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Sidebars: Detour off U.S. 31 to Big Mike's Cafe

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SidebarsI’m going to bend the rules a bit. This place is nowhere near a courthouse but it is not too far off the heavily traveled U.S. 31 corridor in Hamilton County. Nestled in a bland little strip mall just north of 96th Street on College Avenue, Big Mike’s Café is worth the small detour it takes to get there. Having been there for dinner and lunch, the appeal of this place is its variety and quality of the food served.

Owned and operated by Mike Minch, a.k.a. Big Mike, it fulfills a dream of his. The Lake County native held executive chef positions at places such as Shula’s Steak House and Bravo Italian Restaurant before taking the plunge in his own venture and, while still evolving, he is not looking back. While I’ve not had all his menu items, I’ve had enough to know Big Mike puts his heart and soul into every dish and cares deeply that what he serves is something that will bring you back for more.

My first visit was for dinner with my wife, Amy, and our three children. The weather was horrific and we virtually had the place to ourselves. The décor is simple but clean; a large open room with a counter for ordering then sprinkled with wooden table seating. Once you order, the wait staff brings your food. So upon my first visit I wasn’t exactly expecting impressionable food. I was dead wrong.

I mentioned variety earlier. Big Mike’s serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The breakfast items range from fruit and granola to full-fledged skillet breakfasts with eggs Benedict and omelets in between. The lunch items include soups, salads, pastas, baked pastas, and a heaping variety of sandwiches, including, I understand, some stellar burgers. There is also a salad, soup, pizza, and pasta bar for lunch. The dinner selections include any lunch item plus regular or deep-dish pizza. Dinner also includes entrees such as Boston crab crusted tilapia, pork loin with garlic and herbs, or beef tenderloin with mushroom risotto, to name just a few. In short, there’s something to please every palette here.

For our dinner Amy and I split a pizza. My half was sausage while hers was spinach, garlic, and ricotta cheese. The crust is outstanding and among the best I’ve had in the city. The toppings were top notch also and strike you in a way that tells you on some day you’ll want to come back. The kids ate heaps of fettuccini Alfredo and spaghetti and meatballs. Mike graced us with a platter of homemade cannoli and brownies for dessert that sealed the deal on a return family visit.

You may recall from a few of my past columns my affinity for Chicago-style Italian beef. Mike shared with me that an Urbanspoon critic once posted on the site that he would “take a bullet” for Big Mike’s Italian beef. This piqued my curiosity and upon my return lunchtime visit I had to see what all the fuss was about.

This was a solo visit as Jenny was unavailable to join me. Italian beef is a thinly sliced beef wonderfully seasoned and served dripping in au jus on baguette-style bread with accompanying sweet or hot peppers or giardiniera. The bread is as equally vital to the success of this sandwich as is the beef. It must contain a soft yet durable inside that can support the juicy beef. The crust should be crunchy but easy to bite. Space limitations prevent me from fully describing the sandwich Big Mike serves, but let’s just say while it’s the best Italian beef I’ve had in Indianapolis, it still doesn’t steal me away from some of my Chicago favorites.

Noticeably lacking from the menu is a beer or wine option. Upon my return lunchtime visit I was pleased to note a pending alcoholic beverage permit application. Food of this quality cries out for an accompanying glass of wine or perhaps an Indiana craft beer alongside the meal. It’s all part of Big Mike’s evolution. So, take the detour toward great food that’s far from ordinary. Big Mike will appreciate it. Big Mike’s Café, 9611 College Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46280. 317-571-1000.•
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Fred Vaiana and Jennifer M. Lukemeyer practice at Voyles Zahn Paul Hogan & Merriman in Indianapolis, focusing in criminal defense. Vaiana is a 1992 graduate of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Lukemeyer earned her J.D. from Southern Methodist University in 1994 and is active in the Indianapolis Bar Association, Indianapolis Inn of Courts, and the Teen Court Program. The opinions expressed in this column are the authors’.

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