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The ‘Bratzel’ — one of Indiana’s top treats

Schnitzelbank’s cult favorite “Bratzel” faetures two lightly seasoned brats sauerkraut large warm pretzel. | Dave Hoekstrphoto

Schnitzelbank’s cult favorite “Bratzel” faetures two lightly seasoned brats and sauerkraut on a large warm pretzel. | Dave Hoekstra photo

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A straight shot from Chicago to Jasper: I-90 South to U.S. 41, south to Highway 50, east to U.S. 231 to Jasper. Once you are in Jasper you will come to a stoplight where 231 veers right. Go through this light and the road turns into Newton Street. When you see the four-way stop sign, turn left onto 3rd Avenue. Schnitzelbank will be about a mile up the road on your left.

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Updated: February 28, 2013 6:39AM

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Indiana does not rank high on the list of culinary destinations.

Hoosiers are better known for basketball, Hoagy (not the sandwich) Carmichael and John Mellencamp, who in 1990 wrote the peppy “Hot Dogs and Hamburgers.”

The Indiana Office of Tourism is out to put the bite back into culinary travel. In the spirit of Indianapolis native David Letterman’s Top Ten lists, the state assembled it’s inaugural “Best of Indiana: Your Ten Favorites” lists, which rank the top choices for Indiana pies, ice cream shops sandwiches and other delights.

A couple of weeks ago I made a day out of dining in Indiana with a visit to three of “the best of Indiana”:

— Breakfast at Cafe Patachou, 225 W. Washington St. in downtown Indianapolis. This is the home of the Broken Yolk sandwich, voted as the best breakfast in the state. The voters got this one right. The rich egg yolk and Indiana bacon on homemade, hand-sliced sourdough bread is worth the drive to Indianapolis.

— Lunch at the Schnitzelbank in downstate Jasper, about 20 miles from Larry Bird’s French Lick. Schnitzelbank is the home of the state’s best sandwich: two lightly seasoned brats and sauerkraut on a large warm pretzel (and don’t miss the spicy horseradish Grossman’s mustard). The cult sandwich is known as the “Bratzel.” (Bird is a semi-regular at Schnitzelbank.)

— Ice Cream at Valpo Velvet in downtown Valparaiso — which actually finished second to the Chief Ice Cream shop in Goshen, which is closed for the winter. I had a couple scoops of Valpo Velvet’s chocolate-almond ice cream, even though the banana split is the go-to-item here. You can also find Valpo Velvet product at Whole Foods in Chicago. “This is the ultimate agritourism tour,” said Mark Newman, Director of the Indiana Office of Tourism Development over breakfast at Cafe Patachou. “You’re experiencing the finished products. Food tells you about a community. You go to Arizona and ecotourism is big. Here, we have rich soil and a multitude of crops we can grow. It’s also cool to see how these products are created. The locally produced dairy in Valpariso is something special about Indiana. And Indiana is the largest producer of yellow perch in the world. There’s 23 million yellow perch that come out of a hatchery in Albany, Indiana. We can create Indiana as a [culinary]vdestination by tying all the wonderful food products together.”

The idea for the road trips came from the tourism office’s “Super 46 Sandwiches in Indiana,” an initative developed for last year’s Super Bowl 46. Indiana residents voted for their favorite local sandwich to tie in with Super Bowlhoopla.

Martha Hoover, owner of Cafe Patachou, is a super window into the HoosierNosh road trip. She owns four Cafe Patachous, and her fifth cafe, at the Indianapolis airport, is managed by Host Marriott Services. She opened her first store in 1989 at 49th and Pennsylvania on the north side of Indianapolis. She debuted the 110-seat downtown location in 2005 in Simon Property Group corporate headquarters ((call 317-632-0765). The 49th and Pennsylvania location is a favorite hang of sportscaster Bob Costas and Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens.

The direct, fast-talking Hoover is a former Marion County prosecuting attorney in the sex crime division. Patachou is an endearing French term for cream puff.

“My boss [Steve Goldsmith], who then became mayor of Indianapolis for two terms, called me a cream puff one day,” Hoover said. “ So I was going to name the restaurant cream puff.”

A native of Galveston, Texas, one of Hoover’s most consistent food memories are the fried egg sandwiches made by her mother Frieda. Hoover called the broken yolk “a glorified version of her mother’s sandwich.”

“The difference is that we’re not using 1950s Wonder Bread,” Hoover explained. “We’re using bread we make. Our eggs are truefarm-raised. The egg you are going to be eating is 24 hours old, maybe 36 hours old.”

This accounted for the richness of the egg yolk in my sandwich, and the main reason you cannot eat the broken yolk sandwich with your hands.

Hoover continued, “An egg you get in a grocery store will be anywhere from six to eight weeks old. I have chickens at home. We have 26 family farms we’ve been working with since 1989. All our eggs are organic and GMO free.”

The five Cafe Patachous roll through 32,400 Indiana-harvested organic eggs a week.

“Indiana is an agricultural state,” Hooversaid. “And we’ve embraced our relationships with our farmers.”

“Culinary Tourism” (The University Press of Kentucky, 2004) is a collection of essays edited by Lucy M. Long, Director Center of Food and Culture at Bowling Green State University. In the introductory chapter Long writes, “The culinary tourist anticipates a change in the foodways experience for the sake of experiencing that change, not merely to satisfy hunger.... culinary tourism utlilizes the senses of taste, smell, touch and vision, and offers a deeper more integrated level of experience.”

