Tuesday, July 10, 2012

[Up North] US-31: Elk Rapids to Charlevoix

Our Up North series highlights good eats to seek out on your weekend roadtrips as you head Up North – that ambiguous, nebulous region in Michigan where everyone has, or has a friend that has, a cottage on a lake somewhere. 

To escape the heatwave last week, we headed to the cooler waters of northern Michigan. Our route took us along US-31 between Elk Rapids and Charlevoix, with a few detours along the way.  We managed to find some amazing Cajun & Creole food in Elk Rapids, freshly fried cherry donuts and apple pie at an orchard, classic grilled burgers in Charlevoix, and learned exactly what broasted chicken is in East Jordan.

Our first stop was Pearl’s in Elk Rapids. My buddy DG tipped me off to Pearl’s a couple years ago and I’ve been meaning it check it out ever since. It had come highly recommended to him by his boss – a New Orleans native who claimed it was some of the best Cajun food he’d had outside of New Orleans. With high expectations firmly established, we went in with empty stomachs.

I became a little worried as I entered Pearl’s – walls covered in purple and green New Orleans garb and Mardi Gras masks – not necessarily what I was expecting for a place doing legit NOLA-inspired cuisine. All my fears subsided once the first cup of gumbo arrived though.

Don’t let the kitschy interior fool you, the food at Pearl’s is serious business. We made it there early on Sunday to make it in time for brunch, which runs from 11-3. The heatwave wasn’t in full swing just yet by the time we arrived, so we opted to sit outside on the patio. As we sat down, we were greeted with our first treats – two breakfast breads, a pumpkin muffin and raspberry bread. Our meal was off to a quick two-for-two start.

The menu at a Pearl’s is a wish list of Cajun and Creole goodies – crayfish etouffee, jambalaya, gumbo, catfish po’boys, buttermilk fried chicken.  After much debate, I settled on a cup of gumbo and the crayfish etouffee. Mrs. T opted for the crayfish cakes and a side of jambalaya.

There is no point in me trying to describe these. Everything was amazing. I was a little worried that they’d tone down the spice and flavor to appease the masses. Nope, everything was intensely flavorful as anything I’ve had down in New Orleans. I washed it all down with the hopped up Huma-Lupa Licious IPA from nearby Short’s Brewing (brewery in Elk Rapids and a brewpub in Bellaire). Short’s still has a somewhat limited distribution, if you can get your hands on some, I highly recommend giving it a shot - you can’t go wrong with any of their brews.

After leaving Pearl’s, we continued on to Torch Lake for a brief stop at the Torch Lake Township Day Park (just off of US-31, turn right on Dock Rd. at Sonny’s Market) to take a dip in Torch Lake’s chilly, crystal clear water (and the answer to #2 on the 4th of July Roadtrip Photo Quiz). Shoutout to A2GastroBoy for correctly identifying the first location as the lighthouse in Charlevoix.

On our way in to Charlevoix, we passed the Dairy Grille, which had a large group of people mingling around the window. As a firm believer in the power of the people, I like the look of any place that is swarmed with a crowd on a warm summer’s evening. We took note of it and stopped by on our way back to the campsite.

The menu was a classic roadside ice cream and burger joint – shakes, malts, burgers, onion rings, fries, and an ice cream+candy concoction called an avalanche. If the Dairy Grille’s Avalanche sounds suspiciously similar to Dairy Queen’s Blizzard, your suspicion is warranted.  Turns out the Dairy Grille was previously a Dairy Queen for 30 years until a dispute over the owner’s insistence on using fresh (presumably this means never frozen), locally sourced meat. DQ said they couldn’t use the locally-sourced meat, so the owners decided to part ways with DQ and gave up the franchise. Score one for the little guy.

The burgers themselves weren’t too noteworthy – a fine representation of a good fast food burger. The fries, while the skinny frozen shoestring variety, are what McDonald’s fries wish they were – each single fry crispy with a fluffy potato-y interior, not a limp one in the bunch. I kept it simple with my dessert and went with a chocolate malt, which was just thick enough where you can barely suck it through the straw – just as a shake or malt should be.

The next morning, Mrs. T and I decided to work off some of those calories with a canoeing trip down the mighty Jordan River via a canoe rented from Jordan Valley Outfitters. Our good friends (and fellow food adventurers) P&B had tried to tame the Jordan River a couple weeks before us and managed to capsize their canoe not once, but twice, on the 2-hour trip. We managed to stay dry as we steered the canoe around all of the downed trees in the river and, more importantly, worked up quite an appetite.

The morning of our tour, we took a quick spin through downtown East Jordan and noticed two places just down the road from one another advertising broasted chicken. I’ve had broasted chicken before, but I didn’t have a good answer when Mrs. T asked me what exactly “broasted” meant.  After our canoe trip, we stopped into Chicken-N-Stuff (how could these guys not know their chicken?) to solve the broasted chicken mystery.

Upon entering Chicken-N-Stuff, I knew we were in good hands. It is a postulate of this blog that a high correlation exists between places with goofy cartoon representations of their featured food item and high degrees of deliciousness. The latest piece of supporting evidence:

Seriously - try to pick your favorite part of this picture. Hot dog chasing the eggs? Dancing pig couple? Fish swimming in the mud pool?

We didn’t really need to look at the menu – 1 broasted chicken and 1 order for broasted potatoes, which Mrs. T quickly dubbed “bro-tatoes.” Now that I think about, I think I see a puka shell necklace on that dancing potato up there.

