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Feature Fri Aug 21 2009

Yes, Michigan! (and a Little Indiana, for Good Measure)

Michigan has a proud history of producing tourism ads that tug at our inner cheeseball. These days, the state's tagline is "Pure Michigan," a nod to the back-to-basics lifestyle most of us - with our shiny new canning equipment and homegrown Purple Cherokees - aspire to, but actually experience only in brief flashes. Take it down a notch, Michigan implores. Be real.

I'll admit it's a nice sentiment, but I much prefer the equally schmaltzy, yet more exuberant Michigander mantra from my childhood: "Yes, Michigan!" Since I can remember, my family and I have made annual summer sojourns to southwestern Michigan, where my uncle has a cabin. On our trips, we embrace the "Yes" in "Yes, Michigan!" Yes, we will spend all day on the pontoon boat. Yes, we will find room in a three-bedroom cabin for 10 to 12 adults and five to eight kids, give or take a few. Yes, we will blow off obscene amounts of illegal fireworks smuggled in from Indiana. Yes, Michigan!

It's a more fitting slogan all around, I think, but especially when it comes to the food. And it there's one spot in Harbor Country southwestern Michigan that screams "Yes, Michigan!" it's Sherman Dairy Bar in South Haven, Mich. Put simply, I don't know of a better place in the world to eat ice cream. The Sherman family has been making its premium ice cream "one batch a time" since the '50s, and some families have been bringing generations to Sherman's, as everyone calls it, just as long. Flavors range from old standbys to my personal favorite, Amaretto Cherry, with a rich fudge swirl. (One summer, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake edged it out. Sadly, and for reasons unfathomable to me, they chose not to make it a regular.)

Scoops are enormous. The baby cone is always enough, no matter what your age; then again, it's not very "Yes, Michigan!" to order a baby cone on vacation, now is it? One summer day, the ladies in the family spent the day antiquing, stopping only for a "light lunch" - Sherman's double-scoops. We made a pact not to tell the rest of the family so that we wouldn't be shamed (mock-shamed, but shamed all the same) for going back to Sherman's after dinner. We lucked out: A little birdie told us the rest of the family did the same thing! So we all achieved the coveted - albeit, highly unnecessary - three-scoop day. Legendary.

These days, I don't always make it to the cabin, but my husband and I still take an annual pilgrimage to get our Sherman's fix. We've done our own exploring of Harbor Country the area, and discovered several other gems between Michigan City, Indiana, and South Haven, Michigan. Here are a few worth checking out:

Stop 50 Wood Fired Pizza in Michiana Shores, Indiana makes a fantastic Naples-style pizza in a brick oven heated to 900 degrees with oak, apple and cherry woods. One a recent visit, my mom, sister and I started with a perfect caprese salad, made with heirloom tomatoes and the freshest mozzarella. We split two crispy-chewy pies: prosciutto with mozzarella, rosemary, garlic and pistachios; and wild mushroom with mozzarella, olive oil and fresh oregano. Stop 50 also has a nice selection of locally brewed beers, perfect for pairing with their pizzas.

If you're hankering for classic American diner food, stop at Lighthouse Restaurant in nearby Michigan City. The diner is conveniently located across the street from the Lighthouse Place outlet mall - perfect if you forgot some essentials for a Michigan road trip, such as when a travel companion who will remain unnamed recently left his swim trunks at home "because it was cloudy" when we left. Order the eggs benedict like I did, and don't forget to ask for extra-crispy hash browns. They'll take your request seriously, because it's clear they respect the food. My husband asked for "Texas toast or Greek toast, whatever you call it," and the waitress set him straight: Texas toast is thick-cut white bread, and Greek toast is thick-cut white bread with sesame seeds - and they had both. (Uh-huh, that's right!)

As you eat your toast and slug cup after cup of coffee, pause to reflect how cool it is that in a mere two hours, you'll hit three Midwestern states. Now, plan your next move: New Buffalo, Michigan. Flashes of the funky art scene that put the town on the map still exist, but the second home boom a few years back also means you'll find plenty of cookie-cutter condos. Pay them no mind as you wait in line at Nancy's, a divey ice cream and fast food stand. Several signs suggest you try the famous strawberry shake, and it's a good suggestion. The sweet, creamy shake makes a perfect, portable ice cream snack as you stroll the main drag. My mom thinks the ice cream they carry - Hudsonville - rivals Sherman's, but I strongly beg to differ. That said, if you're in New Buffalo and don't feel like making the half-hour trek to South Haven (reminder: you're on vacation, you have time!), Hudsonville's ain't bad.

Redamak's is in New Buffalo, and chances are you've heard some Midwesterner go on and on about their burger. It's a decent burger, but neither my sister nor I think it's worthy of the semi-regular road trips my brother and his high school friends used to make to Redamak's from our home about 90 minutes away. That said, I'm a big fan of trying the crowd favorite on vacation, so I'd encourage you to make a stop at Redamak's and decide for yourself.

Finally, my mother would not forgive me if I didn't put in a plug for Jimmy's in New Buffalo, Michigan, and their Spicy Pub Pickles, dill pickle spears beer-battered and deep-fried, served with a guacamole ranch dip. I've never tried Jimmy's or the pickles, but I'm going to go ahead and add my stamp of approval. If deep-fried spicy pickles don't scream "Yes, Michigan!" well, I'm not sure what does. (And for that matter, there's probably nothing pure about them.)

 

roderick / August 21, 2009 4:46 PM

Tabor Hill Winery in Buchanan (15 minutes from New Buffalo) had a surprisingly good gourmet menu. Do skip the wine if you don't like Kool-Aid; go straight to the sparkling.

Pierre Anne Creperie was also a solid choice for food. The owner is actually French. He keeps the place open late sometimes to serve dessert crepes.

Thom Clark / August 24, 2009 9:07 AM

Clementine's served up a great perch meal last night (along w/ their
famous onion rings) and I had my 2nd helping of Sherman's.
We also took a break at Redamak's (going there for over 40 years!) for
lunch on the way up last week, before heading over to Driers for a
week's supply of prime processed pork. Also enjoyed a breakfast at
Cousin's and lunch at Julia's.
But the best was meeting the corn farmer on Blu Star just north of
North Shore who also cut a cabbage out of his field and fresh picked
early pears from his orchard. Tosi's is also great for their seasonal zucchini blossoms and fine Italian entrees.

R. Vasquez / August 24, 2009 1:47 PM

There seems to be a casual, and obscure perception where "Harbor Country" is located, as in the statement "And it there's one spot in Harbor Country that screams "Yes, Michigan!" it's Sherman Dairy Bar in South Haven, Mich" Actually, "Harbor Country" is a federally registered trademark owned by the Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce in New Buffalo MI. Only the Chamber has the sole authority to define the official region of "Harbor Country" which is limited to the eight towns of Michiana, Grand Beach, New Buffalo, Three Oaks, Union Pier, Lakeside, Harbert and Sawyer... all in the southwest corner of Berrien County. Therefore, South Haven is not part of Harbor Country. You can find the official story of Harbor Country at http://www.harborcountry.org/whereisharborcountry.php

Mandy / August 24, 2009 9:23 PM

Roderick and Thom, thanks for the tips.

R., duly noted.

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