The other day I set out with a carload of friends for a barbecue contest. Unfortunately, things there were nowhere close to what I expected.
As it turns out, this proved be a real bonus for me.
Since we found no food and were famished, my friends and I set out to try a place I had heard rumors about, and we were all pleasantly surprised. We took
the 20-minute drive down to Hull, in rural, river-side Pike County, and had dinner at the Schoolhouse Café, a small restaurant in the converted cafeteria of the old West Pike Elementary.
If you have never met Lisa Smith, you are missing out. Lisa left Pike County some years ago to serve in the U.S. Navy and then returned to find her former school boarded up. This was not OK for Lisa. Using her business savvy and applying a lot of elbow grease, she purchased and re-opened the school building. Now it serves as a community center. A quick visit and you will find Red Hats meeting there, dance lessons, a fitness center and music lessons by appointment. If you live in Quincy these things may not matter to you, but they do for the community of Hull.
What should matter to you, however, is the food. As I said, my friends and I were famished, so we strode in and ordered, literally, everything on the dinner menu. Since it was Friday, the fish fry was the special, complemented by cheeseburgers and fries. We bought the equivalent of dinner for six people.
Comfort food was the order of the day, nothing fancy. Everything was served fresh and hot by Lisa’s daughter Lauren, who managed, somehow, not to laugh at us as we dug in like animals. The fish had been hand-battered and fried to order, the burger was cooked to a perfect “chef’s medium” and the fries were hot. Here’s the best part: Our entire meal cost about $30 bucks!
Now it is your turn. Take a trip to Hull. Bring a $10 bill, and don’t go on Saturdays, the only day the Schoolhouse Café is closed. The hours vary by day, so look them up on Facebook or give a call before you head down. Don’t forget to watch for deer on the road, too.
Ask for the special, and don’t be picky because you will like whatever is served.
One of the key elements uniting many advanced food cultures in the world is cheese. There are literally thousands of varieties produced in more than 60 countries. I have often lamented the lack here of the international cuisine I was used to back home, but one way I have learned to compensate is with cheese, meat, and wine. Those three items, all of which can be enjoyed interchangeably, are present here in Quincy.
Virtually every store that sells produce in the area has a variety of cheeses. Some are locally produced, like the Mark Twain brand from Missouri. Others are regional favorites like my old standby, Shullsburg, which is produced in southern Wisconsin not far from my hometown. Unfortunately for us, unless we personally know a cheese maker, we are cut off from unpasteurized cheeses in the United States because they are considered an unsafe food item. The rest
of the civilized world has no qualms about eating unpasteurized cheese, and they are lucky to have the privilege, as I hear those are the absolute best.
If you are seeking a food adventure that could be daring, exploring cheeses and the appropriate sides is a good way to go. You can literally take a world tour right here in Quincy if you select carefully. There are a few tips that you most know before you take your journey.
First, avoid those nifty snack stick/cheese combinations. Those are food murder. Instead, considering pairing your cheese selections with an appropriate meat and beverage. There are dozens of online guides for how to do this, and you can also visit my friends up at Spirit Knob Winery, who will be happy to help you. If you don’t like wine, don’t rule out beers and other drinks, either. A sharp cheddar pairs very well with a stout or dark lager.
Second, check the dates. Each one of those little cheese wedges you see at the store were cut from a block mold or a cheese wheel. Once a cheese wheel has been cut open and exposed to air, the bacterial growth process that created the cheese stops, changing the taste and putting a permanent date on freshness. At most stores, you can ask for a fresh cut from an unopened wheel. This will guarantee you a chance to get the amount and freshness you want.
Third and finally, be adventurous. Don’t let a name or a color scare you. Stilton is green because it is made with sage. Bleu cheeses contain veins of the mold that created them. They are still safe to eat, or they wouldn’t be in the store in the first place. Finally, once you open the cheese, ignore the aroma. One unique characteristic of cheese is that the aroma and the taste often do not match. If what you select is a “stinky cheese,” consider plugging your nose so you taste first, smell second.
