ON A SUNNY DAY TIMBROOK KITCHENS would be a cheerful breakfast and lunch place, a place for neighbors to drop in and catch up on the latest gossip. This day was about as gray as 8:30 in the morning could be, though, and it cast a twilit gloom over the place that made it feel like Bela Lugosi might greet you at the castle gate. I was in Munster, Indiana for an assignment at 3 Floyds, and I needed a place where I could grab coffee and a pastry and kill exactly as little or as much spare time as I had left from my drive.
3 Floyds is the one exception to the Indiana rule, which is that no one in Chicago has any idea what lies over the border in northwest Indiana. Munster is no further from downtown than, say, Wheaton or Naperville, and Indiana defines our border for miles, yet unlike with Wisconsin, where there’s a semi-friendly rivalry between cheeseheads and FIBs who often visit for bratwurst and beer, northwest Indiana is simply a blank spot on the mental map. A void Illinoisians cross to get to the splendors of Toledo.
But there’s Yelp, and looking for a place to grab breakfast, I found this one—which had a five star rating and lots of praise for the homemade pies. Now, five Yelp stars in a small town is a very relative thing. I had just passed a sign for a “family restaurant” which declared proudly, “Come try our salads and cold plates,” which suggests that there’s a part of the local restaurant market which has abandoned all hope entirely. But the place I found didn’t have to be great—just good enough. And if there was one thing I’d trust midwestern small town boosters on Yelp to be rigorously honest about, it’d be pie. Nobody bullshits about pie.
IT TAKES TWO TRIES TO FIND TIMBROOK KITCHENS, as it sits perpendicular to the road in a strip mall, but I park and as soon as I go in, the gloom begins to part with the smell of things baking and cooking. The owner—whose name is not Tim Brook, but Chris Monroe—stands surrounded by an array of pies, both sweet and savory. There are bright red bags of Intelligentsia coffee on the counter, and the menu board promises a soup of the day (cauliflower) and, a bit more surprisingly, a liverwurst, onion and smoked gouda sandwich special. “Believe it or not, that combination works,” Monroe says.
He tells me a little bit about himself and the cafe. The name Timbrook comes from his grandfather—it was his last name—and he points to a picture on the wall, showing him working his farm in the area. The place has been open coming up on three years. “I worked in a lot of restaurants,” he says. “We’re known for our savory pies. We’re always changing the menu—we’re not a farm to table restaurant, like that. But if I’ve got to make the food every day, I want to make something different, for me. If you talk to a lot of people in the kitchen, it’s doing the same thing over and over again that gets them.”
He walks me through the array of offerings laid out on the counter. “These have a potato crust, they’re gluten free, you’re getting everything you want in breakfast,” he says of one pie. “We do scones, we do buckles, we do cigars,” he says, pointing to long pastries. “They’re made with Danish dough. We usually make our own brioche, for cinnamon rolls. We’ve been making some Cypriot doughnuts. I’m trying to do more sandwiches, because there’s a definite lack of quality sandwiches here, but before I do that I want to develop some breads in house.”
As we’re talking a woman named Vera comes in, who lives in the area but works in Chicago, in Bridgeport. She admires the liverwurst sandwich on the board. “Is that a panini?” she asks, in a broad south side accent.
“Well, it’s toasted,” Monroe says. “In clarified butter.”
When I go into an independent, I’m appreciative that an independent invested their own money to open that place up.
“I’ll take one of those for my husband for dinner, cold,” she says, then adds, paradoxically. “My husband’s tryin’ to be a vegetarian. I’ll toast it myself. I can do that much,” she says to me, laughing huskily.
Monroe continues explaining his philosophy. “When I go to a restaurant, I’m like, what do you got? What’s interesting? And today, I think bakers and chefs need to take that back. Like Burger King used to say, have it your way.” He pops Vera’s breakfast pastry into the microwave to warm it up. “We do use a microwave here. If Rick Bayless uses one, it’s okay for us. If you come right when I bake something, that’s the best way to eat it, but the best way to reheat it is in the microwave. If you put it in the oven, it dries it out. Now, with the savory pies, with the filo dough, I microwave it a little in the middle, and then heat it in the oven so it’s crispy.”
“Hey Chris, did you go to that place you were gonna to go to?” Vera asks.
“Yeah, it’s good for this area. I just hope people will support it,” he says, then explains to me, “It’s a charcuterie shop that just opened in Griffith,” a town to the southeast. “They’ve got charcuterie, good cheese, craft beer.”
I’m surprised by this. Whatever big city snob preconceptions about the level of food culture in northwest Indiana I walked in with are falling fast, but I guess we all live in the world of food media now. As if on cue, Vera asks me what places in the city are my favorites. “I like to check out new places with my girlfriends,” she says.
“Well, there’s a place I really like with your name, Vera, a Spanish restaurant,” I say.
“Yeah, I been there,” she says. She takes a bite of her pastry (the vegetable one, with green olives, in the picture). “Pretty good, Chris,” she says.
“You know, what I’m finding is that a lot of my sandwiches convert very well to breakfast sandwiches,” he explains. “Like the liverwurst sandwich, you put an egg on that—”
“According to the Food Network, you can put an egg on anything,” Vera says. “I been a gourmet chef for all my life and didn’t even know it.”
I DECIDE I BETTER ACTUALLY GET SOME breakfast, before I run out of time, and I pick a slice of apple crumb pie. It’s good, like homemade pie—flaky crust, not too sweet or thick. It tastes like apples, not pie filling.
I eat as we keep talking—from eggs on everything we get to burgers, and then we talk about which burgers we like in Chicago (I make the case for BRGRbelly; they ask me if Au Cheval is really as good as everyone says). Then burger buns, and Chris makes an impassioned case for the one, the only way to do a burger bun right being to slice it right before serving and toast it on the grill. “Just try this when you go home—buy a bun that’s already sliced, and then buy buns and slice them right when they go on the grill. You’ll get a perfect toast.”
“But what’s worse than the hamburger bun,” he continues, “is the hot dog bun. That hasn’t gone anywhere. Put something in it! Put some chipotles and some cheddar cheese in it.”
I finish up my pie and decide I should make my way to 3 Floyds. Not surprisingly, they both have opinions about Munster’s best known eatery. “If you read the reviews people write, you’d never go in there,” Chris says. “The food’s very good—”
“You’ve got to be a little laidback and very patient,” Vera says.
“For me, when I go into an independent, I’m appreciative that an independent invested their own money to open that place up,” he says. “If you go in there with an entitlement attitude, well, I’m just going to march in and save a table—Floyds is not like that. But I’ve never had a problem there.”
“That’s because you’re an independent,” Vera says.
“True,” Chris says.
I wish them a good day and make my way to 3 Floyds. Afterwards, I look up that charcuterie place in Griffith, a town that I’ve never heard of. It’s actually a substantial town, over 10,000 anyway, but the commercial strip on Broad looks utterly rural, probably because of the taxidermy shop with full-sized bear and elk mounted on the roof. Yet I go in Charcuterie and find a shop that any neighborhood in Chicago would be glad to have, with meats from Smoking Goose and cheeses from Wisconsin cheesemakers you see at farmers markets and a selection of midwestern craft beer as good as any in the city.
But enough comparisons to the city. Artisan food culture belongs to everyone now. And it’s seeping through the entire country, even if you can’t see it from Chicago. Next time you’re sailing through it, get off the highway in Indiana. You might be surprised by what you find.
Michael Gebert is the editor of Fooditor, and hopes you get in one more road trip this summer. Fooditor will return after Labor Day.
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