Conquistador skillets & pasties on our Culinary Tour
The end of August 2018 called for sophomore drop off in Granville, Ohio. My wife Jessica handled the Denison dorm room setup with Whittier, our youngest daughter. I drove Nala our 8 year old yellow lab from Sag Harbor to Detroit while Jess flew up to the motor city from Columbus and the 3 of us were off to the Northwoods.
First stop at 9:30am: The Laundry restaurant in Fenton, Michigan. After seeing the restaurant/bakeries’ billboard on Interstate 275N we had to take a flyer and give it a try. The Laundry offers a breakfast skillet called “conquistador” that’s world class, filled with chorizo, onions & potatoes then topped with fried eggs and a crust-less cube of home baked toast. We shared a cinnamon roll that would make a top pastry chef jealous and poured piping hot coffee from the double French press coffee pot. Our breakfast on the patio was served quickly and in no time we were up and on our way out when we noticed a little bakery near the front door, so we stopped and purchased a loaf of their raisin bread to take to the lake for breakfast the following day.
This is the first time that Jessica has made the drive to Dunbar, Wisconsin with me in years. My interest in building a routine that appeals to her called for a second stop to play golf—she loves a good golf course. So we stopped about 2 hours north of Fenton and played the “Premier” course. It was designed by world renown architect Tom Fazio at “Treetops Resort”, a multi course PGA rated facility in Gaylord, Michigan. It had just rained, and even though the course was soaked it was lush and green. We played 9 holes and Nala loved it as much as we did.
After golf we hit the road, taking the northern route up US highway 27 ( I-75) over the Mackinac Bridge, through Manistique and down to my favorite spot for a good walleye dinner: The Stonehouse restaurant in Escanaba.
Jessica had a rib eye and in Northwoods supper club style we were served a nice salad and 2 sides as part of our dinner. Happy servers, a packed bar and the US Open on the TV. This is the busiest spot in Escanaba and everything about the place delivers an extra spark of hospitality. As we pulled out of town in the pink, last light of the day at about 8:15 we noticed Gram’s Pasty shop on the highway, I made a mental note to check it out on our return.
On arrival at my families lake house in Dunbar the temperature was cool and we started a fire to warm the living room. It didn’t take long to settle in and of course Nala patrolled around our side of the house letting all of the creatures in the woods know she’d arrived. The next 2 days were relaxing. I fished and Jessica relaxed, Nala had her first swim in the lake and hopefully the routine has engaged. I’ve traveled to Christian lake every year of my life, it was purchased by my great grandfather Colonel Harry Trippe, engineer US Army in the late 1930’s. It’s always been a dream to spend a summer here like I did as a boy.
After our short 2 night stay, we headed back up US 41, north through Michigan’s upper peninsula.
As I looked out my rear view mirror, having just crossed the Ford River, I saw flashing lights and it was time to pull over. A young officer approached the truck on the passenger side and informed me that I was driving 71 in a 55. When he reached into the cab to receive my license and insurance card, Nala moved forward in the back seat and Jess called her name, the officer smiled and seemed to relax asking Jessica to repeat the dogs name, “hey, my dogs name is Nala too”. A few minutes later he returned to the car and handed me my paperwork reporting “I’m going to give you a warning today, please be careful and slow down”, then he pulled out his cell phone and showed us photos of the chocolate lab he’d brought home just 3 weeks earlier. A wonderful surprise from what could have been an uncomfortable exchange.
With our surprise Michigan state trooper conversation behind us, we agreed to slow down and take our time driving through the U P, and Jessica agreed to my idea of a pasty tasting.
The following tour of 3 pasty shops provides a quick overview of this Cornish treat inspired by the areas settlers from Cornwall, England. The pasty is essentially a meat pie, wrapped in pie crust and filled with proprietary recipes that all seem to share a common ingredient of rutabaga.
At Grams in Escanaba, our first stop, we learned that a blend of beef, rutabaga and potato can be very filling when the ratio of ingredients seems to run 3 to 1. The pasties here are served piping hot, gravy on the side is an option. I was interested to learn from a plaque on the wall that on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the term Yooper is commonly used as a nickname and the idea of a 7 course meal includes “A pasty and a 6 pack”—indeed this hand pie would provide cushion for an afternoon drinking 6 beers.
At the White Tail Restaurant on US-2 in Moran (about 2 hours north) the pasty takes on a different protein all together. The chef at White Tail buys bison from Kabat’s in nearby Rudyard, Michigan for his pasties and makes braised bison meat that the pasties prize. Again rutabaga is included with potatoes, onions, and this time carrots, but here in Moran Flavorful, lean bison represents over 50% of the blend. The size of the meat pie seems to be the same but their pie crust is a bit flakier and the presentation is less stylized than the Pasty at Gram’s. This time I decided to order the gravy, it wasn’t necessary as the bison was full flavored and very moist.
The last stop on our pasty tour was another 30 minutes north in St Ignace on US-2. Lehto’s Pasties has been an institution since 1947, it says so on the sign out front and obviously that’s a big deal considering how the road side north and south of this lonely outpost is littered with shuttered businesses like motels, gift stores and yes, lots of empty old pasty shops.
At “Famous Lehto’s Pasties” there are very few choices. A customer can order a beef pasty made simply with beef, onion and rutabaga in one of 3 ways: hot, cold or frozen. The shop on US-2 is open from May through hunting season 7 days a week, they open at 10am. This is what I think of as a hand pie, no frills, no plate, no need, it’s wonderful as it is. The ratio of beef to rutabaga is 3 to 1, onions are soft and prevalent, cut into large obvious pieces, they come close to dominating the pasty which I think is a good thing. The crust is light and flaky, the seam pinched on the ends and barely evident on the sides. This is a hearty, tasty roadside treat. No gravy needed here, “pop” is offered on the menu board, I chose a bottle of Minute Maid.
In review no pasty is the same on the Upper Peninsula. They are all served piping hot on a busy Friday at the edge of the big Labor Day weekend and the crust is as important to the whole as the rutabaga is to the filling.
When we headed East, back over the Mackinac Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, we both agreed that getting a proper introduction to pasties was helpful but the next time we eat them, we will split one and leave it at that.
Our final stop on the Northwoods tour was at the Gates Au Sable Lodge in Grayling. I’ve been here before (see episode) and have become a regular—due in part to the location—5 hours from Dunbar and just off of I-75 on the long 20 hour drive home to Eastern Long Island. The people at Gates Lodge are friendly and the food is excellent.
We found the rooms comfortable and the innkeeper welcoming to Nala, too. A 4 hour float on the Au Sable river in a classic handmade drift boat made for a sweet finish on the Michigan swing of this, our first American Rivers Tour adventure together.