Most Important Meal of the Day

Blue Max

From most of my posts, you already know that I have a love affair with the fooderies — there’s my made-up word — in Oak Park, Illinois. As of late, when I have had coffee after dinner at Oak Park restaurants, it occurred to me that it was not Folgers, Maxwell House, imported Starbucks, or some variation of an attempt on coffee. My coffee snobbery is rather limited, but I know that when I can drink a cup of coffee with cream and not add any sugar, something is quite right with how the coffee is brewed. Or, like Ethiopian coffee, the beans are of a greater quality. It was after one of my dining excursions that I inquired what brand of coffee they were serving. Blue Max was the response. And having had a friend tell me about Blue Max Coffee in Forest Park, Illinois, at 26 Lathrop Avenue, it was time for me to go to the source.

LatteA beautiful Saturday morning with a clear sky, a mild breeze, and trees so vibrant with colours that they looked like they were on fire, I found a parking space in front of Blue Max Coffee and was ready to enjoy some of the best coffee that I have had in the Chicago metropolitan area. And I was going to have some breakfast while I was at it. But let me set the stage. Blue Max Coffee is inside of a house. You do not enter a restaurant. No, you enter a house that has been converted into what some would liken to a bed and breakfast. I sat in the family room across from Paul Bunyan and Professor Pete on one end and Mr. and Mrs. Loving on the other end. Much like pubs and small cafes in Europe, there is a bit of a familiarity among the customers and a lot of comfort, as the patrons who were at Blue Max when I went engaged me in conversation once my camera came out the bag. You would have thought we all lived on the same street, seeing that conversation flowed with such ease.

BreakfastFor my breakfast option, I ordered a Belgian waffle with a side of summer fruit — orange slice, honey-dew melon, and cantaloupe — and eggs scrambled with cream cheese. I was a bit surprised to see the scramble egg sitting atop the waffle, thinking perhaps I was supposed to cut into both at the same time and commence my devouring act. I gobbled the summer fruit and then placed the scrambled eggs on the side so that I could mix in the cream cheese and add pepper. Happiness. Rapture. Bliss. Love. Fresh eggs with my chosen cheese and a waffle that didn’t have that “box” taste to it, I was a rather pleased man. But the winner was the cup of latte. Hello, lover! Where have you been all my life? Several months ago I had a latte from one of those “big box,” staple coffee houses that may be found on every corner in downtown Chicago — hint, hint — and it was both burnt and bitter. How do you mess up a latte like that? There was not enough sugar that I could add to murder the burnt and acrid taste. In the same vein of my last experience with McDonald’s, Burger King, and the plethora of fast food thingies, it may be that my body craves for finer things and it was time for me to upgrade my taste in coffee to something that is neither quick nor excessively surplus. The latte at Blue Max Coffee was the complete antithesis of that cup of horror I had several months pass. The mark of a good cup of coffee is when you can drink it without any sweetener. I was beside myself with satisfaction. And it was then that I understood why so many of the local restaurants and cafes in Oak Park support Blue Max Coffee. It is a guarantee to keep customers returning, such was the case watching the constant line of customers who were coming for dining in and for take-away.

MochaGranted my first visit was a rather surreal experience with the comfort of the staff and other patrons being so welcoming and conversational, I made plans to return for another visit. The saying goes, “It’s never as good as the first time,” but that does not mean you should not try to see if any subsequent time is indeed better. So that was exactly what I decided to do. The next Saturday, I had my alarm clock set so that I could awake early enough to get dressed and out of the condo in time to return to Blue Max for a second round of breakfast. Remembering how the restaurant filled up quickly and had a continuous tide of patrons, I recognized that if I wanted to get a seat, it would be in my best interest to arrive shortly after the doors open. Again, there were Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete sitting in what I assume to be their usual area engaged in animated, sitcom-style discussions about politics and economics.

Switching things up a bit, but not that much, I had a cafe mocha. Much like the latte that I had ordered the previous weekend, there was no need for any sweetener. Not that I will ever order a regular coffee to see if it will bite me at the jaw line, I must admit that specialty coffees at Blue Max seem to be dandy sans sugar. Thanks to Blue Max Coffee, I can get my hands around several cups of coffee that satisfy my palate the way the latte and the cafe mocha did.

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

My breakfast option on my second visit was also not that much different, as I ordered pancakes. They were chocolate chip pancakes and while I think the chocolate chips would be better on or in a crispy Belgian waffle, I did not have to put any syrup on the pancakes, as I smeared the melted chocolate chips across the three pancakes in the stack that I had. Not appetizer size and not substantial, three pancakes in the morning along with a cup of coffee can be more filling than one may want to admit. It may also have been the scrambled eggs with cream cheese that had me stuffed a little more quickly than I had anticipated. The waitress had a quizzical look on her face when I had said I wanted the cream cheese mixed with the scrambled eggs. Many are so accustomed to cheddar cheese or American cheese that something different sounds a bit “out in space.” In addition to the plate of scrambled eggs with cream cheese, she brought a smile because my unique order had given her a cheese option for her scrambled eggs.

Pancakes and FruitWith a few words of banter with Paul and Pete, a satisfying cup of mocha, and a filling breakfast, the second Saturday was off to a good start. I cannot say that I will photograph coffee and food every Saturday at Blue Max Coffee, but I will become a regular, if only for the coffee. There are pastry options that I eyed briefly, but had not thought to entertain because I wanted to sample their breakfast fare. One thing I can admit with certainty is that the only coffee I can say I enjoy aside from Ethiopian coffee at one of my favourite, local haunts and what I also brew at my condo, you are guaranteed to smile with each sip of liquid love from Blue Max Coffee. Inexpensive. Fabulous service. Good food. Yes, I have already made a date for a third visit. I wonder if Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete will be there when I return for my next round.

