Saturday, May 25, 2013

Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant - Indianapolis, IN

I am not a foodie.  I'm not some hipster douchebag with my jeans rolled up like manpri's, some clever form of facial hair combined with some thick framed, non-prescription glasses.  I don't sit around waxing philosophical about the culinary world as if I am a food expert.  Don't get me wrong, I am all about culinary innovation, but I also recognize if my dessert wasn't prepared with liquid nitrogen so I spew a fog of vapor out like a dragon with each bite, then it doesn't mean my dessert isn't cool or good.

I am about real people cooking real food and sharing their love and passion through their menu and ambiance.  I am about supporting hard working individuals that work tirelessly to provide for their families instead of corporate conglomerations that seek to profit while watering down the American culinary experience. 

Despite my aversion often times to the trendy parts of town, I found myself recently in the Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis.  Broad Ripple is often considered the youthful, trendy part of town.  The nightlife in Broad Ripple is the place to be generally.  So with some trepidation I set out to find my kind of place in what I feared would be a hipster stronghold.  On north College Avenue, I spied the Aristocrat Pub & Restaurant.  The signage proudly advertised the place had been in operation since 1933.  That sounded like my kind of place.  I was a tad concerned it may be a hipster enclave since it resides next door to a vinyl record shop, however I promised to give it a shot. 

What's that?  Vinyl records are vintage, you say?  They are and I have plenty of them from my younger years, however I know what they are and how they sounded back in the day.  Not this new trendy way of listening to albums by kids who never smelled the aroma of a freshly opened vinyl album.

Inside the pub, I was greeted by a wealth of warmly-stained woodwork.  I elected to seat myself at the bar.  The bar was well lit and bright, which helped showcase the beautiful woodwork, which includes wooden booths and an all-wood square beam ceiling right out of the 1930s period.  The bar itself was an expansive u-shaped wooden monster allowing for plenty of seating and showing off the 60 beer taps available.  I was at a seminar so I wasn't able to sample the selection, but I took a look and there is something for any beer lover.  Stouts to lagers to IPAs to cider and beyond. 

Some of the Aristocrat Beer Selection

The menu provided by my attentive bartender was ample, however not overcrowded.  It was an eclectic mix of international and American cuisine.  I decided to try the egg rolls as an appetizer.  The portion was large with three full egg rolls and fairly priced at $9.  The egg rolls at the Aristocrat also have chicken in them.  Large chunks of chicken actually and they are served with two different sauces.  The soy-ginger and sesame-garlic sauces are similarly Asian, yet distinct in texture and flavor.  I spent time sampling back and forth and I like the soy-ginger the best in the end.  It was salty with a good bite from the ginger and the sesame-garlic was good, but seemed a little too thick and sweet for me.

The veggies in the egg roll were crisp and fresh and the chicken was juicy.  Everything played well with the sauces.  My only criticism was that the middle portion of each egg roll wrapper was a little soggy.  I would have preferred the wrapper a bit crispier.  All in all, the dish was great and the meal was off to a good start.

Egg Roll Appetizer
I chose a sandwich for my entrĂ©e and decided to go with the Smokey Reubenson, a cleverly named twist on a traditional reuben.  The Smokey Reubenson consists of smoked turkey breast and swiss cheese piled between grilled slices of marble rye.  The sandwich also gets a generous slathering of a tangy slaw.  The portion was large and everything worked fairly well together.  The turkey had some crispy signs it spent some time on the flattop and the cheese was equal parts ooey and gooey.  The slaw was crisp and finely chopped, although I didn't care as much for the dressing.  It was essentially a 1000 dressing, however it was a bit bland without much bite or flavor to it.  The dressing certainly didn't ruin the sandwich, however the side of kettle chips stole the show.

A heaping mound of kettle chips came with the sandwich and they were delicious.  The chips were warm and extra crispy as a good kettle chip should be.  The chips showed evidence of a salty, garlicky, peppery adornment on them making them impossible to stop eating.  I definitely considered ordering some on the side to take home.  The bartender told me the chips were not made in the restaurant, but sourced locally from a small batch chipmaker. 

The Smokey Reubenson
All in all, I was very impressed with the lunch I had at the Aristocrat.  The sandwich was ample to eat alone and was affordable at $9.  If you crave a wide selection of domestic, craft and international beers paired with a solid menu of food, then I think you will enjoy the experience.  The staff was also knowledgeable about the menu and took great care of me, checking in often and refilling my drink regularly.  The current staff are doing a good job of maintaining the traditional appeal of a place that has been around 80 years in an area where the new seems to be preferred over the old.  The distinct lack any signs of hispters present during my lunchtime visit let me know they have been doing things right for some time.  As a matter of fact, the two gentlemen dining on my side of the bar were old enough to have dined at the bar when it first opened.  Hopefully I will be dining there in another 70 years as the tradition continues.

