If you haven’t already realized, I like food: eating food, taking pictures of food, how food gets made, politics around food, etc. I also like to drink beer. Over my holiday vacation with my family in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I enjoyed both these things in bunches. Grand Rapids, Michigan in western Michigan brings down to earth midwestern charm to the microbrewery trend.
My first night in Grand Rapids my family and I went for dinner at Harmony Hall, a branch of Harmony Brewery. Harmony Brewery’s original Eastown location served wood-fire pizza but the Westside location in the old Little Mexico Cafe serves German-style fare (i.e. sausage). Like the other breweries around town, Harmony Hall provides a wide selection of beers on tap, something that’s different from the smaller selection you normally find at California breweries.
I tried their black squirrel porter, which my sister described as drinking bacon. The beer was full bodied and intensely smoky but not bitter the way some smoky beers can be.
Harmony Hall serves German-style fare: sausages, spaetzle, schnitzel, and giant pretzels. This is not straightforward, old school German, though. Their sausage dishes take inspiration from Asia, Italy, and Poland. I ordered the Korean BBQ Sausage: bulgogi beef and pork sausage with ginger, sesame, sweet pear, and red chili pepper topped with greens, Kimchi, chili aioli, green onion, and sesame seeds. The sausage was flavorful and juicy with a snappy casing. The chili aioli (sriracha mayo with a fancy name) overpowered the kimchi and the bagged spring greens were unnecessary and slightly slimy. Order it without the stale and lackluster bun. Sides include potato salad, red cabbage slaw, pickled veggies, or sweet and spicy beans. I ordered mine with the sweet and spicy beans. The beans were alright; I got the spicy component but not much of the sweet, and the flavors were a little flat. You also get potato chips with your meal (or fries if you want to pay two dollars extra) and these were some damn fine potato chips: crunchy, salty, and fresh.
The Old Goat
The Old Goat is considered one of the best restaurants in Grand Rapids. Families and friends packed the restaurant on an early Thursday afternoon. The two-storied restaurant sports a goat theme and takes being hipster a little too seriously, but overall the ambiance and service were fine. Our server made every effort to sell the Cuban pork burrito special, even trying to convince me that “it’s hard to make a bad burrito.” Oh, sir, those are fightin’ words for a Californian.
I ordered a “Combonation” with the Savadge Spinach Salad with fingerling potatoes, mustard vinaigrette, candied bacon, and of course, a Polish sausage, and Rodney’s Comeuppance: a ham sandwich with Swiss, goat cream cheese, garlic honey, and grain mustard on a Nantucket pretzel roll. They overdressed the spinach salad and the addition of the polish sausage was definitely overkill; however, the potatoes were perfectly cooked and the candied bacon complimented the tangy mustard. The Swiss cheese overpowered the mustard, garlic honey, and goat cream cheese. The pretzel roll was delicious. If you're looking for an affordable lunch option, order the sandwich combination, not the lunch entree. They also serve Michigan-made Brix sodas.
Did you know Grand Rapids is known as Beer City, USA? You did, well, aren’t you so much more informed than I am. Voted Best Beer Town by USA Today in 2015, Grand Rapids boasts over forty breweries. On my trip to Grand Rapids, I went to three: Harmony Hall, The Mitten Brewing Company, and Elk Brewing.
Our first stop of the day was The Mitten Brewing Company, a baseball themed brewery and pizza place. The Mitten apparently serves some of the best pizza in western Michigan and for twenty-five dollars, you can order a pizza flight: a sampler of six different pizzas. We decided to go for two beer flights and a pizza flight. For our beer flight, my sister and I ordered the Goat Curse, Caught Lookin’ Coconut Porter, Label Up Maple Pecan Brown, and the Mitten Milk Stout Nitro. Of the Goat Curse, pecan brown, and Mitten milk stout, it was hard to choose a favorite, but I think I will have to go with the warming and slightly bitter Goat Curse. The only beer disappointment was the Caught Lookin’ Coconut Porter which my sister aptly described as “Drinking suntan lotion.”
For our pizza flight, we ordered the Werkerdog, Field of Greens, Thai Cobb, The Heater, the Margherita, and Chipotle BBQ. I despise raw onion, especially raw red onion with a feverish passion and almost every single pizza had raw red onion on it except for the Margherita. I tried the Thai Cobb, The Heater, and the Chipotle BBQ. The Thai Cobb’s mix of the spicy and sweet peanut sauce with crunchy peanuts and vegetables earned the top spot. The Heater brought a briny spiciness with a little bit of sweetness that worked well with the mozzarella and andouille sausage. The Chipotle BBQ disappointed me with its lack of bbq flavor or really much of any flavor besides cheese.
After an attempt to visit a packed Founder’s Brewery, we made our way over to Elk Brewing. The three of us shared a flight of coffee porter, PB&J stout, PB&J ale, cream soda ale, and a Scotch ale. Four out of the five beers were top notch, but the peanut butter and jelly stout stole the show. These had to be some of the best beers I’ve ever had and I will continue my search for them in California, one strike so far for Bev-Mo in Ventura.
The Grand Coney
If you’re like me and like getting sucked into deep Wikipedia black holes, start researching the history behind the coney. Shallow explanation: “coney” is a regional term for a hot dog throughout the Midwest typically served with a Greek-inspired ground beef sauce on top. The dish varies throughout the region and there are even several versions you can get in Michigan: Detroit style, Flint style (dirty water hot dog takes on a whole new meaning), Jackson style, and Kalamazoo style. Coneys are a hotly debated topic and customers throughout the region become fiercely loyal to their favorite coney shop.
At Grand Coney in Grand Rapids, I ordered the Coney special with no onions. The Coney special comes with chili, ground beef, onions (please stop with the raw onion, Michigan), and mustard. The ground beef and chili mix were surprisingly dry; I expected a saucy ground beef or chili to moisten the bun. The hot dog lacked snap, but the overall flavor of the dog was on par with a decent grocery store hot dog.
Grand Rapids surprised me with its excellent selection of beer and quality of food. Yes, it tends towards heavy, meat-centered dishes, but that’s what you want when the weather is cold enough to freeze your eyelashes and it’s been snowing for two straight weeks. A few places tried a bit too hard to get the hipster thing going. Seriously, restaurants stop serving your food on cutting boards and use them for their intended purpose: cutting and chopping, and stop giving your food clever pun names. Grand Rapids, your food is damned good and your beer top notch, stop trying to gild the lily and leave the silliness to Californians; we have a reputation to maintain.