Food and me: We’ve had a tough relationship over the years. It wasn’t either of our faults, really; it was more the circumstances of my life which led me to quit eating hot food for nearly two years. The heat almost ruined everything. For a few years I had traveled throughout the US, following the cactus blooms and the warm weather. But, one cannot live on Yucca alone, and necessity dictated that at times I find gainful employment. This usually meant stints in kitchens in summer. With temperatures in the 100’s outside and me tending what might as well have been blast furnaces, I was not unlike Hell’s coalman, stoking the flames, flipping burgers, and nurturing giant vats of green chili over doubleburners. Needless to say, at the end of my shifts, all I wanted was cold cereal and an apple. This is still the case for me. I’m a cold breakfast guy. But, since relocating, I’ve tried to rekindle some love for cooked food. And, since I’ve been tagged by WriterChick, whose site is fabulous and strongly recommended, I’m here to guide you to the finest eateries this remote and wintery land has to offer. In no particular order, then, my five must-eat places on Lake Superior’s southern shore:
The Thai House: Nothing says Upper Midwest culinary craft like Thai food. Yet, for some reason, this city of just over 20,000 souls supports two Thai restuarants. The Thai House is the good one. The other shall remain nameless and shunned. Located in what was once a fast food joint of some sort (the drive-through lane is still there, complete with broken down speaker and menu board), this restaurant offers a full slate of authentic Thai cuisine. They seperate their calamari into heads and legs, so I am always sure to ask for the heads alone as an appetizer. It comes with a peanut plum sauce which I have been caught eating alone straight off the tiny spoon. I’m told this is bad form. From there, it’s wide open. The menu boasts curries, noodles, stir fries, soups, and you-name-its. If it’s Thai, it’s there. But I suggest underestimating your ability to stomach spicy food. Though you can select from a one to five spice range, anything above a two is uneatable.
Vango’s: Looking for late night pizza and beers with the soccer team? With friends? With your alcoholic cousin who just wants a quick beer or twelve? Vango’s is the place. It’s a less-than-inviting atmosphere at first with a fixture of sullen hipster types drinking Pabst at the bar, wearing sunglasses indoors, and otherwise trying to appear menacing or cool. I don’t which but assure you they are neither. However, once they’re done hateglaring you, settle on in to the darkly varnished booths or belly up to the hightops edging the room, and you’re in good shape for the best pizzas in the Upper Peninsula. Made from scratch, they use giant Blodgett ovens that are wonderful for cooking hard, slightly darkened crust. They serve as well a white chili with pork that, while good alone, is wonderful poured over a basket of french fries. It’s also within walking distance of a couple sports bars and neighborhood taverns. A must for your cousin.
The Pasta Shop: For a tamer dining expierence, check out The Pasta Shop. It’s a small converted house that not only serves meals but sells in bulk the best homemade noodles, pesto, and meat sauces I’ve ever eaten. It’s reasonably priced, and the portions are deceptively filling. The employees, though courteous, are a little intense, and I think that this would be your best chance in the Midwest for a soup-nazi-like experience. Critical of that spinich and riccota gnocci? Well, maybe you should just get the hell out and never let your unappreciate ass darken this door again. But if you mind your manners and drop the obligatory superlatives loud enough for them to hear, you’ll be allowed back for more.
Thunder Bay Inn: Because of its location and lodging option, this bed and breakfast is a Friday/Saturday get-away. About forty minutes from my home, the Friday fishfry is one of the better ones in the area and worth the drive. A fishfry, for those of you who don’t know, is predominantly a Midwestern Catholic tradition that has become a social event by which much of the town flocks to the taverns for fried perch or walleye with rye bread and onions. Anyway, the manor house once belonging to Henry Ford, and the rooms he and his executives used for hunting retreats are now rented out to lodgers at reasonable rates. Which makes for a wonderful get-away. The town of Big Bay is located on Independence Lake, and you can enjoy a whisky and water after dinner on the porch overlooking the lake and its abandoned lumber mill. The one drawback with Thunder Bay Inn is that the reasonable rates and remote location sometimes attract a rather unsavory clientele. One example: Staying there a while back, I had left a bottle of Dominican Rum in the backroom where I had been playing cards. Stepping in from a cigarette break, I caught a greasy bastard and a skank scurrying off with my bottle (and my cards). Shame on me for leaving it there and tempting the twits…they could have just asked for a glass. My date and I would have gladly shared. Be that as it may, the fishfry is worth the drive and the risk.
Jasper Ridge Brewery: It is my experience that you find quality microbrewery resaurants in the damnest places. While not actually in my town, Jasper Ridge is one of two local brewpubs in the area. It is by far the better of the two and the drive, while not as beautiful as the one to Thunder Bay, does take the driver past Teal Lake which is pretty enough in its “lake on a state road” sort of way. The building itself is prefab and sort of depressing, but once inside the open concept bar with its high ceilings and smoke-eaters is as nice as you could hope for. Prices here are reasonable, and the way to go is gorging off the appetizer menu with a couple friends. The meals themselves are ok, but the real fare is found in the twice-baked potato wedges, the nachos, and, my favorite, the hot wings. Furthermore, for you sports fans, tv’s are strategically located throughout the bar, allowing for you to keep an eye on whichever score most interests you. I come here on Saturdays in fall to root against Michigan or Michigan State. It’s a fun time for us exiled Wisconsinites to call loudly for the Badger game to be turned up, asking, “Is anyone even watching the Spartans?” Also, their selection of microbrews is hands down the best I’ve found in Michigan. And, if your curious, you can watch the brewmaster toiling behind the plate glass, crafting his beers in the giant tankers.
And there you have it, folks. The five best places to eat in the Central Upper Peninsula. I want to thank WC for the tag and the opportunity to trot out my golden ponies of ribsticking goodness. It was fun for me to write, and I hope it was fun to read. Should you ever find yourself in land of pine and sand (though I don’t know how you would find yourself here), drop a line–we’ve got dinner plans.