Every week, The Times of Northwest Indiana tries out a dish at one of the Region's fine eating establishments. Here's what they've dined on so far.
TASTE TEST: Fill up with Casa del Mar's tasty gorditas
MUNSTER — Casa del Mar Mexican Bar & Grill is as cozy as restaurants come for a pleasant eating experience. It's a smaller and tighter space for moving around or eating, but the closer seating and natural light pouring in through the large windows provide an intimate setting for your meal.
The establishment, at 650 Ridge Road, has filled the gullets of Mexican food lovers in Munster for years. One is bound to get heaping servings with their orders often at agreeable prices. Musical entertainment also is aplenty with acts usually booked three days per week.
In a menu packed with delicious options, a standout is the gorditas. As the name suggests, these "chubby" pastries are made with masa and come stuffed with lettuce, tomato, cheese and your choice of meat stuffing. The restaurant also adds a nice helping of rice and beans. The gorditas taste wonderful and have a super crunchy texture. The flavor starts out slightly sweet before mixing in with the fillings.
Casa del Mar has other great selections, including its fajitas, enchiladas and steaks. But, as Casa del Mar's name suggests, the "House of the Sea" also has delectable seafood dishes, such as its Baja fish tacos.
For more information, call 219-836-5050.
TASTE TEST: Lucrezia's venison chops always in season
Lucrezia Italian Ristorante in downtown Crown Point is a classy place for a date night or a special occasion.
The fine dining restaurant in a historical Victorian mansion at 302 S. Main St. specializes in Northern Italian cuisine, offering traditional pastas and entrees like braised lamb shank, veal limone, stuffed eggplant, pan-seared branzino, chicken Vesuvio and filet mignon.
The dishes are all elegantly prepared with continental cooking techniques and fine ingredients like olive oil, red wine, shallots, rosemary, garlic, capers and Portobello mushrooms. The old world sophistication is evident in every sauce and plating.
It's a place that knows food so well it warns customers it is "not responsible for steaks ordered med-well or well done."
An extensive selection of wine and cocktails make Lucrezia a perfect place for a night out on the town.
An excellent special occasionally on the menu is the grilled venison chops with Bordelaise sauce.
The bone-in cuts of venison are tender, meaty and not at all gamey. The wine-based sauce complements the expertly grilled red meat, which is difficult to cook because of the lack of marbling but done to perfection at Lucrezia.
When offered as a special, the venison chops come with potatoes, asparagus and as much freshly grated cheese or peppers as one desires.
For more information, visit lucreziacafe.com or call (219) 661-5829.
TASTE TEST: Top level crepes at Top Notch
HIGHLAND — Breakfast dishes are often on the salty side, populated with eggs, meats, potatoes, etc. However, sometimes one may have a sweet tooth in the morning, which brings a whole different set of options.
Enter Top Notch, 8813 Indianapolis Blvd., and the choices won't disappoint to give you something sweet and sugary at the top of the morning.
A worthy selection can be found in the restaurant's crepe offerings. The Greek delicacy can be served with a fruit choice, including strawberries, blueberries, apples and more. These puppies are massive when they're served, and they're wonderfully decorated with a heaping line of whipped cream that spans across all three. Each bite is incredibly sweet, and the crepes are cooked to a perfect crispness. Add some syrup on top to enhance the flavor even more.
Top Notch also has a plethora of other breakfast options, which include skillets, omelets, pancakes and more. The hearty servings and agreeable pricing is sure to leave you stuffed and satisfied.
For more information, call 219-923-4561.
TASTE TEST: Barton's Jumbo Stuffed Tater Kegs loaded with flavor
Barton's Pizzeria at 7201 Calumet Ave. in Hammond is a no-nonsense old-school joint where it slides pizzas fresh to order into a massive oven right behind the counter, and even sells it by the slice.
The only seating is for those waiting on their takeout orders. There's a few arcade games and a pinball machine to pass the time.
People have praised Barton's pizza as excellent, complimenting the dough and crust, saying it tastes the same as they remember it tasting decades ago. You can get your choice from a wide selection of toppings, and Neapolitan-style pizza or deep dish if you prefer.
It's got the standard array of appetizers. A standout is the Jumbo Stuffed Tater Kegs, which are so huge they carry a "warning" that's posted on the counter: "The flavor in a Jumbo Stuffed Tatter Keg has been known to cause a state of emotion so intense that some have been carried beyond rational thought and self-control."
That might — just might — be a salesman's hyperbole, but the oversized tots are pretty tasty. They're about the size of a golf ball and stuffed with cheddar cheese, bacon and chives.
Give them some time to cool down, and then dig in. You can get marinara or blue cheese to dip them in, but they're flavorful enough without any dip.
For more information, call 219-932-1300.
Have a Taste for something? If you have a Taste Test suggestion, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
TASTE TEST: Get wrapped up in love for breakfast at The Wheel
HAMMOND — All of one's breakfast favorites can come served in different ways — spread out on a plate, stacked between slices of bread and, probably best, wrapped in a tortilla.
The Wheel, 7430 Indianapolis Blvd., provides a nice variety when it comes to choosing a satisfying breakfast wrap. From a standard selection with eggs, and vegetables to a larger mix of cheeses and meats, there's something for everyone.
If you're looking for something to power you through the day, the Meat Lover's option is a great choice. This sizable wrap comes with three eggs, sausage, bacon, ham, onions and a blend of cheeses. It is heavenly. The cooks keep everything at a nice texture so all is tender without any crispiness. The egg and cheese flavor blend especially sticks out with each bite. The wrap also comes with a side of potatoes, which also are cooked to a perfect style. All comes out to an agreeable $8.49.
The Wheel keeps on turning from there, and you also can consider other breakfast delights on its menu, including pancakes, frittatas, omelets and skillets.
For more information, call 219-845-0277.
TASTE TEST: Tapas Cafe's paella a taste of Spain
Tapas Cafe has delighted diners with its Spanish cuisine on U.S. 30 in Merrillville for years, but it recently relocated to the old Phat Phil's sandwich shop space at 518 N. Main St. in Crown Point.
The food is as delicious as ever at the new spot, and the menu has been broadened to include tacos, flatbreads, pasta and cheap lunch options.
The highlight is of course the tapas, the sophisticated Spanish small plates that are ideal for sharing and add up to a full meal with delectable variety. If you'd prefer a traditional entree, though large enough for two, try the paella, the Valencian rice dish that's like a more festive Spanish cousin to risotto.
The paella wows at Tapas Cafe.
Options include shrimp, steak and chicken, though seafood is the most traditional option. The pan of succulent, absorbent rice soaks up the juices from the Juicy Gulf Shrimp or whatever your choice of protein, infusing it with flavor.
Every bite of the plump, fat-grained rice sings. Tender bell pepper and briny green olives add some variety and nutrition. A topping of parsley completes the gorgeous plating.
The dish looks stunning, tastes even better, and transports the diner to seaside Spain.
For more information, call (219) 769-7008 or visit www.tapascafe.net.
TASTE TEST: Catch a bite of shrimp and grits at Volstead
CHESTERTON — If brunch is what you seek, you can find it in the heart of Duneland in quaint downtown Chesterton.
However, it will be "unconventional fine dining," according to the tagline for Volstead, 225 S. Calumet Road. It might be true. Not many other spots will have "Voodoo" by Godsmack playing in their music rotation.
Also of note are the different, but still classy, cow head mounted on the wall, mannequin decked in chain mail standing to the side and a large portrait of Winston Churchill overlooking a lounge filled with fine-leather seats. The stained-glass windows in the bar area also give a green tint to the restaurant and offer great natural lighting.
Volstead sports its brunch menu on weekends, and an item worthy of Saturday and Sunday food cravings is its shrimp and grits bowl. It's a southern dish that tosses together shrimp, bacon, grits and vegetables.
I've had the dish before in the heart of the Lowcountry in Charleston, South Carolina, and this one proves comparable in overall taste. The grits have an immensely buttery taste. The meat is perfectly tender. To top it off, the white wine sauce mixed in is splendid, too.
This selection comes on the pricey side at $15, but this will leave you stuffed and satisfied for hours.
For all ye brunch lovers, also consider Volstead's cinnamon roll pancake, sprout bowl, and, yes, even avocado toast.
For more information, call 219-728-1596.
TASTE TEST: Phil's Caribbean Cuisine offers Jamaican flavors
It may be cold out, but life's beachy at Phil's Caribbean Cuisine at 2330 Cline Ave. in Schererville.
The new Jamaican restaurant has a brightly colored interior that includes photos of the Caribbean, a high-resolution picture of a tree-canopied beach splashed across the wall near the entrance and booths that resemble beach chairs. Reggae beats thrum in the background.
The menu features many Jamaican favorites like bone-in whole red snapper, beef oxtail and, of course, jerk chicken. A standout is the curry goat, which is slow-cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
Flavorful curry makes the dish exotic, and the pot roastlike texture of the meat makes it a hearty comfort food that's perfect for a frigid Region winter. The bone-in goat is stacked upon a savory mixture of what Jamaicans call rice and peas, which is actually rice and beans.
It's all blended together, reminiscent of dirty rice, and bursting with flavor in every bite. An entree also comes with steamed cabbage and a slice of sweet, custardy Jamaican bread.
You also get a choice of a side, with options like sweet potatoes, mac and cheese and callaloo, a spinach dish of West African origin.
For more information, call 219-227-8780 or visit phils.business.site.
TASTE TEST: Customize your mac 'n' cheese at Wagner's Ribs
PORTER — "The more the merrier," or so the saying goes. The phrase doesn't only have to refer to people. It also can refer to the ingredients in your dishes.
Wagner's Ribs, 361 Wagner Road, offers that chance with its customizable four-cheese Macaroni Bowl. While the restaurant is known more for its award-winning barbecue, this special dish deserves some recognition, too.
The bowl starts out with well-cooked cavatappi pasta covered in the scrumptious four-cheese sauce. Your role comes in with selecting two of the seven additional ingredients. This writer went with grilled chicken and crimini mushrooms, along with some complementary Cajun seasoning. The sauce is delicious and the seasoning gives it the desired kick. Pasta noodles also need not be lonely with the tender chicken and mushrooms to join it. An extra bonus is the two slices of garlic bread.
The bar for mac 'n' cheese is set with this selection. If you try it, consider crispy bacon, caramelized onions, jalapenos, grilled steak, Cajun shrimp or buffalo sauce as your other additions. This dish also comes on the pricier side at $14.
As noted above, Wagner's is a haven for meat lovers, so also consider its numerous specials — from simple pulled pork sandwiches to black Angus filet mignon.
For more information, call 219-926-7614.
TASTE TEST: Chomp into some shark at Region Ale
Sharks have a fearsome reputation because of Hollywood movies like "Jaws," "Deep Blue Sea" and "Sharknado," but far more people are killed every year by dogs, snakes, elephants and mosquitoes.
Man can turn the table on the oceanic predator and bite into a shark at Region Ale at 1080 U.S. 41 in Schererville.
The restaurant and craft beer bar, which has 50 beers on tap, serves up Cape Shark Tenders as a shareable appetizer. It's not the most terrifying shark: the cape shark is also known as the dogfish or the mud shark and grows up to only about 3 feet long. It's one of the most abundant shark species in the world and common in the Atlantic Ocean, where it's often commercially fished in the Mid-Atlantic and New England.
Region Ale serves the flaky shark meat in tender form, with a golden brown crust. It's a delicious white fish that's moist, tender flavorful. Region Ale serves it up with a lemon wedge and a remoulade, but it doesn't need any accompaniments.
For more information, call (219) 322-2337 or visit regionaletaphouse.com.
TASTE TEST: Angelo's Prime Meatball 3 Way elevates the hoagie
Angelo's Prime, a longtime staple in the south suburbs, recently opened a Schererville location near the Crossroads of America at U.S. 30 and Indianapolis Boulevard.
It's a hybrid restaurant/specialty grocery store where one can pick up fine olive oils, imported cheese, cured meats, hand-made pastas, pasta sauces, hand-dried tomatoes and other foods. Steaks and Tomahawk chops are vacuum-sealed in the same air-tight packaging used to ship high-grade meat to Prime steakhouses all over the country.
The 2,100-square-foot boutique grocery at 1542 U.S. 41 also has a restaurant menu that includes a steak sandwich, artisanal pizzas, salads, and a burger bar that includes a stuffed wagyu burger.
A house specialty is the Papa D's Special meatball sandwich. Angelo's Prime's Meatball 3 Way features gourmet meatballs made with a special blend of beef, veal and pork bathed in a house-made marinara sauce, spritzed with grated cheese and tucked into a French roll.
You can add a blanket of melted provolone and mozzarella, or pickled giardiniera to give it a kick.
The meatballs are substantial and juicy. The marinara is spicy and filled with thick chunks of tomato. The bread is freshly baked, crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
It's an Italian classic prepared with elan.
For more information, visit angelosprime.com/ or call 219-319-0075.
TASTE TEST: Go Greek with Les Cafe Pancake House's gyro skillet
HIGHLAND — One of the Region's culinary staples is the gyro. The often massive sandwiches are certain to leave one stuffed by the end.
The wonderful minds at Les Cafe Pancake House, 2708 Highway Ave., have a way of filling one up even more by rolling out their gyro skillet.
The skillet will start out like any other, throwing in potatoes and eggs done your choice of style. Then, savory strips of gyro meat are tossed in, along with feta cheese, dices tomatoes and onions. It's almost like taking a bite out of a gyro sandwich, minus the pita bread and tzatziki sauce, of course. The tasty combo of meat, tomatoes and onions goes excellently with the potatoes and eggs. The dish costs $8.79 and comes with a side of pancakes or toast.
As a Greek restaurant worth its salt, Les Cafe Pancake House has an extensive menu of tantalizing breakfast and cuisine options, such as omelettes, frittatas, French toast and crepes.
For more information, call 219-972-7831.
TASTE TEST: St. John pub offers up a devilishly good burger
ST. JOHN — The devil went down to St. John, he was looking for a meal to eat. 95ate5 Brew Pub acted hasty to make something tasty, and served up a real treat.
If you're in the mood for something hot, spicy and sure to hit the spot, the gastropub, located at 9585 N. Industrial Drive, will serve up the Devil's Due Burger.
This massive selection features a chipotle telera bun, a half-pound of spiced beef, capicola slices, roasted red peppers, red onions, pepper jack cheese and chipotle aioli sauce. It has plenty of players that will tingle your taste buds and bring on the heat. Be sure to have some water, or a beer, for this one. The burger is deliciously juicy and is complemented nicely by the capicola and vegetable additions. The meal, which comes with a side choice, totals to $12. For those brave enough, a casper style for $4 extra can be requested, which will feature ghost peppers.
95ate5 also will cook up other notable burger selections such as its Fat Jack with bacon and egg and its Pear Necessities featuring bourbon-poached pears. Plus, consider divulging in some of the craft beer selections on tap, including from 3 Floyds, Byway and The Devil's Trumpet. All can be enjoyed comfortably in 95ate5's homey, well-decorated dining room and bar.
For more information, call 219-365-6506.
TASTE TEST: Produce Depot's Avocado Sandwich a bite of freshness
Avocado toast is all the rage with the kids these days as millennials notoriously love the smooth, creamy taste of avocados, the south-of-the-border berry some claim is a superfood.
Produce Depot, the specialty grocery store and cafe at 8126 Wicker Ave. in St. John, makes a darn fine avocado sandwich.
The small market is known for its wide and well-curated selection of fresh, seasonal produce. It also has a comfy cafe that serves smoothies, juices and sandwiches with high-end deli meat at reasonable prices, including $1.99 for a fresh pressed carrot and ginger juice.
A vegetarian option is the avocado sandwich, which is packed high with fatty, delicious avocado, fresh and firm but mushed just enough to give it the decadent mouthfeel of guacamole. The avocado, rich in healthy fats, sings. High-quality ingredients really make the sandwich. It's made to order with your choice of fresh baked breads, veggies and cheeses.
The sandwich works especially well with mozzarella. The creamy, moist dollops of the buffalo milk-made cheese make the sandwich even more sumptuous, so flavorful you won't even miss the anchor of meat for a change.
For more information, call (219) 365-8280 or visit theproducedepot.com.
TASTE TEST: Mix and match sushi morsels at Furin Japanese Restaurant
VALPARAISO — In the gloomy overcast and rainy days of November, Valparaiso's downtown stretch remains homey and pleasant. Its restaurants accent the scene.
Although unassuming from the outside, the atmosphere inside Furin Japanese Restaurant & Bar, 21 Lincolnway, is a wonderful invite from the chills outside. It's a cozy spot, featuring dim, comfortable lighting, cushy seats and a wide window up front for a view of Lincolnway and Franklin Street.
Furin has an extensive menu for sushi and Japanese cuisine lovers. A great way to sample some of the selections is to order a Bento Box option. One example is Bento Box C, which will deliver a tray filled with California sushi rolls, shumai dumplings, teriyaki salmon, onion rings, crab and rice. It's a filling option that will titillate your taste buds with different textures and sauces. For $18.95 it's a bit on the pricier side, but the quality taste makes it worth it. The dinner also comes with a salad appetizer.
Furin also serves up savory alternatives including yakisoba, ramen, meat slices and, of course, sushi types with individual or meal options.
For more information, call 219-286-6648.
