The night before we explored Elgin, we dined on lettuce.
Lettuce and water*.
That’s all we would allow ourselves, because the next day our agenda included four restaurants, one of which was a buffet, one tap room, a farmer’s market, and a pop-up dinner.
You might say it was a “full” schedule.
*This might be a slight exaggeration. But you get the point.
We woke up famished, but we still had the presence of mind to put a cooler in the car for the tons of leftovers we’d have. We knew there was no possible way we could eat everything.
We were wrong.
As a gourmet (me) and a gourmand (Jim), dining out is one of our favorite things to do. Plus, I’ve hosted nearly a hundred food- and drink-focused events in the Chicago area. You might say we know a thing or two about ingesting and imbibing.
Explore Elgin knows this, which is why they invited us to eat and drink our way through their City in the Suburbs. And oh, boy, did we ever.
Get out your stretchy pants and join me on this epicurean exploration of Elgin, Illinois.
Disclosure: Explore Elgin hosted our day of dining, but all opinions are mine and not influenced at all by the addition of two inches to my waistline.
Our day began at Cafe Revive for a light breakfast and hot beverages. The cafe is a permanent fixture in Dream Hall, a unique space that hosts pop-up events, including the dinner we’d have that evening, and a lounge on the second floor.
Husband and wife team Jesus and Patrice Aguirre own this counter cafe. They offer coffee drinks with beans from Conscious Cup in Crystal Lake. Local beer is on tap in the afternoon, they serve Mexican-American fusion breakfasts and lunches, and you can pick up delectable pastries throughout the day.
We met colleagues from Explore Elgin and selected a couple of pastries to enjoy while discussing our astronomic, gastronomic plans. Jim chose the cinnamon roll and I, the lemon cherry blondie.
Sugar normally puts me to sleep, but these baked-in-house goodies were worth any impending crash. Since it was a go-big kinda day, we took lattes to go, lavender for me and matcha for Jim.
It was a sweet start to a savory day, and if we were shooting for the culinary heavens, this was a propitious lift-off.
Elgin Historic District
After a quick interview with Leah Unser on WRMN 1410 AM to chat about my books and our Elgin adventure, we had a couple of hours before the eating would resume.
Being history buffs, we used our break to explore a bit of the Elgin Historic District. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Walking Tour Map and Guide states that there are 667 structures, including homes, churches, apartments, businesses, and flats.
We began where Elgin did. A small park commemorates the location where James Talcott Gifford built his cabin in April, 1835, and a plaque indicated the exact spot was twelve paces to the north.
I counted them off and stood in the middle of the street. Jim made sure I didn’t get run over by a car and I closed my eyes and pictured the prairie as Gifford would have seen it, imagining the short spring grasses and hearing their fronds rustle.
After Jim’s third “Um, hey, Theresa? You might want to get out of the road…” I followed his advice and we strolled a few blocks of the historic district.
It was a ping-pong through the city’s development.
There’s Gifford’s second house (1850), and Angeline Corbey’s (1910). Henry Jensen built a home for Jesse Anderson Townsend, an employee of Elgin Watch Factory, in 1886. Calista lived in a mansion with her husband A.J. Waldron, but after he died, she married Reverend Holmes Slade and moved into a more modest 1870 home on Gifford Street.
Also on Gifford is an Italianate home built in 1875 for a man named, I kid you not, Increase Child Bosworth. In 1902, Elgin’s City Physician Dr. Henry Gahagan moved into his hodgepodge of a home on Fulton.
The walk was a tease. Who were these people? What were their stories? What was it like, for instance, when Calista moved from a mansion to a folk house?
We could have roamed the streets for hours, peeking into the windows of history, but we had more eating to do.
Grand Victoria Casino
Despite living in Elgin for three and a half years, I’d never been to Grand Victoria Casino. I’d even trekked and biked the portion of the Fox River Trail that bisects the property, but I hadn’t set foot inside.
I had heard, from people who know, that whether you’re a gambler or not (I’m not), the restaurants are worth a visit.
Those people are right.
We’d worked up an appetite by the time we entered Indulge Show Kitchen Buffet. Every casino needs a buffet, and this is theirs.
Buffets are often, sometimes fairly, sometimes not, thought to be cafeterias that present diners with options that range from bland to boring, all of them dried out under the aggressive heat lamps. They’re more about quantity than quality.