Exciting New Changes to the Site

For some time now, my goal has been simple.  As I travel the country seeking out local cuisine that isn't some corporatized version of food then I report about it here.  The good and the bad.  Fortunately, as I hypothesized at the onset of this project, I have found way more good than bad when it comes to local food.  So as you peruse the posts here, you find them to mostly be about my experiences at these restaurants.  A little while back I also started to throw in an occasional post about something interest from the home kitchen.  Now it's time to address a missing element to this site.

I am super excited to announce we will now be posting regular podcast episodes of a brand new podcast called The Chef's Table.  Each podcast will feature a conversation with one of America's best chefs.  We will discuss their culinary careers from the beginning, find out what fuels their passion for food and gain some insight into what their interests are outside of the kitchen.  Each chef is also asked to share a recipe which speaks to their culinary philosophy and yet is readily accessible for the home cook to prepare.  I can't reveal it yet, but I am already excited about our very first interview next week.  It is with a true culinary legend and I know you will enjoy the episode.

I think this addition brings the site full circle in many ways.  With the existing reviews on the site, I am able to share my opinions and experiences at restaurants, however I don't get to speak to the chefs.  This isn't because I don't have access to them, but instead because I intentionally don't want to speak to them during my visit.  I want to ensure I have an unbiased experience when I am dining and although I may ask a few probing questions of my server I do my best to fly under the radar.  This podcast will allow me to go to the back of the house.  Beyond the taste of the food, the service in the front or the menu pricing.  We will get to see what great chefs are doing everywhere and hopefully expose you to new chefs you didn't know you need to know.

Episode one will be available here and on iTunes.  You can also follow us on social media at:

Twitter - @TheChefsTable2

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Niemerg's Steak House - Effingham, Illinois

When you are driving from Indianapolis to St. Louis on I-70 about two hours into the journey it happens.  Your eyes glaze over and you begin to think that if you have to stare at one more farm field without seeing some sign of life, then you may lose your will to live.  Just as you begin to contemplate which bridge to drive off, it appears.  The crossroads of America pops up on the horizon.  You roll into Effingham, Illinois, and being devoid of civilization for so long you seek out a place to eat.  Somewhere to recharge your batteries and renew your belief in American society.  When you experience this, look no further than Niemerg's Steak House.

Niemerg's Steak House fully represents everything that makes the Midwest great.  A place where an army of working class heroes prepare comfort food for all walks of life from farmers to weary travelers to business persons.  The food is not only good and comforting, but it is some of the most affordable meals I have ever enjoyed.  I make the trip from Indianapolis to St. Louis and back several times a year and I never make the trip without stopping at Niemerg's.  

The decor is nothing exciting, but it fits the conservative nature of the area.  No matter what time of the day you choose to dine, you will find very limited parking in the large parking lot and all the hustle and bustle of numerous employees serving tables.  The dining area is deceptively larger than the outside would lead you to believe so there is rarely a wait.  The staff keeps the place clean and they are always professional and courteous.  

The menu is a compilation of classic comfort dishes like ribeye steak, liver and onions, pork chops, chicken fried steak, and fried chicken.  The menu also includes a few local favorites and a couple quirks.  Now based on everything I've told you thus far, I am sure you will not be surprised to hear appetizers include items like jalapeno poppers, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks.  But what if I told you this restaurant offers up the best egg rolls I've ever tasted.  The hand rolled egg rolls are overstuffed with seasoned pork, cabbage and other vegetables before being fried to crispy, golden perfection and then being offered along with homemade sweet and sour sauce.  If I find out you went to Niemerg's and didn't try the egg rolls, I will be forced to ban you from reading future posts.  You won't regret trying them.

The crisp of the cabbage and the crunch of the wrapper go so well with the tangy sauce.  Juicy, tasty deliciousness will drip down your chin as you enjoy the egg rolls.  

Hand Rolled Egg Roll Appetizer

By the time you are done with the appetizer, your mind will already be blown and you will be telling yourself there is no possible way to top the egg roll.  To that I will tell you to hold on to your hand because we have two more courses left.  For the entree, there are many great options including their crispy, crunchy fried chicken, but I tend to favor recommending a dish that is only available in central Illinois.  In this small swath of land, there is a dish that is so cheesy, so ooey, so gooey, you will be down for the count.  The kind of dish that will leave you so full and satisfied that you will be able to feel your heart beating in your chest for at least several hours.  What dish could that possibly be you ask?  None other than the Horseshoe or for the slightly less famished, the Pony.

