When I was still living in the Midwest, I asked my friend M if there was anything he missed about living in Los Angeles. He suddenly got a far-away look in his eyes and quietly murmured, “The boat noodles at Sapp Coffee House. Oh god, those noodles.” I’d never made it to Sapp during my previous time in California, and I more or less forgot about M’s haunted reference until I happened to be looking for a place to eat in Thai Town around Christmastime. We decided to give it a shot and were pleased to find Sapp to be a bright, friendly spot with some of the tastiest Thai coffee around (it is a coffee shop, after all). B and I decided to share some boat noodles with beef and the also much-hyped jade noodles. The boat noodles were as amazing as M had promised: slightly chewy and swimming in a dark, silky broth. Yeah, I know, boat noodle broth is made from blood, but you probably know by now that blood doesn’t bother me in the least. This is the kind of thing you want to eat on a cold rainy day.
But for me it was the jade noodles that were a total revelation. Roasted duck slices and barbecue pork chunks, a downy pile of crabmeat, scallions, cilantro, peanuts, chiles, and sugar top a mound of green noodles. Talk about trayf! There is something about the sparkly sweetness against the subtle heat against the herbaceous noodles that just really kicked it into gear for me. I could eat those noodles every damn day. And at about six bucks a bowl with some of the sweetest employees around, that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
So the cat’s out of the bag: most of you know that I’ve spent the last eleven months or so in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University and a relatively high sleeve-to-man ratio compared to the rest of the Hoosier state. We were here so that B could get his ducks in a row, and while I rather dreaded the move from Paris to cornfields, the year been much better than I imagined it could be. Evidence, in fact, for my feel-good theory that I can be happy just about anywhere if some nice folks, yummy food, and a decent library surround me. Serious cinemas also help, as do convivial bars. While I abandoned our Booze or Lose feature relatively quickly in my Paris coverage—frankly, I ran out of different pithy ways to say “There’s wine! And beer!”—I thought I’d resuscitate Clarence’s alcoholic alter ego and tell you where you should be drinking in Bloomington should you find yourself here.
If you’re like me, or at least enough like me to want to read this here blargh, you probably want to skip the bars that have a decidedly rapey-frat boy vibe. This unfortunately includes most of the beloved IU watering holes, including Kilroy’s (or as I call it, “Kill Me Now”) and Nick’s. Hoosiers will probably argue with me on the latter count, and I’ll admit that I’ve spent some enjoyable evenings at Nick’s in good company. But let’s get real: tradition aside, the place smells weirdly like antiseptic and old chewing gum, and the draft beer selection isn’t the best. B, the old man on the mountain here in B-Town, councils that while the upstairs can get kind of rough on the weekends, the downstairs area is always a great place for a drink if you want to have a real cream and crimson kind of experience. If it was good enough for Dylan Thomas, it’s good enough for him. B also advises that Hoosier-history lovers should make a stop at The Bluebird, where local legend John Cougar Mellencamp got his start.
If you like a bit better craft beer selection and a hipster grad student crowd (it is a university town, after all, and in Bloomington the Wayfarer-wearer is king), there are effectively five bars remaining in town. I’ll rank them in order from hate to love.
The bar I inexplicably-go-to-sometimes-but-nevertheless-hate-the-most in Bloomington is The Rail, a relative newcomer to the scene. No standing, leather couches, Edison bulbs, small plates of ‘heirloom’ and ‘artisan’ things, and tiny, too-sweet, ten dollar cocktails. You know the drill, dear reader, because places like this have cropped up in every city across the county. Regular readers know how much I generally hate cocktails and cocktail bars. I have a pretty unabashed “learn to drink, loser” attitude towards people who spend their time watering down excellent booze with elderflower soda and key lime foam. The Rail is the kind of place that gets my bile up for precisely that reason: it’s fussy, it’s expensive, and yet it’s lousy. You can’t get out of alive for less than fifty bucks, and yet your wine is the wrong temperature, your cocktail is syrupy, and you’re still hungry after eating six different things. The Rail’s specialty cocktails all involve things like crème de lavande or Saint Germain, as nouveau-cocktail bars often specialize in liqueurs that sound Gallic but that no self-respecting French person would ever be caught drinking. Moreover, for a place that sells itself as a place for seated conversation (they are real sticklers about the no standing at the bar rule), it has quite possibly the worst acoustics in the world. You can barely hear the person sitting next to you, much less have some kind of conversation. All you can do is shout and throw pained glances at your companions when the bill arrives by a waiter in a too-tight leather vest who looked at you blankly when you pointed out that the wine he served was two years younger than advertised. I’d skip the whole affair, if I were you.