At Indulge Show Kitchen Buffet, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
We took our seats in a booth with a view of the riverboat and the river. Executive Chef Jason Tsoris knew we were eating our way through Elgin and he wanted to give us a taste of what it means to dine at Grand Victoria Casino. Before we took a tour through the six micro-restaurants that make up the buffet, he sent a few favorites.
Our introduction was a bit of a “nosh,” as Chef Jason called it, from on-site Buckinghams Steakhouse and Lounge: country pate with a cherry compote port sauce, warm camembert, crostini with rosemary butter, garnished with microgreens and a cucumber relish.
I could nosh on that all day long.
On a normal day. This day, that dish of deliciousness was quickly followed by a platter of plump cold water lobster tail, savory clams casino with bacon, and delicate New England flounder coated in an almond crust with a champagne-shallot cream sauce.
It was oh, so rich and decadent. This is what we’d been missing? Shame on us.
We still needed to sample the buffet, and after a quick tour we made our selections. Knowing we still had four more places to visit, we tried to be judicious and followed some of Chef Jason’s recommendations. (Some, but not all. If we’d tried all of them we wouldn’t have been able to leave the booth.)
The street-style carne asada tacos topped with house made salsa were filled with tender beef. “House made” is redundant; nearly every item at Indulge is made in-house.
We also had to try the perfectly mid-rare beef with horseradish cream sauce for me and au jus for Jim. Although we wanted to try the signature fried chicken and load up on a bowl of made-to-order stir-fry, we decided on creamy clam chowder. Dessert was gelato and a selection of pastries, all made at the aptly-named Indulge.
The buffet is available at lunch Wednesdays through Saturdays. If you want lobster, Friday evenings are all-you-can-eat Maine Event Lobster Feast.
There are also Seafood Crab Fest and Shrimp and BBQ Extravaganza nights, and Buffet Ole, which features Mexican cuisine. Sundays are for brunch and a Prime Rib Southern Feast.
If our experience is any indication, whether you cross the bridge into the casino or not, dining at Grand Victoria is a safe bet.
Plank Road Tap Room
“I drink bad beer so other people don’t have to.”
It’s a sacrifice, but Alan Moreno think it’s worth it. Alan and his wife Breanne own Plank Road Tap Room. It’s in a cabin situated on a two-thirds-acre lot with a fenced-in beer garden that seems to scream “come drink beer and play games.”
It’s a passion project and a comfortable, intimate place that only serves good beer.
I appreciate Alan’s efforts. I’ve hosted sixteen AlphaBeer events. These events provide tastings of beer for every letter of the alphabet, with different beers at each event. That means, through those events alone, I’ve tried at least 400 beers. Most were good, some great, and a few (but not many) bad.
You could say I like beer. You might even say I know beer, and know a good one, and a good tap room, when I see (drink) one.
I could have thrown a dart at Plank Road’s beer list and been happy with any of them. While that might be a valid method of selection, following Alan’s recommendations was more efficient (and a lot less dangerous).
Jim and I each got a flight, making sure to choose different beers so we could try a total of eight of the thirteen on tap.
Our flights represented the rainbow of flavors that the Morenos offer. I could tell you which ones we tried, but with the exception of Too Much Cologne, a kolsch collaboration with Crystal Lake Brewing that’s always on tap, they’d be different by the time you visit. Basically, Alan tries a beer, and if he likes it, he orders a keg. Once that’s out, it’s time for a new one.
Alan said he’ll always carry a few hoppy beers, because those sell, but he also will always have porters and stouts. There’s a permanent spot for Krombacher, which Alan believes is the perfect lager.
The list is heavy on local breweries. Solemn Oath is a favorite, as is Noon Whistle. They’ve also got a limited selection of canned beers. Wine lovers get their own taps.
Beer fans also tend to drink coffee, and the Morenos have partnered with Intelligentsia to offer cold brew on nitro and pour-over. You can come in at 7am, drink coffee until noon, and then it’s beer time.
Plank Road Tap Room doesn’t serve food (and never will), which is a good thing because we could have stayed all afternoon. If you like good beer, this may become your new favorite place. I know it’s one of mine.
