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: 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.
TASTE TEST: Customize your mac 'n' cheese at Wagner's Ribs
PORTER — "The more the merrier," or so the saying goes. The phrase doesn't only have to refer to people. It also can refer to the ingredients in your dishes.
Wagner's Ribs, 361 Wagner Road, offers that chance with its customizable four-cheese Macaroni Bowl. While the restaurant is known more for its award-winning barbecue, this special dish deserves some recognition, too.
The bowl starts out with well-cooked cavatappi pasta covered in the scrumptious four-cheese sauce. Your role comes in with selecting two of the seven additional ingredients. This writer went with grilled chicken and crimini mushrooms, along with some complementary Cajun seasoning. The sauce is delicious and the seasoning gives it the desired kick. Pasta noodles also need not be lonely with the tender chicken and mushrooms to join it. An extra bonus is the two slices of garlic bread.
The bar for mac 'n' cheese is set with this selection. If you try it, consider crispy bacon, caramelized onions, jalapenos, grilled steak, Cajun shrimp or buffalo sauce as your other additions. This dish also comes on the pricier side at $14.
As noted above, Wagner's is a haven for meat lovers, so also consider its numerous specials — from simple pulled pork sandwiches to black Angus filet mignon.
For more information, call 219-926-7614.
TASTE TEST: Chomp into some shark at Region Ale
Sharks have a fearsome reputation because of Hollywood movies like "Jaws," "Deep Blue Sea" and "Sharknado," but far more people are killed every year by dogs, snakes, elephants and mosquitoes.
Man can turn the table on the oceanic predator and bite into a shark at Region Ale at 1080 U.S. 41 in Schererville.
The restaurant and craft beer bar, which has 50 beers on tap, serves up Cape Shark Tenders as a shareable appetizer. It's not the most terrifying shark: the cape shark is also known as the dogfish or the mud shark and grows up to only about 3 feet long. It's one of the most abundant shark species in the world and common in the Atlantic Ocean, where it's often commercially fished in the Mid-Atlantic and New England.
Region Ale serves the flaky shark meat in tender form, with a golden brown crust. It's a delicious white fish that's moist, tender flavorful. Region Ale serves it up with a lemon wedge and a remoulade, but it doesn't need any accompaniments.
For more information, call (219) 322-2337 or visit regionaletaphouse.com.
TASTE TEST: Angelo's Prime Meatball 3 Way elevates the hoagie
Angelo's Prime, a longtime staple in the south suburbs, recently opened a Schererville location near the Crossroads of America at U.S. 30 and Indianapolis Boulevard.
It's a hybrid restaurant/specialty grocery store where one can pick up fine olive oils, imported cheese, cured meats, hand-made pastas, pasta sauces, hand-dried tomatoes and other foods. Steaks and Tomahawk chops are vacuum-sealed in the same air-tight packaging used to ship high-grade meat to Prime steakhouses all over the country.
The 2,100-square-foot boutique grocery at 1542 U.S. 41 also has a restaurant menu that includes a steak sandwich, artisanal pizzas, salads, and a burger bar that includes a stuffed wagyu burger.
A house specialty is the Papa D's Special meatball sandwich. Angelo's Prime's Meatball 3 Way features gourmet meatballs made with a special blend of beef, veal and pork bathed in a house-made marinara sauce, spritzed with grated cheese and tucked into a French roll.
You can add a blanket of melted provolone and mozzarella, or pickled giardiniera to give it a kick.
The meatballs are substantial and juicy. The marinara is spicy and filled with thick chunks of tomato. The bread is freshly baked, crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
It's an Italian classic prepared with elan.
For more information, visit angelosprime.com/ or call 219-319-0075.
TASTE TEST: Go Greek with Les Cafe Pancake House's gyro skillet
HIGHLAND — One of the Region's culinary staples is the gyro. The often massive sandwiches are certain to leave one stuffed by the end.
The wonderful minds at Les Cafe Pancake House, 2708 Highway Ave., have a way of filling one up even more by rolling out their gyro skillet.
The skillet will start out like any other, throwing in potatoes and eggs done your choice of style. Then, savory strips of gyro meat are tossed in, along with feta cheese, dices tomatoes and onions. It's almost like taking a bite out of a gyro sandwich, minus the pita bread and tzatziki sauce, of course. The tasty combo of meat, tomatoes and onions goes excellently with the potatoes and eggs. The dish costs $8.79 and comes with a side of pancakes or toast.
As a Greek restaurant worth its salt, Les Cafe Pancake House has an extensive menu of tantalizing breakfast and cuisine options, such as omelettes, frittatas, French toast and crepes.
For more information, call 219-972-7831.
TASTE TEST: St. John pub offers up a devilishly good burger
ST. JOHN — The devil went down to St. John, he was looking for a meal to eat. 95ate5 Brew Pub acted hasty to make something tasty, and served up a real treat.
If you're in the mood for something hot, spicy and sure to hit the spot, the gastropub, located at 9585 N. Industrial Drive, will serve up the Devil's Due Burger.
This massive selection features a chipotle telera bun, a half-pound of spiced beef, capicola slices, roasted red peppers, red onions, pepper jack cheese and chipotle aioli sauce. It has plenty of players that will tingle your taste buds and bring on the heat. Be sure to have some water, or a beer, for this one. The burger is deliciously juicy and is complemented nicely by the capicola and vegetable additions. The meal, which comes with a side choice, totals to $12. For those brave enough, a casper style for $4 extra can be requested, which will feature ghost peppers.
95ate5 also will cook up other notable burger selections such as its Fat Jack with bacon and egg and its Pear Necessities featuring bourbon-poached pears. Plus, consider divulging in some of the craft beer selections on tap, including from 3 Floyds, Byway and The Devil's Trumpet. All can be enjoyed comfortably in 95ate5's homey, well-decorated dining room and bar.
For more information, call 219-365-6506.
TASTE TEST: Produce Depot's Avocado Sandwich a bite of freshness
Avocado toast is all the rage with the kids these days as millennials notoriously love the smooth, creamy taste of avocados, the south-of-the-border berry some claim is a superfood.
Produce Depot, the specialty grocery store and cafe at 8126 Wicker Ave. in St. John, makes a darn fine avocado sandwich.
The small market is known for its wide and well-curated selection of fresh, seasonal produce. It also has a comfy cafe that serves smoothies, juices and sandwiches with high-end deli meat at reasonable prices, including $1.99 for a fresh pressed carrot and ginger juice.
A vegetarian option is the avocado sandwich, which is packed high with fatty, delicious avocado, fresh and firm but mushed just enough to give it the decadent mouthfeel of guacamole. The avocado, rich in healthy fats, sings. High-quality ingredients really make the sandwich. It's made to order with your choice of fresh baked breads, veggies and cheeses.
The sandwich works especially well with mozzarella. The creamy, moist dollops of the buffalo milk-made cheese make the sandwich even more sumptuous, so flavorful you won't even miss the anchor of meat for a change.
For more information, call (219) 365-8280 or visit theproducedepot.com.
TASTE TEST: Mix and match sushi morsels at Furin Japanese Restaurant
VALPARAISO — In the gloomy overcast and rainy days of November, Valparaiso's downtown stretch remains homey and pleasant. Its restaurants accent the scene.
Although unassuming from the outside, the atmosphere inside Furin Japanese Restaurant & Bar, 21 Lincolnway, is a wonderful invite from the chills outside. It's a cozy spot, featuring dim, comfortable lighting, cushy seats and a wide window up front for a view of Lincolnway and Franklin Street.
Furin has an extensive menu for sushi and Japanese cuisine lovers. A great way to sample some of the selections is to order a Bento Box option. One example is Bento Box C, which will deliver a tray filled with California sushi rolls, shumai dumplings, teriyaki salmon, onion rings, crab and rice. It's a filling option that will titillate your taste buds with different textures and sauces. For $18.95 it's a bit on the pricier side, but the quality taste makes it worth it. The dinner also comes with a salad appetizer.
