Dec 25, 2017

Get a speakeasy feeling from Skull’s Rainbow Room, Nashville, Tenn.

Even commoners surviving on small budgets have to reward themselves with a special meal now and then, so when my co-workers mutually decided to celebrate the end of our two-month assignment in Nashville, Tenn., for a celebratory meal, we settled on a spot in downtown’s historic Printers Alley which is known as much for its striptease as its steaks – Skull’s Rainbow Room.

It seemed like a slightly unusual choice at the time given the diversity of our crowd, but we went for the beef rather than the burlesque, so if you’re looking for a review of the entertainment, you’ll be disappointed you clicked here.  But even if you try Skull’s for the steaks and not the striptease (OK, I admit I was a little disappointed we couldn’t stick around for a show), I think you’ll have a terrific time. 

For starters, Skull’s Rainbow Room is a physical testament to the seedier side of the history of Nashville’s entertainment scene.  As it turns out, the establishment’s original owner and namesake had many famous friends and acquaintances pass through his club – and its appeal went way beyond the classic country and western scene. 

Nov 13, 2017

A second serving of things discussed at the Round Bar

The bar family of George Ranks, my favorite local watering hole, lost one of its best last week when John Brillhart passed away far too soon. 

If you followed local music in Springfield, Ill., chances are you knew John, and he knew you.  John was a very talented musician who could easily hold court with just a guitar and a microphone, or share the spotlight as lead of various bands throughout his many years on the Springfield music scene.  For the past couple of years, John hosted an open mic every Tuesday at Ranks.  But much more importantly, he was just a genuinely good soul – unassuming, kind, funny and supportive to all who knew him.  I’m blessed to have had him as a friend.

From the old Brewhaus days to today’s George Ranks family, John was no stranger to partaking in some of our more curious conversations throughout the years which I’ve tried to compile in various blog posts.  As I switch to a much more lighthearted tone, I can’t help but look at some of the subjects discussed in the recent past at Ranks and think of John’s wit and his contributions to our silliness. 

Perhaps one of these topics will come up during your next round of drinks:
·         The skill required to hunt turtle with a pellet gun.
·         The unique microclimate surrounding Wrigley Field.
·         Why the man bun hairstyle only looks good on chefs and sumo wrestlers.
·         The aphrodisiac powers of Vicks Vap-o-rub.
·         Can vampires use tanning beds?
·         Are koalas actually sadder than pandas?
·         Drink creations based on the “Golden Girls” characters (e.g., the “Bea Arthur” must involve scotch).
·         Drinking a shot of Malort alone – a sure sign of depression, and likely a cry for help.
·         Should falling asleep during the national anthem be considered a form of protest or merely a sign of apathy?
·         Great pitching duels of the 1960s and 1970s between the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bob Gibson and the Chicago Cubs’ Ferguson Jenkins.
·         Interpreting the various grunts made by the toy rat terrier.
·         A brief and comprehensive history of black NASCAR drivers.
·         Television theme songs that are fun to cover.

Thanks for the memories, John.  I’m sure you’ll be listening in on future conversations from time to time.   

Nov 11, 2017

Seafood and sausage paired perfectly at Rudie’s in Nashville

Even for a commoner with a travelling bug like myself, breaking the monotony of dinner destinations that all look, feel and taste the same can be a challenge.  A catchy name, positive reviews and good word of mouth can go a long way to getting on my radar.  When I first started working in Nashville, Tenn., a while back, Rudie’s Seafood, Sausage and Taproom won me over with all three.

Rudie’s was, if not the first, among the first destinations I visited in the trendy revived East Nashville section of the city.  And why not, really?  The Louisiana side of me obviously loves seafood.  The Midwest side of me loves sausage.  Add a taproom to it, and I’m sold.  As is turns out, the folks at Rudie’s take all three very seriously, and it’s apparent they share a passion for food and drink with their customers. 

Jul 18, 2017

A commoner dines at the Chinese Tea Garden, Decatur, Ill.

If you’re looking for the Chinese version of classic comfort food, look no further than Decatur Illinois’ prototypical old-school Asian restaurant, the Chinese Tea Garden.

