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Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007 06:07 am

A few of my favorite things

Readers, in most cases, made intelligent choices

Untitled Document Being privy to inside information is always fun, though it can be tempting to spill the beans. When Michael Higgins recently sat down to chat at our table at Maldaner’s, I gave him a knowing smile and thought to myself, “Ha-ha — I know something you don’t. You got the Best Chef award.”
Scanning the list of food-category winners in the annual Illinois Times “Best of Springfield,” I was pleasantly surprised. Quite a few readers’ choices were also mine — not all, but certainly lots more than in some years. Especially pleasing was the number of winners that were local businesses, not links in regional or national chains. Here are my thoughts about some of this year’s selections. I like Steak ’n Shake, which readers picked in both the Best Burgers and Best Late-Night Dining categories. I like it a lot. In fact, it’s the only fast-food chain restaurant where I’ll eat. Steak ’n Shakes have spread throughout the Midwest and South. They still feel local to me, though, and not without reason: Steak ’n Shake began in central Illinois, in Normal. I have wonderful memories of Steak ’n Shakes: Shopping or going to matinees downtown with my junior-high friends always included lunch at Steak ’n Shake; in high school, my boyfriend and I would get carhop service at Sixth and South Grand in his rickety VW bug. These days, Steak ’n Shakes have retained at least some of their dineresque feel and are a welcome sight late at night or when traveling along interstate highways that are typically fast-food deserts. The quality of the food is still high, although I’ll never forgive the chain for taking the lemon freeze off the menu. There are many new items, which I generally ignore, but the burgers, chilli, and fries still taste like my childhood memories. Good as Steak ’n Shake burgers are, I think that those at Fulgenzi’s are even better — at least in the griddled-thin-patty category. They’re billed as the “World’s Greatest Hamburgers,” which may well be right. I’d like a separate category for grilled-thick-patty hamburgers. There are several excellent thick-patty burgers around, but the best is the Barrel Head’s Chef’s Pride. Having risen like a phoenix from the rubble after the 2006 tornadoes wreaked havoc on Wabash Avenue, the Barrel Head (Best Beer Selection on Tap) is back. The interior is somehow the same as before and yet different, but the food is blessedly unchanged. All of the Barrel Head’s burgers are excellent, but the Chef’s Pride is king: a half-pound of seasoned ground sirloin mixed with Cheddar cheese and wrapped in bacon like a filet mignon. Unless you have a big appetite, plan on sharing or taking some home. D & J CafО, on West Laurel, won Best Place to Get Breakfast on Sunday. Well, yes — D & J is very good, but that had to be a default vote. Springfield has few options on Sunday morning. One of life’s great pleasures is going out for a leisurely Sunday breakfast. Unfortunately, most of the other restaurants and coffeehouses that would be ideal for Sunday-morning breakfasts have local owners who actually feel the need to take one day a week off. How dare they? Thanks to the staff of D & J for sacrificing their Sundays for us. Speaking of coffeehouses, I was surprised that Starbucks won this category, even though I’m not among those who regard it as member of the corporate axis of evil. Starbucks virtually created the national market for specialty coffee and has a better-than-average record of responsibility for its employees. Still, Starbucks seems to be getting too big for its britches. They’re everywhere, including megastores, truck stops, and airports, and the quality has inevitably declined since the coffee-making was automated. More important, this category was for best coffeehouse. The corporate thing just doesn’t fit, somehow. Coffeehouses should be quirky, and individual, places for a quick cup of joe or hanging out with a book, computer, or friends for hours. Three places downtown fit that bill: Andiamo and the Trout Lily CafО, on the same block of Sixth Street, and newcomer CafО Moxie, on Adams Street. They’re each different, with a unique atmosphere — just how a coffeehouse should be. I’m not usually a fan of buffets, especially monsters featuring Asian and American food. It’s too hard to keep everything separate and too easy to eat too much. My vote for Best Buffet goes to Gateway to India’s much smaller, though very generous, lunchtime spread. The items vary, though there’s always tandoori chicken, naan flatbread, salad, an array of condiments, and dessert. Everything is always delicious, well spiced but not spicy hot, although plenty of heat is available in some of the condiments. Although Gateway to India on Chatham Road is a favorite lunch destination, dinner there is also always outstanding, with a wide variety of tandoor preparations, breads, biryanis (elaborate rice concoctions), fish and seafood, and other dishes not suitable for holding on a buffet line. It’s also a great choice for vegetarians. Themed barbecue chain restaurants can be good, but barbecue somehow always seems better when it’s from a shack, stand, or dingy storefront. Several such places have opened recently. They’re all tasty, but my vote still goes to PT’s on Taylor. Whenever I smell that smoky, meaty goodness, I know I’m close. I was particularly happy that Saputo’s, instead of a certain corporate restaurant chain whose huge advertising budget promotes the chain’s Italian cooking school, won Best Italian. Undoubtedly the chain maintains a perfunctory Italian address for marketing purposes, but their commercials, designed to entice naХve Americans, feature excessive and inappropriately sauced pastas paired with wildly inappropriate proteins. The commercials are a dead giveaway: Such dishes are anathema to Italians and Italian-trained American chefs. A restaurant such as Saputo’s isn’t typically found in Italy either, but there’s no pretense at Saputo’s. It is what it is: a genuine classic Italian-American red-sauce joint with housemade specialties such as “green noodles,” ravioli, and “Italian” salad dressing. There’re more goodies on the menu, but a big part of what makes Saputo’s special is its atmosphere. It seems as if it’s been around forever at its downtown Monroe Avenue location, and it pretty much has been. The old photos and dim lighting, the busy waitresses who call you “hon,” even the baskets of plastic-wrapped crackers and breadsticks all seem familiar. It wouldn’t even be too much of a surprise to see Frank and Dean stroll in after a gig at the Lake Club.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
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