Clinton, Illinois is best known for a lake where scores of people from Central Illinois escape the summer heat and humidity. The town is located in the middle of the corn fields, west of Lincoln and South of the Twin Cities, an area not known for its culinary delights. Because of this, one has to be adventurous and often settle for culinary oddities and other places of interest. If we’re talking about restaurants, the willingness to drive is even more important. It really isn’t a big deal. I’ve spend the last two decades living in this area and I’ve been known for driving hundreds of miles just for a decent baguette. This still compares favorably to my brother’s situation on the near the DC Beltway: he typically spends about a month in his cars each year as he commutes. At two hour drive to Whole Foods in Chicago, a quick run over to Peoria, Urbana or Springfield, is really no big deal.
Clinton, interestingly enough, has two places that are worth mention: Toohill’s Meats and Ted’s Garage.
Toohills isn’t a restaurant; it’s the outlet for a local meat producer that specializes in organic-grain-feed beef. The stuff is top notch and beats the bagged monkey meat sold at Walmart and Sam’s anyday fo the week. What is nice is that I can special order butcher cuts that are not usually available in the United States. The store is located on Van Buren Street, and I don’t give it any stars for the décor but five stars for the quality of the product.
Last week while I was picking up Hanger Steak, a cut that is usually featured in French bistros, I decided to check out a restaurant that sits on the main drag: Ted’s Garage. Like the name suggests, it’s a car-themed restaurant, a few minutes off Rt. 51. In all it’s about 20 miles south of Bloomington-Normal. The menu borrows from the automotive world: the appetizers are called “tune ups,” side orders are “spare parts,” drinks are “Phill-ups,” and orders from the bar are labeled “high octane.” The fare is burgers and fries: Ted’s specializes in pulled pork sandwiches, burgers, breaded pork tenderloin, home fries, coconut cream pie, and horseshoes. For those who have never experienced a horseshoe, think of an open-faced hamburger, covered with French fries and drenched with cheese. If done right, it can be pretty good. The down side is that the “shoe” will run about 1800 artery-clogging calories, the equivalent to about four and a half hours on the treadmill.
Ted’s Garage has been open since 2004 and, unlike most of the chain restaurants in the area, sports a one of a kind atmosphere: 50s and 60s music, hand-dipped shakes, old style tables and chairs. The interior is decorated with gas station and soda shop memorabilia, refurbished pumps, vintage photographs of Clinton, and light fixtures and signs that hark back to the day when Shell, Conoco, Sky Chief, Texoco, and Standard Oil provided full service. From the appearances, it looks like they do a pretty good business. The day I was in it looked as if the local sowing circle was having its weekly meeting. It was a perfect hangout for the blue hair crowd.
Another attraction of the restaurant is the ever-changing car display. The week I was in the place featured a fully-restored 1969 Rally Sport Z-28, which evoked a number of high school memories cruising the strip in a rust-bucket 69 Camero, downing malt-duck and listening to Boston’s Don’t Look Back. Perhaps the only thing that is missing is a jukebox, chocked full of hits from Elvis, the Everly Brothers, and Dion and the Belmonts.
The waitress told me the biggest seller on the lunch menu was breaded-pork tenderloin, and big it was. It is usually bigger than the bun. I was glad I ordered it with everything because it came unseasoned and needed ketchup, mustard, pickles, and onions to make it right. A little salt and pepper would have made it just right. Likewise, the home made chips were also unseasoned, which was sad. The chips take the salt when they’re freshly cooked. This is pretty easy to remedy. All in all I give the place a B+ for originality and a C+ for the food. This is a quick fix, however. A little seasoning will bring the food up-to-speed grade up faster than a nitrous-oxide fuel injection.
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=878