Dining Out in Rockford–Idle Inn–Part 2

Dining Out in Rockford–Idle Inn–Part 2

By Mike Leifheit

By Mike Leifheit

Restaurant Critic

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Dining Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants.

The following is Part 2 of his review and narrative published in our last issue, where he had bumped into Lawrence and Rozene Smith at Serrano’s, and they had decided to go to the Idle Inn for ribs.

Lawrence calls me on Friday to say that he has reserved two slabs of ribs and that we should meet each other at the Idle Inn at one o’clock on Saturday.

I get up early on Saturday. I have a lot to do before one. I plow through the settlements and payroll for both restaurants. I write some bills and slam a shower. I have a few minutes to spare, so I stop at the Water Street Cafe’. Tracy Teske, the manager, is there with Frank Turbyville, one of the owners. (Mike White, the other owner, also owns the Waterside Building across the street from the cafe’. We go back to when I owned the State and Madison Building. We both bought our buildings from First National Bank when it was still a real bank.)

I tell Frank and Tracy about my ideas for the column. I tell them the story of the last time I was at the Idle Inn, and I tell them about Uncle Frank and the Winnebago County Courthouse, and how my son told me I should write about Uncle Frank. Then we talk about South Main Street, and how it has changed. Frank tells a story about going to the Main Island, another black-owned bar on South Main. I tell them how I went there one night with Shawnee Elmore, who used to own American Cafe’ until the city took away her liquor license for having nude dancers.

We were going to the Brickhouse for baloney sandwiches. They had great fried baloney sandwiches at the Brickhouse. Ted Coleman, the owner, was a regular customer of Shawnee’s. The gal who ran the kitchen at the Brickhouse was sick that night, and we saw some people bring in carry-out from across the way at the Main Island. We were hungry, so we decided to go over there. The bartender at the Main Island looked at us a little strangely in the beginning, but warmed to us when she found out we were fun. We had chicken wings and French fries. All they serve at the Main Island is chicken wings and French fries.

It is getting close to one o’clock, the appointed time, so I excuse myself and head for the Idle Inn, which is located on the curve on South Main Street. The sign outside says it is Bob and Ed’s Idle Inn. I walk in and sit at the bar. I want to be there having a cocktail and acting all cool when Lawrence and Rozene arrive. I order a Tanquery and Tonic. It comes in one of those tiny little cocktail glasses that you only see in old-time supper clubs or the VFW or in places like the Idle Inn. Sort of like a gin martini with a splash of tonic.

I sit there for a while by myself. After some time passes, I become concerned that I have made a mistake. I ask the bartender, and she says that they reserved the ribs for two o’clock. I tell her that I have seen Lawrence say one o’clock to one person and then turn right around and say two to the person behind him. We both thought about getting old.

About this time, Lawrence and Rozene show up. We get them drinks, and we sit and talk. I tell them about my son and Uncle Frank and the Jimmy Loring story. Lawrence tries to introduce me to Stone, the owner, but he seems a little stand-offish and leaves to go next door to the snack shop.

We talk about other bars and clubs that used to exist on the southwest side. I tell them how Robin, my ex-wife, and I used to go to the Lushheads’Club when it was owned by Pat. They used to come to the door and look out at you through a little window. Then, if you looked OK, they would let you in. We used to go there to see this jazz band called Flash Beaver and the Pharos. They wore turbans and swayed from side to side when they played. We first went there with my old boss from Rockford Nehi, Bud Longanecker. He was seeing a girl who worked there, and he knew Pat.

About this time, the ribs arrive, and we move to a table. The ribs come with white bread, and Lawrence and I talk about how you have to have white bread with ribs. Soft white Wonder Bread. It’s like peanut butter and jelly; it just doesn’t go good with anything else. We order coleslaw. I tell Lawrence that I have always wanted a good Southern barbecue sauce recipe, and how I tried to talk Harlan Jefferson out of his mother’s, but he said she wouldn’t “give it up.” Lawrence says he thinks Stone would give me the recipe, but I am reluctant to ask him. Lawrence says a guy wouldn’t give you all the ingredients, would he? Maybe just five out of six and leave one out.

The ribs are incredible. About this time, Stone does come and sit with us. I probe him gently about the process. Before he sat down, I told Rozene and Lawrence that he used charcoal and not hickory or oak. I prefer charcoal. He confirms that it is charcoal and then, perhaps because I seemed to have some knowledge of the process, he opens up a little.

I have written recently that I don’t like ribs that are cooked to slop. In the pit barbecue process, the ribs are totally cooked until they almost fall off the bone. But this is pit barbecue, and that makes all the difference. When you use a pit barbecue, it dries the meat and condenses it, thereby increasing the flavor and providing the slightly chewy texture that is to die for. Stone says that he cooks his ribs four and one-half to five and one-half hours. He says that his pit used to be faster, but that it takes longer now that it has gotten older.

We talk about sauce. All good barbecue sauces start with catsup. They all have vinegar and something to make them sweet. Stone says he never measures anything, just throws it together and tastes it as he goes along. (That is what all great chefs do.) He says his recipe calls for 13 ingredients, but he usually only makes it with 12. He says the sauce today was made with only six ingredients. Lawrence says it tastes fine with six ingredients, and why would you need 13? Rozene says if it had 13 ingredients, it would be addictive, and I say all you would do in life was sit here and order more ribs. We all laugh.

Stone disappears for a moment and then returns with a quart of sauce, which he presents to me as a gift. We make jokes abut whether this is six-ingredient sauce or just five. It is getting late, and we say our goodbyes. Outside, Lawrence asks if I am going to try and duplicate it, and I say yes, and I will keep some of the original so we can compare. Like any good cook, however, I will change it slightly to make it my own. That’s what Stone said he would do. That’s what Paul Bocuse would do.

I go back to the Irish Rose. It is Saturday night. I took the night off from cooking at Irish Rose North. I knew that if I went drinking and eating ribs, there was no way I was going to cook. I am supposed to go to The Rock River Times Christmas party, but I am burned out in that way that only people who make their living serving the public can be burned out. I just want to be alone. I climb the back stairs to my apartment. I close the hatch to the stairs to the service area. I can hear the sounds of everyone having a good time downstairs. I look out the window at my little flag friend atop the Faust. He is still blowing to the south. This cold will be around for a while.

The Idle Inn Snack Shop (next door to the bar) is open Monday through Thursday from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Friday from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, the bar serves ribs from 11 a.m. until they are gone. You can call ahead as Rozene did to reserve a slab. On Sunday, they serve food from 3 p.m. until midnight.

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