You won’t struggle finding it in downtown Decatur, either.  Just head to Main Street and look for the otherwise out of place storefront that looks like something out of a Chinatown movie scene.

If a trip to the Chinese Tea Garden seems a little like going back in time, that’s because in so many ways it really is.  In fact, for Punky -- who grew up in Decatur -- the restaurant has been a Decatur landmark for as long as she can remember.  The decorations -- inside and out -- haven’t changed in decades.  And the same family continues to run the place the same way after all these years.  So, going there for someone like her is a hometown tradition.

Speaking of the decor, the first time you visit you may think you’ve walked onto a Hollywood movie set for a Chinatown dive.  

Between the general lack of crowds, quaint setting and kitschy Oriental-style decorations, you almost can’t help it.  

As fate would have it, the Chinese Tea Garden has been featured in one movie scene for “The Informant” featuring Matt Damon and based on true events surrounding Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland’s price-fixing scheme in the 1990s.  See, in a film noir sort of way, the Chinese Tea Garden is the perfect place to not be seen.

Once you’re seated at the Chinese Tea Garden for the first time, don’t even think about ordering anything else to drink but tea.  Seriously, what else would you drink at a restaurant named “Tea Garden?”  Besides, it’s good.  Really good.  It also accentuates the experience.

Even if it’s dinner time, you’re probably going to order off of the lunch menu, which is available anytime.  The Luncheon Special is always a major bargain.  Most entrees are still less than $5 and come with fried rice, an egg roll (perfectly crisp) and soup (usually egg drop).  

You’ll also find most “traditional” Chinese entrees on the menu.  Again think Chinese comfort food.  Nothing here is too spicy or too daring.  Personally, I figured I couldn’t go wrong with the beef and Chinese vegetables.  

While Punky went with a similar choice, I was impressed with The Kiddo’s decision to try the shrimp with broccoli, served in a traditional light sauce.   The Kiddo does love her shrimp, and for what it’s worth they were very well prepared … it’s easy to get rubber shrimp at restaurants that don’t focus on seafood, but they got it right here.  

I was so pleased with our overall dining experience that I even let the fam take a picture of me stuffing my face.  

The Chinese Tea Garden isn’t fancy.  It isn’t trendy.  But it does give you feel-good food in a classic setting.  Give it a try.  You’ll probably leave a … umm … fan.

Jul 9, 2017

Pequod’s dishes pizza perfection in Morton Grove, Ill.

When it comes to Chicago’s signature deep dish pizza, if you asked 10 residents for their favorite, it wouldn’t be surprising to get 10 different answers.  Some will surely mention places that most out-of-towners have heard of – places like Gino’s East, Pizzeria Uno, Lou Malnati’s and Giordano’s that all have helped define and spread the Chicago style.  But for every famous Chicago pizzeria drawing tourists from all over the world, there’s a great low-key neighborhood pizza joint that may be just as good, if not better. 

Pequod’s is one such place that had been on my radar for some time.  Fortunately, since Punky is as much of a foodie as me, it didn’t take much for her to convince me to finally seek out Pequod’s Pizza on one of our most recent trips to the Chicago area.  And for good measure, since we were staying way up in Skokie, we decided to try the original location in the nearby suburb of Morton Grove.     

Pequod’s is no newcomer to Chicago’s culinary landscape; it just so happens that more and more people outside of the Chicago area are being let in on the secret.  According to their Yelp bio, they’ve been in business since 1970, and as I found out while mingling with fellow diners, a lot of those regulars from the 1970s are still coming there. 

Anticipating a long wait on a weekend night, we called ahead the day before for priority seating but then arrived early anyway trying to beat an evening rainstorm (we failed at that, too).  Ultimately, we got seated around our expected time anyway.  To be fair, there is very limited seating at the Morton Grove location, but expansion would only take away from the retro charm of the place.     

By the time we finally got seated, we had studied the menu enough to put our order in right away.  Most Chicago-style pan pizzas take 40-50 minutes to cook, so we were mentally prepared for that eventually.  We started our meal with a good bottle of red wine and waited …

… and waited …

… and waited some more.  The super small bar area was looking more and more inviting all the time, as our waitress seemingly disappeared for the better part of 40 minutes.  I know pizza orders get backed out at a smaller venue like this, but what happened to the salads we ordered?  Or the appetizer of wings, for that matter? 

