Michigan: Eats and Treats

Including our time on Isle Royale, we spent 8 days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We had some fantastic food, some average food, and a few meals not worth talking about at all. I decided that I’d only include some of the best. So here are my favorite eats and treats from our extended stay in Michigan.

The Galley
St. Ignace

The Galley was recommended to us by the desk clerk at our hotel as the restaurant in town to go to. Since it was a special occasion (we’d arrived in St. Ignace on our anniversary), we figured we’d give it a try. The parking lot was pretty deserted when we arrived, but it was on the later side so we didn’t necessarily take that as a bad sign. Inside wasn’t much to look at either, but we were tired, hungry, and ready for whatever their menu offered.

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Sriram ordered the pasty, a local specialty, while I opted for the prime rib. I didn’t have much hope for it, but I was told it was the best in town. My salad arrived. It was a basic side salad – nothing special. I was hungry and was hoping the prime rib would at least be passable. When it arrived it looked good. And smelled good. It came with horseradish sauce, which I opted to get on the side (horseradish is a flavor I like, but it can easily overwhelm food).

My prime rib was, in a word…perfect. Easily the best prime rib I’ve ever had. And the horseradish sauce (which is made in-house by the chef) was sublime. It was mild enough to not be overwhelming, but flavorful enough to be great. I opted to mostly not use it on my steak, as I felt the steak did not require assistance. But I stirred it into my baked potato and found it delightful. I liked it so much I was sure to tell the waitress to send my regards to the chef.

A great meal to welcome us to Michigan.

Joann’s Fudge
Mackinac Island

A stroll around an island definitely begs for an ice cream cone, so shortly after arriving on Mackinac Island, we stopped into Joann’s Fudge shop. After checking out my choices, I went with something a little different than my usual ice-cream preferences. For some reason, the Mint Chocolate Chip was calling my name. I ordered one up in a waffle cone (a treat, as I usually go for a kiddie cup). It was delicious, and enough to share. Mint chocolate chip may become a new favorite.

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Mary’s Bistro
Mackinac Island

After exploring the area, and with time to spare before the ferry, we opted to get dinner on the Island, choosing Mary’s Bistro for it’s proximity to the ferry dock and it’s outdoor seating on the lake. The outdoor seating turned out to be full, so we were seated indoors, but still had a nice enough view. We started with the housemade kettle chips and blue cheese dip (which seems to be a thing in this area – I’ve seen it on a few different menus). The kettle chips were pretty basic – not much on their own. But the blue cheese dip was outstanding. If you’re a fan of blue cheese, this would quickly become a favorite.

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Between the afternoon ice cream and the chips, we weren’t too hungry. We ordered one additional small dish from the appetizer menu (a delicious italian “eggroll” that was like a mini-calzone roll). A nice finish to our island adventure.

Jose’s Cantina
St. Ignace

Best. Tacos. Ever. I could leave it at that, but I won’t.

We had driven past Jose’s Cantina on our way into town and finally decided to stop in.

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The decor inside was bright and cheerful, and as is the way in all Mexican restaurants, we were given a basket of tortilla chips and salsa upon being seated. They were good – the usual. Sriram had a nice margarita while I stuck with water.

I checked out the menu and, having noticed a sign out front congratulating head chef, Robert Gallo on being voted “Best Tacos in Northern Michigan and the U.P.” – and being #5 in the state (I might have to try the other 4 sometime), decided to see if they lived up to the fuss ordered the Mango Habanero Chicken Tacos. The waitress said (and I quote), “Are you sure?” I laughed and said I was pretty sure, and asked if there was some reason I shouldn’t be. She told me they were quite hot. I told her that we hear that a lot (and it’s hardly ever true) but asked her to bring me a side of sour cream, just in case. Sriram ordered the vegetarian sampler.

Our food arrived. My tacos came in crispy shells that were made from soft tortillas. I have to admit, I expected Tortega. What a pleasant surprise. Easily the best taco shells I’ve ever tasted. I dug right in. They had some heat, but not too much. I later told the waitress that I thought they were the perfect level of heat for me, but that Sriram would have definitely added hot sauce. She laughed. Sriram’s veggie platter was so big it mostly became lunch the next day.

