Dec 28, 2016

Parks and recreation in Kentucky’s cave country

It’s just not summer without a family road trip, and in 2016 that road trip involved a trip down memory lane for me, as Punky, the Kiddo and I visited Mammoth Cave National Park and parts of south central Kentucky where my grandmother who raised me was from.

I’ve visited Kentucky’s cave country more times than I can count, as my grandmother and I would often visit relatives in nearby Glasgow and touring the area around Tompkinsville where she grew up.  To this day, I still feel it’s one of the most enjoyably scenic parts of the country I’ve ever visited.  So, when Punky suggested we spend a weekend exploring the area together, I jumped at the opportunity and booked us a room at the Mammoth Cave Hotel inside the national park.   

Dec 24, 2016

Margaritas and mole at Rosepepper Cantina and Mexican Grill, Nashville, Tenn.

What a difference a year makes.  Although my job requires extensive travel, this commoner is fortunate to be spending the entire month of December at home … still working, but at least I have a lengthy respite from the road for the holidays.  Last year, however, I found myself working in Nashville for most of the month and exploring the city’s increasingly trendy and hipster-heavy East Nashville neighborhood.  And Rosepepper Cantina and Mexican Grill was one of my first discoveries. 

To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t take much to interest me in Mexican food, but a little research into Nashville’s dining scene put Rosepepper near the top of my to-do list.  As it turns out, the menu is full of surprises – not your typical Americanized restaurant fare – and being recognized as the city’s best Mexican restaurant and best margarita for 11 years in a row give Rosepepper more than a little street cred. 

So, I ventured out one rainy Thursday night last year into the heart of East Nashville to see if Rosepepper was as popular and as good as advertised. 

Dec 15, 2016

Getting cheesy at Melt Bar and Grilled, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

For as long as I’ve known my wife, one of Punky’s dreams in retirement has been to run her own restaurant devoted to custom grilled cheese sandwiches and soups – one that not only delivers the basics but also features a large menu of specialty themed creations. 

It’s a great idea, but as we’ve learned it’s hardly a unique one.  Still, a successful idea is all about the execution.  And from what I experienced while travelling for work in Cleveland, you’d be challenged to find any place that does gourmet grilled cheese better than Melt Bar and Grilled.

The first Melt opened in 2006 in Lakewood, Ohio, a west-side suburb of Cleveland.  Its success has spawn six more locations in the Cleveland area, Akron and Columbus.  By 2010, word had spread to the Travel Channel and Food Network, and your usual food-themed hosts helped give Melt national recognition. 

After learning I’d be working in the Cleveland area for a while, I remembered Melt from these shows, and it didn’t take a lot of convincing for my co-workers and me to eventually plan an after-work “team building exercise” to our nearest Melt location in Cleveland Heights.  

Once you walk into a Melt Bar and Grilled (at least at this location), it doesn’t take long to realize the style and décor of the place is about as cheesy as their sandwiches.  I loved it.  Whether it’s the lighted figurines hanging on the shelves, the classic leg lamp, or beer and food signs from bygone eras, you’ll find plenty to distract you while your food and drinks are being prepared.

The centerpiece of the Cleveland Heights location was its huge rectangular wooden bar.  It goes a long way to fill up a rather cavernous brick-walled interior.  

The ceilings are quite tall and lined with what appears to be newer, although classically designed, aluminum tiles.  The duct work is prominently visible, adding to the building’s industrial feel.  It all comes together quite well, and although Melt seems to draw a sizable dinner crowd, it never feels too busy.

After discussing several of the room’s more interesting knickknacks, my group and I turned our attention to the food.  I quickly ruled out the Melt Challenge listed at the bottom and after much deliberation, I chose a half-sized fried green tomato BLT for my sandwich.

It should also be noted that even the menus themselves are a little “cheesy.”  That’s because they’re printed on the back of album covers.  And, if my menu is any indication, it doesn’t have to be a classic album by any stretch. I suppose if you’re getting material from record store bargain bins, though, this selection would make sense.  

Although I was perfectly satisfied with my sandwich selection, the monthly specials were simply too fascinating for me to pass up entirely.  So, instead of the customary fries to accompany my half-sandwich, I substituted the kung pao brussels sprouts.  I also added the featured beer – a DuClaw El KaBong apricot chili ale – to wash it all down.   

Although it’s probably one of the less “experimental” sandwiches on the menu, I found the fried green tomato BLT worthy of praise, especially when you consider their touch of substituting seared pork belly for bacon.  If there’s one thing on this earth better than bacon, it’s pork belly.   The fried green tomatoes themselves were very well done and compared favorably to those you’d typically find in the Deep South.  But the star of the sandwich was the remoulade sauce.  Put simply, they nailed it!

