Thursday, July 10, 2008

Midwest Mega-Review: Columbia MO, Terre Haute IN, Indianapolis IN

Recently, my girlfriend and I went on a fairly long road trip back to our respective college towns, and through many a strange and random byway in the Midwest. We visited the Truman Presidential museum in Independence, MO; the Civil War battleground at Lexington, MO; and several other places. One of my goals for the trip was to try to eat at as few national chain restaurants as possible, with an eye towards experiencing new flavors if not necessarily ones local to the city I was in at the time. I did fairly well with the goal, given the problems inherent with trying to eat unique foods while still traveling on the US Interstate system. But! As a side benefit, I get to talk about several of the places we ate.

W.G. Grinders
Address: 33 North 9th Street, Columbia MO
Genres: sandwiches
Check Constraints: Short-order
Chain: Regional

  • Spicy Chicken Grinder ($6.50)
  • Tomato Basil Soup Combo ($2.75)
W.G. Grinders is a regional chain which looks to exist mostly in Ohio, but which has stretched out a questing tendril west through Carmel, IN and onward to Columbia. The store's located downtown, in a corner location that is, honest to God, entirely too large for it. The seating area seemed entirely dwarfed by the open space laying around. I suppose if they were going to host a sock hop or something they'd be ready, but it was a little disconcerting.

The sandwiches are good, though. Like most sandwich shops at this point, the grinders are made as you order, and toasted. The spicy chicken was "spicy" in the sense that it had spices on it, but definitely not "spicy" in the capsaicin sense. Also, I wish I could convince sandwich shops to avoid using a leafier lettuce on hot subs, since those have a tendency to wilt and generally clutter the sandwich with an unpleasing texture. That said, it was a pretty darn decent lunch. Good bread, acceptable chicken, and a good melding of flavors. The soup I could have done without, as it tasted like someone had taken Campbell's tomato soup and dumped fresh basil into it, but that's what I get for trying to avoid fried stuff.

Restaurant: Exotic Thai
Address: 1295 S. 3rd St,Terre Haute, IN
Website: None.
Genres: thai
Check Constraints: Unknown.
Chain: No.


  • Thai Rolls ($3.95)
  • Kang-Dang (red curry) ($7.95)
Exotic Thai may be a bit of a cheat, as I've eaten here several times before when I used to live in Terre Haute. Still, when we arrived in the Haute (as the people in the know call it) I was tired enough that hunting down something entirely new wasn't exactly sounding like the best option. Also, I was really in the mood for thai.

The Thai Rolls here are thin eggrolls, pretty much like a fried spring roll. They're delicious and served with a very good sauce, which has a sweetness to it that matches very well with the crunchy goodness of the rolls. The insides are filled with cabbage, other vegetables, and pork, pretty much like any other eggroll you might encounter. The curry can, like a lot of other thai places, be customized to your heat level - I went with a "four", a raise of two above what they claim the curry's at originally, and it was good. I could have gone hotter, but that raises the risk of gastrointestinal distress, and that's not good for a road trip. The curry itself is fairly simple - peppers and other assorted vegetables, chicken (or tofu), in a red curry sauce with a very heavy taste of coconut milk and a lot of other delicious spices. It's served with steamed rice, which works well as a mix-in if you decide you've ordered the curry too hot for you.

Everything they do here is made with fresh ingredients, and I've eaten around the menu enough to know it's pretty much all delicious. If you think Terre Haute couldn't possibly have good ethnic food, this place alone proves you wrong.

Restaurant: Scotty's Brewhouse
Address: 3905 E. 96th St, Indianapolis, IN
Genres: burgers, american
Check Constraints: Unknown.
Chain: Regional.