Go on a cheese-tasting world tour and then share your results with us. If there is a brand or variety I have not tried, your opinion will steer me in the right direction
I don’t know about all of you, but for me, an upcoming event is one I can’t miss. It isn’t my first since moving to Quincy, and it certainly won’t be the last one for me. You know which one I mean: Smoke on the River!
If you have not been to Smoke on the River, I want you to come this upcoming weekend. I will be there Friday night and Saturday, too. Look for the barbeque tester in the yellow QU ball cap and say hello! If you are one of my readers and want to taste a barbeque sample or two with me, I would be
happy to share. Heck, I might even wear something with my name on it just to make identification easier.
Here’s the scoop: 21 different contestants were registered when I wrote this blog. More will come. Multiple states, multiple barbeque styles and strategies, and all located in Kesler Park. My objective is to find the best brisket, which is my favorite cut of barbecue meat. Slow or fast, smoked, direct cooked, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want to try them all.
Here are some I intend to hit first:
Cherry Red Roasters: Whole hog barbeque. I worry sometimes when I see multiple regional styles on the same menu, but they all look appealing. On the tasting menu is Texas-style brisket, which means slow-roasted brisket with a healthy rub, not a sauce.
Fiddlin’ Fatback: Coming to Quincy from Bloomington, Ill., this barbeque team rates honors from the Kansas City Barbeque Society every year. There are several thousand barbecue places in the KCBS listing, so being listed in honors is no easy task. Kansas City-style means an emphasis on the sauce.
The Smoking Hills: Another high-ranked team from the KCBS listing, this team originates from Overland Park, Kan., just outside of Kansas City. Their specialty, in addition to the big three barbeque favorites, is barbequed, smoked meatloaf. This I must try.
The Butcher Block: One of our local favorites I can’t wait to sample. I try to get all my meat from them when I want the best cuts and best flavor. I also like the variety of “odd cuts” and usual cast-offs they have in their store. Only traditional meat lockers carry some of the cuts they carry on a regular basis. The Butcher Block is the only place in the area that regularly stocks rabbit in their freezers, so I am hoping they bring some along for the competition. I have never tried it smoked as barbecue, so this would be a whole new experience for me.
So what are you doing this weekend? Hopefully you are making plans now to join me for this festival of smoked goodness. I think I may even fast all week long so I can be ready to go all-in when it comes down to tasting time.
What a busy weekend. As everyone who has driven down 18th or Chestnut streets knows, students have returned to Quincy University. Since I live off-campus, I tried to avoid the area, but was called to move in some friends. After what feels like a week-long summer break, school is back in session.
After moving my friends into their campus abode, it was time for one final treat, but I had to go to Springfield to get it. I know, it seems like a long way to
drive for dinner, but sometimes you have to go the distance for the good stuff.
So Kim and I drove over to Springfield for dinner. There are several restaurants in Springfield that I find almost irresistible, but there is one, well, that is irresistible. The name of the place is Mimosa, and it hasn’t been open for long. I first encountered this restaurant when I attended a program at the Lincoln Tomb in April. After the event was over I had several hours to kill before I was due in Petersburg for another program, so I headed out to the western edge of Springfield to hit the bookstore.
After the raid on the bookstore, I had to find a place to turn about and head north, so I ventured down a street to turn around, and discovered Mimosa.
What I like about Mimosa is that it serves a variety of Asian cuisine. Each type of Asian food has developed its own identity, and Mimosa has tapped into several of them — including Chinese (the real stuff), Japanese and Korean. Vietnamese cuisine anchors the menu. No Americanized semi-Asian food for the faint-hearted American eater here. This is the real thing.
If you have never had true, street-vendor-worthy Vietnamese food, get in your car now and head to 4201 Wabash Ave. in Springfield. You only need to ask for one dish: pho. Don’t bother with anything else.
