Thursday, May 13, 2021

OOPS! All MCLs!


Over the past year, I’ve done a lot more cooking for myself and my partner than I ordinarily would have otherwise. The food that we would eat that we didn't cook was delivered either through a drive through or at our doorstep by a delivery driver. While food procured in this manner served to scratch an itch for dining out, there was a clear dearth of emphasis on food presentation and freshness. It was in pursuit of a memorable presentation of freshly prepared food that I planned a stop at an MCL cafeteria on my recent trip through Indiana. I didn’t even plan on writing about that MCL meal because I had previously covered a different MCL in Ohio, but Uncle Alligator, patron deity of broken restaurant chains, had other plans for me. 


My original plan was to stop by Powers Hamburgers in Fort Wayne, the final location of a family owned chain of slider stands in Michigan and Indiana, on my way out to Terre Haute where I would eat at both Taco Casita, and a local MCL. I also planned on stopping by Miami Grill (aka Miami Subs) in Fort Wayne to see if that location had reopened since it announced a temporary closure last year. When I arrived at Powers Hamburgers late on a Saturday morning, I found the building dark and unoccupied during what should have been its operating hours indicated by both a sign on the door and Google. (The latter still shows the business as operational almost two weeks later, so I’m hopeful that Powers Hamburgers hasn’t closed for good.) 


"Eat here, get gas" is the wittiest caption I can come up with. 


Since Google had been wrong about Powers being open, I thought it was at least possible that they had also been wrong about the Miami Grill across town being closed, so my next stop was the Marathon gas station that shares space with the Midwest’s only Miami Grill. Unfortunately, I found in that case, Google had been correct. While signage was still in place, the restaurant had clearly been closed for quite a while. Disappointed, I sulked away. It was as I was driving past the mom and pop restaurant that now occupies what was until recently the last operating Azar’s Big Boy, that I decided I needed to formulate a new plan that would get me out of Fort Wayne. 


Much like a hermit crab, Top Notch Diner has moved into the discarded shell of the dearly departed Azar's Big Boy. 

While they have shrunk by 50% or so in recent years thanks to being predominantly located in or near shopping malls, the 13 unit cafeteria chain whose full name is “MCL Restaurant and Bakery” still has a strong presence in central Indiana. I decided that I would use my new found free time in the Hoosier state to experience a few different MCL locations to get a better feel for what they had to offer in terms of food and experience. Despite a few shortcomings, I looked back fondly at the one meal I had experienced previously at a Columbus area MCL, thanks in part to a lifelong love for old school cafeteria dining. Feeling ever hungrier, I plotted a course to Muncie, Indiana’s imaginatively named Muncie Mall, home of an increasingly rare mall-based MCL location. 


The Muncie MCL is located just inside a portal back to 1994. 


Meal #1 

Location: MCL Restaurant and Bakery Muncie Mall, Muncie, Indiana (One-time home of Norville Barnes, fictional inventor of the Hula Hoop) 

Order: Stuffed chicken, corn on the cob, coleslaw, deviled eggs, blueberry muffin, macaroni and cheese, coconut cream pie, Diet Mountain Dew


A disused MCL takeout counter


I arrived a short while later, driving into the mall parking lot, past the empty shell of what had once been a Sears. I parked, and walked through the once grand, but now decaying 1990s facade of the mall entrance with more than half of its doors marked “Out of order,” though it’s not clear if this was due to deferred building maintenance or social distancing measures. A non-operational MCL takeout counter greeted me nearly immediately as I walked into the mall. I found it curious for MCL to not be offering separate takeout service given the current climate. I shrugged and walked on to the main restaurant entrance, which looked like a residential house that was in the process of being birthed by the very mall that surrounds it. 


This mall has a house in it. 


Good luck breaking through to the other side with these doors. 

After dinner, some kids from Gertie's granddaughter's school are going to sing for us. 

