Dec 30, 2018

Finding Fusterlandia

Every traveler, commoners included, occasionally comes upon a place that defies easy description.  During our daylong tour of Havana, Cuba, our stop in Fusterlandia was that kind of place.    

Dec 16, 2018

A backseat tour of Havana, Cuba

More specifically, from a 1955 Cadillac El Dorado convertible

The first reaction Punky and I had upon booking a cruise to Havana, Cuba over Thanksgiving weekend was of slight disbelief.  After all, it still hasn’t been that long since travel restrictions had been loosened allowing Americans to visit more freely.  The second reaction was probably of slight uncertainty.  So, Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas will be docked in Havana for a day and a half.  What do we do once we get there?

Fortunately, after significant research on our guided tour options, Punky suggested we get in touch with Old Car Tours, one of the government-authorized private travel companies, to book a day-long “educational people to people” tour of Havana.  

Dec 9, 2018

Cruising through Key West

I’d be lying if I said we booked our cruise last month aboard Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas for any other reason than the day and a half it spent docked in Havana, Cuba.  After all, until recently Havana had been effectively off limits to most Americans for so long, it’s still a little hard to fathom that we can now travel there (with a “valid reason,” of course).

That said, one of my favorite things about the cruise was that it finally allowed me to show Punky a little slice of Key West, which was also on the itinerary.  I had been to the Conch Republic before, but it had been more than 15 years ago, so I was eager to get reacquainted with some of my favorite places on the island, too.  We only had roughly eight hours to explore, but I think we made the most of it. 

The boat docked just off Mallory Square, the perfect jumping off point, so to speak, for a long crawl into old Key West and back.  Once we were off the boat, it took almost no time for us to be greeted by some of the more colorful locals.  Most Key West residents live on what they call island time, but the chickens must be an exception.   

Dec 2, 2018

Part Three: Havana daydreamin’ on the Majesty of the Seas

Havana and homeward bound

Imagine dreaming of going someplace special most of your adult life, a place which you had previously thought to be unattainable. Then, one morning, you wake up and Voila!  There you are …   

That pretty much describes the feeling Punky had on Thursday morning, Thanksgiving Day, as our cruise ship docked in Havana, Cuba. 

Nov 30, 2018

Part Two: Havana daydreamin’ on the Majesty of the Seas

A day at sea and Key West

Following a fun-filled first day and night aboard the Majesty of the Seas, Punky and I were prepared to slow things down with a relaxing day at sea before our first port of call in Key West.  

We began the day, as well as every subsequent morning, with the breakfast buffet at the Windjammer Cafe on Deck 11.  The Windjammer also served as our usual lunch spot for other days we spent on the ship. 

The Windjammer Café always provided plenty of viewpoints – whether forward-facing, port or starboard, of the sea.  Unfortunately, empty seats seemed to be few and far between.  Perhaps it was the lack of other dining options, or maybe our timing just wasn’t that good.  The food was serviceable overall, albeit mostly on the bland side.  I guess you have to cater to the masses.  I was also surprised by the lack of more daring menu items offered, the Caribbean-themed final night being a notable exception. (Bring on the oxtail stew, Jamaican escovitch fish and jerk chicken!)  Still, I was always happy to get my share of smoked salmon and corned beef at breakfast. 

Nov 28, 2018

Havana daydreamin’ on the Majesty of the Seas

Part One:  All aboard from Ft. Lauderdale

Most of my travels as a commoner have been, well, fairly common in nature – a little off the beaten path, perhaps, but rarely anything even remotely exotic or extravagant.  But once in a while, I think every commoner needs to take a leap forward with a more uncommon journey.  After all, few people ever become world travelers in just one trip. 

So, in an effort to cross multiple items off our collective bucket lists, last summer I booked a cruise over the week of Thanksgiving for Punky and me.  The ship was Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas.  The itinerary was Key West, Fla., and, more importantly, Havana, Cuba (the top destination on Punky’s list of places to visit).

We arrived in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., a day early of our departure date of Nov. 19.  It would definitely be an understatement to say the view from our room on the top floor of the Renaissance Hotel nearby put us in the right frame of mind.  