Pho is a noodle soup unique to Vietnamese culture. Variations of it are found throughout Southeast Asia, but Vietnam is the point of origin. It is a noodle soup of sorts, filled with animal parts, some vegetables, and topped off with fresh greens. It is meant to be eaten with chopsticks, but a fork will do in a pinch. At Mimosa, you can choose from six types of pho, but I recommend the tripe.
If you recoil at the idea of eating organ meat, you can try a more tame selection, but I recommend going all-out and having the tripe. Conveniently, it is also the least expensive, coming in at a solid $7 for a gigantic bowl. If you can finish what they serve you, then you are better than I am.
Within a 3-hour radius of Quincy, Mimosa serves the best Asian food, period. Be bold and give this place a visit as soon as you can.
Last week before I departed for Moore, Oklahoma, I had a special visitor. My brother Geoff officially became the first person from my family to visit Quincy. I have no doubt he will be talking about his visit and our community on his radio program.
Remember how I asked you all what you would do if you were bringing someone to Quincy for the first time? Well, I wanted to tell you what we did and see
if it might compare to your idea. I am thinking of a few things we might also need to address that could potentially turn off a visitor from far away.
He arrived late, so late night food was a must. I took him to our most television-famous food joint- The 18-Wheeler. Although he thought the gator eggs were good, he was disappointed when the waitress told him that if he wanted a double cheeseburger, he could buy two cheeseburgers and put them together himself.
She really said it!
After that, he joined Kim and I on our nightly exercise walk. He was very impressed with Quincy’s historic buildings and well-preserved, well-maintained homes. I think this could be said of any visitor to Quincy. You can’t see the homes in most of Quincy and not be impressed.
On Thursday, we did the “full driving tour” of the key points in Quincy for the morning, then visited Hannibal in the afternoon. A U.S. Navy veteran, he was
impressed with the Soldier’s Home and the two national cemeteries we have, and was amazed to see our memorial for 9/11 downtown.
We enjoyed walking Hannibal of course. Everyone loves a visit to Mark Twain Town and the accompanying themed… everything. Huckleberry Finn ice cream was a superb treat, I must say. Fortunately for us, we were there in the middle of the week, avoiding the hundreds of tourists that usually choke the downtown streets and sidewalks.
For dinner, we only had one choice, and that was a barbecue spread from Fatback’s on 24th Street. He thought, as I did, that Fatback’s made the best barbecue he had ever had in his life. This is one more testimony about our city. If the words, “the best I ever had” come from a visitor, that is a very good thing for our community.
It is hard for me to review restaurants sometimes. I took four years of French class way back in high school, and I have read many, many cook books. When I see the French language being used to “fancy” something that doesn’t really need to be, I get a tad skeptical. That was my initial impression of the new Quincy restaurant 2Thirty4.
Several of my QU pals went there for dinner and gave me some descriptions, so I was forced to investigate and discover on my own. I checked out the menu online first, just to see what I was getting myself into, and then I went in for the taste test. Here is my recommendation:
Go there. Try everything.
My fiancée and I went for our recent anniversary and tried a variety of dishes. From their small plate menu, we tried the calamari and the scallops. Exceptional stuff! Most people recoil at the sight of tentacles, but that has never bothered me. They were perfectly done and not rubbery, the easiest way
to identify overcooked squid and octopus. The scallops were perfectly seared, and the gastrique was a wild complement to their flavor. Seeing a gastrique on a menu is a rare treat, because this syrupy sauce is not easy to prepare. To know how to prepare one and do so well is a mark of culinary skill.
For the salad, I went for the kale, and Kim went for the Caesar. Both were great. If you are not an anchovy fan, the Caesar salad won’t do it for you. If you have never had them before, this is a great way to try them for the first time. I have an old mentor, Ralph Teetor, who likes them on pizza, but I have always found that pizzas involve too much flavor blending; you lose the original flavor of the fish.
