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What to Eat Now

Your guide to finding the best restaurants, dishes and trends in the fast-changing culinary world of the Midwest.
  • Kylene Guse
    Photo: Ackerman + Gruber

    A craveable new world

    When we asked chefs  around the Midwest to define today’s culinary landscape, Micah Frank of Black Market  in Indianapolis threw the question right back at us: “What to eat now?  Everything!”

    No kidding. In big cities and tiny towns, elite chefs, master mixologists and entrepreneurial home cooks are melding global and local flavors in ways tha  are both thoughtful and freewheeling. The problem isn’t finding amazing things to eat or drink—it’s  knowing where to start. And that’s where we come in. Part of-the-moment travel guide, part regional trend report, this is your cheat sheet to navigating a craveable new world.

    Pictured: Kylene Guse, co-owner of Gyst, a fermentation bar in Minneapolis’ Eat Street neighborhood. (What’s a fermentation bar? Find out by clicking or tapping ahead.)

  • Doughnuts
    Photo by Andy Lyons; Food Styling by Greg Luna

    Try a postmodern doughnut

    For those of us long ready to dispense with the cupcake fad, an explosion in doughnut shops offers a ray of sugar-glazed hope. So what are some defining characteristics of a new-wave doughnut? It comes down to inventiveness, irreverence and ingredient quality. And Fruity Pebbles.

    1 It has a punny name. Éclair Huxtable @ The Dancing Donut, Indianapolis

    It’s topped with fresh berries. The Tres Leches @ Donut Bar and Coffee, Detroit

    It riffs on a Girl Scout cookie. Samoa @ Topped Doughnuts, Ankeny, Iowa

    4 It’s made with booze. (Bonus points for craft beer.) The Payday @ Brewnuts, Cleveland

    5  It's sold from a food  truck in an alley. At midnight. Red Velvet @ Varsity Donuts, Manhattan, Kansas

  • Fried chicken
    Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

    Reclaim fried chicken

    Fact: Southern food is hot. Collard greens. Pimiento cheese. And above all else, fried chicken, which has rocketed to the top of high and low menus everywhere. Truthfully, naming another region’s iconic food as one of our top trends was a little discomfiting—until we hit the books.

    No doubt, fried chicken was born beneath the Mason-Dixon Line. But then the Great Migration happened. Entire generations of African-Americans moved north to cities like Chicago and Detroit and stitched soul food into the cultural fabric of the Heartland. No one knows that better than the Midwest chefs embracing fried chicken today. Using local ingredients, long brines, punchy seasonings and innovative sides, they are helping rescue a regional (nay, national) icon from fast-food oblivion by restoring it to its home-cooked roots. So when you find yourself in line at one of these new fried chicken meccas, remember: That crispy, burnished bliss isn’t cause for an identity crisis. It’s a reminder that we are the crossroads of America. Here, everyone is welcome. Especially if they bring a side of corn bread.

    Winner, winner chicken dinners

    The food truck Hot Chicken Takeover, Columbus, Ohio

    The not-so-shabby shack Parson’s Chicken and Fish, Chicago

    The bluesy beer hall The Eagle, Cincinnati and Indianapolis

    The strip-mall splurge Lyn65, Richfield, Minnesota

    The refurbished police horse stable Old Standard, St. Louis

  • Carrots

    Root for carrots

    The veggie revolution rolls on. We’ve learned to make chips from kale, slaw from Brussels sprouts and couscous from cauliflower. Now take a look at what a carrot can do.

    Juiced: Insiders at The American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin, say it took 43 tries to nail the citrusy Carrot 43 martini, made with gin; Cointreau; fresh carrot, orange and lemon juices; and a cucumber garnish.

    Blitzed: At Fond: Lunch and Deli and Cincinnati farmers markets, Summuh: Artisan Hummus sells a rainbow of dips. Whazzup Doc? jazzes up the classic with carrot and ginger.

    Burnt: Also in Cincinnati (a new hub for root veg innovation, perhaps?), Metropole’s signature salad features caramel-sweet blackened carrots, avocado and feta.

  • Cheer an old friend

    These days, one restaurant  is never enough. In 2016, beloved chefs are tackling new terrain. Here are three long-awaited openings to watch for.

    Follow his ’cue Meat-master Michael Symon (left) has an ambitious goal of forging a unique Cleveland-style barbecue at Mabel’s BBQ. Expect brisket, Polish boy sandwiches and crispy pig parts.

    Singing the brews  At Cruz Blanca brewpub in Chicago’s West Loop, legendary Mexican chef Rick Bayless (center) will feature French- and European-influenced craft beers.

    Using her noodle Stephanie Izard (right) delves into Chinese cuisine at Duck Duck Goat, another West Loop debut. The menu of buns, dumplings and (of course) Peking duck was inspired by recent travel—and nostalgia for childhood takeout.

  • Toast

    Say yes to toast

    Toast is a bona fide thing. Order a toast flight with fancy schmears at Dan the Baker in Columbus, Ohio. Take your toast with wild mushrooms at Milque Toast Bar in St. Louis. Savor toast the second it springs from your personal toaster at Baker Miller in Chicago. Enough! Any idiot can toast bread! And yet ... anyone can flip pancakes, too. But nothing beats a diner short stack. Eating out is always a splurge, and frankly, we’ll gladly trade mediocre mega-muffins for the simple pleasure of great bread with lashings of real butter.