Nov 6, 2018

Tracking Sheboygan’s food scene –first stop: Gosse’s at the Northwestern House

If you travel enough, you begin to associate certain foods and drinks with certain parts of the country.  For instance, eating and drinking in Wisconsin probably brings visions of cheese curds, beer, butter burgers, bratwursts and supper clubs serving fried fish on the weekends. 

Perhaps no greater representation of Wisconsin’s food traditions can be found in the town of Sheboygan, located roughly halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay along Lake Michigan.  As fate would have it, my work obligations took me to Sheboygan for several months, so I decided to make the most of it and try every food I could find that I felt defined Sheboygan. 

And so, we begin what I am dubbing the “Sheboygan Series” of blog posts with the very first place I tried – Gosse’s at the Northwestern House.

Oct 25, 2018

Lambert’s legacy: Throwed rolls and a whole lot more

As any of my few faithful followers could tell you, when I post about an eating or drinking establishment, I often try to chose ones that are either off the beaten path, relatively obscure or simply underappreciated.  

Lambert’s Café is none of these.  In fact, if you love your road food as much as I do, or if you take frequent road trips through the South or Midwest, chances are you’re already familiar with one of the three Lambert’s Café locations.  For me, the one in Sikeston, Mo. – the original – is almost always worth the stop while traveling Interstate 55, and it’s one I’ve been making for as long as I’ve taken road trips to Memphis or New Orleans (and that’s since I’ve been able to drive!). 

But, what has made Lambert’s Café such a popular place to pig out and a bona fide tourist attraction?  Is it because of so many appearances on various popular food-related travel shows and websites?  Is it the constant barrage of billboards along I-55?  Is it having earned a reputation for being the restaurant with “throwed rolls” – a practice which began way back in 1976 when an impatient customer couldn’t wait for his to be served?  Or maybe, as I’d like to think, after four generations under the same family’s ownership, it’s still the down-home country cooking.  

For all the reasons I mentioned, Lambert’s is destination dining.  So, when the opportunity presented itself a while back, Punky and I decided to take the Kiddo – herself a foodie in training – to Sikeston, Mo., for her first Lambert’s experience.   

Oct 14, 2018

Revel in the retro at the Thunderbird Inn, Savannah, Ga.

Whenever I plan to visit a destination for the first time, I always try to find a place to stay that is unique, out of the ordinary and every bit as interesting as the destination itself.  Cookie cutter chain hotels are fine, but they seldom enhance the experience. 

So, when Punky and I started researching our first trip to Savannah, Ga., my first inclination was to book at one of Savannah’s historic inns, boutique hotels or bed and breakfasts that dot the city’s historic district.   But many proved to be either cost prohibitive or not close enough to the riverfront and downtown for our liking.  Then I discovered a place that seemed to be a perfect fit with Punky’s love for all things mid-century modern, and it was relatively close to where all the action is downtown and on the edge of the historic part of Savannah – the Thunderbird Inn. 

Oct 5, 2018

Relishing Relish, Grinnell, Iowa

When one thinks of where to find a finer dining experience with a Mediterranean flair, a small Midwestern college town in central Iowa probably wouldn’t be the first place you’d look.  That’s why discovering Relish was such a pleasant surprise for this commoner when my work travels took me to Grinnell.

Sep 28, 2018

A commoner drinks at the Avenue Pub, New Orleans

If you spend any time in New Orleans, it doesn’t take long to realize there’s no shortage of great drinking establishments throughout the city, from the bars that accompany fine dining restaurants and high-end hotels to neighborhood dive bars open 24 hours, seven days a week.  In fact, when it comes to bars open 24/7/365, the Big Easy may have mastered the concept. 

And of all the bars that never close in NOLA, one of my favorites stands out for its choice location and variety of libations – the Avenue Pub. 

Located at the corner of St. Charles and Polymnia in the Lower Garden District, the Avenue Pub is a relatively short streetcar ride from the French Quarter and the Central Business District.  According to the establishment’s website, the building dates back to as early as 1845, and between the blue shutters and wrought iron balcony it’s rather hard to miss.    

Sep 20, 2018

A commoner dines at Moo’s BBQ, Newton, Iowa

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned about barbecue in my travels as a commoner, it’s that if you look hard enough you can find quality ‘que just about anywhere.  That includes the middle of Iowa. 

