First, A Story about The Great Larry Bird
It was a beautiful day in May, we should have been outside enjoying the day; instead my buddies and I we were stuck in a small dorm room, all of us gnawing at what was left of the skin on our knuckles and nails we had on our fingers. It was 1987 and we were students at Boston College, and our beloved Boston Celtics were about to lose to the young and tough Detroit Pistons team led by their leader, the very talented point guard, Isiah Thomas. The Celtics were playing in the Boston Garden, where they rarely lost. On this beautiful May day, they were down by one point with just five seconds left on the clock. A lost would have meant heading back to Detroit to face an elimination game. All Isiah Thomas had to do was inbound the ball and the game would have, for all intents and purposes, be over. We were about to see our invincible team lose. A hard pill to swallow as young men into sports. What would happen next goes down in basketball annals as one of its greatest moments in the sport. The great Larry Bird found a way to intercept the inbound and with a sixth sense was able to pass the ball to his teammate (Dennis Johnson) for a game-winning lay-up. Celtics Win! This secured their lead in the series, which they eventually won. Needless to say, we went wild, all having felt that we had experienced a miracle.
“Hick from French Lick”
Whenever I have the good fortune of being able to see my old mates, inevitably the topic of sport carves out a little time between catching up on our careers and families. When that time arises, the one episode that is always spoken is that magnificent day on May 26, 1987, when, what is affectionately called, “Bird Steals the Ball” happened. We have and always will take the license of giving ourselves credit for having something to do with the Celtics winning that game. That game had given us a special bond. This bond can be attributed to the “Hick from French Lick”, Indiana – the one and only, Larry Bird. My favorite player of all time.
State of Indiana – The Crossroads of America
Due to Larry, I always had somewhat of a romantic image of the State of Indiana. I think about it being “The Crossroads of America” a nickname given to the capital city of Indianapolis, which is the hub for several major Interstate highways that criss-cross Indiana. I picture cars passing through some of the most beautiful farmland, with their silos, red farmhouses, and children playing on their makeshift basketball courts, one day hoping to bring their talents to the many Universities that line the State, such as Indiana University, University of Notre Dame, and Pudue, to name a few. As an immigrant kid from New York, I always equated these quintessential “Heartland” images with Indiana. The movie, “Hoosiers” which came out the same year Larry Bird’s Celtics won an NBA Championship, further sealed that folklorist image.
Indiana, Est. 1816
My wife, Brenda, and I walked into a room filled with fold-out tables, and people with name tags seated behind them. Some had bigger smiles than others. The biggest smile came from this well-coiffed gentleman wearing a tailored jacket, standing in front a banner that read, “Indiana, Est. 1816”. We went over to meet him.
Dish Our Town is a traveling family of three
We told him that we were a traveling family always searching out new destinations that may otherwise be overlooked. We expressed our need to find a food scene worth following. Lastly, I mentioned Larry Bird. His smile widened even more and emphatically told us to look no further than Indiana. Mark is a man of his word, a man proud of his State, and upon visiting, we can see why.
On Our Way to Indiana
With our teen daughter in the backseat with her ukulele and a travel playlist ready, we started our drive from New York City, with a rental car. Brenda, the only one that drives in the family, whisked us through no fewer than 5 States. Finally, after 11 hours, we crossed the end of the Ohio State line and entered Indiana. Like a picture book being opened, those silos and perfect red barns appeared as they did in my dreams. There were, in fact, makeshift basketball courts, along with homemade swings, and laundry being gently blown by the breeze as they lazily hung on the clothesline. We were captured by the beauty of our country’s landscape. This is America.
Madison County, Indiana
Three ladies waited patiently for us at the hotel lobby. We ran later than expected, due to too many donut and bathroom breaks. Upon our arrival at the Madison County Hotel Hampton Inn, we instantly felt that “Hoosier Hospitality” in which everyone speaks. Mo (Maureen), Lindsey, and Amy embraced us immediately and had us laughing within seconds of meeting. Lindsey and Mo are part of The Indiana Foodways Alliance. This association dedicates itself to promote local food culture. Agritourism experiences developed by the Alliance were once reserved for countries such as Italy and France that have an old world harvesting tradition. Our farmers, our crops, our cattle, our soil is as rich and as proud as any in the world; and it’s good to see a State like Indiana leading the way.
