Marshall V. King
When the Aunt Karen’s Salad landed in front of me on the table, I didn’t think it looked like much.
But it was deceiving.
Karen Hochstetler created the $6.59 salad with romaine lettuce, broccoli, red onions, pecans, crunchy rice noodles and the house dressing at Aunt Karen’s Cafe.
It was a platter of fresh ingredients. But as I ate, I realized how much food was on the plate and how much crunch and flavor it all had.
I tasted some sweetness in dressing and thought it a bit of sugar. But it’s deceiving. The dressing has red wine vinegar, soy sauce and olive oil.
Onions can take over a salad, but the dressing and other ingredients balanced these.
Hochstetler has only been in business in Middlebury 2 1/2 years, but she’s been in the food business a long time. She worked in South Bend and Nappanee before bringing her fresh take on Mennonite cooking to a spot along U.S. 20 in Middlebury. (The address is 129-B Orpha Drive because it’s in a little strip mall west of S.R. 13.)
The cafe always has a $5 lunch special. In September, it’ll be soup, deli salad and a cookie for that amount. Daily specials include chicken and dumplings on Monday and haystacks on Wednesday.
But a new menu features a variety of sandwiches on from-scratch breads, including the pretzel rolls they make in the kitchen at Aunt Karen’s. Tuscan Turkey sandwich and Asian Wrap are on the new menu.
Hochstetler brings new ideas to her cooking as times change. The foundation is offering fresh, flavorful food by paying attention to details.
They chop their own lettuce. They get greens from Kate Lind at Sustainable Greens. They make their dressings.
And regulars from nearby Jayco and nearby schools, as well as others in Middlebury, are keeping her busy.
This is a great deli and cafe that focuses on doing breakfast and lunch right.
The salad had the right mix of flavor and crunch. It shouted how fresh it was. And it’s right on that edge of being worthy of being a finalist in Salad Quest, the search for the best salad in Elkhart County. (4 1/2 out of five stars)
The salad is right. The other salad I had from Aunt Karen’s was very good.
But I’d be more impressed if the nuts were toasted and Hochstetler and her staff made croutons from their own great breads rather then buying them.
Is it good enough to compete against the other finalists — Constant Spring, Antonio’s, Kelly Jae’s and Miles Lab? Maybe. It’s right there with Unique Blend, Sports Time Family Pub & Grill and South Side Soda Shop at 4 1/2 stars. (Editor's note - The original version of this story omitted Miles Lab as a finalist. Oops Sorry about that)
Like Hochstetler, Janice Hayden has been making customers happy with fresh options for a long time. She’ll celebrate her 30th anniversary in October as owner of Old Style Deli, 200 S. Main St., Elkhart.
The Deli has been a big part of downtown Elkhart. Hayden offers a huge menu of sandwiches. A new menu will add some options and retire some others. And it’ll have three new salads to go along with the spinach salad, chef salad and grilled chicken salad that are there now.
She offers a taco salad as a special occasionally. And the Texas Chicken Salad that has been a special will be on the menu.
What makes it Texan? It’s got two fried tenders on the chef salad. The original dressing was a mix of barbecue sauce and ranch dressing. “They didn’t go for that,” Hayden said. Now it’s just ranch.
I had a salad special of strawberries, walnuts, grilled chicken and spinach with poppy seed dressing that had a nice amount of flavor. The greens were fresh. The dressing was well constructed.
The salad greens at the Deli are a spring mix with some spinach added. “We make a big bowl of greens every day and it’s gone,” Hayden said. She and longtime assistant Pam Knight make the dill and ranch dressings, but purchase others.
In addition to the Texas Chicken salad, Out of the Blue will have craisins, walnuts, blue cheese and grilled chicken with a balsamic vinaigrette. Island Chicken will have almonds, monterrey jack cheese, grilled chicken and grilled pineapple with poppy seed dressing. Hayden said she favors Out of the Blue.
The salads start at around $6 and offer some fresh options in downtown Elkhart.
They’re better than most you can find. If I were doing Sandwich Quest, some of the deli sandwiches would compete for the best you can buy in the county. But this is Salad Quest and while the salads are better than average, they aren’t quite as good as the ones the finalists serve. (Four out of five)
Salad Quest has just a few places left to visit.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
Marshall V. King is managing editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.