TASTE TEST: SciFi Donuts serves up more than just doughnuts
SciFi Donuts at 138 S. Broad St. in hipster hotspot downtown Griffith isn't just for Trekkies, science fiction fans and pop culture aficionados.
The science fiction-themed doughnut shop and cafe specializes in hand-crafted artisan doughnuts and high-end coffee, including cold brew and a nitro cold brew. Fancy, creatively constructed doughnuts like The Rings of Saturn and The Spock are baked, which some fried doughnut devotees have found off-putting but have satisfied others' sweet-tooths.
Beyond just the baked goods, SciFi Donuts also serves up a regular food menu that includes flatbreads, salads, sandwiches and specials like vegetarian chili. The doughnut shop is now running daily specials, such as a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of soup for $2.99 on Thursdays and an egg, cheese and bacon sandwich with a 12-ounce coffee for $2.99 on Mondays.
The doughnut shop makes a satisfying quesadilla. The grilled treat can include chicken, green peppers or just ooey-gooey cheese.
It's warm, comforting and just greasy enough to activate the brain's pleasure sensors — a perfect snack for a brisk fall day while perusing some of the sci-fi and science books in the doughnut shop's imaginatively decorated interior.
For more information, call 219-513-6880 or www.facebook.com/scifidonuts/.
TASTE TEST: St. John Malt Brothers cooks up superb pulled pork
ST. JOHN — Breweries often provide two things. The obvious one is a beer selection. The other is filling, creative food selections. From massive sandwiches to unimaginable toppings thrown in, their dishes often will surprise and please.
St. John Malt Brothers Brewing, 9575 Wicker Ave., cooks up a savory pulled pork sandwich, endearingly named Burnt Bottom Brown Butt. It's the perfect setup that one could ask for: buttery brioche buns, Swiss cheese and tender slices of pulled pork smothered with a divinely flavored sauce. Each bite melts nicely, and the tender meat is neither too dry nor chewy to enjoy.
Served on the side is a cup of coleslaw, a pickle slice and your choice of a bag of chips, all of which have cooler tastes to balance the salty and sweet flavors from the sandwich. All of it comes for an agreeable $8.
The selections certainly don't stop there as other options worth considering include the Turkey Bacon Chipotle Panini and the Buffalo Chicken Wrap. If you want something smaller, comfort food is available with loaded nachos or a pint of bacon. Finally, of course, consider a "killer craft" pint to enjoy in the cozy taproom.
For more information, call 219-627-4294.
TASTE TEST: Stuffed Pepper's Burger of the Gods is a divine revelation
Some burgers are for mere mortals. Other burgers are for the gods.
The Stuffed Pepper's towering Burger of the Gods would satisfy Zeus and anyone else on Mount Olympus.
The Greek restaurant at 7231 Indianapolis Blvd. in Hammond's Woodmar neighborhood is known for traditional old country dishes like Dolmades, Moussaka, Pastitsio, Spanakopita, flaming Saganaki and, of course, its namesake stuffed pepper. It's one of the few newer restaurants to still offer smelt, a longtime local staple that's fallen out of favor.
You can't go wrong with the kabobs, gyros, seafood or anything else on the menu, but at some point you should pay tribute to the Burger of the Gods, a mighty burger so towering it must be held together with a steak knife, like you'd find in a fancy steakhouse.
You can get it with grass-fed lamb or pure beef, and it's divine either way. The patty is topped with feta cheese and bacon. It sits atop a bed of lettuce, tomato, onions and huge, plump Gulf shrimp that are well-seasoned with oregano. A red pepper spread adds extra savoriness.
All that is somehow stuffed within a brioche bun, and the knife impales three Pepperoncini peppers for good measure. It's elegantly plated with drizzles of olive oil and a sprinkling of parsley.
It's a burger so big and so tasty you'd be tempted to mythologize it.
For more information, call (219) 803-0273 or visit stuffedpepper.us.
TASTE TEST: Combine Greek and American flavors at Athens Grill
LOWELL — If asked to imagine what the most American cuisine items would be, what would you think of? Eggs and bacon, hot dogs, hamburgers?
What if you were able to take that last option and add a little extra to that? Athens Grill, located at 116 Mill St. in quaint downtown Lowell, can provide just that. As the name might suggest, the establishment not only can cook up greasy delights, but also adds in Greek platters and extras in its meal options. It's an intimate restaurant as the tight-knit seating makes it feel almost like a friendly cafe.
A perfect example of this is the Athens Double Cheeseburger. The burger starts out with two, juicy patties, but sandwiched in between them are some atypical toppings (or perhaps stuffing in this case). There's a nice spread of feta cheese, savory slices of mushrooms and a dash of green olives. Each bite has that familiar flavor of a hearty burger, but it's met with the sharpness that only feta and green olives can provide. Plus, it comes at an agreeable $5.25.
Also consider other scrumptious selections, including a gyro cheeseburger or melt, pita, baklava and more.
For more information, call 219-696-4700.
TASTE TEST: Like Funyuns? Like mac and cheese? You'll 'wanna talk' to the person who created this pizza at Tomato Bar
If Funyuns on pizza is wrong, I don't want to be right. The wrongly right doesn't stop there with the I Wanna Talk to Sampson Pizza of the Month at Tomato Bar in Schererville and Valparaiso.
This creation, a nod to the movie "Half-Baked," is served up with a creamy barbecue alfredo base, a mix of mozzarella, provolone and cheddar, gooey white cheddar mac and cheese (that's right), diced banana peppers, ranch swirl and, of course the tastiest of all meats, bacon. The Funyuns are sprinkled on top for a little crunch.
The pie is bursting with flavor; it's so filling, you might only be able to polish off a slice or two at one time.
Try it before it goes up in smoke at the end of the month. Tomato Bar Schererville is at 79 U.S. 41, (219) 322-3885; Tomato Bar Valparaiso is at 2310 Laporte Ave., (219) 462-7499; or visit tomatobarpizz.com.
TASTE TEST: Giordano's thin-crust shines, too
Northwest Indiana is filled with pizzerias that serve the tavern-cut pie that's been a staple in the Chicago area long before deep dish pizza was invented in 1943.
Deep dish never has been as popular as party-cut in the Region for whatever reason. Edwardo's Natural Pizza in Munster serves up the thicker style that's been compared to a casserole, but outposts of Gino's East and Giordano's have come and gone in Highland and Merrillville, respectively.
Now Giordano's is back at 625 Lincoln Highway in Schererville, at the former Boston Pizza's space. You can, of course, get a stuffed pizza that takes 45 minutes or more to cook, and blankets a thick layer of mozzarella cheese under an even thicker layer of chunky tomato sauce.
But don't overlook Giordano's thin crust pizzas, which are fantastic and more convenient if you're hungry, pressed for time or just hoping for a quick bite.
You can get hand-stretched thin crust or crispy extra thin crust with your choice of ingredients like artichokes, garlic, garlic broccoli, giardiniera peppers, pineapple, chicken breast, chicken sausage, pesto chicken or salami.
Giordano's also offers standard options like the meat and more meat, supper veggie and "Chicago classic" with pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers and onions.
The ingredients are fresh, the cheese thick and melty, and the sauce garlicy and sweet. It may not be what Giordano's is best known for, but it's top shelf, will get out to your table faster and won't leave you so stuffed.
In the true test of any pizza, it holds up while eaten cold for breakfast the next day.
For more information, call (219) 215-0333 or visit giordanos.com.
TASTE TEST: Rosewood prepares delectable seafood morsels
PORTAGE — Can you smell the roses? Well, maybe the question is inaccurate because this doesn't have anything to do with college football nor do the smells from Rosewood Restaurant's kitchen smell like those flowers.
However, the typical, welcoming aromas of tasty food are ever-present inside this Portage family staple that has been around for a little more than 40 years. It has all the usual hitters such as hearty breakfast dishes and heaping meat and vegetable-filled platters. It sports a comfortable environment with ornate rose-themed stained glass windows, decorative glassware, containers and vases displayed around and dimmed red lights that illuminate part of the ceiling.
In a menu plentiful with options, a selection worth trying is the deep-fried shrimp. But wait, there's more: These puppies also come stuffed with crab meat. There's no need to be crabby about not having the best of both worlds when this filling dish is available. For $11.95 you can have four shrimp, a piece of toast, a potato side and soup or salad appetizer.
If seafood is what floats your boat, also consider Rosewood's scallops or perch.
For more information, in case anything seems fishy, call 219-763-3297.
TASTE TEST: Ricochet's gourmet tacos offer complex flavors
TASTE TEST: 18th Street Brewery may have Northwest Indiana's best salad
Earlier this year, 18th Street Brewery in Hammond brought in chef Andrew Dering, who has worked at the Michelin Star-winning Longman & Eagle in Logan Square and Dusek's Board and Beer in Pilsen.
He reinvented the menu at the hip, artsy brewpub at 5417 Oakley Ave. in downtown Hammond, adding elegance and sophistication to pub favorites like burgers and poutine. 18th Street now offers many standouts like steak frites, beef tenderloin tartare and a selection of meats that are cured and smoked in house.
The brewery, which also operates a taproom in Gary's Miller neighborhood, is revered for beers like it's Ed-PA extra-dimensional English India Pale Ale, Candi Crushable Pale Ale and Hunter Stout vertical series, but the food is so fantastic you'd be remiss not to try it during a visit, even if you just planned to grab a beer.
The Mixed Green Salad, an elegantly plated affair like you'd see at a fine dining restaurant, may arguably be the best salad in Northwest Indiana.
Fresh mixed greens are lightly dressed in Green Goddess dressing and blanketed with a sprinkling of lemon zest. Shaved fennel and shaved radish provide crunch and texture in every bite. Parmesan crisps add an airy, flavorful crispiness with just the right hint of saltiness.
You can drag the lettuce through refined dollops of honey infused with 18th Street's Boujee Juice, a Double Dry Hopped New England Style Double India Pale Ale with juicy, tropical flavors.
TASTE TEST: Bite into the flavor-packed French Toast Club
DYER — If you take a seat at any of the Region's breakfast establishments, menus don't fall short of offering a plethora of options or combos.
So many things sound good, but how does one choose? Sweet, syrupy pancakes or french toast? Chewy and crunchy hash browns or bacon?
The Scrambled Diner, 250 W. 81st Ave., solves any case of indecisiveness with its massive French Toast Club. This creation is stacked like a sandwich, starting with french toast pieces. Stuffed between them are slices of American cheese, an egg done whichever style you want and a big strip of bacon. It's hard to hold, so a fork and knife might be recommended for this one.
It's the best of all worlds as each bite caters to the breakfast food spectrum's sweet, salty and chewy variances. It's similar to pigs in a blanket, which features sausages wrapped in pancakes, or a McDonald's McGriddle. But the Scrambled Diner's creation will put that puny Mickey D's option to shame.
The restaurant also features other signature items such as the Tangled Up in Blue omelet, The Garbage skillet and Monkey Cakes. Eating inside is a delight as the dining area is filled with the sounds and smells of breakfast cooking and coffee brewing.
For more information, call 219-865-3950.
TASTE TEST: Frankie V's gnocchi is unexpectedly superb
Frankie V's at 1923 Calumet Ave. in Whiting is a vintage neighborhood tavern with a copper tin roof, brick walls and a row of booths.
With some decent beers on tap, a few televisions, a lot of character and an inviting low-key vibe, the establishment that filled the old Up for Grabs space would be a great place to watch the game.
But the dimly lit bar not far from Hammond's Horseshoe Casino or the Whiting lakefront doubles as an unexpectedly good Italian restaurant. The menu includes hot sandwiches like a Chicken Vesuvio, a triple-decker grilled cheese and homemade Italian sausage, as well as cold subs with top shelf ingredients like prosciutto, mortadella, and fresh mozzarella.
Diners also could get a steak, chicken by the piece or pasta like spaghetti carbonara or shrimp scampi. Frankie V's runs frequent specials like all-you-can-eat frog legs. The food is relatively inexpensive for a sit-down restaurant and plentiful, coming with a salad and buttery garlic bread.
A standout is the potato gnocchi, which is "cooked fork tender and served with Frankie V's homemade marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese." You get a choice of Italian sausage or a few huge meatballs.
The doughy dumplings are expertly prepared and filling. The hearty gnocchi is blanketed in a hot, garlicy marinara sauce that's filled with chunks of real tomato.
For more information, call (219) 655-5454.
TASTE TEST: Not your average biscuits and gravy at Benedict
DYER — So the belief goes that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The Region's plethora of breakfast eateries not only make it so, but also serve up some delicious comfort food options.
A classic staple of that group is biscuits and gravy. Different joints might alter their recipes for different additions, tastes or textures, but Benedict, at 1103 Joliet St., takes it up a notch by stuffing theirs with cheese and bacon.
The dish comes out smothered in gravy. Even though the fun is inside, they lightly garnish the top of the biscuits with some extra cheese and bacon pieces. These certainly aren't your average biscuits and gravy, as each bite has a big knock from the sharp cheddar, and the bacon pieces aren't skimpy bacon bits. A half order of these puppies costs $6.50 and a full order is $9.
Aside from the sloppy goodness, Benedict proves to be a comfortable breakfast environment. Its large, south- and west-facing windows gently let the sun in, and there's light music playing, too. Add the aroma of coffee, and it's a perfect setup for sleepyheads that have just rolled out of bed craving some tasty breakfast morsels.
For more information, call 219-440-7948.
TASTE TEST: Beer Geeks craft beer bar elevates pub fare
Northwest Indiana's first craft beer bar, Beer Geeks, will celebrate its seventh anniversary in October.
The early pioneer of Northwest Indiana's craft beer scene at 3030 45th Ave. in Highland has 20 rotating taps. It continues to serve up some of the best craft brews around in a hip setting with graffiti-like pop culture murals and oddball movies on its small old-school television screens.
The dimly lit bar focuses on drinking, with an expertly curated list of national and local craft beers far more exotic than the standard roster of Indiana Pale Ales and mass-produced lagers one might find elsewhere in the Region. But Beer Greeks has upped its food game greatly, such as with Wu Tang Wednesdays when it offers chicken and waffle sandwiches while playing the Wu Tang Clan and showing kung fu flicks.
Beer Geeks also serves elotes and a selection of delectable gourmet tacos, including a SoCal-style fish taco with "seasoned, blackened Tilapia, onion, cilantro, purple cabbage and house-made avocado cilantro sauce."
Recently, executive chef Jack Velazquez rolled out clones of Southern California's cultish In-N-Out Burgers, the legendary fast-food joint that popularized secret menus and is a de rigueur stop for anyone visiting the West Coast. The replica animal-style burger was juicy, greasy, decadent and bursting with umami.
The copycat special, which had been offered only on Thursday nights, reflects the type of discerning good taste that has made Beer Geeks such as popular hangout spot over the years.
TASTE TEST: Find filling beef stroganoff at Jedi's Garden
GRIFFITH — Family diners are kings when it comes to serving comfort food. From steamy, hot skillets topped with vegetables and cheese to meat slices smothered in sauces, gullets can delight in finding something filling.
Jedi's Garden Family Restaurant, located at 444 Ridge Rd., is one in the Region's plethora of greasy spoon joints. However, its atmosphere proves slightly more comfortable than others like it as its wide open dining area eliminates the cramped feeling some of these diners might house.
When met with the menu, it's hard to decide on a single option as you flip through the pages with lengthy lists of available dishes, often for agreeable prices.
However, Jedi's and other greasy spoons often offer daily specials. One worth catching is the beef stroganoff. It's a hefty dish that comes out hot on a skillet. Soft egg noodles cover the bottom, and cubes of tender beef and mushrooms sit on top. All of it is covered in a creamy, tangy sauce. Different textures and accents give a scrumptious taste in each bite, and all for a decent $8.95.
Depending on whether you want the dish a la carte or as a meal, some side options are available. Jedi's soup selections are good starters with delicious bowls of lemon rice, tomato basil and chicken gumbo.
For more information, call 219-923-9055.
TASTE TEST: Appetizing falafel made fresh at Mishkenut
MUNSTER — Deep down we all know that eating something deep fried isn't a healthy option. But if one wanted to try and make it a little better, look no further than the falafel.
The dish is a classic Mediterranean option of crushed chickpeas, often served in pita bread.
An establishment that cooks the delicacy well is Mishkenut Mediterranean Cuisine, found at 221 Ridge Road. It's an unassuming eatery that is similar to an intimate coffee shop in seating, space and noise level.
An order doesn't take long at all, as within minutes two warm pita filled to their brims are brought out. The falafel are surrounded by hearty additions of hummus, lettuce, tomato, cucumber and tahini. One bite delivers a grand mix of textures and flavors. There's a chewiness and crunchiness with the falafel and other vegetables. The tahini also gives a sourlike kick to the cooler flavor of the other items. All is sure to fulfill your gullet as a tasty lunch option.
The delicious options don't stop there as Mishkenut also serves up scrumptious lentil soup, a perfect appetizer on its own or along with extra pita and hummus or baba ghanoush. Also consider Mishkenut's kabob and shawarma dishes.
For more information, call 219-836-6069.
TASTE TEST: Wildrose Pub Burger pairs great with garlic fries
Wildrose Brewing in Griffith is a hip place to hang out.