How did I find such good barbecue in an area more known for its pork tenderloins and loose meat sandwiches?  It started when I had apparently exhausted all my dining options in the small town of Grinnell while I was working on assignment there, I learned of a barbecue joint in nearby Newton, just a couple of exits west on Interstate 80.  I gave Moo’s BBQ a shot, and the experience highly rewarding.

To find Moo’s BBQ, go north at Exit 164 I-80 toward town.  Take the first right and follow the frontage road back south.  You’ll find Moo’s nestled among several standard fast food and chain restaurant options, inhabiting a building that probably was another of those fast food chains in a former life.  Fortunately, the food served at Moo’s is a vast improvement. 

The interior is just as no-frills, but as you approach the counter the vibe and personality of Moo’s starts to become more apparent.  Notice the blues concert posters to the left of the menu and the chalkboard promoting Moo’s “Artist of the Day” whose music you will hear during your entire visit.  Now it becomes more evident why the place is sometimes referred to as Moo’s BBQ & Blues.  I knew I had stumbled onto a place very much to my liking. 

The menu has plenty of tempting options, from signature sandwiches like the “Barnyard” and the “Taj Moohal” to fried flatbread tacos and Moo’s take on BBQ nachos.  But since I was eager to sample as much as possible, I ordered a two meat platter with two sides.  Upon completing my order, I learned of another quirky but charming feature of Moo’s – instead of a number with your order, you’re assigned a moniker to listen for.  I was Hercules.  I could have done far worse.     

The seating options are again very similar to a refurbished fast food joint except for the long counter window side seating, perfect for solo diners.  I parked myself at one of the seats and waited for my herculean sized order. 

And here it is – beef brisket and burnt ends, served with smoked green beans and creamed corn.  As fate would have it, Moo’s is known locally for having exceptional versions of both meats I ordered, and I quickly understood why.

Although the burnt ends were a little fattier than I’m accustomed to having in, say, Kansas City-style burnt ends, these compared quite well.  It didn’t hurt that they were literally wading in their own juices when served.  The composition of the burnt ends was more reminiscent of roast beef, and that’s not a bad thing at all.     

Now let’s have a closer look at the brisket.  See that pink ring that comes from being slow smoked?  Moo’s reportedly uses a combination of hickory and cherry wood, and the juicy flavor it provides is about as good as it gets.  If you can’t get to Texas, you won’t be disappointed with Moo’s take on beef brisket.  It’s that good. 

To complement the barbecue, Moo’s offers two styles of sauce on the table. The sweet blues sauce is very true to its name and adds a nice tanginess to the meat’s smokiness. The hot sauce starts similarly sweet but with a slightly more vinegar taste before a peppery explosion hits the back of your throat.  Most fans of spicy foods should approve of the latter. 

As with any good barbecue joint, the sides are noteworthy, too.  The aforementioned green beans are flavored with the same smoke as the meat and come practically swimming in butter.  The creamed corn definitely emphasizes the cream; the texture of the dish is more like a thick, whipped corn pudding.  And one final positive note about the entire meal – Moo’s provides generous portions of everything!

All in all, Moo’s BBQ was a real find in central Iowa and a pleasant reminder that really good barbecue isn’t confined to any particular region.  There’s practically a barbecue master everywhere you go if you look hard enough.  In Iowa, they’ve mastered it at Moo’s.

Aug 27, 2018

Toasting the ‘champagne of bars’ in Des Moines, Iowa

When it’s time to relax in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, to paraphrase a classic commercial jingle, as far as I’m concerned one bar stands clear – the High Life Lounge.  Not only does it pay homage to the classic beer brand Miller High Life, the self-proclaimed “champagne of bars” has preserved a perfect combination of dive bar and 1960s supper club feel, complete with a full array of comfort food on the menu and old blue-collar beers to wash them down with. 

With a resume like this … and a little notoriety from sources like Esquire magazine and the Travel Channel … it’s no wonder the High Life Lounge was on my short list of places to seek out when I was working in Iowa not long ago.  The first trip was everything I hoped for, and I quickly became a repeat visitor. 

Aug 16, 2018

It’s always a holiday at New Orleans’ Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge

I’ve been debating whether I should blog about Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge since my first visit in March 2017, not because it wasn’t blogworthy.  On the contrary, Snake and Jake’s may be the best dive bar I’ve ever been to by the purest definition of the term.  Rather, Punky and I would hate for the place to get too crowded with tourists or lose any of its amazing dive bar charm. 