Ah, finally, just as the last drops of wine were devoured, the signature Pequod’s salads arrived!!  And they were, without a doubt, worth the wait.  With generous slices of mozzarella cheese and pepperoni, as well as a large pepperoncini hidden by all the other fresh ingredients, and a superb homemade oil and vinegar-based Italian dressing to smother it all, this salad was everything you’d want and expect from an old-school pizza parlor.   

Our wings arrived right before the pizza, and frankly if we had it to do over again, we would have skipped them.  The salad was plenty to whet the appetite and by comparison, the wings were just nothing special.  Still, if you’re a wing nut like me and Punky, it’s always good to have the option.

But Pequod’s reputation and strong local following begins with the pizza and its famous carmelized crust.  Once our sausage, mushroom, green pepper and black olive pan pizza arrived, we immediately put it to the test.  And boy, did they ever knock it out of the park.  Suddenly, all our worries about our order and grumbling about the wait were gone.  The sauce is slightly sweet, very zesty and the perfect complement for the sausage, as well as any veggie toppings cooked in the pie.  The carmelization on the edges comes from the overflow of cheese on the side.  Some people don’t care for it because it’s “burnt” but we loved the added flavor and crunch factor it gave the crust.

Punky and I left Pequod’s Pizza extremely satisfied with the meal, even though the service was a little subpar.  We were probably a little more forgiving than usual because of the superior product and throwback-in-time atmosphere.  In fact, compared to other famous Chicago-style pizzas, Punky claimed Pequod’s beat them all.  With so many excellent contenders, I’m not sure I can go that far, but I’d certainly put Pequod’s in my Top Three.  The place is worth seeking out … just plan to make an evening of it when you go.


Jun 21, 2017

Roaming through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

When you work on the road as much as this commoner does, sometimes you just feel compelled to be a tourist when the opportunity arises.  So, when I was working last year in Cleveland, my coworkers and I made it a point to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  

Yes, it was touristy.  Yes, it was cheesy.  Yes, it was more commercial than it should have been.  In other words, it was in many ways the opposite of everything rock music once supposedly stood for.  But in spite of it all, it was absolutely worth it.

Located on the shore of Lake Erie as part of Cleveland’s revitalized North Shore Harbor, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame site is still relatively new -- even newer than the actual “hall” itself.  The giant triangle has only been a part of the Cleveland landscape since 1995.  But honestly, you really can’t miss it if you’re looking for it.   

The building features seven levels of various attractions, shops, theaters, conference rooms and meeting spaces.  For what I consider to be a great value of under $25, you’ll be able to see most of the permanent displays and many timely, temporary exhibits (the new class of inductees is typically featured prominently).  

As you’d expect, many of the “heavyweights” have permanent exhibits devoted to them, so you’ll have an opportunity to see some iconic pieces of rock history, such as Ringo Starr’s drum kit with the Beatles ...

… and Elvis Presley’s stylin’ gold suit from his 1968 Comeback Special.  

The museum also features several noteworthy exhibits devoted to the musical culture of various cities that helped shape the foundations of rock.  Anyone who knows me knows I’m partial to Memphis’ musical history, so I was especially happy to see a little of it on display.

The museum also touches on the history of other musical genres that influenced many rock and roll hall of famers.

I'm always looking for that one-way ticket to midnight.
Moving past the precursors to rock, I was pleased to see a fair number of exhibits devoted to some more “contemporary” genres of rock and roll (i.e., bands I grew up listening to).  For instance, it doesn’t get much more iconic than Angus Young’s schoolboy outfit or Michael Anthony’s Jack Daniel’s guitar if you spent your youth banging your head to the hard rock of the 1980s.  

And yes, I admit to being pleased that the Eagles -- a guilty pleasure of mine -- was well represented with their own display ... .  

I'm beginning to see why they call him the Space Cowboy ...
… as well as class of 2016 inductee Steve Miller Band, even though Steve Miller himself may still be pretty jaded toward the industry, which reportedly made for a rather awkward ceremony.

