It all centers around bologna.
My love for the old-fashioned, way-out-of-style meat product draws me to these off-the-beaten-path places. Nowadays, you are lucky to find regular bologna made from a mix of pork, beef and poultry scraps – more commonly referred to in slang form as lips and another very unsavory sounding animal part when folks joke about it – at chain groceries.
Almost all the big-name stores carry beef bologna, but a connoisseur of cheap cold cuts like me knows beef bologna is way too lean and way too dry. It doesn't even have enough fat to fry up right in a pan, which is one of the best ways to have bologna. And don't even get me started on the joys of bologna salad.
I visit small groceries regularly, not just for bologna but also for the nostalgia. It wasn't so long ago when locally owned, small groceries were the norm and folks would have assumed a place called Walmart was a store that specialized in walls.
As the big-box stores have taken over, there are foods that were once staples that have been pushed aside. Our diets changed, too. The demand for things like old-fashioned loaf and liverwurst just isn't there anymore.
Some old favorites modern stores still offer also have changed for the worse. Colby and colby jack cheese are still quite popular, but those store delis slice them from half wheels, which are about half the diameter (about 6 inches) of the whole wheels that were once the norm. And size does matter as the smaller cheeses are packed tighter and do not seem to hold their moisture as well as the big wheels. The big wheel slices always taste better.
The small stores have a chance again, though. The trend toward locally sourced everything gives the independents a niche and that trend is growing so fast I can only dream that it will not be a niche anymore.
You won't find handmade sausages at a chain store, you won't be able to get that special grind of say brisket, chuck and round for burgers you love, and you won't find handmade cookies and cakes, either. When it comes to sweet treats, some of the little guys still use mixers and creative minds instead of just thawing them out.
It is for those reasons I believe the small stores are still king.
Here are some of my favorite old-school shopping spots and some of the things that make them well worth checking out:
609 S. Main St., Churubusco
The case is right there when you walk in and you simply cannot walk past it without stopping.
The giant sugar cookies will grab your attention first – unless it is early in the morning and the aroma of fresh doughnuts finds your nose from the parking lot. Then there are the cinnamon rolls slathered with sweet icing that are as perfectly gooey and good as can be after a few seconds in the microwave. Or, how about the favorite treat of two young ladies working the register on a recent night – the twisted snails. These cream cheese-infused treats are similar to danishes and get their name, I assume, because of their shape. The bakery is so popular that there is a little walk-up window on the corner of the store so you can get your goodies on the go in the morning.
The other special part of this great store, which has been a community staple more than 50 years, is in the back where the meat department and deli are found. These departments are combined so the same folks who cut your steaks also slice your cheese just like they did at the little grocery I used to ride my bike to as a kid to pick up ground beef or – if it was a special night – hand cut filets for Mom.
There are filets, strips and sirloins – the standard cuts of meat – but there are also some unique offerings, which aren't the norm, such as the “family steak” – a lean cut from the arm for slow cooking. And, yes, if I want something cut special it is not a problem. Try that at a big-box store.
There are big wheels of County Line cheese – the best of all – in the deli and, yes, there is Eckrich bologna.
But the best item you can buy at Egolf's – sweet or savory – is the rather basically named sandwich spread. What is sandwich spread? It is ham salad. Or bologna salad. Actually, it is both.
It was always ham salad when I was young, but picky people and the rules they created swayed some away from calling it that because most of these meat grinder-prepared concoctions were made with bologna and other meats instead of just ham. Some places offer ham salad made with just ham, along with a sandwich spread or bologna salad, but a salad made with ham only is usually too salty.
Egolf's spread is perfection and it contains a laundry list of items – all ends pieces and leftovers after being sliced. It has bologna, ham and pretty much all the leftover deli meats with just a couple of exceptions. It also has all of the deli cheese ends except for pepper jack, beets and beet juice, sweet relish, salad dressing and celery.
Pro tip: While you are in the neighborhood, check out the Churubusco Sav U Mor, too. The meat department offers a wide variety of house-made sausage links and patties that are worth stocking up on for your summer grilling.
1225 E. State Blvd.
If nostalgia is your thing, there is no store you will like better.
Pio Market has been a neighborhood staple since 1922, and you could easily spend hours marveling at the antique treasures and retro nuances there.
There is a nifty little stool-lined mini counter facing the meat counter, several old advertising displays, an ancient shopping cart and even an old hand-crank telephone.
I would be more apt to spend hours simply marveling at the meat cases or at the big slabs of beef or pork hanging from old-fashioned hooks in the meat-cutting area the experts – and yes, they are experts – there are carving up to fill the cases.