The Horseshoe and the Pony are central Illinois staples.  Take a piece of grilled Texas toast and place whatever type of meat on top of it.  Cover the meat completely with crispy, french fries and then smother all of it in melted cheddar cheese.  If you absolutely must have something healthy as part of the dish then you can top it off with some grilled onions and chopped tomatoes.  I chose to have the hamburger pony on this particular visit.  Just as you would imagine, it is sinfully delicious.  Savory, cheesy.  It fits the definition of a hot mess to a T.

Hamburger Pony

There is only one rule at Niemerg's, which is that you must save room for dessert (Editorial Disclaimer:  Please note this is not actually a rule at Neimerg's rather a rule imposed by the author of this post.  Following the rule will lead to the utmost gastronomic satisfaction)  Desserts are made in house and are delicious.  Pies are the main route to take and there are dozens to choose from.  I personally am very fond of the coconut cream, apple pie and pecan pie, but chances are great that on any given day you will have more choices for pies than you will be able to deal with.

Niemerg's is a must stop destination.  Great food, family atmosphere and amazing prices are the story of the day.  Niemerg's is just like the family dog.  Always faithful and always there when you need them.I got two egg rolls as an appetizer for $3.49, a bowl of vegetable soup for $2.19, my hamburger pony was $3.49 and a piece of pie topped it all off at $2.49.  All in all, I left weighing at least a couple pounds more than I came in and ready to tackle the rest of the trip after a brief nap in the car.  the best part was that I got all of that food for less than $12 before tax and tip.  Where else can you get that?

Made From Scratch Vegetable Soup

Hank's Smoked Brisket - Indianapolis, IN

There once was a man from Texas.........who moved for a job in Indianapolis.........He stayed for decades and when he retired........He shared his love of BBQ brisket.

Smoked Spareribs All Sauced Up

Okay, so no one ever said I was a poet, but a limerick seems fitting when you talk about Hank's Smoked Brisket.  After growing up in Texas, Hank moved to Indianapolis over three decades ago to work as a supervisor in manufacturing.  After spending his entire career with the same company, he retired and began to think of his next adventure.  Hank had a passion for slow-smoked barbecue.  His friends and coworkers always looked forward to being invited to dine whenever he made it.  After some encouragement from said family and friends, Hank decided to share his barbecue with others.

Just across from the Crown Hill Cemetary on the northwest side of Indianapolis, you will find Hank's Smoked Brisket.  Sitting on the end of a commercial strip building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive, Hank serves up Texas-style brisket and other barbecue on a daily basis.  It was designed to be more than a part-time job originally, but Hank said he couldn't keep up with the demand on a part-time basis so he expanded to full-time.  You can sample Hank's barbecue for yourself Tuesday through Saturday from 11am to 9pm and on Sunday from noon to 5pm. 

When I said Hank cooks Texas-style barbecue, I wasn't kidding.  Several times a year, Hank drives down to Texas and loads up on mesquite wood, which he hauls back to Indy to fuel his smoker.  As a barbecue competitor myself, I am always interested in trying new places.  And so on one Tuesday recently, I found myself up in the area around lunchtime and decided to drop in.

Just stepping out of the car, I could smell the intoxicating aroma of sweet smoke in the air.  I was drawn to the building to explore what flavors would compliment the smells.  Hank was positioned behind the window, working alone as he helped each customer.  A row of four or five chairs sit in front of the glass windows across from the order window, however there are no tables.  Hank's is designed to be a carryout location.

The menu is simple, yet offers a full range of slow-smoked meats.  Chicken, ribs, pulled pork, brisket, pork loin, smoked sausage and corned beef are all offered after been smoked in mesquite on Hank's seasoned pit.  Meals can be ordered as sandwiches, as meals including sides, and by the pound as well.  For my first time at Hank's I wanted to sample several meats, and my only disappointment was that the menu is structured in an easy way to do that.  The menu would be truly complete with a sampler dinner that would combine more than one meat option to allow people to try multiple options.

While I was mulling over the many options, Hank made some small talk and offered up a sample slice of smoked corned beef.  It was reminiscent of a pastrami without the juniper and other specific spices that combine to transform corned beef into pastrami.  The meat was hot, smoky, tender and juicy.  The smoke note wasn't overpowering and the corned beef flavor was able to shine through.

