Personal and business travel has taken me around the midwest over the last couple of months, and I hereby offer my own partial and partisan "Best Of" list.
Best Corn Dog:
Stockton Dairy Mart
Stockton, Illinois on Highway 20, somewhere between Rockford and Galena
In the shadow of Stockton High School (home of the fighting Blackhawks!) resides a piece of Americana cradled within a corrugated steel building with only an outdoor concrete slab and picnic tables to serve as the dining area. The huge menu encourages customers to phone ahead since everything is made absolutely fresh. I love being informed by the owner that my corn dog will take four minutes to cook.
To me, the telltale sign of a first-rate corn dog is what I call the "bloom". It's the amber-colored oil that wells up gently from the frank after each bite. The perfect car food. Stockton Dairy Mart also gets an honorable mention in the soft serve ice cream category, and their butterscotch milk shake is excellent.
Best Onion Rings:
Debbie's Westside Maid-Rite, Dubuque Iowa
I never caught the Maid-Rite jones that so many others have. I just fail to get excited by dry gray marbles of ground meat rolling around on a nondescript bun. I wasn't raised on 'em, so I would suspect the loyalists remain for sentimental, rather than epicurean reasons. They do, however, make a damn fine onion ring. Fresh batter-dipped and deep fried to crispy perfection and stacked four high on a paper plate for about 80 cents.
Boston Blackie's, Chicago, Illinois
Tuck into this one at the bar with a cold beer and listen to lunchtime tales of politically incorrect blue collar Chicago guys dropping F-bombs with the Greeks behind the bar.
Honorable mention: P.J. Clarke's of NYC fame, has two outposts in Chicago that do a beautiful burger. Not to be confused with the mini-burger bar appetizer, which is pretty good too.
Best Frozen Custard: Kopps, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
You're better than all the rest. You're better than anyone.
Best Green Bean-based side dish: Stroud's in Kansas City
Many will call it the best chicken. I will not. Breasts are dry as shoe leather and dark meat is too greasy. I love the place itself so much that I've ginned up a dubious category for them to win. The green beans are legitimately the best in the midwest. I gotta give best chicken to Dell Rhea's Chicken Basket in Willowbrook, Illinois just off old Rte 66.
Best Cheese Frenchy: Mom's Kitchen, Fargo, North Dakota
Okay, another ginned up category, but definitely worthy of accolades. Think of the best grilled cheese sandwich you've ever had. Now dip it in batter and deep fry it. Serve it with a cup of ketchup for dipping and try not to scald your mouth with white-hot american cheese. That's a cheese frenchy. Best thing in Fargo since Margie Gunderson.
Best French Fries: Philly's Best, Chicago, Illinois
Known for the faithful rendering of the Philly steak, but their fries are what keep me coming back. Fresh-cut fry fans (alliteration fever...catch it!) won't agree, but for those among us who don't care for the sogginess, mealiness, flaws and color of fresh cut fries will love these thick, hot golden, and yes, previously frozen slices of crisp-outside, pillow-soft-inside potatoes.
Best elotes: Guy with the cart outside of St. Anthony's Church after the conclusion of Spanish language Mass every Sunday. Mitchell street, south side of Milwaukee. God in the form of an ear of corn. Don't mess up your Sunday best.
Knudsen Caramels, Redwing, Minnesota
Like butter. No, really.
Best Burrito: Tie: Tecalitlan on Chicago Avenue in Chicago, and Burritoville in Dekalb, Illinois.
Best Midwestern Brewed Beer
Boulevard Pale Ale, Kansas City
Honorable Mention: New Glarus Spotted Cow--New Glarus, Wisconsin and almost anything by Three Floyds in Hammond Indiana
Best BLT: Make it yourself with Neuske's bacon and cheddar cheese bread, both purchased from Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Add farmstand tomatoes from a roadside near you. For style points, use the funky Japanese kewpie doll mayonnaise in the soft-sided plastic bottle purchased from Japanese supermarket Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights.
I look forward to adding to this list as my travels dictate.