I found the restaurant’s interior similar to what I had encountered in Ohio; elegant but sedate decor befitting a nursing home or funeral parlor, along with a serving line with the day’s specials written on a chalkboard. My favorite thing about cafeterias is the way that food is presented in the serving line, all the offerings of the day freshly prepared, looking bright and vibrant. In addition to being good marketing, it makes a cafeteria meal feel premium and like an event, a welcome experience after a long hiatus from such culinary events. Having fasted since early in the previous evening I was quite hungry, and I left the serving line $20 poorer but with an overloaded tray to show for it. As I found a seat, I recalled an old Vaudeville joke I heard  on a tape of Abbott and Costello bits I’d listened to as a kid. “Marriage is like eating at a cafeteria, take what you want and pay for it later!” I began to ponder if as a never-married 35 year old I’d internalized that pernicious bit of misogyny from my childhood, but my server interrupted my anxiety spiral by plopping salt and pepper shakers down on my table and asked if she could bring me anything else. I requested some butter for my corn, and she replied, “No problem at all,” repeating the phrase again when I thanked her upon her return with the requested condiment. With every subsequent thank you from me following drink refills and clearing of empty plates, she repeated the same “No problem at all” to the point where it began to lose all meaning. I wondered if it was a company mandated alternative to “You’re welcome” in the vein of Chick-fil-A’s vaguely sexual “My pleasure,” but mercifully, I didn’t hear it from any other MCL staff for the remainder of the trip. 


My view of the serving line; I'm intrigued by the burgers stewing in their own juices in the foreground. I'll have to give them a try next time. 


Largely, the food was a welcome reprieve from the year of squashed burgers, soggy fries, and warm salads I’d just experienced. The stuffed chicken tasted like the essence of Thanksgiving, though I’d swear the gravy wasn’t as orange at the MCL I’d visited in Ohio. The coleslaw and deviled eggs tasted just like the ones my Granny Nova Scotia Actionsdower made on the regular, though her devout faith compelled her to call them “Dressed eggs.” The corn on the cob was sadly room temperature, but it was clear it was freshly prepared. If insufficient temperature is the price I have to pay for some bone-in corn that has never seen the inside of a freezer or microwave, it seems worth it. The mac and cheese was passable, as it was the last time I got it at MCL. No mac and cheese will ever surpass Morrison’s Cafeteria, yet I find myself chasing that dragon with every cafeteria I visit. The blueberry muffin was clearly also prepared from scratch and contained actual whole blueberries. Coconut cream pie is one of my go-to desserts, and I’m not exaggerating when I say MCL’s is the best I’ve ever had. It’s sweet coconutty filling and light meringue topped with just enough toasted coconut led me to finishing the whole thing though I was already very full. I left, laden with the best meal I’d had in months and the assurance that my presence was “No problem at all.” The closed Powers Hamburgers and Miami Grill I’d encountered that morning felt like distant memories. It was going to be a good trip after all. 


A movable feast, you know, because of the tray. 

Meal #2 

Location: Meadows Shopping Center, Terre Haute, Indiana (Birthplace of Scatman Crothers) 

Order: Small Cobb salad, hot roll, strawberry shortcake, sweet tea


The exterior of the Terre Haute MCL matches the brutalist aesthetic of the rest of its strip mall neighbors...
 

...but the dining room is pleasant enough


I had a touch of deja vu from my previous stop in Muncie as I arrived at the enclosed strip mall housing the Terre Haute MCL, driving past a recently closed Stein Mart that had once been the one of the shopping center’s anchors. I walked straight into the MCL serving line feeling not especially hungry, less than three hours after my giant meal at the Muncie Mall MCL. I picked up only a beautiful looking bestriped Cobb salad that came with three little cups of dressing handed to me on a separate plate, an individual portion of strawberry shortcake, and a hot yeasty roll. I'd like to take a moment to talk about the roll in particular. 


All the pretty salads. 

In my original MCL post, I took them to task for not serving hot bread. I realized after eating at the Terre Haute MCL that the bread products on the serving line are merely for display. If you tell the person working the line which of the displayed bread items you want, they’ll reach into a heated drawer on the wall behind them and pull out a hot but otherwise identical example of your selection, and hot MCL bread is vastly superior to cold MCL bread. (If anyone from MCL is reading this paragraph, please consider it my retraction and sincere apology.) It was this realization and guilt related to my unfair criticism that was occupying a significant portion of my brain’s processing power as I autopiloted my body toward a seat this time around. 


