It would be easy to write off this pedestrian snack as the Hot Topic of mall dining. But the warm, salty twists of dough from Ben’s Soft Pretzels, an Elkhart-based business with more than 40 locations, are addictive enough to put a food court out of business. Made in the Pennsylvania Dutch style from a top-secret Amish recipe, the knots have a soft, buttery skin that tears apart in chewy bites with bursts of salt and hints of sweetness. You know you’re eating a solid pretzel when you leave the gratis dipping sauce untouched for fear of masking that delicious yeasty flavor. Circle Centre, 317-492-9141
Unexpectedly Great Brisket
owner Dan Jarman never planned to add smoked meats to his menu of East Coast and Chicago deli standards, but when he bought a friend’s smoker, he got to work perfecting his signature pulled pork, dry-rubbed ribs, and wings. True to form, the tender, deeply flavorful brisket he mounds onto his gut-busting sandwiches falls somewhere between a Jewish grandmother’s family favorite and the prize-winner at a Texas barbecue. 5410 N. College Ave., 317-600-3333
While they do bear a resemblance to the Pop Tarts you ate out of a box in college, the pastry treats featured alongside their ringed-and-glazed brethren at General American Donut Company are the stuff of grown-up dreams. Kari Nickander, who co-owns this craft doughnut shop with her husband, Adam Perry, makes the pies from scratch throughout the week, rolling out a thick, flaky crust that serves as the perfect vessel for smooth fillings like brown sugar and cinnamon or mixed-berry compote. The icing on the cake (or pie) is made with all-natural fruit extracts. 827 S. East St., 317-964-0744
Grocery Store Deli
The sprawling eat-in and carryout department inside the new Kroger in Carmel is overseen by several executive chefs and sous chefs, and has made-to-order options galore, including pizzas, burgers, burritos, and a rotating selection of gourmet macaroni and cheese entrees. There is also the famous sushi train, where diners pull up a chair and select the roll they want as it glides by on a conveyor belt. Dessert is nearby in the bakery section, with options including chocolate-covered Twinkies done in-house and slices of cake delivered fresh every morning from The Cake Bake Shop in Broad Ripple. And those aren’t angels you hear singing in the background—they’re local musicians performing during lunch and dinner. 1217 S. Range Line Rd., Carmel, 317-846-4818
Weekend mornings are made for fluffy flapjacks, consumed in busy neighborhood joints alive with conversation and coffee. Just don’t expect to find this customer favorite on the printed menu at Hoaglin to Go. According to manager Courtney Campbell, it’s not the result of a faux attempt at being cool. “We just ran out of room,” she says. Regulars know to ask for the pancakes, and newbies usually stumble upon them alongside the specials on the chalkboard. Springy, buttery, and generous of portion, the pancakes are served with a dusting of powdered sugar, and just enough berries to add seasonal freshness without overwhelming the star of the show. 448 Massachusetts Ave., 317-423-0300
New Gourmet Market
If he offered nothing more than a daily grab-and-go sandwich—concocted behind the counter from ingredients like apple salsa, pesto cheddar, and ponzu cream cheese piled on soft pretzel buns and Amelia’s bread—Craig Sanders would have scored a hit with his Fountain Square food boutique, Wildwood Market. But tidy shelves stocked with renegade condiments, cheeses, fresh produce, and photo-ready loaves of locally baked bread keep a steady line of customers pulling in for a fill-up at this gas station turned gourmet market. 1015 Virginia Ave., 317-737-2653
James Beard Award–winner Michael Symon’s chain restaurant B Spot made its name with burgers, but the milkshakes have acquired their own cult following, thanks to creative combinations and the optional inclusion of booze. Consider the vanilla- bean apple pie and bacon shake. The kitchen blends house-made apple pie, real bacon, and rich vanilla custard into a frothy concoction that leaves no doubt about the authenticity of the ingredients: no pre-made flavor purees here. Add bourbon, and suddenly dessert becomes a cocktail. 2727 E. 86th St., 317-802-7678
When Fons Smits announced last year that he had a new cheese line in the works, Tulip Tree Creamery, lovers of fermented dairy readied a spot on their charcuterie boards. A veteran curd-handler and native Dutchman who started his career at Northern California’s famed Cowgirl Creamery, he consulted top makers like Illinois-based Ludwig Farmstead Creamery and spent the year slowly rolling out gem after gem. Here, the five best excuses to tear though a sleeve of crackers. Visit their website for locations.
