Dining Out

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  • Chicken offerings, desserts make date
    When a co-worker hit me up to find a place to meet a date for dinner in Columbia City, I started rolling through my mind’s Rolodex and threw out a few names.
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The Brown House
** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Ice cream, nostalgia piled high

It is one of the restaurants people most frequently ask whether I have been to or tell me I must check out.

And given how nice the weather has been this spring, how could I not head up to Auburn to try the legendary Brown House?

Nestled near the corner of Main Street and Ensley Avenue for more than 60 years, this drive-in of sorts had cars lined up at the window and the tiny foyer inside was packed on the balmy days I visited. There is one picnic table outside, but no indoor seating, so it is truly for those on the go.

The menu has the usual drive-in staples – Coney dogs, burgers, fries and all sorts of ice cream treats – but there were also some great homemade finds.

The Coneys were a great start. Served with traditional yellow mustard and chopped onions, Spanish dogs are also offered with just sauce. The sauce – the original recipe that owners Tom and Marsha Armstrong obtained when they bought the restaurant in 1975 – was savory and a little runny with just a hint of spice, so the mustard and onion added zip.

The double cheeseburger was decent as were the fries, but I would choose the tater tots over them because, well, there just aren’t enough places that offer tater tots. It just made the experience a little more nostalgic.

The best potatoes at the Brown House were found in the potato salad, which is Marsha’s recipe. The mustard-yellow salad gets its sweetness from sweet pickle juice, Marsha said, and also has chopped onions. But what really made it different was how finely the potatoes were diced.

“If I don’t make them that small I hear about it from my regulars,” she said.

Her slaw was also not your normal slaw. With just cabbage, sweet salad dressing and celery seed, it had a creamy consistency but was not overly sweet. I think the slaw would have been great on those Coney dogs, but the dogs were long gone by the time I tried it so I will have to experiment with that next time.

The fried chicken basket was better than expected. The batter was crisp and flavorful without being oily, and the meat was juicy. The meat for the grilled tenderloin is purchased from Albright’s Supermarket in Corunna, and it had the right lean-to-fat ratio I look for in a loin. But it was a little overcooked and dry on the outside. Maybe a little more butter or oil on the griddle would have helped.

The Brown House’s chili was also not favorable. It was too watery and had no spice or rich tomato flavor, so it was more like a ground beef soup with beans. My onion rings also fell flat as they were pulled from the fryer too early (like I said, it was super busy) and were soggy instead of crisp.

The chili, Marsha said, is no longer available as the soups have been pulled from the menu early because of the weather. The Brown House is open all year and, this year, the summer Sunday hours have already kicked in because of the weather.

The Armstrongs normally don’t switch until May.

“It has been crazy,” Marsha said.

And with that warm weather, there is one thing that won’t disappoint at the Brown House – ice cream and other cool treats.

Known for its cones topped with a candied cherry, the chocolate and vanilla soft serve ice cream is rich, creamy and delicious. And they make some killer shakes. The two I tried – hot fudge and a chocolate-banana – were thick and not lacking in flavor. They also held up well in the heat and stayed thick to the bottom of the cup.

I also would strongly advise getting a vanilla or other flavored soda to go with your Coneys because they don’t skimp on the syrup at the Brown House.

But the best treat I found there was the frosty malt. Served in a small ice cream bowl, this dark chocolate malt was frozen solid and a little icy, but man was it good. So good, I may stock up next time and throw some in my freezer.

Overall, the Brown House won me over with its nostalgic look and feel and, more importantly, with the smiling faces waiting on me. It is the kind of place nearly every small town has, and it is the kind of place that you just sort of feel like you have been going to for years even if it is your first visit.

So, now I can finally say I have been to the Brown House when someone asks. And if I find someone who hasn’t, I will be the one telling them they must check it out.

Restaurant: The Brown House

Address: 100 E. Ensley Ave., Auburn

Phone: 260-925-2466

Hours: 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-Friendly: Yes

Menu: Coney dog ($1.95), double cheeseburger ($4.85), tater tots ($1.70), coleslaw and potato salad ($1.25), grilled tenderloin ($4), shakes ($2.10 small, $2.35 regular, $3.70 super), hot fudge shake ($2.45, $2.70, $4.40), frosty malt ($.80)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 -star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 max.), service: * (1 max.)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter (@DiningOutDuVall).