Marshall V. King
Dining A La King
Amish/Mennonite food can be meat and potatoes.
It can be that odd dish known as a haystack.
And in Karen Hochstetler's hands, it can be the Aunt Karen's Pita with diced chicken, broccoli, red onion, sunflower seeds, a bit of bacon and a homemade dressing.
Hochstetler is emphasizing freshness in her new place called Aunt Karen's Cafe, which she opened Feb. 4 in a plaza at U.S. 20 and Orpha Drive.
She operated a place in downtown South Bend for 12 Â½ years. After closing that, she helped her family at Mary's Pastries, which burned in 2008.
She popped up at the former Checkerberry Inn and served a lot of banquets, but left there after the holidays.
Her new place has high ceilings and concrete floor. It's in South Pointe Plaza with a gym, tanning business and rental business. But what's clear is that people are enjoying her food and feel comfortable there.
She updated her menu from South Bend. She limited her hours to breakfast and lunch and evenings by reservation. After more than 20 years in the food business, it's how she's making it sustainable and manageable.
Fine by me. The food is good.
Amish/Mennonite cooks are known for being able to fill you up with tasty food. They make platters of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Some of them will own up to it, but if they don't I'll tell you: Amish/Mennonite cooking often turns to processed food to help them fill a table.
Jell-O and pudding mixes are part of pies.
Salad is usually iceberg in a creamy dressing, not a vinaigrette someone made from scratch.
Now as I write of the food that filled my youth, my mouth waters.
But what's nice about Aunt Karen's Cafe is that the food is rooted in that heritage that is focused on feeding hungry people who work with their hands, but lightened for people who sit at desks all day.
The breakfast menu includes smoothies, something I'm pretty sure my Amish grandfather never tasted. But I really liked the raspberry peach smoothie ($3.75) made with fruit, yogurt and pineapple juice.
I'm a baked oatmeal snob. But Hochstetler's, made with a seven-grain mix, is rich, not too heavy and as good as I've had in a restaurant in Elkhart County.
I haven't tried many of the other baked goods, but the buttermilk cookies are good.
The menu isn't massive because it's focused on freshness. "I like to make sure what I make for that day is rotated out and used that day," she said of her food.
To keep it fresher, their bread isn't sliced until a sandwich is ordered.
It takes most of the morning for her and several employees to get ready for lunch. They're seeing a lot of business people and some groups. I've seen friends lingering together over lunch or coffee the couple times I've been there.
You order at a counter, but the food is brought to you and the staff is somewhat insistent that they should bus your dishes when you're done.
Aside from the pita, I also liked Aunt Karen's Salad, which has romaine, broccoli, red onions, pecans, rice noodles and a house dressing they make there. It's a very good salad ($5.95). Others have strawberries or mandarin oranges. And she has taco salad daily, though haystacks -- which are a variation served with rice and tortilla chips -- are available only on Wednesdays.
It's easy to eat light and yet feel satisfied because the flavors are good. But you can order biscuits and gravy or a piece of pie if you want, as well. The daily specials sound good, but are also a lot heartier than the regular menu. The special lineup includes chicken and dumplings on Monday, baked potato on Tuesday, haystacks on Wednesday, meatloaf on Thursday and beef manhattan on Friday.
I haven't eaten as much of the offerings as I like, but I've liked everything I had. And it's nice to see Hochstetler, whom I've known since high school, making good food in a way that she can sustain and that is so pleasant for the customer.
?The Elkhart Jazz Festival is this weekend and it'll have food vendors on the plaza, but it's also one of the busiest weekends of the year for downtown Elkhart restaurants. If you're not accustomed to coming to downtown Elkhart, it can be a great way to see what the restaurants can do, though it's also hard to get a seat.
? LaSalle Grille, 115 W. Colfax, South Bend, is having a beer dinner featuring Schlafly from St. Louis at 6 p.m. Thursday. The cost is $65 per person, plus tax and tip. A representative from the brewery will be at the dinner, which will pair its beer with fine foods. Information/reservations: 574-288-1155
Marshall V. King is news/multimedia editor and food columnist for The Elkhart Truth/eTruth.com. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @hungrymarshall.
If you go
What: Aunt Karen's Cafe
Where: 129 Orpha Drive, in the plaza along U.S. 20 west of S.R. 13.
Fare: Breakfast and lunch items, including salads, soups and baked goods.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.Saturday.
Details: Daily and weekly specials offered; no smoking; credit cards accepted; handicapped accessible; evening hours available for groups of 10 or more; carry-out and special orders available.