—Broad Ripple’s hub of healthy eating—might cater to the vegan, gluten-free crowd, but the dessert case speaks a universal language. Ezra’s team, led by owner and certified raw foods chef Audrey Barron, makes treats like a triple-chocolate brownie. As with everything on the menu, the lemon squares, Key lime cheesecake, cinnamon chai–spiced truffles, and other items worth saving room for are made without gluten, dairy, or refined sweeteners. Which means you can have two, right? 6516 Ferguson St., 317-255-3972
You may be envisioning scraps of day-old bread cooked in egg and cream, but the bread pudding chef Bill Julian serves at Penn & Palate gives the church-lady standard fresh life. Grilled oranges or diced cherries might hide in the custardy depths of soaked Amelia’s rosemary bread (or whatever carb the kitchen has on hand), sliced into loose bricks with the outer edges drenched in the likes of black-pepper caramel sauce. Served straight-up in a bowl sans the crutch of vanilla ice cream, its deceptively humble presentation makes the first bite a sweet surprise. 28 E. 16th St., 317-602-6975
There are two kinds of tequila drinkers in this world: shooters and sippers. If you fall into the latter category, then the slightly spicy gulp of citrus-based juice served alongside your glass of top-shelf blanco at Broad Ripple’s Sangrita Saloon will reinforce your love of the slow and steady method. The $1 add-on arrives in a tiny shallow bowl, looking like a spoonful of thin salsa. Sip it between swallows of tequila. The peppery essence plays off of the agave’s acidic snap and refreshes the palate, with the added bonus of making you look like you actually know what you’re doing. 834 E. 64th St., 317-377-4779
Who cares that a restaurant serving something called “sorghum-glazed bacon” puts Indy in the crosshairs for yet another Onion parody? The unapologetically tubby slabs of cured pork offered as a side at Milktooth remind us that bacon is a meat with heft, just one degree of separation from a pork chop. So please be civilized in your indulgence: These inch-thick slabs with ribbons of fat, coated in smoky-sweet molasses, are knife-and-fork fare. 534 Virginia Ave., 317-986-5131
At Slider Station, tender pulled white meat mingles with a sweet, mayo-based sauce and tucks inside a little grain-flecked bun for one of the city’s best food-truck creations. At just $4 apiece, the Southern Belle Rosemary Chicken sliders at KG Catering’s mobile offshoot are easy to order in multiples. And apparently, they’re a pre-game staple—the tasty little bites were a favorite at the 2012 Super Bowl Celebrity Tailgater party.
Since 2011, people have been stalking chef Daniel Carter’s bright yellow food truck all over town for pieces of fried catfish and textbook banana pudding. That fan base got its wish this year when the Mississippi native took his curb-side concept tableside, opening Chef Dan’s Southern Comfort restaurant in Irvington. Carter’s eatery has the same down-home charm of his mobile kitchen, with bayou-inspired recipes like spicy crawfish beignets and shrimp-studded po’ boys. But the real treat is when Carter’s mother whips up a special batch of New Orleans pralines. 5539 E. Washington St., 317-737-1801
At Fortville’s Foxgardin Kitchen & Ale, Mt. Vernon High School grad and former Prime 47 chef Jake Burgess may just be a hometown boy serving up comfort food. But his steakhouse roots definitely show in his delectable, no-beans chili made with tender sirloin tips, big chunks of tomatoes, and tender, sweet carrots. Accompanied by a dollop of peanut butter and a hunk of cheddar, this chili will take you back to your cafeteria days while reminding you just how much your taste buds have matured. 215 S. Main St., Fortville, 317-485-4085
Just like in the movies, restaurant sequels aren’t always huge hits. This year, however, four new releases did their predecessors proud, serving up versions that either improved upon the concept or took it in a delicious new direction.
410 Massachusetts Ave., 317-635-4278
Cunningham Restaurant Group introduced this pioneering gourmet-burger joint in 2011, taking over the courtyard-side slot where Greg Hardesty once ran Elements. The Mass Ave crowd promptly mobbed the sleek, bar-centered dining room for its brioche-bunned stunners and house-made condiments (creating an excruciatingly long wait to get them).
12901 Old Meridian St., Carmel, 317-975-0033
Bru’s far-north satellite also occupies hallowed restaurant grounds: It stands on the former site of Carmel fine-dining pioneer The Glass Chimney, where chef Dieter Puska once fileted sole tableside. You might experience a wave of nostalgia as you pull into the parking lot, but the rustic-industrial renovation with communal high-top tables and exposed ductwork gives the place a modern reboot.
3454 W. 86th St., 317-876-3454
Mismatched chandeliers, tufted velvet chairs, and other shabby-chic accessories gave this Southern-table establishment—specializing in fried chicken and all the fixings—the proper Auntie’s kitchen vibe when it opened in the Pyramid Place Shoppes last year.