The craft brewery at 1104 E Main St. near the Oak Ridge Prairie and Oak Savannah Trail is housed in a large garage-like pole barn that's adorned with brightly colored murals of skulls and roses. The modern industrial-chic interior is filled with art, Edison lights and big comfy leather chairs like one might find in a Barnes & Noble. Garage doors open up into a spacious outdoor patio where patrons can toss bags while sipping with American-style craft beers like the Hop Side of The Moon Black Rye IPA, West Coast Hopper Pale Ale and the Run to the Pils Czech Pilsner.
It's perfect place to while away a summer evening and also a great place to grab a bite. The menu includes a pot roast grilled cheese, a Portobello Philly, a Cuban sandwich and a crab dip.
The top seller is the Wildrose Pub Burger in a toasted bun that's topped with cheddar cheese, sauteed purple onions and a tangy horseradish aioli that perfectly complements the beef. It's good quality beef, an 80/20 ground chuck patty that's fatty enough to be bursting with flavor.
Go ahead and splurge and pay $1 more for the Garlic Parmesan Fries. It's well worth it. Hand-cut fries with plenty of potato skin showing are heavily dusted in finely minced garlic and "the King of Cheeses." They're fresh and so savory you might be tempted to lick your fingers clean.
TASTE TEST: Pierogi an old world comfort food at Pokro Brewing
Pierogi Fest in Whiting this weekend will celebrate the Region's Eastern European heritage.
As polka music thumps, buscias putter around in housecoats and 300,000 visitors pack 119th Street more tightly than an overstuffed halupki, more than 100 vendors will serve up pierogi and other Polish delicacies.
But you don't have to wait until the end of July to savor some rich, buttery pierogi.
The dumplings are available at a number of Region restaurants, including Pokro Brewing at 311 N. Broad St. in Griffith. The craft brewery, which specializes in Belgian, English and other European-style beers, has a monthly Polish Night on the first Thursday of every month with a traditional Polish food menu that includes golabki, bigos, and cabbage and noodles.
The regular food menu features pierogi, including meat, potato and cheese, and bacon, kraut and cheese. They're plump, grilled and bursting with flavor.
If you're thirsty, the comforting, savory pierogi will help soak up the Pokro's potent craft beers, like the Grejpfrut IPA, Caveman Brown Ale and Cammit! Witbier.
TASTE TEST: Third Shift Burger at Round the Clock a workingman's feast
The joke "When does Round the Clock close?" never gets tired, unless you've heard it 50 times before.
The long-running diner at 9010 Indianapolis Blvd. is known for hearty breakfasts, including Five Egg Omelettes, Five Stack Pancakes and the Four Cheese Scrambler. You can, of course, get breakfast at any time, but there's also an expansive lunch and dinner menu that includes wraps, club sandwiches, paninis and Manhattans.
The burger selection is solid, and you could opt to get both breakfast and lunch under one bun with the Third Shift Burger. Round the Clock is a place where third-shift workers actually eat after clocking out, and their namesake burger is substantial enough to replenish anyone after a long work day.
It's a big juicy half-pound burger cooked to order and blanketed in gooey, melted cheddar cheese. For those ending their days just as everyone else is waking up, it's topped with a farm fresh egg over easy and strips of savory bacon, as well as lettuce, tomato and onion. It's a perfect fusion of savory flavors, and runny egg yolk ups the umami.
Since Greek diners don't do anything halfway, there's a wealth of alternatives to just french fries if you want a different side, including sweet potato fries, waffle fries, onion rings, potato wedges, fruit, tomato slices, vegetables, cole slaw, cottage cheese, baked potato, sweet potato, mashed potatoes or rice.
For more information, visit roundtheclock.com or call (219) 923-4546.
TASTE TEST: Hearty sandwiches served hot at Franklin House
VALPARAISO — If your taste buds seek bold flavor, why not leave it to a trustworthy source? If age is a determiner in that sense, you can find it at a place that bills itself as one of the absolute oldest establishments in Northwest Indiana: Franklin House.
The establishment, at 58 S. Campbell St., opened in 1857 and nowadays serves up a hardy gastropub selection along with more than 100 beers. It's hard to pinpoint what theme the restaurant goes for, as its logo captures a nod to the railroad, sports flags and banners hang on the walls and figures such as a devil's head, Jason Voorhees and a dancing leprechaun join the commotion. Perhaps it's all just part of the fun.
A notable selection worthy trying is Franklin House's Cubano sandwich. The dish starts out with panini bread slices that are toasted to perfection. Next it's got a plentiful stuffing of roast beef and ham. Finally, some delightful extras help balance the taste with sharp Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and garlic-lime aioli. While french fries tend to be hit or miss at different restaurants, Franklin House gets its lightly browned and crispy offering just right.
Also consider its other sandwich selections with fun names such as Black & Bleu or Muenster Mash, or even its award-winning burgers renowned in Porter County.
For more information, call 219-707-5468.
TASTE TEST: These aren't your momma's brussels sprouts
MERRILLVILLE — Many visitors come to Cooper's Hawk for the wine and entrees, but the appetizer menu has several standout dishes that shouldn't be missed.
Among the favorites are the "Award-winning" Asian Pork Belly Tostadas, Crispy Crab Beignets and the Mexican Drunken Shrimp. But a newer app might catch your eye: the Crispy Brussels Sprouts. These are not your momma's brussels sprouts. The hot, crunchy veggies are served with cashews, mint, sweet Thai chili and a sesame-srirachi aioli so tasty you might want to drink it.
Be warned, though, this pre-meal treat is filling. A group of three or four people easily could share it as an appetizer.
The app is on the menu for $8.99 at Cooper's Hawk, 2120 Southlake Mall, Suite 500. For more information, visit coopershawkwinery.com or call 219.795.9463.
TASTE TEST: Taste buds take flight with Octave Grill's Albatross Sandwich
CHESTERTON — Even before the Wright Brothers completed their historic flight in 1903, Frenchman Octave Chanute had pioneered gliders over the Dunes near Lake Michigan. There's nods to those experiments in the menu designs and offerings at Octave Grill.
The restaurant, at 137 S. Calumet Road in the town's quaint downtown, has a homey, Midwestern vibe to it, evident in its humble wooden and metal chairs, artwork depicting covered bridges and corn ear-shaped salt and pepper shakers.
Your taste buds are cleared for takeoff with the Albatross Sandwich. However, unlike the actual bird, the chicken served between two ciabatta buns probably has a flying, or rather gliding, ability more similar to Monsieur Chanute's experiments. The grilled-to-perfection breast also is served with strips of bacon, Swiss cheese, greens, tomato, key lime aioli and grilled onions. It's an excellent blend of flavors that combines juicy, salty meat and cheese and provides that sweet, grilled onion kick at the end.
The restaurant offers a vast selection of other scrumptious sandwiches with pork and beef, but is also known for their burger creations, sporting names such as Clawhammer, Figgy Piggy" and Chanute. Several of these options also take in local ingredients from Tallgrass Beef and Fair Oaks Farms. Also, feel free to dabble in local craft beer selections, including 3 Floyds and Burn 'Em from the Region and Founders from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For more information, call 219-395-8494.
TASTE TEST: Dragobobs offer Croatian spin on grilled meat
It's been remarked that the Region has two seasons: blizzard and orange cones.
Summer isn't just all about road construction — it's also a season of festivals in Northwest Indiana. The Region loves its festivals: ethnic festivals, arts festivals, town festivals, corn roasts, church parking lot festivals and massive gatherings like Pierogi Fest and Festival of the Lakes.
Region residents will turn out anywhere if there's warm weather, a ray of sun, an outdoor beer garden and a few carnival rides. But nothing says festival quite like the scent of grilled meat wafting through the air.
A great option at local festivals is the Dragobob shish-ka-bob, Croatian-style marinated meat that's been sizzling on the grill at Dyer Summer Fest and Crown Point Festival Days. It's a decade-old business from Hegewisch that uses a "secret family recipe" to season its meat the way they do in the old country.
Nothing is quite as primal or satisfying as grilled meat on a stick. The Dragobob is expertly seasoned and charred just enough to have that smokey grill flavor.
If you don't come across the food truck this summer, you can find the Dragobob at Doreen's Pizza at 726 Joliet St. in Dyer, 13201 S. Baltimore Ave. in Chicago's Hegewisch neighborhood or at Welch's Stop and Shop at 11333 W. 95th Place in St John.
For more information, visit www.dragobobs.net.
TASTE TEST: Venture to Purple Steer for classic pork tenderloin
HIGHLAND — There's one thing family-style restaurants get right: providing classic comfort food that is certain to fill and please your gullet.
But another thing Purple Steer, 8601 Indianapolis Blvd., gets right is its take on pork tenderloin. If you're a true, meat-eating Midwesterner, let alone Hoosier, finding the perfect, deep-fried slab of meat to throw on a plate or sandwich can be difficult.
However, the restaurant will make it worth your while by smothering some heaping slices with brown gravy. It's quite the collection of flavor. The pork has a salty, crispy taste on the outside, a chewy inside and surprising sweetness in the brown gravy for an excellent mix. The plentiful helping of the gravy also is good for the optional side of mashed potatoes, which are bland until mixed with the topping. It all comes at an agreeable price of $9.99 for a super filling lunch, dinner or late-night hunger craving for the 24-hour establishment.
This restaurant isn't done yet though, as there are plenty of other delicious options worth trying, including well-priced breakfast skillets and omeletes, meat and french fry baskets, ribs, seafood and ice cream sundaes.
For more information, call 219-838-0514.
TASTE TEST: Wagyu burger and 'Death Penalty' fries shine
Angelo's is a well-established brand in Chicago's South Suburbs that recently planted a foothold in Schererville, where it's serving up some prime beef.
Angelo's Prime at 1542 US-41 is upscale Italian market with fine olive oils, handmade pasta, imported cheeses and steaks from the renowned Meats by Linz, which supplies Gold Coast steakhouses. It doubles as a restaurant with artisanal pizzas and gourmet burgers.
The burgers are top shelf, more like something you'd find in a downtown steakhouse than a Schererville strip mall. They're mostly blends of short rib, brisket and chuck "cooked to a perfect juicy medium" unless otherwise specified.
The Wise Guy Wagyu burger features a whopping half pound of Wagyu Kobe beef, world-renowned for its richness and marbling. The massive slab of fine meat is topped with aged cheddar and American cheeses. It's served on a brioche bun traditionally with lettuce, tomato, pickle and garlic mayo.
It's huge, it's juicy and decadently marbled. Make sure to order the burger medium rare to bring out the full flavor of such high-end beef.
The Wise Guy Wagyu of course pairs well with fries, which range from guiltless to less guilty to "The Death Penalty," or savory garlic butter fries covered in melted cheese and crispy bacon that really wouldn't be a bad way to go out.
For more information, visit www.angelosprime.com or call (219) 319-0075.
TASTE TEST: Get speedy takeout tacos at Taqueria La Soga
LANSING — Now that Lynnie Ques has moved less than a quarter of a mile to its new Lansing Municipal Airport location, there's been something else cooking in its former strip mall spot. The creative hands at Taqueria La Soga, 19267 Burnham Ave., are doing just that.
The establishment is humble, with a similar layout as Lynnie Ques had with its takeout counter, large kitchen space, and a couple of tables near the window.
A tasty option are the various taco styles available individually, especially al Pastor edition, which is marinated pork. If you've got somewhere to be, these can be ready on the fly. I was pleasantly surprised when I was told on the phone it would only be five minutes until they were ready.
Taqueria La Soga packages their tacos neatly, coming flat on a plate wrapped in tin foil rather than a bag or container that may mess them up. One bite is heavenly as the marinated pork is cooked to perfection, has a slight spice and tastes a little sweet like barbecue. Onions and cilantro are also available and are recommended to change up the taste for a little zest. Tacos also automatically come with a small bag of tortilla chips with a choice of four different salsas.
Also consider trying the restaurant's taco dinners and other combos with burritos or tortas.
For more information, call 708-858-6002.
Crown Point's Tavern on Main has a taste of New England on the menu
Crown Point's Tavern on Main opened as gastro-pub that aimed to bring a Chicago feel to the downtown Crown Point Square.
A group of four partners, including former Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Sr., invested in the handsomely appointed bar with a respectable craft beer list and a street sign that shows some real artistry.
The idea was to serve elevated pub fare. Tavern on Main delivers with trendy items like street tacos, chicken and waffles, crispy cauliflower, a pork belly burger, ahi tuna wonton nachos, a short rib flatbread, short rib poutine and short rib grilled cheese. In addition to fashionable dishes that could be found on many a pour house menu in the city, the restaurant at 136 S. Main St. serves some time-honored tavern classics like Scotch eggs.
The lobster roll may not be the best thing available on a menu jam-packed with tasty options like a po boy and shrimp and grits, but it's the kind of thing that's still rare enough in Northwest Indiana that some will order it anytime they see it.
Tavern on Main has a respectable take on the New England classic. Fresh lobster meat is tossed in a flavorful creole mayo that gives it a bit of a Cajun kick, distinguishing it from more traditional versions that keep the focus on the lobster. Lettuce adds a crunch, and juicy tomatoes fill out the light summery lobster roll, which comes with fries and pickle.
For more information, call (219) 779-9377.
TASTE TEST: Treat your soul at Mama Pearl's
GARY — If there's avid Gary SouthShore Railcats fans out there, a home run combo of summertime baseball and food may be out there for you. In fact, it may just be right across the street at Mama Pearl's BBQ & Soul Food.
The restaurant, at 411 E. Fifth Ave., gets its name from the co-owner's mother, Pearl Mason, who is 105 years old. Mama Pearl's specializes in soul food.
Mama Pearl's also shares space with ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen in its trendy building with multicolored lanterns. The inside is modern and spacious, with walls donned by colorful paintings courtesy of local artist Karina Mitchell.
On its extensive menu, an item worth chowing on is the shrimp dinner, which comes at $14.50. The shrimp pieces are deep-fried to a golden color and a subtle, delicious spiciness to them. You also get a choice of two traditional soul food sides, such as collard greens, baked mac and cheese and cornbread.
Mama Pearl's also offers other filling options such as chicken pieces, barbecue ribs and rib tips.
For more information, call 219-801-2113.
TASTE TEST: Lynnie Ques soars at Lansing airport
Lynnie Ques has one of the best views in Lansing and some pretty darn good barbecue, too.
The restaurant overlooks the airfield at the Lansing Municipal Airport, giving diners an expansive view of planes taking off and landing.
The traditional barbecue joint, which previously had been a carry-out place in a strip mall, now occupies the former Shannon’s Landing restaurant space in the general aviation airport at the corner of Glenwood-Lansing Road and Burnham Avenue, not far across the state line.
Lynnie Ques has a full bar and a full-service dine-in restaurant adorned with aviation memorabilia, including a framed copy of an old Hammond Times about a nearby plane crash that killed four, including Professional Golfers Association Tour golfer "Champagne" Tony Lema.
You take the elevator up to the second floor, where almost every seat in the house seems to overlook the taxiway.
The barbecue is great and modestly priced. A good lunch option is the half slab of ribs basket. It’s an All-American basket with golden french fries, creamy cole slaw and barbecue sauce-slathered ribs. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and perfectly seasoned.
The slow-cooked ribs are fantastic, but the ambiance alone will cause your spirit to take flight.
For more information, call 708-474-7837.
TASTE TEST: Gooey goodness served fresh at Zantes
HAMMOND — National Grilled Cheese Day is almost a month behind us, but the simple, classic item is a pleasant lunchtime, comfort food option.
Except, kick it up a notch and try the grilled cheese's meaty cousin: a patty melt, courtesy of Zantes Restaurant in Hammond, located at 3619 169th St.
The cooks select a great flavor combo for an item open to many creative variations: rye bread, Swiss cheese and caramelized onions. Rye bread has that slight bitterness, but ends up having a good taste and crunch after being toasted and grilled. The onions are a sweet addition that flows nicely with that sharpness of the cheese for a juicy, gooey bite. The sandwich is served for $5 and a combo with fries and a drink is available for $7.55.
Zantes also has a neat interior. It's an interesting mix in nods to the mid-20th century with '40s and '50s model cars and Chicago sports team memorabilia donning the walls. A pleasant plus is the atrium in the back. The skylights, no matter what the weather is like outside, provide comfortable natural lighting to accompany a lunch or dinner.
Zantes also has a plethora of other juicy items like a variety of hamburgers, wings, sub sandwiches and gyros.
For more information, call 219-844-0222.
TASTE TEST: Balkan Grill's stuffed burger a cheesy wonder
One of the best burgers in Northwest Indiana just might be in Balkan food trailer at a truck stop in Gary.
The Balkan Grill Restaurant at 3101 Grant St., just off the Borman Expressway, serves traditional Balkan fare like cevapci, raznjici, smoked sausage and pork kebobs. It caters to Eastern European immigrants who have come over for a job fewer and fewer Americans want: driving tractor-trailers for long hauls across the nation’s highways and byways. The restaurant is a no-frills places with no ambiance and little seating that has a bottle opener you rap on the counter if no one comes out to take your order in a few minutes. There’s a draft in the winter and a stuffiness in the summer. It is in fact a trailer.
There’s a few picnic tables outside for a view of the semi-trailers that relentlessly parade up and down Grant Street for fuel stops on one of the busiest stretches of interstate in the Midwest.
