Drive far enough for your radio presets to go fuzzy, where newspaper boxes and area codes look unfamiliar, and your car ride can now be deemed a road trip.
An hour from downtown Chicago is that placid slice of northern Indiana and southwestern Michigan called Harbor Country, where summer is greeted with large "We're open!" signs. When I solicited friends for eating destinations in the area, four places came up in conversations again and again. All were within 12 miles of one another. So I spent the day visiting the four, spanned two time zones and came home without even filling up the tank again.
Redamak's: Like Wisconsin's Mars Cheese Castle an hour north of Chicago, Redamak's in New Buffalo, Mich., has become an obligatory pit stop an hour the other way on Interstate Highway 94. Folks make it sound as if it's the only place within a 30-mile radius with a worthwhile hamburger.
About Redamak's self-anointed "legendary" burger: It's a grill-top, sesame bun burger with ketchup, mustard, pickles and raw onion slices. No fancy accouterments, though cheese options abound from pepper jack to a Velveeta spread that shellacs the beef to a gloss.
Unfortunately, it misses the mark where it mattered most. Maybe I've been spoiled by the abundance of A plus versions in Chicago, because an off-mark patty now seems doubly conspicuous. Redamak's ground chuck was too densely packed, underseasoned and lacked color from the grill-top sear. The beef was roughly proportional to a hockey puck, so when customers order a triple burger, it arrives stacked in an unwieldy way that requires removal of at least one, if not two of the third-pound patties. (The crinkle-cut fries were decent, though, crisp with the thickness of a lady's pinky.)
But, clearly, I'm in the minority because the restaurant goes through 67 tons of beef each year, with lines out the door on summer weekends. There's no denying its status as a beloved regional institution, a badge the restaurant began earning in 1946. Redamak's trade is nostalgia and family friendliness, dripping ear to ear from a staff so sunny you'll need a thick slather of SPF 30 to dine in.
As one New Buffalonian told me, in a tone halfway between defensiveness and capitulation: "If you grew up around here, you love it."
In other words: Come for the cheery disposition, but head straight for desserts.
616 E. Buffalo St., New Buffalo, Mich.; 269-469-4522; Hours (Eastern time): Noon-10 p.m. Sunday; Noon-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; Noon-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
P. & E. Mullins' Local: A few doors down from Redamak's sits Pat and Ellie Mullins' house. You can tell by the bacon flag flying in the front yard. The Mullins live upstairs. Downstairs, the couple runs the butcher shop of my dreams.
Pat Mullins was a cook at Blackbird in Chicago, then moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., with two friends to open a restaurant called The Hungry Cat. There he met his future bride, Ellie, and three years ago the couple found their way to picturesque New Buffalo and a cottage along the town's main drive. The space dictated the business they'd pursue, perhaps a cafe or sandwich shop. But thinking back to his Blackbird days, where Pat Mullins learned to smoke meats and cure bacon, a butcher shop made the most sense.
The smell hits you first. Take the smoke of hickory and cherry wood, then round off the edges with the perfume of farm stand produce, fresh meat and woodsy musk. If the Mullins manufactured a car freshener that smelled like their shop, I'd buy 10.
Since opening two Marches ago, the Mullins have built a small buzz for their coffee and maple syrup-braised bacon jam, made in small batches and sold only on Sundays. It's so popular, they say, a line forms outside their home at 10 a.m., and jars are limited to one per customer.
I wasn't able to secure the elusive bacon jam but did come home with their kielbasa, smoked chicken and duck ham. Grilling the kielbasa over charcoal amplified the already-intense garlicky link. Spectacular, though the wife wouldn't kiss afterward. As for the poultry, I tore into both on the Mullins' patio table. The duck ham was particularly memorable: a Gunthorp Farm duck breast cocooned in its fat and skin, brined with honey granules and brown sugar, then finished in the smoker. I devoured it chilled and thinly sliced, but Pat Mullins suggested it'd be even better fried on a skillet with potatoes and a poached egg. That's outrageous.
424 E. Buffalo St., New Buffalo, Mich.; 269-231-5138; Hours (Eastern time): 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday
Drier's Meat Market: Seven miles east of the Mullins' new-breed butchery are the old-school Driers, who for a long while ran Southwest Michigan's meat market to the stars. The Daleys, Eberts and Sandburgs were among the boldfaced Chicago names who frequented the shop in pastoral Three Oaks, Mich.
That would be Carl Sandburg, not Ryne, which means the market predates you and me and probably your grandparents. In this space in 1875, an Englishman turned a wagon repair shop into a fresh meat store. A hundred years ago, Ed Drier Sr. bought out the Englishman, and the market has stayed in the family since. But as supermarkets became omnipresent in the 1960s, the Driers dropped the fresh meats and switched to an all smoked and cured business.
Step in the shop and notice the sawdust on floor, yellowed newspaper clippings, country paraphernalia and the glass panes and smokehouse that date to the McKinley administration. Compare photos of the shop from the 1950s with today, and it remains astoundingly preserved, like peering into amber, the only trace of modernity being perhaps the credit card machine.