Yes, it’s that special.  Let me give you a peek into why.  

I don’t normally skip ahead to the end of our visit on these blog posts, but this dance outside of Snake and Jake’s shows you the euphoria Punky had after two hours at the place.  And no, we hadn’t been drinking on the lengthy streetcar ride down St. Charles Avenue and the four-block walk from Carrolton Avenue to get there.

Aug 13, 2018

Scenes from the world’s largest truck stop, Walcott, Iowa

In my humble opinion as a travelling commoner, one of the uniquely American travel experiences – and often an essential and memorable part of any long-mileage road trip – is a visit to a truck stop.   

The truck stop can be many things all in one convenient location along the interstate.  Gas station.  Convenience store.  Restaurant.  Rest area.  Tourist trap.  Roadside attraction.  All are fine for travelers, but the truck stop primarily caters to those who make a living delivering freight from Point A to Point B.  As such, the truck stop provides all who visit insight into life on the road for the nation’s semi drivers.   

Of course, depending on the location and size of the truck stop, your mileage may vary, but occasionally you find one that literally tries to be all things to truckers who stop there.  They’re proverbial cities for semi drivers.  And the biggest and best of them all may be the Iowa 80 Truckstop just outside of the otherwise unremarkable town of Walcott.

Aug 5, 2018

Loose meat sandwiches made right at Montgomery’s, Grinnell, Iowa

One of my favorite Midwest dining traditions is the loose meat sandwich.  You may have also heard them referred to as a tavern sandwich, a steamburger, or a Maid-Rite because of the franchise loosely based off them. 

What exactly constitutes a loose meat sandwich?  Think of finely crumbled hamburger piled – or perhaps more appropriately scooped – onto a bun.  Its texture resembles a Sloppy Joe without the slop.  Then you top it with your preferred traditional hamburger accompaniments –onions (often sautéed with the meat) and mustard are almost mandatory, but often you can get ketchup, pickles and cheese as well. 

As a part of Americana, the history of the loose meat sandwich can be traced back to the early 1920s.  On a more personal level, I still recall as a youth eating at one of the first Maid-Rite sandwich shops in existence in Macomb, Ill.  That diner, which was located just of the town’s historic square, is long gone, but another one of the “original” Maid-Rite is still successfully operating in downtown Springfield (and it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984!). 

So, while good loose meat sandwiches are harder to find than they used to be, they’re still out there and appear to be making a nostalgic resurgence.  And one of the finest representations I recently found, appropriately enough, was in a restaurant that has been cranking out classic burgers, sandwiches, shakes and other diner fare in Grinnell, Iowa, since the 1930s – Montgomery’s Sandwich Shop.

Jul 25, 2018

Trekking through Kaskaskia, Illinois’ first capital

My home state of Illinois turns 200 in 2018.  That’s a lot of history to discover from two centuries of existence.  And as much as I like to malign where I live, I’ve always had a fondness for learning more about Illinois’ past. 

In a state known for the Windy City and nicknamed the Land of Lincoln, it’s easy to ignore other chapters of Illinois’ history.  For instance, one of the least visited yet historically significant historic sites is that of the state’s first capital.  Thanks to geography, it’s also one of the hardest and most remote places to get to in the entire state.  And, despite once being of huge importance, today it’s the second smallest incorporated community in Illinois with 14 inhabitants. 

For all these reasons, I’ve always been intrigued by Kaskaskia.

Jul 12, 2018

A short hop through Rabbit’s Tavern, Grinnell, Iowa

In a recent blog I mentioned how every town – no matter how big or small – seems to have at least one great signature dive bar.  It may not be dive-ish enough to achieve legendary or infamous status like Chicago's L&L Tavern, but it certainly fits the bill for cheap drinks, no-frills decor and no-nonsense surroundings. 

In the small combination of farm town and liberal college community of Grinnell, Iowa, that dive bar would be Rabbit’s Tavern.   

Jul 8, 2018

Scenes from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Ill.

Even commoners like yours truly are sometimes guilty of overlooking the benefits of being a tourist in your hometown.  Perhaps it’s just too easy to take for granted what’s right in front of you.  Or maybe, as what often happens to longtime central Illinois residents, you just get burned out on all things Lincoln-related by the time you’re done with all those school field trips. 