  • Diet Coke ($2.25)
  • 7 Tidals Buffalo Chicken Dip ($8.75)
  • Atomic Mo'Fo' Burger ($8.75)
While in Indianapolis we visited with a couple different friends there, and had nice meals with both. The first was at a Denny's, mostly because at that point I was looking for something simple and was very happy to merely not be in the car. For the second, my girlfriend and I, and my friend Hardy, wound up at Scotty's Brewhouse. While being a regional chain, it's apparently very tightly controlled by the owner, and the feel of the place was rather welcoming. That said, the menu suffered very badly from the restaurant version of "feature creep" - too many items, far too many options. While not as overwhelming as the Wheatfield's menu, I was still flipping through it nonplussed by the time the waitress came over. I desperately wanted a beer to help relax some of the muscles in my neck, but I was tired enough that was a very bad idea, and we had to drive back to Terre Haute that night anyhow. So I settled on a Diet Coke and a very interesting appetizer.

Having never had chicken in a dip form before, the 7 Tidals dip intrigued. It was a combination of chicken, buffalo sauce, and then cheddar, blue, and cream cheeses. It had the perfect dip consistency, very firm and solid on the corn chips it was served with, and it tasted fantastic. The chicken was pulled, and there were large chunks of it in the dip. It was, at heart, the congealed essence of a buffalo chicken sandwich smothered in cheese. Without that pesky bun. It's definitely pricy, but it was well worth it.

The burger was less gratifying. It may have just been eclipsed by the dip, but I found it to be about on a par with an "upscale" burger chain - falling somewhere over Fuddruckers and somewhere under a hand-made sirloin patty grilled over hickory wood. It came with jalapenos and what is supposedly their spiciest sauce, and it was tasty enough, but didn't feel like anything special, especially when considering what I paid for it. It came with waffle fries, which merely served as another vehicle for the dip.

Given the expanse of the menu, I'm certainly willing to bet there could be hidden gems there. It may be worth another try, though I imagine when I'm back in Indy I'll have other restaurants to visit. I should also mention Hardy graciously picked up the tab, and I was so tired I actually let him do it. This means I probably have to bathe his cat (Badger, the World's Angriest Cat) sometime.

Restaurant: Yats
Address: Multiple, check site
Genres: cajun
Check Constraints: Short order.
Chain: Local.

  • Chili-Cheese Crawfish Etouffee ($5.50)
  • Extra Bread ($0.50)
Hardy also went above and beyond the call of duty. When he learned that Yats was going to be closed on July 4th (the day I visited), he actually picked some up and stored it in his fridge for me. This meant that when I picked it up, it was a day old. I didn't get to eat it that night, so it sat in the hotel fridge until the next morning when I had it for breakfast.

Let me say this with absolute and utter clarity. Two days old and barely warm from the shitty hotel microwave, this was still the best Cajun food I have had in my entire life. No, I've not been down to the actual source of the style yet, and I'm certain if you've visited Louisiana you know someplace down there that's better. That's awesome (and tell me where it is, I would like to go someday). But Yats is located in Indiana, and if you are ever going through Indy (or by their new location in West Lafayette) you need - you are required, you have a moral imperitive - to eat there. The menu at each location changes daily, but the pricing runs as follows: half orders are $4.50, full orders are $5.50, and getting half and half of two things will run you $6.50. Extra bread? 50 cents. And you will want extra bread. It's coated with a spiced butter that is absolutely fantastic, and there is actually no better tool for eating the meal itself than the bread.

The dish I had, the Chili-Cheese Crawfish etouffee, is almost indescribably delicious. All the dishes at Yats blend together into a solid flavor - this one has the barest hint of cheese, some good chili flavor to it, and a solid backbone of crawfish (it could be actual crawfish or just shrimp, it's hard to say). It's served on rice, like most of their dishes, and it is magnificent.
But it doesn't matter what you get. I will almost guarantee that if you like the ingredients listed in the name of the dish, you will enjoy the best damn cajun/creole food you can get outside of the actual state of Louisiana. My only regret that there is not one in Omaha.

So that was the trip, or at least the one my stomach made. Hopefully we'll get to go again next year, and we can experience some new places along the way.

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