At the southern tip of Indiana along the Ohio River, in the southern end of the city of Evansville, there is an area locals know as Cypress, named for the trees that grow along the riverbank. There is one part of Cypress some folks still call Dogtown, named for reasons no one we asked could remember. Dogtown is not a place most sightseers accidentally find themselves; but if you are moseying through the southern Midwest (indeed, a lovely place to mosey) and have a hankering for real American food, we suggest you seek it out. In particular, look for the Dogtown Tavern. And be prepared to eat hearty."Over 100 years of home style cook-in' " boasted the small advertisement for the tavern we spotted in the Evansville newspaper the Sunday afternoon we were passing through. The ad also promised "You Won't Leave Hungry."
When we found our way to Dogtown, we had no problems locating the Dogtown Tavern. It looks a hundred years old. It lists with age, and it has been appended with extra rooms and enclosed porches over the years. Inside, belt-driven ceiling fans spin slowly above gray Formica tables and vinyl-covered chairs. Next to the bar, on a refrigerator, the chef had taped a list of the day's pies. In one big dining area, large groups of people surrounded tables and ate their meals family-style, passing food and gabbing like it was Thanksgiving.
The menu is 100 percent blue-ribbon Americana: plenty of meat and potatoes, as well as catfish and fried chicken, as well as the unusual (but locally beloved) specialty, a brain sandwich. Brains are big in these parts - deep-fried in a golden-batter crust and served on a bun with pickles and mustard - but we went brainless and focused on the more common menu items.
A prime rib dinner was hanging-off-the-plate huge, juice-dripping luscious and butter-knife tender . . . albeit a bit bland the way prime rib can often be. Our catfish (there were two on the plate) were snappingly seasoned in a fine brittle crust. Spotting us as big eaters, our waitress advised us that Monday through Thursday were family-style dinner nights, meaning once you sit down, you don't get up until you've eaten your fill of just about everything you want (except the catfish, portions of which are limited).
Our most vivid taste memories of the Dogtown Tavern are of its side dishes and potatoes. There is terrific cole slaw - tart and vinegar-spiked; sweet cinnamony applesauce; and delectable American fried potatoes with onions. Best of all, there is Kate's potato: a stupendous spud-in-a-bowl that we have made a dozen times at home for ourselves (as a mini-meal) since coming home from Dogtown. As they serve it at the tavern, Kate's potato is a side dish, reminiscent of German potato salad. But don't be shy about turning it into something even grander. Once you get it broken up in the bowl, this kind of dish inspires creativity: top it with melted cheese, chili, broken-up sizzled burger or ground turkey meat, or whatever savory goodies you have on hand.
Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, MO 64141.1991, Jane and Michael Stern
(Universal Press Syndicate)
Potato in a Bowl
1 hot baked potato
1 tablespoon butter (or more, to taste)
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon diced dill pickle
2 ounces melted cheese
crumbled burger meat
1 sliced hot dog
1/2 cup cooked, chopped, seasoned broccoli Cut baked potato, including the skin, into bite-size pieces in a soup bowl. If it is mushy and doesn't cut neatly, don't worry. Toss potato (but don't mash) with butter, salt and pepper. Mix together vinegar and diced dill pickle. Toss with seasoned potato. Top with optional toppings of choice. Reheat if desired to melt cheese.
Makes 1 serving.