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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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