Our waitress was a little flakey, but when it comes to the food, I could not recommend it highly enough. Do yourself a favor – if you ever make it, order the tacos!

Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore
Munising

We stopped in the Falling Rock Cafe on our way to set up camp in Christmas. Falling Rock is a multi-purpose stop, serving sandwiches, salads, ice-cream and coffee. They also house an impressive array of new and used books, have free WiFi, and enough space to settle in for a bit if you’d like. After placing your order at the counter, you can find a seat at any number of charmingly mismatched tables to wait.

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I ordered up a sandwich and was disappointed to learn that they were out of the kale salad side that had caught my eye. They told me they’d have more later (or tomorrow), and that if I was so inclined, it was worth coming back for. I told them that I just might, and a couple days later, I did. It was. If you order it, be sure to get it with the goat cheese sprinkled on top.


The Ambassador

Houghton

At the recommendation of our ferry seat-mates Alex and Ian, we stopped over to the Ambassador Restaurant on the evening of our return from Isle Royale. The decor was fun, with large murals of celebrating-gnomes covering the walls and big green lanterns dangling from the ceiling. With a couple of pool tables thrown in for fun, it was easy to see why it was popular with the college crowd, though there was a good mix of patrons there upon our visit.

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Opting for our usual fare of pizza and wings when in a pub-type environment, we ordered our favorite “make-your-own” pizza – cheese with red onions, garlic and jalapenos. It turned out to be pretty good. Definitely hit the spot.

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Suomi Home Bakery and Restaurant
Hancock

While we were at the Finnish American Heritage Center, we had asked Jim for a recommendation for a Finnish restaurant. He said there weren’t really any good authentic options, but that the Suomi Restaurant came closest to at least having some Finnish influence. That was good enough for us, so we stopped in for breakfast. Sriram ordered the Pannukakku – a cross between a pancake and a custard.

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I opted for the Finnish French Toast. What makes it “Finnish” is the use of Nisu bread, a Finnish bread that is sweeter than other breads. I didn’t find it to be all that different than regular French toast, but enjoyed it very much.

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So, those were the best treats from Michigan. And since there were far more hits than misses, I’d say it was definitely a culinary success.

The Mighty Mac and Beyond: Three Days in St. Ignace, MI

The Mighty Mac

That’s what they call Michigan’s famed Mackinac Bridge, which meets at the junction of Lakes Michigan and Huron and connects Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas – two separate states of mind, and the divide between the “Yoopers” (those in the Upper Penisula) and the Trolls (those who live under the bridge). The bridge opened to traffic in 1957, and is considered an engineering marvel (due to the extreme cold and wind conditions it must withstand in winter) and is even featured in a PBS documentary called Building the Mighty Mac.

According to it’s website, at 26,372 total feet, and 8,614 feet of suspension bridge, the Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, and 5th longest in the World. It is only 54 feet wide, and at its tallest point the road stands 200 feet above the water. In the highest wind conditions, the bridge is capable of moving a full 35 feet east or west. The two inside lanes are open grates (the outer lanes are concrete), to reduce wind resistance. The bridge is so daunting to some that the Bridge Authority offers a “driver’s assistance program” to drive cars across for those too uncomfortable to drive themselves.

Here’s a picture of the Mac from the Mackinaw City side.

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We conquered the Mac early in our visit, driving over on our way from St. Ignace to Colonial Michlimackinac (try saying that three times fast) in Mackinaw City. The weather was perfect, and the wind low. We found our drive over the Mighty Mac to be without incident. A bit of a letdown really. Sriram was driving and said it wasn’t much different than driving over any other big bridge. The open grate made the car shimmy a bit, which felt awkward, but not unsafe. Our return trip was much the same.

Colonial Michilimackinac

We arrived at Colonial Michilimackinac with the intent of popping in for a quick visit. Colonial Michilimackinac is located at the Mackinaw Straits, which historically, was a meeting place for Native American tribes, followed by the fur traders and later by the French, English and American militaries. The Fort itself was built for trading purposes, and later became the scene of conflict during Pontiac’s Rebellion and later during the War of Independence.

