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: Hog Haven is pork paradise
DYER — Even in the cold, blustery days of winter the sweet sustenance of barbecue is welcome nourishment for a big appetite.
The folks at Hog Haven, 1514 Joliet St., are ready and raring to cook up massive meals for meat lovers. The restaurant is a small, cafe-like setting with a few tables, barstool seating along the walls and a bar area up front. It's casual and no frills, but still incredibly congenial. Cooks that chat at you from the kitchen and photos adorning the walls from past events and customers make you feel right at home.
Hog Haven sports an extensive menu with plenty of classic barbecue options, including tips, ribs and pulled pork. Lunch and dinner platters are available as well as hefty sandwiches with meat varieties.
A standout is the mouthwatering grilled pork tenderloin sandwich. This selection features a large slab of pork, bulky servings of lettuce and tomato slices and mayonnaise all squeezed together by a pair of buns working overtime to hold it all together. The sandwich is a hunger cure-all. The pork is grilled to perfection and proves chewy and tender. The vegetables and mayonnaise provide some cool flavors to balance out the juiciness and saltiness of the meat.
Most dishes at Hog Haven come with a side of fries. A worthy upgrade for a couple extra bucks are the psycho fries. This specialty item features nacho cheese, ranch dressing and Cajun seasoning tossed on top of the fries, which will leave your taste buds tantalized throughout the meal.
Other worthy considerations off the menu include the pork chop dinner and hot wings.
For more information, call 219-322-8108.
TASTE TEST: Pretzel Encrusted Cod a standout at Station 21 American Grill
Commercial fishing in Lake Michigan died out long ago, but seafood remains a staple of Region cuisine.
Many places still serve lake perch, frog legs, and other freshwater fare.
Station 21 American Grill, a firefighter-themed, two-level tavern at 201 N. Main St. in downtown Crown Point just north of the Old Courthouse, has a varied menu that includes the usual lake perch and some excellent seafood including seared ahi tuna, panko encrusted whitefish and beer-battered fish and chips.
A standout is the pretzel encrusted cod. Thick but flaky Atlantic Cod is served on a bed of rice and smothered in a decadent lemon cream sauce that takes it to the next level. A side of sauteed vegetables rounds out the generally healthy if buttery entree.
The dish comes with two huge fish fillets that are meaty in texture but delicate in taste. The thick coating of smashed pretzels gives the cod a crunch and heft. The lemon cream sauce is so divine you'll want to sop up every last bit of it.
The pretzel encrusted cod could be washed down with something from Station 21's extensive and well-curated craft beer menu. The restaurant has a cozy neighborhood environment that exudes charm. In the warmer months, the restaurant also offers New Orleans-like al fresco dining on its second-floor balcony overlooking the buzz of activity in downtown Crown Point.
For more information, call 219.661.0021 or find Station 21 American Grill on Facebook.
TASTE TEST: Visit Mi Ranchito during a Mexican cuisine craving
LOWELL — Those seeking some good grub during a future excursion to south Lake County can swing past and be served by the friendly faces at Mi Ranchito, 149 W. Commercial Ave.
The establishment is bright and welcoming. Windows provide a view out to the gentle slopes of Commercial Avenue, several televisions are available if one wants to catch TV or sports and a bar area is available to satisfy alcoholic beverage desires. However, the environment has less seating than a typical family restaurant, and the decor is a tad lacking.
The menu is populated with scrumptious varieties, from filling breakfast dishes such as Huevos con Chorizo to hefty dinners including the Chile Rellenos.
A prime selection is the house special, the Mi Ranchito Burrito. This powerful dish comes stuffed with steak, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream and avocado. The burrito can also be ordered suiza, and comes topped and surrounded with a sweet, but slightly spicy red sauce. Rice and beans are included as sides.
All of the stuffings make for an excellent ensemble. The meat and vegetables blend together nicely with the melted cheese and the cool tastes of the sour cream and avocado. The steak is especially savory and is cooked very well. The red sauce gives a nice singe of spiciness.
Other fine options worth trying include the Taco Ranchero and Chimichangas Acapulco.
For more information, call 219-696-2270.
TASTE TEST: Town Club's cheese squares an appetizer for the ages
There comes a fateful, momentous time in every person's life when they need to get their fried cheese on.
Should one reach such a critical juncture, they might want to consider a trip to The Town Club Restaurant and Lounge at 2904 45th St., Highland. The vintage steakhouse and seafood place was founded in 1947 and has maintained a cozy neighborhood feel.
A traditional menu includes many crowd-pleasers like steak, prime rib, chops, corn-fed Indiana duck, lake perch, frog legs, and Canadian walleye. It's a time-tested place that has stayed true to its roots and also pours a large martini.
Starters include shrimp cocktail, crab cakes, and many fried items, including onion rings, zucchini, and mushrooms. You can't go wrong with the huge cheese squares that make mozzarella cheese sticks look like toothpicks.
You can get a half order of two squares of fried mozzarella and cheddar for $6 or a full order of four for $10. If you ask for the full order, the waitress will always ask if you've tried them before and caution you that it's a lot of food.
It is indeed a lot of decadent melted cheese, lightly breaded, fried to gooey perfection and sprinkled with fresh Parmesan in case you weren't already getting enough dairy. The cheese squares are the size of saucers and deeply satisfying, and are so big they can only really be tackled with a fork and knife. One or two of them will probably exceed your daily dietary requirement for calcium.
For an extra $1, you can order the house-made marinara sauce for dipping. An ideal accompaniment, it's fresh and filled with sliced peppers and mushrooms.
For more information, call 219.924.5227 or visit townclubon45th.com.
TASTE TEST: Scrumptious sandwiches and wraps are aplenty at Foodie's Cafe
DYER — If you're in the market for a breakfast or lunch made in toasty perfection or in a zesty wrap, Foodie's Cafe has you covered.
The establishment, located at 151 Joliet St., is a splendid and bright cafe where sandwiches are the name of the game. A significant variety populates the menu where diners can choose from multiple options ranging from unique takes on the classic BLT to meaty and cheesy paninis.
The dining area is popping with color as the restaurant sports a mid-century America design with unmistakable pastel colors on the walls, striped upholstery on chairs and checkered tablecloths. The kitchen and counter are open, allowing the sounds of busy workers speedily preparing meals to ring out into the room.
On a menu with many tantalizing options, a filling standout is the Mediterranean Wrap. This selection comes with diced chicken pieces that are marinated and grilled, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, black olives, red onions, feta cheese, and a tangy Italian sauce. All comes in a bright green spinach tortilla wrap. The warm ensemble is quite the perfect combo as the ingredients' different tastes blend together with ease. The chicken, tomatoes and olives give a soft texture, while the lettuce, cucumbers and onions give a subtle crunchiness. It's a light, yet filling meal.
Other choices worth considering include the ratatouille panini, the portobello mushroom melt or an egg sandwich from the breakfast side of the menu.
For more information, call 219-864-3030.
TASTE TEST: St. John Malt Brothers' bacon pint brings the sizzle
Saint John Malt Brothers has been brewing locally popular craft beers like Deviant Vector West Coast India Pale Ale, Bolder Burnt Bottom Brown English Brown Ale and Herperidium Citra IPA since opening in the Tri-Town in 2015.
The craft brewery at 9575 Wicker Ave. in St. John has more than doubled its production capacity since then, started canning multiple beers that are distributed throughout Northwest Indiana and Illinois, and opened a new restaurant last year. After neighboring Rascal's Pizzeria closed, it moved into the neighboring space and opened a 120-seat eatery with a bar area that's typically popping on weekends.
Saint John Malt Brothers offers elevated pub fare like a smoked brisket platter, chicken and waffles, panko breaded shrimp and mussels.
Much of the meat is sourced from local favorite Welch's Stop and Shop. As was the case with the beer cheese visitors snacked on with pretzels in the original taproom, Saint John Malt Brother's own craft beer is incorporated into menu items like the Deviant Burger which features a Deviant sauce made with its popular IPA. There's a ground chuck salad mixing beef and lettuce that seems unique.
A standout is the Pint of Bacon, which sells for $7 and is exactly as it sounds: a pint glass filled with bacon. Not just any bacon though. Saint John Malt Brothers bakes quarter-inch thick strips of hearty bacon in its Bolder Burnt Bottom Brown English Brown Ale.
A brown sugar candy glaze adds a pleasing sweet and salty dynamic.
It's a meaty appetizer that tastes like dessert.
For more information, visit sjmaltbros.com or call 219.627.4294.
TASTE TEST: Find delicious specials and creations at El Taco Real
HAMMOND — If there's any culinary establishment that can make you feel right at home, the super cordial staff at El Taco Real, 935 Hoffman St., will take good care of you.
Upon entering, you're welcomed in like family by happy and smiling faces. The restaurant is a north Lake County staple, and will take you in like an old friend. Its seating and decor have a worn look and feel, merely hinting at the mileage the place has earned over the years.
The menu is populated with usual Mexican cuisine goodies, but the specials are king. Depending on the day of the week, diners can partake in scrumptious dishes from chilles rellenos to pollo con mole.
A notable selection from that side of the menu is torta de queso. The dish is a traditional Spanish omelet that comes packed with onions, tomatoes and cheese, and comes topped with the restaurant's signature "Salsa Ranchera." Flour or corn tortillas are also available as well as a side of rice or frijoles.
Those seeking out something flavorful will enjoy this option. All the ingredients mesh together wonderfully. The vegetables have a nice crunch and mix well with the gooey cheese all wrapped together in the eggs. Each bite will leave you craving more.
