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.   

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