Another thing I appreciated about the museum was the fact that you don’t have to be a hall of famer -- or even a long-time performer -- to be recognized for your influence on music and pop culture.  

Where's the flying pig?
Then there’s perhaps the most unusual display I encountered -- and maybe the most prominent at the museum.  As you take the escalator to the building’s higher levels, you’re greeted by the hall of fame’s tribute to Pink Floyd’s The Wall.      

The sheer size of it is impressive, but I couldn’t help but be amused by how out of place and overly commercial it seemed to see a cafeteria style dinner being catered to some corporate outing on the other side of the wall.  

Elsewhere in the museum you’ll find a pretty interesting exhibit on the evolution of radio, how it helped shape rock music, why Cleveland deserves to be recognized as the birthplace of rock and roll, and how listening to music has changed dramatically since the dawn of the 20th Century.  There’s also a gift shop that includes, as one would hope, a vast selection of music to purchase.  

I think it’s safe to say there’s something for every musical taste at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is fitting when you consider the wide spectrum of styles that encompasses what is  generally considered rock music today.  Plus, with ever-changing exhibits, the museum is always worth a return trip to see what’s new or topical.  It’s certainly one attraction by the lake that won’t be a mistake to check out when you’re in downtown Cleveland.  

Mar 28, 2017

A commoner dines at La Casa de Pancho, Grinnell, Iowa

One might ask why a commoner would devote an entire blog post to a downtown Mexican restaurant located in Grinnell, Iowa.  The simple answer:  It was there, it was tempting, and when I have a craving for a certain food style, I have learned it’s best to satisfy it.  

To be fair, for a small Midwestern college town, much of Grinnell’s downtown always seemed to be more bustling than I expected whenever I wandered through on weekday evenings last summer after my work days were done.  As I covered in a previous post, Grinnell’s locals actually still migrate to their downtown, where you’ll seemingly find one shop meeting every basic need -- for instance, the grocery, the cinema, the sporting goods store, the dive bar, the Chinese restaurant, the pizza place, the trendy deli.  

La Casa de Pancho stands as Grinnell’s downtown Mexican restaurant.  It’s also one of the few downtown places to sport neon liquor signs in its windows, so that -- along with a chalkboard sign on the sidewalk highlighting each day’s food and drink special -- helped it stand out to me.  After reading about the cucumber jalapeno margaritas made with locally grown ingredients on special one night, I decided I could wait no longer.

Although it was early in the evening, I felt fortunate to find a seat.  Did I mention it was summer break at the college?  So, I was among the first arrivals for dinner.  I was still optimistic, as the place had received several recommendations from people I worked with.

Not wanting to take up a full table by myself, I found the small back bar and sat at one of the handful of available bar stools.  I figured I’d be closer to the margaritas that way.  As long as I didn’t drink enough of them to entice me to try on the sombrero.  

It was a more difficult that that you’d think, as the cucumber margarita was refreshingly delicious.  Naturally, I had another.  I needed it to wash down the abundant house-made chips and salsa the staff kept putting in front of me.  La Casa de Pancho’s salsa especially stood out … it was much thinner in consistency than most, but it was loaded with chunks of fresh onion and garlic that, when paired with their chips, made it quite irresistible.

Fortunately, I was able to save room for one of the dishes that brought me to the restaurant in the first place -- the enchiladas mole.  Anyone who knows me understands I am a sucker for any mole dish on a Mexican restaurant’s menu.  This mole was smooth, creamy and just chocolaty enough to make every bite of the chicken-stuffed enchiladas equally delightful.  La Casa de Pancho didn’t cut corners on the sides, either.  The refried beans and rice blended beautifully with the main entree.  

As La Casa de Pancho proved, even though your options may be limited by your surroundings, sometimes you can still find a diamond in the rough.  It quickly became one of my regular dining options while I worked in Grinnell.  It’s no wonder the place attracts visitors driving past Grinnell on I-80 to make the five-mile drive downtown.  The detour is worth it.  The food won’t disappoint, but the margaritas will make it memorable.

