Apr 10, 2010

Happy Gillis Leaves Me... Well...

Happy Gillis is so charming it's not even fair.

It's a bit of a hike going all the way down to the river market, and then east to Columbus park, from my home in the West Plaza area. But knowing Happy Gillis is the destination, it's 20 minutes of glee.

Happy Gillis is one of those quaint neighborhood eateries that serves delicious homemade breakfast foods and notably tasty soups, salads and sandwiches. Hearty and high quality with few to no processed ingredients or fast food shortcuts taken. It's run by Todd and Tracy Schulte (I am making the assumption Tracy's last name is Schulte). Todd's a full-blown chef (culinary school grad) with restaurant kitchen experience, but who has apparently figured out that running his own little soup service and neighborhood restaurant is far more fulfilling than fighting through the chefs' rat race. I hear chefs claim, often, that they put a lot of love in their food, but I've never truly experienced that any more than I do in what Todd dishes out at Happy G (he's been there, cheerily cooking and chatting with guests, every time I've gone).

Admittedly, I have not taken advantage of the HG breakfast menu, so I'll have to write a separate review for that (I planned it that way just to create an excuse for going again soon). Focusing on lunch, though, I'll waste no time in telling you that Happy Gillis is a phenomenal spot that I vigorously recommend.

The restaurant has a homey quality few places could ever hope to achieve. Upon entering, diners find themselves standing beside comfortable old (but tasteful) couches, chairs and a coffee table covered with reading material, perfect for a pleasant wait if the tables are all full once you've placed your order. The dining room is unfortunately small, but I've never been served my food before I was able to snatch an open seat. There is also a shallow counter near the entrance looking out onto the street that's a bit cramped, but fun if you're alone or with just one other person. The walls are a funky green color, the furniture is vintage/second-hand, the menu boards are chalk board. It's got a great, unique vibe to it. And now that the weather is nicer, you can even choose to sit at one of three sidewalk tables.

Reading through the menus is an exciting foray itself. Everything sounds good. On past trips, I've had the egg salad, curried chicken salad with cashews, and Plain Jane (turkey) sandwiches. All were delicious. On one of my recent trips, it was a rainy day in the budding spring and I felt like one last wintry meal was in order, so I had Tracy's Meatloaf. I rate this high on my life's list of best decisions.

"Tracy's Meatloaf" is a meatloaf panini with a kick. I was thrilled with the fact that the bread, after having been pressed and grilled, was thinner than the weighty cuts of hot meatloaf inside. Tells you something about HG's philosophy of serving the best-possible-tasting sandwich, not cutting corners for the sake of cost. So despite few other toppings, this is still quite a substantial and filling meal.

What toppings it does have are unique but perfectly suited to my tastes: the white cheddar cheese had a delightful stretchy quality to it and nice sharp saltiness. For a little kick, thinly sliced rings of fresno peppers (think red jalapeno) were layered on top. Sweet, a little crunchy and a little spicy, they were an ingenious addition. And for moisture and a more classic sandwich taste, good dijon mustard was detectable through its slight tartness.

Elizabeth went back for one of her all-time favorite sandwiches - the banh mi (Elizabeth, can you confirm or deny whether this is, in fact, the second-best sandwich you've ever eaten, bested only by La Sandwicherie's salami and provolone?).  I, too, have had and enjoyed the banh mi, which is a Vietnamese-style baguette sandwich. Traditionally the baguette comes sliced and split open like a sub sandwich rather than on two separate pieces of bread as Happy Gillis serves theirs, but HG's technique comes with good reasoning...

The stars of their banh mi are two huge pork meatballs which, in a traditional baguette, would tend to get squeezed out, or just wouldn't fit inside, period. These meatballs are deliciously flavored (great call using all pork), sweet/savory protein spheres. Chomping down on one fulfills a primordial, inborn human desire like few other foods can.

[A word of caution, though: last time I ordered the banh mi, I promptly hoisted it toward my gaping mouth only to then watch in horror, seemingly in slow motion, as one of my meatballs fell out the back of the sandwich, caromed off the table top and onto the floor!!!!!!! I'd liken the experience to that of a junky seeing his stash fall into a deep sewer. Yes, I heavily considered picking it up and popping it into my mouth before anyone else could notice, but it was too late. My shriek of repugnance had already alerted them to the tragedy. I beg of you, please learn from my mistake and ensure your meatballs are safely and securely fastened.]

