Super Smokers – Eureka, Missouri

Note: On January 6, 2006, The St. Louis Business Journal announced that Super Smokers closed unexpectedly. As it turns out, only one of the five St. Louis area restaurants remains open. This will add several miles to our trips to Chicago, but any detour that leads to outstanding barbecue is well worth it. St. Louis, Missouri isn’t widely recognized as one of America’s barbecue capitals as is cross-state barbecue bastion Kansas City, but perhaps it should be. St. Louis based Super Smokers may not just serve the best barbecue in the state, they have been certified as ‘cuing the very best pork in the world.

The Super Smokers BBQ team has finished in the top ten in nine of twelve years competing at the World Barbecue Championship at Memphis in May, including a 2000 first place finish in the “whole hog” competition. Nicknamed “The Super Bowl of Swine,” Memphis in May is the largest pork barbecue event of its kind with more than 240 teams from all over the world participating.

Meeting and exceeding the lofty quality standards and unwavering consistency required to win at the World Barbecue Championships has influenced the way Super Smokers conduct business at their St. Louis area restaurant. The competition not only helped them develop their best dry rubs, barbecue sauces and marinades, but the head hogs treat each day in their restaurant operations as a barbecue contest with every customer being a judge. Super Smokers strives for perfect scores from every person who walks through their doors. From me, they’ve got as close to a perfect score as I’ve ever accorded to anyone other than the incomparable Arthur Bryant’s!

Super Smokers is among the very best barbecue restaurants in which we’ve ever dined on fine swine. Just as the Greeks were unable to resist the sirens’ call, it may be impossible to resist the alluring aroma of succulent swine as it is smoked to perfection on the Smokers’ barbecue grills. The barbecue ribs may rank second only to the one from which Eve was created as the best ribs in the history of mankind. Glazed with a nearly honey sweet “championship” sauce with a slight tang, the meat escaped easily from the bone and was as mouth-wateringly tender as any rib meat we’ve ever had.

You couldn’t pull me away from the pulled pork in what was quite likely one of the two or three best pulled pork sandwiches I’ve ever had. The sesame seed buns were overstuffed with succulent pork yet a generous amount of pork remained on my plate for ravenous consumption. Despite their proficiency with pork, it was Super Smokers brisket we thought stood out. Nowhere in Texas where beef is king, have we had a better, more tender and delicious brisket.

The sides were fitting accompaniment to the magnificent meats. I thought I had experienced outstanding okra in the Deep South, but the fried and lightly breaded okra at Super Smokers made all previous experiences pall in comparison. Similarly, the sweet potato fries were beyond comparison to any I had previously. The baked beans were just a tad sweet, but generously doled out. Super Smokers’ jalapeno cornbread is sweet, moist and absolutely wonderful.

Super Smokers BBQ is a world-class barbecue competition team, a successful catering company, and a restaurant business that we now call one of my very favorite barbecue restaurants in America.

Super Smokers
601 Stockell Drive
Eureka, MO
(636) 938-9742

LATEST VISIT: 25 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Brisket, Pulled Pork, Ribs, Fried Okra, Sweet Potato Fries

Hackney’s – Lake Zurich, Illinois

Signage that's familiar throughout the Chicago area

The second city doesn’t take a back seat to anyone when it comes to burgers and if you have to hire a hackney (carriage or automobile) to get to Hackney’s, by all means do so. Hackney’s, a family tavern with a history dating back to the 1920s has a half dozen franchises throughout the Chicago area and features burgers worth going out for on a Windy City day.

The eponymous Hackney burger on dark rye and Hackney’s bleu cheese burger stand out! In fact, the Food Network’s “Best Of” show named the Hackney burger as one of America’s best burgers. Michael and Jane Stern waxed poetic about the Hackney Burger in their book, Eat Your Way Across America. It’s truly a special burger. The dark rye has a fresh, out-of-the-oven taste to it while the beef patty is succulent and prepared the way you like it. At medium, it’s got plenty of pink for that juiciness all great burgers need. Mustard is the only condiment you need, but each burger comes with fresh tomatoes, leafy lettuce and succulent onions.

The capacious Alpine cabin which houses Hackney's in Lake Zurich, Illinois

For an added treat, order the fried onion loaf, a prodigious brick of tangled, fried sweet onions. Those golden brown onions just might be the best you’ve ever had even if they are a bit messy. Don’t dare desecrate these pearlescent onions with ketchup or any other condiment; they’re as close to perfect as you’ll ever find in an onion ring. Hackney’s crinkled fries are well seasoned and invariably delicious.