Stop in and get your food to go. While you wait, expect to hear the crackle of truckers' radios. The Balkan Grill is after all by the Petro Stopping Center in Gary.
The guy behind the counter speaks little English but make it clear you want the stuffed burger. He’ll tell you it’ll be 20 minutes with a tone like he’s trying to dissuade you.
Don’t be dissuaded. It’s well worth the wait. It’s an amazing burger the size of a hub cap that comes in pita bread. Balkan burgers are formed like meatballs until they're the perfect shape for grilling, and have the added flavor of a spice rack's worth of seasoning. The Balkan Grill's stuffed burger is injected with a gob of decadently melty mozzarella cheese like a Jucy Lucy in Minneapolis. You’ll feel like you’re savoring a fistful of cheese sticks, a big burger and something ethnic — all in one bite.
Like all the dishes there, the stuffed burger comes with diced onions, a scoop of spicy feta and creamy kajmak in a Styrofoam container. Don’t be surprised if you end up with leftovers.
For more information, call (219) 670-5563.
TASTE TEST: Find excellent flavors at Exotic Thai Cuisine
HIGHLAND — Sometimes when driving on Indianapolis Boulevard in Highland, it may feel like it's just passing by one car dealership after another. But tucked away in a corner after passing Thomas Dodge and Chrysler lies a treat found in Exotic Thai Cuisine.
The restaurant has an unassuming exterior. But it's what's inside that counts, right? The entrance has ornate decorations. The main dining room is pleasantly brightened by plenty of natural light on all sides and has a wonderful stir-fry smell. Its one downside is the room gives way to a lot of echoing, making it not the quietest dining experience if you can hear the conversation from the other side.
Thai cuisine has numerous delicious options, but an item worth sampling is the restaurant's Pad See Ew dish. This classic option features flat rice noodles that have been stir-fried with broccoli and egg along with your choice of meat. It's all covered with a scrumptious black bean sauce. Each bite is an excellent flavor blend with the saltiness of ingredients mixing nicely with the sauce's sweetness. It also comes at an agreeable price of $8.95 and is large enough to share.
Also consider other items such as classic Pad Thai, Pa-nang Curry and Glass Noodles.
For more information, call 219-924-7737.
TASTE TEST: The Market's fried chicken a near-religious experience
VALPARAISO — The fried chicken at The Market in Valpo will make you forget all about Strongbow Inn's turkey.
The Market is a southern comfort food restaurant in the iconic Strongbow space at 2405 Morthland Drive in Valparaiso. It is run by the culinary geniuses behind Tomato Bar, Ricochet Tacos and the pioneering but bygone Valley Kitchen & Bar that was one of the hottest tables on the square in downtown Valpo.
The revamped interior is filled with local art, a whimsical chalkboard mural and a portrait of counter-culture icon and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in the lobby. Drinks come in trendy Mason jars, and stylish Edison lights glow overhead.
The fried chicken is divine.
It's made with plump, meaty Amish chicken that's almost unbelievably juicy. The breading sings with honey, thyme and secret spices, the recipe for which must be securely squirreled away in a vault somewhere. The hint of honey blends with the chicken's savoriness for a superlative contrast of sweet and salty.
You get several pieces of chicken, along with a potato side with kale, bacon, chicken gravy and sriracha.
For more information, call 219-531-0162 or visit themarketvalpo.com.
TASTE TEST: Retro-style Skeeter's and breakfast are happy together
WHITING — Decked out with retro-style purple V-back seating, checkered floors and posters of James Dean, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, Skeeter's Diner can take you several decades back in time.
With music from that time period, like The Turtles, and a menu of traditional breakfast items, the diner's atmosphere and cuisine are happy together.
An item worth trying is the restaurant's relatively new breakfast panini, which management says is in its third month of existence. You get your choice of meat and cheese combined with scrambled eggs and stuffed together in between grilled sourdough bread. The taste is exceptional, too, with the crispy bread and gooey cheese. A fork and knife are recommended because the cheese can make the sandwich a little difficult and sloppy to hold if eaten right away. It's all available for the agreeable price of $5.95.
If you're in the mood for something else, consider the build-your-own skillet or omelette for $6.45 and $6.95 respectively. It's also perfect if you're the earliest of the early birds. The restaurant opens at 5 a.m. and is good for something to grab-and-go on your way to work, too.
For more information on the eatery, 1510 119th St., call 219-659-4009.
TASTE TEST: Eat breakfast like a steelworker at Grindhouse Cafe
Grindhouse Cafe, 146 N. Broad St. in Griffith, caffeinates the Region with an ever-changing variety of potent coffee drinks that will power you through your day.
Its creative menu frequently changes and has included beverages like whisky barrel-aged iced coffee, the surrealist “Laura Palmer” that blended lemonade and espresso, a “Sproh Rootie” root beer with two shots of espresso, the “St. Patrick Sajak” white chocolate and peppermint latte and the “Southside Parade” Irish cream latte.
The #grINDiana “coffee monsters” at Grindhouse serve up freshly roasted Metropolis and Dark Matter coffee, including in pour-overs that “bring out all the notes notes notes notes notes.”
The kinetic creativity at Grindhouse spills over into the food menu, both in the food truck and the funky, eclectic cafe. It’s a hip space filled with concert fliers, action figures, zines and locally roasted coffee beans that has an excellent selection of sandwiches and regular specials like the Duck Bacon BLT.
The quirky coffee shop has an underappreciated breakfast menu where everything is $5.50 from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Try the Local 1010 Burrito that pays homage to the legendary union that’s long represented workers at ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor.
It’s a meal fit for a steelworker with a hearty helping of egg and BBQ pulled pork. Sharp cheddar and red onion make it tangy. Sriracha gives it a kick.
The only thing better than breakfast is breakfast in burrito form, and the only thing better than that is if you can wash it down with a bespoke Grindhouse coffee.
TASTE TEST: Sandwiches courtesy of Stella
HAMMOND — Bigger is not always better, and sometimes the tiny spots hidden in the nooks and crannies are treasures in and of themselves, such as Stella V.ie Cafe in downtown Hammond.
The small space gets its name from Virginette Fitzpatrick, the owner whose childhood nickname was "Stella," which nods to the old Angela Basset movie "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." The cafe is nestled on the first floor of the old Indiana Building at 5246 Hohman Ave. Its tall windows and trendy interior with wall decorations and small tables gives a unique contrast to the towering, classic buildings of long ago that line downtown Hammond's streets.
More than just a simple cafe for coffee and tea, the establishment makes unique sandwiches. One option worth trying is the Kenturkey. Served on your choice of sub sandwich bread, it's heartily stuffed with sliced turkey breast, pimento cheese, bacon and spicy jicama slaw.
The dish has a delicious taste as the cold turkey and cheese spread mix with the saltiness of the bacon and hot kick from the slaw. For the price of $7 you get the sandwich as well as a side of kettle chips, salad or pasta salad.
The cafe also serves up other sandwich and wrap options worth trying, including the Louisville Garden, Ameri-Itali-Can, Mediterranean Shroom and Green Bus Wrap. All cost a decent price between $4 and $7.
If you find yourself in downtown Hammond or exiting the nearby South Shore station anytime soon, consider stopping in to see Stella and her cafe.
For more information, call 219-802-5009.
TASTE TEST: McGinnis Pub counting down to St. Patrick's Day
MICHIGAN CITY — Even though Chicago held some of its St. Patrick's Day festivities early, Region restaurants like McGinnis Pub, at 227 W. Seventh St., are gearing up and counting down for this Friday's celebrations.
We're not kidding when we say that; the restaurant literally has a digital clock counting down to the second. With green hats, beads and more in its plethora of decorations, the establishment and its specials may pique your St. Patrick's Day fancy as a venue to attend. Even if you go on a different day, it's a stone's throw away from Lighthouse Premium Outlets in the middle of fashionable Wabash and Washington streets.
Its origins are debated, but shepherd's pie is a standard pub food option and comfort dish worth trying. The pub serves a heaping bowl of the mix, which includes ground beef, onions, celery, all topped with a mashed potato pancake and surrounded by a savory broth. It comes out steaming hot with a savory aroma, but after one bite, even the heat won't make you want to wait for another salty, mouthwatering spoonful. The dish also comes with a slices of Irish soda and brown bread, all for $9.95.
If you'd like to dabble in other Irish items the restaurant offers, also consider their corned beef sandwich and Irish spring rolls. If you're 21 or older, Guinness specials will be ready, too.
For more information, call 219-872-8200.
TASTE TEST: Be one of the lucky diners to try pistachio pancakes at Scrambled
DYER — The first bite of this month's specialty pancakes at The Scrambled Diner will make you feel like you've found a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. They're that good.
The words "Pistachio pancakes" written on the specials chalkboard at the cozy restaurant give diners no indication of what will appear before them after ordering the colorful creation.
The St. Patrick's Day-inspired flapjacks are made with regular pancake batter, green food coloring, pistachios and pistachio pudding. They're topped with fresh whipped cream, then sprinkled with chocolate chips. There's no need to add maple syrup — they're just the right amount of sweet.
If a full stack seems too indulgent and you're more of a protein-for-breakfast kind of person, you can upgrade your toast to a pistachio pancake for an upcharge when ordering an omelet.
No matter what you order at Scrambled, you likely won't be disappointed. But your luck will run out March 31 when the pistachio pancakes disappear from the menu.
For more information on the offerings at the diner, 250 81st Ave., visit scrambleddiner.com or call 219-865-3950.
TASTE TEST: Asada Grill & Cantina's whole tilapia a deep-fried delight
Lent starts today, and the Region's many Catholics will spend Fridays at fish fries in churches and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls.
If you're in the mood for something other than a breaded plank of white fish, local restaurants abound with copious seafood dishes. Asada Grill & Cantina at 216 S. Broad St. in Griffith is no exception.
The cozy Mexican restaurant that replaced Niko's Steak & Seafood by the train tracks in Griffith offers authentic Mexico City cuisine, with "a modern twist." Asada boasts 16 different South of the Border seafood options, including Cerviche De Cameron, Salmon Yucatan, Mahi Mahi ala Mexicana and Red Snapper ala Veracruzana.
If you're going to eat fish for Lent, why not get the whole fish? Asada's Mojarra Frita is a deep-fried whole tilapia — head, tail, fins and all. The tender, flaky fish peels right off the flank, and bones aren't as much of an issue as one would expect.
It's a sight to behold, is served piping hot straight out of the deep fryer and comes with plenty of lemon wedges for spritzing. The presentation is immaculate — along with the standard rice and refried beans, you get a salad, scoop of guacamole and garnishes of tomato and orange.
For more information, call 219-934-0400.
TASTE TEST: Calumet Bakery's pączki a seasonal favorite
Chicagoland allegedly has the most Poles outside Poland, and the Eastern European immigrants brought one of Northwest Indiana's most treasured treats: paczki.
Paczki are traditionally made before Lent when faithful Catholics empty everything from their fridges and pantries — all the sugar, lard, baker's yeast, eggs and fruit — before they have to fast for Lent. They made a rich dough that's deep-fried into a doughnut on steroids.
It's dusted with a heaping dose of confectioner's sugar and filled with Bavarian cream, custard, blueberries, strawberries, plums or other traditional fillings. Paczki, pronounced poonch-key, are about as decadent as it gets.
They're widely available around the Region before Lent, including at Strack & Van Til supermarkets. Great paczki are made at Beck's Crown Bakery in Crown Point, Branya's Bakery in St. John and Calumet Bakery in Whiting, Lansing and Chicago.
Calumet Bakery's strawberry paczki are not to be missed. The fruit is fresh and smothered in a syrupy filling. Every bite is indulgent. It's so rich you might even eat only half at a time — you'll still be full and still have a nice sugar buzz.
TASTE TEST: Spice up your breakfast with the Cherry Tree's taco skillet
ROWN POINT — One can find many a delicious skillet available at Region breakfast establishments. But do you ever look for one that just gives that extra kick of flavor? The taco skillet will do just that.
It's available at the Cherry Tree Restaurant, 1312 N. Main St. Tucked away in a small strip mall, its easygoing environment is pleasant for breakfast or lunch. Accented by a mix of small, glacier-pattern and larger windows, as well as plants on mantels, it feels as if you're relaxing in a lounge or basement.
In size, the taco skillet may be unassuming. But within the mound of ground taco meat, melted cheese and diced vegetables lies a grand taste.
One spoonful delivers a smooth and salty taste as the soft meat, crisp vegetables and gooey cheese melt together. Then, it hits you: the jalapeno pepper in that same bite gives it all that fiery edge. With the provided side of mild salsa, you can add that extra tangy taste. The included side of pancakes or toast can also help take that spicy aftertaste off.
The Cherry Tree's menu has other satisfying breakfast options, such as waffles and crepes. If your mind is on lunch, try its sandwich, soup and salad options as well.
For more information, call 219-661-1800.
TASTE TEST: Artsy Frida's Cafe has artful take on Mexican food
Frida's Cafe in Hammond's Hessville neighborhood is a tribute to the acclaimed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and it makes a dramatic impression when you walk in.
Vibrant colors are splashed across the extravagantly decorated interior. Replica Frida paintings line the walls. Day of the Dead skulls adorn the colorful chairs and festive gift shop. Mexican folk art is everywhere in the coffee shop, which has a substantial food menu.
The food is as artful as the cafe is artsy.
Frida's Cafe, inside the White Ripple Gallery at 6725 Kennedy Ave., offers off-the-beaten path Mexican cuisine such as Molletes, Quesaritas, and the Guajolota torta from Mexico City. The presentation is always immaculate — hot chocolate for instance comes in a folksy ceramic mug on a plate with a sugar cookie for dipping.
A new addition is the Guacamaya, a traditional torta from the Guanajuato region of Mexico.
Crunchy pork skin, chewy pickled pork rinds and fresh slices of lush avocado are stuffed into grilled bolillo bread. It's topped with pico de gallo and drizzled with sour cream. There's a far more interesting mix of textures than you'd find in an average sandwich, all the ingredients are top-notch and it's plated elegantly.
For more information, call (219) 554-3140 or visit www.facebook.com/fridascafeandgallery/.
TASTE TEST: Aladdin Pita cooks scrumptious sandwiches
MERRILLVILLE — Have you ever had trouble eating a sandwich without making a mess while it's wrapped up? If you've never had a pita sandwich before, trying one just might cure your troubles.
Aladdin Pita, 3750 W. 80th Lane, serves the unique, delicious and filling delicacy. It's one of many options included in the restaurant's Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine.
A particular selection worth trying is the chicken shawerma sandwich. The pita, which is hollow and unleavened, is cut open and stuffed with seasoned chicken slices that have been cooked on a rotisserie, as well as lettuce, tomatoes and onions. It even comes with a side of tahini sauce, which is made with sesame seeds, lemon and garlic in case you'd like an extra zing to the overall flavor.
If the sandwich alone might not satisfy your appetite, that's all right because the restaurant's pita sandwiches come with a cup of either lemon rice or lentil soup. Guests also receive complimentary pitas at the start of their meal, along with hummus, baba ganoush and more. All that is available for $5.99.
Also consider Aladdin Pita's other selections, such as kababs, ground chickpea patties, known as falafels, and even the sweet, syrupy baklava pastry.
For more information, call 219-736-5204.
TASTE TEST: Rolling Stonebaker's Purple Pig brings the pork
Rolling Stonebaker has long wowed anyone who tried one of its acclaimed wood-fired flatbreads from its food truck, a stylishly retro 1949 Studebaker fire truck.
WTTW, the Chicago PBS affiliate, ranked it among the best pizzerias in the state and Food Network Magazine went further, flat-out declaring it the best pizza in all of Indiana. A Yelp reviewer also has proclaimed Rolling Stonebaker the best pizza in Northwest Indiana.
While that all may be up for debate, and Rolling Stonebaker might be a little too contemporary for some traditionalists, a little too fancy for some purists, it does make a mean pie at its new brick-and-mortar restaurant at 54 Lafayette Street in downtown Valparaiso. The eatery is small, but it will have rooftop dining that will offer panoramic views of one of the most happening downtowns in the Region.
One of its signature pizzas, which are sized for one, is The Purple Pig. It is quite purple, extravagantly so as it's covered with tangy balsamic vinegar-dressed coleslaw and barbecue sauce. The heaping, overflowing slaw – mostly just colorful red cabbage – is fresh and crunchy and oh so Southern, the perfect complement to the slow-roasted pork shoulder that makes The Purple Pig a pizza you won’t soon forget. The meat is falling-off-the-bone succulent.
The cheese is top-shelf, and the thin crust is crisped to perfection, but the tender pork makes the pizza utterly delectable.
For more information, call (219) 462-0443 or visit rollingstonebaker.com.
TASTE TEST: El Chaparral makes tasty, filling quesadillas
MERRILLVILLE — Sometimes the best things in life are the ones you don't expect.
That's the case with El Chaparral. Traveling on Taft Street between U.S. 30 and 73rd Avenue, you might not notice it. It's located at 7849 Taft St., tucked away in the corner of the Taft Street Plaza strip mall. It has an unassuming exterior and humble interior, but the dishes are very much worth it.
One great selection is the scrumptious Quesadilla Carnitas. It includes a flour tortilla, pork carnitas, onions and tomatoes, all made on the grill. Every bite is delicious as the salty meat mixes with the savory grilled vegetables and creamy queso blanco sauce on top to give an all-around powerful flavor. Small sides of rice and beans are also a plus.
