July 13, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

a culinary trip through Highland

8 min read

HIGHLAND — Crawling may not sound fast, but if you’re doing it right, you have to pace yourself.

“You can’t try to get everything,” said Tony Panek. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

He was talking to me amidst a trek through Highland for a monthly restaurant crawl, which showcases specials across nine different locations downtown.

As I shadowed some regulars who have been doing the crawl with regularity, among the things I learned was that there is a kind of strategy to getting the most out of the experience, including savoring the food and flavors.

Panek should know: he’s Pierogi Fest’s Mr. Pierogi, having taken over the coveted role last year.

Highland, Panek noted, happens to have one of the best pierogi establishments in NWI in Dan’s Pierogis, which participates in the crawl. This month’s special was dumplings loaded with cheese curds and gravy.

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I linked up last week with Mr. Pierogi and Ben Tomera, aka “The Halupki Guy” for the event.

Tomera, who grew up in Highland, said the downtown area has become a unique and exciting place for foodies, with a wide cultural variety that lends itself to such a crawl.

“It’s a great way to see familiar faces,” Tomera said. “And there are some places I’d never been to until the crawl, so it’s a good way to get people in the door.”

Stop One: Sip Coffee House — Peanut Butter Cookie Latte (with cookie)

Highland Food Crawl

A peanut butter cookie latte from Sip Coffee House, a drink special for Highland’s monthly food crawl is pictured.


Sip Coffee House was our first stop. Tomera said that he usually likes to hit up four places a month, max, although it’s easier when he does the crawl with his girlfriend, he said, since they can share the bigger meals together.

Sip Coffee House, which has a few locations around NWI, expanded its Highland café a few years ago. The space is loaded with board games and fun paintings from local artists.

“We like the crawl a lot,” café manager Ash DeVries told me. “It brings a lot of people in. Not everyone knows we’re here. We’ve gained a lot of regulars from this.”

Highland Food Crawl

Ash DeVries, manager at Sip Coffee House, prepares a peanut butter cookie latte, the drink special for Highland’s monthly food crawl in June.

Before each monthly crawl, DeVries said, the managers get together and plan out what special makes sense, in terms of matching with the season and offering something the other crawl destinations might not have.

Although usually the summer specials are fruitier, I thought the latte was excellent. Sweet, for sure, but you shouldn’t expect different from a peanut butter cookie latte. It brought back some nice memories from me: when I lived in Korea, I used to order a white chocolate latte on my way to work.

Stop Two: Sakura Bowl — Custom

Each item on the food crawl is priced at $7, which means at a sit-down restaurant, you can find some great deals.

Highland Food Crawl

Ben Tomera picks out meat and seafood options for a custom stir-fried meal at Sakura Bowl as part of Highland’s monthly restaurant food crawl.

Sakura, a sushi restaurant, was offering a made-to-order dinner bowl. Guests lined up at a counter and were allowed to fill a bowl with a combination of meat, seafood and vegetables, after which it’s prepped in the kitchen and served hot back at the table.

Alas, I cannot offer an appraisal of the bowl myself; however, I did get second-hand recommendations from Tomera and Panek, who also touted Sakura’s regular, pre-selected dinner bowl options, teriyaki chicken and Mongolian beef.

At Sakura’s I ran into another set of restaurant crawlers, who said they were especially looking forward to the larger event (see more on that below).

“We like the food and we like the cheap prices,” Cora Klapak, there with a party of 10, told me. “You get a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

Stop Three: Naturally Jack’s – Pepperoni Pizza Puffs

Pets, too, can participate in the Highland Food Crawl. Naturally Jack’s got in on the action with Bacon and Egg Bones and Pizza Puffs, and since it was on the way to the next stop, we stopped in to say hello.

The pizza puffs were another one I didn’t try myself, but my dog, Bingo, loved them.

Highland Food Crawl

Naturally Jack’s pet store of Highland gets in on the city’s monthly food crawl with goodies like pumpkin peanut butter cookies for dogs.

Stop Four: The Counter — Fluffernutter Sundae

Highland Food Crawl

Sundae on a Wednesday? Another happy customer gets a special dessert treat from The Counter ice cream shop as part of Highland’s monthly food crawl.

The Counter is exactly that: a kiosk that is set back slightly from the street so that customers can gather and eat ice cream in the colorfully painted alley.

Highland Food Crawl

Seen is the line outside The Counter ice cream shop in Highland, which serves a special Sundae as part of the city’s monthly food crawl.

The fluffernutter soft-serve sundae drew a long line, but the real scoop may be that The Counter is moving later this year into a new space across the street, and the counter space will be taken over by Dirty Dogs, a gourmet hotdog stand.

Stop Five: Jose’s — Peruvian Chicken and Plantains

Highland Food Crawl

Pictured are the Peruvian chicken and rice, along with fried plantains, from Jose’s, as part of Highland’s monthly food crawl.

While Tomera and Panek waited for their sundaes I ducked into Jose’s next door, a Peruvian restaurant along Main Street. Being relatively quiet compared to the places with a bar — it was still a bit early in the evening — I think I can dub this the ‘hidden gem’ of the food crawl.

Jose’s oven-baked chicken and primavera rice was definitely the healthiest option on the specials menu. I corrected for this with a side of fried plantains. Though not part of the specials menu itself, the plantains were crucial. The chicken was juicy and fresh, but maybe a little too healthy for what’s basically a modified pub crawl. The plantains added a splash of Latin American sweetness, and were piping hot to boot, so I have no regrets.

Stop Six: Fuzzyline — Smashburger and Blood Orange IPA           

Highland Food Crawl

Fuzzyline Brewing Co., one of the participating restaurants during Highland’s monthly food crawl, is shown.

Fuzzyline appears to be the favored final stop from those I spoke with during the crawl, in part because it’s just off the main drag. Highland’s resident microbrewery is a popular destination in its own right and several people I spoke with touted its eclectic, creative specials they come out with during the crawls.

Last Tuesday that was a cheesy smashburger with poblano peppers and onions, and spicy green “mojo” sauce.

Fuzzyline uses the special as a way to test for potential items that could migrate to the regular menu, chef and co-owner Robert McLellan told me, adding that, if food crawlers eat at some of the other places and come to Fuzzyline just for the beer, that’s more than fine.

“The more successful places like Sakura or Growlers are, the more successful we will be,” McLellan said. “We want to support our neighbors. The food crawl is all about building community from within.”

McLellan relished the communal hub atmosphere that the food crawl brought to Fuzzyline and some of the other restaurants.

“Food is the world language,” McLellan said. “Everybody can speak with food.”

Bonus Round — July promises a bigger, busier crawl

The final Tuesday of this month, the crawl switches from a kind of scavenger hunt to a full-on event, with Main Street closed only to pedestrians, along with live music, picnic tables, vendors selling wares and activities for kids like face-painting.

Highland Food Crawl

Sundae on a Wednesday? Another happy customer gets a special dessert treat from The Counter ice cream shop as part of Highland’s monthly food crawl.

The crawl is a nice showcase for Highland’s current offerings, but Rhonda Bloch, President of Highland Main Street and Sip Coffee House owner, wants to see even more: more variety, more places, and more people.

Bloch herself is behind the planned hot dog stand that will move in when The Counter relocates across the street; an Italian street food cafe is also opening up along Jewett, just down the block from Sip, Bloch said.

“Valpo and Crown Point keep growing, growing, growing,” Bloch said. “I want us to expand our horizons. Take a look at these other cities and see how that can be replicated here.”


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