Submitted by: Matt Werner Photos (unless noted) by: Jose Rios
Jose Rios and I were looking for a place to eat on a Monday.
“What about Leroy’s Hot Stuff?” I asked.
“I’m down with Leroy’s,” Jose said.
Sitting alongside a slow bend in Highway 20 just west of the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, Leroy’s is almost always open. They sling beer, cocktails, and food 7 days a week, 20 hours at a time. Doors open at 7:00 a.m. and close at 3:00 a.m. (shorter hours on Sunday). I drove through the drizzle and pulled in just after noon. Surely they’d be empty, I thought, and surely, I was wrong. Jose had already picked a table and was waiting with a beer in hand. The bartender came over. She told me Budweiser was $1.75 today. “Yes, please,” I said.
Half price appetizers today too, she said. We went with the queso fundido.
You can get a burger, a BLT, or an Italian beef at Leroy’s, but the menu favors Mexican fare and I was sitting with an expert. Whereas enchiladas and tacos were a novelty pulled from a Betty Crocker cookbook at my house growing up, the kitchens of Jose’s mother and grandmother were filled with tortillas, chorizo, cilantro, corn husks, and corn flour dough.
The queso fundido arrived and as we filled our tortillas with molten, stringy, cheesy goodness and greasy chorizo, we hatched a plan: get two of everything. Our bartender came back.
Two more Budweisers.
Two steak tacos.
Two pork tostadas. “Do you want melted cheese on that?” she asked us. I looked at Jose and he nodded his head and said, “Definitely.”
Two chicken flautas.
“Should we get tamales?” I asked.
“Honey, you won’t have enough room,” the bartender said.
When you walk into Leroy’s, you can feel the history. The original structure dates back to the early 20th century with a dining room, lunch service, and cold draft beer. A small Sinclair service station sat next door. Together, they drew workers, locals, and passersby driving east and west on Highway 20. For much of its life, it was known as Rendler’s Cabins and offered small cabins out back for weary travelers. One still stands behind a fence. The establishment has been a repeated work-in-progress. The original space is evidenced by a slightly lower roof just inside the front door. Over time, it has experienced one addition after another, more than tripling its square footage. One end of the long building features a musical stage, the other end has a no-smoking dining area. Leroy calls his place a juke joint. It feels like a roadhouse. In reality, it’s both.
A few strips of garland hung here and there, some strings of Christmas lights ran in lines along the ceiling, a tiny snowman sat on the windowsill next to Jose, its head dancing to-and-fro. Tin beer signs are stapled to the ceiling everywhere. I was partial to the ones advertising beers that no longer existed such as Zima and Miller Beer (the one with the red label). All of them had been aged by time and nicotine.
Back at our table, Jose and I entered dangerous territory. We’d been snacking on corn chips, salsa, queso, and chorizo. Our stomachs began to fill when the feast arrived. Where to start? “The tostadas,” Jose said. I started to slice mine with a fork like a piece of cake. Jose lifted the hard shell with his fork until he could balance it in the fingers of his other hand and bit into it like a slice of pizza. I followed suit. Tostadas are messy, especially when smothered in a layer of cheese. Jose was a pro and didn’t lose a piece to his plate. The key, I learned, was to keep it balanced and eat the whole thing until it was gone. We took a beer break, told a few jokes, tried to solve the world’s problems, and made small talk with the regulars, who are a welcoming bunch.
Jose talked about a kitchen full of ingredients and making tamales with his grandmother and cousins, testing the corn meal dough.
I pointed out the snowman beside Jose that kept dancing back and forth. “He won’t stop looking at me,” I said.
“It’s dancing for you,” Jose said, “It’s the seduction of the tamale!”
I called to the bartender, “Two tamales!”
“Are you getting them with pork?” asked a regular sitting at the bar?
“We’re thinking cheese,” I said.
“You gotta get the pork. Seriously, they’re the best,” the regular said.
“OK, make them pork then,” I said. The bartender laughed and rang it up.
Homemade tamales were a fitting end to our overstuffed meal.
You don’t have to gorge yourself on Mexican food at Leroy’s like we did. There are many other reasons to visit. Breakfast runs the gamut from buttermilk pancakes to the American Breakfast to Huevos Rancheros. And you don’t have to settle for Budweiser. Local beers such as Three Floyds and Shoreline are on tap, as is Dos Equis and Elysian Brewing. If you want a cocktail, they’ve got you covered. Darts? Yep. Game of pool? They’ve got that too. I beat Jose two out of three games and his new nickname is Scratch. Live music? Every Friday and Saturday night Leroy’s features talented local bands such as Nomad Planets, Corey Dennison, Robert Rolfe Feddersen, and Chester Brown.
I’ll come back, but next time I’ll get here before noon for the American breakfast, or come late and see a band play in the area’s #1 juke joint.