Hackneys has a full-service menu that includes a variety of sandwiches and comfort foods. An absolute “must have” is Hackney’s coleslaw which is made with a tangy horseradish. It’s the kind of coleslaw you remember for a long time and can’t wait to have again. Another favorite, perhaps attributable to Chicago’s proximity to Wisconsin, is the bratz with German cabbage. Bratz, a nicely seasoned Germanic sausage is a veritable religion in the Milwaukee area.

Hackney’s isn’t necessarily known for salads, but during a June, 2005 visit, we had a masterpiece of a salad–leafy spinach, in-season strawberries, caramelized walnuts and a raspberry vinaigrette dressing to crown it all. To wash down an excellent meal, try the Green River lime soda, Chicago’s original lime soda, brewed since 1919.

My brother-in-law Chuck, a fellow gourmand, lives within half a mile of Hackney’s and for that we’re ever so grateful.

Hackney’s
880 N. Old Rand Road
Lake Zurich, IL
(847) 438-2103
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 23 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Hackney Burger, Blue Cheese Burger, Onion Rings

Siegelman’s Restaurant Deli – Arlington Heights, Illinois

Siegelman's Deli Restaurant, home of outstanding pastrami!

Who would have thought that a nondescript restaurant in a nondescript shopping center would feature food beyond description–food for which you run out of adjectives and synonyms for delicious (let’s see: savory, scrumptious, yummy, tasty, mouth-watering, appetizing, delectable, luscious)? In Siegelman’s, the quintessential Jewish deli, we found some of the very best pastrami (and it’s no surprise that it carries the Vienna Beef label) in America–perfectly marbled to bring out its dramatically captivating (not nearly sufficient to describe it) flavor and in such huge proportions that your mouth is agape (and watering) at first sight.

There’s a Yiddish word that perfectly describes Siegelman’s sandwiches–“farshtopt,” a word which means “stuffed” as in crammed full of meat. An even better word might be “overstuffed” because that’s what you receive with every sandwich order.

The thin-sliced, piled-high pastrami sandwich on fresh baked rye bread includes enough meat (a full 8.5 ounces per jumbo sandwich and 6.5 ounces on the standard offering) to make four pastrami sandwiches in Albuquerque’s chintzy sandwich shops. Jars of gourmet mustard are available for slathering on the pastrami. A perfect prelude to the perfect pastrami sandwich is the complementary soup sweet and sour cabbage soup which tastes even better on a cold autumn day.

If you’re really famished, order the “Hav-A-Catskill” described on the menu as “mountain high pastrami sliced so thin that it will take your breath away. You’ll think you’re in New York when you eat this delicacy.” The difference between this Hav-A specialty and the jumbo is that in addition to soup, you have your choice of either potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw or potato pancake. The latter offering is absolutely wonderful, especially if topped with Siegelman’s applesauce.

Pastrami’s first cousin, corned beef, is also a Siegelman’s specialty. Lean choice of corned beef is freshly sliced and boiled then served on freshly baked rye bread. The hungriest of diners will order the Hav-A-Nagilla, piled high corned beef served with soup and one of the aforementioned sides.

Kim, who is amazingly not a pastrami devotee, always orders something else which gives me an opportunity to wax poetic about something other than pastrami. Siegelman’s salami and corned beef sandwich is also worthy of tribute while the Monte Cristo sandwich is a towering example of just how high meat can be piled onto thin slices of bread. Complementary pickles are provided at each table in such quantities that you could probably fill two pickle jars.

Even though distance prevents us from partaking of Seigelman’s wonderful food more frequently, my in-laws and wonderful wife have graciously shipped several pounds of pastrami shipped to me so that I never have to go too long without its glorious flavor.

Siegelman’s Restaurant Deli
912 Algonquin Road
Arlington Heights, IL
(847) 398-0222

LATEST VISIT: 23 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pastrami, Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup

Swedish Bakery – Chicago, Illinois

In New Mexico, which is very proud of its “tri-cultural” heritage, the contributions of Native Americans, Hispanics and Anglo-Americans are manifest in its languages, architecture, cuisine and cultural events. While New Mexico has certainly not shunned multi-culturalism, the lack of concentrated communities of residents from other heritages has meant those heritages aren’t celebrated as prominently, if at all. As much as my wife, a very proud Swede, has come to love New Mexico and the contributions of its tri-cultural population, she misses the availability of Swedish cuisine, products and the melodic, sing-song lilt of a Swedish accent.