Finally, the big plates:
Me being a mac and cheese fanatic, I went for the gratin, and Kim went for the pork chops. Both were exceptional. I have only been to three restaurants in my life that experimented with gruyere cheese. I am also cautious with leeks, as I am not a huge fan of their flavor. Combined, this was a knockout dish. The pork chop was just another pork chop to me. What did it for me were the orange glaze and the black bean creation that were included. Citrus and pork work so well together — that was a no brainer — but the earthy taste added by the black bean cake made for a really exceptional trifecta.
If you haven’t been to this restaurant already, consider making a reservation right away. You will not be disappointed. Just trust the chefs to do the work, so you can relax and enjoy every bite. You can check out the menu on their website www.2thirty4.com before you go. Don’t be afraid to be adventurous. If you see something on the menu that is on the edge or beyond your comfort zone, jump in and try it!
It’s hard to think about the summer coming to an end, isn’t it? County fairs are going on all across the region, which is wonderful, but they signal the end of summer. Officially, of course, in the “rust belt” summer ends with Labor Day, but I suggest county fair season is more appropriate.
The trouble with county fairs, in my mind, is how dangerous the food is. Everything fried tastes great, which is part of the problem for me. Corn dogs, funnel cakes, all those things are great to have at least once a year. One thing I have noticed and grown to love about living here in Quincy is the ease of access to so many of them.
Back home, the routine was fairly simple. Winnebago, Boone, Ogle and Stephenson counties have their fairs back to back. They are within a short driving distance of where I used to live, so those were the favorites for my family. Here, on the other hand, we have three states’ worth of fairs to choose from, and all within an hour drive of Quincy. This is a dangerous combination, especially if you love funnel cakes.
As I get older, I see county fairs differently than I did as a kid. For me, the county fair is an opportunity to find local eats you might never find any other way. You know what I mean: pie contents, vegetables of every shape and definitely every size, freshly canned vegetables, salsas… I could go on. The hunt for these things has replaced my childhood thrills of rides and cool animals you don’t see in the city.
I made it over to Pike County in Illinois, and I went to the fair in Pike County, Missouri. The Adams County fair was a must, as well.
What were your favorite booths or foods at the fair in your county? Let me know your favorite stops and things I must plan to see next year.
I have a challenge for all of you, my readers. In a few weeks, my brother is coming down to Quincy for the first time. For most of my family, Quincy is a real stretch to visit. My grandmothers can’t make the journey, and given their age, I completely understand. My brother, on the other hand, is younger than I am and looking forward to the visit, even if he doesn’t love the idea of a 300-mile drive to get here.
So here is the challenge: What should we do?
I have 48 hours to help him experience Quincy. I have to budget 2 hours for a basic driving tour and a tour of the Quincy University campuses. Beyond that, I have a blank
slate. I have some opinions on what to do and where to eat, but I would like your suggestions.
If you had someone coming to visit you in Quincy and you had two days, where would you take them or what would you show them? Remember, this is your opportunity to show an outsider all the good things about Quincy, but you are limited on time. What would you do?
I have had a few friends visit Quincy in the last two years, and I sort of have a routine that I use, so here it is:
First, I drive my friends around and show them the key things. I anchor the tour on the John Wood home or Washington Park. The Wood home represents an immeasurably important historical figure’s commitment to build this city. Washington Park is such a center of our community, missing it would be a disservice.
Second, I drive my guest by the Richard Eels house and by Quincy National Cemetery East, because they represent great things our community members have done. A tour of Quincy University is a requirement, of course, because it is my reason for living here. I particularly like taking them to the university library, where I spend far too much time these days.
After that, well, it’s time to eat, and there is the trouble. I have my favorites, of course. Undoubtedly, though, there are places I have missed. What do you recommend? That is the question.
Are there other places you would take a visitor to Quincy? Places that, to you, mean “this is my home?” What are they and where are they? I want to know. Help me see Quincy through your eyes, and give my brother a chance to do the same.
