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

ChickenNSpiceExterior

Exterior

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.

ChickenNSpiceMeal

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.

ChickenNSpiceGeorgeAndEddie

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?

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

Who: Beef-A-Roo

What:  Fast food restaurant

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

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

BeefarooSign

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?”

BeefarooFood

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.

BeefarooInterior

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.

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

IglooSign

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.

IglooShirtsCook

Igloo T-shirts and friendly cook

IglooInterior

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.

IglooRavs

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.

IglooPorkTenderloin

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.