Donuts! Farmer's Markets! The original corn dog! Unique regional dish! (plus Lincoln, Lincoln and more Lincoln; eating in a drug store, and the Trout Lily Cafe.) Of course I had a great time in Springfield.
I thought it would be fun to get our kicks on route 66, or as translated by Sophia, get our butt kicked on route 66, but now that I have made the drive, I do not know if it's worth it even if it's nice to say, we traveled the mother road. A good portion of Old Route 66 (hencefourth just 66) simply runs parallal to its usurper, Interstate 55. The predominant difference, close-ups of the grain elevators.
We got a farily late start hitting old route 66 at the intersection of Harlem and Joliet Road, just south of Riverside, Illinois. We made our first stop at a donut shop. It's clear the regional limiations of chowhound as no one's mentioned Honey Fluff Donuts and Gourmet Coffee before, from Countryside, Il, but this should be a real contender in the donut sweepstakes. I bought a 1/2 dozen since I could not decide on their great flavors.
By the time we rolled past the interesting bridges of Joliet, Hannah was asking incessantly if we were near Springfield yet. I managed to distract her for a bit with the news that we were near the rocket-man, a giant spaceship guarding the Launching Pad Drive-In.
Well, the rocketman came and went in a flash and was not that big of a distraction. We skipped the Launching Pad, for another drive-in, the Polka Dot, based purely on what they looked like from pictures on the Internet. So much for that as way to select places. Polka Dot sucked. Nothing was worth the money. Their "famous" chili fries were frozen potatoes covered with yellow goo and cheap chili. The hamburger barely stood up to the fluffy bun and the rural fav pork tenderloin was inedibly greasy. The chowhounditas, however, loved playing with the fake fifties tchotkes. Think bad version of Ed Debevics.
Our next stop on 66 was Bloomington-Normal because Ms. VI thought perhaps there would be a Starbucks. It gave me a chance to repeat incessantly, such bad puns as "this town is really normal." No Starbucks, but a decent cup of joe at a yuppie place in "downtown" Bloomington called C'est si bon.
The rest of the stuff refers to Springfield related places. Before I highlight the places worth visiting, let me quickly mention the farmer's market. It's held every wednesday and saturday for the season. Boy did Harry luck out when we were there on wednesday.
Nothing approaches the spectacular farm-o-rama that is, say Nichols farms, but everything was ernest in the best sense of the word. Proving its ties to central Illinois, it was almost all vegetables, stuff that maybe in Oak Park tomorow or next week: zuchini, turnips, cucumbers, some hot peppers. Nothing too summery yet, the only tomatoes were from a hot house. We did find some unusual and very special black raspberries. Interesting canned goods, we really had to fight to limit our purchases here and organic meat as well--sold out by mid-day, so bring your cooler early.
Here's the rest of the places:
1) Bachman-Keefner Drug Store - We only had eggs and coffee, but I instanted liked it. This place should be as cliched as some of the other Springfield site, but the fact that it was filled with locals chit-chatting, saved it from being too cutesy. That and the real patent goods still for sale. The kids loved the butter-soaked toast.
2) Mel-O-Cream Donuts - OK, I'm a sucker for anything called Mel-O-Cream, especially with the fact that the O was a donut. Hannah loved the signature mel-o-cream with sugar, saying it was her co-favorite with Krispey Kreme, I found them only good for being donuts. 2 stars in my book (When asked, how many stars she'd give them, Hannah said 100). The problem, a little bready, they tasted almost like they were not fried. A few branches around town, we went to the 6th St. location where the other touristy stuff is. Note, they close by early afternoon.
3) Trout Lily - Not nearly as good a name Mel-O-Cream, but much better coffee, awfully nice people too. I also liked the fact that we ran into some of the same people drinking coffee there, who had been drinking coffee earlier at Bachman-Kaufman Drugstore.
4) Coney Island - Not horseshoes but pony shoes, ostensibly a smaller version. This totally reminded me of Cincinati chili. I thought I'd like it for curiosity sake, but came away liking it that much more for what it was. The Raspberry Queen found Coney Island on 5th Street, and we were instantly attracted by its "est. in 1919 decor. I peeked in and then queried the man behind the counter. He explained to me that their pony shoe featured their award winning white sauce, and I was hooked.
The Coney Island shoe starts with ordinary white bread, I was looking forward to that Texas toast. Good thing there was something bland, because everything else was loaded with succor. The hamburger itself was plenty good, the kind of griddled pure meat that is so rare to find these days. The french fry layer included plenty of real fries, nothing pre-fab. My only quibble with the whole thing, however, was the garlic salt condiment that dusted the fries. I just have a dislike for garlic powder. The white sauce was totally unlike what I expected, a thick, rich sauce, really a bechamel, not something velveeta-y, not like ballpark nacho sauce, which is what I expected. Coney Island did Springfield proud. The other stuff we ordered, including the chili were good enough, but I would stick to the hamburger pony shoe.
5) Cozy Dog Drive In - I'll end where I started, on route 66. And as good as Coney Island's shoe was, perhaps Cozy Dog was even better. Again, I was going for the experience, not for the food. Again, I was way wrong. Everything at Cozy is home made and fresh and far from the franchise spots nearby.
The cozy dogs (a/k/a corn dogs) invented here, are made fresh for each order. Mr. Cozy's chief contribution to this sub-sub-genre of food, was the creation of various tools for dipping the dogs. The current tool spears 3 dogs at a time, drops them in a bat of "corn" and pops them out after a oil bath. It's not a particular good dog plain, but the fresh batter adds a lot as does the ballpark mustard (or I suppose the catsup).
Hannah asked for a burger. When I saw them take a ball of fresh meat and press it into the griddle, I wanted one too. I switched my chili dog to a chili cheeseburger. This was everything that Polka Dot was not. Interesting brew, genuine american cheese and a beefy thin patty all merged together into one greater treat. Cozy fries up some great shoestrings. Our only disappointment, the chili worked great on the burger, but alone, it was so oily, neither myself or Ms. VI could handle it. And speaking of things hard to handle, the ultra-right-wing placards around the walls were almost as tough to swallow. Good thing for me, that food trumps politics. Cozy Dog is about 5 miles south of downtown Springfield on what is also known as 6th street. It is also very accessible to an exit of I-55. In fact after dinner, we got right on the road home.
For those keeping score at home, since the Ms. needed a potty break, I did stop at Krispy Kreme after getting off the highway at Harlem.