If you have been reading this blog faithfully over the past week, you probably think I was here in Akron, existing on hamburgers while the city celebrated the National Hamburger Festival. In fact, while I ate a lot of ground beef early in the week, the later part was spent on the road chasing soccer balls in Columbus and vintage race cars at Road America near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Along the way, I ate a lot of road food, and I thought you might enjoy the trip along with me.
I begin at Crew Stadium in Columbus on Wednesday. It was $1.00 brat and beer night, so I hope you will forgive if all I talk about are brats and beer. Actually, I did have a pretzel, too, because man cannot live on brats and beer alone. I think the food at Crew Stadium isn't too bad for sports food, but compared to Road America, it doesn't hold up. Of course, the concessions in every sports stadium are grossly over-priced. Even on dollar night! Probably enough said about that.
The next day, we made a rest and lunch stop at a Bakers Square. There used to be a couple of these, which feature pies along with the usual chain menu items, in the Akron area. The last I know of was at Chapel Hill, and a friend tells me it couldn't hold onto its business because of some cleanliness issues that turned off customers. I never noticed, but I'm not as picky as she is. Anyway, this one in northern Indiana passed muster on that count, and we both had Quiche Lorraine that was cheesy and creamy; not at all bad for a dish that pretty obviously came from the chain's commissary and the location's microwave. I also tried a cup of tomato bisque soup that could have used more basil. The problem with most chains is that they try not to offend the average American, so their seasoning is also average.
Arriving in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, that night, we asked around at the hotel for a locally owned family style place. We were really too tired for fine dining, but we were in the mood for seafood. Unfortunately, the people we asked apparently believed price was an issue, and sent us to a low price, low quality spot out in the country. Sometimes, these can be the best finds on the road, but while we had hoped for fresh lake perch or walleye, what we got was fresh out of the freezer and deep frier.
Friday was our first day at Road America. When I was working regularly as a motorsports writer, this was the one race track in the United States that everyone looked forward too for its food. Nothing about that has changed, except now they have upgraded the concession stands to make the experience even better. Here, you can get fresh Johnsonville Brats that are made just down the road. You can get fresh steamed corn on the cob. They have steak sandwiches, chicken, bar-b-que, and full-on breakfast service that starts at 6:00 am. To all this, they have added a wide array of craft-brewed beers, many of which come from local Wisconsin breweries. And let's not forget the cheese, although at Road America you won't find people wearing those awful cheesehead hats. Finally, at least two of the concession stands also happen to be two of the best places from which to watch a race!
Dinner that night was in Sheboygan, at a fine dining establishment called Margaux, run by local celebrity chef Rob Hurrie. This was a terrific place in a town of only about 50,000. The menu featured dishes made with as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, and everything was fresh, perfectly seasoned, and creatively presented. We tried the summer menu, new that night in fact, starting with the “Eggs and Bacon” salad. We tasted a Peking Duck crepe, and the smoked salmon cucumber rolls. We also ate a pork belly slider, caramelized scallops, and a lamb kabob. And a bottle of Tandum Chardonnay. Stuffed! Here's a link: www.dinemargaux.com/
Saturday included a run into Elkhart Lake itself, just because no visit to Road America is complete without a stop at Siebkens Resort. There was a time when there were only two places you could stay during a racing weekend here: In a dormatory at Lakeland College, or Siebkens where the racing teams stayed, but also booked all the rooms. It's still the gathering spot for all race fans with traditional hearts, so lunch at the Stop-Inn Tavern was mandatory. Visit the Siebkens site here: www.siebkens.com/
Saturday night, we went to one of my old time favorites, the American Club, in Kohler. If you're not familiar with the area, Kohler is a village which sits just outside Sheboygan. It is home to America's largest manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom fixtures. The American Club is a resort hotel located near the golf course where the PGA Major Golf Tournament will be held next month. The hotel is actually based on the restored buildings where immigrant workers for the Kohler factory were housed when they first arrived in America at the turn of the 20th Century.
There are several fine dining restaurants in the Amercan Club, with the Immigrant Room being at the top. Since I had been there several times in my racing days, we chose the Wisconsin Room for this trip, and were not disappointed. My potato crusted walleye was simply superb, and among the other things tried was the soup tasting (small cups of three different soups), whitefish cakes, and stout braised lamb shanks. You can find the entire menu on the web site here: www.destinationkohler.com/restaurants/wisc_room.html
Sunday, we were served a full-course buffet breakfast, complements of the caterers working a tribute function being held at Road America. Since many of the day's racing activities were being delayed and rescheduled by some serious thunderstorms, we go an early start for home. Our lunch break came at a Bob Evans restaurant just outside Chicago. Frankly, of all the homestyle chains in the U.S., I find Bob Evans to be the most reliable. For one thing, as you might expect, they make their own sausage. For another, they have some unique menu items such as chicken and noodles, or their knife and fork sandwiches.
Finally back home after a nine-hour drive, we found the one place we knew for sure would still be cheerfully serving dinner at 8:30 pm was Applebees's. While meals at chains are not ever my first choice, there are simply times when only a chain will do. Like Bob Evans, Applebees's is a very reliable place where consistency of food and service is the order of the day. That's why they survive in a very competitive restaurant environment.
Road trips don't have to be a constant string of one chain after another, however. Trying new places is the exciting part of traveling, if you don't mind the risk of getting a stinker like the one on our first night in Wisconsin. I like to mix it up, and maybe it just proves I'm not afraid to eat anything!