Friday, October 27, 2006

Country Cafe, Big Rock

Country Cafe
103 Galena Street
Big Rock, IL 60511

October 26, 2006


If you want the same old, standard list of diners and pancake houses, go check Metromix. But if you want some under-recognized, below-the-radar recommendations, you’ve got to dig a little deeper. We went ahead and dug straight to the bottom of the barrel and found a review of the Country CafĂ© in the local community college newspaper. Nothing against college newspapers, though. It's just hard to wade through the painful editorial rhetoric found in the Waubonsee Community College Insight, penned primarily by one faithful student of the Rush Limbaugh/Michael Savage school of balanced, empathetic journalism, who was somehow appointed to the position of editor in chief. So finding the restaurant review means sifting through not just page-length tirades on illegal immigrants and liberals, but also self-congratulatory reminders of how his controversial "freedom fries" article really got everyone talking last fall. Thankfully, the restaurant review was left to a different student, but her description of it still seemed a bit embellished. Could it possibly be as homely and old-fashioned as she described it?

And yet, when we walked into the Country Cafe, I was suddenly struck by how right she was. With just seven booths, six tables, and a lengthy bar where the regulars congregated over coffees, the tiny, one-room restaurant was a lot smaller than we'd expected, and the arrival of any newcomers through the door (especially any younger than 40) seemed to grab everyone's attention. We were free to seat ourselves whereever we wanted, so we picked a booth and waited for our server. She was incredibly friendly and brought the coffee around to us about a half-dozen times before we left, so we never came close to running out.

I ordered the regular stack of three pancakes, and though I hardly ever order meat on the side, the pancakes were only $4.25, so I added bacon for a dollar extra. Ayinsan ordered a breakfast called the 2x4, which consisted of two pancakes, scrambled eggs, and one piece of sausage and bacon. I don't know what kind of math they used to come up with that name, but the eggs were just right, and the bacon was good and crispy.



I hate to have to say anything negative about The Country Cafe. Our waitress was nice, our food was good, and the prices were extremely affordable. Then again, I know I was seeing apartments listed for $400 in Big Rock when I was combing through the papers for a place to live this past spring, so maybe everything in Big Rock is just cheaper than it is in the suburbs. No, I hate to say anything negative at all about this humble little restaurant, but I must. The water was terrible. I don't know what could have been in it, or if the glasses just hadn't been washed correctly or if the water in Big Rock is just naturally bad but still tolerated and consumed by the locals. If you decide to give it a shot, bring bottled water if you can.

Ayinsan here:
It was a cold and rainy day as we pulled into the parking lot of the tiny, remote pancake house. In the distance, I heard the haunting sound of a cow's moo from across the barren, lonely cornfields as we left our car and crossed the parking lot, braving the icy, wet winds. We had driven for miles to find this place, and here it was, the holy grail, the end of our quest: The Country Cafe.

Country Cafe is indeed out of the way, patronized mostly by locals, or so it would seem. When we entered, an old man at the front counter looked up and eyed me suspiciously, and I half-expected him to drawl, "We don't cotton to you city-folk around here," or something adorably "local" like that. Okay, so Big Rock is not actually way out in the country and no one actually talks like that anyway, but my point is, this is about as far from IHOP as you can get.

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So, what is the verdict, you ask? It's worth checking out. The food was all pretty good, nothing stellar, but tasty, nonetheless, and all very reasonably priced. Service was quick and friendly.

As previously mentioned, however, there was one significant blight on our experience. The meal was fine right up until we got our check and I finally took a sip of my water. It tasted sort of like a bucket of seawater that someone had wrung out their dirty mop in. I'm not exaggerating. To be fair, that may not be the restaurant's fault. Maybe it was a one-time occurence caused by a freak accident involving dirty laundry and salt blocks at the water plant. And we were about to leave so I didn't say anything about it. What's strange is that I remember thinking that the coffee there was exceptionally good, but presumably they had to brew it with the same rancid tapwater, so I don't know how that's possible. It's all part of the mystery that is Country Cafe.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Original Pancake House, Park Ridge

Original Pancake House
106 S. Northwest Highway
Park Ridge, IL 60068

October 21, 2006

So The Original Pancake House actually has over 90 different locations nationwide? What a letdown. Here I thought I was setting foot inside what should have been a national landmark, or at least a restaurant that could stake claim to an original and gutsy name. But it's just another chain, apparently. Next someone's going to tell me that there's more than one Waffle House out there.

But as far as chains go, at least they give their franchises (or at least their Park Ridge location) the freedom to run things as they see fit, no matter how eccentric and wierd that might be. As if IHOP would let any of their restaurants put up a Christmas tree in the middle of the dining room during October (covered with Halloween ornaments, no less). Model trains rode in nonstop circles around its base; there were only two running when we were sitting down, but it looked like they could have had as many as four running at once on different tracks if they really wanted to.