The delicious options don't stop there. Diners should also consider huevos rancheros, caldo de res and pozole.
For more information, call 219-932-8333.
TASTE TEST: Byway Brewing's The Khalil Mac burger a hit
Da Bears went from worst to first in the NFC North with a new coach, a developing second-year quarterback, and of course the blockbuster acquisition of the dominant pass-rushing outside linebacker Khalil Mack.
Mack elevated an already top 10 defense into one of the best in the league and played a big part in the Bears turnaround from the perpetual doormat of the NFC North to a 12-4, playoff-bound team some say might be a Super Bowl contender.
Byway Brewing at 2825 Carlson Dr. in Hammond's Oxbow Landing on the Little Calumet River has been celebrating the defensive superstar all season with The Khalil Mac, a burger inspired by the McDonald's Big Mac.
It features "one all beef patty, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions on a toasted brioche bun."
Byway's burger, created by chef Brian Rance, is far beefier than the fast food staple it pays homage to and wisely eschews the middle piece of bread that's little more than filler. It features a substantial hamburger patty of high-quality beef cooked to order and smothered in melted cheese. All the ingredients are taken up a notch with pickled onion, a creamy house-made Thousand Island-like sauce, and a much richer, more buttery bun.
It evokes the Big Mac without duplicating it. The Khalil Mac costs $13, comes with chips, and could be enjoyed with a number of Byway's award-winning craft beers, including the Chi.P.A. India Pale Ale, the Chupacabra pomegranate margarita gose, the Orange is the New Wheat wheat beer, or the Stosh.O Polish pilsner.
For more information, call 219.844.5468 or visit bywaybrewing.beer.
TASTE TEST: Tzatziki Greek Street Food's saganaki a fiery show
HAMMOND — Much in the way that General Tso's Chicken was invented in New York City and not China, saganaki is a North American Greek food that was first conceived of here.
By most accounts, the popular staple at Greek restaurants originated at The Parthenon in Chicago's Greektown neighborhood in 1968.
When it's on the menu, it's hard not to order because it's, well, fun. It's easy to be delighted by the showmanship of the waiter bringing out the frying pan, dousing the cheese in liquor, lighting it aflame while shouting "Opa," and extinguishing the leaping flames by squeezing lemon juice on it.
Go to a busy Greek restaurant for dinner and you'll see a thousand little fires shoot up throughout the dining room amid a chorus of Opas. And every time, everyone will pause to watch.
Tzatziki Greek Street Food at 7231 Indianapolis Blvd #2 in Hammond, formerly The Stuffed Pepper and with a lot of the same menu items, offers the fiery appetizer, and it's a treat that's expertly flambéed at your table.
The exterior of the fried cheese is crisp, while the melted interior is gooey and bubbling. The melted cheese is savory and absolutely decadent. You can enjoy it on fresh pita bread or just devour it with a knife and fork.
Your only complaint will be when it's gone.
For more information, call 219.803.0273 or find Tzatziki Greek Street Food on Facebook.
TASTE TEST: Bulldog Brewing's Beer Cheese Soup a winter warmer
WHITING — Done up in twinkling Christmas lights, downtown Whiting is a sight to behold during the holiday season.
The holiday lights display stretches all up and down 119th Street: stars sparkle behind Santa, reindeer soar toward the sky, and trees are draped in resplendent purple, green and red.
Carols are piped in through speakers throughout the downtown, adding to the festive spirit.
But you're an ornament's throw from Lake Michigan and a bitter wind whips off that boundless lake. Better escape the winter chill by ducking into Bulldog Brewing Co. at 1409 119th St.
Founded in 2011 by a steelworker who got into homebrewing, the craft brewery makes many beers that nod to local history, like the Industrial Harbor IPA, the 1890 Stout that commemorates the year the refinery opened in Whiting, and the Roby Red Ale that celebrates the long-bygone Roby Speedway where many Indianapolis 500 racers first competed and a half dozen speed demons died. The Down Time Wheat is self-explanatory at such a hard-working place.
Bulldog Brewing opened a second location at 5987 Dune Harbor Drive in Marina Shores at Dune Harbor in Portage, but you can't beat the original in terms of ambiance. It's a cozy, low-key place with brick walls, beer posters lovingly illustrated by local artists, and gleaming silver brewery tanks right by the bar.
The taproom is brightly lit and usually busy without being overly crowded, save for when it's thronged during Pierogi Fest, when it's a mandatory stop for many visitors.
In addition to an array of craft beers that range from light cream ales to powerful double IPAs, Bulldog Brewery serves elevated pub fare like duck sliders, whiskey salmon, and whiskey steak tacos.
In the winter cold, you might want a cup or even a bowl of the Beer Cheese Soup. The mild Wisconsin cheese soup is made with Bulldog 11 Mile Lager, a classic amber American lager named after the 11-mile stretch of Cline Avenue highway through the Region's industrial heart that impacts a maltiness to the rich and hearty soup.
It's comfort in a warm bowl.
The soup is topped with crisp green onions, crunchy bacon bits and a four-cheese blend that starts to melt and become stringy. It's an industrial-strength dose of cheese atop cheese.
For more information, call 219.655.5284 or visit facebook.com/bulldogbrewingwhiting/.
TASTE TEST: Mouthwatering sandwiches and other goodies served right at Johnny K's
LANSING — Like a car coming off I-80 for a gas station pit stop, your gullet is also in need of a refill.
Taking a quick run south to 17816 Torrence Ave. will land you at Johnny K's Patio. The community staple has fed the hungry stomachs of South Suburbanites and Region Rats for years, and its extensive menu keeps them coming back for more.
The establishment has a relaxing diner atmosphere with cozy booth seating. TVs are scattered around so sports fans can congregate to catch their favorite Chicago teams in action. Slot machines are also available in back for those looking to test their luck. Warmer weather also brings on the patio seating outside.
The selections the cooks can prepare could satisfy any craving. Hoagies, gyros, burgers, wraps, hot dogs, you name it. Savory sides also populate the menu, from heaping salads to cheese sticks.
A standout option from the sub sandwich side is the South Side Combo. This choice, which can be prepared hot or cold, features turkey and ham, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and Italian dressing. It's a delicious ensemble for those looking for a sandwich that's got it all. The meat and cheese combo is solid, and the vegetables are crisp and fresh. The dressing is like a cherry on top to complement the rest of the creation. Pair all of this with a side of some crisp French fries, and you've got a worthy lunch or dinner to get your tank back to full.
For more information, call 708-895-1500.
TASTE TEST: Avocado toast at Vibrations a nutritious treat
GARY — A favorite among the brunch set, avocado toast has taken off in popularity in recent years.
Despite an Australian real estate mogul's widely ridiculed claim that millennials can't afford homes because they buy too much avocado toast, the appeal is straightforward: cool, creamy avocado tastes delicious on hot toast and it's a lot more heart-healthy than butter.
It's a simple, nourishing snack or breakfast item that's chock-full of nutrients like omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin C, vitamin B-6, potassium, fiber and magnesium.
The juice bar at Vibrations Health, Wellness And Juice Bar at 430 S. Lake St. in Gary's lakefront Miller neighborhood specializes in such healthy fare, offering juices, smoothies, spinach pie, and two types of avocado toast: regular avocado toast and an "avocado avalanche" that adds hummus, sprouts and a red pepper spread.
Made to order with whole avocados, the avocado toast piles smashed avocado onto whole grain bread. It's seasoned with sea salt and red pepper flakes and topped with diced cucumber. Olive oil adds to the richness of the dense, creamy avocado and a squeeze of lime gives it a splash of citrusy freshness.
Diced tomatoes and onions can be added upon request.
It's a generous portion with four half slices of toast that are accompanied by artfully sliced apples.
For more information, call vibrationsjuicebar.com or call 219.427.1175.
TASTE TEST: Grab some South-inspired flavor with Toast & Jam's take on the Po' Boy
SCHERERVILLE — If you've ever taken a trip to the South, there's a plethora of filling cuisine various chefs and restaurants will serve up, from savory, luscious barbecue dishes to creamy, flavorful shrimp and grits from the Lowcountry.
Many states and cities sport signature items, such as the Po' Boy from Louisiana. Luckily for Region residents reminiscing on those selections, Toast & Jam, 7311 Mallard Lane, sports its own version of the famed sandwich.
Rather than seafood, the cooks stuff two slices of French bread with eggs and andouille sausage. However, they'll still stuff it with cheese, onions and peppers, including roasted bell peppers and a tomato aioli sauce. The dish also comes with a side of hash browns.
The sandwich is wonderfully scrumptious and filling. The eggs, cheese and veggie combo and complementary hash browns are cooked incredibly well. The peppers and sauce also help give a sweet sting of spiciness to the ensemble. Perhaps it'll give some Southern warmth to your heart, and stomach, during the cold chill of winter life in the North.
Diners can also partake in other wonderful creations from the kitchen at Toast & Jam, including a benedict with crabmeat, savory breakfast nachos and more.
For more information, call 219-769-000.
TASTE TEST: Palatable sushi varieties served up at Musashi
CHESTERTON — Sushi lovers looking to satisfy their next craving can relish in the selections offered at Musashi Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, 757 Indian Boundary Road.
The establishment is tucked away in a strip mall and has an unassuming cube-like exterior. Upon entering, diners are welcomed into a small, but quaint and warm environment. Lighting is low and dim and gentle music plays, giving an incredibly relaxed experience. The kitchen is also in view, and the sounds of cooking lightly drift from the area.
Diners are treated to an extensive variety of sushi choices with various seafood, vegetable and sauce options, from tried and true California to spicy yellowtail rolls.
