Indianapolis seems like a perfectly nice place to visit in the spring or summer, but its potential as a “walking city” (even though downtown is pretty heavy on the chain restaurants) was nonexistent the last two days, with temperatures of 20 F or below and winds from 20-40 mph or more. I rented a car, so I wasn’t limited to Subway and Rock Bottom, and was fortunate to have a cheat sheet of restaurants from reader Aaron G., who is responsible for sending me to every place in this writeup except for the barbecue joint GT South’s (which was recommended by at least one of you before the trip).
Taste Café is about twenty minutes outside the center of Indianapolis in a neighborhood called Broad Ripple, about as far as I ventured from downtown on the trip, and if it had been closer I probably would have gone every morning for breakfast. Their waffles looked amazing, but my visit to Taste was to serve as breakfast and lunch so I chose something more likely to get me through to dinner (which it did), an egg and bacon sandwich on Pullman bread with basil aioli. The eggs were over an inch thick, and I ended up doing a little culinary surgery to keep the sandwich from falling apart, while the basil aioli gave a sweet background note that balanced out the salty, smoky bacon. The bread – well, it’s hard to screw up Pullman bread, and this was very soft but strong enough to hold the contents together. The dish came with breakfast potatoes which were swimming in olive oil. Taste offers a solid selection of loose teas and a lot of seating for a breakfast/lunch café.
Hoaglin To Go Café does, in fact, offer seating and table service, despite the name, although they seem to do a thriving take-out service. Their breakfast menu focuses on egg dishes like omelets and quiches, but the standout item here is their potato gratin dish called pommes anna, sliced potatoes cooked through but still al dente with gruyere as the accent but not so much that the gratin fell apart. The omelet of the day (called their “Big O,” aren’t they clever) contained sausage, mushrooms, and artichokes, but it came as a simple omelet folded over those ingredients, rather than having them cooked in the omelet with the eggs as the binder. They also use high-quality sandwich bread.
Café Patachou is a local mini-chain that has a location within “walking distance*” of my hotel and the Marriott. The menu is a little less adventurous and inspired than those of the previous two places, although it offers plenty of options and the food quality is fine. I finally gave in and had a waffle, which was properly cooked with a crispy exterior but was very dense inside, and came with a slightly sad little fruit cup that I hope would be better when fruit is actually in season in Indiana. They have a wide selection of bagged teas from a company called Revolution.
*“Walking distance” is, of course, only applicable at certain times of year. I did walk to the café from my hotel, all of four blocks, and couldn’t feel my ears, the end of my nose, or my fingers (despite my gloves) by the time I got to the restaurant, and had to catch my breath when I got inside. I’d like to think Minor League Baseball has learned its lesson about putting the winter meetings** in cold-weather sites, but I doubt it.
**If Minor League Baseball organized the offseason meetings for the NHL, they’d rotate between Phoenix, Miami, and Houston.
Siam Square is a new Thai restaurant just outside downtown on the northwest-bound side of Virginia with a menu that reaches into other Asian cuisines but offers a number of standard and, according to my dinner partner Alex Speier (of WEEI.com fame), authentic Thai dishes. The vegetarian spring rolls contained fresh julienned vegetables instead of the sad, limp, cabbage-like slop they normally contain, and the rolls were about as non-greasy as spring rolls can get. The sweet sauce that usually accompanies them was kicked up about three notches with red chile pepper, so the sauce was complex instead of cloying. Their “siam ginger” stir fry was full of strips of ginger like strands of spaghetti squash, a vague hint of sweetness (palm sugar?), and fresh vegetables that still had all their texture and crunch even through cooking. The menu actually labels many dishes as “Mild not available,” although I tasted Alex’s pad pem and didn’t find it very spicy, which says something since I find almost everything with chile pepper in it to be spicy. The restaurant offers a bonus in a highly attractive blonde (and not Thai) server named Erin who probably justifies a visit to Siam Square all by herself.
Harry & Izzy’s is the casual restaurant next door to and associated with the century-old steakhouse St. Elmo’s, although the exteriors couldn’t be more different, with St. Elmo’s looking tired while Harry & Izzy’s looks new and inviting. What appears to be their signature sandwich, thinly sliced prime rib au jus with fresh horseradish sauce on focaccia, is outstanding, with meat that melts in your mouth and is tender and moist enough that the jus is truly optional. It comes with hand-cut fries on the side for $15 (that’s the lunch price), the same as I paid for just a steak sandwich at Lobel’s stand at Yankee Stadium for an inferior product.
GT South’s came in a recommendation from one of you (I apologize for forgetting who sent it) and also showed up online as a highly-regarded Q joint, so I trekked it out with Alex again to their location right off I-70. They have the standard array of smoked meats except for sausage, and allow you to add four ribs to any platter for about $5. Both the ribs and pulled pork were solid-average, good texture and strong smoky flavor, although the pulled pork was only lukewarm when it hit the table. Their turnip greens were oversalted, but the cornbread muffin that comes with the dish is money, with a perfect crust and a hint of tang from buttermilk. Alex went for the brisket and crushed it, which I’ll consider an endorsement.
Yats is a hole in the wall – in fact, you get your food from the kitchen through a hole in the wall that separates it from the dining room. Yats serves Cajun food, and they believe presentation is a waste of time, with most dishes comprising a stew or soup slopped over a bed of white rice. The menu is limited on Mondays, the day I went, but the hunter’s stew – andouille sausage, three beans, and tomatoes – was hearty, filling, not too salty, just a little too spicy so that the taste of the beans lost the battle. It’s a good place to eat when you want to be full for hours, and the meal and drink cost under $8.
The one disappointment of the trip was, unfortunately, one of the best-known and best-reviewed places, as well as a strong recommendation from Aaron G. and from Will Carroll, a small artisanal food shop and sandwich counter called Goose the Market. The store – part salumeria, part gelateria, part wine/beer shop, part fancy packaged food vendor – is certainly a foodie’s paradise, with high-end, small-batch, local goods mixed with somewhat rare or obscure imported items (like 00 flour, something I rarely see anywhere around Boston, or very good olive oils). The salumeria has many expected meat items and some unexpected ones like salmon pastrami, and the staff behind the counter are friendly and helpful. Even the cold drink case held a few surprises, like root beer and cream soda from Goose Island Brewery in Chicago. The disappointment came in the sandwich I ordered, the Batali, with a mix of Italian meats and cheeses on an outstanding pain a l’ancienne baguette with a hard, toothy crust. Unfortunately, the sandwich is piled with so many toppings that the meat and cheese are completely lost under the mayonnaise, pickled onions, and sliced jalapeños that I have no idea how good or flavorful the star ingredients actually were. I wish I’d had another day to try it again and order the same sandwich without the nonsense. It’s maybe a five to seven minute drive from downtown, straight north up Meridian from Monument Circle.