Chicken-N-Spice and Everything Nice

Who:  Chicken-N-Spice

What:  Fast food restaurant

Where:  251 N. Chicago St., Joliet, IL  (815) 727-1100

When:  Seven days a week, 7:30am-10pm



Chicken-N-Spice may be my new favorite thing. It’s true, this opinion may be influenced by the fact that I was locked inside all weekend finishing a research paper and eating Ramen noodles. I’d call it “crave-worthy” under any circumstances, though. As I sorted through my end of semester bits and bobs, the pictures Charles took of our Chicken-N-Spice meal had me drooling. It was like the culinary equivalent of lying in the gutter and looking at the stars.

As I said, we made a day of it when we stopped in Joliet (well, night of it, in accordance with the pinball joint’s hours). I’m really not familiar with Joliet beyond the now-closed (and possibly haunted?prison that was in The Blues Brothers. Chicago Street Pinball (which I’m sure you read all about here and shared with all your friends) was the main goal of our trip, so we built our itinerary around that. I found a chicken place that got good reviews on Yelp, and going by the street names and numbers, it wasn’t too far away.

Chicken-N-Spice has been around since 1979, and the décor looks it (but I actually like a family rec room/dive bar ambience). Their claim to fame is their breast chunks. Having formerly worked in a hospital, the name strikes me as…a bit off-putting and clinical? It is an accurate descriptor, however, as they’re all white meat, and, as their website says, “never frozen, cut and seasoned right here in the restaurant daily!”

We weren’t sure how many to order as we tried to wrap our heads around what size they were, as the employees held their fingers out in approximate circumferences. The breast chunks were pretty big, maybe about the size of a tennis ball? I think we ordered six and took two home for later. You can see why they tout them, as they were absolutely delicious (I mean, they stirred my ardor so they had me quoting Oscar Wilde). Since they were so huge they were a bit tricky to eat, though. As it’s definitely not a bite-sized thing, and served piping hot, you’ll want to pause and set it down on a napkin or something as you grab some more hot sauce.


Okay, maybe we ordered more than six. Definitely had leftovers, though.

On the side we had “jo-jos” (their version of fries, sort of a seasoned potato wedge type thing) as well as spicy rice and big, fluffy biscuits. Other sides include creamy pepperjack macaroni and cheese bites(!). They have a soup of the day and an extensive, affordable breakfast menu as well (a $1.79 sausage and egg biscuit? That might even be cheaper than McDonald’s. This place was a great deal). They also have their version of chicken and waffles, with little breast chunks dotting the edges like teddy bear ears; can be ordered with or without strawberries.


Meal special (and Charles’ crazy neon jacket in the reflection)

I know I harshed on Rockford’s Beef-A-Roo, as (to me at least) their roast beef sandwich was a pale imitation of Chicago’s. Chicken-N-Spice felt like Harold’s Chicken Shack with a breakfast menu. What more could you want?


Play the Silver Ball at Chicago Street Pinball

What:  Chicago Street Pinball Arcade

Where:  215 N. Chicago St., Joliet, IL (779) 279-8799

Friday and Saturday, 5pm-11pm
By appointment for private parties

Cost:  $5 one hour, $10 all night


Chicago Street Pinball in Joliet just opened this past July, and is currently open only limited hours on a bit of a trial run basis.

Don’t think that means they’re hanging by a thread, though, that I’ll lead you all the way out there for kickass vintage pinball only to find an empty storefront. The place was started by brothers Chris and Mark Czarnowski, part of The Steelman Group that owns three buildings in downtown Joliet. They’re hoping to be part of a downtown renaissance.   “[The Czarnowskis] are real go-getters and they have a really great vision,” Pam Owens, director of Joliet City Center Partnership, told the Joliet-based Herald News. “The guys doing our downtown plan are seeing the same thing. They are saying Joliet has a vibe. It’s not a white-bread community. A lot of towns have become very sterile, but Joliet has maintained its unique character.”

Joliet mayor Tom Giarrante agrees, telling the Herald News, “I think [the Czarnowskis] are ahead of the trend. I think they can see what’s happening downtown and they want to get in now before interest peaks. Once the transportation center [is there] and [with the addition of] the Joliet Junior College downtown, there’s no question that the cost of property and rentals will go up.” He’s referring to Joliet’s multi-modal transportation center set to be completed in 2015, a stop on the proposed high speed rail line from Chicago to St. Louis.