We drove back into downtown Elgin. The rest of our day would be all about Grove Avenue.
Billy Brick’s Wood Fired Pizza
If you would have told me that I’d eat a pizza with turnips and radishes on it – and like it – I’d have laughed. While I’m fairly egalitarian when it comes to my pizza toppings, turnips and radishes are not two I would ever have considered. Zucchini, maybe, but Jim would have said no uh-uh absolutely not.
And then we ate a Billy Brick’s farmers market pizza and our world changed.
Billy Brick’s Wood Fired Pizza is one of the newer places on Grove Avenue. When you look in the window, you’ll immediately see the half-dome brick oven that provides their eponymous dish.
We stopped into the Elgin outpost of the Chicago-based chain. A family occupied the seats in front of the oven, watching as dough went in and a few minutes later came back out, transformed.
Frank Sibr, who owned the restaurant with partner Phil Lencioni, greeted us and upon finding out we’d come from Plank Road, jogged to the taps and returned with a beer from Lithuania. “Grapefruit!” I said.
That was apparently the right answer, because before we knew it we were seated at the bar with not only a pint, but a pint mixed with Avion 44 tequila – a dangerous, refreshing, and tasty combination.
After that, when Frank asked us what we wanted to try, we said “We’re in your hands, sir.”
“Farmers Market it is,” and a thin crust topped with turnips, radishes, zucchini, and polish sausage, all purchased at the market outside the restaurant’s doors, magically appeared.
The crispy, chewy crust was the perfect delivery vehicle for the veggies and sausage. We now crave this odd combination. That pizza alone instilled us with trust, and we both feel comfortable walking into Billy Brick’s and saying “surprise us!”
Our pizza was followed by a cheddar brat, also from the farmers market, wrapped in a pretzel roll and resting in a sauce made of a white and red wine reduction with garlic and pepper.
As we ate, a record player spun 33s. A former DJ noticed the player and offered to unload some of his vinyl.
Our total time at Billy Brick’s was less than forty-five minutes, but that short time was memorable.
A lot of that was due to Frank. We met him briefly, but the pleasure he took from our appreciation of his team’s work, the enthusiasm with which he wanted to share his favorites, was infectious.
Our interaction didn’t end just because we left his place. We’d barely taken our seats at the sushi restaurant next door when he wooshed in and presented me with a painted rock. “Always Smile,” it said. On the back, “Elgin IL rocks on FB; 9-9-18; AB.”
In 2017, a 10- and 11-year-old sister and brother found a rock painted with #ValpoRocks in Valparaiso, Indiana. They loved the idea, and when they came home to Elgin they started a Facebook group. Ever since, people have painted rocks and hidden them for others to find, collect, or share.
Frank decided to share his with me.
Sadly, he passed away in August. It was a shock, and the restaurant closed in mourning. At first it wasn’t definite that they would reopen, but fortunately, they’re back up and running, serving that chewy, crispy, wood-fired pizza.
When you go, ask for a shot of tequila in your Lithuanian beer and raise a toast to Frank.
And always smile.
Kubo Sushi and Sake Lounge
“How could we eat another bite?” you must be wondering. So were we. But our mission to eat as much as we could so you’d know where to dine in Elgin, Illinois continued.
Besides, it was sushi.
Melodi, the sister in the brother and sister team that owns Kubo Sushi & Sake Lounge, steered us to the back of the restaurant and our seats at the sushi bar. Her brother Kris scooped rice out of a metal container and frowned.
“Is something wrong with the rice?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, seemingly a bit surprised that I’d noticed his consternation. “It’s too dry.”
Kris Palermo knows rice. He studied Japanese cooking in Japan, and for the first six months, he cooked rice. Only rice.
That’s dedication, and it’s a drive you can taste in every grain, every bite of buttery salmon, every sip of green tea.
Melodi and Kris came to Elgin in 2009 from California and fell in love with the community. Their restaurant, which opened in 2018, combines a bit of their Cali background with traditional Japanese food and culture.
Everything they serve, from the green tea to the bottle of Hana Fuga Yuzu Sparkling Sake to the fresh fish is provided by small distributors.
We began with the Tartar Pyramid. If you get one dish from Kubo, get this gorgeous display of avocado topped with salmon tartar topped with tuna tartar. Melodi mixed it together with citrus ponzu sauce and aioli and told us to feel free to lick the plate.