As for the beer, I can safely say it was the best apricot chili ale I’ve ever had.  It was in all honesty quite tasty although it took a little getting used to the chili aftertaste that just kept you thirsty.      

The best thing I had for dinner, though, were the kung pao brussels sprouts.  The hoisin-style sauce used in roasting them took the concept of carmelization to a whole new level.  And the crushed peanut topping was an excellent complement.  It was an outstanding side dish and large enough to be a meal by itself.   

The only disappointing part of the meal was the cup of roasted garlic tomato soup I ordered as an add-on.  After all, what goes better with grilled cheese than tomato soup?  The coffee cup was another nice, cheesy touch, but the overall flavor of the soup – which seemed to be little more than crushed tomatoes and garlic – was a little bland for my taste.  

Still, Melt Bar and Grilled completely met my expectations, and its menu was so intriguing that I went back a few more times while I was working in Cleveland.  As you can imagine, Punky was less than excited to learn I had discovered Melt Bar andGrilled, but at least she has a good standard bearer to follow if she ever decides to own a similarly themed restaurant. 

Dec 12, 2016

A commoner dines at McLintock’s Saloon & Steakhouse, Standard City, Ill.

(Editor's Note:  As of Feb. 9, 2020, McLintock's Saloon & Steakhouse has closed for business.  On behalf of this blog and all of its faithful followers, thanks for the memories!)  

If it seems like it’s been a long time since I posted a new blog entry, that’s because it has – nearly two months to be more precise.  As I tend to say, life happens and the past couple of months have been full of work-, family- and occasional fun-related items to force my blogging to the back burner.  Hopefully, with things more settled down in December, I can catch up, and hopefully my few faithful followers will feel rewarded for their patience. 

With that in mind, I’d like to start with a true hidden gem – McLintock’s Saloon & Steakhouse just outside of Standard City, Ill.  

McLintock’s had been a local legend of sorts for me and Punky to seek out for some time.  After all, how often do you hear about a highly acclaimed (by word of mouth, at least) steakhouse and bar in a small Illinois town so off the beaten path, it’s not even remotely near a numbered state or federal highway.  I had even driven through Standard City previously just to see if McLintock’s really existed only to miss it entirely. 

Still, our friend Danielle assured us McLintock’s was real and worth the trip, so we made it a destination on a summer Saturday bar crawl down Illinois Route 4 from Springfield toward Carlinville.  Unfortunately for my readers, much of that trip will remain untold at the request of those who lived it, but I will say the detour to the biker club in Nilwood and being welcomed with open arms by the members of the Iron Sleds will not be an experience I will soon forget (thanks again for making us stop, Danielle!). 

As you may imagine, after several Stag beers and a few cage dances in Nilwood, we were ready to venture off on the rural routes toward Standard City to find McLintock’s.

This time, I did not miss the sign as we neared the northern edge of town. It helped that the parking lot was packed full … in the middle of the afternoon!  This was obviously a good sign.

Maybe I missed seeing McLintock’s before because I was looking for something more … rustic? Barn-like?  McLintock’s was neither.  In fact, the large brick exterior and long wooden porch look relatively new, even a little out of place for Illinois farm country.  The inside does feel a little more barn-like, if only because of the high-beamed wooden ceilings and the spacious seating for groups and families. 

And, in keeping with the tradition of what you’d expect from a saloon, a long bar stretches across the back wall.  With seats ready for the taking at the end of the bar, we sat down and deliberated about dinner over another round of Stags. Yes, we had a very well stocked bar in front of us, but why mess with what got us to this point already?  

Much to Punky’s delight, McLintock’s had prime rib on special, so her decision was an easy one.  After all, what better way to judge a steakhouse than by its prime rib? 

As you can probably guess by the picture, McLintock’s preparation passed with flying colors.  Seriously, that knife is for show.  Her prime rib was so tender and perfectly prepared (a nice medium to medium rare), you could pull it apart with the fork alone. 

I’m a sucker for any menu item that sounds unusual, so I chose the Standard City Squeal for the menu’s regular dinner specials section.  They’re just marinated pork medallions, but they are so good you really will be squealing with happiness.  The horseradish dipping sauce is also an excellent complement to the meat (or, in my case, an extra-large baked potato).

In the end, finding McLintock’s Saloon & Steakhouse was definitely worth the effort to find. The food was outstanding, the service was more than adequate, considering how crowded the place was, and the staff were very inviting. Standard City may be the very definition of the middle of nowhere in Central Illinois, but if you want to satisfy a carnivore’s craving, take your posse out McLintock’s. 

A commoner dines at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe, Wis.

I wasn’t sure a place existed that could be the perfect representation of Wisconsin life, but then I traveled through Monroe, Wis., one week...