A notable standout from the house specials includes the fittingly named Chesterton Double Dip Roll. This choice comes with deep-fried salmon tempura, crab and cream cheese, topped with unagi sauce.
The presentation is beautiful as the plate is brought out. The slices are a decent size. Each bite has awesome flavor and a nice crunchiness to it. The meat is quality, and the sauce has a sweetness that wraps everything up quite well.
Diners can also consider other delectable rolls, such as the house salmon and red snapper selections, or partake in the entree specials that come with choices of soup and salad.
For more information, call 219-728-1529.
TASTE TEST: Chow down on a Macedonian burger at Eli's Golden Apple in Crown Point
CROWN POINT — Eli's Golden Apple at 101 E 107th Ave is a traditional Region diner in more modern digs in a strip mall outside Strack & Van Til on Crown Point's east side.
It's a place where one can plant oneself in a booth, wolf down on hearty omelets, decadent crepes, huge open-face turkey sandwiches and wash it all down with a bottomless cup of coffee.
In addition to the extensive menu of traditional American favorites, Eli's Golden Apple offers specials that include Macedonian and other Balkan fare like chebapi.
A standout is the sharska pleskavica, what's often called the Macedonian burger. Served without a bun, the traditional burger patty is formed with ground chuck, pork and a blend of spices that give it a distinctive flavor. It's topped with a crust of melted cheese and served with crinkle cut fries, a shredded cabbage slaw doused in vinegar and, of course, diced-up raw onions.
It's a delicious taste of the old country, and Eli's doesn't skimp on portions. Even if you bring your appetite, you get two full grilled patties and might end up bringing some home in a doggy bag.
TASTE TEST: Find a treasure trove of Asian cuisine at Dragon Bowl
MUNSTER — If you have a hankering for scrumptious Chinese, Japanese and Thai dishes, the crew at Dragon Bowl, 8231 Hohman Ave., will serve you well.
The menu is a plethora of cuisine options that could likely satisfy almost any craving. Sushi roll combos are available with numerous meat and vegetable choices. Piping hot pad thai and curry selections are ready to be crafted. Steaming hot pots, fried rice and meat platters can be cooked up quickly.
The restaurant has an unassuming exterior, but provides an intimate atmosphere inside. There's plentiful table and booth seating for groups or a date night. The lighting is a little dimmed and not harsh as you chow down.
An excellent dish worth ordering is the Singapore rice noodles. It's a spicy dish heaped with rice noodles, chicken slices and vegetables. The way the dish is seasoned makes it super scrumptious, and the spices give a pleasant flavorful kick. The meat is quality and cooked very well. Vegetables have a pleasant crunch to them as a complement to the ensemble. The sizable dish will definitely leave you full.
On the extensive list of other Chinese options, also consider other delights such as szechuan vegetables, kung pao chicken and beef noodle soup.
For more information, call 219-513-0088.
TASTE TEST: Harvest Room's Steel Mill Burger is forged in flavor
MUNSTER — Harvest Room, the Palos Heights-based farm-to-table restaurant that brought downtown dining to the south suburbs, has earned a number of accolades.
The acclaimed eatery has opened a second spot, a 4,400-square-foot breakfast, lunch and brunch outpost at 9625 Calumet Ave. in Centennial Village in Munster. As wholesome and nourishing as the name suggests, Harvest Room specializes in farm-fresh, locally sourced ingredients that are often in season. It's the type of place where the sheer quality of the ingredients and the culinary skill in the kitchen elevate omelets or sandwiches that otherwise could be pedestrian.
A new addition to the menu in Munster pays homage to Munster Steel, which relocated to Hammond from its longtime location near the Harvest Room site a few years ago to make way for the new Centennial Village development that also includes Kitaro, El Salto, Simple Greek and SpringHill Suites.
Inspired by Munster Steel, the Steel Mill Burger is probably not what your grandpa ate after a long double shift at Inland Steel, but it's a beefy, substantial burger that could satisfy the heartiest steelworker.
The burger features thick, meaty grass-fed beef patties from Strauss Farms, known for its ethical treatment of cattle and a traditional grass diet free from antibiotics or hormones. It's smothered in melted cheddar cheese and topped with balsamic caramelized onions, house-brined pickle relish and a special sauce.
For more information, visit harvestroomrestaurant.com or call 219.595.5575.
TASTE TEST: Doc's Smokehouse and Craft Bar knows southern-style BBQ
DYER — Doc's Smokehouse & Craft Bar at 1420 Calumet Avenue in Dyer is a Region success story.
The southern-style barbecue restaurant, which boasts more than 60 mostly craft beers on tap, a carefully curated selection of 100 bourbons and whiskeys, and a stock market-like beer menu that shows what's available in real time, opened in Dyer in 2016 and has since expanded to Milwaukee and Mokena, Illinois.
One can discover new craft beers in a modern, hip environment with playful touches like a stick man on the men's room door trying to hold it in.
The cuisine is authentically southern and includes Brunswick Stew, a pimento cheese and smoked sausage plate, and LA Caviar where the LA stands for Lower Alabama and the caviar is a bean salad served on Ritz crackers.
You can't go wrong with a meat plate that comes with two sides, pickles and a slice of white bread for cooling off the tongue if the sauce is too spicy or just sopping up all that barbecue goodness. Those with a big appetite might want to try the two-meat plate—you know, for variety.
The brisket—slow-cooked on firewood stacked right outside the entrance—is rich and succulent. You can choose leaner, fattier or a mix of both.
The ribs are juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender, but charred and crisp on the outside for a nice contrast in texture. The smokey meat is so flavorful it doesn't need it, but there's a choice of several regional barbecue sauces, including tangy Memphis style, Carolina vinegar and Alabama white sauce, a regional specialty that's mayonnaise- and horseradish-based.
For more information, visit docsbbq.net or call 219.262.3627.
TASTE TEST: Spice up your lunch with Margarita's stuffed chili peppers
LYNWOOD - If you're looking to become righteously "stuffed" during your next afternoon dining excursion, the staff at Margarita's Bar and Grill, 19606 Burnham Ave., will take good care of you.
From scrumptious breakfast dishes to piping hot steaks, the kitchen offers a vast range of options for many tastes and desires. Guests can divulge in huevos rancheros, carne asada, shrimp doused in spicy sauces and much more.
A standout worthy for diners to try are the chile rellenos, also known as stuffed chili peppers. This dish contains two massive chili peppers that are filled with ground beef and cheese. Shrimp is also available for a $1.25, and is well worth it for the overall taste. Rice and beans come standard with all entrees from Margarita's.
The peppers are cooked very well and are complemented nicely with a red sauce. The meat and cheese included inside is also prepared wonderfully and packed with delicious flavors. The rice and beans have good salty and smooth tones to their tastes. Last but not least, the tortillas are perfectly warmed and delectable for ingredients.
The dining space at Margarita's is inviting and pleasant with its wide open space. With the spirit of Halloween and Dio de los Muertos in the air, the restaurant has decorations scattered throughout, including cobwebs strung across the ceiling and skeletons chilling out at the hostess stand and kitchen. The bar area is also available for those looking to catch a margarita and a sports game.
For more information, call 708-418-2650.
TASTE TEST: Nihilist Grindhouse brings the beef
GRIFFITH — "Nihilist Arby's" has established itself as a popular Twitter humor account that puts an absurdist spin on the generic content brands normally post on social media with tweets like "You’re older than you’ve ever been, younger than you’ll ever be again, and you’re also a pointless biological accident in an entropic void and your sentience literally has zero significance. Eat Arby’s." and "When you consider that nothing matters, checking nutrition facts, being vegan, voting, loving your spouse, getting out of bed each day, it’s all pretty meaningless. Soon the sun will eat the earth and nothing you’ve ever heard of will even exist at all. Eat Arby’s."
Such black humor has helped it amass more than 357,000 followers.
Grindhouse Cafe in Griffith pays homage to the subversive "Nihilist Arby's" and the meat-havin', cowboy hat-wearing fast food chain itself with the "Nihilist Grindhouse," a far superior and more sophisticated version of the roast beef sandwich that Arby's is known for.
Thinly sliced roast beef is piled high and topped with tangy barbecue sauce that evokes a classic Arby's roast beef topped with Arby's sauce. Sharp cheddar cheese and piquant red onions add more flavor without distracting too much from the fresh deli meat that takes center stage. All that beefy goodness is served in a buttery, savory croissant.
It's one of many high-caliber sandwiches available at Grindhouse, where they're served with a side of chips. There's also of course a wealth of coffee and tea options at the eclectically decorated coffee shop at 146 N. Broad St. in downtown Griffith, where one can find locally produced zines, posters for upcoming punk shows or bags of coffee beans from area roasteries.
For more information, visit grindhouse.cafe or call 219.595.5678.
TASTE TEST: Skillets Bistro is a leader in breakfast fare
HIGHLAND — When living in the domain of Region Rats, locating tasty breakfast options isn't difficult.
North, south, east, west, you'll find it. In the heart of Lake County, there's deliciousness to be found at Skillets Bistro, 2040 45th St.
The restaurant is homey and inviting with a friendly staff and plentiful seating. Artistic wall ornaments and photos adorn the walls. Numerous hanging lights provide a bright atmosphere. Light R&B and classic rock seeps through the mix.
The menu is chock full of morning goodies. There's staples such as golden French toast topped with fruit, chicken and waffles and breakfast sandwiches with croissants.
However, as the establishment's name suggests, skillets are the name of the game. The cooks get creative with their offerings, which include items like the loaded cheesehead skillet, the meaty pizza skillet and a hefty New York strip steak skillet.