She’s seen it happen. A lot.
We scooped it onto the fried wonton chips and unashamedly, unabashedly moaned. Kris’ tattoed forearms flashed as he deftly created maki for other guests, and nigiri for us.
He presented a trio of seared fish over rice: black pepper tuna topped with avocado and a dot of wasabi mayo, Japanese red snapper with skin and yuzu paste, and salmon belly with house citrus ponzu.
Out of habit, we dipped our first bite into soy sauce mixed with wasabi, but after one bite we knew that wasn’t necessary.
Those three pieces of nigiri were the best sushi that either of us has ever had.
Our meal (fourth of the day) ended with a dessert of mochi ice cream, just light enough to send us on our way without completely destroying us.
Kubo Sushi & Sake’s menu includes bento boxes, signature rolls, and teriyaki and tempura, and soups and noodles.
One thing to note is that there’s no menu of nigiri and sashimi from which to select. It’s all chef’s choice. And with a chef like that?
He can choose anything he wants.
Downtown Elgin Farmers Market
I think we were in a daze when we stepped outside again. The quantity and quality of everything we’d had that day was hard to process. Fortunately, we had some time to recover before our final meal of the day, so we browsed the vendors of the Downtown Elgin Farmers Market.
The market had previously been on Thursdays in a parking lot across the street from the Gail Borden library. The move to Grove Avenue on Friday evenings was brilliant.
The market is now a vibrant destination. Friends, families, couples, and solo shoppers browsed vendors and listened to live music.
We picked up a gift for my mom’s upcoming birthday and a plant for our garden and then headed back to Cafe Revive. Jesus and Patrice poured me a pint and Jim and I sat outside and listened to the blues.
It began to rain and when the wind threatened to blow over one of the umbrellas protecting the band’s speakers, a spectator got up, walked over, and held it steady.
His name was Leon, I discovered, and I went inside, bought him a beer, and asked Patrice to hold it for him until he was ready to come in.
Jim’s in a rock duo, and I would hope someone would help him out in a similar situation. Either way, Leon did a nice thing, and I wanted to thank him.
Dinnertime came quickly, and we headed back into Dream Hall for our final meal of the day.
And now for something completely different…
After indulging in every food group, in pastries, in pizza, in sausage, in cheese, in seafood, in eggs and dairy and beef and pork, dinner would be…
Vegan. And gluten free.
Not being vegan or gluten free eaters (obviously), we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We did have a fairly good idea it would be creative and tasty. Explore Elgin hadn’t steered us wrong yet.
The dinner was hosted by Passionette Palate, which is a play on founder Annette Licitra’s name and her passion for healthy eating. After successfully battling her own health issues, she left a corporate job to help others live healhier lives. Now, with a culinary degree and integrative health coaching certifications, she coaches others.
She also cooks for them.
The communal dinner began with a fresh chilled peach and tomato gazpacho soup, followed by zucchini “pasta” with roasted asparagus and pheasant black mushrooms.
The summer solstice salad was cucumber pickled in lemon and topped with toasted macadamia nuts and a chimichurri dressing. Our entree was raw turnip ravioli stuffed with cashew cheese in a bed of pesto and roasted tomato sauce, and dessert was chocolate-cherry sorbet with roasted cherry compote.
I think the easiest way to tell you how this dinner went is that I don’t have many pictures. I couldn’t get to the dishes fast enough.
You can find recipes on her site, as well as any upcoming public events she has. If you’re looking to make a lifestyle change, Annette offers different programs. She’ll even tour your kitchen or go grocery shopping with you.
We gently made our way back to the car, our only leftovers half the cheddar brat in its pretzel roll and two pieces of farmers market pizza.
You might think after a day like that everything would blend together, but I can still taste the sweet tartness of that lemon cherry blondie, the firm buttery lobster tail, the rich umami of the tartar pyramid, and the complex combination of radishes and turnips on pizza. I’m intrigued by the possibilities of vegan cooking, and I’ll be making some of Annette’s recipes in my own kitchen.
Elgin is an exciting culinary destination, one that offers a variety of cuisines and price points. I hope you’ll visit this City in the Suburbs and create your own epicurean exploration.