Restaurants

Breakfast in Elk Rapids

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This is another post of my visit to the Traverse City, MI area.  Now I’m only here for a couple of days and I will be doing lots of traveling around Northwest Michigan so breakfast is going to be super important!  Well, breakfast is super important anyway, but there are lots of things that I want to see in the area and I’m going to need some fuel to keep my  body going (of course, I could try to burn off some of my, um, stored “energy reserves”).  But I’m on vacation, and when I’m on vacation, I likes me a nice breakfast.  Judging by my pattern, I usually get an omelette if I get a chance (is it one “t” or two cuz I’ve seen both).  But if I’m going on a long, long road trip, my travel foods of choice are chicharonnes and pecan logs, including a stop at the first roadside Chick-Fil-A I see.  It is a small miracle that I can make it to my destination on a diet like that!

But I digress. . . I love going to diners and local eateries on trips.  There’s always a good chance to experience some local flavor at a diner!  And I stumbled across a great one in Elk Rapids, MI.  This town wasn’t on my travel itinerary but I’m glad I stopped, because I happened upon the charming Harbor Cafe.  It’s a nice, small, and modest restaurant with a black awning to help shelter patrons.  Of course there is a “harbor” theme, which makes sense since Elk Rapids is right on the water with Grand Traverse Bay on the west and Elk Lake on the east.  Plus, you can boat up to it!  The outdoor seating was tempting, but it is autumn here in the northern reaches of Michigan, and it’s not exactly warm outside.  You can expect some traditional diner fare, but with their own twist!

This Corned Beef Hash Omelette is a great way to start the day!

We got a couple of their omelette specials (all their specials were written on a large chalkboard which dominated the wall next to the kitchen) — the Corned Beef Hash omelette and the Reuben.  Both were outstanding!  The Corned Beef Hash came with some sautéed peppers,onions, and Swiss cheese, while the Reuben came with all the usual fixin’s that the sandwich has, including the Thousand Island Dressing.  It is easy to see why this place is a favorite in the community.  Everything was cooked perfectly; the hash didn’t overpower the omelette and the flavors of the Reuben really worked together which shocked me a bit.  Never thought sauerkraut would taste good in an omelette!  And the friendly staff recommended another local product that I should try and I was again pleasantly surprised.  It was called Wild Bill’s Root Beer from local company Northwoods Soda.  Such a distinctive and delicious flavor, unlike any other root beer that I’ve tried.  I find it difficult to describe, but if you ever come across it, I definitely recommend it.  You can check the link to see where it’s available.  I have to come back soon to try some of the burgers and the Blueberry and Cream Stuffed French Toast!

The Elk Rapids Sweet Shop

On the way out, I noticed a little shop that people were literally running towards.  Not knowing what the big draw was, I had to stop and investigate.  Just out of arm’s reach from the Harbor Cafe is another small, unassuming, modest establishment hiding the absolute best pumpkin donuts I’ve ever had.  Welcome to the Elk Rapids Sweet Shop (check them out on Facebook)!  I am craving some of those donuts right now!  The ones that you’d find at some of the larger chain stores and big box groceries are weirdly dense and coat the inside of your mouth with some sticky conglomeration of undercooked flavors.  The donuts from here were light, fluffy, flavorful pillows of pumpkiny goodness.  I swear I’ve never had anything like them, and I’ve eaten lots of donuts, hence the extra “energy reserves” 🙂  There aren’t any pictures of my donuts because, let’s face it — I just can’t control myself sometimes!  I had selected the glazed pumpkin donuts; there were also iced and cinnamon-sugar versions.  If you check out their Facebook page you can see that they offer a wide selection of other baked goods and pastries including pies, breads, and packzis (hopefully y’all know what those are, but I can explain on Fat Tuesday).  I wish I had more time to sample more of what they have to offer.  All the more reason to come back!

A difficult choice, but there was a sign that said "pumpkin donuts today!", and twist my arm!