Kim’s maternal grandparents immigrated to Chicago in the 1920s via Ryker’s Island. They settled in Chicago because of its considerable Swedish presence extending well back into the 19th century. The predominantly Swedish community of Andersonville, established in the 19th century, bids us Välkommen!” during many of our visits. Andersonville has been the home, since the late 1920s, of the Swedish Bakery, the ultimate Swedish neighborhood sweet shop and purveyor of the exquisite pastries, cakes and breads with which she grew up.

The amazing aromas of freshly baked products at the Swedish Bakery are such a potent medium for conjuring up memories of her childhood that my Kim can’t help but reminisce fondly of days long gone when such fragrances wafted from her grandmother’s kitchen. Watching her at the Swedish Bakery reminds me of the wide-eyed children who won a visit to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. I’d also be disingenuous if I didn’t admit those aromas didn’t linger on my olfactory memories, too.

As enticing as those aromas are, the visual treat of ogling the bakery’s products under glass display cases provides an irresistible urge to sample some of everything: cakes; logs, rolls, slices; petits fours; pastries; loaves and bunds; coffeecakes; sweet rolls; donuts; pies and seasonal or holiday items. The Swedish Bakery is a veritable panacea for remedying the malaise we have when missing great Swedish foods.

Although the Swedish Bakery has an orderly process for filling orders, the queues of eager diners are usually long, particularly preceding the holiday season. You’re well advised to call in your order the day before so it will be available for pick up. If you do, however, you’re apt to miss having friendly discussions with fellow patrons, many of whom will be speaking with the unmistakable cadence of Swedish Americans. Despite the characteristically long lines, no one seems to lose patience as they wait their turn.

A must-have during a typical visit is limpa, a dense, moist Swedish rye bread flavored usually flavored with anise seed and molasses (and often cardamom and orange peel). This fragrant bread is perfect for toast, buttered lightly or slathered with your favorite jelly or marmalade. It’s hard to find limpa in the United States outside of Swedish communities like Andersonville. We covet this rare treat.

Another of our favorites is the fabulous cardamom coffee cake. Cardamom is an intense spice about which can be said that a little goes a long way. At the Swedish Bakery, the cardamom and cinnamon are perfectly proportioned to complement one another. This has become my very favorite coffee cake in the world.

Swedish Bakery
5348 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL
(773) 561-8919
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 22 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Cardamom Coffee Cake, Limpa, Sweet Rolls, Donuts

Weber Grill – Wheeling, Illinois

In 1952, George Stephen invented the original Weber kettle grill and with his innovative design, sparked a backyard revolution. As a result, the XY chromosome compliment was no longer a handicap (or more accurately, an excuse) for men throughout the world when it came to preparing meals for their families.

Since the discovery of fire, man has viewed his domain as the outdoors from where he and his fellow hunters brought home the day’s victuals for early woman to prepare. Throughout the centuries, the descendents of troglodytic man (many of whom haven’t evolved much) have perceived cooking as a feminine affectation, taunting any other man who deigned to acquire culinary skills. With Stephen’s invention, grilling outdoors was seen by man as an extension of his manly domain, not as liberation to explore a “feminine side” he long denied.

Today, backyard grilling is an year-round phenomenon plied by men attired with aprons emblazoned with the words “Kiss the Chef” and wielding the tools (which in the kitchen would be called utensils) of their backyard domain. “Real” men still see cooking as woman’s work. Grilling is another matter, rationalizing that since the dawn of time, only man has had domain over fire. The Weber grill made it possible for men lacking in any culinary skills (unless you consider eating a culinary skill) whatsoever to prepare edible–even tasty grilled food.

In 1989, the first Weber Grill restaurant was established in Wheeling, Illinois, ostensibly to build on the popularity of grilling but more obviously to showcase the potential of Weber products. A window looking from the dining room into the kitchen allows diners to observe classic outdoor grilling (without the pesky mosquitoes, Tiki torches or rain chances) done entirely indoors by the grilling experts at Weber. Grill masters prepare dozens of meals simultaneously on oversized, stainless steel Weber charcoal kettles that achieve temperatures in excess of 400 degrees.

The menu is replete with grilled specialties, all ascribed adjectives such as “charcoal-fired,” “backyard favorites,” “sizzling,” and “flame-seared.” It doesn’t take long for an order to make it from the kitchen to your table, a tribute to the skill of the grill masters and the blistering heat generated by charcoal briquettes. Service is first-rate with an attentive wait staff at your beck and call.