And this is why I drove to Jasper (pop. 15,140) for a bratwurst sandwich.

You can work up an appetite scaling the backroads from Indianapolis through Bloomington to the Schnitzelbank (393 3rd Ave., 812-482-2640;

The state’s best sandwich — as judged by voters — is a locally made pretzel topped with bratwurst from Merkley Quality Meats in Jasper. (Chicago-based Swift & Company once had a turkey processing plant in Jasper.)

“We serve the bratwurst every day here,” said second-generation owner Alan Hanselman. “We jazzed it up with the pretzel for the contest. We saw something similar at a food show. The bratzel is on our menu ($7.95) since we won the contest. When we started we were selling about 30 pounds of brats a week. When we won we went through 500 pounds of bratwurst a week.”

In the best Chicago tradition, the contest ballots were apparently stuffed.

“My Mom and Dad are down in The Villages (retirement community) in Ocala, Florida,” Hanselman admitted. “About 80,000 live there. They got many of them to vote. Our sister city is in Pfaffenweiler, Germany. They were voting for us, which kind of baffled us. We were the only contest [entries] in Southern Indiana so we got all of Southern Indiana behind us.”

According to the state’s tourism department, 257,300 votes were cast just in the sandwich category. The big question is why would anyone travel five hours from Chicago to Jasper when Milwaukee brats are just over the Illinois border?

The Merkley brat has a lighter taste than Milwaukee or Madison (Wis.) brats, which sometimes veers off into Polish sausage territory. “Plus you get a small town flavor you don’t get in Milwaukee,” Hanselman said.

One hearty Wisconsin connection at “The Schnit,” — as locals call it — is the photograph of actress Penny (“Laverne and Shirley”) Marshall in the front hallway.

“They filmed ‘League Of Their Own’ about five miles from here,” Hanselman explained. “Penny and the cast ate here several times. Madonna was different because she was so popular. She came in a few times to get orders to go. She was all wrapped up with sunglasses on. We knew it was her because she brought a bottle of Dom Perignon with her. [Cincinnati Reds third baseman] Scott Rolen is from Jasper. He comes in here all the time.”

Larry and Betty Hanselman bought the 275-seat Schnitzelbank’s in 1961. The original Schnitzelbank was a beer hall that opened in 1903 in Jasper, which was settled by German-Catholics.

“Our original recipes came from Germany,” Hanselman said. “The Sauerbraten (with sweet and sour wine gravy), Wiener Schnitzel and (Beef) Rolladen ; they are all local family recipes. They became popular because people didn’t know people still made this stuff. We’re in the process of building a microbrewery and we will have our own Schnitz (light wheat, dark and IPA) beer. After winning the contest our business went up 100 per cent and it hasn’t gone down. About 75 per cent of our customers are tourists.”

The hearty bratzel will be digested by the time you reach Valparaiso on the way home; Valpo Velvet Ice Cream began in 1920 as the Valparaiso Home Ice Company. Valpo Velvet has been in the same downtown location at 55 Monroe St. (219-464-4141; since 1947 when Herb Brown purchased what was known as the Clover Leaf Dairy. Brown had a degree in Dairy Science from the Univesity of Wisconsin. He had been working in Chicago as production manager of the Goldenrod Ice Cream Company before heading to Valparaiso.

“We were a full-fledged dairy plant,” third-generation owner Mike Brown said during my visit. “Bottled milk, made cottage cheese, did home deliveries. My dad [Gordon] closed that in 1971.”

Valpo Velvet churns out nearly 70 flavors, according to Mike Brown. There’s 22 half-gallon flavors, five flavors of sherbet and even six flavors of frozen yogurt, on display, the most popular being cappucino chip and fudgesicle. A single scoop cone is $2.50.

“We make our own chocolate mix,” he said. “We make that and a white mix, from which we get 90 percent of our flavors. We put in fresh cream, sugar, corn syrup, and cocoa powder and chocolate liqueor to build up the chocolate mix. We’ve tried to buy as local as we can. Our milk company is from Highland, 30 minutes down the road. We get sugar from Chicago. I use Nielsen-Massey out of Waukegan [Ill.] for my vanilla flavors. I don’t buy anything from Mexico or China,” he said with a laugh. “Vanilla beans come from Mexico and Indonesia, but all the processing is done in the states.”

The second-place finisher, The Valpo Velvet production company, is open year-round. The adjoining 900-square-foot soda and gourmet sandwich shop opens April 1. Brown’s wife, Cathy, runs the shop.

Popcorn guru Orville Redenbacher is Valparaiso’s other food legend. Was he a fan of Valpo Velvet?

“Oh yeah, he was my neighbor,” answered Brown, 52. “As kids we used to rake his leaves. He was a pretty busy gentleman. He always gave you popcorn for Halloween and Christmas. I don’t recall him coming into the shop that much, but we made him ice cream. We handed out ice cream to our neighbors.”

During the summer Valpo Velvet takes its multi-colored ice cream vending trailer to the nearby revitaltized downtown square a couple times a week.

Brown is not frosty about finishing second in voting. “We were selling ice cream to a place in Elkhart and they also entered the contest,” he said. “And Elkhart got fourth place. l’m sure our fans stuffed the ballot, too.”

Hit the road and judge for yourself.

To see other “Best of Indiana” categories, such as best pies, like pies go to

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