Furin also serves up savory alternatives including yakisoba, ramen, meat slices and, of course, sushi types with individual or meal options.
For more information, call 219-286-6648.
TASTE TEST: SciFi Donuts serves up more than just doughnuts
SciFi Donuts at 138 S. Broad St. in hipster hotspot downtown Griffith isn't just for Trekkies, science fiction fans and pop culture aficionados.
The science fiction-themed doughnut shop and cafe specializes in hand-crafted artisan doughnuts and high-end coffee, including cold brew and a nitro cold brew. Fancy, creatively constructed doughnuts like The Rings of Saturn and The Spock are baked, which some fried doughnut devotees have found off-putting but have satisfied others' sweet-tooths.
Beyond just the baked goods, SciFi Donuts also serves up a regular food menu that includes flatbreads, salads, sandwiches and specials like vegetarian chili. The doughnut shop is now running daily specials, such as a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of soup for $2.99 on Thursdays and an egg, cheese and bacon sandwich with a 12-ounce coffee for $2.99 on Mondays.
The doughnut shop makes a satisfying quesadilla. The grilled treat can include chicken, green peppers or just ooey-gooey cheese.
It's warm, comforting and just greasy enough to activate the brain's pleasure sensors — a perfect snack for a brisk fall day while perusing some of the sci-fi and science books in the doughnut shop's imaginatively decorated interior.
For more information, call 219-513-6880 or www.facebook.com/scifidonuts/.
TASTE TEST: St. John Malt Brothers cooks up superb pulled pork
ST. JOHN — Breweries often provide two things. The obvious one is a beer selection. The other is filling, creative food selections. From massive sandwiches to unimaginable toppings thrown in, their dishes often will surprise and please.
St. John Malt Brothers Brewing, 9575 Wicker Ave., cooks up a savory pulled pork sandwich, endearingly named Burnt Bottom Brown Butt. It's the perfect setup that one could ask for: buttery brioche buns, Swiss cheese and tender slices of pulled pork smothered with a divinely flavored sauce. Each bite melts nicely, and the tender meat is neither too dry nor chewy to enjoy.
Served on the side is a cup of coleslaw, a pickle slice and your choice of a bag of chips, all of which have cooler tastes to balance the salty and sweet flavors from the sandwich. All of it comes for an agreeable $8.
The selections certainly don't stop there as other options worth considering include the Turkey Bacon Chipotle Panini and the Buffalo Chicken Wrap. If you want something smaller, comfort food is available with loaded nachos or a pint of bacon. Finally, of course, consider a "killer craft" pint to enjoy in the cozy taproom.
For more information, call 219-627-4294.
TASTE TEST: Stuffed Pepper's Burger of the Gods is a divine revelation
Some burgers are for mere mortals. Other burgers are for the gods.
The Stuffed Pepper's towering Burger of the Gods would satisfy Zeus and anyone else on Mount Olympus.
The Greek restaurant at 7231 Indianapolis Blvd. in Hammond's Woodmar neighborhood is known for traditional old country dishes like Dolmades, Moussaka, Pastitsio, Spanakopita, flaming Saganaki and, of course, its namesake stuffed pepper. It's one of the few newer restaurants to still offer smelt, a longtime local staple that's fallen out of favor.
You can't go wrong with the kabobs, gyros, seafood or anything else on the menu, but at some point you should pay tribute to the Burger of the Gods, a mighty burger so towering it must be held together with a steak knife, like you'd find in a fancy steakhouse.
You can get it with grass-fed lamb or pure beef, and it's divine either way. The patty is topped with feta cheese and bacon. It sits atop a bed of lettuce, tomato, onions and huge, plump Gulf shrimp that are well-seasoned with oregano. A red pepper spread adds extra savoriness.
All that is somehow stuffed within a brioche bun, and the knife impales three Pepperoncini peppers for good measure. It's elegantly plated with drizzles of olive oil and a sprinkling of parsley.
It's a burger so big and so tasty you'd be tempted to mythologize it.
For more information, call (219) 803-0273 or visit stuffedpepper.us.
TASTE TEST: Combine Greek and American flavors at Athens Grill
LOWELL — If asked to imagine what the most American cuisine items would be, what would you think of? Eggs and bacon, hot dogs, hamburgers?
What if you were able to take that last option and add a little extra to that? Athens Grill, located at 116 Mill St. in quaint downtown Lowell, can provide just that. As the name might suggest, the establishment not only can cook up greasy delights, but also adds in Greek platters and extras in its meal options. It's an intimate restaurant as the tight-knit seating makes it feel almost like a friendly cafe.
A perfect example of this is the Athens Double Cheeseburger. The burger starts out with two, juicy patties, but sandwiched in between them are some atypical toppings (or perhaps stuffing in this case). There's a nice spread of feta cheese, savory slices of mushrooms and a dash of green olives. Each bite has that familiar flavor of a hearty burger, but it's met with the sharpness that only feta and green olives can provide. Plus, it comes at an agreeable $5.25.
Also consider other scrumptious selections, including a gyro cheeseburger or melt, pita, baklava and more.
For more information, call 219-696-4700.
TASTE TEST: Like Funyuns? Like mac and cheese? You'll 'wanna talk' to the person who created this pizza at Tomato Bar
If Funyuns on pizza is wrong, I don't want to be right. The wrongly right doesn't stop there with the I Wanna Talk to Sampson Pizza of the Month at Tomato Bar in Schererville and Valparaiso.
This creation, a nod to the movie "Half-Baked," is served up with a creamy barbecue alfredo base, a mix of mozzarella, provolone and cheddar, gooey white cheddar mac and cheese (that's right), diced banana peppers, ranch swirl and, of course the tastiest of all meats, bacon. The Funyuns are sprinkled on top for a little crunch.
The pie is bursting with flavor; it's so filling, you might only be able to polish off a slice or two at one time.
Try it before it goes up in smoke at the end of the month. Tomato Bar Schererville is at 79 U.S. 41, (219) 322-3885; Tomato Bar Valparaiso is at 2310 Laporte Ave., (219) 462-7499; or visit tomatobarpizz.com.
TASTE TEST: Giordano's thin-crust shines, too
Northwest Indiana is filled with pizzerias that serve the tavern-cut pie that's been a staple in the Chicago area long before deep dish pizza was invented in 1943.
Deep dish never has been as popular as party-cut in the Region for whatever reason. Edwardo's Natural Pizza in Munster serves up the thicker style that's been compared to a casserole, but outposts of Gino's East and Giordano's have come and gone in Highland and Merrillville, respectively.
Now Giordano's is back at 625 Lincoln Highway in Schererville, at the former Boston Pizza's space. You can, of course, get a stuffed pizza that takes 45 minutes or more to cook, and blankets a thick layer of mozzarella cheese under an even thicker layer of chunky tomato sauce.
But don't overlook Giordano's thin crust pizzas, which are fantastic and more convenient if you're hungry, pressed for time or just hoping for a quick bite.
You can get hand-stretched thin crust or crispy extra thin crust with your choice of ingredients like artichokes, garlic, garlic broccoli, giardiniera peppers, pineapple, chicken breast, chicken sausage, pesto chicken or salami.
Giordano's also offers standard options like the meat and more meat, supper veggie and "Chicago classic" with pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers and onions.
The ingredients are fresh, the cheese thick and melty, and the sauce garlicy and sweet. It may not be what Giordano's is best known for, but it's top shelf, will get out to your table faster and won't leave you so stuffed.
In the true test of any pizza, it holds up while eaten cold for breakfast the next day.
For more information, call (219) 215-0333 or visit giordanos.com.
TASTE TEST: Rosewood prepares delectable seafood morsels
PORTAGE — Can you smell the roses? Well, maybe the question is inaccurate because this doesn't have anything to do with college football nor do the smells from Rosewood Restaurant's kitchen smell like those flowers.
