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.


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...