In the spirit of Highland, a neat option is the 45th Street Skillet. This selection comes with chicken sausage, roasted red peppers, onions, red potatoes and two eggs. It's a scrumptious collection of ingredients. The tender chicken sausage, sweet peppers and well-cooked potatoes particularly stand out in the overall taste. The ensemble is tasty and a wonderful contrast to typical hash browns, cheddar cheese and eggs.
For more information, call 219-924-7604.
TASTE TEST: 3 Floyds elevates fried chicken to an art form
MUNSTER — 3 Floyds' acclaimed craft beer is aggressively hopped, but with more nuanced flavors and subtle notes than seem possible from such intense brews.
But the beer is not the only reason its Munster taproom at 9750 Indiana Parkway draws visitors from all over the world and inspires people to regularly bike to all the way from the north side of Chicago.
Gastropub food like Scotch eggs, beef pho, and pork belly burnt ends is also acclaimed. The chicken drumsticks are a standout on a murderer's row of a menu full of standouts.
The dish, elegantly served on a wooden board, solves a common problem with fried chicken. Breasts can dry out, wings are too scrawny and meager, and thighs are too awkward to really tear into, especially when piping hot. The drumstick really is the perfect delivery system for that savory fried chicken goodness.
The chicken at 3 Floyds is pure class, smoked for intense flavor and coated with a dry coffee rub that takes the crispy skin to another level. It's just the right amount of greasy and served with a rustic housemade biscuit that's slathered with decadent, creamy butter. The heaping dollop of butter is so big it looks like it might be heart-stopping, and suffuses the flaky biscuit with an overwhelming umami.
Pickled watermelon cubes adorned with microcelery provide a tangy, refreshing contrast that perfectly complements the contemporary take on a down-home favorite. One visitor called it "one of the best meals he'd ever had."
For more information, visit www.3floyds.com/ or call 219.922.3565.
TASTE TEST: Asian dishes shine at 5-Star Thai Cuisine
SCHERERVILLE - Dining in or ordering takeout Asian cuisine often stands out as a solid plan for family and date night or comfort food. At 5-Star Thai Cuisine, 5124 Pine Island Court, the name isn't a pretentious assertion about its offerings. It's the real deal.
The restaurant's menu has an extensive set of dishes including curries, noodles, seafood and stir-fried works. A relaxing dining atmosphere is also included with gentle music playing in the background, decor adorning the surrounding walls and comfortable seating.
Many of the dishes come packed with various vegetables and meat choices, and a worthy selection is the Kuaw Teaw Kua. This option comes with a choice of meat, stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, vegetables and a smothering of Thai sriracha sauce.
The dish comes steaming out of the kitchen and has an appealing presentation. The noodles, eggs and meat is cooked and seasoned well. Carrots and lettuce give a cool crunch to the mix. Cilantro sprinklings give a little pop. Finally, the sauce gives a quality zing to bring it all to a close. It'll leave your taste buds and stomach satisfied.
Also consider other appetizing options such as panang curry, pad see ew and calamari with basil. There are plenty of choices for those looking for something salty and delicious or adventurous and on the spicy side.
For more information, call 219-769-6322.
TASTE TEST: Iroquois Chicken at Jose's a decadent delight
HIGHLAND — Jose's Family Restaurant in downtown Highland is arguably the best Peruvian/Italian/Greek diner in the Region.
Okay, so it's probably the only Peruvian/Italian/Greek diner in the Region.
The eclectic ethnic eatery at 2934 Highway Ave., combines the menus of erstwhile Highland eateries Maritza's Cafe, Anthony's Cafe and Niko's. It slings bacon and eggs, farmers skillets, French toast and other traditional breakfast fare in the morning, and then offers moderately priced Peruvian and Italian cuisine in the evenings.
A specialty is the Iroquois Chicken that chef Anthony Fenyves debuted at Anthony's Cafe next door, which he ran for 18 years before consolidating with his wife and fellow restaurateur Maritza. It's now owned by Jose Salinas.
A tender chicken breast and fluffy cornbread risotto are lavishly smothered in a chipotle gorgonzola cream sauce. The sauce is the star of the dish, and it's positively sumptuous. It's rich, creamy and decadent and just spicy enough with an occasional slice of chipotle pepper.
The chicken is expertly sauteed, the risotto is perfect and kernels of fresh sweet corn add texture to the rice.
For more information, call 219.838.4700 or visit https://josesfamilyrestaurant.business.site/.
TASTE TEST: Dive into the fall spirit with The Simple Greek's pumpkin spice rizogalo
MUNSTER — Labor Day weekend 2018 is officially in the past, and the early signs of the Region autumn spirit are popping up, like scarecrows outside Dunkin' Donuts.
It also means the return of pumpkin spice garnishing dishes, celebrated by some and dreaded by others.
The Simple Greek, 9611 Calumet Ave., is adding it to one of its delicious dessert options: rizogalo, or rice pudding. The culinary treat is simple with its ingredients of rice grains and milk. Add a good serving of pumpkin spice in the mix, and it'll make for a great small snack.
The rizogalo has a nice creamy texture to it as well as a slight chewiness. It's incredibly sweet and scrumptious. The sugary goodness that's wrapped up in pumpkin spice only makes the ensemble all the better. It'll certainly stand out as one of the best treats in the area to grab while the fall spirit is around.
The Simple Greek is more known for its assembly line style ordering with pitas or bowl creations of favorite Greek add-ins, such as gyro meat, beans, tzatziki and more. Grabbing some of the rice pudding is a great way to treat yourself with your meal. The dining atmosphere is also incredibly pleasant with its plentiful natural light, unique light fixtures and long rows of seating.
For more information, call 219-922-4976.
TASTE TEST: Duck blood soup at The Polish Peasant a taste of the old world
MICHIGAN CITY — The Polish Peasant has been serving traditional Polish cuisine since it opened last year at 624 Wabash St. in downtown Michigan City, across the street from the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets.
The menu includes pierogi, hunter's stew, stuffed cabbage, pork cutlet, pan-roasted whitefish, potato cakes, and of course Polish sausage.
It's also one of the few places in the Region, along with the Cavalier Inn and MJ's Polish Deli in Hammond, to find Czernina. The traditional duck blood soup has been enjoyed by Polish peasants for generations, as a way to use every part of the duck.
A symbol of rejection, the farmstead dish was allegedly served to suitors whose parents wouldn't let marry their daughters. It was featured in the epic poem "Pan Tadeusz" or "Sir Thaddeus, or the Last Lithuanian Foray: A Nobleman's Tale from the Years of 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse," which is required reading in schools in Poland.
Czernina has been enjoyed by Polish immigrants for generations, kept alive by buscias with cherished recipes from the old world, but it's becoming harder and harder to find duck blood.
The black sweet-and-sour soup is definitely an acquired taste, but worth trying if you're looking to reconnect with your cultural heritage or try something adventurous. It has a vinegary flavor with sweet fruit notes, and is a fine start to a starchy feast of traditional Polish fare.
For more information, call 219-873-1788 or find The Polish Peasant on Facebook.
TASTE TEST: Seafood inspirations star at Theo's
HIGHLAND — If your stomach is seeking out salmon, lusting after lobster and clamoring for crab, the fine-dining experience at Theo's is calling your name.
Theo's Steakhouse and Seafood, 9144 Indianapolis Blvd., is an attractive establishment well-suited for an intimate meal out. The seating arrangements present an inviting lounge, decorative lighting and wine bottles don the pillars and ceilings and large windows give a view out to the street. Light music plays in the background. All the elements constitute a cozy environment perfect for a family outing or date night.
As the restaurant's name suggests, seafood and steaks are king on the menu's pages. Diners can salivate over appetizing selections, from wild Atlantic salmon to Iowa pork chop.
In between the heavy hitters is some lighter, creative fare. A variety of sandwiches star on the menu, and a standout is the crab and mushroom melt.
This dish comes with a crabmeat salad blend and mushrooms topped with melted mozzarella and cheddar cheeses, all stacked onto a pita bread slice.
The ingredients make for a flavorful blend. The crab and mushrooms are tender, and go well with the cheeses. The pita bread is nicely toasted and gives a nice chewiness to match. Entrees typically have sides offered too, and the rice pilaf is a worthy choice.
Theo's is clearly fond of crab, as it also stars in creations such as a crabmeat salad and can come as an item in a stuffed avocado or tomato selection.
For more information, call 219-838-8000.
TASTE TEST: Byway Brewing's shrimp gazpacho corn salad a light summery treat
HAMMOND — Xenomorphs from the Alien film franchise are notoriously hard to kill.
You can have Ripley hunt them down with a flamethrower, send in the colonial marines, nuke them from orbit or pit them against a Predator and hope for the best.
It's much easier to devour the Xenomorph at Hammond's Byway Brewing – the small plate of grilled shrimp atop roasted corn salad surrounded by a shallow moat of cucumber-grape gazpacho is ideal light summer fare to savor on a patio by the Little Calumet River and the architecturally distinguished Indiana Welcome Center.
It's one of many dishes of Chef Brian Rance's menu named after pop culture in the 1980s, including the Magma P.I. roasted pepper soup, the Clubber Lang grilled chicken wrap, the Jack Burton spicy-garlic noodle bowl and the Predator seared strip steak with a poached egg and chorizo-potato hash.
Such dishes could be enjoyed al fresco outside the craft brewery at 2825 Carlson Drive in Hammond's Oxbow Landing with light summery beers Byway recently rolled out, including an Aqua Fresca De Roja Prickly Pear Saison and a Cuke of Earl-Cucumber-Elderflower Saison.