Finally, we also must discuss the reward. My brother is a radio announcer, and he will no doubt go back home and tell people in our hometown, a place that really needs to hear some good news these days, what a great place Quincy is, and that is a wonderful compliment for our home.
Lately I have been on the hunt for comfort food. You know the type: that one food that brings you memories of childhood. Your favorite food in the world. Although I have recently developed a strong love of Vietnamese pho, my favorite comfort food, in the world, is macaroni and cheese.
I don’t care how it is cooked, what kind of cheese is used, or generally what extras get thrown in. My entire childhood, it came from a box. It wasn’t until a cooking competitiveness developed between me and my QU classmate Richard that I learned to make it from scratch, with home-made béchamel sauce. That’s my favorite preparation these days, mixed with an odd item: breakfast sausage.
I have also found it goes well with an all-too-rich light drizzle of brown gravy. I know, it sounds weird. Try it and you will understand. Canadians enjoy a concoction called
Poutine, and that is where I got the idea from. My friend Greg, the Canadian on the QU tennis team, suggested it.
I have found three places within a reasonable distance to get my favorite food. The first, and best, is any one of the varieties made by Cheeseology, located in the Delmar Loop district of St. Louis. I have never, ever, had better than what they produce. Served with a seasonal beer and literally simmering hot with a crust of breadcrumbs over the top, this is comfort food art.
Locally, I think the scratch-made goodness of the daily batch made at Fatback’s is absolutely fantastic. Rich, creamy, and delicious, cooked to perfection, and all that stuff. It is excellent. If I don’t want to make it myself, and I don’t want to drive to St. Louis, Fatback’s is my go-to place.
The second local favorite is at The Pier. Their lobster mac is almost a luxury, it tastes so good. It is the luxury part that is the trouble for me. Not many lobsters swimming in Quincy Bay, if you know what I mean. Perhaps they could start making it with carp instead. Interested parties could fish for their own right from the dining room.
Where else can I find my favorite? You must have some idea. I need to know where to find the best, and I am on the hunt. I need your input here, because I have exhausted most of the restaurants locally. I am sure there is a place, off the beaten path, that makes a batch every day that will just knock my socks off.
I did all the usual traditional things on the fourth, as I am guessing most of you did. Grilled dinner with two of my closest local friends, followed by fireworks. I closed out the night by hunkering down at the QU north campus to watch the fireworks. My hat is off to the EMA volunteers who so skillfully kept traffic from snarling up at the major intersections. I wonder what happened, however, to the “final finale” part of the fireworks. I am sure there is a good reason they seemed to just fizzle at the end.
The week also brought good news: my friend Bridget is coming back to QU. I met Bridget during spring break last year on the service trip to New Orleans I told you all about. Although she is a vegan, so we clash over food, she is also a gifted artist and one of the best photographers I have ever met. Earlier in the year she made the decision to transfer closer to home, and was accepted to Columbia University, another prestigious school.
The other day I was working at school and she called, and the conversation was simple: “I don’t want to leave QU. I want to come back.”
Her remarks gave me pause, and she is not the first student I have met since moving down who felt the same way. In just two years, I will be in her position. I will be graduating from QU as a history teacher. Unfortunately for me, Quincy schools are laying off these days, not hiring, so I will be forced to leave. Of course, I will undoubtedly come back frequently for annual reunions and so on.
This begs the question, of course. If you left Quincy, what would draw you back to visit or to stay? Family, no doubt. Friends, maybe. But what else would? What one thing would pull you from hundreds of miles away and bring you back to Quincy?
My answer, of course, begins with QU. I will forever tell people about the education I received at this fine school. If you went to another college, you know what I mean. QU will be my alma mater, which implies permanence. What else?
Food? Definitely. I tell everyone back home and everywhere I go about Fatback’s and Winking’s Market. If I were passing within a few hours’ drive of Quincy, I would be pulled back just to grab a bite at either place. What would bring you back? I would love to know.