As the waitress brought out the goods, I inquired about the broasting method, expecting some sort of elaborate frying/roasting combo. Nope – turns out it is just frying in a pressure cooker. Makes sense – cooking under pressure would mean that the chicken would cook much faster than if it were fried in a pot of boiling oil. I can see why this would be popular at a fast food-ish type of place – it would allow you to fry the chicken to order and may have the added benefit(?) of being less greasy since it’s in the oil for a shorter amount of time (don’t quote me on that one, I may need to check with my resident food scientist to verify).

As far as the chicken goes, it was excellent. It’s not the thick, crunchy crust you get from a buttermilk battered chicken. The exterior of the broasted chicken is much lighter and thinner with more of a brittle, crispy texture. I could have used some additional spice in the batter or a little hot sauce served with the chicken. The brotatoes were perfect though, I could eat these by the pound. All in all, a meal that hit the spot after a few hours on the water under a very hot sun.

Another curiosity I noticed as I entered Chicken-N-Stuff was the high-powered telescope and binoculars pointing across the street at the river mouth emptying into Lake Charlevoix. Turns out a pair of bald eagles made a nest in the watershed area and the eaglet had been hanging out in the nest and had just starting flying around. As I looked through the telescope at the nest, I saw one of the parents do a fly-by – yea, America!

We spent the afternoon cruising around Lake Charlevoix, buzzing through Boyne City - where I spotted a few burger joints I have to make it back to – and then to Petoskey for a dip in Little Traverse Bay at possibly one of my favorite beaches anywhere (no pics – you have to go for yourself). After a long couple days of summer fun and good eating, nothing sounded better than some grilled brats with a little side of campfire. We picked up some cheddar, green onion, & jalapeño brats at Oleson’s in Charlevoix on our way back to Fisherman’s Island State Park.

The next morning, we were awaken by a nasty thunderstorm rolling through. A quick check of the weather forecast indicated that it was supposed to rain all day. We were hoping for another beach day, but we headed home in defeat. Not ready to waste the entire day, we decided we had to go back to Pearl’s for lunch. So we headed south down US-31 towards Elk Rapids. We made a pitstop at Friske’s Orchard to load up on various goodies to take back to the cottage – Dutch apple pie, blackberry syrup, hot apple salsa, fresh strawberries. While we were shopping around, a fresh batch of glazed cherry cake donuts came out. These were incredible and I devoured mine before I could snap a pic, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I’ll also issue a challenge: go to Friske’s in the morning and grab a half dozen of whatever is fresh coming out of the fryer and try to leave the store without eating all of them.

One of the big regrets on this trip is that I did not have a chance to try their pulled pork. Smoked over the wood from the apple and cherry trees on the orchard and smoked in a huge grill in the parking lot, the pulled pork had all the symptoms of a delicious barbecue sandwich. But they didn’t have any ready at 9am on a Tuesday, not primetime pulled pork hours apparently. Oh well, something on the list for next time.

So back to Pearl’s it was. (The weather was about 90 and sunny in case you were wondering.) This time around it was a blackened catfish po’boy for Mrs. T, while I went with the New Orleans BBQ shrimp. If you’ve never had New Orleans BBQ shrimp, know that the term BBQ is a bit of a misnomer. These shrimp are not grilled or smoked in any way. They are typically sautéed in a broth that I would prefer to drink with a straw, but social norms force me to mop up with copious amounts of French bread. 

The rendition at Pearl’s was a little different than what I have had at Mr. B’s in New Orleans (one of those touristy places that is actually totally worth it), the broth was almost black, due to a heavy dose of worcestershire. The po’boy was great, the fish was soft and flaky, the bread was a little doughy for my taste, not the light French bread you would find on the real thing, so I have to dock some points there. I also have to call out the bartender for my mint julep being served over ice cubes (not crushed ice) and being watered down with a shot of club soda – both major faux pas’s in the preparation of a proper mint julep IMO. The cocktail menu was extensive though, with a long list of bourbons.

Like any good trip, there is always something that you didn’t get to do that you’ll have to save for next time. For me, it is the pulled pork at Friske’s, some smoked fish at John Cross Fisheries in Charlevoix, and the world's largest cherry pie. John Cross gets rave reviews across the board, but we just ran out of time to make it there. We’ll be back, no doubt about that.

Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen
617 Ames St
Elk Rapids, MI

Dairy Grille
1111 Bridge St
Charlevoix, MI

101 Mill St
East Jordan, MI

Friske Orchards
10743 N. U.S. 31
Atwood, MI


  1. did u stop at the casino?

    ialways drove to Charlevoix from NYS-
    many good restaurants and cheese makers on the way

    1. Didn't make it to the casino. Food is enough of a vice for me, I don't need any more!

  2. How many personal pounds did you and Mrs T put on during this vacation?
    Not the typical campout with a hotdog over a campfire on a long stick, but sounds great.


    1. ha! We do try to split everything to keep the calories down. We tried to burn plenty of calories canoeing and swimming in the lakes though!

    2. Seems you missed the newest addition in Charlevoix for desserts. Mitten's Frozen Yogurt Bar is great! Much heathier if you can resist the goodies on the toppings bar. Stick with the fruits and nuts. Either way you should try it next time around

    3. Sounds like a good spot! I will add it to the list for next time.