Brother Mark Czarnowski is the games half of the duo, who’s been collecting pinball games for years. He envisions Chicago Street Pinball as a part of the new “barcade” trend of arcades serving alcohol, such as HQ Beercade and Logan Arcade in Chicago. When I spoke to him, they were still working on getting a liquor license, although they did sell a few small snacks (soft drinks and bags of chips). There are plenty of nearby eats and bars a short walk from the place, in any event.

He also wants to expand their business with private event bookings as well as hosting pinball tournaments. According to a June 2, 2014 article in WIRED, membership in the International Flipper Pinball Association, an official sports league of the game, now exceeds 23,000, up from 500 in 2006. The Chicagoland area in particular is a pinball hub; the only company currently manufacturing pinball games is Stern Pinball in the suburb of Melrose Park, whose latest games include The Walking Dead and Metallica.

Playing pinball is certainly a more physically engaging experience than video games (although Chicago Street does have a small smattering of video games as well). “Really, pinball is a game of skill and chance,” says Courtney Balestier of WIRED. “Players say it’s about an 80:20 ratio on newer machines; older ones hew closer to 50:50, because [of the design of the games].”


The sign outside Chicago Street Pinball promises games from five decades, and that, they do deliver. I’m certainly no expert on the subject, but the differences in games by era are pretty obvious, from Travel Time with its old school scoreboard of individually flipping numbers, to gimmicky games like Earth Shaker that have a “shake” feature that’ll make you think you broke the thing if you don’t know what’s going on.

Maybe it’s heresy to say this of a pinball joint, but my favorite game there was one of the five or so video games. At least it was vintage? It was a 1982 game called Pengo, which kind of reminded me of Pac Man (I used to be really good at Pac Man after getting the little table top version for Christmas as a tyke). Pengo is similar to Pac Man in that you go through a maze while monsters chase you, except in this case you’re a cute penguin and the walls are made of individual blocks of ice you can throw at the monsters for points. I guess the Pac Man template had been so thoroughly burned into my brain that messing with its basic structural environment just seemed like such gleeful anarchy to me. I was the number one high scorer, too (er, there were no prior scores up. “It resets every time you unplug it,” one of the employees said).


Chicago Street Pinball was a great time, and you really can’t beat the price with their unlimited play, pay as you enter arrangement. Once the fall semester’s over, I’ll try to go back and plan my Pengo world domination. Charles and I had a great time in Joliet, grabbing a quick but delicious dinner beforehand just a couple doors down (that’ll get its own entry).

The Passion of Rock ‘n Roll Beef-A-Roo

Who: Beef-A-Roo

What:  Fast food restaurant

3401 S. Alpine, Rockford, IL (815) 874-8550
(click here for six other Rockford area locations)

Sunday through Thursday, 9am – 10pm
Friday and Saturday, 9am – 11pm


Charles and I rounded out our day trip to Rockford with a stop for sandwiches at Beef-A-Roo, a hometown favorite for over 40 years, with seven locations in Rockford (and three surrounding towns). Each location has a different décor theme, and we chose the Rock ‘n Roll location in Rockford at 3401 S. Alpine Road (singing this with appropriately altered lyrics along the way.  “Beef-A-Roo is the place to rock…”).

They have a surprisingly extensive menu. There are 12 different salads, including Chicken Bruschetta, Grilled Tuna, and seasonal offerings of Summer Berry and Harvest Chicken. There’s also an entire gluten-free menu and a B-Fit menu with 14 items under 400 calories.  In other words, their healthy options aren’t an afterthought like those sad, half-hearted bits of iceberg, shredded carrot, and two or three cherry tomatoes that call themselves salads at a lot of fast food joints. Nobody puts Healthy in a corner at Beef-A-Roo, apparently.

All that might interest me more if I lived nearby and stopped there often on my lunch break, but we were tourists and we wanted to try their namesake.

I’m from Chicago, so the image I had in mind of a roast beef sandwich was different from what was on offer at Beef-A-Roo. I was thinking, of course, of the Italian beef sandwich served on a long, Italian-style roll, smothered in hot peppers and giardiniera and dipped in its own juices. Apparently this is only a Chicago thing (or found at places featuring “Chicago style” fare in other cities).