Opening in 2005, The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is the newest Lincoln-related attraction to Springfield, Ill., and by almost all accounts, it’s the top-rated and most rewarding attraction of them all (a handful of the nearly 4,000 Trip Advisor reviewers must still hold a grudge over the Civil War or something …).  In fact, since its opening, the ALPLM has been the most-visited presidential library in the country. 

Jul 2, 2018

A commoner dares to drink at Chicago’s L&L Tavern

I’ve often written of the need for a dive bar hall of fame to commemorate all the dank, dingy and downright dirty drinking establishments that still manage to become cherished for their cheap libations, surly yet friendly bartenders who love to drink as much (if not more) than you, and a feel-right-at-home vibe.  

Every town, big or small, seems to have a bar with a certain degree of divey-ness.  Some have more if they’re lucky.  And then there’s Chicago, which is fortunate enough to have the L&L Tavern, a watering hole worthy of the inclusion in the dive bar hall of fame if there ever was one.  For starters, the L&L Tavern prides itself as being the “Creepiest Bar in the USA.”  And they just may be right.

Jun 26, 2018

A commoner dines (and drinks) at Lonnski’s Pub & Deli, Grinnell, Iowa

It’s time for another trip in the Watts Wayback Machine, this one back to the Norman Rockwell-esque small college town of Grinnell, Iowa and a place I visited a few times for a light dinner, and some “light” drinking, while completing a work assignment in Grinnell.  One might not expect to find one of the town’s best drinking establishments inside a deli, but Lonnski’s Pub & Deli pulls off both quite well.

Jun 20, 2018

Wandering through the Willoughby Brewing Company

My frequency of blog posts has clearly been lacking lately, so let’s step onto the Watts Wayback Machine for a trip to Willoughby,Ohio and review one of my favorite finds during my working days in the Cleveland area a while back. 

Located very much on the outskirts of Cleveland’s eastern ring of suburbs, Willoughby maintains much of the historic charm you might expect from a lake community founded in 1798.  The downtown area in particular is fun and thriving, helped in no small part by the Willoughby Brewing Company.  And as far as craft breweries go, the one in Willoughby is a veteran of the scene, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018.

Needless to say, the brewery got the attention of my craft beer-loving co-workers, so despite Willoughby being off the beaten path for us, we made repeat visits during our time working in the area. 

What kept us coming back, you ask?

May 16, 2018

LD’s BBQ – a filling station for some of Wisconsin’s best

If you find yourself distracted and suddenly salivating from the smell of savory smoked meats somewhere along Interstate 43 in southern Wisconsin, chances are you’re very close to finding what I think is the closest thing I’ve found to barbecue nirvana in the Badger State.  It’s LD’s BBQ on the edge of East Troy, just off exit 38 and – believe it or not – connected to the BP gas station. 

Yes, you read that right.  Top quality barbecue from a joint that shares a roof with a service station/convenience store.  If you think about it, it makes perfect sense.  But if you need more convincing, all you need to do is get a glimpse of how they make their magic. 

Apr 25, 2018

A commoner dines at Two Ten Jack, Nashville, Tenn.

One of the nicer perks about traveling for business is that, even on a commoner’s budget, I have the opportunity to experience certain sights, sounds and tastes I just can’t find in my hometown.  So, when I learned about a restaurant in East Nashville popular for its Japanese izakaya (aka neighborhood pub) theme, I jumped at the chance to try real ramen, yakitori and Asian-inspired cocktails.

Named after a Japanese card game I had never heard of before, Two Ten Jack occupies a commercial space on the lower level of a rather sleek, modern looking building just off Eastland Avenue that mixes business and residential tenants.  The building is fairly close to the previously blogged about Rosepepper Cantina and looks a little out of place in a neighborhood of older homes and restaurants. You kind of have to be in the know to find it, which probably only adds to its coolness factor among the local foodies and hipsters.  But it’s also that coolness which makes East Nashville such a popular place to be these days.

The interior of the place was close to what I had imagined – dimly lit, modern decor, a lot of exposed wood and candlelight.  I lucked into a corner seat -- the last one -- at the bar and took it all in.