However, the typical, welcoming aromas of tasty food are ever-present inside this Portage family staple that has been around for a little more than 40 years. It has all the usual hitters such as hearty breakfast dishes and heaping meat and vegetable-filled platters. It sports a comfortable environment with ornate rose-themed stained glass windows, decorative glassware, containers and vases displayed around and dimmed red lights that illuminate part of the ceiling.
In a menu plentiful with options, a selection worth trying is the deep-fried shrimp. But wait, there's more: These puppies also come stuffed with crab meat. There's no need to be crabby about not having the best of both worlds when this filling dish is available. For $11.95 you can have four shrimp, a piece of toast, a potato side and soup or salad appetizer.
If seafood is what floats your boat, also consider Rosewood's scallops or perch.
For more information, in case anything seems fishy, call 219-763-3297.
TASTE TEST: Ricochet's gourmet tacos offer complex flavors
TASTE TEST: 18th Street Brewery may have Northwest Indiana's best salad
Earlier this year, 18th Street Brewery in Hammond brought in chef Andrew Dering, who has worked at the Michelin Star-winning Longman & Eagle in Logan Square and Dusek's Board and Beer in Pilsen.
He reinvented the menu at the hip, artsy brewpub at 5417 Oakley Ave. in downtown Hammond, adding elegance and sophistication to pub favorites like burgers and poutine. 18th Street now offers many standouts like steak frites, beef tenderloin tartare and a selection of meats that are cured and smoked in house.
The brewery, which also operates a taproom in Gary's Miller neighborhood, is revered for beers like it's Ed-PA extra-dimensional English India Pale Ale, Candi Crushable Pale Ale and Hunter Stout vertical series, but the food is so fantastic you'd be remiss not to try it during a visit, even if you just planned to grab a beer.
The Mixed Green Salad, an elegantly plated affair like you'd see at a fine dining restaurant, may arguably be the best salad in Northwest Indiana.
Fresh mixed greens are lightly dressed in Green Goddess dressing and blanketed with a sprinkling of lemon zest. Shaved fennel and shaved radish provide crunch and texture in every bite. Parmesan crisps add an airy, flavorful crispiness with just the right hint of saltiness.
You can drag the lettuce through refined dollops of honey infused with 18th Street's Boujee Juice, a Double Dry Hopped New England Style Double India Pale Ale with juicy, tropical flavors.
TASTE TEST: Bite into the flavor-packed French Toast Club
DYER — If you take a seat at any of the Region's breakfast establishments, menus don't fall short of offering a plethora of options or combos.
So many things sound good, but how does one choose? Sweet, syrupy pancakes or french toast? Chewy and crunchy hash browns or bacon?
The Scrambled Diner, 250 W. 81st Ave., solves any case of indecisiveness with its massive French Toast Club. This creation is stacked like a sandwich, starting with french toast pieces. Stuffed between them are slices of American cheese, an egg done whichever style you want and a big strip of bacon. It's hard to hold, so a fork and knife might be recommended for this one.
It's the best of all worlds as each bite caters to the breakfast food spectrum's sweet, salty and chewy variances. It's similar to pigs in a blanket, which features sausages wrapped in pancakes, or a McDonald's McGriddle. But the Scrambled Diner's creation will put that puny Mickey D's option to shame.
The restaurant also features other signature items such as the Tangled Up in Blue omelet, The Garbage skillet and Monkey Cakes. Eating inside is a delight as the dining area is filled with the sounds and smells of breakfast cooking and coffee brewing.
For more information, call 219-865-3950.
TASTE TEST: Frankie V's gnocchi is unexpectedly superb
Frankie V's at 1923 Calumet Ave. in Whiting is a vintage neighborhood tavern with a copper tin roof, brick walls and a row of booths.
With some decent beers on tap, a few televisions, a lot of character and an inviting low-key vibe, the establishment that filled the old Up for Grabs space would be a great place to watch the game.
But the dimly lit bar not far from Hammond's Horseshoe Casino or the Whiting lakefront doubles as an unexpectedly good Italian restaurant. The menu includes hot sandwiches like a Chicken Vesuvio, a triple-decker grilled cheese and homemade Italian sausage, as well as cold subs with top shelf ingredients like prosciutto, mortadella, and fresh mozzarella.
Diners also could get a steak, chicken by the piece or pasta like spaghetti carbonara or shrimp scampi. Frankie V's runs frequent specials like all-you-can-eat frog legs. The food is relatively inexpensive for a sit-down restaurant and plentiful, coming with a salad and buttery garlic bread.
A standout is the potato gnocchi, which is "cooked fork tender and served with Frankie V's homemade marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese." You get a choice of Italian sausage or a few huge meatballs.
The doughy dumplings are expertly prepared and filling. The hearty gnocchi is blanketed in a hot, garlicy marinara sauce that's filled with chunks of real tomato.
For more information, call (219) 655-5454.
TASTE TEST: Not your average biscuits and gravy at Benedict
DYER — So the belief goes that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The Region's plethora of breakfast eateries not only make it so, but also serve up some delicious comfort food options.
A classic staple of that group is biscuits and gravy. Different joints might alter their recipes for different additions, tastes or textures, but Benedict, at 1103 Joliet St., takes it up a notch by stuffing theirs with cheese and bacon.
The dish comes out smothered in gravy. Even though the fun is inside, they lightly garnish the top of the biscuits with some extra cheese and bacon pieces. These certainly aren't your average biscuits and gravy, as each bite has a big knock from the sharp cheddar, and the bacon pieces aren't skimpy bacon bits. A half order of these puppies costs $6.50 and a full order is $9.
Aside from the sloppy goodness, Benedict proves to be a comfortable breakfast environment. Its large, south- and west-facing windows gently let the sun in, and there's light music playing, too. Add the aroma of coffee, and it's a perfect setup for sleepyheads that have just rolled out of bed craving some tasty breakfast morsels.
For more information, call 219-440-7948.
TASTE TEST: Beer Geeks craft beer bar elevates pub fare
Northwest Indiana's first craft beer bar, Beer Geeks, will celebrate its seventh anniversary in October.
The early pioneer of Northwest Indiana's craft beer scene at 3030 45th Ave. in Highland has 20 rotating taps. It continues to serve up some of the best craft brews around in a hip setting with graffiti-like pop culture murals and oddball movies on its small old-school television screens.
The dimly lit bar focuses on drinking, with an expertly curated list of national and local craft beers far more exotic than the standard roster of Indiana Pale Ales and mass-produced lagers one might find elsewhere in the Region. But Beer Greeks has upped its food game greatly, such as with Wu Tang Wednesdays when it offers chicken and waffle sandwiches while playing the Wu Tang Clan and showing kung fu flicks.
Beer Geeks also serves elotes and a selection of delectable gourmet tacos, including a SoCal-style fish taco with "seasoned, blackened Tilapia, onion, cilantro, purple cabbage and house-made avocado cilantro sauce."
Recently, executive chef Jack Velazquez rolled out clones of Southern California's cultish In-N-Out Burgers, the legendary fast-food joint that popularized secret menus and is a de rigueur stop for anyone visiting the West Coast. The replica animal-style burger was juicy, greasy, decadent and bursting with umami.
The copycat special, which had been offered only on Thursday nights, reflects the type of discerning good taste that has made Beer Geeks such as popular hangout spot over the years.
TASTE TEST: Find filling beef stroganoff at Jedi's Garden
GRIFFITH — Family diners are kings when it comes to serving comfort food. From steamy, hot skillets topped with vegetables and cheese to meat slices smothered in sauces, gullets can delight in finding something filling.
Jedi's Garden Family Restaurant, located at 444 Ridge Rd., is one in the Region's plethora of greasy spoon joints. However, its atmosphere proves slightly more comfortable than others like it as its wide open dining area eliminates the cramped feeling some of these diners might house.
When met with the menu, it's hard to decide on a single option as you flip through the pages with lengthy lists of available dishes, often for agreeable prices.
However, Jedi's and other greasy spoons often offer daily specials. One worth catching is the beef stroganoff. It's a hefty dish that comes out hot on a skillet. Soft egg noodles cover the bottom, and cubes of tender beef and mushrooms sit on top. All of it is covered in a creamy, tangy sauce. Different textures and accents give a scrumptious taste in each bite, and all for a decent $8.95.
