Hanging Out In Rockford: Willys RestaurantPart Two
By By Mike Leifheit
Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheits Hanging Out In Rockford reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his website: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.
As I enter Sterlings downtown, I pass the home of the Sterling newspaper. It is one of the loveliest Art Deco buildings I have ever seen. Bearing straight up the hill, I run smack dab into the parking lot of the Country Market. You actually have to stop at stop signs in the parking lot of the Country Market to proceed on Lincolnway. This area used to be filled with some of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in Sterling. Some idiots flattened them and put up this monstrosity of a supermarket in the name of economic development.
Actually, I met one of the developers of this project one day in the office of a local Realtor. He was quite proud of the use of a TIF district to create the funds to enable this. He acknowledged that many of the local residents were opposed to the project because it necessitated tearing down some of the oldest buildings in the city. He and his group persevered, and the project became reality. I really didnt know what to say to him.
Clearing this mess, I head on out of town to where Willys is located. I park my motorcycle and head into the restaurant. The place is really crowded. Probably 80 or 90 percent of the customers are Mexican. I order a Carta Blanca in a frosted mug. The waitress brings me chips and salsa. The chips are the crunchy kind that you know are fried here. I get the salsa reserved for Americans, but I ask and she brings me a real chili salsa. I remember when you didnt have to ask.
What is it that determines when a restaurant is not merely good but great? For the most part, when it comes to ethnic restaurants, you find the best ones in the areas that have a large ethnic population. Sterling has a large Mexican population. The secret is, they have enough Mexican trade that they never have to dumb their food down to cater to American tastes in order to make a living. As a result, everything is not covered with melted cheese at Willys. I call that type of Mexican food, college town Mexican. You will also find it at places like Don Pablos Mexican Kitchen. lt is to be avoided at all costs.
Today, I order a Guisado de Puerco. When I get it, it is hotter than I expect. I eat pretty hot food. Sometimes when my friend, Dr. Gupta, could not eat a dish because it was too hot, we have exchanged dishes. This Guisado (stew) is not too hot for me, but I dont have to add any hot sauce; it is fine just as it is. The beans are excellent also. The whole meal is like going to a good middle-class restaurant in Mexico.
After I eat, I head back toward Rockford. I pass the Byron nuclear plant and reflect on the fact that the president of the United States (who is the same age as I am) doesnt know how to pronounce nuclear. He evidently thinks the first two syllables are nuke you. Mrs. Sterling, my sixth grade teacher, corrected me when I pronounced it that same way. I was 12. I find it more frightening that his group of high-priced advisors either will not or cannot correct him.
As I enter Rockford, I again pass Torres Super Market, and I am struck by the similarity to the Country Super Market in Sterling. My super market idea is better than your super market idea. I wonder how many of the people who are tearing down this familys dream actually took the time to go into this store and look around before they embarked on this venture. It is one of the best stores in Rockford. You can buy tripe to make menudo. You can get fresh cilantro, avocados, and all sorts of chilies. You can buy a whole roasted chicken cooked on a spit. They dont have 30 feet of detergent or Pampers. Mostly just food.
If someone really wanted to help this part of town, they would realize its potential as little Mexico and promote it as such. Areas like this in Chicago are enormously successful. It is always easier to make time when you paddle with the stream. What we are doing is unraveling about 20 years of Hispanic development in the area and replacing it with something that would be better off in a cornfield.
My personal prediction is that the forces that brought this to bear will prevail. Either the Torres will go out of business, or knowing them, they will turn lemons into lemonade and go somewhere else to be successful. The new supermarket will open to great acclaim. It will prosper for a while, but eventually fall into disrepair and disuse. Then someone like the Torres will come along and open it as a Mexican supermarket. Only time will tell.
Having written this article, I am sitting at the Artery talking with Ryan Swanson and Izzy. We start talking about whether you deal with the 90 percent or the 10 percent: quantity versus quality. I tell Ryan he is doomed to deal with the 10 percent. He says, Oh, well, at least I will have peace of mind!
Willys Restaurant, 2708 West Lincolnway, Sterling, IL. Call for hours: 815-626-0401. (They are open Sundays, and it makes a nice brunch trip. There are also some nice antique shops in the area.)