Valparaiso, Ind. offers unexpected treats

You'll find steak on just about every menu within a 10-mile radius of "Valpo," and sure enough, a flank steak graces the menu at Dish, an upscale American restaurant in a strip mall just north of town. But there's also an inspired Thai lettuce wrap, as well as stuffed pork tenderloin, graced with roasted potatoes and asparagus--clear signs the kitchen knows more than just grilling beef.

The same is true downtown, at Bistro 157, another upscale option. Chef and owner Nicole Bissonnette was trained in France, and tries to keep things simple. Whether it's blue crab cakes on a celery root-caper remoulade, duck confit with peach chutney and a five-potato hash or plump shrimp tossed with linguini, chilies and tomatoes.

"It's approachable. It's fun. We don't want it to be stuffy, but we feel that you can have a full meal by having three or four appetizers, just as affordable as you could going to one of the chain restaurants," said Bissonnette.

For a taste of Spain, a must-stop is the casual Don Quijote, which bills itself as the only Spanish restaurant in the state. Chef and owner Carlos Rivero makes tremendous paella--either flecked with saffron and jammed with seafood, or colored black with squid ink, containing delicious creatures from the sea. The garlicky gazpacho is also refreshing, especially with a glass of sangria.

Sweet tooth satisfaction is just up the street, at Designer Desserts: a whimsical, frosting-laced ode to all kinds of baked goods, especially cupcakes. Cherry, strawberry, coconut, you name it they have it, including, watermelon and cotton candy flavors, plus a few tongue-in-cheek presentations.

A few doors down, Pikk's Tavern has been open for nearly a year, and is the kind of place you can drop in anytime of the week. Steaks are dry-aged for two to three weeks, and salads are huge. Oysters Rockefeller arrive topped with spinach, bacon and hollandaise.

"We wanted to try to come with a menu that would appeal to a family, so we welcome kids here. We have a kids menu, we have a gluten-free menu, and we wanted to have a different variety of foods on the menu so we could kind of appeal to everybody," said Hasan Beytas, of Pikk's Tavern.

Now the town may be an hour and a half from the big city, but there is no denying the culinary ambitions of this tight-knit food community.

There are also some good places to grab a bite in Miller Beach, Munster and Merrillville.

3907 Calumet Ave., Valparaiso, IN

Bistro 157
157 Lincolnway, Valpo

Designer Desserts
56 W. Lincolnway, Valpo

Pikk's Tavern
62 W. Lincolnway, Valpo

Don Quijote
119 E. Lincolnway, Valpo

Other good places in NW Indiana:

Miller Bakery Café
555 S. Lake St., Gary

66 W. Lincolnway, Valparaiso

Stop 50 Pizza
500 S. El Portal Dr., Michigan City

455 E. 84th Dr., Merrillville

Café Borgia
10010 Calumet Ave., Munster

275 Joliet St., Dyer

1872 Indianapolis Blvd., Whiting

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