Other quesadilla options look appetizing as well, especially with their combination of ingredients, such as the Quesadilla Chihuahua, which comes with Chihuahua cheese, ham and avocado slices.
These items are also quite affordable, as all but one of the quesadilla options are less than $10. They're also quite large, so they're perfect for a big appetite or to split with another. Did we mention the heaping bowl of chips and salsa included, too?
Try other tasty items, such as their enchiladas or fajitas, or even their burrito cheesecake. It's tasty sustenance for a great value.
For more information, call 219-472-0328.
TASTE TEST: Tandoor Cuisine of India serves delectable, authentic dishes
SCHERERVILLE — Following a renovation that transformed the establishment approximately two years ago, Tandoor Cuisine of India dishes out scrumptious Indian food.
The interior offers a pleasant dining experience with placid blue walls and gentle shades of orange and purple mixed in with the seats.
One step in the door and you're hit with the enticing smells of spices and meats. Many of the restaurant's dishes, and Indian cuisine in general, are excellent with the seasoning or sauces used to deliver powerful flavors.
One particular delectable selection is the chicken tikka masala. Its bright orange hue as it's served in a katori bowl is eye-catching. The chicken's been cooked in a tandoor oven and then spiced with a cream sauce. The mix of flavors among all those items give a salty, but smooth taste to every bite. If you like your food hot, you can request a particular level of spiciness from your server.
The dish, as well as others, typically costs about $14. While it may be on the pricier side, it will fill you up. It's perfect to split with a friend or date. For a few dollars more, you can order a side of delicious basmati rice to go along with it to soak up some of the sauce.
Other valuable items include naan bread, an array of cake and pudding desserts and an extensive beer and wine list. The majority of the menu's items are vegetarian, gluten-free or both.
For more information on the restaurant, 1535 U.S. 41, call 219-865-9511.
TASTE TEST: Twincade has next-level food
Griffith has one of the trendiest, most up-and-coming downtowns in Northwest Indiana with three craft breweries, two vinyl record shops, a hip coffee shop, a juicery and now a music venue.
Twincade, an arcade bar that opened last year at 108 N. Broad St., has packed in nostalgic crowds looking to recapture their childhoods while mashing buttons on vintage games like Centipede, Double Dragon and Galaga. A well-curated selection of craft beer like 18th Street Temporal Purgatory and Burn 'Em Dark Side of the Brew is on tap.
The menu is also boss. Twincade for instance has a fig pizza with fig jam, brie, caramelized onions and granny smith apples, and an aged cheddar sammie with peach lavender jam.
Try the chicken and waffle sliders on the appetizer menu. A southern staple that's made incursions on menus all over, chicken and waffles play off the time-honored sweet/salty dynamic. The Twincade version comes with crispy tender chicken, plump airy waffles, cheddar cheese and strawberry balsamic jam. Sweet maple syrup comes on the side in a ramekin so it can be added to taste.
For more information, call (219) 237-9980 or visit www.twincade.com.
TASTE TEST: Tapas Cafe dishes out tasty small plates
The unassuming exterior isn't much, but one of Northwest Indiana's finest European-style restaurants is tucked into a nondescript strip mall on U.S. 30 in Merrillville.
Tapas Cafe, 2486 Lincoln Highway, offers "an exotic trip to the Iberian Peninsula without leaving Northwest Indiana." The Spanish restaurant offers citrusy cerviche, delectable paellas with veggies, meat and seafood, and of course the tapas small plates that Spain has been making at roadside inns centuries before it was cool.
The Merrillville restuarant has many great tapas options, including bacon-wrapped scallops, bacon-wrapped dates, grilled calamari, stuffed olives, baked goat cheese in a sea of tomato sauce and perfectly cooked octopus with garlic and potatoes. It draws from other cuisines, with Mayan potstickers, tacos and shrimp dressed in Argentinian chimichurri sauce.
As a chef-driven restaurant, Tapas Cafe has a rotating selection of tapas specials. The mollettes are a standout. Sometimes called Mexican toast, mollettes are a phenomenal comfort food.
Black beans and a blanket of melted Chihuahua cheese are layered atop crisply toasted bread that's similar in shape to garlic bread. Each bite is pure bliss, and it's perfect for sharing. In true tapas style, the portions leave you with enough room to sample other tasty dishes.
For more information, call (219) 769-7008.
TASTE TEST: Aunt Sally's will cook you up the Hawaiian Omelette
The owner of Aunt Sally's in Calumet City claimed to have "one of the best breakfasts in the south suburbs" in a Times of Northwest Indiana article in 1994.
The same could be argued today about the family-style restaurant, which usually draws big crowds for breakfast. The traditional diner at 1215 Burnham Ave., north of River Oaks Drive, has your usual array of bacon, eggs, waffles and pancake, as well as a dash of character, including a warning on the menu that it's "not responsible for well done meat items."
Where it really excels is omelettes, which go beyond the standard offerings of Denver, Greek and Farmer's. Aunt Sally's will whip you up a Four Cheese Omelette, a Taco Conquistador Omelette, a Pizza Omelette or its Fruit Filled Low Cholesterol Omelette with apple, blueberry, cherry or strawberry.
The Hawaiian Omelette is made with diced ham and pecans, and topped with pineapple and cherry. The sweet fruit contrasts nicely with the salty ham, as do the crunchy pecans with the fluffy eggs.
The presentation is great with slices on pineapple and maraschino smiling up at you. It comes complete with hearty hash browns and well-buttered toast.
For more information, call (708) 868-2620 or find Aunt Sally's on Facebook.
TASTE TEST: Region Ale’s IPA Cheese Fondue infused with beer
The new Region Ale at 1080 U.S. 41 is so into craft beer that it not only has 50 taps but uses beer as an ingredient in a few dishes.
The taproom, which focuses on local craft beers, for instance puts Devil’s Trumpet Night Goat Coffee Stout in its hearty chili, which is beefy to the last bite.
The IPA Cheese Fondue is infused with a reduction of an India Pale Ale, that popular style known for high alcohol content and almost bitter hoppiness.
The presentation is meant to wow. Molten cheese garnished with a sprinkling of shredded cheese sits atop a butcher’s block with a loaf of sliced pretzel bread. The bread is fresh baked and like a baguette with a soft pretzel crust. It’s salted just so and perfect for dipping in the boozy cheese, which has a hint of hoppiness.
With many such appetizers, the ratio of stuff to dip and stuff to dip in to is all out of whack. But in this case there’s just enough bread to sop up all the golden melted cheese and, in any case, it’s toothsome enough to nosh on on its own.
For more information, visit regionaletaphouse.com or call (219) 322-2337 (BEER).
TASTE TEST: Red Rooster pork chops will make you forget other white meat
HOBART — The Red Rooster Restaurant in Hobart is your standard Region Greek diner with an endless cup of coffee, and a near endless number of combinations of fluffy eggs and hearty hash browns.
The greasy spoon with red vinyl booths at 1151 W. 37th Ave. achieves landmark status for Hobart because of the rooster statue perched outside — the big red bird is right out front in a top hat. It's a Region classic: the kind of place where steelworkers can load up on filling omelettes before a shift, where earnest teenagers could crowd into a booth and talk over coffee, or where anyone could eat a big meal for cheap.
Big appetites can get a T-bone, butt steak or chopped sirloin with their eggs and toast. You can get two pork chops either for breakfast for less than $8 or for dinner for less than $11.
A pork chop dinner comes with your choice of soup or salad, potatoes and green beans. The beans are straight out of the can, but it's a big, cheap diner meal so there's really nothing to complain about.
The bone-in pork chops are huge and juicy and grilled just right. They're well-seasoned with thick grains of black pepper. The meat's a little tough, but it's good and satisfying, and reasonably priced.
For more information, call (219) 942-4615.
TASTE TEST: BC Osaka rolls out unlimited sushi
HOBART — The Midwest loves a good buffet, and BC Osaka Hibachi Grill and Sushi Buffet is the upper crust.
Visitors encounter a huge mural of a pastoral Japanese countryside amid an elegant dark wood-paneled interior when they first walk into the massive pan-Asian buffet at 2999 E. Lincoln Highway in Hobart.
BC Osaka has a dizzying array of buffet options, including salad, fruit, soup, crab, mussels, oysters, clams, Cha Siu Bao, sole, baked salmon, any Chinese buffet staple you could think of, and of course, sushi. The cornucopia of sushi includes caviar, roe, eel, squid, octopus, tuna, white tuna, salmon, smoked salmon, red snapper and dragon rolls.
Look, it's a buffet nearly 800 miles from the closest ocean. The seafood may not be just out of a fisherman's net. The fish may not always be deboned and the shrimp may not always be deveined, but there's a reason BC Osaka is packed to the rafters every weekend.
You can eat an unlimited amount of pretty darn good sushi for just $14.43 per person. The nigiri is especially good, and the colorful specialty rolls are crammed with all the favorites like shrimp tempura, cream cheese, cucumber, avocado and mayo. Make sure to try to smoked salmon nigiri. You also can load up on favorites like Mongolian Beef or Crab Rangoon.
Hey, there's even deep-fried sushi.
For more information, visit bcosaka.com or call (219) 947-9888.
TASTE TEST: Ribs at Glenwood Oaks
Glenwood Oaks Rib and Chop House has been a favorite dining haunt of many diners for four decades.
A variety of steaks, seafood, poultry and other dishes long has been in the spotlight at the restaurant in Glenwood.
The family business is operated by members of the Jarosky/LeRose families.
One of the popular dishes at Glenwood Oaks is John’s Famous Ribs. The Ribs can be ordered in half or full slab dinners as well as combo dinners featuring ribs and chicken. Ribs are presented on a unique plate.
Late owner John Jarosky had a special patent on the pewter rib platter that the meat is served on. He came up with the design, which included an indentation for the sauce and another indentation for leftover bones.
Glenwood Oaks, which began as Glenwood Gardens in 1925, was previously owned by William and Hilda D’Amico. It became Glenwood Oaks in 1974 under the operation of members of the Jarosky family.
The restaurant’s atmosphere has a retro supper-club like feel and features dishes such as Prime Rib, Onion Ring Loaf, various seafood dishes, Swanky Shrimp, Shrimp De Jonghe, a selection of steaks and chops and more.
FYI: Glenwood Oaks is at 106 N. Main St., Glenwood. Call (708) 758-4400 or visit glenwoodoaks.com.
TASTE TEST: Captain's House counts lobster rolls among many seafood options
Lobster rolls have been taking off in popularity in Chicago in recent years.
The New England classic, a more democratic version of the crustacean that's often associated with fine dining, is now served at many trendy restaurants in the city like Da Lobster, Luke's Lobster, GT Fish & Oyster, Acadia and The Happy Lobster Truck. But it's still been rare in Northwest Indiana.
The Captain's House in Gary's Miller neighborhood, formerly Chart House, has an amazing lobster roll you won't soon forget. The beach-themed eatery at 6004 Miller Ave. has a seafood-heavy menu with shrimp and grits, fish tacos, a salmon burger and a Boozy Cod sandwich.
Chef Angela McCrovitz's New England Lobster Roll is positively decadent. Tender, succulent chunks of sweet buttery Maine lobster are tucked into a toasted and well-buttered New England hot dog bun, which has more of the consistency of Texas toast than what we're accustomed to in the Midwest.
The contrast between the chilled lobster meat and the warm bread stimulates the palate. The Captain's House embellishes on the classic formula by heirloom grape tomatoes, lettuce, green onions, celery for a crunchier mouth feel, and a chive mayo that goes above and beyond the standard mayo that's often slathered on lobster rolls at roadside stands along the New England coast.
TASTE TEST: H. Dog rocks dollar dogs on Wednesdays
One of the best deals in Northwest Indiana is dollar dog Wednesdays at H. Dog in Schererville.
Every Wednesday, the fast-food restaurant at 36 U.S. 41 in the Town Square Shopping Center sells Chicago dogs for just 99 cents all day Wednesday and from 3 to 4 p.m. every day. H. Dog calls the promotion Weenie Wednesday.
The steaming hot dogs come "dragged through the garden," with chopped onions, bright green relish, tomato slices, sport peppers, a dill pickle spear, yellow mustard and celery salt. And of course, no ketchup, never ketchup, get that measly tomato paste out of here.
Intended to draw a family crowd to the neighborhood restaurant, the dollar dogs are of course pure Vienna beef tucked into a steamed poppy seed bun topped with fresh, crisp veggies. It's a timeless Chicago classic. Though the price is cheap, H. Dog doesn't skimp on the quality of ingredients, so it's a great place to stop by for lunch on Wednesdays.
TASTE TEST: Maritza's blends finest Peruvian, Italian, diner fare
If I could only recommend a single Peruvian-Italian-Greek diner restaurant in downtown Highland, it would have to be Maritza's Cafe.
The restaurant at 2934 Highway Ave. is a hybrid. It's a revival of Maritza's, the Region's only Peruvian restaurant, that combines it with downtown Highland stalwarts Niko's and Anthony's Cafe.
It's a vintage diner where you can enjoy bottomless coffee with your eggs over easy in the morning. But at night, the place gets classy with wines, martinis and a bread-dipping mix of Fontinella cheese and extra virgin olive oil.
Fine Italian dining includes pasta, filet mignon, chicken marsala and risottos, including a citrus lobster tail risotto and Anthony's acclaimed Iroquois Chicken Risotto.
You can get either chicken or steak saltado style — marinated, sliced, grilled and tossed with sauteed onions and tomato. The Lomo Saltado is billed as a "Peruvian classic." It's a heap of well-seasoned New York strip steak that comes with rice and buttery Mayacoba beans that are imported from Peru.
As is a staple in Peruvian cuisine, they throw some french fries on top.
The presentation on a square white plate is immaculate, and the food is even better.
For more information, call (219) 838-4700 or visit maritzascafe.com.
TASTE TEST: Benedict's in Dyer knows how to poach eggs
Northwest Indiana has a wealth of great breakfast options, everything from greasy spoon diners to fancier contemporary places that probably serve more pork belly than bacon.
If you're in the Tri-Town area, Benedict's in Dyer offers a classy brunch experience. The often-busy restaurant at 1103 Joliet St. has some light lunch options and a wide breakfast menu of stuffed omelettes, pancake stacks, eggs and breakfast bowls, which it bills as "our healthy version of the skillet."
The specialty is, of course, the namesake Eggs Benedict, the classic that involves placing poached eggs and other toppings on English muffins and drowning it all in Hollandaise sauce. Benedict's in Dyer has a wide array of Benedict options, calling them "Bennies." You can get it traditional, Florentine, or with ingredients like country gravy, fire-roasted red pepper or corned beef hash.
A delectable option is the Smoked Salmon Bennie, which has a dill and chive Hollandaise sauce. Marvelously cured salmon fillets sit atop a bed of fresh spinach. The English muffins are fresh. The lightly garnished eggs are fresh. The home-style potatoes are fresh. Everything tastes fresh, and the striking presentation is a visual feast.
TASTE TEST: Fast Nuno's II grills huge pork chops
Sometimes you're just in a carnivorous mood for a huge chunk of grilled meat.
Fast Nuno's II at 1560 Burnham Ave. in Calumet City has got you covered, and it won't cost much. The restaurant, which also has a location in Harvey, brags about its pizza and pork chops, a random combination that has little more in common than alliteration.
The place serves stuffed and thin crust pizza, calzones, pasta and subs. And of course pork chops, gloriously meaty pork chops. They're significantly cheaper than they'd be at a fancy chophouse downtown, costing only $7.49 for a pork chop sandwich on garlic bread and $7.99 for a pork chop over roasted potatoes and a side of buttery garlic bread.
The toothsome potatoes are pillowy and well-seasoned with oregano. The bone-in pork chop is tender, juicy and substantial. You will not be hungry after finishing your meal.
Fast Nuno's II has a few booths, but is set up more as a takeout restaurant with the food coming in foam takeout containers. Grab it to go.
For more information, call (708) 891-2424 or visit www.fastnunos.com.
TASTE TEST: Whole Foods serves up healthy Pumpkin Spice Smoothie
SCHERERVILLE — Pumpkin spice is everywhere.
The popular fall flavoring has hit Peeps, cookies, yogurts, kettle corns, candies, ice creams, cereals, waffles and more. And now McDonald's is serving Pumpkin Spice Fries in Japan. Yes, fries. And yes, Japan. The freaky phenomenon has spread across the world.
Whole Foods isn't shying away from the craze. On the bottom of its smoothie menu is one named Pumpkin Spice. As expected, this concoction is not processed — it consists of apples, banana, pumpkin, coconut milk, dates, cinnamon and almond butter. And it tastes a little bit like Thanksgiving, minus the tryptophan-induced coma.
At first sip, you may be disappointed that it's not as sweet as other foods that share the flavor. But that feeling is soon lost as you get pieces of fresh apple and banana and hints of pumpkin, almond and cinnamon.
The color of the smoothie is more yellow than it is orange, a reminder that you're drinking something healthier than anything produced in a factory.
If pumpkin spice isn't your thing, Whole Foods offers five other smoothies, including its popular Green Monster — kale, banana, apple, grapes, ginger and orange juice.
Whole Foods is at 199 U.S. 41 in Schererville. For more information, visit www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/schererville.