The second bar you’ll-hear-about-but-that-I-suggest-you-skip is The Root Cellar in the basement of the overplayed, underwhelming restaurant Farm. Come to think of it, the name might be F.A.R.M., as these type of places are often clever, undisclosed acronyms. The Root Cellar looks like some place where you may have hung out in the mid-90s, a dingy basement with ratty couches and wobbly benches that will snag whatever you happen to be wearing. The booze is fine enough, I guess, but weirdly overpriced for the vibe of the place. Not to again sound like an old lady here with a hearing problem, but the acoustics are as terrible as the ones at The Rail. Don’t expect to hear anything at The Root Cellar besides somebody else’s sorta-boyfriend’s experimental noise trio. If that’s your bag, I wish you well, but I’m a social drinker myself. I either want to chat or dance, and you can’t seem to do much of either in The Root Cellar.
When B moved to Paris, the only game in town for his ilk was The Vid, a giant bar that manages to attract a wide variety of people on any given night. It’s a pretty good bar if you want to hang out with a big group of people and not spend too much money on pitchers of craft beer. You can also play pool and darts, which I particularly enjoy in a kind of talentless way. The Vid is best on weekday nights, when you can colonize a giant table and wile the evening away. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s louder, but still a generally friendly and unpretentious place to hang out. The bartenders are really nice and there’s usually a great local beer from Upland at a special pitcher price. One caveat: don’t sit next to the punching bag game, otherwise you’ll have to listen to the banging of testosterone-bulging boys all night long.
While B was away in Europe, however, the hipster hoards migrated down the street to Atlas (209 South College, Bloomington, Indiana, 47404), a newish place that is just starting to have that lived-in vibe. If you’re in your late twenties or early thirties, read some Foucault and have a masters degree or two, wear horn-rimmed glasses and an inordinate amount of American Apparel, name-drop obscure bourbons, and get excited when New Order comes on the jukebox, Atlas is the place to be. It’s loud, which I obviously don’t like, but it’s a pretty fun place to spend an evening. There’s good DJs on the weekends, and I sloppily danced my birthday away there last winter. The free agents I know report that it is the best place in town to mix and mingle with other single folk. One of the doormen is the crush-object of practically every lady I know. Some of Atlas’ conceits are silly – the oft-broken down photo booth and chalkboard list of songs banned from jukebox come to mind. But it’s a bar that has hit its stride, and I’ve had many good times there.
My favorite part (and this is Clarence talking now) is the fact that The Happy Pig food cart parks outside on the weekends, offering their succulent Notorious P.I.G.G. sandwich: toast, crispy-gooey Gunthorp pig belly, Indiana maple syrup, and a perfectly fried egg. Now that’s an undisclosed acronym I can get behind, as the P.I.G.G. is the ultimate in drunk food, and the best game in town at 2 a.m. on a Friday night.
For those of you that are still awake, with four down, we have finally arrived at the best bar in Bloomington. And the winner is…
The Bishop (123 South Walnut Street, Bloomington, Indiana, 47401). Hands-down. The bar, which is always without a cover charge, has an amazing rotating selection of regional craft beers on tap for totally reasonable prices. Recently, with the acquisition of a liquor license, the bar added a serious selection of the hard stuff, including one of the most varied and interesting bourbon lists I’ve ever seen. Moreover, the bartenders know their stuff, and given some information can clue you in to things you’ll really like. The crowd is a little older, with a mix of university folk and townies. The Bishop also houses a great small music venue, and all the best bands seem to make The Bishop their one stop in Southern Indiana. I caught Nat Baldwin there, along with an excellent Pogues cover band called the Fauxgues. Local favorites The Vallures made my New Years Eve one of my best ones yet, as I danced to their sweet Motown covers until the early hours of the morning. Finally—and here’s the cranky old lady motif again—while the room with the stage is loud, the bar itself is pretty quiet, making the booths a great place to chat with friends (or, in our case, play over-zealous games of Euchre). I’ll miss The Bishop, and hope you make a stop there should you find yourself in Bloomington.