So if you’re ever in the area, stop by give these two places a try.  You won’t regret it.  And check out the rest of town, if you get a chance.  I was visiting at the end of the season, so a lot of the places had already closed up for winter.  I look forward to coming back, hopefully when the weather is warmer, although I have been known to drive up to Sault Ste. Marie in a snow storm. . . but that’s another story. . .

St. Ignace — Land of Pasties and Smoked Fish

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Well, not really.  It’s actually the Magical Harbor!  But pasties and smoked fish are the two things that I need to buy when I am visiting, and it’s been some time since I’ve been up north.  It seems like those two things are everywhere in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) so sorting through all the different kinds can take some time.  Here’s where I can help!

Time for some coffee!

But first things first — a quick stop at Java Joe’s for some coffee.  This place is a fun little cafe that serves a nice selection of breakfast items.  Everything is good, but I’d have to single out the crepes as something to try.  They can be tricky to make yourself, and you just don’t find those in every restaurant.  Plus the decor is fun, especially the mural on the outside.  And the coffee is great as are the people who work there!

You gotta love a place that features a hopping winged unicorn carrying a steaming cup of smiling peace coffee on its back.

Now on to some pasties.  I think I may have talked a little bit about them in my post about the PastyFest 2011 in Calumet, MI.  Recipes can vary, but there are those who are adamant that the filling must include rutabagas and not potatoes.  In my opinion, it is the crust that makes everything shine.  And Bessie’s Homemade Pasties does it the best.  It’s a little bit further from the main strip downtown; just drive down the road, and up the hill until you see the giant sign.  Like a lot of restaurants in the Upper Peninsula (UP) the inside of the restaurant is simple and unassuming, with charming guestbooks that visitors can sign.  But in there, you will find some of the best pasties in the land.  These are my favorites by far — the filling is delicious (even if they don’t use rutabagas) and the crust is top-notch.  Plus, the pasties look happy to be there!  Luckily I planned ahead and brought a cooler so I could take some frozen pasties home.  Hopefully I can make them last for a while because I have no idea where to get pasties in SE Michigan.

Bessie's!
See? I told you they have some happy pasties here!
I cannot wait to dive right in!
One last step -- Gravy!!!

And finally a stop at Manley’s Smoked Fish.  You’ll pass it on the way to Java Joe’s and Bessie’s.  If you’re a Green Bay Packers fan, you will definitely see it.  You’ll probably notice it even if you’re not a fan of the Pack since the complex is painted in the team’s green and yellow colors.  But it’s not all for show — they have great quality smoked fish, homemade beef jerky, pasties, whitefish, lake trout, among other goodies.  We picked up a few smoked whitefish to bring home.  I don’t know exactly what they do in their smoke house, but they definitely know what they are doing.  There are lots of other purveyors of smoked fish in the northern reaches of the state, but this is worth a stop.  And the prices are extremely reasonable; respectable smoked whitefish down here can be around 5 times the price at $25 a pop.  I will be using these golden formerly swimming packets of goodness to a make smoked fish dip which I will be posting soon.

Gotta make a stop

Exploring Traverse City and the Great American Cherry Pie War

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Now I know I’ve been relatively quiet for the past few weeks.  But it’s the weird transition in the house between taking down Halloween decorations, leaving up Thanksgiving decorations,  and putting up Christmas decorations.  Plus I’m in vacation recovery mode (I went to the Traverse City [TC] area and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan).  I promise not to bore y’all with all my vacation escapades.  I will just share some of the food-related finds.

If you don’t know where Traverse City, MI is, I will show you on your handy Michigan map.  Just take your right hand and look at it palm-side-up; looks like the lower peninsula of Michigan, right?  Traverse City is just to the right of the tip of your pinky.  Don’t believe me, just check out this map.

Traverse City is actually a great foodie town.  Chef Mario Batali spends his summers just north of the city; Chef Jacques Torres opened up his first chocolate shop outside New York and Las Vegas in Traverse City (it has since closed); it is home to the National Cherry Festival; and prime Michigan wine country is just a stone’s throw away.

