The word “Indianapolis” is all but synonymous with a 500-mile car race, and the whole state embraces its connection to basketball, but there’s a lot more going on than that. The city was founded to be the state capital, and all the government workers aren’t the only thing that will seem familiar to visitors from Washington: The city was designed by one of Pierre L’Enfant’s aides, who used some of his mentor’s favorite tricks (state-named major thoroughfares running on the diagonal!), and the city has more memorials to veterans than any city other than the District. Chefs are embracing the state’s role in agriculture, featuring products grown on the nearly 15 million acres of cultivated land in the state. Hoosiers are proud of their popcorn (only Nebraska produces more) and their pork (the state’s 3,000 pork farmers are mostly family operations).
Billing itself as a “student union for adults,” Cafe Patachou (cafepatachou.com; six locations, including downtown at 225 W. Washington St.; 317-632-0765) has the coffee ready at a serve-yourself bar so you can start caffeinating before you even see the table. The T-shirts of the servers bear messages attesting to a commitment to local agriculture. The menu covers a number of toasts made of very good sourdough or wheat bread, and French toast built of either croissants or apple fritters. But if you’ve got a big day ahead of you, start with the Overachiever ($12), a three-egg omelet stuffed with bacon that somehow retains its crispiness while enveloped, white cheddar and just enough horseradish to get your attention. You can sub a side of arugula for fresh fruit. I accidentally spilled a little strawberry jam on my arugula on my way to putting it on my toast. It worked, so then I spilled a little more on it on purpose.
A reasonable strategy upon entering Indiana is to find the closest possible classic drive-in serving pork tenderloin sandwiches. Not far from the airport, you’ll find Mug-n-Bun Drive-In
(mug-n-bun.com; 5211 10th St., Speedway; 310-244-5669), and that’s a good place to start. It opened in 1960 and retains all the character that comes with a half-century of seasoning. You can order from your car, or eat at the picnic tables. Those pork sandwiches ($4. No, really, $4) consist of a piece of meat pounded out until it’s too big to be contained by the bun, then breaded and fried. Traditional toppings are pickles and mustard, and while you can add lettuce, tomato and cheese, it’ll cost you extra. Consider it a Hoosier tax. Our waitress says that the housemade root beer is famous, and it turns out it totally deserves to be: smooth, flavorful and not overly sweet. Plus, the quart-size serving ($2.80) comes in a souvenir cup. Sure there are french fries, but if you’re tired of that side-item standard, there is a long list of options — most of which will be spending time in the fryer, including mushrooms and corn nuggets.
Indianapolis is a city that embraces the success of its own, and author Kurt Vonnegut is among its favorite sons, as witnessed by his likeness on the side of buildings and a museum in his honor. Less conspicuously, there is Bluebeard (bluebeardindy.com; 653 Virginia Ave.; 317-686-1580), a small spot in an old warehouse building in the Holy Rosary neighborhood. The restaurant is named after Vonnegut’s 1987 book written as a fictional autobiography of a painter. The aesthetic is very writerly, with old typewriters, manuscripts and images of the author tastefully on display. Chef Abbi Merriss’s menu makes the most of Indiana produce, as in a beet salad tossed with fennel, feta and crispy shallots ($9 for a small), and the blackened Brussels sprouts brightened with a dressing of balsamic vinegar and sweet, syrupy Saba ($11). You’ll be warned about the chicken wings ($16) if you order them, and it’s not bluster. The mix of ghost, habanero and an untold number of other chiles will send your lips into an instant state of numbing self-preservation. But if you acclimate to the burn, you’ll appreciate the fruitiness of the peppers, too. More tame is a pork tenderloin ($26) that comes alongside a slaw of grilled asparagus and shiitakes, and sauced with an herby chimichurri.
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