Depending on whether you want the dish a la carte or as a meal, some side options are available. Jedi's soup selections are good starters with delicious bowls of lemon rice, tomato basil and chicken gumbo.
For more information, call 219-923-9055.
TASTE TEST: Appetizing falafel made fresh at Mishkenut
MUNSTER — Deep down we all know that eating something deep fried isn't a healthy option. But if one wanted to try and make it a little better, look no further than the falafel.
The dish is a classic Mediterranean option of crushed chickpeas, often served in pita bread.
An establishment that cooks the delicacy well is Mishkenut Mediterranean Cuisine, found at 221 Ridge Road. It's an unassuming eatery that is similar to an intimate coffee shop in seating, space and noise level.
An order doesn't take long at all, as within minutes two warm pita filled to their brims are brought out. The falafel are surrounded by hearty additions of hummus, lettuce, tomato, cucumber and tahini. One bite delivers a grand mix of textures and flavors. There's a chewiness and crunchiness with the falafel and other vegetables. The tahini also gives a sourlike kick to the cooler flavor of the other items. All is sure to fulfill your gullet as a tasty lunch option.
The delicious options don't stop there as Mishkenut also serves up scrumptious lentil soup, a perfect appetizer on its own or along with extra pita and hummus or baba ghanoush. Also consider Mishkenut's kabob and shawarma dishes.
For more information, call 219-836-6069.
TASTE TEST: Wildrose Pub Burger pairs great with garlic fries
Wildrose Brewing in Griffith is a hip place to hang out.
The craft brewery at 1104 E Main St. near the Oak Ridge Prairie and Oak Savannah Trail is housed in a large garage-like pole barn that's adorned with brightly colored murals of skulls and roses. The modern industrial-chic interior is filled with art, Edison lights and big comfy leather chairs like one might find in a Barnes & Noble. Garage doors open up into a spacious outdoor patio where patrons can toss bags while sipping with American-style craft beers like the Hop Side of The Moon Black Rye IPA, West Coast Hopper Pale Ale and the Run to the Pils Czech Pilsner.
It's perfect place to while away a summer evening and also a great place to grab a bite. The menu includes a pot roast grilled cheese, a Portobello Philly, a Cuban sandwich and a crab dip.
The top seller is the Wildrose Pub Burger in a toasted bun that's topped with cheddar cheese, sauteed purple onions and a tangy horseradish aioli that perfectly complements the beef. It's good quality beef, an 80/20 ground chuck patty that's fatty enough to be bursting with flavor.
Go ahead and splurge and pay $1 more for the Garlic Parmesan Fries. It's well worth it. Hand-cut fries with plenty of potato skin showing are heavily dusted in finely minced garlic and "the King of Cheeses." They're fresh and so savory you might be tempted to lick your fingers clean.
TASTE TEST: Pierogi an old world comfort food at Pokro Brewing
Pierogi Fest in Whiting this weekend will celebrate the Region's Eastern European heritage.
As polka music thumps, buscias putter around in housecoats and 300,000 visitors pack 119th Street more tightly than an overstuffed halupki, more than 100 vendors will serve up pierogi and other Polish delicacies.
But you don't have to wait until the end of July to savor some rich, buttery pierogi.
The dumplings are available at a number of Region restaurants, including Pokro Brewing at 311 N. Broad St. in Griffith. The craft brewery, which specializes in Belgian, English and other European-style beers, has a monthly Polish Night on the first Thursday of every month with a traditional Polish food menu that includes golabki, bigos, and cabbage and noodles.
The regular food menu features pierogi, including meat, potato and cheese, and bacon, kraut and cheese. They're plump, grilled and bursting with flavor.
If you're thirsty, the comforting, savory pierogi will help soak up the Pokro's potent craft beers, like the Grejpfrut IPA, Caveman Brown Ale and Cammit! Witbier.
TASTE TEST: Third Shift Burger at Round the Clock a workingman's feast
The joke "When does Round the Clock close?" never gets tired, unless you've heard it 50 times before.
The long-running diner at 9010 Indianapolis Blvd. is known for hearty breakfasts, including Five Egg Omelettes, Five Stack Pancakes and the Four Cheese Scrambler. You can, of course, get breakfast at any time, but there's also an expansive lunch and dinner menu that includes wraps, club sandwiches, paninis and Manhattans.
The burger selection is solid, and you could opt to get both breakfast and lunch under one bun with the Third Shift Burger. Round the Clock is a place where third-shift workers actually eat after clocking out, and their namesake burger is substantial enough to replenish anyone after a long work day.
It's a big juicy half-pound burger cooked to order and blanketed in gooey, melted cheddar cheese. For those ending their days just as everyone else is waking up, it's topped with a farm fresh egg over easy and strips of savory bacon, as well as lettuce, tomato and onion. It's a perfect fusion of savory flavors, and runny egg yolk ups the umami.
Since Greek diners don't do anything halfway, there's a wealth of alternatives to just french fries if you want a different side, including sweet potato fries, waffle fries, onion rings, potato wedges, fruit, tomato slices, vegetables, cole slaw, cottage cheese, baked potato, sweet potato, mashed potatoes or rice.
For more information, visit roundtheclock.com or call (219) 923-4546.
TASTE TEST: Hearty sandwiches served hot at Franklin House
VALPARAISO — If your taste buds seek bold flavor, why not leave it to a trustworthy source? If age is a determiner in that sense, you can find it at a place that bills itself as one of the absolute oldest establishments in Northwest Indiana: Franklin House.
The establishment, at 58 S. Campbell St., opened in 1857 and nowadays serves up a hardy gastropub selection along with more than 100 beers. It's hard to pinpoint what theme the restaurant goes for, as its logo captures a nod to the railroad, sports flags and banners hang on the walls and figures such as a devil's head, Jason Voorhees and a dancing leprechaun join the commotion. Perhaps it's all just part of the fun.
A notable selection worthy trying is Franklin House's Cubano sandwich. The dish starts out with panini bread slices that are toasted to perfection. Next it's got a plentiful stuffing of roast beef and ham. Finally, some delightful extras help balance the taste with sharp Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and garlic-lime aioli. While french fries tend to be hit or miss at different restaurants, Franklin House gets its lightly browned and crispy offering just right.
Also consider its other sandwich selections with fun names such as Black & Bleu or Muenster Mash, or even its award-winning burgers renowned in Porter County.
For more information, call 219-707-5468.
TASTE TEST: These aren't your momma's brussels sprouts
MERRILLVILLE — Many visitors come to Cooper's Hawk for the wine and entrees, but the appetizer menu has several standout dishes that shouldn't be missed.
Among the favorites are the "Award-winning" Asian Pork Belly Tostadas, Crispy Crab Beignets and the Mexican Drunken Shrimp. But a newer app might catch your eye: the Crispy Brussels Sprouts. These are not your momma's brussels sprouts. The hot, crunchy veggies are served with cashews, mint, sweet Thai chili and a sesame-srirachi aioli so tasty you might want to drink it.
Be warned, though, this pre-meal treat is filling. A group of three or four people easily could share it as an appetizer.
The app is on the menu for $8.99 at Cooper's Hawk, 2120 Southlake Mall, Suite 500. For more information, visit coopershawkwinery.com or call 219.795.9463.
TASTE TEST: Taste buds take flight with Octave Grill's Albatross Sandwich
CHESTERTON — Even before the Wright Brothers completed their historic flight in 1903, Frenchman Octave Chanute had pioneered gliders over the Dunes near Lake Michigan. There's nods to those experiments in the menu designs and offerings at Octave Grill.
The restaurant, at 137 S. Calumet Road in the town's quaint downtown, has a homey, Midwestern vibe to it, evident in its humble wooden and metal chairs, artwork depicting covered bridges and corn ear-shaped salt and pepper shakers.