Speaking of cherries, have you heard of the Great American Cherry Pie War?  Well, I don’t know if it’s called that, but that’s the moniker I’m using.  TC and rival town just up the road Charlevoix, MI engaged in a heated battle vying for World’s Largest Cherry Pie.  Charlevoix fired the first volley by baking a pie that was over 14 feet across and 2 feet deep.  It weighed over 17,000 lbs and was baked in 1976 to help celebrate the US bicentennial.  It held the title until TC took the title away with a pie that was over 17 feet across and over 28,000 lbs.  Some town in Canada broke the record several years later, but you can visit the pie pans for the Michigan record breakers.

They make them big in Charlevoix, MI!
They make them even bigger in Traverse City!
TC's pie did not appear to be as manicured and celebrated as the one in Charlevoix, as evidenced by the disrepair.

I had actually come across this by accident when I noticed a giant pie pan on the side of the road while taking the scenic route up to St. Ignace, which is just over the Mackinaw Bridge in the Upper Peninsula.  That triggered a memory of the duel between the two rival towns that I had read on the Roadside America website.  You can read about quirky tourist attractions all over the country.  Just type in a city and find out what’s nearby.  This website also brought up another interesting TC landmark.

TC is home to a memorial to Colantha Walker, “The World Champion Cow of the Insane”.  She was born in April 1916 and was under the care of staff and patients of the Northern Michigan Asylum.  While living on the farm on the Asylum grounds, she produced 200,114.9 lbs. of milk and 7,525.8 lbs. of butterfat.  Now I have no clue as to how this compares to non-world champion cows, but it was sufficient enough for her to be immortalized with a rather sizeable granite tombstone after her death in January 1932.  But after doing a little research, her landmark year was 1926 when she produced almost 23,000 lbs. of milk, which earned her “World Champion” title.  According to census records, the Michigan average for dairy cows was just over 3,900 lbs. a year.

Exciting stuff!  Like I said, I promise to try not to tire you with yarns about my trip.  I’ll post on some great budget-friendly restaurants, a couple local breweries, a bake shoppe that makes the best pumpkin donuts that I’ve ever had, and throw in some smoked fish and pasties (the pastry, not the adornments worn to cover up your unmentionables).  I’ll even work in a recipe or two.  Stay tuned!

National Fried Chicken Day and My love of Chick-Fil-A

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I love Chick-Fil-A!  For those in the know, you understand the love.  What is extremely difficult for me is not having a Chick-Fil-A anywhere nearby!  It’s ridiculous actually.  How is it possible to not have one anywhere in this state?  I lived in Maine before here, and that state didn’t have one either.  I really need to rethink where I might live next:  requirement #1 — Chick-Fil-A; requirement #2 — ocean coastline.  It’s surprising that I’ve managed to survive all these years without it.  Every other state in the Big 10 has one, so why not here?.  Actually I lied; there is one in this state.  But it’s not a real one — it’s part of the cafeteria at Oakland University in Rochester, MI.  You can’t even order anything; you just grab what’s available and take your tray to the cashier.  It’s better than nothing though.

However, there is one in Toledo, OH.  But there is something about having to cross state lines to get some chicken that seems kinda wrong.  Like bad-addiction wrong.  It’s different if you’re going to Toledo for some other reason and you just decide to stop by Chick-Fil-A for a snack.  Totally legit!  But just for the food?  (Did I mention that there is also a Waffle House in Toledo?)  Of course, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t done it.  Sometimes, in a moment of weakness, you just fall off the wagon, drive to a totally different state, and order some sandwiches, fries, and a couple of 120-nugget platters.  It’s not like I ate those all by myself; there was a party involved (well, at least that’s the excuse that I use).  But after spending some years growing up in the south, that chicken is a staple of life.  To me, it’s like a part of home.  And what’s wrong with a little taste of home?

I do have tomorrow off, though.  Now, I’m not a Jedi, but I foresee a road trip in my near future.