14 E. Washington St., 317-986-7883
Georgia Reese’s downtown sibling opened over the summer, in a gorgeous open room decked out in exposed brick and smooth earth tones. Diners lounge in high-backed booths along the wall, sipping cocktails assembled at a show bar with backlit cubbies for the booze.
13190 Hazel Dell Pkwy., Carmel, 317-844-2550 (second location at 608 Massachusetts Ave., 685-2550)
Neal Brown introduced his rustic, puffy-crusted pizzas and house-made pastas in a busy Hamilton County strip mall. And at the second, high-profile location on Mass Ave—with its full-wall inspirational quote and white-on-white bistro vibe—the dining room only got more packed.
12819 E. New Market St., Carmel, 317-575-2550
Go deep into the web of cul-de-sacs that make up Carmel’s Village of West Clay, and you’ll happen upon a new, sleepier interpretation of Pizzology. In a faux old-timey storefront, you can munch on the same charred edges of an oven-blazed fennel-sausage pie without fighting the 99 percent for a table.
45 S. Illinois St.,
One of downtown’s most reliably luxurious red-meat destinations since the chain put down roots in Indy in the ’90s, this white-tablecloth restaurant—with the requisite hues of dark wood and old-school red—plays to the convention and date-night demos.
2727 E. 86th St.,
From the beaded chandeliers over the packed bar to the clubby upstairs lounge, there is nothing understated about Ruth’s Chris’s new two-story, 16,500-square-foot outpost—the showpiece of the Ironworks at Keystone complex. But even the music video–worthy decor can’t compete with the aggressively good-looking crowd—decidedly single and dressed (in muscle shirts and LBDs) to mingle.
Smoked Salmon Dish
Appetizers can be an afterthought on some menus, but not at The Loft at Traders Point Creamery. Chef Brandon Canfield prepares a small plate of hay-smoked salmon that rivals his most complex entrees, curing the fish for three days before cold-smoking it over a bale of hay from the nearby pasture. Slivers of the salmon are stacked on toasted housemade pumpernickel bread, topped with a dollop of creamy egg salad. The result is a trifecta of salty-sweet-savory crunch in every bite. 9101 Moore Rd., Zionsville, 317-733-1700
Artisan baker Ursulino Vazquez of Lucy’s Bakery has been perfecting loaves of challah and sourdough for more than a decade, but his West 86th Street bakery largely flew under the radar until Bub’s Burgers and Ice Cream owners Matt and Rachel Frey bought the business that made their burger buns and renamed it Lucy’s last year. Vazquez’s hefty loaves of buttery babka are swirled with streaks of melted chocolate—a perfectly sweet and yeasty treat whether toasted, made into French toast, or eaten straight out of the bag. 1323 W. 86th St., 317-992-2033
Private Dining Venue
While it may not feature the White River vistas that have helped sell out the master-chef classes at its Broad Ripple location, the new 8,000 square-foot Chef J.J.’s Downtown has the surprising feel of the great outdoors in the heart of the city with its wood and wire-framed patio and rooftop garden loft. The venue doesn’t have public hours, but you can reserve a private dinner anytime. And spots are still available for the five-course New Year’s Eve feast. 42 W. South St., 317-602-3828
Pots de Creme
Let’s face it: Everything looks cuter in a glass jar. Spoke & Steele seizes the trend in all its rustic-dandy glory with a selection of dessert “pots” of stout puddings tucked into little jelly jars and gussied up with garnishes like caramel corn and candied zest. The mini-binges range from a Bananas Foster budino decked out in rum caramel and torched bananas to a potted lemon curd with blueberry salad. 123 S. Illinois St., 317-737-1616
At Union 50, the wood-fired wild fungi arrive on a board in a heap, as if they had just tumbled out of a forager’s potato sack. No one would mistake this dish for primitive, however. The mushrooms—lightly roasted to rouse their earthy flavor and decorated with swooshes of cream sauce and balsamic reduction—accompany a decadent terrine of bacon coiled around soft slices of potato. The flavor? The stuff of fairy tales. 620 N. East St., 317-610-0234
Among the inside-out German chocolate and Southern caramel cakes at the Parisian-inspired pastry wonderland Cake Bake Shop, owner Gwendolyn Rogers’s Earl’s Court chocolate stands especially tall. Dense yet creamy ganache and an earthy malted cream support three layers of moist Valrhona chocolate cake iced with fudge frosting. A sprinkling of French fleur de sel tempers the sweetness. It’s the best birthday—or anyday—cake a chocoholic could ask for. 6515 Carrollton Ave., 317-257-2253