TASTE TEST: Mezquitacos grills up fajitas-style tacos
Nothing is more primal than fire, except for maybe meat grilling on the fire, and if maybe you throw in onions and bell peppers to make fajitas.
Mezquitacos at 100 W. Ridge Road does the Tex-Mex specialty well, bragging on its menu that it's the "home of the skirt steak and chicken fajitas." The sit-down strip mall Mexican restaurant features a number of fajita-style dishes with your choice of asada or pollo.
You can your get well-grilled fajitas in tacos, burritos or tortas in oval bolillo rolls, or on top of crunchy tostadas or taco salad.
Don't except a theatrical presentation with a server carrying out a sizzling, steaming skillet. Do expect a lot of rich flavor. The steak is thick and juicy, the chicken is tender and savory, and the veggies are glistening from the grill. The tacos are double-wrapped in warm tortillas.
For a few more dimes, you can add extras like fresh avocado, cheese, sour cream, or spicy sour cream.
Every meal comes with a complementary service of house-made chips and pico de gallo that's nearly all fresh chunks of tomatoes.
For information, call (219) 923-2850.
TASTE TEST: Jimmy's Burgers and Wings whips up Doritos Nachos
Fast-food/snack food hybrids are all the rage in an age where chains want people talking about them on social media.
Burger King elicited delight and disgust when rolling out Cheetos Chicken Fries, the latest in a series of mashups that include Mac n’ Cheetos, Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco and Subway’s Fritos Chicken Enchilada Melt.
Love or hate them, such concoctions often smack of uninspired laziness. Let’s just stuff a burrito full of cheap chips, or sprinkle Cheetos dust on it.
Jimmy’s Burgers and Wings at 437 Ridge Road in Munster puts snack food to much better use, with its Doritos Nachos. The Doritos are used in the intended way and not as a novelty flavoring.
Jimmy’s piles the nachos high with cheddar cheese, sour cream, lettuce, diced tomatoes, your choice of meat, and — if you want an extra kick — freshly sliced jalapenos. The Doritos add a familiar cheesy flavor, though they’re perhaps not engineered as well as other tortilla chips for heavy lifting.
It’s vastly superior to whatever Burger King is doing with Cheetos since Jimmy’s is a place that hand-cuts its fries and never freezes its meat. The restaurant, which also has a Dolton location, is one of the many Northwest Indiana fast-food joints that serves up anything and everything: Italian beef, gyros, garlic fries, Philly steaks, corned beef, pizza, pizza puff, catfish, tacos, chicken and waffles and all the other staples.
For more information, call (219) 595-0124.
TASTE TEST: Yats puts the crazy in cajun and creole
Yats, a popular Indianapolis chain serving up Louisiana cuisine, has a Valparaiso outpost near Valparaiso University.
The restaurant at 60 University Drive, Suite 100, with the slogan “Cajun. Creole. Crazy.” is ideal for college students.
It’s exotic, at least for the Midwest, with a rotating menu of seven to 10 New Orleans dishes like Chili Cheese Crawfish Etouffee, Caribbean Jerk Etouffee, Chipotle Alexio and Maque Choux, an etouffee with chicken and caramelized corn.
It’s quick. They just cook big pots of gumbo and other dishes and put up the day’s specials in a chalkboard. All they have to do is scoop it onto white rice on a paper plate, so you get your order quick.
It’s cheap, costing about seven or eight bucks. It’s filling, with generous portions of rich dishes like Jambalaya and Drunken Chicken that come with well-buttered toasted bread that’s optimal for dunking. And it’s vegetarian-friendly, with a vegan white chili, a spinach and mushroom etouffee and other meatless options.
Though it’s perfect grub for college students, Yats can be enjoyed by anyone with a craving for Cajun fare in a funky, Mardi Gras-inspired atmosphere. Pro tip: Get the half and half so you can sample two different flavors, and check out the hot sauce selection to spice up your meal even more.
For more information, call (219) 286-3482 or visit www.yatscajuncreole.com.
TASTE TEST: Bet on the Venetian at Schererville's Vegas Cafe
Schererville's new Vegas Cafe brings a taste of Sin City to Indianapolis Boulevard.
The independent restaurant at 800 Cedar Parkway is a oasis in a desert of mostly chain restaurants. Part family-style restaurant and part coffeeshop, Vegas Cafe offers a menu of salads, soups, wraps and sugary espresso drinks like a Snickers Latte, Macadamia Mocha, Tiramisu Cake Latte and the Elvis Special with peanut butter and creme de banana.
Vegas Cafe makes everything from scratch, including bread it bakes on site. The restaurant, which is filled with Vegas decor like a huge mural of the Strip, specializes in paninis and open-faced sandwiches that are named after casinos.
Bet on the Venetian, a baked chicken sandwich with roasted peppers, sauteed onions and crispy, salty bacon. It's smothered in a warm blanket of provolone cheese. It's a big, bold, flamboyant sandwich that blends all the flavors in every bite. You might even prefer to tackle it with a knife and fork.
For more information, call (219) 322.6601 or visit vegas-cafe.com.
TASTE TEST: Get schooled on a hearty sandwich at Woodmar Deli
In a rite of fall in the Region, Purdue University Northwest students have returned to class and are overrunning the Hammond campus.
They’re strolling around, glued to their phones, hauling around textbooks. They’ll likely work up a hunger during their quest for knowledge or at least a sheepskin from the state’s fifth largest university.
Enter Woodmar Deli.
The resolutely old-school delicatessen and sandwich shop at 2247 169th St., just north of the Purdue Northwest campus in Hammond, has few frills. There’s a bookshelf that suggests it could be a college hangout, but the antique-filled interior doesn’t look like it’s changed much in at least 40 years.
But no matter, it’s got great, cheap grub that will power you through any study session. And it’s got freshness that puts Subway and all the other chain imposters to shame. The owner slices your deli meat after you order, and stuffs it into a chewy baguette with a slightly crunchy crust.
The menu is filled with classics like corned beef, salami and lemon rice soup. Order the Boilermaker, which blends ham, turkey, roast beef and pepper jack cheese. You can get the sub with crispy lettuce, juicy tomato and tangy mayo. It’s a timeless classic done well, and can be enjoyed by more than just students with 50 minutes to kill before their next class.
For more information, call (219) 844-8113.
TASTE TEST: Stop at the Indy Cafe before boarding your train
EAST CHICAGO — A friend swears the Indy Cafe is the best restaurant in the Region.
The independent coffee shop tucked away at 5654 Indianapolis Blvd., next to the East Chicago South Shore Line Station, is certainly underappreciated as a restaurant. It's not just a place to grab a quick iced coffee or Nutella latte before hopping on the train into Chicago.
Indy Cafe has a great food menu that includes a Torta Ahogada, Tinga, Chicken Milanesa and the Pastareuben pastrami/corned beef Reuben that includes unique flourishes like kimchi and picked cabbage. It occasionally has specials like New Orleans BBQ shrimp and grits and spicy cilantro lime falafel.
It's got a somewhat romantic ambiance with a chalkboard menu, a worldly elegance and the transient vibe of waiting around for the next train.
A standout is the Green Chorizo Panini, which reminded the super-immature author of this review of Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham. Spicy green sausage, Chihuahua cheese, sambal aioli and sour cream are pressed to savory perfection. The sandwich is spicy and satisfying, and pairs well with any of the fine coffee drinks there.
For more information, call (219) 397-1878 or find Indy Cafe on Facebook.
TASTE TEST: Levante Cafe offers light lunch options
In a world of big corporate chains like Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts where the personality is homogenized out of everything, it's nice to see a local independent coffee shop.
Levante Cafe and Pastries keeps it local at 230 W. U.S. 30 in the Lincoln Ridge Plaza in Schererville. The coffee shop serves up gourmet coffee and espresso drinks from the Italian roaster Illy and has a multi-ethnic bakery with treats like Mexican bread and Kourambiethes — Greek almond cookies that are coated in powdered sugar.
The place has ambiance with burlap coffee bags adorning the walls.
Levante Cafe and Pastries also has a light and classy lunch menu that includes salads, panini and a beef torta. The pork sandwich is fantastic. Tender slow-cooked pork and melty mozzarella are stuffed into a ciabatta bun along with avocado and fresh romaine lettuce. They slice the avocado right in front of you.
Sandwiches there come with a choice of pasta or chips. It's a quick bite if you're on the go on U.S. 30, and much healthier than a lot of greasebomb fast-food options in the area.
For more information, visit www.levantecafe.com or call (219) 227-9677.
TASTE TEST: Crispy Crab Beignets deserve their own Mardi Gras parade
As a lover of most things New Orleans, throw the word “beignet” in front of me and you have my instant attention.
Cafe du Monde in NOLA is synonymous with beignets, a pastry that is deep fried and covered in powdered sugar. But beignets have moved beyond just something you find in the Crescent City, though, and are very much en vogue — especially if they can take on a new form.
Cooper’s Hawk, including the Region location at Southlake Mall, recently introduced Crispy Crab Beignets to its appetizer menu, and the result may be worthy of its own Mardi Gras parade.
They’re truly more fritter than beignet, but let’s be honest: “beignet” sounds way cooler. The beignets are pretty much crab cake balls, battered and fried. But when drizzled with the grilled lemon they come with and dipped in the accompanying mustard sauce, you won’t be arguing over terminology. “Crispy Crab Beignet” or “Crab Cake Made Into a Fritter Masquerading as a Beignet” — it doesn’t matter.
The result is delicious, especially paired with Cooper’s Hawk’s Asian cole slaw. The crab beignet filling is perfectly seasoned and just moist enough to pair with the crunch of the batter. And before you wonder whether a seafood item is what you ought to be ordering at a higher-end chain like Cooper’s Hawk, especially when you don’t exactly think “crab!” when you think of the Region, you should know the restaurant’s crab and lobster bisque is one of the best soups I’ve ever had.
But be forewarned: These fried little bites of awesomeness are close to a full meal. It’s a shareable portion. They’re cute little bite-size bundles of fried joy on their own, but they’re dense and they add up fast. If you go it alone and then try to take on an entree, you may be going home with a box.
For more information, visit www.coopershawkwinery.com or call (219) 795-9463.
TASTE TEST: Cool Runnings' jerk chicken great food truck fare
Remember that movie "Cool Runnings" about the Jamaican national bobsledding team's Olympic bid?
Jamaican bobsledders yuk yuk? Various fish-out-of-water scenarios ring a bell?
No longer just an early 1990s Disney movie, Cool Runnings is now also a food truck out of Michigan City that serves jerk chicken, curried goat, jerk ribs, beef patties and wings. It was recently named best food truck at Hessville's Live at the Ville Food Truck Throwdown.
The jerk chicken is the star of the show at Cool Runnings Jamaican Restaurant, and you can even get it in taco form. The chicken is tender and served piping hot, and the jerk seasoning is authentic. It's spicy enough to have kick without overwhelming the palate.
The jerk chicken's exterior is crispy, and there's enough sauce to ensure every bite is bursting with Caribbean flavor.
You can get an entire chicken, a half, a quarter, a jerk chicken sandwich or an entree with sides like candy yams and red beans and rice. To complete the experience, the food truck offers Jamaican sodas like ginger beer and pineapple.
To find out where the Cool Runnings Jamaican Restaurant will be next, call (219) 210-3885 or visit www.facebook.com/CoolRunningsIN.
TASTE TEST: Cell concessions include 'Ultimate Turkey Club'
A trip or two dozen to U.S. Cellular Field is a rite of summer for many Region residents.
The Cell, Sox Park, whatever you want to call it generally has better grub than the ivy-clad beer garden on the North Side. There's an ethnic smorgasbord with pierogi, elotes, Polish sausage, Italian sausage, Italian Beef and, um, Irish Nachos, which is actually probably not on the menu anywhere in Dublin.
Amid all the grilled sausages and greasy slices of pizza, there is a somewhat heathier option at the Xfinity Zone Carved Sandwiches station in Section 107 on the 100 level by right field. The Ultimate Turkey Club features fancy apricot chili aioli, avocado, red onion, pepper jack cheese and seven-grain wheat bread. Since it's a club sandwich, there's of course lettuce, tomato, crispy bacon and heaps of deli turkey that's hand-carved a few feet away.
It may or may not be the Ultimate Turkey Club, but it's a tasty classic that comes with a pickle and a side of potato chips.
The well-constructed sandwich holds together well, making it convenient to eat in the bleachers. It's a big enough meal that you won't miss any of the on-field action running off to grab another hot dog.
TASTE TEST: Byway Brewing's poutine will fill you up
The bartender warns you it’s a “certain heart attack” when you order the poutine at Byway Brewing Co. in Hammond.
She's kidding. Maybe.
The craft brewery that opened earlier this year at 2825 Carson Drive at Interstate 80/94 and Kennedy Avenue in Hammond has a chef-driven seasonal menu with elevated pub fare like octopus, mussels, beer cheese soup and pork porterhouse with sweet potato and bacon hash.
Byway also has the Canadian specialty of poutine, which combines the three basic food groups: French fries, gravy and cheese curds.
The Byway version of Canada's most glorious pile of grease features the meltiest, fried mozzarella-iest of cheese curds. It’s blanketed with brown gravy and topped with tender pulled pork, fried serrano peppers that add some spice and poached eggs so delicate you might mistake them for dollops of sour cream at first glance. The hearty portion of French fries will help sop up the craft beer, and is balanced so you're not left with more fries than toppings.
For more information, call (219) 844-5468 or visit bywaybrewing.beer.
TASTE TEST: Make a Meal of Steak and Ale Soup and Grown-Up Grilled Cheese at Foodie's
Two of the popular dishes at Foodie's Marketcafe in Dyer have remained in a prime spot on the menu during the last five years.
The Steak and Ale Soup and Grown-Up Grilled Cheese are winners in the flavor department at the cozy eatery. Those recipes, created by Foodie's owner Cathy Cameron, are served year-round.
Foodie's opened in August of 2011 and Cameron said she regularly comes up with new ideas for recipes at the restaurant.
"I'm always trying to stay on my toes," Cameron said.
Foodie's Steak and Ale Soup stands out for its rich flavor and smooth consistency. The Grown-Up Grilled Cheese features a blend of Provolone, Cheddar and American cheese on a country bread roll which has been grilled. It's delicious and filling simply served that way but diners may add ham, bacon or tomato for extra zing.
Foodie's retro atmosphere has a casual charm and is the perfect setting for the homemade fare starring at the eatery.
Cameron is currently offering special summer items at the restaurant including Broccoli Salad, Shrimp and Corn Chowder, Honey Fruit Cup and Picnic Potato Salad.
FYI: Foodie's Marketcafe, 151 Joliet St., Dyer. Hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; Closed Sundays. Call (219) 864-3030.
TASTE TEST: Doc's Smokehouse knows its BBQ
Barbecue is having a moment in Northwest Indiana right now.
Big Daddy's BBQ in Gary has won awards, including from television personality Steve Harvey. Bombers BBQ and True BBQ and Whiskey Bar in Munster have gotten ecstatic online testimonials for their brisket, ribs and other smoked meats. The Chicago chain Q-BBQ started serving pulled chicken and burnt ends at a new outpost in Schererville.
Doc's Smokehouse & Craft Bar at 1420 Calumet Ave. in Dyer does things the Southern way: smoking its meats overnight with only dry rub on hickory that's stockpiled by the front entrance. If you want barbecue sauce, there's a variety of regional kinds on the table — even the Alabama white sauce that's hard to come by locally.
It doesn't matter whether you're partial to Kansas City-, Memphis-, Carolina- or Texas-style barbecue sauce because the meat's so great at Doc's Smokehouse it doesn't really need anything else.
At Doc's, the brisket is the thing. It's soft, succulent and reminiscent of corned beef. It's sourced locally from Meats by Linz in Crown Point, and it's so tender it's falling apart.
For more information, call (219) 262-DOCS or visit www.docsbbq.net.
TASTE TEST: Savor Leroy's tacos at the Indiana Dunes
It's summer, and you're probably headed to the beach – and at some point, the crown jewel of Northwest Indiana beaches, the Indiana Dunes.
Whether you're swimming, hiking, climbing up to a high point atop a sand mountain so you can survey all around you like a modern-day conqueror, or just sweating on a blanket in the sun as your tan lines fade away, you'll probably work up an appetite.
There are good eateries in the area to stop by before you head home, such as Bartlett's Gourmet Grill & Tavern and Dark Star. But if you need a quick snack, there is an assortment of food trucks standing by with the expected summer staples of hot dogs, lemonade and ice cream.
A good option at the Indiana Dunes State Park Pavilion is Leroy's Homemade Mexican Food, a food truck that serves up fare from Leroy's Hot Stuff on Highway 20 in Porter. Menu offerings include walking tacos and tamales. Tacos are two for $5, and come with a choice of beef or pork.
The slow-cooked pork comes in tender, succulent, well-marinated chunks. It's topped with crisp lettuce, fresh tomato and creamy, crumbly queso fresco. It's a tasty, quick bite you can savor while watching the Lake Michigan waves hypnotically lap at the shore.
TASTE TEST: Little Region burger joint huge on flavor
CHESTERTON — You'll have a big problem when visiting the tiny, but quaint Octave Grill in downtown Chesterton.
The joint's menu is so jam-packed with mouth-watering burgers that you'll have a difficult time settling on just one. (There's also tempting salads, appetizers and local beers in the offerings.)
