Our reporters scoured the area for Central Indiana’s latest and greatest. Below, see the best in food & drink from our 2019 Best of Indy December issue.
Viral Chicken Sandwich
A nation of fast-food connoisseurs suffered greatly during The Great Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich famine of 2019—when the chain introduced a menu item that proved so popular that supplies immediately, mercilessly ran out. Luckily, Rook (501 Virginia Ave., 317-737-2293) had fans of crispy poultry covered with its own version of the fried chicken sando, a delicious mouth-crammer consisting of crunchy thighs anointed with spicy, fermented Gochujang chili paste and honey butter. It’s nestled inside an appropriately squishy brioche, with slivers of sweet pickled cucumbers meticulously arranged in a scrim of mayo. The success of this sandwich depends on the perfect proportion of components, and Rook gets it just right.
New Vegan Menu
Opened last year in a former gas station on the east side, 10th Street Diner (3301 E. 10th St., 463-221-1255) provides the ubiquitous Impossible Burger some stiff competition. Created by the mother-and-son team Karen and Will Holmes, the completely vegan menu includes a savory “chorizo” chimichanga; a reuben made from thinly sliced fennel-and-beet seitan; and crisp sauerkraut in a sauce of vegan Worcestershire, basil, mustard, horseradish, garlic, and ketchup. But the vegetable lasagna with zucchini planks, spinach, and durum wheat noodles is the diner’s specialty. Cashew-based ricotta and hours of simmering tomato sauce make it a time-intensive dish to prepare. Karen only makes 108 servings per week, so get it before it sells out.
See our August 2019 mini-review of 10th Street Diner here.
Build-Your-Own Grilled Cheese
Quick, name two foods you can’t live without. If you said bread and cheese, Ash & Elm Cider Co. (2104 E. Washington St., 317-600-3164) has a sandwich for you—by you. The watering hole’s build-your-own grilled cheese allows you to choose your bread, one of three condiments, two cheeses, and one veggie for $9. Bite down into Amelia’s City Loaf, Native Bread’s gluten-free sourdough, or a focaccia roll. Pony up an extra $3 for Gomez smoked ham, chicken, or bacon jam. Try a rich, creamy combo with Gruyère, mozzarella, caramelized onions, and aioli. Or heirloom tomatoes and pesto with smoked gouda and cheddar. Regardless of which combination you choose, expect a sandwich that’s a long way from a slice of Kraft cheese on white bread.
If Indy had an official cookie, Greg Hardesty’s maple-pecan at Studio C (1051 E. 54th St.) would be on the short list for the title, but not only for its buttery oatmeal-and-coconut chew. “This cookie has been providing stories for years,” Hardesty says. Starting from a Martha Stewart recipe nearly 20 years ago, he served them at H2O Sushi with espresso whipped cream. When he sold the restaurant to Eli Anderson and Nicole Ankney, they kept the cookie in their repertoire, as did Hardesty at Elements and Recess. Legend has it that the oversized cookie inspired Ankney’s 4 Birds Bakery. She has passed the spoon to Jenna Gatchell, who now bakes a coconut-free version.
When we say making fancy chocolates is an art form for Xchocol’art (228 W. Main St., Carmel) owner Joann Hofer, we mean it. The Carmel chocolatier leans on her background as a painter to make her products a feast for the eyes, before they even hit the tongue. Once Hofer formulates a recipe she loves—passion fruit caramel, curry white chocolate, whiskey honey truffle—she goes to work on the visuals. She creates a large, flat artistic canvas out of cocoa butter, colors it using edible pigments, then cuts it into tiles that are adhered to the tops of the gorgeous truffles and caramels.
Chef Laney Glick may have been a baker at one of the city’s most famous dessert shops (The Flying Cupcake), but she has managed to create a dish we crave more than any sweet in the case at The Lemon Bar (95 E. Pine St., Zionsville, 317-344-0472). Most restaurants are content to pan-fry Brussels sprouts with bacon and a pound or so of butter, drowning the flavor of the vegetable. But at this popular garage-turned-eatery, Glick coats them in a sweet Thai chili sauce before browning them crisp. The side dish enhances the natural earthiness of the greens, and is frequently ordered as a main course.
Caribbean food is having its moment in Indy, with jerk pork and brown stew chicken available in all corners of the city. But no place makes a better version of island cuisine’s greatest hit—the Jamaican patty—than newcomer Jamaican Breeze Sports Bar & Grill (4189 N. Keystone Ave., 317-426-4045). Nearly twice the size of many patties and amply stuffed with chicken, beef, or a hearty mix of veggies (which allows the light-as-air crust to shine), the flaky street snacks make for a great start to a meal with rice and beans, or the quintessential pairing for a Red Stripe when swaying to Bob Marley beats in the bar.