I know, I know. This is a travel blog (albeit a micro-travel blog amenable to a grad student’s micro-budget). I should be open to new experiences and local customs. The heart wants what it wants, though, and I was so excited for a little taste of home just off I-39, that I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed. I don’t know how to describe a non-Italian beef roast beef sandwich other than, “Um, a fancier version of Arby’s?”


Okay, I’ll try: The Beef-A-Roo roast beef sandwich is sort of like a hot version of a deli lunch meat sandwich, served on a hamburger bun, with all the toppings custom ordered. It was tasty enough, and probably healthier than the Italian style of my dreams. Charles and I each got the Classic Roast Beef, with some horseradish on the side (Charles tells me it’s a Polish tradition to have horseradish on Easter to give believers a taste of Christ’s suffering. “Except I like horseradish, so I’m not suffering”). The fries were quite tasty, thin and crisp. The cheese sauce was that neon orange stuff you get in a little container. The rock ‘n roll interior was fun (although seemed more like an all-encompassing 1950s theme). The employees were friendly and one came over to our table offering Starlight mints and Andes candies.


I might stop by again if I’m in Rockford and looking for some cheap eats, but I will skip the roast beef. Maybe try a salad with a side of horseradish to put my Chicago homesickness in perspective.

Strolling the Beauty of Anderson Japanese Gardens

What:  Anderson Japanese Gardens

Where:  318 Spring Creek Road, Rockford, IL  (815) 229-9390

May 1 – October 31 (earlier or later as weather permits)
Indoor events year round

Garden Hours:
Monday through Friday, 9am – 6pm
Saturday 9am – 4pm
Sunday10am – 4pm

Adults $8
Seniors (62+) $7
Child $6
Children under 5 Free
Regular Admission for Garden Members is Always Free

Speaking of hidden gems, in the nation’s “third most miserable city” you’ll find the number one ranked Japanese garden in the U.S., according to Sukiya Living Magazine:  The Journal of Japanese Gardening. I’m talking about Anderson Japanese Gardens.


The Gardens are the brainchild of its namesake, businessman John R. Anderson (as far as I can tell, no relation to John B. Anderson who ran for President of the United States as an Independent in 1980, although he is also from Rockford).

John R. Anderson is CEO of Anderson Enterprises, and a Rockford booster, serving as one of the local leaders behind the Rock River Regional Transformation initiative, whose goal is to make Rockford and the surrounding region one of the top 25 most desirable places to live and work in the U.S. by the year 2025.


Raccoon Husband and Wife sculpture

Anderson had become enchanted with Japan through many visits and attempted to build a Japanese garden in his backyard. In 1978 he visited a Japanese garden in Portland, Oregon, and tracked down one of the garden’s designers, Hoichi Kurisu, and arranged for him to build a similar garden in Rockford. As their brochure states, “From groundbreaking to today, the placement of every rock, alignment of every tree, and layout of all paths has followed the careful planning and vision of Mr. Kurisu.” In 1998, John and his wife Linda Anderson donated the Gardens to the Rockford Rotary Charitable Association, and it now exists as a not-for-profit entity.


Raccoon Husband and Wife sculpture (I thought they were cats)

Charles and I were lucky enough to catch the last day the Gardens were open for the season. We soaked up the beauty of fall, undercut as it is with the bittersweet bite of winter to come (or in more prosaic terms, that pit of your stomach feeling that tells you stepping outside will soon have you cursing a blue streak, so get in your nature loving while you can).

The Gardens are a sprawling 14 acres full of panoramic scenes and lovingly rendered little details. The main areas to wander are the two large ponds.  To the East is the Pond Strolling Garden, which is based on formal 13th Century Japanese garden design. To the West is the Garden of Reflection, whch features many traditional Japanese garden elements intermixed with more modern touches, such as Carl Milles’ Angels sculptures.


Carl Milles’ Angels sculptures

There were beautiful curved bridges connecting the East and West ends of the Gardens, and plenty of koi in the ponds, the biggest I’d ever seen. There were lots of benches for quiet contemplation.  There were guest houses and tea houses (unfortunately, not open to the public), a visitor center and an event pavilion which hosts many special events, and can be rented out for weddings and private events.