I was particularly impressed with the diversity and expansiveness of Two Ten Jack’s liquor selection.  In addition to a unique list of cocktails, mostly focusing on sake- and shochu-based drinks, its selection of wine, beer and spirits made any drinking decision complicated.  I ultimately decided that I needed to try something I had not experienced before -- one of the many shochus they offered, served straight neat with a sidecar of water to chase it.

For other shochu novices like me, think vodka, only with less kick and a smoother taste.  I enjoyed it as a warm-up to my meal …

… which brings me to my appetizer of choice.  Of all the small plate options Two Ten Jack offers, I felt again that I had to try something not often found in the Japanese-themed steak and sushi houses of central Illinois.  Yakitori was an easy decision; choosing one skewer over all others wasn’t. I ultimately chose the hatsu skewer because I’d never tasted chicken heart before, and I also knew the appetizer would be small enough to not spoil my appetite.

I could not have been more pleased with what I ordered.  It was super lean, mildly flavored (definitely tasted the chicken), cooked perfectly (not overly chewy), and the savory spice rub on the side gave it a nice extra kick.

The main reason I went to Two Ten Jack, though, was to experience the ramen.  Let’s look at that again, shall we? That’s real ramen, not the packaged kind college kids -- and occasionally commoners like me -- have depended on for survival on a tight budget.

This is hot, fresh and savory tonkotsu ramen, to be exact.  Pork belly and noodles in a rich pork broth, a soft-boiled egg floating prominently and garnishes galore for added flavor experiences.  The serving was massive, but I slowly conquered the bowl and slurped down every drop.

Perhaps the best compliment I can give Two Ten Jack is that it has left me with a regular culinary craving for future visits to real-deal Japanese izakayas for more of the same.  The Nashville area is lucky to have such a good representation of the cuisine. If you’re in Nashville and need a foodie fix for something other than traditional Southern cooking, you won’t go wrong with the authentic flavors found at Two Ten Jack.

Apr 9, 2018

Feeling the beat of the Congo Square Rhythms Festival

In New Orleans, springtime signifies much more than the return of greener grass, colorful courtyards and short sleeves.  That’s because the celebrating in the Big Easy doesn’t stop with the end of Carnival Season.  It just rolls on into Festival Season.

Roughly defined as the period of time between Mardi Gras and Memorial Day (right about when Hurricane Season starts … there really are no traditional seasons in New Orleans), Festival Season encompasses a variety of springtime musical, food and heritage celebrations.  These range from longtime heavyweights and top tourism draws like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (more commonly referred to as just Jazz Fest) and the ever-growing French Quarter Festival to more local celebrations like the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo

The Congo Square Rhythms Festival may be, in my uneducated opinion, on the verge of being the next festival to grow from being a local attraction to a real tourism draw.  I look back at French Quarter Festival pre-Katrina, and I see the same potential here.  Each year, the festival celebrates the influence of African culture and the historical significance of Congo Square to the city.  Held every March since 2012, the festival is operated by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the same folks who have made Jazz Fest the city’s second most popular reason to visit behind Mardi Gras.  In other words, they know how to throw a party.

Mar 15, 2018

Maple Leaf Cottage Inn fit for a fairy tale in Elsah, Ill.

If there ever was a village in the United States that could serve as the perfect location for a fairy tale romance, Elsah, Ill., would certainly qualify in my book.

Wedged between two bluffs along the Mississippi River, roughly halfway between Alton and Grafton alongside Illinois Highway 100, Elsah appears very much like a small community frozen in time.  Many of the town’s original stone buildings from the 1860s remain, and as such the entire community is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Mother Nature didn’t leave much room for growth anyway, as the town’s 600+ residents and Principia College (alma mater of Robert Duval!) seems carefully placed within a tiny valley between the bluffs.  Trees blanket the town, and a small creek, naturally, runs alongside the main road.  Norman Rockwell couldn’t have imagined anything better.  

As charming as Elsah is year-round, it seems even more magical in the wintertime, especially when you have a fresh snow on the ground and fog moving through the valley.  So, when we were looking to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year (and the anniversary of our engagement which took place in nearby Grafton), the backdrop of Elsah seemed perfect for the occasion. 

Fortunately, Elsah has two highly rated bed and breakfasts.  Even more fortunately, I quite literally managed to book the last available room in town at the Maple Leaf Cottage Inn.