Weber Grill features both a soup and a chili of the day as well as baked onion soup served daily. In theory, a cheeseburger soup sounds like a real winner, but in practicum, Weber’s version fell somewhat short. Featuring many of the ingredients (hamburger, cheese, onion) that make cheeseburgers one of America’s favorite foods, the soup features a rich, tasty broth that lacks something–perhaps the tangy mustard that adorns most burgers. While an otherwise excellent soup, it may not be fully worthy of the “cheeseburger” name. Several other starters and salads are also available as appetizing antecedents to your meal. The Romaine wedge salad is crafted with grilled red onion, tomato, bacon and Parmesan cheese then topped with a generous dollop of sharp blue cheese dressing. It is an excellent salad that two can share.

While “grilling” (cooking food quickly and directly over high heat) and “barbecuing” (a long, slow process utilizing indirect low-heat to “smoke-cook” food) have mistakenly become synonymous in American culture, it’s hard to imagine a menu predominant in meats not featuring barbecue and Weber Grill doesn’t disappoint here. Weber’s hickory-smokes their barbecue for hours. The result is tender meats imbued with a distinct smoky flavor that characterizes great barbecue. The best way to experience Weber Grill barbecue is through the Combination Platter, a sampling of baby back ribs, Midwestern-style pulled pork, a quarter BBQ chicken and grilled smoked sausage. The baby back ribs are especially good.

Another Weber Grill specialty is flame-seared skirt steak which is marinated in a ginger-soy sauce with smoky grilled onions and peppers. Skirt steak has long been a Southwest staple most often served as fajitas. Rarely is it as tender and well marinated as the Weber Grill version. You might wish you had a few tortillas for this meaty treat.

While it’s unlikely man will ever give up his backyard grilling domain, at least Weber Grill provides an all weather alternative featuring grilled foods that taste as good man would like to think his backyard creations do.

Weber Grill
220 North Milwaukee Avenue
Wheeling, IL
(847) 215-0996

LATEST VISIT: 21 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 18
COST: $$$
BEST BET: BBQ Combination Platter, Skirt Steak, Romaine Wedge Salad

Culver’s – Lake Zurich, Illinois

Want a better franchise burger? Wisconsin residents might steer you toward the trademarked ButterBurger, specialty of the house at Culvers, a franchise serving the Midwest since 1984. The ButterBurger is made from ground chuck seared on a hot grill at 475 degrees then sandwiched between a “lightly” (that’s a matter of opinion) buttered, toasted bun.

While butter burgers have long been a Wisconsin staple, it wasn’t until George Motz’s documentary film “Hamburger America” that most non-Midwesterners were introduced to this artery-clogging regional phenomena. One of the burger burnishing establishments featured on Hamburger America was Solly’sin Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Solly’s version of the butter burger literally sits in a pool of melted butter and is a multi-napkin affair to consume. Culver’s version is healthy in comparison.

If you’re counting calories or are cholesterol conscious, Culver’s has a diverse menu featuring more than 45 other items including salads. If you want to risk an angioplasty, try Culver’s ButterBurger deluxe, available as a single, double or jumbo. The jumbo lives up to its name with three patties sandwiched between two large bakery buns and served with mayonnaise, pickles, onions, lettuce, tomato and American cheese. If you really have a death wish, you can also add strips of bacon to the deluxe. With or without bacon, it’s one of the saltiest burgers we’ve ever experienced and were it not for an aversion for salty foods, we might have enjoyed it more. Culver’s waffle fries are desalinated in comparison.

Culver’s is also famous for their frozen custard made fresh daily from premium ice cream. Served cold, you can have the custard on a cake cone, waffle cone or dish in sizes ranging from single to triple scoops. The “flavor of the day” includes several creative and sometimes seasonal flavors with the common denominator being great, albeit very sweet, taste. Culver’s ice cream products are nearly as sweet as their burgers are salty.

The frozen custard can also be enjoyed as a malt or shake or you can eat “Concrete,” a Culver’s specialty made with three scoops of vanilla frozen custard and a topping and (or) flavor of your choice. Toppings include M&M, Oreo, Snickers, Butterfingers, Reese’s Pieces and more. Shake and malt flavors include chocolate, hot caramel, mint, hot fudge and even root beer, all served cold.

There are now seven Culver’s restaurants in the great state of Texas and several more in Phoenix so maybe there’s hope that this franchise will soon be moving west to New Mexico.

