Hanging Out in Rockford: Coffee and culture

About five or six years ago, I wrote a column about how you couldn’t get a good cup of coffee in Rockford, and how it was hard to be serious about the restaurant business in a town where you couldn’t even get a good cup of coffee. Well, fortunately, that has changed. Now there are a number of places where you can get good coffee. It is just one more example of how our town is changing. On the days I go to the market, I stop at the Brew Masters on East State near Fairview. Monday, Wednesday or Friday, you will find me at either Octane or Pravda. On the weekends, it is the new North End Coffee Bar. No matter what, I like to get out of my apartment and have a cup of coffee, glance at the Rockford rag, complain to someone about what a stupid newspaper it is, and wake up to start my day. Actually, Rockford now reminds me a lot of Sacramento when I lived there a little more than 20 years ago. A wag I know says that time regresses five years with every tollway booth as you drive from Chicago. It isn’t just silly, though, most of it is true. Unfortunately, some things haven’t caught up. Natural food, unpretentious restaurant menus, appreciation for old buildings and architecture, these are just a few. One of the biggest improvements in our city is the emergence of the Mexican and Southeast Asian cultures. These add variety and spice to the downtown living experience. Downtown is the place that most reminds me of Sacramento. When I travel to South Main, I am reminded of the 524 Mexican restaurant on Twelfth Street; it was in the areas of Sacramento known as Alkali Flats. That is where I first met Pepe Gomez, brother of Michael, the owner of the restaurant. Pepe taught me to eat menudo and make chili sauce. Later on, Pepe opened his own restaurant in a Sacramento suburb. He still served the great chili sauce. I wonder If he is still in the business. I hope so; he definitely had a flair for it. I used to walk there from my apartment on L Street. I would always have chips and salsa. The chips were freshly cooked, and the salsa, which they called salsa fresca, was a Pico De Gallo made with jalapenos, tomatoes, onions and beer. This was where I first ate menudo. This was where I learned to tell the Mexican waitress how beautiful she was in Spanish. (Pepe coached me.) Tú está muy bonita. I think that is right. She was very beautiful. The difference between Sacramento then and Rockford now is about values. Everyone respected and valued the older part of the city. No one wanted to live in the cheap tract housing that comprised most of the suburbs. They did so only because they had to, because the older downtown buildings were so highly valued. There was usually a premium of $20,000 or $30,000 on the older structures for the same amount of square footage. Everybody knew that they were better construction. The older area of the city also comprised most of the really hip entertainment venues. That is where you found the cutting-edge bars and restaurants. The media were really pro downtown. When I first moved back here, I wanted to help start that kind of thing in Rockford. I looked for and found my first restaurant, the Old Rock River Cafe. It was a lucky find. After some period of time, some of my customers grew up and started restaurants and bars of their own. Among those are Octane, Bacchus, Paragon, and Kryptonite. The type of downtown I had dreamed about has come to fruition. I love where I live. I love the fact that I can get a good cup of coffee. I love that I can walk to a great Mexican restaurant (Tortacoa Soto) for breakfast any time I want. I love the fact that no one there speaks English. The only part that is different from Sacramento is the failure on the part of Rockford people to appreciate and respect what they have. I think this is largely due to the failure of the media to expose and elucidate (with the exception of The Rock River Times). From goat’s head (Mexican) to spring rolls (Vietnamese), ethnic cuisine was always in the Sacramento news. The local television station featured a program every night that revealed new things about the city, and never was it some regurgitated chain store pap. I know it is too much to expect of our chain newspaper, but maybe one of the television stations can step forward to help out. Rockford people deserve to know about their city. Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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