I had no idea such a lovely place was such a short drive away and can’t wait to go back in the spring. Although the Gardens proper are now closed for the season (you’ll have to wait ’til May 1, 2015 to check it our yourself), the Gardens hosts a lot of year round indoor events. There are ongoing Tai Chi and Bujinkan (a form of martial arts) classes, and on December 10 and 12 (if you have $50), get into the season with a traditional candlelight Christmas dinner including carols sung by Kantorei, The Singing Boys of Rockford.

Hangin’ with Sue’s Cousin at the Burpee Museum

What:  Burpee Museum of Natural History

Where:  737 N. Main Street, Rockford, IL  (815) 489-7970

When:  Seven days a week, 10am-5pm

Adults: $8
Children 4-7: $7
Children 3 and under: FREE
Members: FREE


I had never heard of the Burpee Museum, but Charles wanted to check it out, and chose it as one of a couple stops in the much-maligned city of Rockford. The name Burpee made me think of Burpee seeds and wonder if it was some kind of plant or farming museum. Apparently it’s named after furniture maker Harry Burpee, no relation to the tomato empire.


Opened in 1942 with funds from Harry Burpee and the Works Progress Administration, the Burpee Museum is four floors of natural history exhibits. Its current star attraction is Jane, the world’s most complete and best preserved juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex in the exhibit Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur. Discovered in Montana in 2001, Jane’s bones have been reconstructed into a fully restored 21 foot skeleton. Jane is about half the size of Sue, the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton housed at Chicago’s Field Museum.

NIU researchers made important discoveries about the juvenile behavior of young T. rexes through the bite wounds on Jane’s nose. “When we looked at the jaw and teeth of Jane, we realized her bite would have produced a very close match to the injuries on her own face,” NIU researcher Joe Peterson said. “That leads us to believe she was attacked by a member of the same species that was about the same age. Because the wound had healed, we think this happened when Jane was possibly a few years younger.” In other words, if I understand correctly, T. rexes may have rumbled with each other to practice their fighting techniques like common house cats.



There was much to learn about dinosaurs. Another exhibit was Homer’s Odyssey: From Badlands to Burpee, which recreates the life of another “teenaged” dinosaur, this time a Triceratops. There was an entire wall covered with different species of Triceratops skulls; I had no idea there was so many, The museum also had exhibits on the Ordovician Sea which millions of years ago covered the land now called Rockford, the living habits of indigenous people, and the local flora and fauna. The top floor had interactive panels that shot out the scent of local flowers and the sounds of local birds. Located as it was right on the Rock River, there was a lovely view out the window of what looked like some kind of outdoor concert area (I could only guess at its purpose as it was way too cold for outdoor shenanigans when we visited).


Homer the Triceratops


The multifaceted Triceratops family

I have to say it was extremely dead the day we visited. We practically had the place to ourselves, which was a little spooky. I don’t know if it’s not a high traffic museum or we just went on an off day (Charles’ Facebook check said there was a Bears game that day). Apparently local legend Rick Nielsen’s exhibit there a couple years back was a big hit


The view out the window of the Rock River

The Burpee Museum has many educational programs for adults and kids, including science workshops for home schooled students, programs for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as virtual field trips for non-locals.

“Forbes, Schmorbes”: A Day in Rockford

When I mentioned to friends and acquaintances that Charles and I were headed to Rockford for the weekend, the reaction more or less was, “Why the hell would you do that?”

Apparently it has a bad rep. In 2013, Forbes magazine named it one of the most miserable cities in America. Its decline in manufacturing base, high property taxes, and high unemployment (in 2012, its unemployment rate was ranked 30th out of 372 U.S. metropolitan areas) placed it at number three, just behind Detroit and Flint, Michigan. (They ranked my dearly missed Chicago at number four, for a sense of perspective). Law Street Media named Rockford the number two most dangerous city under 200,000.

I’d been curious about Rockford, as it is the largest town in the 815 area code and certainly closer than Chicago at just a quick 30 to 40 minute jaunt from DeKalb on Interstate 39. I can’t say I knew much firsthand about Rockford, beyond being a signpost on Interstate 90 and the home of Cheap Trick. Speaking of, their guitarist Rick Nielsen still lives there and is a bit of a local fixture (for the benefit of younger readers, he’s the guy who says, “Are we really the Dream Police?” at 1:04). In 2012 he told the Washington Post, “I could’ve gone anywhere; I could’ve moved to Hollywood. But I stayed here. This is an authentic place. It’s got a lot of warts, but it’s real.”