Mar 8, 2017

Good times flowing at Rocky River Brewing Company, Cleveland, Ohio

As I continue to catch up with posting my blog ideas from past work trips, I figured I might as well continue the brewpub theme with my only visit to Cleveland’s east side -- specifically the Rocky River neighborhood -- where, appropriately, we found the Rocky River Brewing Company.

Founded in 1998 and located just minutes south of I-90, the Rocky River Brewing Company appears to have become somewhat of a fixture in its namesake neighborhood.  Although I found its actual location and the building’s appearance to be somewhat of a letdown (think typical suburbia commercialization), once I got inside I was relieved to see Rocky River had just about everything you’d want and expect in your friendly neighborhood gastropub.

Feb 22, 2017

Tapping into Nashville’s brewery scene

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I still have an abundance of blog post ideas to share from my work stint in Nashville.  How far behind am I?  Well, one of the taprooms I’m about to spotlight has moved locations since I visited it in East Nashville.  It appears to be a good sign for business though … hopefully they won’t grow out of their status of a cool place to go.    

As I mentioned in a previous post from my time in Cleveland, my co-workers and I have made a habit of finding the local breweries and visiting their taprooms to quite literally get a taste of the local craft beer scene.  One in particular has amassed quite a selection of glasses from places he’s visited and was eager to add to his collection.  So, one weeknight we decided to see how many we could visit in and around downtown Nashville.

Feb 15, 2017

Nashville’s Dino’s deserving of legendary dive bar status

If there were such a thing as a Dive Bar Hall of Fame, I would feel compelled to nominate Dino’s in the Music City’s East Nashville neighborhood above any other bar I’ve visited. Although I've only been fortunate enough to visit a few times, there's something wonderfully seedy about the place that you just can't help but love.

Feb 7, 2017

Invasion of the Winking Lizard

If there’s anything my few faithful followers have learned about this commoner’s travels, it’s that I prefer to avoid chain establishments whenever possible.  I would much rather give my business to a local mom and pop diner or a dive bar than a generic sports bar/restaurant (or even, dare I say, “breasturant”).  After all, how different can the Buffalo Wild Wings in Sheboyan, Wis., be from the one in Springfield, Ill.?  Or TGI Friday’s?  Or Hooters?  

The truth, however, is that all of these chains most likely started as a great idea by someone who started with one stand-alone location.  Then it got too popular for just one outlet.  Then, it took off from its humble roots and word of mouth spread.  

From what I’ve experienced in the Cleveland area, that phenomenon is happening with a group of restaurants known as the Winking Lizard Tavern.  They have all the elements -- good pub food, popular offerings, a well-stocked bar (or several) with a large craft beer list, a likable and knowledgeable bar staff, and TVs showing sports within every line of sight.   

Jan 22, 2017

A commoner dines at Bill’s Toasty Shop, Taylorville, Ill.

If there’s one eating establishment the residents of the central Illinois town of Taylorville, Ill., consider an institution, it would have to be Bill’s Toasty Shop.  Anyone I know who lives in or around Taylorville raves about the place.  But what gives this downtown diner local legend status?  Last week, Punky and I decided to find out. 

To find Bill’s Toasty Shop, we headed for Taylorville’s historic downtown square, spun around a few times, and suddenly, like a place stuck in time, we noticed the signs and storefront at 111 N. Main, just off the square. 

From the street, you can see Bill’s Toasty in its entirety.  It’s not much, but it’s everything we’d hoped for in a classic diner from a bygone era. Open 24 hours?  Confirmed.  No credit cards allowed?  They didn’t exist in the 1930s, so why start accepting them now?  An interior practically unchanged for 80 years?  Perfect!  We stepped through the door and back in time.

We had our pick of the 10 counter stools available and chose a pair opposite the left menu board.  A pair of employees who were keeping busy behind the counter greeted us warmly.  Picking up on the obvious, they asked if it was our first time at Bill’s Toasty.  We quickly got to talking about the history of the place.  At one point, one of them proudly stated, “We’ve been open and running since 1932.  We’re open 24/7 and we never close, because we don’t need to.”

With just those 10 counter stools and a pair of two-seater booths, I can imagine the atmosphere in Bill’s Toasty can get quite … umm … toasty during peak hours.  The place seems to do a steady carryout business, however, as several people came in to pick up orders during our visit.  I learned Bill’s still maintains a dedicated crowd of regulars, as well as a late-night crowd on weekends looking to fill up on food after a night of drink. 