Far from the fearsome H.R. Giger-designed creature that bursts out of chests and bleeds acid, Byway's Xenomorph consists of huge pieces of fresh gulf shrimp on a bed of greens, sweet corn and chopped almonds. Gazpacho is normally enjoyed as a cold soup, but in this case, it serves as a sauce or dressing one could drag the shrimp or salad through.
It's a light, delicious and summery small plate that's best enjoyed in the sun with some craft beer.
For more information, call 219-844-5468 or visit bywaybrewing.beer.
TASTE TEST: Hefty meals are the norm at Country Kitchen
HEBRON — If you happen to be traversing the Region on a summer afternoon cruise, you might find yourself in the southern reaches of Lake, Porter or LaPorte counties.
While it's easy to breeze through some of the small municipalities around, there's good gems to be found in their downtown stretches.
Country Kitchen, 120 N Main St., has a lot of the character and atmosphere a small town can offer. Walls adorned with floral and rural images, flowers set atop the tables and a long window with a view of the traffic passing by on the downtown strip makes for an inviting venue that'll make you feel right at home.
The restaurant sports an extensive array of American fare on the menu, from filling breakfast favorites like omelets and pancakes to heaping chicken and sandwich entrees.
There's many tantalizing options, but a worthy choice is the breakfast burrito. Culinary selections come out steaming hot on long, rectangular plates. The burrito's contents are stuffed in a tortilla that stretches the plate's length, and large hash brown cuts line the edge alongside it.
The bites are scrumptious, and the contents are cooked well. While sausage or bacon along with eggs and cheese on its own is tasty, adding some diced onions, green peppers and tomatoes makes for a nice complement.
As noted, the menu is filled with other delicious ventures such as shrimp and grits, beef nachos grande and sandwich melts, to name a few.
For more information, call 219-996-9221.
TASTE TEST: Bite into a legend at Redamak's
NEW BUFFALO — A ritual of summer in Northwest Indiana is heading to the pristine beaches, wineries and touristy towns in southwest Michigan.
Just across the state line, New Buffalo is a popular destination, and no stop to the beachfront town is complete without a visit to Redamak's, the vintage roadhouse at 616 East Buffalo St. that grills up the beefy "hamburger that made New Buffalo, Michigan famous."
During the summer months, the gravel parking lot is often overflowing and there is usually a wait to get a table. But you'll find a way to keep busy with an arcade, pinball machines, a bar and vintage decor like old school gas pumps, neon signs, sports memorabilia, menus autographed by celebrity visitors, and callbacks to bygone institutions like the Chicago Daily News.
Redamak's just underwent a major renovation this past winter, overhauling the kitchen and resurfacing the floors. The institution, a favorite among tourists for decades, has made some upgrades over the last few years, adding a concession stand at the public beach, launching The Redamak's Patty Wagon food truck and adding a few new gourmet burger and slider options. There's now Michigan craft beer on tap.
The cozy, wood-lined burger joint, which is only open seasonally when beach-goers flood into town, is not without its detractors. Some complain that it overcooks burgers and won't cook them below medium, that it's overrated and – most often – that it's still inexplicably cash-only in The Year of Our Lord 2018.
But there's a reason why Redamak's has been packing them in for decades, while other eateries along the same stretch of highway are noticeably less busy.
You can get baskets full of the most delicious fried food – clam strips, cauliflower, onion rings, onion petals, mozzarella sticks, zucchini sticks, green beans, pickles, deep-fried mini tacos and every conceivable type of potato: crinkle cut fries, curly fries, waffle fries, tater tots, sweet potato fries and chili cheese fries.
But of course, the big attraction is the "legendary" double Velveeta cheeseburger. It comes standard with ketchup, mustard, crosscut dill pickles, and raw onion, and can alternately be topped with Swiss, Pepper Jack, Mild Cheddar, or Colby Jack cheeses, but it's the rich Velveeta that really makes it sing.
The oozing, gelatinous cheese and freshly ground beef achieve a glorious fusion that will have you scraping off every last dollop of melty cheese stuck to the paper wrapper. There's a reason why it's a staple of summer.
For more information, visit redamaks.com or call 269.469.4522.
TASTE TEST: Vegan creations star at Lelulo's
CROWN POINT — You can crack all the jokes you want about "rabbit food," but our vegan friends among us craft tasty food too.
If your taste buds feel adventurous, take a stop in at Lelulo's, 13 N. Court St. The humble restaurant has a cozy, intimate interior like a cafe. A brick wall lines the left side that leads to an open kitchen area. A poster board to the right is available for visitors to leave artistic signatures or drawings. All gives a very homey, welcoming feeling.
Pictures adorn the menu selections, providing glimpses to colorful dips, wraps and soups. Those with a real hankering ought to consider the available platters. Various options, such as the taco and BBQ plates, use meat substitutes, such as a cauliflower blend and homemade seitan that proves to be just as delicious.
Lelulo's will alternate weekly wrap and platter specials, and recently sported a gyro platter. The dish includes a toasted pita filled with seitan, tomatoes, cucumbers and tzatziki sauce, as well as sides of hummus and quinoa tabouleh. The gyro tastes fantastic as the seitan has a slight spiciness, and the other ingredients give a balancing coolness to the flavor. The quinoa has a delicious crunch and the hummus is creamy.
While it might not be around this week, the gyro platter will make a return. Until then, also consider other entrees like the French dip plate, or any of the crafty, colorful desserts out on display as well.
For more information, call 219-226-4599.
TASTE TEST: Asian Kitchen offers authentic Vietnamese cuisine
HAMMOND — The recently opened Asian Kitchen offers both Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine in a small, intimate setting or for take-out.
The family-owned restaurant at 6412A Calumet Ave., which opened this spring, provides delectable and authentic dishes for cheap, such as huge Bahn Mi sandwiches for just $4 each. Various meats, pickled carrots, sliced cucumber, cilantro and jalapenos are packed into fresh French bread that's crunchy on the outside and chewy within. The eatery also has less common, more exotic dishes such as banh cuon — a northern Vietnamese dish of pock sausage, steamed fermented rice batter, cucumber, bean sprouts and fish sauce.
The many healthy options on the expansive menu include papaya salad, winter melon drink and a "Vietnamese atiso sweet tea, made with artichoke, chrysanthenum flower, green tea, small red apple, arrow root, prunella, dried dates and dried rhizome."
You've got to try the pho, which is authentic and fantastic. The noodle soup, a popular Vietnamese street food, comes in a few different varieties and at a spice level of your choice.
The "pho special soup" is packed with steak, brisket, meatballs, flank, tripe, soft tendon and plenty of noodles. Scallions, sprouts and onions add fragrance and flavor to the light broth.
They're so committed to quality at Asian Kitchen that they send you home with the pho in its component parts to assemble at home, so the meat doesn't get too tough by the time you're ready to dig in. The steak comes raw so it actually cooks in the warm broth while you pile in the ingredients.
For more information, call 219-803-0074 or find Asian Kitchen on Facebook.
TASTE TEST: Redneck Fries at Doc's Smokehouse can satisfy a comfort food craving
DYER — Summertime is in full swing and smokers are fired up and cooking away. The wafting scent of roasting meat is hard to resist while walking or driving past Doc's Smokehouse & Craft Bar, 1505 Calumet Ave.
The restaurant recently earned Best Barbecue in Best of the Region 2018. It's a cozy spot with a lavish dining area. Multiple high or low-top seats are available to choose from. Large windows above let plenty of natural lighting flow in. Classic rock album art adorns the walls, which fits well with the tunes coming from the speakers that span the decades, from the Beatles to Pink Floyd.
The menu sports filling platters and dishes with the usual brisket, pulled pork, chicken and more. However, look to the lower left of the menu for an item highlighted as "Doc's Favorite": the Redneck Fries.
This massive dish comes out with crispy French fries smothered with cheddar cheese and barbecue sauces. It's also decorated with a choice of brisket or pulled pork and jalapeno pepper slices.
It's a wonderfully delicious ensemble. The fries are cooked very well, and the sauces on them pack a load of flavor. The meat is super tender and scrumptious. Unless your taste buds are ready for a kick, be prepared for what the sizable jalapeno slices will unleash as well.
Also consider the other notable appetizers on the menu, such as the LA caviar and the fried pickles. Of course, you can also grab a pint, or two, from the extensive beer selection.
For more information, call 219-262-3627.
TASTE TEST: Devil's Trumpet brings the beef to U.S. Steel Yard
What’s a summer in the Region without catching at least one Gary South Shore RailCats game?
And what’s baseball without grabbing some food and brews at the concession stand?
Devil’s Trumpet Brewing in Hobart established a booth at 1 Stadium Plaza at U.S. Steel Yard in downtown Gary last summer.
It’s back this season and remains one of the best places for craft beer at the ballpark. You’re sure to find My Ghetto India Pale Ale, the hoppy 7.2 ABV IPA that’s been rated “very good” by Beer Advocate users, and whatever else Devil’s Trumpet happens to be pouring that game.
There’s also food, delicious food. Devil’s Trumpet serves up slabs of ribs and other items. A great choice is the cheesesteak sandwich, which can be ordered with peppers, hot or sweet, and sauteed onions.
The sandwich is a little on the smaller side but it’s perfect ballpark food: handheld, meaty and savory to the last bite.
The beef itself is soft, tender and splashed with just enough au jus to keep it delectably moist. The bread is fresh and doughy. The fusion is divine.