But I figure I should stop wasting time describing the toy trains because there are apparently a couple of people who read this blog now, and they'd probably wonder why I'd pay so much attention to such a silly thing. Oh, and most, if not all of those readers were sitting next to me, too, probably wondering why I'd bother with this blog in the first place. Then again, they seemed to be having more fun laughing at everyone else in the restaurant instead. We arrived after 2:00 so it wasn't busy at all and the dining room was mostly vacant, but they still had fun mocking the pasty man in the tank top sitting by the exit door. I can't say for sure that he didn't deserve it.

I ordered the blueberry pancakes and was a bit dissappointed when a plate of five slightly-larger-than-silver-dollar blueberry pancakes arrived. The blueberries were mixed into the batter and there was extra blueberry compote on the side as well. But they didn't last long, and it really just wasn't enough. Gena ordered the apple pancake, which was more than enough for her, so I cut a big piece from that. The apples were baked on top of it, not inside like the famous Apple Villa pancake, but it was still as chewy, sweet, and moist as I'd hoped.

A few years of ordering Swedish pancakes at IHOP has permanently perverted my expectations and understanding of just what they're supposed to be, so I'm always shocked and confused whenever I see them or try to order them anywhere else. The ones that Marcia ordered were crispy and so flat that you could almost see through them. Is this normal? Don't get me wrong, they were good, and the generous helping of lingonberries was excellent.

Yancy ordered a plate of crepes that were apparently very filling, so as you can see below, the last of the three went untouched. But the human body can only consume so much cream and filling before it begins to reject the excess lactose. He also ordered hash browns on the side, only to receive a bowl full of diced potatoes that we later found out (thanks to the receipt) were actually "Southern Potatoes." I think he was pretty disgusted by these just on principle, and hardly ate any of them.

Dan ordered some kind of egg sampler platter that included pancakes on the side. He seemed satisfied. I should have let him do part of the review but I'd like to keep this blog clean enough for my grandmother to read. If she ever gets a computer and learns to use the internet, I mean.

As far as chain (breakfast) restaurants go, The Original Pancake House surely has to be one of the best I've ever been to, if not for its food, then for the fact that it doesn't stick to a phoned-in design at any of its locations -- not in any of the images of its various restaurants that I've been able to find on Google, and certainly not at the barn-shaped Park Ridge location -- unlike IHOP or any of the the other prefabricated blights upon our American landscape. If you want to go someplace fun and -- I hate to say it -- "quirky" for breakfast or lunch (sorry, they're not open for dinner), then maybe the Original Pancake House is for you. Be an Original!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Apple Villa, Batavia

Apple Villa
1961 W. Wilson
Batavia, IL 60510

October 10, 2006


Near the far south end of the Randall Road Sprawl sits Apple Villa, tucked away next to a music store and a saddle repair shop. The entrance to this strip of stores is actually off of Wilson Street by the Wendy's, so after making that turn just go all the way to the north end of the parking lot and you're there. But why follow these directions when you could just follow your nose, and the scent of golden, delicious apples slowly cooking from inside their famous brick ovens?

Alright, their ovens probably aren't made of brick. And there really isn't an overpowering apple scent inside the dining room, let alone outside on the streets. But there should be, or at least you'll think so once you taste their "famous Apple Villa pancake." Just getting an up-close look at it will make you reconsider everything you ever thought you knew about pancakes. Then again, if a pancake is as big as a deep-dish pizza and full of sliced fruit, is it really still a pancake at all? Regardless of whether or not it's actually a pancake, it's probably more famous than most other restaurants' "famous" foods of choice. After all, it's what they're building their brand and image on.

It's been a few years since I'd been to Apple Villa, but I remembered that the Apple Villa pancake was far too much for one person to eat on their own. So we decided to split one, and we ordered the 10" version of it with vanilla ice cream on the side. There's a smaller, 8" version too, but I assumed that wouldn't be enough for us. How wrong I was.


There's a minimum wait time of 20 minutes for the Apple Villa pancake, but I think we ended up waiting close to a half hour for ours. A warning before you dig in: it's dangerously hot, and it's going to stay hot for at least 15 minutes so eat slowly and carefully. Another warning: it's filling, and there's a lot of it to eat. A 10" pancake would probably feed four people. We only finished a little more than half of ours before giving up and taking the rest home.

Aside from the food, the restaurant itself is really nice. I hate to keep using this word, but it's a very cozy place. There's a lot of quality wood trim and glass around the booths, and a lot of tasteful Halloween decorations hanging up, too. I'm willing to bet they go all out with this stuff during Christmas.

I have no idea what the rest of their menu is like, but if you'd like to try something different and don't have an aversion towards apples (I can't stress this enough), then get your family or a few friends together and try one of their "famous" Apple Villa pancakes, or whatever they are.