  • Roots Chocolates
    Photo: Andy Lyons

    Taste a new terroir

    Farmers have always cooked with what they harvest, deliciously. (See: Michigan cherry pie.) But over the last few years, a subtly different profile has emerged, of an artisan who turns homegrown raw ingredients into something unexpected and utterly epicurean. Meet the new foodie farmers.

    The Chocolatier Every box of Roots Chocolates (pictured) comes with a photo of Lisa Nelson’s father driving a rickety oxcart, a sepia reminder that the former IT manager flavors her bittersweet candies with fruits, vegetables, herbs and honey grown on her fourth-generation Wisconsin farm.

    The Distillers Minnesota’s Far North Spirits is, in fact, the most-far-north distillery in the contiguous United States, but the real marvel is Michael Swanson and Cheri Reese reinventing Great-Grandpa Gustaf’s farm by growing corn and rye for vodka, gin and whiskey—and mashing, aging and bottling it on-site.

    The Vinegarists When a friend kindly suggested that ranchers-turned-winemakers George and Karen Johnson make vinegar with their hardscrabble Nebraska grapes, they took the advice. The rock star is Emilia, a premium aged balsamic. Drizzled over a peach, it’s worth every penny.

  • Photo: Blaine Moats

    Become street smart

    There’s electric blue shaved ice. And there is Little Freshie. The KC shop crafts fruit and herb syrups to flavor grown-up snow cones and sodas. It’s not alone. Fresh takes on street food are everywhere. Sample Venezuelan cornmeal cakes stuffed with shredded pork at Hola Arepa in Minneapolis; ginormous Bavarian pretzels crusted with Asiago at Brezel in Columbus, Cincinnati and Grand Rapids; or piping-hot Belgian fries from the Powered by Fries food truck in Des Moines. Familiar or foreign, they’re a delicious way to travel the world.

  • Photo: Blaine Moats

    Revamp your pantry

    OK, so stocking a full kitchen with small-batch foods isn’t within most of our means, but trading even one supermarket-staple on your shelf for a thoughtfully crafted one like these feels really, really good.

    (left to right)

    Skinny Sticks Maple syrup made sweeter knowing a young family of six in Wisconsin bottles it.

    L.C. Finns From Minneapolis, gift-ready extracts in flavors familiar (vanilla) and exotic (hibiscus).

    The Billy Goat Chip Company Addictively (yet mildly) seasoned potato chips from St. Louis.

    LocalFolks Foods From central Indiana, regionally sourced enchilada sauce with none of the tinny flavor.

    Great River Organic Milling Whole-grain flours and pancake mixes, stone-ground to order in Wisconsin.

    Buddy’s Nut Butters Coarse-ground  PB made in Minneapolis with a perfect balance of honey and sea salt. 

  • Photo: Ackerman + Gruber

    Take a walk on the not-so-funky side

    The kimchi stall at your farmers market may be new, but fermenting (i.e., encouraging microorganisms to transform the texture and flavor of raw ingredients) is not. Kylene and Mel Guse, sisters and owners of Gyst in Minneapolis, explain.

    Q You describe Gyst as a fermentation bar. What is that?

    A Sometimes we laugh at ourselves, because in a  way all bars are fermentation bars. We are really a creative business focused on all things fermented. That includes coffee, wine, cheese, beer and cured meats from other producers, plus seasonal produce that we ferment in-house.

    Q Hold up. Ordinary coffee is a fermented food?

    A Yes, sometimes in a controlled environment and sometimes in the sun. The sugars in the coffee fruit’s pulp break down, creating acids that flavor the bean. People mostly know fermented foods as sauerkraut, kimchi, very stinky things. Our menu and classes show them it’s not all super-funky and sour.

    Q Why has fermentation suddenly become so trendy?

    A Food preservation has its roots in survival. Here in Minnesota, Lutherans pickle herring, and we’ve always had sauerkraut on our brats. Industrialized canning made fermentation less important, but being more local and sustainable makes us reconsider what we eat and how we do things and go back to more of these true, natural-style products.

    Q What’s your favorite thing on the menu right now?

    A We have a golden beet we ferment with orange and ginger that’s just so good on a cheese tray or with cured meats on our Motherboard (pictured).

  • Botanical infusion
    Photo: Blaine Moats

    Sip a botanical infusion

    When trends collide, the results can read like parody (think craft beer donuts). Or they can feel like destiny. The surge in plant-based drinks perfectly captures the Midwest’s food Zeitgeist: Clean flavors. Creative combos. Handcrafted, farm-to-table sensibility. We can all raise a glass to that.

    Aviary, Chicago At Grant Achatz’ ultrachic cocktail lounge, bartenders layer a kaleidoscope of fresh ingredients and spirits in custom-designed infusers. (For the ultimate in at-home mixology, order your own at theportholeinfuser.com.)

    McClary Bros. Drinking Vinegar Shrubs are a Colonial-Era drink mixer made by infusing vinegar with produce, herbs and sugar, and no one does them as well as this Detroit biz. Our favorite is beet and carrot, splashed in soda water and topped with a dill sprig.

    Forbidden Root Brewing Company These Chicago-made brews (available on tap and at stores throughout the Windy City) are made using centuries-old techniques employing bark, blossoms, sap, herbs and spices as flavorings. Try Wildflower Pale Ale, made with marigold, elderflower and sweet Osmanthus.

    Top Note Tonics These low-sugar, Italian-inspired concentrates are made with whole roots, fruits and spices by a veteran of Milwaukee’s brewing industry. Use them sparingly to whip up an orangey vodka spritz or  a primo G&T. 

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