It’s a nice alternative to the usual array of hot dogs, Polish sausages, bratwursts, pretzels and heat lamp-stewed pizza slices one would otherwise have to choose from.
After a filling cheesesteak and a cold beer, you’ll be content to camp out in your seat for the rest of the game.
TASTE TEST: Piping hot grinders and more served up in AJ's Pizza Company
CHESTERTON - Summer is high time for hitting the open road to different locales. Sometimes that's going to call for grub or snacks on the way.
If you're traveling east on the Indiana Toll Road, consider pulling off at the Chesterton exit. Although it's an unassuming spot with a gas station, hotel and a couple healthcare facilities, there's a treasure to be found at AJ's Pizza Company, 3050 Matson St.
It's a cozy restaurant with comfortable booths and relaxing lighting. The walls have a fitting Region theme with South Shore posters and old industry photos.
As the name suggests, pizza is the star at AJ's. However, praises ought to be given to the array of sandwiches offered. Toasted Stromboli and Grinder options stick out with delicious ingredients, such as Honey Dijon Chicken, Barbecue Beef, Jalapeno Bbacon and more. All options can be served as a 6-inch or footlong sandwich.
A fine choice to sample is the Garlic Parmesan Steak Sandwich. This piece of art is gorgeous when it comes out with steam rising from the tender meat and gooey cheese. The flavor is exquisite as the marinated steak really has a kick. The Garlic Parmesan sauce accents it wonderfully. The cheese isn't too overpowering. The onions and mushrooms provide some nice texture too. Green peppers would also make a fine additional topping request.
AJ's is sure to fill you up with other options, such as snacking on Fried Green Beans or Fried Cauliflower. While it's still available, consider the pizza of the month, "That Goud Gouda." The craft beer selection is also appealing, with St. John Malt Bros., Devil's Trumpet and 18th Street on tap.
For more information, call 219-464-8282.
TASTE TEST: Bartlett's Fish Camp brings elegant seafood to lakefront
No summer in Northwest Indiana is complete without at least one stop at the lakefront in Michigan City, where the landmark lighthouse beckons to all the ships returning to the marina and festive beach-goers hang out until long after dark on a warm summer night.
Visitors get sand in their toes and splash around in the lake, picnic at Washington Park while the waves gently lap in the distance, check out all the wildlife at the Washington Park Zoo, and bop over to the nearby Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets mall if they need a new pair of sunglasses or other sundries.
This summer, Michigan City's lakefront is bound to be an even bigger attraction now that Harbor Country Adventures has added Lake Michigan cruises, including sunset cruises and speed-boat rides.
Another major recent addition is Bartlett's Fish Camp, an outpost of the popular Bartlett's Gourmet Grill and Tavern in Beverly Shores. The seafood restaurant at 12 on the Lake in the Michigan City Yacht Club offers waterfront dining with views of the mouth of Trail Creek as it flows into the lake.
Bartlett's Fish Camp offers elegant dining in a casual setting with a more modern nautical theme and a raw bar with peel-and-eat shrimp and a good selection of fresh oysters from the East and West coasts. The sophisticated menu includes Maine lobster roll, lobster shrimp fritters, a lobster cobb salad, oyster cracker-crusted walleye, chili-rubbed grilled swordfish, and a seafood bouillabaisse with shrimp, scallops, clam, mussels and salmon in a saffron and lobster tomato broth.
A standout appetizer on the dinner menu is the wood-fired, char-grilled baby octopus. The thick, tender octopus legs were marinated in the style of a Greek taverna and grilled to have a light but delectable smokiness.
The elegantly plated dish is served with a tangy and sweet smoked paprika sherry vinaigrette and grilled baby frisée. You'll want to drag every forkfull through the tasty romesco sauce and a Greek relish made with tomatoes and big, flavorful capers.
The sumptuous octopus is perfect for sharing and almost substantial enough to be an entree.
For more information, call 219-879-9544 or visit www.facebook.com/pg/BartlettsFishcamp/.
TASTE TEST: The taste of summer is here with Scrambled Diner's pulled pork skillet
DYER — The late spring, soon-to-be-summer, weather seems to be settling into place. Minus the recent plethora of rain and cloudy days, the warmth and sunshine are becoming more consistent.
That means one thing: it's barbecue time.
Yes, it's time for smoked-meat goodness to be unleashed with zeal on Region restaurant platters, and Scrambled Diner, 250 W 81st Ave., whips up a summer special that fits the bill.
Diners can order the pulled pork skillet while the season lasts. The sizable dish has hash browns cooked at the bottom, a layer of cheese, a heaping serving of pulled pork decorated all around and eggs decorated on top.
This ensemble has a powerful flavor combo. The pulled pork is superbly scrumptious with the sauce. It's an awesome duo with the eggs. The cheese has a more subtle taste and feels more hidden in the food pile. The hash browns are delicious, too, and have a texture similar to grits.
The Scrambled Diner will bring on other breakfast favorites with skillet and omelet varieties worth considering, such as Irish, Bayou and Cajun options.
For more information, call 219-865-3950.
TASTE TEST: Keith's Roman Cod an elegant delight
It's beach season again in Northwest Indiana, and Region residents have been flocking back to the Lake Michigan lakeshore.
Whihala Beach in Whiting is one of the most popular spots for sun and sand, especially after the multimillion-dollar improvements to the neighboring Whiting Lakefront Park and the addition of the Whoa Zone floating water park, which opens for the season again in little more than two weeks.
But no visit to that sandy stretch of pristine lakefront is complete without a visit to Whiting's busting downtown, perhaps to grab dinner, coffee or a hoppy craft beer at Bulldog Brewery.
If you took your significant other out for a romantic "long walk on the beach," Keith's is an elegant place to continue the date.
The white-tablecloth restaurant at 1872 Indianapolis Blvd just north of 119th Street specializes in steaks, seafood and pasta dishes. It's often called a hidden gem or secret treasure that draws diners from Chicago and Chicago suburbs in Illinois.
It's a cozy, intimate spot with eclectic decor, and old school wooden bar and an open kitchen where one can watch the chefs work amid the occasional flash of flame.
It excels at seafood, a fitting choice after spending a sunny day before that big, blue lake.
Appetizers include mussels in white wine, crab claws in garlic butter sauce, smoked salmon with horseradish and caviar, and a shrimp cocktail over crushed ice in a traditional metal serving dish with enough horseradish in the cocktail sauce to clear one's sinuses for months. The Caesar salad even comes with anchovies.
There's extensive entree options from the sea, including salmon, tuna, walleye and a seafood pasta with shrimp, mussels and crab claws. The prices are reasonable for the fine dining quality and less than what one would pay for something comparable in Chicago.
A standout is the Roman cod, based off a dish sampled in Italy. Baked cod, flaking apart into decadent flakes of fish flesh, gets smothered with a port-based tomato sauce with fresh chunks of tomatoes, golden raisins and port-infused blueberries.
The sweet-savory contrast is off the charts. The addition of fruit and a sweet fortified dessert wine to a traditional Italian dish makes every bite burst with flavor. It positively sings.
Keith's accepts reservations, and they might be needed on weekends.
For more information, call 219.659.4444.
TASTE TEST: Toast & Jam sports the sweetest pancakes
SCHERERVILLE - No matter what breakfast joints you frequent, they often try to cater to the sweet tooth among us with super sugary offerings in pancakes, waffles, French toast and more.
Praise is deservedly given to the pancake selections at Toast & Jam, 7311 Mallard Lane. With styles such as Oreo and cannoli, the chefs are cooking up some scrumptious options that can spruce up your average pancake.
A worthy selection is the cinnamon roll pancakes. The kitchen will cook up two buttermilk pancakes, throw in cinnamon and sugar and finally douse the tops with layers of icing, brown sugar and caramel sauce.
The final product is pretty in design and almost too beautiful to eat. But alas, pancake lovers will find delight in the fluffy pancake texture and powerful flavor in the seasonings and toppings. The ensemble is absolutely tasty.
Toast & Jam has other notable, unique offerings, including a crab and asparagus omelet and mac n' cheese that comes with vegetables and eggs. All can be enjoyed in a pleasant dining room with neat light bulbs in jars hanging from the ceiling, artistic posters and toasters decorating the walls and light classic rock and pop music.
For more information, call 219-769-0000.
TASTE TEST: Blue Point Oysters & Sushi Bar a freshly shucked taste of heaven
Blue Point Oysters and Sushi Bar opened in 2016 on the courthouse square in downtown Valparaiso, offering the many sophisticated diners in the Vale of Paradise a wide selection of sushi, seafood, steaks and oysters.
The classy, modern restaurant at 13 E Lincolnway, which flies in seafood from as far as Greece, claims to have "Northwest Indiana's largest fresh oyster selection daily." Blue Point offers oysters Rockerfeller, char-grilled with garlic parmesan or Cajun spices, or fresh shucked at market prices. It offers an impressive selection of oysters from all along the east and west coasts, including BeauSoleil, Old 1871, Alpine Bay, Bras D', Caraquet, Duxbury, Fat Baby, Misty Point, Katama Bay, Rappahannock, Baie Blues, Kumamoto and Plymouth Champagne, usually having five to 10 different varieties on hand at a time.
You can't go wrong with the small plate of the eatery's signature Blue Point Oysters, and can get a dozen for $26 or a half-dozen for $14.
The semi-wild oysters from the Long Island Sound between New York and Connecticut – an iconic staple of many seafood menus nationwide, the favorite of Queen Victoria and a point of pride in New York State – are known for an agreeably mild flavor, high salinity and a sweet aftertaste. The large-shelled Blue Point Oysters at Blue Point in downtown Valpo are plump and juicy.