Sure, a coffee shop in the lobby of a marketing agency is a nontraditional spot to find a great lemon shake-up. But at Gavel (902 Virginia Ave., 317-681-2086) in Fountain Square, the State Fair favorite sells as well as the lavender lattes and loose-leaf teas. Made with fresh-squeezed lemons, housemade cane syrup, and soda water, Gavel’s take is even better than those of your childhood summer memories.
New Afghan Restaurant
Local options for Afghan cuisine, known for its leek- and meat-filled dumplings and rice pilafs, have been limited here lately. Thankfully, Bamiyan Kabob (4150 Lafayette Rd., 317-991-4153), a new Lafayette Road fusion spot, now serves an array of Afghan dishes and a weekend all-day buffet from its international kitchen. Garlicky roasted eggplant and tomatoes garnished with yogurt and mint are a great starting point. And the mixed grill platter, with generous lamb, chicken, and beef kebabs, is a hearty tour of flavors you won’t find anywhere else in the city.
Now that the maple-glazed, candied bacon–topped ricotta doughnuts at Vida have entered local confectionery lore, their creator, chef Hattie McDaniel, has her own pastry playground at Croûte Baking Company (320 N. Meridian St., 317-956-5584). The swank patisserie just north of Monument Circle sells flaky croissants, dead-on Danishes, and a jam-filled challah-frangipane hybrid known as a Bostock that will have you dancing back to your office desk weekday mornings. Stop back at lunch for a knockout pastrami sandwich with caraway havarti on house rye, a verdant Cobb salad, or a smoked ham and cheese on chewy, crusty bread that the French-trained McDaniel bakes daily in a state-of-the-art kitchen.
Bread and Butter Starter
There are some bread baskets that appear at your table with little fanfare—serviceable, if not exactly inspiring, when it comes to texture and flavor. And then there’s the bread starter at King Dough (425 N. Highland Ave., 317-602-7960), which might as well arrive with a horn section and jazz hands. Crispy, grilled slices of Amelia’s City Loaf are served with a gobsmacking amount of organic whipped butter topped with chives and big flakes of Maldon salt. It’s sweet and tangy, smooth and crunchy, herby and chewy. Pro tip: Hang onto the leftover butter when the bread is gone and dip your pizza crust in it.
See our June 2019 review of King Dough here.
This drink appeared on nearly every bar’s cocktail menu last year, thanks in part to a marketing campaign by the Italian distiller Aperol. Its neon orange color catapulted it to the top of Instagram’s most photographed beverages. So what makes Hedge Row’s (350 Massachusetts Ave., 317-643-2750) version stand out? Kimbal Musk’s bistro nails the cocktail with a spot-on ratio of Aperol, prosecco, and soda water—perfectly bubbly, refreshing, and just the right amount of bitter. And the Insta-worthy backdrop of that patio doesn’t hurt.
See our July 2018 review of Hedge Row here.
Mini sandwiches don’t get much respect. Sure, sliders might show up on a kids’ menu or make an appearance as an appetizer, but even then, they’re often just smaller versions of the “real” sandwiches. Not so at The Den by Foxgardin (351 Monon Blvd., Carmel, 317-485-4085) at Sun King Spirits. The kitchen serves buffalo chicken, pulled pork, tenderloin, and burger sliders on toasted brioche buns that are the main event. We suggest you order one of each. As owner Jake Burgess says, “Every slider is a quarter of a sandwich, so if you wanted all four, you’d have a full sandwich.” Finally, a variety of math we like: sandwich math.
Caffè Buondì’s (11529 Spring Mill Rd., Carmel, 317-564-8092) signature drink is equal parts caffeine pick-me-up and architectural wonder. Baristas pour a shot of espresso from Italian coffee maker Lavazza over ice, then top it with milk and cold foam, a tricky achievement that owes its success to food science and a fancy Italian frother. Skim milk and powdered sugar are the keys, since the whole milk and regular sugar of hot cappuccinos are too heavy to sustain that foam cloud when it’s cold. It’s almost too pretty to drink. Almost.
See our July 2019 review of Caffè Buondì here.
Almost more fun than tackling the “vaso loco,” a Technicolor cup of fruit and syrup crowned with candy and served with a rim of fiery chile powder, is seeing the friendly staff of Chile y Limón (6250 W. 38th St., 317-430-7474) craft the eye-popping concoction at the counter. A party atmosphere pervades the place, with booming music and a stream of happy families coming in to indulge in tropical ice creams and a menu of tortas, tacos, and burritos, often stuffed with flaming Cheetos or crusted with spicy Taki chips.
New Dessert Shop
Everything is made from scratch at Westfield’s first dessert bar, Cone + Crumb (205 Park St., Westfield, 317-399-7878), including the ice cream, waffle cones (with a gluten-free variety!), and enormous rectangular pies. Recent seasonal menus included butternut squash caramel ice cream in the fall (sounds weird, tastes delicious) and blueberry buttermilk in the summer (sounds and tastes delicious). Toby and Melanie Miles, owners of Rail Epicurean next door, originally bought the building as a baking space because the dessert output at Rail was more than the 180-square-foot kitchen could handle. Luckily, they decided to open up the front of the building and invite the rest of us in for a treat.
