That smile on my face(along with the best carnitas torta I have ever had) serves as an instant reminder on how happy I would be to return to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Now this is no slight against the other cities we have visited in Cheap Eats, from the no brainers like beautiful Bozeman and Jackson Hole to towns I would love to catch my beloved St. Louis Cardinals play(I’m looking at you Pittsburgh). Its just that to be frank: Grand Rapids was a head scratcher. I had never been there, let alone Michigan, which made my expectations a bit of a blank canvas. A beautiful thing it is to travel to a place you have never been, without any expectation. It allows for the unforseeable to take hold of you; like Grand Rapids rousing my dormant Midwestern roots. Unless you are a sun drenched Californian or Floridian who fusses when the thermometer dips below 65, you gotta love Autumn in a place like Michigan. Now I did log in 20 years in Los Angeles but I have never been afraid of putting on a winter coat, it’s the sunshine that always made me an advocate for Southern California. Thankfully we had a few sunny days there, certainly enough for me to summon back the Fall days of my youth, growing up in St. Louis MO. For the five days I spent there, Grand Rapids reminded me that I grew up in the Midwest by virtue of weather and environment. And as much as I feel drawn to the bright lights of major metropolitan areas, instantly bonding with all that teeming culture and diversity and forever willing to put up with the downers you hear on the nightly news reports, I am a Midwesterner by birth and rearing.  The colors of the Fall will forever feel like my childhood. Which is a lovely memory and all but add that to the aforementioned Carnitas Torta, and folks, I’m smiling all the way back to Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

The Vitals:
the spot: Anna’s House  2409 E. Beltline Ave SE Grand Rapids MI 49546
the eats:  Twilight French Toast
the bucks: $11
the full nelson:  Saving the world from ordinary breakfasts

Anna’s 8 page menu is quite a read. But what will really catch your eye sits about 2/3rds down the first page. That’s when you realize this tucked away Midwestern breakfast eatery is well versed in the culinary trends and needs of our current food revolution. Gluten allergy? Anna has you covered. Craving some tempeh bacon since you started your Vegan New Year’s resolution? Anna GOT YOU. I never thought of Corned Beef Hash as anything but an act of AM decadence but Anna’s House can make one for you that’s both dairy and gluten free. My typical savory self would naturally have gone for the CBH, or the Huevos Rancheros with Carnitas(if carnitas wasn’t already stacked in the cards), instead we went with the Twilight French Toast which naturally came Tween and Vampire free(I just can’t get enough of that reference). At $11, this meal was pivotal in what became a budget busting day but as Danae said, this is the most photographed and shared menu item on Social Media. The reasons to that of course are obvious but the technique needed to turn French Toast into a breakfast version of creme brûlée warrants the price. Did I mention it was big? The words “big” and “creme brûlée” also warrant friends and extra silverware, so certainly go into Anna’s knowing that this $11 French Toast can work as breakfast for two. Just know that when you return to Anna’s for your impending vegan breakfast salvation, you may full well be on your own, and thus on your own dime.

The Vitals:
the spot: Donkey Taqueria  665 Wealthy Street SE Grand Rapids MI 49503
the eats:  Torta de Jamon
the bucks: $8
the full nelson:  the best carnitas torta I have ever had(mostly because it was the best carnitas I have ever had)

20 years ago I took my first bite of real Mexican food. It was at a shabby strip mall joint in Los Angeles, a stone’s throw(well maybe if you’re a MLB prospect) from my apartment at USC. The experience emboldened me to “eat fearlessly“. To try carts on the street, venture into private homes for regional Mexican delicacies that were being served to the public on a given Saturday or Sunday, basically to go anywhere and give anyone a chance so that I could get another taste of a cuisine so brimming with flavor; the way I know knew how Mexican food was meant to be. So when I walked into a polished spot like Donkey Taquería, I had my reservations. By far the overwhelming majority of “real” Mexican food I experienced in LA was found on the street, at trucks or temporary stands, albeit with a few brick and mortar exceptions. For a long time I believed that real Mexican and a full service bar were almost incompatible. Thankfully this is no longer the case in Los Angeles and it sure isn’t an issue at Donkey Taqueria. Yes, the tacos cost more than the going street rate in LA, but like tacos in Austin, they are more substantial, are well crafted, and homey – they be muy saborso. So you know Donkey is gonna taste legit, you know you’re gonna pay more because they have booze(great tequilla, mezcal and whiskey selection) but maybe you don’t know just how good these carnitas are. Enter Daryl Rector, chef at Donkey Taqueria and a dude whom I consider to be a gifted chef. His gift is that he is one of those chefs with a healthy obsession with making food. Case in point: he had me taste a ceviche that he had worked for who knows how long to taste exactly like a version he had down in Baja California. He insisted that I try it after I told him I spent some time down in Ensenada. Yes, the ceviche was good but what blew me away was when he procured this bottled hot sauce and proudly proclaimed that it was the missing ingredient. He tried multiple versions, mostly making the sauce himself, but it turned out it was the bottled version that delivered that perfect recreation he so longed for. So take that kind of dedication/obsession and unleash him on carnitas. The pork is sourced from local farms and so is the lard that it is confit in. He also cures the pork. I would like to say this adds some richness, some depth of salty goodness but really it just tasted like the best carnitas I have ever had. A perfect balance of tender pork, made succulent while being rendered in fat and finally crisped up before hitting the telera bread. Normally I am wary of meaty meat sandwiches like Torta Cubana, and it sounds silly for me to say that a Carnitas Torta with a slab ‘o ham had balance, but it was not nearly as over the top as you think it would be. It also helps that he garnishes the sandwich like a chef would: acidity from the greens tossed in a vinaigrette, heat from pickled serrano chiles, oh and since we are talking sandwiches how about sourcing fresh local telera bread, the hallmark of a torta, in Grand Rapids Michigan of all places? But that’s the whole point. It ain’t 20 years ago and Americans have demonstrated a love of real Mexican cooking that is popping up everywhere. Add to that a talented chef like Daryl Rector and suddenly me having the best carnitas of my life isn’t so much a surprising find as it is a yet another step on my journey of experiencing one of the most flavorful and satisfying cuisines in the world. Not bad for $8.