The texture is firm, and the taste is fresh and briny, as though fresh sea air is wafting by. Most are good in size.
The classic oysters are so delectable they need little accompaniment, but Blue Point still supplies the standard array of fresh ground horseradish, lemon wedges, cocktail sauces and a mignonette sauce
For more information, visit bluepoint-seafood.com or call 219-286-7166.
TASTE TEST: Take a ride on the millennial side with New Oberpfalz's avocado burger
GRIFFITH - In case you didn't know, I'm a tweeting, cord-cutting, craft beer-drinking, napkin-killing millennial.
Some stereotypes I meet, some I don't. One of the contemporary items that has stirred talk is the beloved, and criticized, avocado toast. We (millennials) receive flak for spending extra money on that scrumptious, green spread.
Hear me out -- there's a dish involving avocado worthy of your taste buds at New Oberpfalz Brewing, 121 E Main St. The establishment is a small, intimate and lively watering hole for craft beer lovers (including, yes, those darn millennials).
Local breweries like this one that introduce dining menus have no shortage of unique fixes, from a giant soft pretzel to vegetarian cauliflower tacos. The one I'd recommend for your next meaty hankering is the avocado burger.
This selection has two buns stuffed high with a hamburger slice, roasted poblano, lime crema, roasted red pepper, chihuahua and tortilla cheeses and, of course, avocado.
Each bite is wonderful. The buns have a delightful crispness, the beef is tender and the avocado brings its cool flavor. The cheeses give a zing and the pepper lets loose a final kick for some heat.
The price starts at $13. It could take a hit to your lunch or dinner budget, but this millennial stands by his decision, and recommendation, that you do the same. Couple it with the brewery's notable drink offerings, like Toad Storm and Hopwagen, and your palate will thank you.
For more information, call 219-513-9341.
TASTE TEST: Solita's Puerto Rican Food a great sandwich spot
Solita's Puerto Rican Food at 4906 Indianapolis Blvd. in East Chicago serves up grandma's recipes with fresh ingredients and "no short cuts."
The Puerto Rican restaurant serves up a variety of traditional favorites such as lechon, or slow-roasted garlic pork, with Puerto Rican rice, potato salad and bread. It has lechon, fish, steak, and steak/lechon versions of the jibarito, the Puerto Rican sandwich that uses fried green plantains instead of a bun and that has taken off in popularity since it was invented in Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood in 1996.
If you're not in the mood for chewy, rich plantain, Solita's also offers a lechon sandwich on a less adventurous hoagie roll. The thinly sliced lechon is well seasoned and expertly grilled. It's topped with savory grilled onions and the crisp contrast of fresh romaine lettuce and Roma tomatoes.
A schmear of garlic mayo gives it a kick.
The steak sandwich and the various jibaritos all come with a side of rice or fries.
Solita's Puerto Rican Food is open from noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.
For more information, call 219-397-0338 or find it on Facebook.
TASTE TEST: Bangkok Thai & Sushi
VALPARAISO — Bangkok Thai & Sushi, 2103 Calumet Ave., is the relaxing dining establishment you never knew your afternoon needed.
Natural lighting fills the space with the restaurant's tall ceilings and windows all around. Various colorful flower arrangements adorn the tables. The gentle sounds of small fountains in the foyer mix with light music that carries around the dining area.
The menu is abound with appetizing options. Thai dishes are guaranteed to fill you up. The plentiful servings are perfect for sharing with family or on a date night. Highlights include meat entrees with spicy basil or garlic black pepper, spicy curry bowls, salmon and shrimp platters and sushi arrangements.
A standout comes from the rice & noodles portion of the menu. A helping of yakisoba is certain to leave your taste buds satisfied. These noodles are yellow and stir-fried and include broccoli, carrots, zucchini, asparagus and mushrooms. All if it is also treated with a Kikkoman soy sauce. The vegetables have a crunchy texture and the noodles are enjoyably soft in each bite. The dish also comes with a choice of meat. The chicken is a solid choice for something tender and flavorful. The sauce's taste doesn't initially stand out, so be sure to grab some extra from the side of the table to get a desired accent to the dish.
For more information, call 219-465-8810.
TASTE TEST: Dream of the '90s alive in Tomato Bar's Porklandia
Remember when people were eating pizza?
Vegan pizza, gluten-free pizza? Pizza with a spicy alfredo base, a pesto base, an oil and garlic base? Pizza topped with portobello mushrooms, hardwood-smoked bacon, artichoke hearts and goat cheese?
There's a place where that idea still exists as a reality. And I've been there.
The tomato sauce never runs dry at Tomato Bar, a modern pizzeria with locations at 79 U.S. 41 in Schererville and 2310 Laporte Ave. in Valparaiso.
Cory and Blair Muro, the duo that's also behind Ricochet Tacos and The Market in Valparaiso, run the gourmet pizzeria where chefs toss spinning discs of dough in an open kitchen that features a custom-made 3,000 BTU rotating oven, a Homer Simpson Pez dispenser and a Stormtrooper standing sentinel next to a can of ingredients.
Tomato Bar specializes in "outside-the-box" pizzas like The Buff, which includes a Buffalo sauce base, chicken, hardwood-smoked bacon, cheddar, mozzarella, provolone, green onions and a ranch dressing swirl. The restaurant offers monthly specials, including this month's Porklandia, a play off Portlandia, the IFC satire about the Oregon city "where young people go to retire."
The specialty pizza melts mozzarella, provolone and baby Swiss cheese atop a poppy seed honey mustard base. Living up to its Porklandia name, it's piled high with ham and pork pastrami, evoking both a pastrami deli sandwich and a Cuban sandwich in each bite.
It's finished with a "hipster relish medley" of black olives and pickled pepperoncini. It's savory without being overwhelmingly salty, and a novel flavor profile for a pizza.
Perhaps there was a missed opportunity to "put a bird on it" by adding chicken somewhere in the mix, but it's a creative, memorable pizza even more craveable than marionberry pancakes at the hottest brunch spot in town. It's only available through the end of the month but then will be replaced with some other imaginative creation.
TASTE TEST: Le Peep in Valpo offers brunch for the whole family
Brunch just got a bit easier at Le Peep in Valparaiso. The restaurant offers a variety of foods to cater to everyone in your group.
Le Peep is only open until 2:30 p.m. so crowds can quickly gather in the small farmhouse atmosphere.
For a simple breakfast, Le Peep offers the Lumberjack Breakfast, which consists of eggs, bacon or sausage, potatoes and pancakes. If French toast is more your style, try the Eighteen Wheeler, which includes two perfectly cooked squares of French toast dusted with powdered sugar and served with butter and syrup, bacon strips or thick, hearty sausage links and potatoes.
Other breakfast options include skillet dishes, appealing to both meat and vegetable lovers alike. You can also try one of the delicious omelettes, such as the “Colorado,” with turkey, avocado, tomato, bacon and mozzarella cheese. You can build your own omelette to satisfy your own unique tastes.
Don’t forget about your little “peeple” either. The kid-friendly menu provides a hearty meal for even the pickiest eaters. Whether they like their pancakes plain or with chocolate chips, or they prefer to get chicken tenders or macaroni and cheese, they won’t leave hungry.
Le Peep is located at 3800 Calumet Ave. in Valparaiso and is open from 6:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. You can find them on Facebook or call them at 219-242-8968.
TASTE TEST: Grab some heat with Mexico Lindo's huevos rancheros
PORTAGE — Mexico Lindo Mexican Restaurant Bar & Grill is unassuming from the outside but provides a bright and enjoyable atmosphere within.
Decorative vines surround the walls and dividers and uplifting tunes carry down from the speakers. A pleasant mural adorns the eastern wall and a colorful bar area also proves inviting.
Mexico Lindo, 5908 U.S. 6, offers many staples, including taco, burrito and fajita dinners and platters. However, the establishment is sure to appeal to those looking for some spice and fiery flavor in their meals.
One selection, the Pollo a la Diabla, advertises it comes with a signature spicy sauce along with rice and beans. One server said it will take a "Mexican macho" to stomach it.
If you're looking for something a little lighter, but still something with a slight zest, consider the huevos rancheros option off the breakfast side of the menu.
This dish is served up with two eggs over easy that are covered with a spicy red sauce. A helping of tortilla shells is complimentary. Sides of rice and beans also come standard with breakfast selections.
Each bite is juicy and delicious. The sauce gives an excellent zing to a standard breakfast item. Be prepared to gulp down some liquid for this one, too, once the heat makes its kick.
For more information, call 219-841-9843.
TASTE TEST: Try Fiddlehead's 'The Hipster' sandwich before it's cool
Fiddlehead, a newish restaurant that opened three years ago in downtown Michigan City, serves up locally sourced comfort food such as grass-fed burgers raised nearby at the farm-to-table butchery Sims Meat Processing in LaPorte.
It's a chic space with an array of craft beers at 422 Franklin St., but it's more than just another eatery with a bar and late-night weekend dance parties. Fiddlehead also serves as a training hub for returning veterans that offers individualized job training and yearlong apprenticeships for local vets.
Fiddlehead's menu includes thoughtfully prepared fare like a beet and goat cheese salad, a lobster roll and a grass-fed filet.
Whether you listen to vinyl, sip pour-over coffee and plan to attend the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago this summer or not, you might want to get into "The Hipster" sandwich before it's cool.
You've probably never heard of the $12 sandwich, which comes with kettle chips and features two different types of pork: a tender, succulent pulled pork and thick salty bacon. Cheddar, Gouda and mozzarella are melted decadently atop the pile of well-spiced, expertly seasoned meat.