Where to Eat in Pendleton:
These three ladies were not wasting any time. After dropping off our luggage in the room and giving our faces a quick wash we were already on our way to one of the many food trails experiences they’ve created. We were on the “Tenderloin Trail”. Pork Tenderloin is to Indiana as the Pizza is to New York. Everyone claims they’ve got the finest. First stop was the Town of Pendleton.
The Bank Restaurant
In this, recently, not so sleepy town, is The Bank Restaurant. The property was in fact a functioning bank at the turn of the century, and upon entering it was easy to imagine the likes of Bonnie and Clyde driving through town, making one of their much-heralded withdrawals here. Now, however, it is a purveyor of good home cooked food. This place is a favored by many and has become a weekly stop for locals and people from neighboring towns. The owner, Gary, says hello to every table and bids them by name as one would a friend. We knew the food was going to be good because nobody serves friends junk.
The Tenderloin at The Bank Restaurant in Pendleton, Indiana
The tenderloin, breaded and pan fried was served as a sandwich on a soft brioche, with lettuce, tomato, and onion. The meat wasn’t as flattened out as I thought, and the breading light. The thicker cut highlighted the quality of the pork, which was purchased locally; and the execution in the kitchen was to be commended as they kept the final product moist and flavorful. With a few beers, it made for a perfect start.
The girls weren’t done with us yet. We piled into Mo’s minivan, known in these necks as “The Fun Starts Here” mobile, and drove off to the next destination. If you’re ever in Madison County, and you see this van, you’ll know who’s behind the wheel.
Where to have dessert in Anderson:
Johnny Depp and the great Gene Wilder portrayed the fictional character, Willy Wonka. Randy, the owner of Goods Candy Shop, is the real thing. He dons a burgundy shirt, under an unsubtle striking gold vest. He looked less a chocolatier and more a lion tamer. His personality was as vibrant as the outfit, and the welcome he gives all of his customers is as enthusiastic as any circus announcer.
Good’s Candy Shop in Anderson
Not unlike Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, Randy’s operation is impressive. The place is filled with chocolate making gadgets that are a hybrid of old world small manufacturing and futuristic industrial equipment that is fit for larger operations. Randy keeps his brand Indiana exclusive. It’s been a staple and part of Anderson’s community for three generations. The family has been making high-quality candies that can only be found here. The medium size production keeps the integrity of the confections and continues to be kept at a very high level. He’d rather stay small and put out quality goods rather than compromise it by getting bigger. That in itself makes this place a unique destination. It’s akin to finding a good vintner that only distributes its wine in its own region. This place is that special.
Goods is also a Malt Shop
Goods is not just a candy shop, it’s also a Malt Shop, dishing out delectable homemade ice-cream, cakes, and fountain drinks. Randy’s Gourmet Root Beer is in a class of its own. His secret recipe is a soda that is made to complement the ice creams when used in the floats; and when drank alone, I can only equate it to the soda version of an Irish Stout. If you’re willing to travel to Ireland to taste an authentic stout, then you must come to Indiana to taste a true root beer.
Goods satisfy the sweet tooth for sure, and you won’t meet a sweeter man anywhere.
Where to have Breakfast:
The next morning we found ourselves in the town of Noblesville. It’s apparent from the houses that this community is an affluent one. The town is enjoying a bit of a boom at the moment, and it’s obvious from the scene. It’s young and vibrant. This is best experienced in Rosie’s Place, a not too shabby eatery offering traditional diner fare, in what can only be called, a cleaner way, not just in presentation, but also in quality. The corned beef hash I had that morning was made in their own kitchen as opposed to it coming out of a tin. This one single item to me was a testament that Indiana is worthy of being on the culinary map.
Hamilton County isn’t just about the social scene or food, it also has an active side. For unique extracurricular offerings, visit Strawtown Koteewi Park. It makes for a perfect family or group outing with activities that include horseback riding and shooting a bow and arrow.
Best Restaurant in Indiana: Tolon
Brenda and I had this date circled on our itinerary. It was our first night in what is considered the culinary hotbed of Indiana, Fort Wayne; and we were on our way to Tolon Restaurant. The beauty of Fort Wayne is that it’s a walking city and we can get anywhere in town quickly. We were running late for our reservation, so after checking into the Hilton Hotel, we made our way to the restaurant on foot, quickly at that. From afar we could see the signage which on it, had a depiction of a hog. Being Filipino, we are suckers for pork. This was a good sign.
The interior design is industrial, and done in good taste. The kitchen is open, which is always favored, as we believe that it’s a sign of confidence. The bar mirrors the kitchen on opposite sides of the room, which play nicely to the eye .