Eventually, our thoughts turned back to lunch, so we ordered cups of coffee (the perfect diner drink) and studied both menu boards.  Although I was tempted by the thought of breakfast made on their grill, I eventually realized I’d be completely missing the point of coming to a place called Bill’s Toasty for the first time and not having some sort of toasted sandwich with grilled cheese.  Gauging my appetite, I ordered a ham and cheese with a cup of chili.  

Punky never misses an opportunity to order a cheeseburger off the grill, so she ordered a small (if a quarter-pound burger can truly be considered “small”) with a side of fries and her own cup of chili.   

The cook began working the grill at the end of the counter – its top is tantalizingly in view from the storefront window – and I began to admire the sizzle and imagine countless years of seasoning going into every order. 

The finished products were everything we’d hoped for and expected.  Punky’s cheeseburger, with the works delicately balanced on top of each other, was all at once juicy, melty and completely satisfying. 

My ham and cheese was perfectly grill-toasted -- the taste of butter emanated throughout the bread, cheese stretched out and oozed down the bread as I pulled it apart.  The taste of it combined with the grilled sliced ham reminded me of the best of my grandmother’s comfort food on a rainy weekend day.    

The chili, though, was other-wordly good.  It had just the right proportion of meat and beans (yes, I believe it’s perfectly OK – and my preference – to have beans in chili).  Every spoonful had a velvety greasy yet smooth mouth feel (do they use beef suet?).  The spices are subtle; they complement rather than overpower.  You can even add those classic Lance restaurant crackers if you desire.  They’ve obviously perfected their chili recipe, and it’s another example of their classic diner comfort food. 

Everything about our first Bill’s Toasty experience was delightful.  The people running the place were very friendly.  The food was fantastic.  With a larger than average diner menu (including fried cauliflower and horseshoes, a Springfield tradition), we vowed to return soon.  We also promised our new friends behind the counter we’d save room next time for one of their epic milkshakes next time.  I’m looking forward to returning, with an even bigger appetite. 

Jan 18, 2017

A little slice of Laos at Mekong Café, Springfield, Ill.

When it comes to trying a different food or drink destination, my wife tends to adhere quite strongly to the adage that you only get one chance to make a first impression.  I, on the other hand, tend to be more forgiving than Punky when someplace initially disappoints, giving them at least a couple of tries to win me over.   Either way of looking at things is fine, of course, since we’re both very passionate about what we like (and what we don’t like). 

Mekong Café, in our hometown of Springfield, Ill., was one of those places Punky had written off years earlier as being uninspiring to her.  Among the numerous choices for Asian cuisine in Springfield, she already had her favorites, and Mekong was simply unable to impress her enough to make that list. 

I couldn’t figure out why.  I’ve always loved the place.  It’s a little worn, a little hidden and a little forgotten, but I’ve always considered the food to be excellent.  I was convinced to change Punky’s mind about Mekong.  Reluctantly, she eventually agreed to have lunch with me there, most likely because it’s so close to her workplace and she was tired of me babbling about their food every time we drove by. 

To find Mekong Café, you kind of have to know your way around Springfield.  It’s just south of the busy intersection of 2nd and South Grand.  A small sign latched onto an unimpressive looking brick building lets you know you’re there.  If you’re really lucky, you can snag one of the five parking spaces behind the building (and miss the alignment altering potholes); otherwise, you’re parking on the street. 

Jan 15, 2017

Tenn Sixteen brings Big Easy bites to East Nashville

With Carnival season already underway in 2017, I figured I’d look back in my travel archives for a blog-worthy place where they decorate for Mardi Gras year-round.  It also happens to have excellent food and drink, along with a pretty cool name.  It’s the Tenn Sixteen Food & Drink Co. in Nashville, Tenn. 

Located among a group of popular night spots on Woodland Street in East Nashville and named for its address, Tenn Sixteen has been bringing a New Orleans-style vibe to Nashville since 2013, and that’s exactly what put it on my radar when I was working in Nashville last winter. 

