The morning after our Mooresville day-trip, I headed southwest on my own. My wife remained in Bloomington to continue visiting with her friends. But I had a date with some fried chicken in Henderson, Kentucky. I enjoyed a sparkling new stretch of I-69 for the two hours it took me to reach Evansville, Indiana. At that point, it was a short jaunt on US-41 to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky.
I went straight to the home of my friend Louis, who has kindly acted as my guide the two times I’ve been to that region. He is also a historian of that region, among other things. His biography of Duncan Hines – yes; he was a real person – titled, Duncan Hines: How a Traveling Salesman Became the Most Trusted Name in Food, is well worth a read and available for purchase online. (University Press of Kentucky; Illustrated edition; 2014)
We didn’t wait long to get straight to the main reason I drove to Henderson. After showing me his tremendous collection of classic books and audio and video recordings, Louis and I drove the short distance to Brown Bag Burgers, which now has the recipe for what had previously been known as Bon Ton Chicken, but was now going by Road Food Chicken.
The chicken is put through a special marinating process for 24 hours before it’s cooked and it has some serious kick to it. But it’s nothing like Nashville-style hot chicken in terms of style. It looks like regular fried chicken, but there is a lot of spice in that marinating process. In addition to packing heat, the crust has a fantastic texture; very crispy, almost brittle. And the meat couldn’t be more juicy. Yes; this was unquestionably the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. It was also the fourth item I ate on this trip that went into my personal roadfood pantheon.
Of course, the restaurant has “Burgers” in its name, so I also wanted to try one of those. And it was very good. The patty was smashed thin and I only had a single, as it was a secondary attraction after the chicken. But the meat had the kind of almost sweet flavor that I like in a burger.
After checking into my hotel and taking a little break, Louis and I met back up and headed further south on US-41, to Sebree, Kentucky, and Bell’s Drug Store. I’ve written of my love for old drug stores that still have soda fountains or restaurants while continuing to fill prescriptions. Bell’s has a beautiful soda fountain that I had first seen during my 2015 visit to that area. Their specialty, and the reason we were back there, is freshly made orangeade. It packs a lot of both orange flavor and sweetness, a winning combination for me.
From Bell’s, we continued further south, to Madisonville, Kentucky, the home of Dave’s Sticky Pig, a barbecue joint Louis raved about to me several times during the months leading up to my visit. The reason for his excitement was their pork ribs.
The first good sign upon pulling into Dave’s was the pile of wood in the back. While I settle for wood chunks over lump charcoal when making barbecue in my backyard, authentic Southern-style barbecue is made with wood, and wood only.
Dave’s ribs were indeed outstanding, with a nice, pink smoke ring, excellent bark and great flavor. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender. Their sides were no-less impressive, particularly the green beans that were full of big chunks of pork, just the way I like them.
Everything during this vacation had gone perfectly up until this point. But dark clouds were on the horizon. First, I developed a pretty bad cold that left me too worn out to get up early enough for a planned hour-long ride to have breakfast at a small town cafe in southwestern Indiana the next day.
We still managed to have a quality early lunch at G.D. Ritzy, which has three locations in Evansville and is known for their smashed burgers. I enjoyed a cheeseburger with a hot dog on the side and washed them down with a vanilla shake; thus hitting all the major food groups. It wasn’t the best burger I’ve ever had, but both it and the hot dog had nothing to be ashamed of. I’d go back to Ritzy’s if I lived in the area.
After we finished our lunch, Louis took me on a scenic tour into the farm country north of Evansville. We stopped briefly to check out the Nesbit Inn of Haubstadt, Indiana. Neither of us were hungry at that point, but he had told me about the Nesbit before I arrived and wanted me to see it. It’s a restaurant that sits smack dab in the middle of virtually nothing but cornfields and a few trees for as far as the eye can see in every direction.
They also have an appealing menu and some spectacular looking desserts. It’s too bad I didn’t have any appetite. Perhaps if I get back to that region.
From there, we moved on to take a look at the Log Inn, which was also in Haubstadt and not far from many cornfields. But it was actually in the middle of a small residential area. The Log Inn is Indiana’s oldest restaurant. It was built in 1825 and is also one of the oldest original inn and stagecoach stops in the United States. Abraham Lincoln stopped there in 1844 while on a speaking tour for Whig candidate Henry Clay’s presidential campaign. They are also now known for serving large, family-style dinners that I hope to try one day.
I was extremely excited about our planned dinner that night. Louis had been talking up Evansville’s House of Como to me for at least a year before I returned to his neck of the woods. In addition to having a classic, mid-20th century look, both outside and in, and a kitschy Santa Claus theme, Como features an interesting mix of Lebanese and Italian food, along with steaks, chops and seafood. Our main reason for going there was Louis’ claim that their steaks are the best in that area and not to be missed. I’m a steak guy, so I was psyched for the combination of a good chunk of meat and a nostalgic atmosphere.
It was not meant to be. We first noticed as we approached that the parking lot was empty. We pulled up close to the restaurant and saw a note on the door. When we were close enough to read it, we saw that they were closed for their annual two-week vacation.
We sat there dumbfounded for a moment, then discussed where we should eat. Both of us thought of the Log Inn first. But I don’t drive at all at night and Louis only does it in limited amounts because of vision issues. The Log Inn was a little too far away for us to get back before dark. We needed somewhere close by. As we were both still in the mood for steak, Louis suggested Smitty’s Italian Steakhouse in Evansville, saying that while they aren’t in the House of Como’s league, they serve a good steak that is enhanced by a specially seasoned butter sauce.
I was impressed by Smitty’s old-school look as we entered. But while we both enjoyed our steaks, it wasn’t the sort of memorable meal I anticipated when the evening began. Missing out on the House of Como was certainly my biggest disappointment during this vacation.
It was time for me to head back to B-Town to link back up with my wife the following morning. And I had another highly-anticipated meal stop planned along the way. The charming small town of Washington, Indiana, sits right along the route between Evansville and Bloomington, just about half way between the two cities. It also is home to The New White Steamer, which has been in business since 1937. My wife and I stopped there the last time I drove past Washington and I fell in love with their smashed onion-burgers. Sliced onions are pressed into the meat as it’s flattened on the Steamer’s grill. Once again, I had a double-cheeseburger and washed it down with a chocolate malt. I’ve addressed the regional nature of milkshake names in other posts. A chocolate malt in this part of the country is the same thing as a Black & White malt where I live.
Whatever name it goes by, it energized me for the rest of the ride back to Bloomington and my wife.
To be continued.