Your taste buds are cleared for takeoff with the Albatross Sandwich. However, unlike the actual bird, the chicken served between two ciabatta buns probably has a flying, or rather gliding, ability more similar to Monsieur Chanute's experiments. The grilled-to-perfection breast also is served with strips of bacon, Swiss cheese, greens, tomato, key lime aioli and grilled onions. It's an excellent blend of flavors that combines juicy, salty meat and cheese and provides that sweet, grilled onion kick at the end.
The restaurant offers a vast selection of other scrumptious sandwiches with pork and beef, but is also known for their burger creations, sporting names such as Clawhammer, Figgy Piggy" and Chanute. Several of these options also take in local ingredients from Tallgrass Beef and Fair Oaks Farms. Also, feel free to dabble in local craft beer selections, including 3 Floyds and Burn 'Em from the Region and Founders from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
For more information, call 219-395-8494.
TASTE TEST: Dragobobs offer Croatian spin on grilled meat
It's been remarked that the Region has two seasons: blizzard and orange cones.
Summer isn't just all about road construction — it's also a season of festivals in Northwest Indiana. The Region loves its festivals: ethnic festivals, arts festivals, town festivals, corn roasts, church parking lot festivals and massive gatherings like Pierogi Fest and Festival of the Lakes.
Region residents will turn out anywhere if there's warm weather, a ray of sun, an outdoor beer garden and a few carnival rides. But nothing says festival quite like the scent of grilled meat wafting through the air.
A great option at local festivals is the Dragobob shish-ka-bob, Croatian-style marinated meat that's been sizzling on the grill at Dyer Summer Fest and Crown Point Festival Days. It's a decade-old business from Hegewisch that uses a "secret family recipe" to season its meat the way they do in the old country.
Nothing is quite as primal or satisfying as grilled meat on a stick. The Dragobob is expertly seasoned and charred just enough to have that smokey grill flavor.
If you don't come across the food truck this summer, you can find the Dragobob at Doreen's Pizza at 726 Joliet St. in Dyer, 13201 S. Baltimore Ave. in Chicago's Hegewisch neighborhood or at Welch's Stop and Shop at 11333 W. 95th Place in St John.
For more information, visit www.dragobobs.net.
TASTE TEST: Venture to Purple Steer for classic pork tenderloin
HIGHLAND — There's one thing family-style restaurants get right: providing classic comfort food that is certain to fill and please your gullet.
But another thing Purple Steer, 8601 Indianapolis Blvd., gets right is its take on pork tenderloin. If you're a true, meat-eating Midwesterner, let alone Hoosier, finding the perfect, deep-fried slab of meat to throw on a plate or sandwich can be difficult.
However, the restaurant will make it worth your while by smothering some heaping slices with brown gravy. It's quite the collection of flavor. The pork has a salty, crispy taste on the outside, a chewy inside and surprising sweetness in the brown gravy for an excellent mix. The plentiful helping of the gravy also is good for the optional side of mashed potatoes, which are bland until mixed with the topping. It all comes at an agreeable price of $9.99 for a super filling lunch, dinner or late-night hunger craving for the 24-hour establishment.
This restaurant isn't done yet though, as there are plenty of other delicious options worth trying, including well-priced breakfast skillets and omeletes, meat and french fry baskets, ribs, seafood and ice cream sundaes.
For more information, call 219-838-0514.
TASTE TEST: Wagyu burger and 'Death Penalty' fries shine
Angelo's is a well-established brand in Chicago's South Suburbs that recently planted a foothold in Schererville, where it's serving up some prime beef.
Angelo's Prime at 1542 US-41 is upscale Italian market with fine olive oils, handmade pasta, imported cheeses and steaks from the renowned Meats by Linz, which supplies Gold Coast steakhouses. It doubles as a restaurant with artisanal pizzas and gourmet burgers.
The burgers are top shelf, more like something you'd find in a downtown steakhouse than a Schererville strip mall. They're mostly blends of short rib, brisket and chuck "cooked to a perfect juicy medium" unless otherwise specified.
The Wise Guy Wagyu burger features a whopping half pound of Wagyu Kobe beef, world-renowned for its richness and marbling. The massive slab of fine meat is topped with aged cheddar and American cheeses. It's served on a brioche bun traditionally with lettuce, tomato, pickle and garlic mayo.
It's huge, it's juicy and decadently marbled. Make sure to order the burger medium rare to bring out the full flavor of such high-end beef.
The Wise Guy Wagyu of course pairs well with fries, which range from guiltless to less guilty to "The Death Penalty," or savory garlic butter fries covered in melted cheese and crispy bacon that really wouldn't be a bad way to go out.
For more information, visit www.angelosprime.com or call (219) 319-0075.
TASTE TEST: Get speedy takeout tacos at Taqueria La Soga
LANSING — Now that Lynnie Ques has moved less than a quarter of a mile to its new Lansing Municipal Airport location, there's been something else cooking in its former strip mall spot. The creative hands at Taqueria La Soga, 19267 Burnham Ave., are doing just that.
The establishment is humble, with a similar layout as Lynnie Ques had with its takeout counter, large kitchen space, and a couple of tables near the window.
A tasty option are the various taco styles available individually, especially al Pastor edition, which is marinated pork. If you've got somewhere to be, these can be ready on the fly. I was pleasantly surprised when I was told on the phone it would only be five minutes until they were ready.
Taqueria La Soga packages their tacos neatly, coming flat on a plate wrapped in tin foil rather than a bag or container that may mess them up. One bite is heavenly as the marinated pork is cooked to perfection, has a slight spice and tastes a little sweet like barbecue. Onions and cilantro are also available and are recommended to change up the taste for a little zest. Tacos also automatically come with a small bag of tortilla chips with a choice of four different salsas.
Also consider trying the restaurant's taco dinners and other combos with burritos or tortas.
For more information, call 708-858-6002.
Crown Point's Tavern on Main has a taste of New England on the menu
Crown Point's Tavern on Main opened as gastro-pub that aimed to bring a Chicago feel to the downtown Crown Point Square.
A group of four partners, including former Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Sr., invested in the handsomely appointed bar with a respectable craft beer list and a street sign that shows some real artistry.
The idea was to serve elevated pub fare. Tavern on Main delivers with trendy items like street tacos, chicken and waffles, crispy cauliflower, a pork belly burger, ahi tuna wonton nachos, a short rib flatbread, short rib poutine and short rib grilled cheese. In addition to fashionable dishes that could be found on many a pour house menu in the city, the restaurant at 136 S. Main St. serves some time-honored tavern classics like Scotch eggs.
The lobster roll may not be the best thing available on a menu jam-packed with tasty options like a po boy and shrimp and grits, but it's the kind of thing that's still rare enough in Northwest Indiana that some will order it anytime they see it.
Tavern on Main has a respectable take on the New England classic. Fresh lobster meat is tossed in a flavorful creole mayo that gives it a bit of a Cajun kick, distinguishing it from more traditional versions that keep the focus on the lobster. Lettuce adds a crunch, and juicy tomatoes fill out the light summery lobster roll, which comes with fries and pickle.
For more information, call (219) 779-9377.
TASTE TEST: Treat your soul at Mama Pearl's
GARY — If there's avid Gary SouthShore Railcats fans out there, a home run combo of summertime baseball and food may be out there for you. In fact, it may just be right across the street at Mama Pearl's BBQ & Soul Food.
The restaurant, at 411 E. Fifth Ave., gets its name from the co-owner's mother, Pearl Mason, who is 105 years old. Mama Pearl's specializes in soul food.
Mama Pearl's also shares space with ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen in its trendy building with multicolored lanterns. The inside is modern and spacious, with walls donned by colorful paintings courtesy of local artist Karina Mitchell.
On its extensive menu, an item worth chowing on is the shrimp dinner, which comes at $14.50. The shrimp pieces are deep-fried to a golden color and a subtle, delicious spiciness to them. You also get a choice of two traditional soul food sides, such as collard greens, baked mac and cheese and cornbread.