Ayinsan here. As Joe said, if you do order the apple pancake, you will end up waiting awhile for it. Some recommended ways to pass the time: Stack the coffee creamers or jams into little pyramids. Pretend that lots of little people live in them. Then pretend to be an angry deity and knock down the pyramids with one sweep of your mighty hand. Or play betting games with them. Cover them with a napkin and then try to guess which flavor they have the most of. If you're right, you get to leave without tipping the waitress. If you're wrong, you have to stab yourself in the back of the hand with a fork.

No, just kidding, you should never leave without tipping the waitress. They live off of tips, and most of them are already half-insane from their stressful jobs, so it's not a good idea to push them over the edge. Who knows what might happen. The next time you come in, there might be a rusty nail on your chair. Or some anthrax might "accidentally" find its way into your coffee. Or someone might be waiting for you in your car when you leave the restaurant, and "accidentally" stick you in the ribs with a shiv.

But back to the pancakes. Yes, the apple pancake was quite good, with a consistency similar to bread pudding, and a delicious cinnamon glaze. Put some ice-cream on it and allow the ice-cream to melt a bit. I had my leftovers later that night for dessert, and it was just as tasty the second time around.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Downers Delight, Downers Grove

Downers Delight
401 75th St.
Downers Grove, IL 60516

October 7, 2006

Amanda here. Thought I'd take a stab at writing the main entry for a change.

This weekend we went to Downer's Delight, which is--as the name implies--in Downer's Grove. The name is something of a contradiction. "Downer" seems to imply that it will depress you, but "delight" promises a world of sensuous pleasures. The overall effect is one of bewildered uncertainty, hope mixed with dread. Will the restaurant be a downer or a delight? There's only one way to find out.


First impressions? A rather standard-looking family restaurant, with an assortment of cakes and pies in a glass case by the front counter. The atmosphere is pleasant, low-key. The menu offers a pretty decent range of choices, from standard pancakes and waffles to blintzes and crepes in a variety of flavors. Joe got the potato pancakes. I ended up ordering the banana blitzes, which I didn't plan. Usually, I survey the menu for a few minutes, considering various entrees and carefully weighing the pros and cons before I inevitably just go with a standard pancake platter. You can't possibly go wrong with that. But when the waitress approached our table, I wasn't ready, so I sort of froze up and then just randomly picked something because I didn't want to miss my window of opportunity (it was a Saturday, so it was pretty busy). Now, blintzes are really kind of an iffy thing, not an old, reliable favorite like pancakes. For a moment, I thought I might have made a disastrous mistake. But as it turned out, the blintzes were quite tasty: Tender, chewy shells wrapped around a filling like sweet cottage cheese, and loaded with bananas. I'll probably get them again the next time I go there.


Furthermore, they were BIG. I almost couldn't finish, and for me, that's saying something.

I sampled Joe's potato pancakes as well. They were decent, not spectacular, but serviceable, and they came with a side of sour cream and apple sauce.



The prices were pretty reasonable, about what you'd expect from a restaurant of this type.

In conclusion? Downer's Delight lives up to the second part of its name. If you want to be trendy and clever you can refer to the restaurant as "Double D." On second thought, don't. People will just look at you funny and ask what you're talking about and you'll wish you hadn't said anything.

The first thing you'll notice as you walk into Dowers Delight is the small fountain right next to the front door. It lies low, recessed down into the ground, not raised upwards like most fountains. And it's full of change, not just pennies, but quarters! I'm not saying that you'll really need an extra pocketful of change just to have a plate of pancakes there, but it certainly wouldn't hurt, and it's all just an arm's length away for any brave soul willing to roll up their sleeves for it. We spent our spare change on a Care Bears capsule toy. I'm not really a betting man but I went ahead and placed a guess on which one we'd get. Amanda turned the crank and out it came! Go ahead and try to guess which one it was.

We were seated in the same booth as we were when we came by for breakfast a few months ago. It's the one right next to the entrance to the patio, but fortunately there were no customers dining outside, bringing an end to the once-constant flow of servers in and out of the doors. It wasn't the foot traffic that I minded back then so much as the repetitive yet upredictable slamming sound of the door right behind me. Google "Chinese water torture" and you'll see what I'm getting at.

I had a good view of the large plasma screen television hanging on the wall, which was tuned to CNN and covering North Korea's imminent nuclear test. But then my potato pancakes arrived, and they turned out to be so thick, tender, and moist that I forgot all my cares and fears of global thermonuclear war and just dug in. I don't normally order this sort of thing but I was in the mood for something different today. The applesauce and sour cream didn't last long so I switched to ketchup and Tabasco. It was filling, but nothing to write home about.

Even though I've enjoyed my food on both trips to Downers Delight, I'm having a hard time trying to figure out why I should ever go back. Their selection is fairly average. Their prices aren't exactly unreasonable but I definitely wouldn't call them a bargain, either. There's a strange, ineffible quality to the box-shaped building itself and the well-manicured lawn surrounding it that repulses me. Maybe this feeling started to take root the first time that I tried to process the restaurant's seemingly incomprehensible name in my mind. Naturally, I guess it was inevitable that I'd end up with such mixed feelings about Downers Delight.