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Hello, Nice to Meet You

East Gate Cafe

This past weekend was a rather busy one in a productive kind of way. I had agreed to bake cookies for my catering partner’s high school class reunion. Forgetting exactly how much effort is involved in baking a bulk, I spent all Friday night almost until sunrise Saturday and all day and night Saturday baking — ten dozen peanut butter cookies, ten dozen butter cookies, ten dozen macadamia white chocolate cookies, ten dozen oatmeal cranberry cookies, and ten dozen bittersweet chocolate chip coconut cookies. Sigh. Needless to say, I was like one of those medical interns who had finished medical school and had to pull a 36-hour shift. Add to that me entertaining guests who were visiting from out-of-state. I was reminded this past weekend that the body has an aggressive way of shutting down after sleep deprivation. But there was a necessary reward before my physiology started turning off the motor.

Iced Coffee

After dropping off the cookies at the reunion picnic, I had a little time to myself before going to collect my friends from their individual outing sans me. Not too far from where the drop-off point was for the reunion is a small stretch of shops and boutique restaurants in the Oak Park, Illinois, neighbourhood. Along Harrison Street, there is a quaint block of some of the most inviting establishments. Earlier this year, a past co-worker and I had gone into this East European coffee-house after we’d had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Eastgate Cafe, owned by a couple, at 102 Harrison Street is a magnet with appeal. The atmosphere was one akin to going into someone’s home and mostly because it was an apartment that had been converted into a coffee-house. Not only is the ambience welcoming, but also the disposition of the owners who interact with you as though they have known you for a great number of years. If I had to give an essence statement, I would say that the whole experience is like going to one of your favourite family member’s home.

Upon entry, the husband, who is Irish, said very casually, “I sense that you want an iced coffee.” With the heat and humidity playing in concert, an iced coffee was a great option. I responded that, yes, I would like an ice coffee and a sandwich along the seafood line. And so there was tuna salad on Italian bread with crisp lettuce, red delicious tomato, and a slightly spicy mayonnaise. Served with a potato salad that I will say is the best that I have had since I had last eaten any prepared by Ma Williams, I was a pleased man. Now, people will always say that no one prepares [fill in the blank] as good as their mothers, and I am one to convince myself of that same statement. However, the potato salad was mustard potato salad rather than mayonnaise potato salad. There is a bit of an accent added when mustard is used. And when there are not so many raw vegetable added in excess because the recipe lists them, there is no crunch factor to entertain while eating the dish. This was the case at Eastgate Cafe. Having taken a seat outside so that I could photograph the delights in natural light, the husband had stepped outside for a moment and inquired as to whether I was enjoying the tuna salad and potato salad, and if I wanted to have my photo taken. Oh, but I am too modest to be on the other end of the camera being caught with my mouth stuffed and eyes rolling around in my head.

Tuna Salad

The waitress who had brought my order to the table, had mentioned that there was live music on Friday nights and she also spoke of several dishes that Eastgate Cafe has on the menu. So not only is the cafe just one for coffee, desserts, and small dishes, but they also have substantial dishes. The wife, the other owner, is Serbian and introduces a bit of the old country into the experience. Aside from one other past co-worker and her twin sister, I have not had any exposure to Serbians in the metropolitan Chicago area. So finding Eastgate Cafe with some Serbian influence in it was perfect. And one dish that was not specifically Serbian, but a creation of the wife, was introduced to me and since I had a bit of room, I welcomed the recommendation. I had a Quiche that was made with feta cheese, roasted red peppers, and was light on spinach. Served with it were two small potato pancakes and a cup of fruit, consisting of watermelon, cantaloupe, honey-dew melon, pineapples, and grapes. When establishments say they are serving fresh fruit, they need to take a cue from Eastgate Cafe where the fruit is not only fresh, but it is also ripe enough that it does not crunch like celery. The potato pancakes, although not accommodated with a dollop of sour cream, were absolutely worthy. Where Eastgate Cafe really shines is with the Quiche. The feta cheese made the Quiche light and fluffy, not the usual dense Quiche you get when made with other cheeses. From looking at it, you could easily mistake it for a slice of homemade cheesecake. The Serbian owner had said that the Quiche was her creation, not a dish customary to Serbia. I loved her remark that people create with writing, painting, fine arts, and photography, as she pointed at my camera. She loves to create and express herself through food. That was the most enriching and enlightening commentary I have heard about food and it spoke highly of a passion she has. Outside of America, food is a reflection of culture, beliefs, customs, and community. The wife had captured that perfectly. It also explains why the cafe has such a draw.

Quiche, Fruit, Happiness

Before I left, the owners extended an invitation for a return to listen to some live music on Friday nights. There was no smug thank you for coming. There was no rushed antics to check on other customers. On request, I showed the photos that I had taken and we talked about the feel of Oak Park. When I had mentioned my past co-worker, the Serbian owner told me to bring her so that she could meet someone from “back home.” There is usually a sentiment, as an African-American or Black for those of us who fall in the Caribbean or African bailiwick that we are watched or discounted when we go to certain establishments. That is true and a hurtful thing that occurs more often than not. But there are countless moments like my visit to Eastgate Cafe where great food and outstanding service overshadows any possible wickedness for lack of embracing diversity. In Ma Williams’ home, I know that I am welcomed. And when the owners felt at ease enough to talk to me as an individual who they appreciated for walking into their place of business and then extended a genuine invitation for return visits, there is another place I will gladly go since I know I will be welcomed. Hello, Eastgate Cafe, it has been a pleasure making your acquaintance.

Eastgate Café - Books/Gifts on Urbanspoon