After struggling with what to pick, my husband and I settled on the Burger of the Month and the Sloppy Joe. The latter doesn't sound like anything special, but trust, this is not your average sloppy Joe. It's organic Tallgrass beef with white cheddar, grilled onions and house-made sauce on a brioche bun for $8.25. It's one of the tastiest sandwiches I've ever had.
The June burger is Tallgrass beef, smoked Gouda, smoked pulled pork, grilled onions, bacon and mustard barbecue sauce on a country white bun for $11. The BBQ sauce was sweet and smoky and set the tone for the whole burger.
Burgers and sandwiches come with a side. We got fries and upgraded to the Taco Tater Tots, which were served with a dollop of guacamole and sour cream for dipping.
While the restaurant is small, it doesn't feel closed-in, and the staff does a fantastic job of maneuvering in the tight space. We waited about 25 minutes for a table on a recent Saturday.
For more information on Octave Grill, 137 S. Calumet Road, find it on Facebook or call (219) 395-8494.
TASTE TEST: What's better than Italian beef and pizza?
Have a taste for an Italian beef sandwich, but also crave a pizza? The answer to your conundrum can be found at Aurelio's.
The popular pizza joint has an extensive list of toppings, but Italian beef and hot giardiniera will call your name if you're a meat lover who likes a little heat.
The beef has the right amount of salt and is sliced thin and piled on. The hot giardiniera adds a great kick — all while recalling a Chicago-style sandwich favorite, but in pie form.
There's another popular pizzeria in Chicago that also serves up this tasty creation, but why leave the Region when there are 11 Aurelio's Pizza locations right here in NWI?
For a complete listing of locales and more information, visit www.aureliospizza.com.
TASTE TEST: Make your way to Angel Hair Cafe for the White Walker
Now that the weather's warm, you might be inclined to hit the trails.
If you're pedaling through Griffith, you should consider stopping for a bite at Angel Hair Cafe, which shares a space next to the Ben Mollin Hair Education Salon.
Just off the Erie Lackawanna at 142 S. Broad St., the Angel Hair Cafe has smoothies, fresh-pressed juice, salads and sophisticated sandwiches in an eclectic atmosphere with vintage furniture and local art. It has a menu of thoughtful, healthy, artfully prepared food with several vegan and vegetarian options.
If you're a "Game of Thrones" fan and still shocked by Hodor's death, you might want to try the White Walker Sandwich, a hearty broken yolk egg sandwich on Texas Toast. White cheddar, herbs and a red sauce top green eggs, and it's garnished with alfalfa sprouts and mustard.
The presentation is immaculate, and it's tasty not just for breakfast but any time of day.
For more information, call (219) 922-1500 or visit angelhairgriffith.com.
TASTE TEST: Banh mi at Saigon Noodles House
Saigon Noodles House in Merrillville of course has many great noodle dishes and flavorful pho, but it’s also a great spot for a quick lunch if you’re in the neighborhood.
Grab a banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich with meat, cilantro, pickled carrots, cucumber and jalapenos in a fresh French baguette. At the Vietnamese restaurant at 1515 W. Lincoln Highway you have your choice of pork, chicken or even beef, but pork is the traditional choice and the way to go.
The pork is grilled and generously portioned. It contrasts nicely with the fresh crispiness of the cucumber and the refreshing zest of the cilantro. Fresh jalapenos slices add welcome blooms of spicy heat as you work your way through the sandwich.
What makes the Saigon Noodles House’s banh mi so great is the French bread, which has a perfect consistency with a chewy interior and a crunchy crust. The fresh baked baguettes bursts with rustic flavor.
For more information, visit www.saigonnoodleshouse.com or call (219) 769.8508.
TASTE TEST: Burger at Brewhouse 41 is smokin'
You normally wouldn't think one of the Region's best burgers would be found at a grocery store. But it's 2016, and it's probably time we all realize the good food scene has changed.
The Brewhouse 41 Tap & Grill inside the Whole Foods in Schererville doesn't have an extensive menu, but what it offers up in the way of burgers and sandwiches is solid enough to warrant your attention — and at a price point that easily beats the competition.
For $6 — and just a buck more to add fries, loaded tots or slaw — the Up in Smoke burger has cheddar, bacon and chipotle peppers, plus lettuce, tomato and red onion on a sesame seed bun. The beef is fresh and juicy, and cooked to order. The chipotle peppers ooze out of the bun and give the burger its name — they're just spicy enough to make you want a quick dip of ranch or bleu cheese, but not enough to have you calling the fire department. And the smokiness they give off is the perfect complement.
And it's in a grocery store.
For more information on Brewhouse 41, at 199 U.S. 41., call (219) 864-5400 or visit www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/schererville.
TASTE TEST: Tacos at Rancho Grande Tacos & Burritos
You know at least two things are going to be good at a restaurant called Tacos & Burritos, and one of them is tacos.
The tacos are fantastic and grilled fresh to order at Rancho Grande Tacos & Burritos, a local chain with locations in Chicago, Dyer, East Chicago, Highland and Lansing. All six restaurants (there are two in Lansing) are open until midnight, and you can grab your food to go.
You can get an Americanized version of the taco in a flour tortilla or a hard shell with lettuce, tomatoes and Asadero cheese, or the way God intended, in a warm corn tortilla with crisp cilantro, sharp onion and a lime wedge.
It's worth getting the tacos a la carte at Rancho Grande Tacos & Burritos because there are a ton of options, including steak, chicken, ground beef, barbacoa beef, braised pork, pastor pork, fish, chorizo, or a breakfast mix of chorizo and eggs. For the more adventurous, there's beef tongue and tripe.
Meaty options include the cecina, a whole piece of marinated steak, and the lomo, a whole piece of ribeye steak. The tacos are fast, hot and fresh, and quite filling if you opt for the steak.
For more information, visit tacosburritosrg.com.
TASTE TEST: German Melt at Petros Restaurant is divine
Petros Restaurant at 6525 S. Indianapolis Blvd. in Hammond is the prototypical Greek diner, the kind you can find all over the Region.
Flip the cup at your seat if you want coffee, and browse through the novel-length menu to see if you're more in the mood for a club sandwich, a melt, a steak, seafood, Italian or of course Greek food. (Feel like Grecian chicken? There's a note in the menu advising you it'll take a whole 20 minutes to cook.)
Expect a bread basket, lemon rice soup and plenty of desert options at the diner across from what used to be the Woodmar Mall. It's filling, it's quick and it's cheap. It's the sort of vintage All-American fare you could find at the diner in Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks."
So sidle up the counter and figure out if you want to try the gyros club, lake perch or Italian pasta. It's a diner, so of course the melts are good. One of the more interesting ones is the German Melt, which features tender veal smothered in sauerkraut, onions and melted Swiss cheese. Of course it's on rye, and of course lettuce, tomato and pickle come on the side.
There's nowhere to put them in the sandwich, which is stuffed with delectable veal, piquant sauerkraut and savory grilled onions. It's a greasy, delicious delight that comes with a cup of soup and golden fries.
For more information, call (219) 844.5951.
TASTE TEST: Mucho Burrito at Mucho Mas!
In LaPorte County, people swear by Mucho Mas! Fresh Mex Grill, a hipstery California-style Tex-Mex place that specializes in burritos “as big as a man’s arm.”
Dude, don't even think about it, get the Mucho Burrito. Get it with chorizo, chicken, steak or tofu. That's right, tofu. The very contemporary restaurant, which has locations at 609 Lincolnway in LaPorte and 727 Franklin St. in Michigan City, is praised for its many tasty vegetarian options.
Whether you have a taste for the picante, paprika-y chorizo, the savory steak or something a vegan Facebook friend would approve of, you can’t go wrong with the massive Mucho Burrito. The portion is generous, the presentation is immaculate, and the ring of fresh guacamole under the tortilla is gloriously creamy.
It comes with fresh chips, which can conveniently be used to scoop up any spillover. You’ll probably be bringing some home unless you’re really famished. There’s a reason why one Yelp reviewer proclaimed, “I would give this place 77 thumbs up if I could.”
For more information, visit muchoeats.com or call (219) 221-6639 for Michigan City or (219) 362-9183 for LaPorte.
TASTE TEST: Madvek's Doghouse's Taco Dog 'weird' but delicious
Madvek’s Doghouse in Hammond is an old school hot dog stand, with a lunch counter like factory workers used to crowd around in say, Detroit, in the 1950s.
The Region institution at 6923 Calumet Ave. has been around for nearly a half-century, and there’s good reason. It’s cheap, filling and full of delicious favorites like the Chicago-style dog, loose meat hamburger and Polish sausage.
They keep cookies for the kids on the lunch counter at the no-frills place, which is enshrined in the Vienna Beef Hot Dog Hall of Fame. Generations have wolfed down hot dogs there, but if you’re looking for something a little less tried and true, you could go for the taco dog.
“It’s probably the weirdest thing we’ve got on the menu,” a woman behind the counter recently said after it was ordered.
It’s a regular taco in a tortilla with lettuce, diced tomato, cheese and taco meat, but there’s also an all-beef hot dog nestled in there. Once you get used to the novelty, it works as both a hot dog and a taco, though it can get a little messy.
The taco dog of course comes with golden fries, and the combination of seasoned ground beef and a hearty frank packs quite the protein punch.
For more information, call (219) 932.1060 or visit hotdogs.cc.
TASTE TEST: Burgers and beer shine at new Burgerhaus in S'ville
SCHERERVILLE — Is there a more perfect spot for a burger joint than at the intersection of U.S. 30 and U.S. 41, the Crossroads of America?
Burgerhaus recently opened its door at 813 W. U.S. 30 and serves up some of the juiciest, most creative and delightfully messy burgers.
Two stand-out burgers are The Corinth and the Burger of the Month for April — The Brooklyn. Let's start with the one named after the New York borough. It's massive, sloppy, delicious and a meat lover's dream. The half-pound beef patty is piled high with pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, lettuce and Russian dressing and is served with a side of Bacon-Ranch Potato Salad for $14. The Corinth burger is topped with roasted red pepper, pepperoncinis, red onion, feta, lettuce and tomato and served on a brioche bun with a Kalamata olive on top for $11. It comes with a side of fries.
To wash down these monster burgers, the restaurant, which also has locations in Valparaiso and Indianapolis, offers an extensive beer menu featuring many locally crafted brews.
The new eatery can get pretty busy, so you might have to wait a bit for a table.
For more information, go to visitburgerhaus.com or call the Schererville location at (219) 227-8442.
TASTE TEST: Phat Phil's Hillbilly Philly is smokin'
Phat Phil's is a new Crown Point deli with old-school sensibilities where you can take home an order of beef, pork or smoked cornish hen, but dining in is highly advisable.
The deli at 518 N. Main St. has a fantastic lunch menu that includes a cast iron smash burger with grass-fed beef, a caprese panini, blue gill tacos and "el porko," a sandwich that layers an egg, bacon and pepper jack cheese over a chorizo pork patty.
Phat Phil's smokes its own meats, and you have to try the brisket, which is delectably tender enough to where it's almost falling apart. It's great on the Hillbilly Philly, a huge heaping of smoked brisket topped with peppers and Velveeta cheese and served in a toasted bun.
The slow-cooked meat is moist, fatty and glorious. Phat Phil's doesn't stint on portions, and you may have to take some of it home if you didn't come with an appetite.
For more information, visit www.phatphilscp.com or call (219) 310.8242.
TASTE TEST: Authentic Mexican at Whiting Cafe & Cantina
WHITING — If you're like me, you agree there never can be too many Mexican restaurants in the world.
So it's great news that we have a new one by the lake, Whiting Cafe & Cantina, at 1320 119th St., right in the heart of Whiting's downtown.
Sitting on the corner, the restaurant has plenty of light and a casual, authentic feel with bright colors and an open kitchen. The staff is friendly and quick to recommend a favorite dish.
On my first trip, I ordered the chicken enchiladas to go. The dish was visually appealing, with three rolled corn tortillas dipped in guajillo sauce and stuffed with pulled chicken, covered with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and queso fresco. Rice and beans come on the side, for $8.99.
The dish took me back to my home in Colorado, where I lived on Mexican food. It was delicious and the perfect amount of food for a lunch on the go. I'm very excited to go back and try the tacos (and, let's not kid ourselves, the margaritas).
Whiting Cafe & Cantina can be reached at (219) 659-4800. The menu is available on Whiting Cafe & Cantina's Facebook page.
TASTE TEST: It's all about balance — and tasty food — at Scrambled Diner
DYER — For a diner that boasts some of the most decadent eats around, it sure serves up one lean, green, tasty omelet.
A permanent favorite on Scrambled Diner's menu are the Monkey Cakes, a heaping stack of flapjacks smothered in bacon, peanut butter, bananas and chocolate sauce. Then there's the melt-in-your-mouth, ooey-gooey homemade cinnamon roll. Not to be outdone is the sweet-and-savory French Toast Club — layers of French toast, bacon, cheese and eggs, drizzled with syrup.
If you can resist the urge to put yourself in a happy breakfast coma, take a look at the Uncle Ray's Omelet. While it's still a lot of food, you won't feel as much of a need to lay down after eating it. It's made with egg whites, roasted mushrooms, tomatoes, spinach, peppers and onions. You can extend your healthy streak by opting for the turkey sausage instead of bacon or traditional sausage, and getting wheat toast instead of white.
There are also plenty of other healthy options at Scrambled, including The Veggie Scram, Blackened Veggie Omelet and, of course, you can build your own omelet with healthy mix-ins.
If you're feeling less than nutritionally heroic, go with the Monkey Cakes. It's all about balance.
The Scrambled Diner, 250 81st Ave., can be reached at (219) 865-3950 or scrambleddiner.com.
TASTE TEST: Bulldog Brewery great place after a long day
Just off Lake Michigan on the charming main drag in Whiting sits a gem of a brewery.
Bulldog Brewing Co. is nestled about halfway down 119th Street, the heart of the fast-growing town. The brewery was started by two Northwest Indiana natives, a firefighter and a steelworker.
Nothing is flashy about Bulldog. The place is dedicated to the hardworking Region residents who need a good beer and a burger after a long day.
With 17 craft beers on tap, including the newly released Peanut Butter Porter, there is plenty to choose from. Plus, the price is right at $5 a pint, and $3 on Sundays.
Beer isn't your draw? Bulldog also offers signature cocktails and decent wines.
But my favorite? The food. Almost once a week, I walk down to Bulldog for its burger. Made with high-quality meat and cooked to order, I always order it with bacon and cheese and hold the bun. (Gluten allergy, the buns look amazing for you bread-eaters.)
The shining star? The fries. Bulldog has the most amazing french fries. They are salty and a little crispy ... just perfection.
The brewery also offers pizzas, sandwiches, soups and salads, standard pub fare. The staff is friendly, there is likely classic rock or country over the speakers and it's a great place to catch the game.
Bulldog Brewing Co is at 1409 119th St. For more information, visit www.bulldogbrewingco.com or call (219) 655-5284.
TASTE TEST: The Beach Cafe serves up surf and turf
GARY — If you worked up an appetite soaking up the sun at Miller Beach or are otherwise in the Miller section of Gary, you can get a good steak or some succulent seafood at the laid-back Beach Cafe.
The relaxed family-style bar and grill at 903 N. Shelby St., which was originally called Smitty's Beach Cafe, is just a short walk from the beach and has a definite beach bum vibe about it.
The Beach Cafe offers a wide array of traditional American fare with an emphasis on seafood, including "famous boned and buttered lake perch," Maryland Crab Cakes, frog legs, surf clams, walleye, blue gill, catfish, salmon, and North Atlantic Cod.
Diners also can nosh on beach burgers, pasta, chops, ribs, cevapi and steaks like Mario's Cut Rib Eye and Nik's Special Rib Eye. The prices are reasonable, and a good way to sample the best of land and sea is to pick for a surf and turf option, which include prime rib and lobster tail, a New York Strip with a shrimp skewer, and rib eye with three lake perch.
A recent special was sirloin paired with Mahi-mahi. Both were grilled to perfection, complete with Instagrammable grill marks. The fish was tender and flaky, while the steak was beefy and satisfying. A good side option is the double-baked mashed red potatoes, which are buttery and have the skin mixed in.
For information, call (219) 938-1100 or visit www.millerbeachcafe.com.
TASTE TEST: Toast & Jam worth making a brunch date
Most people go to fancy dinners for Valentine's Day. The ambiance, good wine, fine steak and candlelight are a staple for the romantic holiday.
You should treat yourself to what you love. In my case, that's breakfast. Or more specifically, breakfast food.
So on Valentine's Day morning, I decided to try Toast & Jam in Schererville.
While is has a fine array of the breakfast staples we've grown to love, from simple bacon and eggs to omelettes, I was feeling adventurous and ended up ordering a veggie skillet (bell peppers, onions, oven roasted mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, Roma tomatoes and hash browns).
Now, I'm no health monster, so naturally I added bacon and cheddar cheese. And a side of fruit for good measure.
The dish was good. The eggs, ordered medium, were perfectly cooked. The cheese wasn't too much, the hash browns were crispy but not burnt. The veggies were a tad greasy. However, the fruit was fresh, the coffee delicious and the mimosa just strong enough to make me forget it.
Toast & Jam, 7311 Mallard Lane, is open seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.toastandjamcafe.com or call (219) 769-0000.