Sing us out, Tom.
Are you guys still following Monsieur Bigoudis’ photos on flickr? Just because I fancy myself a decent photographer nowadays (snort) doesn’t mean that you still shouldn’t be looking at the real deal on a regular basis. In particular, I’m loving her work from a trip to Japan this past spring:
Sigh. I have such a totally rose-colored romance about Japan, likely the result of watching Sans Soleil a few too many times. It’s totally at the top of my travel wish list, no thanks to M’s gorgeous images of her trip.
My girl also recently clued me in to a little YouTube gem: Wim Wenders’ documentary about the people who make the wax food replicas that decorate many of the entrances of restaurants around Japan (and Japanese restaurants the world over). Too too cool.
Hope you are having a great weekend, sweet reader. Let’s hook up for ramen later, yes?
MC, a good friend from my time California, has relocated to Chicago for the past two years. Despite my best intentions, I hadn’t managed to spend any time with him despite our relative geographic proximity this year. This was remedied when he drove out to the lake during our stay, both to escape the city heat and for a long awaited catch-up. B had never met MC before, so I prefaced the visit with the two most important things I know about my friend: (1) He likes Steely Dan better than anybody has liked Steely Dan, like, ever, and (2) He judges the quality of SoCal Mexican places by the quality and quantity of the escabeche on their salsa bar. Jalapeño to carrot ratio, spiciness level, container quality — the guy can tell you everything you want to know about every taco bar in the greater LA area.
It’s a great thing when you can fall back into step with a friend after not having seen them for years. One of the things that bums me out the most about the current state of my life is the feeling that all the people I like best seem to be scattered to the four winds. MC and B got along famously, supporting yet another iteration of my fantasy where all of my friends move to the same city and we live a blissed-out life together. I’ve always been a “family that you choose” kind of gal, and wish that all the folks that my good fortune has brought into my life could all be together somehow. But until we all meet again in Valhalla, visits like last weekend will have to suffice.
A decidedly well-mannered houseguest, MC arrived bearing the perfect gifts for Clarence. A pack of Daisy Cutter Pale Ale from the Half Acre Beer Company in Chicago was a delightful surprise, as was the paper-wrapped submarine sandwich smuggled across state lines from Bari Italian Subs. But far and away, the best gift he brought (and a strong contender for the Best Hostess Gift Ever Award) was this:
Do you guys know about giardiniera? I sure didn’t until this year. It’s no surprise that my escabeche-loving friend is also an appreciator of this amazing stuff. The consummate condiment of the Italian population of the greater Chicago area (and everybody else with a brain), this combination of pickled hot peppers, olives, bell peppers, carrots, celery, cauliflower, garlic, and the occasional mushroom is the ultimate addition to virtually any sandwich. As MC so rightly put it, something totally alchemical happens when giardiniera meets mayonnaise.
I was introduced to the stuff immediately upon my arrival in the Windy City last fall. B talked dirty to me the entire flight back to the states from Paris about our first meal on our native soil: Portillo’s Italian Beef with giardiniera. Like the French dip sandwich of your childhood (but better), Chicago’s famous Italian beef sandwiches get their verve from the crunchy, spicy, tangy, salty taste of giardiniera. The stuff is fantastic on any kind of deli meat sandwich. MC recommended that we try putting it on a pizza with some Italian sausage, which sounds like a really excellent goal for the future.