A light (second) lunch 

An equally pleasant but less repetitive server again interrupted my overly analytic introspection and brought me my salt, pepper and butter. A distaste for bleu cheese usually prevents me from ordering Cobb salads, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a stripe of shredded cheddar on top of MCL’s offerings instead. The freshly cooked bits of bacon, chicken, and hard boiled egg also adorning the top of the salad were perfectly cooked, and the Christmassy colored stripes of green onion and tomato served to balance the flavors and textures nicely as well. As I picked up my first few forkfuls, the salad did what good Cobb salads do, and exploded all over the table, throwing bits of saladly flotsam and jetsam about the immediate vicinity. In retrospect, I should have placed the plate holding the little cups of pleasantly citrusy vinaigrette dressing under the bowl to catch the errant salad chunks. The strawberry shortcake was not what I was used to. I grew up eating a runny, chunky sauce made of chopped and slightly mashed strawberries and sugar over a dense, dry, not terribly sweet biscuity “cake.” MCL’s take on strawberry shortcake is a slice of sweet and soft white cake that bears no resemblance to an American biscuit covered in a sauce of unmashed sliced strawberries in a bright red syrupy glaze. It was drastically different than the strawberry shortcake I’m used to, but was no less good, and the carefully placed dollops of homemade whipped cream on top leant itself well to the elegant but approachable image MCL has cultivated for itself. Having had all the mildly fancy MCL food I could handle for one day, I hunkered down for the night in Terre Haute, preparing for a third and final MCL stop the next day. 


Meal #3 

Location: MCL Restaurant and Bakery in what looks like a large house just outside of the Merchant’s Square Shopping center, Carmel, Indiana (Carmel is *probably* named after the way unpretentious people pronounce “Caramel.”)

Order: Freshly carved ham (topped with hot cherries for some reason), broccoli and cheese sauce, more corn on the cob, ambrosia salad, devils’ food cake, sweet tea



To borrow a Mr. Delicious-era Rax slogan, "MCL, You can eat here!"

A mild to moderately fancy interior


Like the first freestanding MCL I visited a couple of years ago in Ohio, the Carmel, Indiana location would have been easy to miss were I not seeking it out specifically. It incongruously stands near a shopping center newer and more vibrant than the last two in a building that simply looks like a big brick house uprooted from a posh subdivision and dropped among various trendy and equally posh retailers. The only apparent exterior signage is a vague MCL logo plastered on only one side of the building. To the average passerby, the location would barely register as a business, and would not be at all recognizable as a place that serves food. Once I was through the parking lot that has the appearance of a paved-over residential lawn and past the large, inviting front porch I was inside the building. I was greeted by the least mild, mildly fancy MCL interior I’d encountered on the whole trip, and a serving line just opening up for the day. 


A good cafeteria puts the desserts early in the serving line. You're more likely to pick one up before selecting your entree. 


Ham, cherries, and the like. 


For what are as likely as not to be deep seated psychological reasons, I was craving ham that Sunday morning on the drive in from Terre Haute, and I was happy to see ham being carved on the serving line after I had picked up a bowl of ambrosia salad. Much to my surprise and delighted confusion, the woman carving the ham asked if I wanted cherries on it. Morbid curiosity compelled me to respond in the affirmative, and a ladleful of what looked like, and essentially was hot cherry pie filling was dumped on my freshly carved ham slices. I selected chees├Ęd broccoli and another corn bone as my sides. I found no one manning the bread station, and now knowing better than to grab a display bread item, my social anxiety compelled me to forego bread entirely rather than beckoning to an employee working the line. I corrected my unfortunate carbohydrated deprivation with a slice of devil’s food cake that:


If black forest cake is chocolate cake with cherries, does that mean Black Forest ham is meat to be ham with cherries?