We ended up finding it far more interesting than we imagined and stayed for a couple hours. The Fort had a lot of historical information about the fur trade, the various conflicts that took place there, and the area in general. Costumed staff provided further information in various areas of the Fort. The best comparison I could make for my Massachusetts readers was that it was like going to Old Sturbridge Village, but I found it more charming. They weren’t trying as hard. On my visits to Sturbridge, I’ve always felt very much like I was watching a performance, which is OK, as it essentially is. But at Michilimackinac, if you happened upon a “town’s-person,” they’d chat you up for a bit about what they were doing, as if you’d simply bumped into a neighbor.

We watched a cannon demonstration just outside the fort before entering the walled community. Inside the fort we explored the still active gardens (both floral and vegetable) and visited a home of a town’s woman who was making pie in a cast iron pot over the fire, using fresh ingredients grown at the Fort.

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We stopped in to discuss the fur trade with another town’s person and got the current exchange rates for furs. In case you’re curious, beaver still beats everything but bison.

Special exhibits, as well as audio-visual displays throughout tell the often tragic story of the Fort and the lives of those who lived there. While most of the buildings are recreations, there are some areas that are preserved from when the British burned down the fort as they abandoned it during the Revolutionary War. Part of the powder magazine survived the destruction of the fort, and is now on display. Additionally, some other underground areas have been excavated as well and can be seen through glass panels and display cases. It was a fascinating place. We very much enjoyed our visit there.


Mackinac Island

Soon after our visit to the Fort, we headed to the ferry dock and over to Mackinac Island (it’s pronounced Mackinaw, by the way). The Island has 8 miles of shoreline and less than 4 square miles in total land area and is a very popular tourist destination. Sensory overload greeted us upon our arrival. The dock was so crowded with passengers looking to get on the ferry for their trips off the island that we quickly vacated the area because it was too daunting to be in a crowd that big. The smell of horses and manure was also very prominent. Between the crowds and the odors, I did not consider it a pleasant welcoming.

Cars are not allowed on the island, so horse drawn carriages provide island tours as well as transport goods (in fact, UPS delivers in horse drawn carriages). I’m not a big fan of the carriages, so we moved on. Our stroll away from the crowds led us to some nice views of the bridge from the island and some beautiful homes. Once we were sure the chaos had passed, we headed back to the main road to take in the shops and atmosphere, with an ice cream cone in hand. When we were done with our snack we rented some bikes to explore a bit more of the Island. It was Sriram’s first experience on a one-speed bike. He’d never had to back peddle to stop before. My attempt at capturing his ride was not very good.

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We rode through town, enjoying the view, and then parked our bikes and climbed to the top of the Arch Rock – a natural limestone arch on the island. It was difficult to get a great shot of the full arch, and we forgot to ride down the road to try to get it from the bottom (in our haste to return our bikes on time), but you get the idea.

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With our bikes returned, we went in search of a Mackinac Island sticker for the roof box, and walked in and out of 90% of all the shops on Main Street before finally choosing one. Too soon it was back onto to the ferry for a beautiful sunset ride back.

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Life on the Road

Our second day in St. Ignace was spent dealing with some of the less glamorous aspects of our trip. Laundry, shopping for supplies, packing up and sending home some things we’ve realized we didn’t need, and organizing our little traveling circus just a bit more. A more routine day, full of common chores. But necessary to keep things running smoothly. But we also found time to take a walk around town, which we hadn’t done before.

St. Ignace is the last city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, just before the bridge. It’s a small community on Lake Huron with a small downtown area and a few shops and restaurants. Though we took the ferry from the Mackinaw City side, St. Ignace also provides transport to Mackinac Island. The major point of interest in town are the Father Jacques Marquette Mission and the Museum of Ojibwa Culture, which we visited on our final morning. For the day we merely strolled along the waterfront, enjoying the beautiful, sunny day.

Moving on

Our final morning in St. Ignace we awoke to a beautiful sunrise just outside our room.

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After getting a bit more sleep we packed up our things and headed back into town. On our way out of town we stopped into the Museum of Ojibwa Culture to explore the exhibits. A very interesting place, that tells the story of Michigan’s Ojibwa (Chippewa) Tribe.

Next stop … Christmas?


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