She was up front at the hostess station. Sleeves rolled up, arms covered with needle artwork. Nicky Nolot looked like she was picked right out of New York’s Bowery in the 1970’s. She seemed kick-ass, and being city people, we couldn’t help but love her look. Like all things Indiana, when she opened her mouth and showed us to our table, she was as sweet as Sugar Cream Pie. Nicky was masterful in greeting people, seating them, and all the while keeping a close eye on the floor. You could tell this was her ship and she ran a good one.
From where we sat, we saw an equally tattooed individual looking over the plating station. This was Matthew Nolot, Executive Chef. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the name of the restaurant is their surname in reverse. A great allegory, as what came out from the kitchen and bar were what could be considered traditional American food and drink, but turned backwards, or rather, on its head. Their re-inventions heightens the category.
Started with some Appetizers at Tolon
We started with a few appetizers, highlighted by the pork rinds (this was no surprise). This was not of the packaged variety. There was a lightness, a finesse that was hard to describe, other than saying that I can almost taste that this pig had a good life. The nacho cheese powder dusting gave it a depth in flavor that I haven’t tasted before in pork rinds. It paired very well with what they call a smoked sazerac. This New Orleans favorite is prepared in a Fort Wayne way, which is less jazzy and more rock and roll. The Rye Whiskey and bitters are literally encased in a glass bottle filled with smoke. It tasted special. A bite of the rind, followed by a swig of the stuff, was a play on my palate that tasted nothing short of a real good smokehouse barbecue.
The mains included a ribeye steak cooked to a perfect medium-rare. The veal chop served with maple mustard was bold and stood up well to the Cabernet Sauvignon which it was paired. The bone marrow, served with onion jam to spread over duck fat toast, tasted as it was advertised – like God’s Butter.
Matthew was good enough to make some time to get to know us, and expressed to us his affinity for the Filipino National Dish, Pork Adobo. With that said, he sent out some pork belly for us to enjoy. It almost brought me to tears it was so good. To make sure the photos looked good, we ordered some Brussel sprouts as well, just so there was some green on a table filled with beautiful meat.
Matthew and Nicky source everything locally. They have a knack for taking a local product and making food that breaks borders. Most of all, they are exceptional people making exceptional food. The cuisine is inherently American and is Michelin Star quality. The service a notch above, and the experience, a night to remember. It is hands down the best restaurant in Indiana, and the City of Fort Wayne should be proud.
What to do in Fort Wayne:
There is no shortage of activities for families. Some highlights include – the Botanical Garden which has a wonderful butterfly exhibit; The Science Museum where one can ride on something called a high rail bike, which is as cool as any amusement ride with an educational facet; and lastly the very special Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. The zoo has a large range of animals to view from every corner of the world in a very concise setting. The highlight was the Stingray Room where one can feed and pet these beautiful creatures of the sea.
Best Place to Have a Snack in Fort Wayne:
For Sweets, go to the very popular, 1950’s inspired Ice cream shop, Yummi Bunni. Try their Ice Cream Bun, a sandwich big enough for two.
For Breakfast, take a corner seat at the “counter only”, Cindy’s Diner. We were joined by our friend Kristen, a local, and guided us into ordering their house special called, “Garbage”, which is a blend of eggs, potatoes, cheese, onions, and ham. The food here carries lots of punch for a very small and charming place. A metaphor to Fort Wayne.
Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island
For a little history, and our favorite spot for a quick bite, there is Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island. Inspired by the immigrants from Macedonia that saw the tubed meat sensation called hotdogs being sold in Coney Island New York by the thousands, descendants of that tribe brought the trade to this Fort Wayne location. In the past 80 years they have been doling out the best hot dogs along with burgers in the Mid-west . The likes of Mickey Mantle, a New York Yankee great, have stopped here to eat. A true institution with a very lively atmosphere.
What to do in Richmond:
The Amish and the Quakers are abundant in these parts. Why? Because they are not gawked at as if they were some sort of amusement. There was a sense of purity and tolerance about the place. This is best exemplified with a visit to the Levi Coffin House, a significant stop in the history of the underground railroad and the emancipation of slaves. This site, which should not be missed, is located in the city of Richmond, where we stayed in this portion of the trip.