A. Granny Nova Scotia would certainly not have approved of, for reasons including not limited to the name, as I’ll be discussing shortly. 

B. Conjured the millennial cultural touchstone that is that one scene in the movie, Matilda. You know the one I mean, assuming you were born in the last couple decades of the previous century.  


Once I’d found a suitable seat and requested the usual accouterments from my server, I was pleasantly surprised to find that cherry pie filling pairs well with ham. The salty, sweet, and sour flavors played nicely together, even more so than a more conventional pineapple ham topping would have. I suspect that cherry-topped ham is some dated semi-fancy presentation that has fallen by the wayside everywhere other than the marvelously dated and semi-fancy MCL. Thankfully, the corn was actually hot this time around, and tasted just as fresh as it did in Muncie. The broccoli tasted like broccoli, and unfortunately, what appeared to be a made from scratch cheese sauce had little flavor and didn’t adhere well to the surface of the broccoli stalks and buds. I was surprised to find the ambrosia salad had yogurt in it rather than the more customary whipped cream, or dare I say, Cool Whip. It was a pleasant enough side dish and palate cleanser, but less of a dessert than I was expecting. Then again, the ham was more of a dessert than I was expecting, so it all evens out. The devils food cake made me forget about the less than perfect side dishes. It was perfect, moist and rich with a made from scratch chocolate icing. It was the kind of cake that you want to use as a pillow, gradually devouring it as you nap, having the sweetest dreams of your life, dreams that would cause you to exclaim, “My pleasure!” even if you don’t work at Chick-fil-A. What I meant to say is that it was good cake, and I take back everything bad I ever said about MCL’s baked goods, and for that matter most of the bad things I’ve ever said about MCL in general. 


This trip made me realize that I love MCL. It’s a close second to Morrison’s in the pantheon of broken cafeteria chains, and the closest thing I can get to Morrison’s without taking another trip to the last operating one at the far end of Alabama. I drove home knowing I had made the most of a weekend on the road, even if it didn't go exactly as planned. I even stopped in Fort Wayne on the way home for some ice cream at my favorite Zesto to show the city I harbored no hard feelings toward it as the result of my thwarted weekend plans. 


The mad scientist L.A.M Phelan's gift to Northeast Indiana


My newfound love for MCL has led to me planning a stop at the Kettering, Ohio MCL on my upcoming trip down I-75 to Kentucky, and I’m not even planning on writing about it, unless that stop leads me down the rabbit hole of visiting every operating MCL, which knowing my proclivities, I’m very likely to do eventually. In the meantime, if you ever find yourself hungry in Central Indiana, the suburbs of Columbus or Dayton, Ohio, or in Springfield, Illinois, a slightly anachronistic and well above average meal awaits you at a nearby MCL. Do yourself a favor and check them out. 






Wednesday, May 5, 2021

You Don't Have to Call it Taco Tico




Up until the beginning of last year, I made efforts to maintain a relatively timeless tone in my writing, keeping my posts about places I’ve visited divorced from current events as much as possible and allowing my writing to exist in a similar way to many of the surviving locations of broken chains do, in an apparent vacuum isolated from the world around them, operating has they have for decades. Circumstances later on in the year made operating in that manner impossible for both restaurants and for yours truly. As restaurants began to rely more heavily on delivery and takeout, and as they began hanging clear plastic dividers at order counters and requiring staff and customers to wear PPE, my writing gradually began to acknowledge the realities facing the restaurant industry and humanity in general. Later that same year, when the most consequential election of my life was on the horizon, I allowed my usually staunchly apolitical writing to get a tiny bit political. (I will never explicitly discuss my political beliefs here, but you’ll get a pretty good idea of which way I lean if you read The Kewpee, and probably the rest of this post, too.)


Now that things are beginning to trend toward what looks and feels normal, I was excited for my writing to do the same, so I set out on a trip across Indiana last weekend for what I hoped would be a normalish trip for a few normalish restaurant experiences, but with less than a week in my tenure as a fully vaccinated person, I should have known better. It’s still more than a little weird out there, and over the past year, my understanding of what is and is not normal entered a time of profound transformation, a transformation which is still in progress. 