Mama Pearl's also offers other filling options such as chicken pieces, barbecue ribs and rib tips.
For more information, call 219-801-2113.
TASTE TEST: Lynnie Ques soars at Lansing airport
Lynnie Ques has one of the best views in Lansing and some pretty darn good barbecue, too.
The restaurant overlooks the airfield at the Lansing Municipal Airport, giving diners an expansive view of planes taking off and landing.
The traditional barbecue joint, which previously had been a carry-out place in a strip mall, now occupies the former Shannon’s Landing restaurant space in the general aviation airport at the corner of Glenwood-Lansing Road and Burnham Avenue, not far across the state line.
Lynnie Ques has a full bar and a full-service dine-in restaurant adorned with aviation memorabilia, including a framed copy of an old Hammond Times about a nearby plane crash that killed four, including Professional Golfers Association Tour golfer "Champagne" Tony Lema.
You take the elevator up to the second floor, where almost every seat in the house seems to overlook the taxiway.
The barbecue is great and modestly priced. A good lunch option is the half slab of ribs basket. It’s an All-American basket with golden french fries, creamy cole slaw and barbecue sauce-slathered ribs. The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and perfectly seasoned.
The slow-cooked ribs are fantastic, but the ambiance alone will cause your spirit to take flight.
For more information, call 708-474-7837.
TASTE TEST: Gooey goodness served fresh at Zantes
HAMMOND — National Grilled Cheese Day is almost a month behind us, but the simple, classic item is a pleasant lunchtime, comfort food option.
Except, kick it up a notch and try the grilled cheese's meaty cousin: a patty melt, courtesy of Zantes Restaurant in Hammond, located at 3619 169th St.
The cooks select a great flavor combo for an item open to many creative variations: rye bread, Swiss cheese and caramelized onions. Rye bread has that slight bitterness, but ends up having a good taste and crunch after being toasted and grilled. The onions are a sweet addition that flows nicely with that sharpness of the cheese for a juicy, gooey bite. The sandwich is served for $5 and a combo with fries and a drink is available for $7.55.
Zantes also has a neat interior. It's an interesting mix in nods to the mid-20th century with '40s and '50s model cars and Chicago sports team memorabilia donning the walls. A pleasant plus is the atrium in the back. The skylights, no matter what the weather is like outside, provide comfortable natural lighting to accompany a lunch or dinner.
Zantes also has a plethora of other juicy items like a variety of hamburgers, wings, sub sandwiches and gyros.
For more information, call 219-844-0222.
TASTE TEST: Balkan Grill's stuffed burger a cheesy wonder
One of the best burgers in Northwest Indiana just might be in Balkan food trailer at a truck stop in Gary.
The Balkan Grill Restaurant at 3101 Grant St., just off the Borman Expressway, serves traditional Balkan fare like cevapci, raznjici, smoked sausage and pork kebobs. It caters to Eastern European immigrants who have come over for a job fewer and fewer Americans want: driving tractor-trailers for long hauls across the nation’s highways and byways. The restaurant is a no-frills places with no ambiance and little seating that has a bottle opener you rap on the counter if no one comes out to take your order in a few minutes. There’s a draft in the winter and a stuffiness in the summer. It is in fact a trailer.
There’s a few picnic tables outside for a view of the semi-trailers that relentlessly parade up and down Grant Street for fuel stops on one of the busiest stretches of interstate in the Midwest.
Stop in and get your food to go. While you wait, expect to hear the crackle of truckers' radios. The Balkan Grill is after all by the Petro Stopping Center in Gary.
The guy behind the counter speaks little English but make it clear you want the stuffed burger. He’ll tell you it’ll be 20 minutes with a tone like he’s trying to dissuade you.
Don’t be dissuaded. It’s well worth the wait. It’s an amazing burger the size of a hub cap that comes in pita bread. Balkan burgers are formed like meatballs until they're the perfect shape for grilling, and have the added flavor of a spice rack's worth of seasoning. The Balkan Grill's stuffed burger is injected with a gob of decadently melty mozzarella cheese like a Jucy Lucy in Minneapolis. You’ll feel like you’re savoring a fistful of cheese sticks, a big burger and something ethnic — all in one bite.
Like all the dishes there, the stuffed burger comes with diced onions, a scoop of spicy feta and creamy kajmak in a Styrofoam container. Don’t be surprised if you end up with leftovers.
For more information, call (219) 670-5563.
TASTE TEST: Find excellent flavors at Exotic Thai Cuisine
HIGHLAND — Sometimes when driving on Indianapolis Boulevard in Highland, it may feel like it's just passing by one car dealership after another. But tucked away in a corner after passing Thomas Dodge and Chrysler lies a treat found in Exotic Thai Cuisine.
The restaurant has an unassuming exterior. But it's what's inside that counts, right? The entrance has ornate decorations. The main dining room is pleasantly brightened by plenty of natural light on all sides and has a wonderful stir-fry smell. Its one downside is the room gives way to a lot of echoing, making it not the quietest dining experience if you can hear the conversation from the other side.
Thai cuisine has numerous delicious options, but an item worth sampling is the restaurant's Pad See Ew dish. This classic option features flat rice noodles that have been stir-fried with broccoli and egg along with your choice of meat. It's all covered with a scrumptious black bean sauce. Each bite is an excellent flavor blend with the saltiness of ingredients mixing nicely with the sauce's sweetness. It also comes at an agreeable price of $8.95 and is large enough to share.
Also consider other items such as classic Pad Thai, Pa-nang Curry and Glass Noodles.
For more information, call 219-924-7737.
TASTE TEST: The Market's fried chicken a near-religious experience
VALPARAISO — The fried chicken at The Market in Valpo will make you forget all about Strongbow Inn's turkey.
The Market is a southern comfort food restaurant in the iconic Strongbow space at 2405 Morthland Drive in Valparaiso. It is run by the culinary geniuses behind Tomato Bar, Ricochet Tacos and the pioneering but bygone Valley Kitchen & Bar that was one of the hottest tables on the square in downtown Valpo.
The revamped interior is filled with local art, a whimsical chalkboard mural and a portrait of counter-culture icon and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson in the lobby. Drinks come in trendy Mason jars, and stylish Edison lights glow overhead.
The fried chicken is divine.
It's made with plump, meaty Amish chicken that's almost unbelievably juicy. The breading sings with honey, thyme and secret spices, the recipe for which must be securely squirreled away in a vault somewhere. The hint of honey blends with the chicken's savoriness for a superlative contrast of sweet and salty.
You get several pieces of chicken, along with a potato side with kale, bacon, chicken gravy and sriracha.
For more information, call 219-531-0162 or visit themarketvalpo.com.
TASTE TEST: Retro-style Skeeter's and breakfast are happy together
WHITING — Decked out with retro-style purple V-back seating, checkered floors and posters of James Dean, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, Skeeter's Diner can take you several decades back in time.
With music from that time period, like The Turtles, and a menu of traditional breakfast items, the diner's atmosphere and cuisine are happy together.
An item worth trying is the restaurant's relatively new breakfast panini, which management says is in its third month of existence. You get your choice of meat and cheese combined with scrambled eggs and stuffed together in between grilled sourdough bread. The taste is exceptional, too, with the crispy bread and gooey cheese. A fork and knife are recommended because the cheese can make the sandwich a little difficult and sloppy to hold if eaten right away. It's all available for the agreeable price of $5.95.
If you're in the mood for something else, consider the build-your-own skillet or omelette for $6.45 and $6.95 respectively. It's also perfect if you're the earliest of the early birds. The restaurant opens at 5 a.m. and is good for something to grab-and-go on your way to work, too.
For more information on the eatery, 1510 119th St., call 219-659-4009.
TASTE TEST: Eat breakfast like a steelworker at Grindhouse Cafe
Grindhouse Cafe, 146 N. Broad St. in Griffith, caffeinates the Region with an ever-changing variety of potent coffee drinks that will power you through your day.
