Sunday, October 08, 2006
Of Burgers and Pies
Tucked away on the lower part of a main commercial street in Lemont, Illinois, lies Nick's Tavern, serving the "Grandaddy of Burgers." None of that quarter-pounder McDonald's bullshit -- these are one-pound burgers plopped on paper plates, served with plastic forks and spoons, Vintner's chips on the side, chased with Bud or Bud Lite on the rocks, college football playing on every outdated TV in a six-table bar (it doesn't really matter that the tavern is such a tiny nook -- it's the kind of place where you want to sit at the bar counter anyway). Don't let the rocket-shaped Kelvinator fridge full of horrible Anheuser-Busch product horrify you though -- there's 312 and Leinie Red Lager on tap.
But the beer isn't quite why you come here for salvation. Here's a bar that has so much self-esteem that there are only four items on the menu -- hamburger ($6.00), cheeseburger ($6.75), Italian sausage ($6.00), Italian sausage with cheese ($6.75). You might want to get grilled onions, pepperocinis, extra cheese or hot giandinara for 25 cents each on top of "everything," but the fact is, no one needs artichoke dips or pita with hummus or chicken wings or nacho platters to get high and happy here. The dim lighting that closes an eye to all transgressions, the clutter of Bears memorabilia, the bust of JFK and Barnum & Bailey-style clown ornaments behind the bar could've been enough, too, or maybe the long table of guys who looked like professional 16" ball players downing Bud after Bud. If you wanted, you could have gone in on your own and didn't think twice about your awful Nascar garb, because the waitress knew your name, and knew exactly how you wanted your burger done without asking. And when you were done, she rang you up with the 61-year-old antique cash register that is likely still thriving because it's always full and happy. The bar also turned away George H. W. Bush when he showed up on the doorstep.
And by the way, Nick's Tavern is closed on Sunday -- football sabbath.
The Weits Cafe in Morris, Illinois, is open every day of the week, because people come in for Sunday brunch and because no day is complete without the best home-made pie in town. Right smack dab in the middle of Liberty Street, snuggled between the Sweet Tooth ice cream parlour, Apple Butter antique shop, It's Only Puppy Love pet store and others, folks come in for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, passing under the neon sign with "Good Food" in lights above its name. A bold statement, but how do you fault such braggadacio when it speaks the truth?
We slid into a booth under stark diner lighting -- highlighting every crumb on the floor -- at 5pm, and were immediately informed that there was "not much pie left." We were late, so while we were dying for some seasonal punkin pie, there was only apple, red raspberry, and Boston Creme left in the case. We went with the fruit, and when two large slabs arrived with a side of ice cream, you realise why diner plates are white -- to show off the rich, glorious colours of pie filling done right. I mean, Da Vinci didn't set the Mona Lisa against a background of tie-dyed Grateful Dead motifs, did he?
The true test of a pie's excellence is tasting it unheated, when the crust, filling and craftwork have to overcome the unappealing prospect of a cold and unwelcoming mass of baked flour and boiled fruit. As the waitress cooed at a baby and caught up with customers there for the Saturday night special (Hambuger Roast), I started at the tip of the pie where the filling was flowing out. The red raspberry was taste bud-grabbingly tart, engaging of senses. The apple was crisp yet the light gooey consistency made you feel all warm and fuzzy. Then I sampled the crust along the circumference. Flaky enough to fall apart upon oral entrance, crispy enough for satisfying masticulation. Then, a forkful of the combination of fruit filling and pie: A+.
Now, I rarely like to leave the city on a regular basis, because why would you need to when the grub is great, the beer and bars are cozy, and the culture and diversity are the reason for being? But when you find it within yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and visit the values that make this world a great place to be -- homeliness, sunset over a cornfield and damned good pie -- you can rarely go wrong on Main Street.