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Kirk's Traveling Kitchen News and Blog


A Good Sign.

As a native of Southwestern Michigan, albeit one who hasn't lived there in over a decade, I've recently discovered something in the corner of my home state more rare than a patch of morels in August: a couple of really good restaurants. Now considering my mother owns and operates a wonderful restaurant in the area (Bistro 120 in Paw Paw), her establishment is excluded from my criticism, in fact for over a decade it has been one of the few eating places in hundreds of square miles worth paying to eat at. But like much of the rest of rural America, Western Michigan has been over-run by chain restaurants and, just as bad, independent restaurants serving chain restaurant food (everything out of a Sysco Foods box, into the deep-fat fryer). However, last week I came across a shimmer of hope for the residents of this area who are interested in food that is actually made by the people cooking it, rather than in a processing facility hundreds of miles away. The Journeyman Cafe and Su Casa Cantina in Fennville, Michigan are doing something special for an area of Michigan that desperately needs establishments cooking genuine food.

The Journeyman is a small cafe in the heart of this struggling town, just 15 minutes from the more vibrant Saugatuck-Douglas. It's not unlike the kind of place you'd expect to find in a recently gentrified area of a large city; the first enterprise of a risk-taker who by starting small and running it tight can create the kind of business they want. The really special thing about The Journeyman is that while the space is spartan and utilitarian, the ingredients they use are as special as they come. In fact, I first heard about it from a local organic farmer who sells The Journeyman's artisanal bread at the Saugatuck Farmer's Market (the seedy salt loaf is especially delicious). They've accepted the additional expense of using organic produce and naturally-raised meats while catering to an audience that largely doesn't appreciate them, or more importantly, want to pay for them. And they're doing it serving dishes like housemade braunschweiger and guanciale (cured pork jowl) from the salumeria of Armandino Batali (Mario's father), hard-core stuff for an urban audience let alone one in a town with a single traffic light (which only flashes yellow).

Just on the other side of that flashing yellow light, is the second-part of Fennville's restaurant row. A place more authentic than a lot of the restaurants in Mexico. The market in the front of Su Casa, an antique building that seemingly hasn't been worked on since they painted faux Aztec murals on the walls to cover the cracks, is packed full of Latin necessities like pickled jalepenos, fresh churros, and warm flour tortillas. If you navigate through the tiny store-front, past the coolers full of tripe and pig's feet, past the shelves of freshly baked Mexican pastries and crisp corn chips you come across a diamond in the rough, the restaurant at Su Casa. With a small, open kitchen serving authentic Mexican staples like cow's tongue and menudo, as well as delicious pork tacos with salsa cruda or huge chicken burritos with salsa verde. The last time I visited, Mexico was about to play Argentina in the World Cup, the staff was plating up their comida and preparing to feast and watch the game, the atmosphere was as authentic as the food. The most amazing thing about Su Casa, and almost every other underappreciated ethnic restaurant, is you can get an incredible meal for about the same price as a McDonald's Happy Meal. In a perfect world, Su Casa would be our fast-food option.

The Journeyman and Su Casa are restaurants that, if they were located in St. Louis, I could find myself happily eating at on a regular basis. But seeing as they're 400 miles from where I live, a long commute for even the most committed foodie, I'll simply have to enjoy them when I visit the restaurant mecca that is Fennville, Michigan.