TASTE TEST: Whether shaken or stirred, these martinis won't disappoint
As if the delicious Asian infusion food isn't enough to draw you to Asparagus in Merrillville, the martinis most certainly will.
On a recent Saturday, I had one of my own and snagged a sip of my husband's. I ordered the Ginger Pear — pear vodka, ginger honey, melon liqueur and fresh citrus. Not mentioned on the menu is that the martini is served with ginger shavings on top. It's one of the most refreshing drinks I've ever had. You really have to like ginger, though.
Matt ordered the Pineapple Upside Down Cake martini — Ciroc pineapple vodka, amaretto liqueur, pineapple juice and a cherry on the bottom. With one sip of this drink, I wanted to steal it from him. It's a dessert and a mean martini all rolled into one. It tastes just like the dessert for which it's named, but with a kick.
The out-of-this-world food at the restaurant complements the drinks nicely. A few of my favorites are the Chicken Pad Thai, Asparagus Beef Lovers and Asparagus Delight with chicken.
For more information on Asparagus, 7876 Broadway, and to view its menus, visit www.asparagusrestaurant.com or call (219) 794-0000.
TASTE TEST: BBQ sliders at True like a meat flight
True BBQ & Whiskey Bar is beloved by carnivores and vegans alike, since it's known for some fine seitan dishes in addition to all the tender, succulent slow-cooked meats you'd expect.
The classy restaurant at 8940 Calumet Ave. has an extensive whiskey and cocktail selection, enough craft beer to sate most and some of the best barbecue around in the Region. Northwest Indiana has been undergoing a bit of a barbecue Renaissance with Bombers BBQ in Munster, Big Daddy's BBQ in Gary and now Q-BBQ in Schererville.
True BBQ exudes an upscale ambiance with a Brunswick-style bar, Corinthian columns and a tin ceiling. You get thickly cut house-made BBQ potato chips and sweet pickles instead of rolls.
There's plenty of glorious meat on the menu, and the best way to sample a lot of it is the sliders. Maybe gourmet sliders were overdone a few years ago, but think of it as a meat flight.
There are four choices, but you only get three, and that's really the only flaw. There's crispy pork belly with gouda; apricot glaze and fried Vidalia onions; an exotic duck with gouda, cactus aioli, and greens; pulled pork with goat cheese, greens and raspberry BBQ sauce; and thinly sliced beef brisket with horseradish mayo. All are great, but the pork belly is a standout.
TASTE TEST: Pokro's charcuterie seriously spicy
GRIFFITH — One of the cheeses on Pokro Brewing's charcuterie plate is so hot that, as with a sizzling fajita plate or flaming saganaki, pubgoers stop their chatting and start talking about it as it is carried out.
The habanero cheddar has so much of a kick that a bartender claims only two people had been able to finish all of it. It's significantly hotter than the horseradish cheese that also comes on the plate, and it has a slow burn that builds up.
The cheddar, which is marbled with large chunks of the habanero pepper, is the scorching star of a unique chacuterie plate at the craft brewery.
Pokro's charcuterie plate also features Lancashire bomb cheese, baby genoa salami, pepper salami, sopressata, prosciutto, beer salami, Mediterranean olives and crackers, which will help more than the beer at suppressing the heat. Pokro, which soon will celebrate its first anniversary, specializes in Belgian and European beers.
Unlike some charcuterie plates that might have a thin slice of prosciutto pretentiously draped on a wooden cutting board, Porko's version has thick, summer sausage-like slices of assorted cured meats.
Pokro Brewing is at 311 N. Broad St. and can be reached at (219) 924-7950. For more information, visit www.pokrobrewing.com.
TASTE TEST: Ruben's Maxwell Street Polish hits the spot
Northwest Indiana is filled with little hole-in-the-wall hot dog joints where the food is quick, cheap and greasy.
You order at the counter, and often you take your food to go. Fries are included with every dog, no extra charge.
One of the more iconic places is Ruben's Restaurant in Lake Station, the old Arman's on Ripley Street that's known for its hobo sculpture. A storm recently knocked over and damaged the giant fiberglass mustachioed hobo who's holding aloft colorful balloons, but that's no reason not to swing in and grab a bite.
The menu has the usual array of gyros, Italian Beef and such, but you want a dog at a place a Yelp reviewer says has "some of the best hot dogs in the Region." They're all Vienna Beef, so the meat's of the finest quality. Sit in the mid-century modern fluorescence and enjoy a class Maxwell Street Polish.
It's succulent sausage smothered in grilled onions and yellow mustard with that incomparable fresh-grilled flavor. Ruben's garnished it with jalapenos instead of the traditional sport peppers during a recent visit, but they were fresh and provided the same kick.
If you're hungry, the grilled sausage will activate something primordial in you, and you'll wolf it right down. The gleaming, golden fries on the side will fill you right up.
TASTE TEST: Beer Battered Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Bratwurst brings the meat
The Beer Battered Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Bratwurst at 95ate5 Brewpub in St. John is quite possibly the manliest appetizer ever, or maybe the most Region-y appetizer ever. Maybe it's even the most Hoosier appetizer ever, given its deep-fried, State Fair-like nature.
It's the most something ever, surely. The meaty nirvana starts out with freshly ground bratwurst that's hearty but not greasy or processed-tasting. The spongy flavorful sausage is wrapped in savory bacon that's crispy but lightly cooked enough to wrap around the bratwurst. The jalapeno is so fresh as you could mistake it visually for a green pepper.
The Beer Battered Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Bratwurst is deep-fried in beer batter, speared with popsicle sticks, and served up with a tangy "Hoosier marmalade" dipping sauce.
It's the ultimate brewpub fare, and every flavor hits the right note. The glorious, salty meat in this substantive dish pairs well with every craft beer served at the brewpub in St. John, whether an intensely hoppy India Pale Ale or a milder wheat beer.
Bratwurst and beer is a tradition in the Upper Midwest. You'll be hard-pressed to find any bratwurst and beer better than what's available at 95ate5 in St. John.
TASTE TEST: 444 Caribbean Grill & Bar boasts 10 flavors of wings
GARY — If you haven't been to 444 Caribbean Grill & Bar in the Miller section of Gary, you need to immediately rectify that.
The whole restaurant is great, from the kale salad to the seafood gumbo to the shrimp and grits to the South American oxtails to the West Indian curried goat, but you can't go wrong with the wings. It's a classic, and they're especially delicious at a place that specializes in jerk chicken.
The wings at 444 Caribbean Grill are more exotic than what you'd find at your average sports bar. The sweet and tangy Hawaiian wings satisfy, and there are nine other pleasing options that include peach, mango, Brazilian and of course jerk. Whether sweet or spicy, the wings are plump, just crispy enough on the outside, and filling, since they come in servings of 10.
You won't leave displeased, whether you want to grab a Red Stripe and enjoy the Bob Marley decor, bum around on the deck before heading to the beach in the summer, or just pick up an order to go.
The restaurant is near the tail end of the Miller commercial strip, near where the Gary Shakespeare Co. used to be. 444 Caribbean Grill & Bar also has a wide variety of a la carte sides like cornbread and Caribbean cabbage that will make an order of wings into a full-fledged meal.
TASTE TEST: Strack's lasagna is quick and easy comfort food
Strack & Van Til, a Region staple for more than a half century, has been evolving along with consumer tastes.
The Highland-based grocer has been overhauling its stores to offer more fresh food, including more ready-to-eat options at salad bars, sushi bars, wing bars and even olive bars.
Now you can go to Strack & Van Til and grab a hot slice of pizza or some slow-cooked brisket. The supermarkets now offer several meal deals where you can fill up on an entree like grilled chicken breast and two sides. The heat-and-eat meals tend to be comfort foods like meatloaf with creamy, buttery mashed potatoes. They cost no more than fast food, can be microwaved in a few minutes and taste just like home-cooked fare.
A standout is the lasagna, which is rich and hearty. The pasta is made from scratch, and the ricotta cheese is indulgent. The generous slice of lasagna comes with big, filling meatballs and a medley of savory vegetables.
A heat-and-eat meal from Stracks likely would be a welcome break from your normal lunch routine at work. Have some fresh food that tastes home-cooked for once and see what it does for your mood.
TASTE TEST: Spinach pasta salad at Butterfingers is a delight
Butterfingers Desert and Delicatessen Shop is a Region institution, and its baked goods and pasta salads are enjoyed at many family gatherings during the holidays.
A standout is the spinach pasta salad, which is garden fresh and substantial. The dish, which Butterfingers describes as "healthy and vegetarian-friendly," features baby spinach, sliced tomato and rotini noodles coated in creamy basil pesto.
The pesto — the glue that holds it together and infuses every bite — is rich and flavorful. The olive oil brings out the best in the spinach, and the crisp tomatoes provide just enough crunch.
Butterfingers' spinach pasta salad tastes great both hot and cold, and it's a good side or just something to gnosh on at a gathering.
The 30-year-old bakery and deli, where you can cater a party or just grab a quick bite, also is revered for its cakes, croissants and quiche. It has two locations: 2552 45th Ave. in Highland and at 921D Ridge Road in Market Square in Munster.
TASTE TEST: Big Daddy's is big on flavor
GARY — He might have been wrong about the Miss Universe winner, but comedian Steve Harvey was right about good barbecue.
Nestled in a strip mall that hosts a popular flea market, Big Daddy's Barbeque, 4213 Cleveland St., Gary, earned enough votes to win first place for BBQ Neighborhood Award through Harvey's talk show for two years.
It's easy to taste why.
Known initially for rib tips and then a host of other chicken, pork, links and turkey dishes, the eatery also smothers its meat — and fries, if you want — in a signature sauce that's sweet with a gentle spicy slap.
For $6.25, the pulled pork sandwich or the beef brisket sandwich make for a tasty lunch, with tender meat on a classic bun, served alongside a heap of fries.
The sauce is so good, you'll want to bring some home. Luckily, you can for less than $5 a bottle.
You can also check out the restaurant's Hammond location at 6823 Grand Ave. For more information, visit www.nobodybeatsourmeat.com.
TASTE TEST: Q-BBQ brings smokin' food to NWI
SCHERERVILLE | The Region has become a place to score some darn good barbecue.
Food lovers here got an early Christmas present when Q-BBQ opened its doors in Schererville near the new Whole Foods.
The restaurant has been hopping since its opening at the end of November and for good reason: The food is fantastic.
Among the not-to-be-missed items are the Chopped Brisket Sandwich served up Q-style and the Mexican Street Corn.
The sandwich consists of tender brisket on a bun with North Carolina vinegar sauce, creamy cole slaw and bleu cheese. The corn is a side item that can be eaten as a meal. It's hearty, sweet, yet salty, and delicious.
Beer and wine pairs nicely with all the smoked meats, and as luck would have it, they are on the menu. Cheers to that!
The Schererville location, 79 U.S. 41, Suite 200, is the fourth Q-BBQ to open in the Chicagoland area.
For more information, including the full menu and locations, visit q-bbq.com or call (219) 322-8288.
TASTE TEST: Street tacos shine at Taco Tia
Taco Tia in Merrillville couldn't be more unassuming.
It's tucked into a strip mall on U.S. 30, and isn't even its own restaurant. Instead, it shares a space with the cheesesteak joint Philly Steak and Lemonade at 2024 W. 81st Ave.
Taco Tia has no frills, just a few fast-food booths, but its street tacos will change your life.
Succulent meats like chorizo, carne asada steak and al pastor, a shawarma spit-grilled pork, take center stage. They're loaded into hot corn tortillas and smothered in a heap of cilantro, shredded lettuce, onion and diced tomato. The cool crispness of the veggies and the warm savoriness of the meat harmonize into a palatable contrast. The salsa verde is fantastic, but you don't need it. Flavor bursts in every bite. The meat is high quality and just greasy enough to satisfy while the garden toppings are harvest-fresh.
It's a quick and ideal meal you can scale to your hunger — a taco or two if you just want a light bite, or four or five if you're looking to chow down.
TASTE TEST: Pumpkin Pancakes are reason to celebrate
DYER | There's a piece of heaven right here in Northwest Indiana. And it comes on a plate in a mini mall in Dyer. But it's fleeting.
The Scrambled Diner, until Thanksgiving, is serving its Pumpkin Pancakes. These light and fluffy creations are not your run-of-the-mill flapjacks. They're served with candied nuts, a pumpkin glaze and a generous mound of heavenly cinnamon whipped cream. The flavors are so amazing, you won't dare reach for the syrup.
While the Pumpkin Pancakes will be gone after the holiday, the diner offers other delectable items, including this writer's favorite: the Tangled Up in Blue omelet. It's filled with spinach, tomatoes, bacon and blue cheese.
All omelets come with tasty hash browns, bacon, sausage or turkey sausage and toast and your choice of homemade jams or a pancake. You can kick in an extra dollar to upgrade to a specialty pancake, including the pumpkin.
All the food at Scrambled, 250 81st Ave., is fresh and delicious and worth the wait at this often-packed, much-loved diner. To see its complete menu, visit scrambleddiner.com.
TASTE TEST: Chanute Burger takes flight at Octave Grill
French-born Octave Chanute pioneered aviation by sending his "gliding machines" aloft over the Lake Michigan dunes, inspired the Wright Brothers and invented the template for many types of airplanes.
He's been called "a towering figure in aeronautics."
Well, a great man deserves a great burger, and the Chanute Burger at Octave Grill in Chesterton is a great burger.
The chic downtown restaurant, where the specials and the well-curated craft beer and housemade cocktail selection is scrawled on a colorful chalkboard, makes gourmet tallgrass beef burgers that can draw long lines, since the place is the size of a shoebox. Chanute's namesake burger comes on a brioche bun with bacon, lettuce, tomato, cremini mushrooms, blue cheese sauce and Habenero Havarti cheese from Fair Oaks Farms.
The beef, which is sourced from Ohio, is the shining star that dominates the flavor profile. They recommend you get it medium rare, and that maximizes the savoriness.
Online reviewers have remarked the hip Octave Grill feels like it could be in Portland and said it's like Kuma's Corner without the heavy metal music. It's definitely the place to go in downtown Chesterton for an upscale burger.
Octave Grill, 137 S. Calumet Road, can be reached at (219) 395-8494 and octavegrill.com.
TASTE TEST: Pumpkin roll from Henze's Bakery in Valpo a rich tradition
VALPARAISO | Anyone who enjoys the sweet balance of moist layers of pumpkin cake, contrasted with a luscious sweetened cream cheese layer spiraled into a pastry dessert roll, likely has pondered finding a recipe to re-create in a home kitchen.
But it's rather involved process, which uses a "tea-towel" and some quick follow-through to create a dessert roll that does crack or crumble apart.
The $9.99 investment at Henze's Bakery in Valparaiso for a perfectly prepared pumpkin roll is an easier investment of time and money.
It's also a price-tag that includes a rich German history and pride in the bakery profession.
Heinz Henze Jr. said he's dough-kneading, powdered sugar-sifting proof that baking is a family trade art form.
Henze, 41, returned to the family bakery business in 2013 buying back his family's bakery business to return to the industrial-sized kitchen where he grew up.
He's back baking not only seasonal pumpkin rolls, but also more than 4,000 doughnuts a night during his 8 p.m. to 10 a.m. shift at Henze's Bakery, 2105 Calumet Ave. in Valparaiso.
Henze's Bakery is open 4 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays. FYI: (219) 464-1511.
TASTE TEST: Get your drink on with a Caramel Cabin Cooler
SCHERERVILLE | Disneyland has hogged the "happiest place on Earth" title for a while. A visit to Coffee Cabin will give you a taste of that here in the Region.
The perky voices coming through the drive-thru speaker sound as caffeinated as the beverages themselves. Cheerful employees greet customers with smiles and regulars by name.
Coffee Cabin, 350 W. Lincoln Highway, is relatively new to the Region. Situated between a strip mall and a bank, it's a small building that looks like a Northwoods log cabin where a fisherman would spend a few hours getting shut eye and preparing his catch of the day.
Inside, there are no walleyes, no bass. Just tasty beverages and pastries. A not-to-be missed item is the Caramel Cabin Cooler, which is $4 for a small, $4.50 for a medium and $5 for a large. Under the "blended favorites" portion of the menu, it's like an espresso slushy (technically a frappe) infused with caramel and topped with whipped cream and a drizzle of caramel.
For more information, visit www.coffeecabin.com or call (219) 227-8623.
TASTE TEST: Garlic, butter and fries ... oh my!
SCHERERVILLE | Enzo's. You go for the Italian beef or sausage or both. But, don't leave without the garlic butter fries.
The restaurant, which just opened at 1120 U.S. 30, offers a lengthy menu of main dishes and sides — like pizza, burgers, cheese fries and deep-fried mushrooms — that are off limits on most healthy diets. Diners aren't there to count calories. They want to indulge.
What better way than eating seasoned french fries slathered in garlic and melted butter? A small order runs $1.89. The fries are served sopping with butter and minced garlic. The butter and the garlic complement each other, with a savory combination that shouldn't be overlooked as a winning side dish.
Fans of garlic will delight and won't want to share, and vampires —along with anyone else who shuns the pungent cloves — will stay far, far away.
For more information about Enzo's, visit enzos1.com. Or check out the restaurant's flagship location at 1710 Chicago Road in Chicago Heights.