Mar 5, 2018

A commoner visits The Elegant Farmer, Mukwonago, Wis.

I must confess that before I went to The Elegant Farmer for the first time, I wasn’t quite sure what The Elegant Farmer really was.  I just heard about this place located somewhere on a highway that follows Interstate 43 in southern Wisconsin between the towns of Mukwonago and East Troy and its reputation for incredibly delicious locally grown and produced food. 

Some called it a bakery.  I heard their apple pies were famous to the point of being legendary.  Others described a deli.  Their sandwiches and soups got consistently excellent reviews on the foodie sites I frequent. Eventually, I decided to stop for a late lunch on my way home from working on the road to find out who was right.

Feb 20, 2018

A commoner dines at DiCillo Tavern, Mayfield Heights, Ohio

I know what you’re thinking.  What would compel a commoner like me to devote a blog entry to a rather unassuming tavern/restaurant tucked away in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, a far east side suburb of Cleveland serviced by Interstate 271.  But frankly, with its history, time-honored traditions, affordable prices and satisfying food, the DiCilloTavern is just the type of place I love to find when I travel. 

Feb 17, 2018

Mas Tacos, Por Favor (and pozole, too)!

Depending on how you interpret it, the title of this blog post could be a request, an order, a plea or even a rallying cry.  But for anyone in the Nashville, Tenn., area who craves a taste of authentic Mexican food, it's a destination.  That’s because Mas Tacos Por Favor (minus the pozole part) is also the name of one of the most in-demand taquerias in town for several years running. It’s also one more reason why it’s hard to beat the East Nashville food scene. 

Feb 5, 2018

A commoner dines at Uncle Joe’s Deli, Ina, Ill.

If you need proof that billboard advertising works for roadside restaurants, I present to you my first trip to Uncle Joe’s Deli.

For a couple of months, I would be drawn to Uncle Joe’s promise of great barbecue as I passed advertisements along Interstate 57 on the way back and forth from working in Nashville, Tenn.  I was always curious to try it but also a little skeptical.  After all, most delis aren’t known for their barbecue, and if they do it at all it’s almost an afterthought. 

Then, one early Friday afternoon, with time on my side and running out of original lunch options between me and home, I took a chance.  I followed the directions on the last billboard I saw, pulled off on Exit 83 at Ina, Ill., a small community near Rend Lake in southern Illinois, turned right at the truck stop and followed a familiar smoky smell of slow-cooked meat practically to Uncle Joe’s doorstep.    

Jan 28, 2018

Finding Phat Bites in Nashville’s Donelson neighborhood

If there ever was a place I’ve found in my travels that could be described as having a bohemian-style identity crisis – but in a very good way – it had to be Phat Bites.  Located behind an Ace Hardware of all things in Nashville’s suburb of Donelson near the airport and close to where I worked for a couple of months, Phat Bites is part deli, part coffee house, and – later in the evening – part dive bar and local music venue.  Somehow, though, it all blends wonderfully together.

It was that odd mishmash of identities that drew me – like so many of their regulars, I suppose – to Phat Bites repeatedly, whether it be for a lunch that was a little out of the ordinary or to serve as a watering hole close to my hotel.  Indeed, the main dining area, which quite literally was carved out of the service bays of an old garage, always seemed to stay busy. 

Jan 15, 2018

Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn – masters of mutton …and much more

It’s no secret to anyone who browses this blog that I love my barbecue.  I’m no culinary expert; I’m just a commoner who loves to eat the best each region I visit has to offer.  That means if I’m near Memphis, I’m craving pork ribs.  If I’m in the Carolinas, I’m seeking out the pulled pork.  Texas hill country?  Bring on the brisket.  And Kansas City does no barbecue better than its burnt ends. 

Yes, it seems like every region famous for its barbecue has a specialty.  And if you’ve never been to western Kentucky, you might be surprised to find a vibrant barbecue culture all its own. But while they do the standard pork, beef and chicken quite well, the star attraction is something quite different – they make the most out of barbecued mutton. 

Mutton is simply older sheep than lamb, but if you barbecue it right, the meat loses any toughness one might associate with older livestock, the gaminess is made mellow and taste is as moist as barbecue gets. 

Perhaps no place in western Kentucky is more famous for its mutton – or barbecues it better – than the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro. 

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...