Richmond, Indiana borders Ohio
Richmond borders Ohio and has a very different feel than the rest of the cities we visited previously. Gift shops have items displayed that are more geared toward Ohio State fans rather than Indiana University fans. Once again, illustrating, why Indiana is the crossroads. Speaking of roads, It was a beautiful drive from Fort Wayne to get here; and along the way, we saw signs leading to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and Hoosier Gym. As much as we would have loved to stop, there was Richmond to see and be tasted. So we dropped off our bags at the Hampton Inn & Suites and got going.
Abbott’s Candy Shop
Here we joined yet another food trail, this time the chocolate food trail. At the Welcome Center, one can pick up a Chocolate Trail Passport. This allows you to visit businesses that cooperate to bring visitors a great food experience by offering treats upon your visit to their site. Of the stops, our favorite was a family run establishment named, Abbots. This small chocolate manufacturer and store is housed in a very attractive, white stone building with pink doors. Ryan Noel, a young professional runs a good family business out of these said doors. It’s so small in production, that it can only be called artisanal in its approach. Many chocolates are still hand-dipped. The offerings are delectable, and a box of candies from this place would make a special gift, as it is not found outside of Richmond (and their other branch in Indianapolis).
The Kitchen at the Loft
There is a thriving art scene and a strong push to build businesses in what would otherwise be abandoned factories from the glory days of the automobile. This is most apparent at the Loft, an old factory building where there is art displayed on the building walls, and wonderful businesses starting to open, such as the best farm to table restaurant in Richmond, called the Kitchen. It’s here that we had another pork tenderloin. The batter on this rendition was a bit more like panko and the meat a bit more flattened out. What made it special, was the simplistic approach of just serving the cutlet in its natural form, without fixin’s, between two slices of white bread. Very pure and excellent. Our friend, Nancy, a resident of Franklin brought me to an adjoining room, where in it was a small batch brewery named, New Boswell. The owners of the establishment are passionate about their beers, and that same passion runs through all the businesses in the Loft, which gives me the impression that Richmond has some good times ahead.
Best Farm Experience in Indiana:
For a unique agricultural experience, spend some time at Pappaw’s Hunny Farm. Enjoy the lovely farm setting, replete with cattle and chickens grazing and running free. Stop in and get to know the farmer and beekeeper himself, Gary, and get educated on the small production honey he sells. Grab a few jars of the sweet stuff and other products he and his wife make from what they grow on the farm. Take them home and continue to have the taste of the Heartland well after you’ve left.
Where to Have Dinner in Richmond:
Owned by the same proprietors as Galo’s, the top Italian Restaurant in Wayne County, is the Olde Richmond Inn. This restaurant has a chop house setting, that can only be described as old school. Bring your appetite, because the portions are not small. Hard to stop, however, as everything on the menu is very good.
Ullery’s Homemade Ice Cream
Save room for Ullery’s Homemade Ice Cream. This small business started at the country fair level, and along the way winning many awards that have led to the opening of their own brick and mortar location. The night we were there, it seemed to be the place to be, as every table and seat were taken and people clamoring to get in their orders. It was a sweet way to end our last evening in Indiana.
Oasis Diner in Plainfield
In the morning we made a stop at the one and only, Oasis Diner, located in Plainfield. Executive Chef, Pedro Caperon, sat at a corner table with us to express his love for the history of the Diner (which has been an eating destination since 1954 when the structure was moved from New Jersey to Indiana) and his passion for elevating the food served in this retro diner. There were many mouthwatering offerings in which to select from, but it was our last meal in the great state, so it had to be no other than the Pork Tenderloin. This interpretation was colossal, to say the least. It looked like no less than three persons were needed to finish it. Brenda, Bailey and I, enjoyed every last crisp mouthful as if we were never going to taste this Indiana favorite again. In truth, I’d be hard pressed to say which one was the best, but this one at the Oasis Diner left a lasting impression, simply due to its equine proportion.
In June of 1987, Larry and the boys were in the NBA Finals again, and I was fortunate enough to have had a seat at the Boston Garden for one of the games. That night, with seconds left in the game, I watched the great Magic Johnson of the rival Los Angeles Lakers, beat my Boston Celtics, with a shot that would later be called the Baby Skyhook. Leaving Indiana, felt very much like how I felt that evening, knowing that all good things had to come to an end. We will forever remember the kindness of the people and the many unique experiences we had. Though it was over, our stay in the great state of Indiana was akin to having seen the great Larry Bird play – it was simply the stuff of Legend.
This post contains affiliate links, as always, prices remain the same for you. We were guests of Indiana Tourism, all words, and opinions, solely ours.
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