Its creative menu frequently changes and has included beverages like whisky barrel-aged iced coffee, the surrealist “Laura Palmer” that blended lemonade and espresso, a “Sproh Rootie” root beer with two shots of espresso, the “St. Patrick Sajak” white chocolate and peppermint latte and the “Southside Parade” Irish cream latte.
The #grINDiana “coffee monsters” at Grindhouse serve up freshly roasted Metropolis and Dark Matter coffee, including in pour-overs that “bring out all the notes notes notes notes notes.”
The kinetic creativity at Grindhouse spills over into the food menu, both in the food truck and the funky, eclectic cafe. It’s a hip space filled with concert fliers, action figures, zines and locally roasted coffee beans that has an excellent selection of sandwiches and regular specials like the Duck Bacon BLT.
The quirky coffee shop has an underappreciated breakfast menu where everything is $5.50 from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Try the Local 1010 Burrito that pays homage to the legendary union that’s long represented workers at ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor.
It’s a meal fit for a steelworker with a hearty helping of egg and BBQ pulled pork. Sharp cheddar and red onion make it tangy. Sriracha gives it a kick.
The only thing better than breakfast is breakfast in burrito form, and the only thing better than that is if you can wash it down with a bespoke Grindhouse coffee.
TASTE TEST: Sandwiches courtesy of Stella
HAMMOND — Bigger is not always better, and sometimes the tiny spots hidden in the nooks and crannies are treasures in and of themselves, such as Stella V.ie Cafe in downtown Hammond.
The small space gets its name from Virginette Fitzpatrick, the owner whose childhood nickname was "Stella," which nods to the old Angela Basset movie "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." The cafe is nestled on the first floor of the old Indiana Building at 5246 Hohman Ave. Its tall windows and trendy interior with wall decorations and small tables gives a unique contrast to the towering, classic buildings of long ago that line downtown Hammond's streets.
More than just a simple cafe for coffee and tea, the establishment makes unique sandwiches. One option worth trying is the Kenturkey. Served on your choice of sub sandwich bread, it's heartily stuffed with sliced turkey breast, pimento cheese, bacon and spicy jicama slaw.
The dish has a delicious taste as the cold turkey and cheese spread mix with the saltiness of the bacon and hot kick from the slaw. For the price of $7 you get the sandwich as well as a side of kettle chips, salad or pasta salad.
The cafe also serves up other sandwich and wrap options worth trying, including the Louisville Garden, Ameri-Itali-Can, Mediterranean Shroom and Green Bus Wrap. All cost a decent price between $4 and $7.
If you find yourself in downtown Hammond or exiting the nearby South Shore station anytime soon, consider stopping in to see Stella and her cafe.
For more information, call 219-802-5009.
TASTE TEST: McGinnis Pub counting down to St. Patrick's Day
MICHIGAN CITY — Even though Chicago held some of its St. Patrick's Day festivities early, Region restaurants like McGinnis Pub, at 227 W. Seventh St., are gearing up and counting down for this Friday's celebrations.
We're not kidding when we say that; the restaurant literally has a digital clock counting down to the second. With green hats, beads and more in its plethora of decorations, the establishment and its specials may pique your St. Patrick's Day fancy as a venue to attend. Even if you go on a different day, it's a stone's throw away from Lighthouse Premium Outlets in the middle of fashionable Wabash and Washington streets.
Its origins are debated, but shepherd's pie is a standard pub food option and comfort dish worth trying. The pub serves a heaping bowl of the mix, which includes ground beef, onions, celery, all topped with a mashed potato pancake and surrounded by a savory broth. It comes out steaming hot with a savory aroma, but after one bite, even the heat won't make you want to wait for another salty, mouthwatering spoonful. The dish also comes with a slices of Irish soda and brown bread, all for $9.95.
If you'd like to dabble in other Irish items the restaurant offers, also consider their corned beef sandwich and Irish spring rolls. If you're 21 or older, Guinness specials will be ready, too.
For more information, call 219-872-8200.
TASTE TEST: Be one of the lucky diners to try pistachio pancakes at Scrambled
DYER — The first bite of this month's specialty pancakes at The Scrambled Diner will make you feel like you've found a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. They're that good.
The words "Pistachio pancakes" written on the specials chalkboard at the cozy restaurant give diners no indication of what will appear before them after ordering the colorful creation.
The St. Patrick's Day-inspired flapjacks are made with regular pancake batter, green food coloring, pistachios and pistachio pudding. They're topped with fresh whipped cream, then sprinkled with chocolate chips. There's no need to add maple syrup — they're just the right amount of sweet.
If a full stack seems too indulgent and you're more of a protein-for-breakfast kind of person, you can upgrade your toast to a pistachio pancake for an upcharge when ordering an omelet.
No matter what you order at Scrambled, you likely won't be disappointed. But your luck will run out March 31 when the pistachio pancakes disappear from the menu.
For more information on the offerings at the diner, 250 81st Ave., visit scrambleddiner.com or call 219-865-3950.
TASTE TEST: Asada Grill & Cantina's whole tilapia a deep-fried delight
Lent starts today, and the Region's many Catholics will spend Fridays at fish fries in churches and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls.
If you're in the mood for something other than a breaded plank of white fish, local restaurants abound with copious seafood dishes. Asada Grill & Cantina at 216 S. Broad St. in Griffith is no exception.
The cozy Mexican restaurant that replaced Niko's Steak & Seafood by the train tracks in Griffith offers authentic Mexico City cuisine, with "a modern twist." Asada boasts 16 different South of the Border seafood options, including Cerviche De Cameron, Salmon Yucatan, Mahi Mahi ala Mexicana and Red Snapper ala Veracruzana.
If you're going to eat fish for Lent, why not get the whole fish? Asada's Mojarra Frita is a deep-fried whole tilapia — head, tail, fins and all. The tender, flaky fish peels right off the flank, and bones aren't as much of an issue as one would expect.
It's a sight to behold, is served piping hot straight out of the deep fryer and comes with plenty of lemon wedges for spritzing. The presentation is immaculate — along with the standard rice and refried beans, you get a salad, scoop of guacamole and garnishes of tomato and orange.
For more information, call 219-934-0400.
TASTE TEST: Calumet Bakery's pączki a seasonal favorite
Chicagoland allegedly has the most Poles outside Poland, and the Eastern European immigrants brought one of Northwest Indiana's most treasured treats: paczki.
Paczki are traditionally made before Lent when faithful Catholics empty everything from their fridges and pantries — all the sugar, lard, baker's yeast, eggs and fruit — before they have to fast for Lent. They made a rich dough that's deep-fried into a doughnut on steroids.
It's dusted with a heaping dose of confectioner's sugar and filled with Bavarian cream, custard, blueberries, strawberries, plums or other traditional fillings. Paczki, pronounced poonch-key, are about as decadent as it gets.
They're widely available around the Region before Lent, including at Strack & Van Til supermarkets. Great paczki are made at Beck's Crown Bakery in Crown Point, Branya's Bakery in St. John and Calumet Bakery in Whiting, Lansing and Chicago.
Calumet Bakery's strawberry paczki are not to be missed. The fruit is fresh and smothered in a syrupy filling. Every bite is indulgent. It's so rich you might even eat only half at a time — you'll still be full and still have a nice sugar buzz.
TASTE TEST: Spice up your breakfast with the Cherry Tree's taco skillet
ROWN POINT — One can find many a delicious skillet available at Region breakfast establishments. But do you ever look for one that just gives that extra kick of flavor? The taco skillet will do just that.
It's available at the Cherry Tree Restaurant, 1312 N. Main St. Tucked away in a small strip mall, its easygoing environment is pleasant for breakfast or lunch. Accented by a mix of small, glacier-pattern and larger windows, as well as plants on mantels, it feels as if you're relaxing in a lounge or basement.
In size, the taco skillet may be unassuming. But within the mound of ground taco meat, melted cheese and diced vegetables lies a grand taste.