Culver’s
645 N. Rand Road
Lake Zurich, IL
(847) 540-6700

LATEST VISIT: 20 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: ButterBurger, ice cream

Lambert’s Cafe II – Ozark, Missouri

In 2004, the Travel Channel, notorious for the compilation of “top-ten” lists celebrating America’s hedonistic excesses named Lambert’s Cafe the number one restaurant in America in which to pig out. Gluttons gorging on gargantuan, gut-busting platters of oysters, steak, pizza, pancakes, burgers and more were showcased in all their gastronomic glory as they taxed the limits of their engorged bellies. What separated the restaurants featured on this top-ten list was that all of them have achieved acclaim not just because of their prodigious portions, but because they serve genuinely good food. These shrines to gluttony were no run-of-the-mill all-you-can-choke-down cafes.

The second instantiation of Lambert’s, opened in 1994, is situated just off picturesque Highway 65 between Springfield and Branson in the cave state of Missouri. Lambert’s is about the size of a small town high school gymnasium with a parking lot as sizeable as you might find at a Wal-Mart. Legions of tour buses and motorized conveyances of all kinds bring hordes of hungry diners who queue for as long as two hours in fair and foul weather to dine at the “only home of throwed rolls.”

Throwed rolls might be what Lambert’s is best known for and the magnet that draws in first-timers, but ultimately these oversized (five-inches in diameter) golden rolls are but one of many culinary attractions that inspire return visits. Lambert’s rolls are baked fresh from scratch every day. In 2004, Lambert’s averaged baking 520 dozen rolls per day for a grand total of more than 2.2 million individual rolls. Served piping hot, the rolls are made not just for dripping butter, but for Lambert’s outstanding country sorghum molasses. Picture the best bread rolls you’ve ever had then add the best molasses imaginable and you’ll have an appreciation for just why Lambert’s throwed rolls are legendary.

Teenagers get paid for the task any mischievous youngster might envy–using overhand, underhand, three-quarter and side-armed tosses to deliver rolls to hungry patrons. While none of the roll tossers would ever be mistaken for Roger Clement, some of them have developed pitching repertoires any major leaguer would envy. With dozens of hot rolls flying through the air at any given time, it’s a wonder more people aren’t clobbered (although it’s highly unlikely these pillow soft rolls would take out someone’s eye). Roll catching is especially fun for gangly kids trying to impress their parents and siblings.

The menu is a celebration of carnivorism with multiple selections in the categories of chicken, beef, pork and fish, all of which are served with two “vegetables.” Order off the menu and you’re entitled to “pass arounds” at no additional charge. Pass arounds are a bountiful bonus carted to your table by servers carrying pots and containers of fried potatoes, fried okra, macaroni and tomatoes, black eyed peas, and an irresistible sorghum you might want to add to everything on your plate. By popular demand, you can also order pass arounds as your entree.

The fried potatoes are addicting, so tasty you’ll eschew your diet du jour to feast on greasy but terrific tubers fried with onion. The okra is out-of-this-world. Among the pass arounds, the biggest “wow” might be reserved for the macaroni and tomatoes. The saccharine tomatoes are a perfect complement to the macaroni and a surprising way to present the ubiquitous pasta and tomato marriage.

Our introductory Lambert’s experiences were shared with my wonderful mother-in-law Susan Laws, her two lovely daughters and their families. Our table of eleven gave me the opportunity to survey the menu’s diversity and sample more than the 14-ounce choice ribeye steak I ordered. Although the steak may not have been Chicago Chophouse prime, the kitchen staff graciously cut the steak into bite-sized cubes out of deference for my heavily bandaged hand (two days removed from carpal tunnel surgery). Better than the steak was Lambert’s golden fried, grade “A” chicken, as juicy and perfectly seasoned poultry as we’ve had in a long time with a crispy coating to die for. My “vegetable” choices included a frothy and luscious pineapple walnut salad.

Lambert’s also provides a visual feast with period paraphernalia and eye-catching brickerbrack at every turn. Our table was situated directly below New Mexico’s distinct Zia flag, one of many state and national flags to fly in the capacious dining rooms. While our state flag may not have triggered homesickness, it did trigger the realization that the Land of Enchantment has nothing comparable to Lambert’s…and that’s a sad thing for which our waistlines are grateful.

Lambert’s Cafe II
1800 West State Highway J
Ozark, MO
(417) 581-7655

LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 18
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Fried Potatoes, Fried Chicken, Ribeye Steak, Fried Okra, “Throwed” Rolls, Sorghum Molasses

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