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

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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.

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Igloo T-shirts and friendly cook

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ditching Homework at Book Mouse

Who:  Book Mouse

What:  Independent book store

Where:  722 LaSalle Street, Ottawa, IL  (815) 433-7323

When:
Monday-Saturday, 10am-6:30pm
Sunday, noon-4pm

Book Mouse is an adorable independent book store in downtown Ottawa, Illinois, the “land of two rivers,” where the Fox River meets the Illinois River.  Book Mouse is celebrating its 21st birthday this Halloween, so it’ll be old enough to drink.

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Exterior

A circuitous route led me there.  Last summer I met a new manfriend from the Illinois Valley region, 60 miles from DeKalb.  Turning the commute into fun road trips was my new hobby and the impetus for this blog.

This is why downtown Ottawa was my choice of locale one day for a coffee shop to hunker down and be productive in. I spotted Book Mouse across the street and decided to investigate. I was drawn to its cute sign and display window chockfull of upcoming event announcements. My mom’s birthday was coming up, so I stopped in and got her the latest from one of her favorite authors (A Sudden Light by Garth Stein), chatted with the employees and snapped a few pics.

I had a brief phone chat with the owner, Eileen Fesco. She’s owned the store for the past eight and a half years. The next big event she’s looking forward to is nearly 600 trick or treaters heading through the downtown area, an event she started around 2006.

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Interior

“We do quite a few community events,” she said. “I just got back from doing two read-alouds at two Head Start programs. We do school book fairs, also. We go to the schools and set up on all these tables hundreds of books for them to shop.” Other events for shoppers include Toddler Time storytelling and a monthly Poetry and Pizza night (“We provide the pizza, they provide the poetry”). “We’ll do author dinners at a local restaurant. Buy a ticket and you’ll get a book, a dinner, and an author chat.” These are held at Hank’s. “They have a wonderful ambience. They have a nice side room that’s big enough and quiet enough to have an author talk.” You can find a list of their upcoming events here.

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Ghostbusting in the 815

Some bookstores offer e-book purchases. Fesco said they tried this for about six years before deciding it just wasn’t profitable. “It was costing us a couple thousand dollars a year to offer the service and we made like $150.00 on it for the whole year. We decided to go back to the basics. We’re your full service book store with knowledgeable book sellers, and we will order any book you want. I’d say special orders account for about 30 percent of our business. We typically get the orders in the next day, and you don’t have to pay any shipping.”

When I asked Fesco what accounted for her store’s longevity, she said, “This is just a reading area. People are big advocates of reading. That’s, I think, the big reason that we are still around, because lots and lots of stores have closed. Also the high level of teen reading, and I attribute that to the teens I have working in the store. Usually I find my employees [because they’re patrons] just hanging out in the store reading books.”

I missed them on my visit, but apparently Book Mouse has a resident cat named Sonny as well as some degus, which are like a smaller cousin to the chinchilla. “We always have some critters in here. It’s like a kid magnet. They’ll be going by the store and say, ‘Can we see Sonny the kitty?’”

Like most Illinois Valley towns, Fesco cites the scenery as a big draw to the area. “We’re close to Starved Rock. That’s the main reason that people visit the area. It’s on the way to and back from Starved Rock between Chicago and here. We’re one of the biggest downtowns and we have lots of restaurants. Lots of hotel rooms. Unless you’re staying right at Starved Rock, this is the place to stay inexpensively, and they have pools.” Ottawa is also home to the first Lincoln-Douglas debate.

“Before I bought the store,” Fesco said, “I interviewed a lot of book stores in the area and in Wisconsin, and that’s one thing they said—‘Make yourself valuable to the community.’ So we make sure that we participate in community events any way we can, donate to charities, help the schools—basically, we make ourselves valuable to the community. We have a very welcoming store, it smells nice, with pretty music and animals and knowledgeable booksellers.  If you walk into Walmart, you’re lucky even trying to find someone who knows where the book section is.  Here, if we don’t have it, we will find it for you, and we will get it for you quick.  It’s customer service, nice ambience, and making yourselves valuable to the community.”

A Quick Bite of the Sandwich Fair; Gene’s

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On Saturday, September 6th, I made it to next to last day of the Sandwich Fair.  No, it’s not an ode to the joys of bread-bookended meats and cheeses, it’s a step into another world (at least for this ex-city girl). Running for five days straight right around Labor Day, the Sandwich Fair is the pride and joy of Sandwich, Illinois, which stretches out over DeKalb, Kendall, and LaSalle Counties. Sandwich is about a half hour drive south of my starting point, DeKalb. Admission was $9.00, and parking was free.

Unlike other temporary fairs that shoehorn booths and rides into otherwise occupied space, shutting down village streets and redirecting traffic, the Sandwich Fair is a permanent fixture on the landscape.  It’s been running strong since 1888 when the Sandwich Fair Association purchased the land where it sits.  (Click here for a map of the grounds).

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Petting zoo chick and friend

My friends and I were hungry on arrival and quickly made our way to the pulled pork sandwiches and sugary lemon shake-ups.  Thus sated, we meandered around the livestock pens.  (Pro tip:  Though the animals on display are champs, they’re still animals – watch your step and plan ahead with shoes you don’t mind getting dirty.  While we’re on the subject of bodily functions, though they had portable toilets to accommodate the crowds, I was pleasantly surprised that they not only had real bathrooms, but bathroom attendants).

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Friendly bathroom attendant

It was a lovely end of summer day petting fuzzy animals, checking out a steel drum band, a pig raffle, a baking competition (all the goodies were just for show behind glass, though), and a photography exhibit.  I felt like we barely scratched the surface of everything the fair had to offer.  Saturday’s big attraction was the NTPA sanctioned tractor pull.  Early in the day, my bones rattled at the wall of sound that was the 12:30 show, but I was unable to talk my crew into staying for the 6:30 show at the end of the long, hot day.  It also required extra admission cost – $10 for the grandstand seats and $20 for reserved and “hot seats.”  Maybe next year.  For more information on the tractor pulls, see the official Sandwich Fair website or check out a sneak peek on YouTube.  There were carnival rides and bands as well, with the day before featuring country star Easton Corbin.

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Kids learning farm work with Maggie the Milking Cow

Lunch was reasonably priced ($3.00 pulled pork sandwiches?  Yes, please).  We were quite pleasantly surprised that parking was free.  The parking lot was a breeze getting in, with plenty of attendants gesturing guests into neat rows.  It was quite an ordeal getting out, though.  Everyone was forced to exit in one direction, with people from rows ahead of you constantly braiding into the exit traffic.  We were stuck there a good 40 minutes.  Forewarned is forearmed:  Fill up the gas tank, pack some drinks, snacks, and music.  Focus on the gentle, fuzzy lamb you made friends with mere hours ago.

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Photography exhibit

We capped off the day in Sandwich at Gene’s (125 S. Main Street), where I was introduced to the glory of the beef roll, which I’m told is a LaSalle County specialty.  It’s like that old Chicago standby, the roast beef sandwich, but instead of a drippy (but delicious) mess of a sandwich roll, it’s wrapped in a freshly made pita, and eaten with a fork and knife.  When I say “pita,” don’t think of those sad little grocery store wedges for scooping up hummus.  Freshly made pita is a hot, bubbly, pillowy blanket of perfection.  In addition to beef, several sandwiches get the roll treatment; other options include turkey, gyro, and even a vegetarian lover’s roll.  I may have to investigate this roll phenomenon in future entries.