Candied jalapenos add a manageable spiciness, and lemon-garlic aioli a rich creaminess. It's topped with a crunchy, vinegary Asian slaw that provides nice contrast to the slow-cooked, fall-off-the-bone meat, and it's all stuffed in a soft, flavorful, fresh-baked pretzel bun.
It's a delicious sandwich that would appeal to both the reviled mainstream and those with more obscure, discerning tastes.
For more information, visit www.fiddleheadmc.com or call 219-210-3253.
TASTE TEST: ChinaKoon satisfies an Asian cuisine craving
GRIFFITH — Whether you're seeking your next joint for a sit-down meal with friends and family or the next spot for some hearty takeout, the Region's plethora of Chinese restaurants can reliably provide the goods.
ChinaKoon, 905 N Broad St., has something for everyone in its extensive options. The establishment is unassuming from the outside, located on a bustling corner of Griffith's 45th and Broad streets intersection. The aesthetic is wonderful inside with vintage light bulb designs hanging from the ceiling, plush and comfortable seating and light music that flows through like a gentle breeze.
A worthy selection is the house special lo mein noodle dish. This work is massive and comes out steaming hot from the kitchen. Mixed within the saucy pan-fried noodles are heaping cuts of chicken, beef and pork and jumbo pieces of shrimp. Some crunchy and well-cooked vegetables also are thrown in. The ingredients that go into this are excellently prepared. The components are complemented nicely with the sauce and are certain to fill you up.
The tasty options don't stop there — plenty of other tried-and-true meat and vegetarian selections populate the menu. Also consider the page with Thai options.
For more information, call 219-838-8843.
TASTE TEST: Captain's House adds international spice to popular lobster roll
Gary’s Miller Beach neighborhood fully embraces its lakeshore identity with some brightly pastel condos that wouldn’t look out of place in Florida, boutiques that cater to beachgoers and some of the best seafood in Northwest Indiana.
Miller Bakery Cafe, the Beach Cafe, the new California Crab Shack and Captain’s House all excel at seafood dishes, though none of it is coming out of Lake Michigan.
The nautically themed Captain’s House at 6004 Miller Ave., which has a boat parked out front, boasts a menu with delights like shrimp and grits, crab-stuffed chicken, Chesapeake crab cakes, Lobster pot pie, Salmon Wellington, a Boozy Cod Sandwich, seafood tacos and a Louisiana Po’boy Sandwich with Alaskan Cod Loin and Gulf Shrimp.
The lobster rolls are divine.
And now Captain’s House, helmed by acclaimed chef Angela McCrovitz, has rolled out a wide array of international lobster roll variations. The funky, casual eatery offers a traditional "The Nantucket" New England lobster roll, as well as the “Aphrodite” Greek, “The Ancient Nordic” Swedish, “Herr Hummer” German, “The Aztec” Mexican, “Seoul” Korea, “The Polynesian Island,” “Conquistadora” Spanish, “Bangkok” Thai, “The Charleston” Southern, “The Maki” Japan, “Goodfella’s” Italy, “The Blarney Stone” Irish and “The Kremlin” Russian versions. They come with high-quality ingredients like caviar, vodka aioli, Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, kimchi, hoisin sauce and applewood bacon.
A standout is “The Ancient Nordic,” which is topped with a generous heap of tender, succulent lobster meat, bleu cheese, caramelized onion and unbelievably savory smoked salmon, all stuffed into a buttery, toasted bun. It's a fresh spin on the New England classic.
For $16, you get a feast that includes potato chips made in Michigan, potato salad, a pickle and a cute, Instagrammable fish-shaped cookie.
For more information, call 219-239-2639.
TASTE TEST: Barbecue lover's burrito found at Rudy's BBQ Shack
VALPARAISO — After food website MUNCHIES recently tweeted a photo with the caption "Why is Brooklyn barbecue taking over the world?" and a half-empty tray of barbecue, the post went viral. It stirred up disappointed responses that such an image tried to hold a candle to quality cuisine.
It was high time the Region showed its mighty, meaty reply, too.
There's several barbecue joints here, but a favorite among locals is Rudy's BBQ Shack, 1305 Calumet Ave. As soon as you take the first step inside, your nostrils will be hit with the aromas of brisket cooking away in the kitchen. It's a relaxing atmosphere with intimate seating, large windows for plenty of natural light and a pleasant, lively bar area.
The menu is extensive with barbecue creations and platters, and a standout is the "Huge Burrito." This creation comes stuffed with brisket, hot tips, mountain beans and macaroni and cheese. It's a neat blend of flavors with each bite, certainly worthy of barbecue lovers looking to combine all the staples into one shell. Spice it up with a side of jalapeno pepper slices and Rudy's spicy BBQ sauce. An excellent side choice are the green beans, which come out steaming hot from the kitchen. It even has pieces of brisket sprinkled with it.
That tasty goodness doesn't stop there, as one should consider the pulled pork or chicken sandwiches, hamburgers and slabs of ribs.
For more information, call 219-242-8898.
TASTE TEST: Off Square's poutine incorporates craft beer
Off Square Brewing has been a hot table in Crown Point, usually requiring a wait to be seated on weekend evenings.
Northwest Indiana’s newest craft brewery is, of course, off the downtown square at 1100 Delaware Parkway near Interstate 65 on Crown Point’s east side. It pours many interesting craft beers such as the Howeler in the Rye rye pale ale, the Native Son Saison farmhouse ale, and the Bold Betty Nitro Stout that’s brewed with Dagger Mountain espresso from Valparaiso and served on a nitro tap to create a cappuccino-like experience.
Off Square offers a spacious industrial environment with an executive chef who works from scratch. The pub food is familiar but high-end and impeccably executed. Many dishes incorporate the beer, such as a pulled chicken sandwich topped with apple jalapeno slaw and barbecue sauce infused with Tropik Thunder New England-style hazy India Pale Ale that’s loaded with pineapple.
The kitchen braises short ribs with Off Square’s Angry Betty Stout made with cocoa nibs, cocoa shells and flaked oats, and plops the tender, slow-stewed meat atop its phenomenal poutine, the heavy, greasy Canadian cuisine that’s arguably Montreal’s greatest gift to the world.
Like many craft breweries, Off Square offers poutine, perhaps to help sop up all the hoppy and well-crafted beer you’ll consume there. Its Beer Braised Short Rib Poutine builds upon a base of hand-cut fries with a beef and mushroom gravy, roasted garlic crema and fresh cheese curds.
It’s a savory, salty, chewy pile of culinary goodness that’s heftier and more filling than many an entree. You can add an over-easy egg, and dear Lord why wouldn’t you? Break the yolk and let it drizzle gloriously over everything.
For more information, visit offsquarebrewing.com or call (219) 310-8898.
TASTE TEST: A sample of Serbia served up at R-Bar
HIGHLAND — R-Bar and Grill is a trendy, happening establishment well-suited for finding a filling lunch or dinner or getting your next fix at the watering hole.
The establishment, located at 9521 Indianapolis Blvd., is nestled in the King James Court strip mall. With bountiful seating, multiple TVs and walls decked out with Chicago Cubs and Blackhawks paraphernalia, the bar could make for a perfect sports hangout with friends the next time a big game is on. The bar has a consistent lineup of musicians booked throughout the week and also entertains with usual trivia, bingo and karaoke nights.
Like any bar with "happy hour" morsels, R-Bar features staples like burgers and tacos. However, a significant portion of the menu includes items from the "Euro Grill." If you're craving Balkan delicacies and flavors, R-Bar has the hookup. For something small, consider the cevap sliders. An order comes with three of these delicious sausages patties placed together with onions on small buns. You also get a choice of French fries or Serbian coleslaw. These small creations are scrumptious. The sausage is awesomely seasoned and cooked and blends well in its combo. The fries are just as great and have a slightly sweet aftertaste.
If something else suits your fancy, consider the muckalica, pljeskavica or just get the best of all worlds with a meat sampler platter. Don't forget to also order some of the bar's signature cocktails, such as the popular R-Tini.
For more information, call 219-922-8008.
TASTE TEST: Miller Bakery Cafe excels at seafood
The classy, cool Miller Bakery Cafe in Gary's lakefront Miller Beach neighborhood is an ideal spot for date night.
On a weekend, you usually can go check out new art in the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts across the street, maybe pop in to the Indie Indie Bang Bang boutique to see if anything catches your fancy and stroll over to the chic Miller Bakery Cafe at 555 S. Lake St. for seafood, steak or small plates. It's a white tablecloth restaurant with dim, romantic lighting, but it's anything but stuffy.
Contemporary art from local artists hangs on the walls, and there's craft beer from the nearby 18th Street Brewery on draft.
The hip sit-down restaurant in a vintage building along Lake Street has a fantastic menu devised by former Chicago restauranteur Jack Strode, who's managed high-end places like Smith and Wollensky and Rosebud Prime in the city. Being close to Lake Michigan, the menu is especially strong with seafood options like mussels, red snapper and tilapia cerviche.
If it's date night, you can't go wrong with small plates that let you share and sample. A standout is the Jumbo Lump Crab Cake with mango salsa atop a bed of fresh chopped greens and a succulent roasted red pepper remoulade. The chunks of sweet crab meat are substantial, satisfying and perfectly seasoned. It's not the type of crab cake where you'll complain about too much filler. The plating is elegant. It's a warm slice of heaven.
For more information, call (219) 427-1446 or visit millerbakerycafe.com.
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.
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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.