Jan 5, 2017

Grinding through Grinnell

There are quite a few people who make a living out of travel blogging and spend their summers exploring far-off and fantastic places around the globe.  But when you’re a commoner whose job involves travel you have no control over, you may wind up spending part of your summer headquartered someplace you never imagined visiting – someplace you might least expect to find blog-worthy adventures.  Last summer, that place was Grinnell, Iowa.

Grinnell at first glance is a microcosm of small town life in the Midwest.  But once I started exploring Grinnell a little more every weekday for almost two months, I realized the town is pretty blessed with an abundance of history, charm and character.  Its nickname is “Jewel of the Prairie” and frankly, you can see why.

Jan 2, 2017

A commoner dines at Bill’s BBQ, Metropolis, Ill.

I thought about coming up with a clever introduction to this blog post based on the town of Metropolis, Ill., how it’s adopted Superman as its hometown hero and how super the barbecue is here, but let’s cut to the chase …

Even as out of focus as this picture is, when the barbecue at Bill’s BBQ tastes as good as this looks, that’s really all that matters. 

I probably would not have heard of Bill’s BBQ without the recommendation of a good friend who’s familiar with the area of Southern Illinois called Little Egypt (where the Ohio meets the Mississippi).  But once I shared with her my excellent dining experience at Starnes in nearby Paducah, Ky., she insisted I needed to find Bill’s on a future trip.  One Friday afternoon, as I made my way back from Nashville after working for a week on the road, I followed her advice … and my nose ... to an unassuming brick building with a blue roof just off U.S. Highway 45 approaching downtown Metropolis. 

The exterior of Bill’s looks like someone bought the site of an old fast food joint (I’m guessing Hardee’s) to either go into business for themselves or, I’m guessing in the case of Bill’s, to expand from their original location.  Nonetheless, the drive-thru was bustling when I arrived.  It seemed like a very good sign since I figured I was a little late for the lunch crowd.

Inside, a decent crowd had gathered or remained, either for lunch or to stay and chat away the afternoon.  It was immediately obvious that Bill’s BBQ was not only popular for its food, but it served as a regular gathering place for a lot of locals.  Even though I was a stranger deserving of a few unsure glances, I felt like it wouldn’t take long to fit right in.     

I walked up the counter and stood for a couple of minutes trying to figure out what to order. I must have taken too long because the sweet and sassy waitress running the register eventually asked me how hungry I was.  I gave my answer, and she said, “You’re having the third slab of ribs dinner then. What sides do you want?”  Still a little taken aback that she read my mind, I requested the slaw and hash brown casserole.  She approved of my choices and handed me a large Styrofoam cup for my sweet tea. My order was ready before I had finished pouring my drink. 

I sat at a booth near the center of the restaurant, just behind a group of regulars talking about the day’s events.  They, too, approved of my choice, especially since ribs were only served on Fridays and Saturdays.  One of my new friends highly recommended coming back for a pulled pork sandwich or breakfast sometime.  I had to agree that their breakfast menu looked tempting, especially with names like “Heart Attack” and Triple Bypass” for specialties. 

I eventually dug into my lunch.  As expected, the meat of the ribs was pull-apart soft, not too chewy, but pink from smoke all the way through.  They came glazed with Bill’s sweet sauce which gave them an almost candy-like coating.  I figured I’d leave here with some glaze underneath my fingernails, and I was perfectly fine with that. And just in case, the waitress brought out an extra bottle of sauce to add on if I chose to. 

The sides were obviously homemade.  The slaw was simple and creamy ... what I like to refer to as KFC style, but much better than the Colonel’s.  I actually thought it compared very similarly to Starne’s slaw I had just a couple of weeks earlier.  It must be a regional preference.  The hash brown casserole was full of melty goodness.  By comparison, the taste and texture of Bill’s version put Cracker Barrel’s version to shame. 

It was a completely delicious and memorable lunch, all for a very reasonable $10.75 (tax included).  It was also every bit as good as my friend said it would be. 

If you consider yourself a barbecue aficionado like me, or if you somehow find yourself one day searching for Superman in Metropolis, Ill., don’t pass up a chance to eat at Bill’s BBQ.   

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...