakes, but the “Dutch” name comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch; they were mistakenly called “Dutch” upon immigration because of their speaking of “Deutsch.”

Destination Donuts | Columbus, OH

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There’s a new donut game in town: Destination Donuts. Heather Morris has begun setting up regularly at North Market. Heather is serving homemade donuts in flavors and combinations that no one else is doing around town. When you really think of it, there isn’t a donut place at North Market, is there? This could be a good permanent addition!

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I visited one of her first days setting up shop, and she had five different donut varieties: pumpkin pecan, PB&J (yes, you read right), thai peanut, chocolate insanity, and dueling vanilla. Her selection since then continues to rotate.

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She gives you the opportunity to sample the goods before you buy them. Hint: sample them all, then buy one of each.

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These are the chocolate insanity, made with chocolate ganache and crumbled Oreos.

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And then there’s the Thai peanut, with a little bit of spice. Most of the donuts were served essentially like large donut holes.

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The only full size donuts (and my favorite) she had that day were the dueling vanilla. They’re called dueling because she uses both Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla. It’s like a thick yeast donut. Very nice.

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Heather – aka the “donut queen” – is typically there on weekends. Give her a follow on Facebook or on Twitter (@heatherdonut) to see when she’ll be at the market next!

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