The Vitals:
the spot: Winchester 648 Wealthy Street SE Grand Rapids MI 49503
the eats:  Moroccan Chicken Wings
the bucks: $10
the full nelson:  The only wings that alleviate my cravings for shawerma

This might sound sacrilegious for me to say but chicken wings shouldn’t be cheap. Or at least not cheaply made. It doesn’t take a Michelin starred chef to point out a batch of shipped in frozen drummies that get a dunk in a fryer before the obligatory bath of butter and Frank’s Red Hot. I mean, it works but no reason not to invite whole joint wings to the party. And believe me these whole joint wings were the jam. Sourced from a local farm in Michigan, Winchester’s wings deviate the path more often trodden with a potent Moroccan rub. A move that forgoes the need for a vinegary cayenne laced finished like the classic Buffalo style wing, but well spiced nonetheless. Just when you think that is enough deviation a bar should take in making wings, Chef Rich Van Eck roasts them over a Mirepoix of carrots, onion and celery before give them a dunk in the fryer. The result is like a cross between fried chicken and shawerma and like I said in the episode, you will finish the substantial order(three wings for $10) wanting the rest of the bird. Because Rich is a chef, he finishes the dish with not one but two sauces: a pink peppercorn BBQ sauce and a buttermilk tarragon ranch dressing. Both are pretty amazing on their own, but frankly these wings need little adornment. They hold an addictive quality like a well placed kabob shop in a college town. When you first try the place, you go once a week, at least. Burn out sets in. You pause, only to resume the cycle yet again, as you are now just another statistic in the world of ethnic chicken joint addicts.

The Vitals:
the spot: Stella’s Lounge  53 Commerce Ave Grand Rapids MI 49503
the eats:  The Stella Burger
the bucks: $11.75
the full nelson: GQ said it was the best burger in America. Of course Im gonna break my budget to find out!

Rocky Balboa once said “the world ain’t all sunshines and rainbows”, which is why there are some days on Cheap Eats where we do break the budget. Just know that when we do break the budget, there is a good reason, and the Stella Burger certainly is that. To answer the claim of best burger in the US is certainly worth $11.75 but I could never crown that burger. It would be like trying to pick out a favorite style of BBQ: an exercise in torture and exclusion. In regards to the Stella Burger being called the best in the Country, I will say that it is a refreshing choice that surely was taken from a list, that as of the last 10 years, has been saturated with chef driven fancy pants burgers. Two 4 ounce patties being stuffed with bacon and blue cheese won’t make the menu at the Country Club menu but it’s the burger you dream about if you’re the kind of golfer who downs a beer a hole while playing the back 9 with a 12 pack of Tecate stashed in the cart. And no, I don’t golf. Much. Burger decadence is not limited to beef either as Stella’s Lounge serves up two vegan versions that drip with late night culinary genius. Black Bean and Lentil burger stuffed with tempeh sausage, pesto and vegan 1000 island would pair perfectly with an evening of Sake Bombs. And that’s the kinda lounge Stella’s is: classic dive bar. If I’m gonna break my budget I like that fact that it happens here than at a more refined eatery where the odds are stacked against you as soon as you come into full view of the “complimentary valet sign”. Like the Charleston episode, we broke the budget by going big with the order. Getting the Stella was the Cheap Eats equivalent of ordering the Prime Rib – you are making a statement, one you may not make often but will certainly cement the experience in memory. As big as it was, the Stella is too messy to share, unless the doggie bag you intend to take home is actually for a dog. Still, it is a lot of fun to eat a big, messy, decadent burger. Even worth breaking a budget for here and there. Like Rocky says its not about hard you hit, its about how hard you get hit and move forward. So fork the $12 over, try this burger and live to fight another round of Cheap Eats.

Recently an old friend who is now living in Richmond, reached out to tell me that “we did her city right” with our Cheap Eats episode there, something to be proud of for sure. Though I’m not from GR, I feel pride for the way we showed off Grand Rapids. The Midwest is a part of the country that I was born and raised in, and to show people an exciting, unexpected side of it, is fulfilling on a personal level. It’s a place I kind of forgot about, or treated it as a footnote in my life, but I now know how lasting the experience of growing up in this region has been. It seems to silly, or not, to tie the relationship of a place and your home, with nature. Maybe it is as simple as watching leaves fall through the crisp fall air that makes it feel like home. But it is home. And home has some excellent Cheap Eats there.

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