You might say, “Sure, but a rock star doesn’t have to worry about unemployment and can afford to live in the nice part of town.” True, but he does put his money where his mouth is. Since 2007, he’s had plans for a dream project called Rick’s Place, a proposed $25 million restaurant, hotel, conference center, and music education center off Interstate 90 (unfortunately the plans went on indefinite hold in 2011 due to the recession and his investors’ resulting skittishness). Nielsen is part owner of the Stockholm Inn, a Swedish breakfast joint, and in 2013, he won a Lincoln Award for Excellence in Tourism for his Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair with Guitars and Music exhibit at the Burpee Museum. “If you can make it in Rockford,” he says, “you can make it anywhere. Rockford is where our families are. We made a decision to raise our family here. All my kids went to the same school that I did. How crazy is that?”

Incidentally, Go Rockford, the official website of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, grabbed hold of the Forbes magazine “miserable cities” designation, attempting to repurpose the label to their own ends with the slogan “Rockford: Real. Original” as well as as this “Misery Loves Company” video:

I can’t say I have a personal investment in Rockford, but their spunky tourism slogan reminds me a bit of that Nelson Algren quote about Chicago, the number four most miserable city (“Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real”).

Tune in for my tour of the Burpee Museum, the Anderson Japanese Gardens, and a local Rockford eatery or two.

The Great Pork Tenderloin Debate at The Igloo

Who:  Igloo Drive-In

What:  Diner restaurant

Where:  2819 4th Street, Peru, IL  (815) 223-0848

When:  Seven days a week, 10:30am-10pm


You may have noticed this blog about hidden gems of Northern Illinois has been a bit heavy on coverage of the Illinois Valley (i.e., the land that’s spitball distance from Starved Rock).  It is where I spend most weekends I’m not in DeKalb.  I do have some adventures in Rockford and Joliet to share with you.

You’ll have to wait for those, though, as this entry’s about what I’m told is a quintessential Illinois Valley experience:  The pork tenderloin.

My local guide told me it was an Illinois Valley thing; anecdotal conversation and Internet research told me it was a Midwestern thing. Apparently there’s a movie about what a quintessential Indiana thing it is, and in Iowa, people debate what makes for the best pork tenderloin sandwich as passionately as Chicagoans do their pizza.

Charles and I stopped at the Igloo in Peru, Illinois to experience the pork tenderloin sandwich. A smallish restaurant with a bit of a family rec room feel, the Igloo has been around since 1937. Rich, the owner, came to talk to us .He asked about this blog and was happy to share info about the place. He said it wasn’t uncommon to see four generations at a table, the great grandparents full of memories of coming there as a kid. The piles of Igloo T-shirts and merchandise for sale at the counter spoke to its longevity and iconic status.


Igloo T-shirts and friendly cook


Igloo interior

So, onto the food. I started out with the ravs. The locals call ravioli “ravs”…except it’s actually tortellini, served in broth.  It made for a pleasant, filling soup.


Ravs and broth

“Pork tenderloin” made me think of a slow cooked Sunday dinner, the kind people mean when they say, “I miss Sunday dinners with the family.”  In sandwich form, the meat is prepared similarly to a Wiener Schnitzel or chicken parmigiana where it’s flattened very thin with a tenderizer, then breaded and fried. It’s so thin that it’s much wider than the bun. I ordered it with standard fixin’s of mustard, pickles, and onions (actually, I think ketchup is also a standard topping, but I asked them to skip it). It was good, but it was so thin and heavily breaded that I honestly tasted that more than the meat. Charles ordered the Italian sausage with peppers, onions, and marinara sauce and said it was really good.


The pork tenderloin sandwich, Igloo style

We spied a handful of arcade games in the back near the bathrooms, but didn’t check them out as we were on our way to a play.

I regret that I have but one pork tenderloin sandwich experience to share with my audience, but based on what I’ve read about the various preparation methods, I think I’m in the “less breading, more pork” camp. It’s possible this is one of those “it just tastes like home” kind of things, if the area has a nostalgic pull for you. I’d head back to the Igloo for the friendly atmosphere and maybe check out their take on burgers and fries and their frosty mug root beer. Lord knows I spend enough time in the Illinois Valley.