Fish and pizza might seem like an odd pair until you’ve tried The Trap pizza at Que Wimberly’s restaurant, The Missing Brick (6404 Rucker Rd., 317-257-7557). Wimberly teamed up with local seafood queen Chef Oya of The Trap to create this pie, combining the Brick’s house crust (a cross between flatbread and hand-tossed), slightly sweet red pizza sauce, jumbo tiger shrimp, and lump crab. But the crowd-pleasing closer is a generous drizzle of Trap Buttah, Chef Oya’s signature garlic herb sauce. Cooks add it right after the pizza comes out of the oven, allowing the hot mozzarella to soak it up like a sponge.
See our October 2019 review of The Missing Brick here.
Rise ’n Roll Bakery (9705 Fishers District Dr, Fishers; 1277 N. State Rd. 135, Greenwood, 317-300-1841; 6311 Westfield Blvd.) is famous for two reasons—a steady stream of tour buses outside the flagship location in Middlebury, Indiana, and addictive cinnamon caramel doughnuts. The soft yeast doughnuts with caramel icing and cinnamon powder inspire rapturous devotion in repeat customers, and now you can grab ready-to-go boxes of the bite-size version to share with a group. (Or eat at home alone on Saturday morning. No judgment here.) The first local franchise opened in Greenwood in late 2017, and a Broad Ripple store is set to debut by the end of 2019.
Tacos al Pastor
There are only two requirements for respectable tacos al pastor: The seasoning must start with a base of achiote and cinnamon (from there, every Mexican kitchen has a secret recipe), and the pork should be slow-roasted on a vertical spit, called a trompo, with a pineapple on top dripping juice that sweetens the spice-reddened meat. Pastor on a trompo is hard to find around Indianapolis, but Don Juan Taqueria (3915 Madison Ave., 317-384-1728) puts in the time to make the real thing. When it’s spinning (not daily, so call ahead), the pork is shaved into small pieces and served on soft taco shells with bits of warm pineapple. Visit the salsa bar for other condiments. Go street-style with a simple sprinkle of chopped onions and cilantro and save the chipotle, habanero, and molcajete sauces for your warm housemade chips. Gracias to owner Juan Carlos, a native of Jalisco who moved to Southport when he was young, for bringing a tight menu of authentic Mexican staples to his side of town.
On weekend mornings, the queue at Coat Check Coffee (401 E. Michigan St., 317-550-5008) inside The Athenaeum winds back toward the historic dark-wood lobby, which should afford you plenty of time to decide which of the pastries—arranged inside a glass case like laminated-dough jewels—you will nibble with your pistachio latte. But it’s never an easy choice. Will it be the puffy chocolate croissant dusted with powdered sugar, a savory pillow of ham and cheese, or an almond-studded pastry basket filled with apricot jam? If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive just as the bakers pull a warm, sugary experiment out of the oven, like butter-drenched rosemary–brown butter morning buns that are pull-apart soft, chewy, and caramelized in all the right spots.
Smoked Fish Spread
It’s not the sexiest pub snack, but the generous scoop of smearable blended tilapia served at Tick Tock Lounge (2602 E. 10th St., 317-634-8625) with a pile of packaged club crackers, diced tomatoes, and red onions hits every salty, smoky note (and thus does its job of requiring another glass of beer). The savory spread is heavy, chunky, and unapologetically old school, the Braunschweiger of the sea. Request a hot-sauce chaser if you want to put a little more hair on your chest.
Just when you thought the bubble-tea trend had run its lychee-flavored course, a new generation of aggressively adorable Japanese tearooms has emerged. A Castleton location of the Tsaocaa (6386 E. 82nd St., 317-863-8118) franchise offers an encyclopedic array of sweet, slurpable drinks, from the surprisingly addictive cheese tea (iced and topped with a light foam of cream cheese, whipped cream, and salt) to chunky fruit teas to the caramel-drizzled parfait-like brown sugar milk tea that has given tapioca balls a new lease on life.
Juice In Bulk
Move over, craft beer and kombucha. Celery and beet juice are now also available in growlers. Greenleaf Juicing Company (18 N. Meridian St., 317-986-6010), founded by Indy-born Garret Flynn, has 11 fruits and veggies available by the half-gallon, a move that should bring shouts of “Kale, yeah!” from folks planning their January cleanses. Flynn and his local partner Joe Peoni are also focused on solving a recurring problem for juice bars: wait time. It takes several minutes to cold press two pounds of fresh produce, so they’re following the Starbucks model, giving customers the option of placing their order in advance online so they can race in, grab it off the counter, and go.