Neal Butler, who started working at Pio when he was 15, has owned it 36 years. His sidekick is Jerry Fabini, the only other full-time employee and the resident butcher, who formerly owned and operated Redding's Meat Market. They work together beautifully with Butler being the Felix Unger – quieter and more businesslike – to Fabini's Oscar Madison – he will talk your ear off and always has something funny to share or complain about.
I love getting specialty cuts from them whether it be a pork roast for slow cooking or thick-cut Korean-style beef ribs for the grill.
They, too, have regular bologna and they make ham salad, and that salad isn't 100% ham, but – in staying with their retro vibe – the name isn't getting changed to be P.C. It doesn't have the laundry list of ingredients Egolf's has, but it is just as good. It is a top seller as is the special Redding's potato salad, which Fabini makes pretty regularly.
For the novice cook, Pio also offers many ready-to-go options such as meat sauce for spaghetti, rolled beef roasts and oven-ready meat loafs. And don't ignore the meat cases, either, because there are many jewels to be found. Ossian Meats is highlighted with many of its locally produced pork products and there are plenty of sale items you can find up near the register. Oxtail and short ribs are usually my targets.
Pro tip: At opposite corners of the long, narrow store are two areas you will not want to miss, especially if you have kids with you. In the back is a stand-up refrigerated case with a bevy of unique sodas to quench your thirst. Up front across from the register is a good old-fashioned penny candy area complete with tiny paper bags to fill as well as an array of glass jars holding black licorice treats behind the register facing the front window. These areas are must-sees for a first timer.
Albright's One Stop
110 N. Bridge St., Corunna
This store, which opened in 1954, is amazing in so many ways. It is the finest small store in the area and one I wish was in my neighborhood.
There are a couple of stores similarly named in Fort Wayne, but they are owned by different family members than the original's owners, and they are not at all the same.
Just like the other stores I mentioned, there is a great – and huge – meat department with everything one could want, including some fantastic store-made bratwursts including tasty variations such as sweet cherry or black and bleu. I'd grab some summer sausage, too, because the store's signature blend was excellent as was the store-made beef jerky I grabbed as I waited in line to check out.
There is County Line cheese at the deli, but it was the small wheel. There was still plenty of fabulous cheese to be had, however. The first aisle was loaded with hundreds of varieties of cheeses from Limburger to ghost pepper cheddar as well as dozens of cheese spreads and dips – some standard commercial, some local and some from Wisconsin where cheese is a serious business.
That cheese lineup summed up why Albright's was so great. The store wasn't necessarily offering the most of anything and it is not like the deli or bakery were the finest in all the land, but there was a wide selection of everything no matter how inconsequential the item may seem. Even the canned goods had a hidden jewel – Libby's brand canned peaches that my grandma used to make her killer peach pie. Like braunschweiger? Not only is it always on hand, there were three varieties because everyone needs variety when it comes to liverwurst, right?
Pro-tip: There was one specialty item that I think Albright's easily offered the largest selection of – Faygo. A Midwestern carbonated beverage throwback that was once a staple for most middle-class households, there was half an aisle of it and dozens of varieties. I loaded up on my favorite, Rock-N-Rye, which has no peers or similar competitors, and of course some of the classic Red Pop.
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.
More small wonders
Mister Bratz; 9480 Indiana 120, Orland: Pretty easy to guess what the specialty is here. After being greeted by the nifty wood-carved pig statue on your way in, you will find yourself in a world where dozens upon dozens of encased pork sausages – fresh and frozen – are at your choosing. The Hawaiian brats – the spicy jalapeño ones – are the best I have ever had and don't turn your nose up at the odder choices like blueberry-maple or mushroom-Swiss until you try them. They are all great and I make a trip here every spring to stock up. And, yes, they do have a meat counter and deli area, and there is ham salad here, too.
Raber's Discount Groceries; 11365 N. Indiana 9 Wolcottville: If you are the kind of person who would buy the dented, scratched and dated canned goods from the discount bin, this is your dreamland. This giant store is full of overstock and slightly damaged goods. A trip here is similar to seeking out prized antiques among the junk at a swap meet only with food. Sure, there are plenty of odd cereals and cookies to sort through that were probably overstocked for a reason, but if you are patient, you might just find a few jars of those special imported Italian tomatoes that make your sauce a masterpiece.
Conny's Little German Breadshop; 26 W. Main St., Peru: It is a little farther out of the way, but the breads and goodies Conny Woodruff churns out of her little bakery cannot be found elsewhere. As soon as she welcomes you with her smiling face and thick German accent, you know you are in for something special. Like pretzel rolls? You have not had a pretzel roll until you have had hers. Her varieties of ciabatta and focaccia are all top-notch. And if you think her unique blueberry – and other fruit-infused – cinnamon rolls are a bad idea, you are wrong. Call ahead to make sure she isn't sold out and if you have some German blood, be sure to mark on her map where your family hails from.