Without an option to sample more than one meat in one meal, I skipped any sides and just ordered a sliced brisket sandwich and a half slab of spare ribs.  I opted to allow Hank to apply the sauce on the ribs for me and sauce on the side for the brisket before heading off to the car to dine.  The ribs set me back $10.75 for a half slab and the brisket sandwich was $9.  With a soda, it was just over $20 total.  The prices are fair individually and I think if Hank would add a combo meal to the menu so people can affordably sample several meats, it would be a welcome addition.

I first nestled in to sample the brisket sandwich, knowing it should be Hank's speciality since it's the namesake and what Texas barbecue is known for.  The brisket did not disappoint.  I was able to try a bit without sauce on it and found it to be simply spiced and thoroughly tender.  The brisket still had a slight tug to it when you went to pull it apart, showing that it was tender, but not overcooked.  The sauce complimented it well, with just enough savory complexity to make it work with the meat.

Smoked Brisket

The ribs were next on the agenda and they are three napkins to the bone kind of ribs when sauced.  They are full spares as well so there is plenty of meat to be had.  The flavor of the ribs and the sauce were very good and I enjoyed them.  The particular set of ribs I had on that were perhaps just a tad undercooked as they didn't pull cleanly from the bone, but I had no complaints with the flavor profile.

Hank's is a must try if you appreciate barbecue in Indianapolis.  It's not a big flashy place in a high rent area.  It's one man, taking his passion for barbecue and plying his trade in retirement to do something he truly loves.  His passion for serving others great food is evident from the moment you set foot in the door all the way through the last sauce, soaked napkin you wad up.  If you head there for lunch, you may want to plan a little nap time after your meal because you will be fully satisfied when you are through.  Here's to hoping Hank will continue to serve quality Texas barbecue in Indianapolis for many years to come.  I have plenty more to try on the menu on my future visits.

Hank's Smoked Brisket Menu

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Cheeseburger Stromboli From the Home Kitchen

So I am more than long overdue for a post, but rest assured that I am about post a ton of entries from my travels in the not so distance past. This post comes straight from my home kitchen. With four little kids bouncing off the walls of my house, we need good options for dinner. I am sure there are plenty of versions of something similar to this out there, but we really enjoy making Cheeseburger Stromboli as a family.

Cheeseburger Stromboli Topped with Mustard and Ketchup

This recipe is simple to make with kids, tasty and it looks cool. For kids it is all about the look of the food lot's of the time. So while this won't be a post about a great, independently owned restaurant to check out. Instead, it will be a guide to making a quick homemade meal that tastes great. Who doesn't like a cheeseburger? If you have little ones at home, then you understand the cheeseburger landmark. The cheeseburger is the gateway food drug that weens a child off of a diet solely made up of french fries and chicken nuggets. A new protein is introduced and once a child breaks through to eating cheeseburgers, their food journey is officially launched. Much like the Pinot Noir to Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon journey many wine drinkers follow, the chicken nugget to cheeseburger landmark is a significant one.

 The Cheeseburger Stromboli is a fun way to introduce the kids to cheeseburgers. The ingredient list is fairly simple.

1 1/2 pounds ground beef (leaner is better to keep the crust from getting soggy, but not too lean to dry the meat out)
1/2 yellow onion finely chopped
1 tsp Garlic Powder
1 pkg Phyllo Dough
1 egg beaten
Shredded cheese of your choice to top
salt and pepper to taste

 Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

To prep the meal, pull out the frozen phyllo dough and let it thaw according to the package instructions. This will usually take 3-45 minutes. Unfold the thawed dough and roll it out thin with a lightly floured rolling pin.

Dice the yellow onion to desired size. I am a fan of onion flavor, but not so much on the texture many times and my kiddos aren't big fans either yet so I tend to dice the onion very small. While it sautes in the pan, this will keep the flavor, yet make the onion itself virtually disappear. Put the onions in a saute pan over medium heat. When the onions begin to become translucent, add in the ground beef and and garlic powder. Be careful not to overcook the beef, especially if you are using a lean mixture. It is perfectly alright to still have a little bit of pink in the meat since we will be putting it in the oven. Drain the meat and onion mixture.

Once drained, spread the onion and meat mixture evenly over the dough. Top the meat mixture with a healthy coating of your favorite shredded cheese mixture.  Roll up the dough and pinch the ends to seal the dough. Beat the egg and thin it lightly with water if desired. Brush the exterior of the dough with the egg. Place it in the oven and bake for 15 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. 

The Completed Stromboli

Slice and enjoy.

One tip I like to do is to dot the slices with ketchup and mustard. Aside from the flavor, it looks colorful and like so many other eaters, kids really eat with their eyes. Enjoy a tasty and simple dish to make with your kids.