Offsetting the rich meat are sweet-marinated carrots, sliced cucumber, radish and brightly flavored cilantro. And the bread picks up a little of the gooey, spicy hoisin from the meatballs for added moisture. You just can't find a sandwich like this hardly anywhere else in town, so you've got to go try it.

We also ordered a bowl of HG's Italian lentil soup with sausage. This hearty bowl was a great match for my meatloaf sandwich, thick, deeply flavored and satisfying. The soups at HG are a little on the pricey side, but take it from a cheapskate - they're worth it. They're all truly delicious. Happy Gillis actually hangs their hat on their soups, above all. Their website, happysoupeater.com, allows visitors to register and sign up for weekly soup deliveries. I'm not yet a member but can only imagine the euphoria of finding my new gift of soup waiting on my doorstep... especially when it tastes as good as theirs.

Today we returned and had our first less-than-satisfying experienced due to a disappointingly average salad. At $7, we expected something pretty great (also due to HG's preceding reputation), but were sad to receive a small-ish plate of field greens with an ordinary combination of thinly sliced apples and chunks of goat cheese. The vinaigrette, too, was basic. There was nothing wrong with the salad, but Elizabeth sorely wished she could have gone back in time and ordered a sandwich, knowing how extraordinary they always are.

Getting things back on the right track, though, was the soup we shared. It was a beautiful red-orange Thai tomato and vegetable soup, with a slight chunkiness from mostly-pureed vegetables and flecks of cilantro. The bowlful was satisfying, but we could have eaten a gallon of the stuff.

My sandwich (pictures at bottom) was another wild success: thick slices of beautiful tuna, cooked medium with pinkness on the inside but a nice salty brown crust on the seared surface served on wonderfully crunchy-crusted ciabatta was slathered with a mixture of seasoned tomato, capers and walnuts. A great acidic compliment to the meaty fish.

I struggled rating Happy Gillis. I actually considered it for four napkins, which, if you're into comparisons, can't even be said for You Say Tomato despite my reverence for the like-minded eatery. That should tell you something about how good this little corner hangout really is.

The only knocks on Happy Gillis are the slightly high price/portion ratio and today's lackluster salad. On service and atmosphere, it gets top marks. Make your stomach and your soul happy soon with a trip to Happy Gillis.



Rating: three napkins
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Happy Gillis Café & Hangout on Urbanspoon




 



5 comments:

Jordan said...

You should have mentioned this place before. I didn't know it existed. Let's grab lunch there sometime soon.

Elizabeth said...

A few thoughts to share...yes, the banh mi at Happy Gillis is the (second) best sandwich I have ever had. I don't know if I'll ever encounter one that can beat Le Sandwicherie. However, I have had a different version of the banh mi at Happy Gillis that had thinly sliced chicken breast - actual chicken breast, not deli chicken - instead of meatballs that I thoroughly enjoyed as well. I don't know if I would say one is better than the other though (meatballs vs. chicken), they both were great. However, I will point out that an added bonus of the meatball version is that they could easily get by with putting just one on the sandwich, halved. Which is what I did in order to avoid the tragedy of losing one like you did last time, and then you have a bonus meatball to eat on it's own. Happy Gillis is a dreamy wonderland. My favorite lunch spot and maybe soon to be favorite breakfast spot, if we ever made it there early enough to eat breakfast! :)

Cherra58 said...

Beane, Jordan and I hit it up for lunch today. Top notch find. We're certainly going back.

Amanda said...

Jared and I went this morning-- it was packed, but we still found a table. The coffee was great and the food delicious! Our only complaints: there was only one option that was red-meat free (an egg and cheese sandwich) and only one option that was gluten free (bacon and eggs). I think next time we'll go for lunch to try the soups!

KCNapkins Guy said...

Yes,that's a pretty "hearty" breakfast menu. I think you'd find lunch a little more accommodating with the good soups and salads they have.
What'd you think about the prices at breakfast? I still find lunch a little steep even though it's SO good...

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