To paraphrase my favorite Canadian TV show, there’s such a thing as too much pandemic talk and a feller ought to be aware of it. I am acutely aware of the amount of pandemic talk I’ve allowed to seep into my writing, and I’ll make a promise here that’s roughly as firm as a flour tortilla that barring the very real possibility of any new, unforeseen pandemic-related calamity, this will be the last Broken Chains post where I discuss my processing of the pandemic at length. However, the realities of living through a pandemic, and how to navigate the world as one of the lucky vaccinated people weighed heavily on my mind when I stopped by Taco Casita, a former Taco Tico in Terre Haute, Indiana that I suspected might still be a Taco Tico in all but name. 


Clever re use of the original Taco Tico sign pole


Where's the T&A?


My weekend jaunt to Indiana was my first time leaving Michigan since my trip last June. My home in the bluest part of a bluish-purple state was my only real frame of reference for pandemic-era etiquette, and I was scandalized by the occasional maskless individuals I encountered at truck stops, stores, and in common areas of my hotel in firmly red Indiana. Here in Michigan, the mostly older, mostly white people who don’t wish to wear masks in indoor public spaces will at minimum, make the entirely pointless gesture of wearing one on their chin below their mouth. Before I was vaccinated I would at least give these people dirty looks, and would occasionally confront them outright, but I made myself a promise that on this trip that I was going to let things go. I would ignore anyone with an exposed nose or entire face, and I would trust my antibodies to keep me safe. I would assume that any adult I encountered in public was either vaccinated themselves or at least unvaccinated and out in public by choice, and therefore did not require me to speak on their behalf to any inconsiderate individuals with unnecessarily exposed faces. This adjustment was easy enough for me to make when encountering the occasional unmasked trucker at a Love’s truck stop or while dining maskless at a safe distance from other maskless diners at some meal stops you’ll hear about later this month, but it took dinner at Taco Casita to put my promise to myself, and my belief in vaccine efficacy, to the test.


The menu board has a decidedly vintage look, despite the modern Pepsi branding. 

I walked into the 1970s era Taco Tico building on a Saturday evening to discover a mostly full, tiny dining room full of maskless diners and a maskless staff working behind a recently-added plexiglass partition at the counter. I stood, masked, in the order line of mostly maskless people ordered, and took a seat to wait for my number to be called as I watched new maskless customers, representing a surprisingly diverse selection of ages and ethnicities enter the building and stand in the order line. I suspect that since Indiana and other nearby states were spared from the recent surge in cases that hit Michigan earlier this spring, the locals see wearing a mask as less of a priority, regardless of their political affiliation. It really shouldn’t have been a political issue to begin with anyway. Still, after a year of masking up, social distancing, and not so silently judging anyone who didn’t, sitting in the crowded dining room waiting for my food as more and more air-sucking, droplet-exhaling disgusting squishy human bodies entered the little trapezoidal faux-pueblo, I found myself feeling more and more uneasy. 


My table had a peeling top and graphics by Powerpoint.


I took the opportunity to use one of the grounding techniques I had discussed with my therapist for exactly this kind of situation, and began to assess my surroundings, identifying individual items in the room, and silently noting them in my head. I took the time to look at, and appreciate the large, taco-shaped window at the front of the building, then the ancient wrought iron lamps hanging from the vintage drop ceiling. It was around the time that I noticed the prints of stylized cacti hanging on the opposite wall that I realized that the dining room was largely unmodified. Even the Taco Ticos I grew up with in Kentucky that likely last had major redecorating done in the late ‘80s were not this original. I wouldn’t have dreamed of walking into this place were I not fully vaccinated, but I’m glad I did. The original decor was well worth the six bucks and change I paid for a taco, sancho, “cinnamon chips” and a Diet Pepsi. 


The cactus pictures and funky frames calmed me right down. 