Mezzetta (you know, ‘Don’t forgetta!) makes a kind of passable version of the stuff that I’ve seen in grocery stores outside of the Midwest. Here in Indiana, our fridge is never without a jar of the Dell’Alpe’s hot giardiniera relish, which I slather on grilled cheese sandwiches and mix with the yolks of my devilled eggs. You can also get a pretty fantastic giardiniera on your sandwich at the Potbelly chain, which sells a delicious, if overpriced, version in jars at some of their locations. But MC knows his stuff, and Bari’s giard’ is the best one around. He advises to give it a rough chop if you are putting it in a sandwich, and to go whole hog should you want to sprinkle it on a pizza. This jar is coming with us to California next week when we move as a memento of our year of giardiniera eating.
Get some if you can, dear reader. And whether your summer includes this Midwestern heat or not, hope you are staying cool. Sing us out, Steely:
Confronted with the possibility of another sweltering week without air conditioning in Bloomington, we gleefully packed up and headed north for a week to that hazy zone on the Indiana/Michigan border where B’s parents’ live. Ostensibly we were cat-sitting while they were out of town, but mainly we were taking advantage of their lovely lakeshore digs. There’s something about being alone in your parents’ house (or in this case, my boyfriend’s parents’ house) that always feels like playing grown-up. This was an especially pronounced feeling last week, as we channeled middle-aged retirees, cruising around the lake on the family pontoon boat with beer cozies in hand. We wore shorts and tucked our shirts in. We waved at the neighbors and gossiped under our breath. We crashed local potlucks bearing makeshift fruit salads. We yelled at tourists that rode their jetskis too close to shore, and muttered obscenities if other boats broke the ‘no-wake’ rules after dark. In short, we gave one possible version of our future selves a serious test drive, and I’ll admit it was pretty awesome.
The Michiana area is made up mostly of farms, so we took advantage of the bounty of local produce and stuffed ourselves stupid with sweet corn, Michigan blueberries, and some of the sweetest heirloom tomatoes I’ve eaten in years. The best local farm stand is Diamond Acres Farm (located on Kamp Kosy, south of Cassopolis, Michigan off the M-62 just past the high school, open 10-6 everyday) and we found ourselves there almost every day. The sweet corn is in full force already, and we happily grilled a few ears every night alongside venison steaks we lifted from B’s dad’s personal hunting cache. The peaches from Diamond Acres weren’t ready just yet, but I brought them home with me, hoping that they will soften up in a paper bag so that I can satisfy my seasonal jones for peach-cobbler.
On days when we didn’t want to fire up the grill, we ate enormous, delicious breakfasts at the local Amish-run bakery, Farm House Bakery and Restaurant (59573 White Temple Road, Vandalia, Michigan, 49095, 269.476.9668). Farm House Bakery makes of one of the fluffiest, yummiest cinnamon rolls I’ve had in a long time, and you can opt for one instead of toast with most of their breakfasts at no extra charge, making a believer out of even the most skeptical patron of this religiously-inflected restaurant.
We also frequented our beloved Vlasicak’s Meat Market & Smokehouse (63490 M 62 South, Cassopolis, Michigan 49031, 269.445.8763), home of the world’s best beef jerky. Seriously, dear reader, this is literally the most amazing beef jerky I’ve ever eaten, and this is coming from someone who probably knew the word pemmican before I knew the words Mama or Dada. We smuggled Vlasicak’s jerky to France, give it without a trace of irony as gifts, and keep an inordinately large hoard in our refrigerator at all times. Needless to say, jerky and Michigan IPA’s make for an excellent pontoon-boat cruising combination.
On our final day at the lake, a neighbor came over to deliver a bowl of chicken salad, “Just in case you kids were getting hungry.” Later that day as we drove by some family friends, they invited us to a hog roast at the local camp. Our friend M was visiting from Chicago, and he was incredibly charmed by all the rural hospitality. The three of us went to the roast, ate our fill and then some, and listened to oldies covers played by a local band, the adorable Misspent Youth of South Bend, Indiana. While I had hoped for a spit-shot, by the time we arrived everything had already been expertly butchered. You’ll just have to trust me that it was a pretty swell way to spend an evening.