One spoonful delivers a smooth and salty taste as the soft meat, crisp vegetables and gooey cheese melt together. Then, it hits you: the jalapeno pepper in that same bite gives it all that fiery edge. With the provided side of mild salsa, you can add that extra tangy taste. The included side of pancakes or toast can also help take that spicy aftertaste off.
The Cherry Tree's menu has other satisfying breakfast options, such as waffles and crepes. If your mind is on lunch, try its sandwich, soup and salad options as well.
For more information, call 219-661-1800.
TASTE TEST: Artsy Frida's Cafe has artful take on Mexican food
Frida's Cafe in Hammond's Hessville neighborhood is a tribute to the acclaimed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, and it makes a dramatic impression when you walk in.
Vibrant colors are splashed across the extravagantly decorated interior. Replica Frida paintings line the walls. Day of the Dead skulls adorn the colorful chairs and festive gift shop. Mexican folk art is everywhere in the coffee shop, which has a substantial food menu.
The food is as artful as the cafe is artsy.
Frida's Cafe, inside the White Ripple Gallery at 6725 Kennedy Ave., offers off-the-beaten path Mexican cuisine such as Molletes, Quesaritas, and the Guajolota torta from Mexico City. The presentation is always immaculate — hot chocolate for instance comes in a folksy ceramic mug on a plate with a sugar cookie for dipping.
A new addition is the Guacamaya, a traditional torta from the Guanajuato region of Mexico.
Crunchy pork skin, chewy pickled pork rinds and fresh slices of lush avocado are stuffed into grilled bolillo bread. It's topped with pico de gallo and drizzled with sour cream. There's a far more interesting mix of textures than you'd find in an average sandwich, all the ingredients are top-notch and it's plated elegantly.
For more information, call (219) 554-3140 or visit www.facebook.com/fridascafeandgallery/.
TASTE TEST: Aladdin Pita cooks scrumptious sandwiches
MERRILLVILLE — Have you ever had trouble eating a sandwich without making a mess while it's wrapped up? If you've never had a pita sandwich before, trying one just might cure your troubles.
Aladdin Pita, 3750 W. 80th Lane, serves the unique, delicious and filling delicacy. It's one of many options included in the restaurant's Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine.
A particular selection worth trying is the chicken shawerma sandwich. The pita, which is hollow and unleavened, is cut open and stuffed with seasoned chicken slices that have been cooked on a rotisserie, as well as lettuce, tomatoes and onions. It even comes with a side of tahini sauce, which is made with sesame seeds, lemon and garlic in case you'd like an extra zing to the overall flavor.
If the sandwich alone might not satisfy your appetite, that's all right because the restaurant's pita sandwiches come with a cup of either lemon rice or lentil soup. Guests also receive complimentary pitas at the start of their meal, along with hummus, baba ganoush and more. All that is available for $5.99.
Also consider Aladdin Pita's other selections, such as kababs, ground chickpea patties, known as falafels, and even the sweet, syrupy baklava pastry.
For more information, call 219-736-5204.
TASTE TEST: Rolling Stonebaker's Purple Pig brings the pork
Rolling Stonebaker has long wowed anyone who tried one of its acclaimed wood-fired flatbreads from its food truck, a stylishly retro 1949 Studebaker fire truck.
WTTW, the Chicago PBS affiliate, ranked it among the best pizzerias in the state and Food Network Magazine went further, flat-out declaring it the best pizza in all of Indiana. A Yelp reviewer also has proclaimed Rolling Stonebaker the best pizza in Northwest Indiana.
While that all may be up for debate, and Rolling Stonebaker might be a little too contemporary for some traditionalists, a little too fancy for some purists, it does make a mean pie at its new brick-and-mortar restaurant at 54 Lafayette Street in downtown Valparaiso. The eatery is small, but it will have rooftop dining that will offer panoramic views of one of the most happening downtowns in the Region.
One of its signature pizzas, which are sized for one, is The Purple Pig. It is quite purple, extravagantly so as it's covered with tangy balsamic vinegar-dressed coleslaw and barbecue sauce. The heaping, overflowing slaw – mostly just colorful red cabbage – is fresh and crunchy and oh so Southern, the perfect complement to the slow-roasted pork shoulder that makes The Purple Pig a pizza you won’t soon forget. The meat is falling-off-the-bone succulent.
The cheese is top-shelf, and the thin crust is crisped to perfection, but the tender pork makes the pizza utterly delectable.
For more information, call (219) 462-0443 or visit rollingstonebaker.com.
TASTE TEST: El Chaparral makes tasty, filling quesadillas
MERRILLVILLE — Sometimes the best things in life are the ones you don't expect.
That's the case with El Chaparral. Traveling on Taft Street between U.S. 30 and 73rd Avenue, you might not notice it. It's located at 7849 Taft St., tucked away in the corner of the Taft Street Plaza strip mall. It has an unassuming exterior and humble interior, but the dishes are very much worth it.
One great selection is the scrumptious Quesadilla Carnitas. It includes a flour tortilla, pork carnitas, onions and tomatoes, all made on the grill. Every bite is delicious as the salty meat mixes with the savory grilled vegetables and creamy queso blanco sauce on top to give an all-around powerful flavor. Small sides of rice and beans are also a plus.
Other quesadilla options look appetizing as well, especially with their combination of ingredients, such as the Quesadilla Chihuahua, which comes with Chihuahua cheese, ham and avocado slices.
These items are also quite affordable, as all but one of the quesadilla options are less than $10. They're also quite large, so they're perfect for a big appetite or to split with another. Did we mention the heaping bowl of chips and salsa included, too?
Try other tasty items, such as their enchiladas or fajitas, or even their burrito cheesecake. It's tasty sustenance for a great value.
For more information, call 219-472-0328.
TASTE TEST: Tandoor Cuisine of India serves delectable, authentic dishes
SCHERERVILLE — Following a renovation that transformed the establishment approximately two years ago, Tandoor Cuisine of India dishes out scrumptious Indian food.
The interior offers a pleasant dining experience with placid blue walls and gentle shades of orange and purple mixed in with the seats.
One step in the door and you're hit with the enticing smells of spices and meats. Many of the restaurant's dishes, and Indian cuisine in general, are excellent with the seasoning or sauces used to deliver powerful flavors.
One particular delectable selection is the chicken tikka masala. Its bright orange hue as it's served in a katori bowl is eye-catching. The chicken's been cooked in a tandoor oven and then spiced with a cream sauce. The mix of flavors among all those items give a salty, but smooth taste to every bite. If you like your food hot, you can request a particular level of spiciness from your server.
The dish, as well as others, typically costs about $14. While it may be on the pricier side, it will fill you up. It's perfect to split with a friend or date. For a few dollars more, you can order a side of delicious basmati rice to go along with it to soak up some of the sauce.
Other valuable items include naan bread, an array of cake and pudding desserts and an extensive beer and wine list. The majority of the menu's items are vegetarian, gluten-free or both.
For more information on the restaurant, 1535 U.S. 41, call 219-865-9511.
TASTE TEST: Twincade has next-level food
Griffith has one of the trendiest, most up-and-coming downtowns in Northwest Indiana with three craft breweries, two vinyl record shops, a hip coffee shop, a juicery and now a music venue.
Twincade, an arcade bar that opened last year at 108 N. Broad St., has packed in nostalgic crowds looking to recapture their childhoods while mashing buttons on vintage games like Centipede, Double Dragon and Galaga. A well-curated selection of craft beer like 18th Street Temporal Purgatory and Burn 'Em Dark Side of the Brew is on tap.
The menu is also boss. Twincade for instance has a fig pizza with fig jam, brie, caramelized onions and granny smith apples, and an aged cheddar sammie with peach lavender jam.
Try the chicken and waffle sliders on the appetizer menu. A southern staple that's made incursions on menus all over, chicken and waffles play off the time-honored sweet/salty dynamic. The Twincade version comes with crispy tender chicken, plump airy waffles, cheddar cheese and strawberry balsamic jam. Sweet maple syrup comes on the side in a ramekin so it can be added to taste.
For more information, call (219) 237-9980 or visit www.twincade.com.