The food occupied the opposite end of the Taco Tico Authenticity Spectrum from the building. While I was pleased to see they had a sancho (essentially a burrito shell stuffed with taco ingredients) on the menu, it came on a little disposable tray, not in a wrapper as Taco Tico would serve it. I suspect most Sanchos here are served covered in an enchilada sauce (“Deluxe” in Taco Tico speak, “Wet” in Taco Casita parlance) as the Sancho I ate had an unusually dry and brittle flour tortilla shell that would have benefited from some extra sauce, whereas Taco Tico sancho wrappings are always soft, pliable, and pleasantly chewy. The Taco Casita sancho fell apart when I tried to pick it up and eat it as I would its Taco Tico counterpart. It's most noticeable characteristic however was its flatness. The sanchos I've come to know are almost perfect tubes of deliciousness. This one looked like it had been run over by a taco truck. The sancho appeared to have been microwaved lettuce and all, which is not to say that Chef Mike has never been employed at Taco Tico, but they know enough there to microwave the meat separate from the tortilla and toppings. Unfortunately, the flavor of the meat bore no resemblance to Taco Tico’s signature blend. Rather, it tasted like Taco Bell’s meat with a few glugs of Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce added to the pot. 


That's a sancho on the right, not an extra napkin. 

The taco at least looked the part of a Taco Tico product with its unevenly folded hard tortilla and half tomato slice, but the salsa on the taco overpowered the flavor of the meat, rather than working with it in transcendent fast food harmony the way Taco Tico sauce does with Taco Tico meat. 


The taco looks the part, but fails to deliver Taco Tico flavor. 

Weirdly enough, while the cinnamon chips were quite unlike Taco Tico’s analog Cinnamon Crustos, I liked them better. The fried bits of tortilla were softer, a little greasier, and had a more complex flavor than the ones at Taco Tico. I suspect Taco Tico’s crustos only get seasoned with cinnamon and sugar, but the cinnamon chips at Taco Casita also had hints of nutmeg and allspice. I suspect they’re seasoned with sugar and a premixed apple pie spice, and the flavor, and texture work really well together. They were the only menu item I bothered finishing after a long day of eating. 


Order the cinnamon chips though, and you'll be glad you did. 

So is Taco Casita a bootleg Taco Tico? I’d have to say no. There’s more than a passing resemblance in the menu, and the building is a must see for any hardcore Taco Tico fan, but the food tastes little like the Taco Tico menu items that inspired it. What makes Taco Casita worth a stop for broken chain enthusiasts is the intact nature of the vintage Taco Tico building and the legitimately delicious cinnamon chips. There is, however, still hope of a better approximation of Taco Tico in Terre Haute. 


Terre Haute's other former Taco Tico/Casita, now closed. 


There were once two Taco Ticos in Terre Haute, and both became Taco Casita at some point before I was alerted to their presence, however, the second location closed permanently, in a way making Taco Casita a miniature broken chain having lost 50% of its locations. We can all keep our fingers crossed that some enterprising individual or group might move into that empty, but similar building, and open a legitimate Taco Tico, or at least a more convincing imitation, and keep the interior intact to create an immensely authentic vintage Taco Tico experience. 


With my pandemic-related hackles mostly lowered, I concluded my meal, and put my mask back on. I was making some notes on my phone as my favorite David Allan Coe song came on the decades-old wall-mounted speakers. 


It was then I sent a text to my good friend Sid Hoffman, and I told him that I was about to write the perfect Broken Chains post.  Well, he texted me back and told me it wouldn’t be the perfect Broken Chains post if I didn’t say anything about olive burgers, or G.D. Ritzy’s, or Ford Festivas, or if I didn’t make any silly rhymes. Well, I sat down and wrote another paragraph, and after reading it, I realized I had written the perfect Broken Chains post, and I felt obliged to include it here. The last paragraph goes like this:


Well I made a burger, but I was fresh out of olives. 

So I went to pick some up in the rain. 

But as I drove past G.D. Ritzy’s in my Festiva. 

I saw a guy who looked kind of like Conrad Bain. 

And I’ll eat up all the tacos down at Tico

And I never minded sanchos with no sauce. 

But you don’t have to feed me tacos, Casita. 

Because you didn’t try to copy Wichita’s.






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