Saturday, January 16, 2010

Tony Packo's Cafe -A Toledo Gem

Looking back through my blog, one might think I stick to pretentious foods. In the past few months, I’ve written about steak houses, eating in New York or Chicago or Miami, hundred dollar dinners for one etc. But if you dig deeper –I talk about cheese steaks and hamburgers and ribs too. What I really try to do is find whatever I think is terrific and if it’s a slice of foie gras atop veal with shaved truffles or if it’s a juicy cheeseburger, I’ll eat it, love it and write about it. I have found terrific food from coast to coast –small towns like Owensboro, Kentucky (where you have got to visit the Moonlight Bar-BQ and try the mutton) to the big city (South Beach’s Puerta Sagua has a Cuban pig’s feet stew that I just can’t resist when it’s on the menu), there is no one fare that inspires me more than the other.

Tony Packo’s in Toledo, Ohio is one such place. Food, atmosphere and history all in one perfect hot dog joint –and they don’t even serve hot dogs! Let me explain. In 1932, a Hungarian immigrant named (you guessed it) Tony Packo borrowed a few bucks from family. This was no small feat during the great depression. He then opened what would go on to be a successful family business. His “hot dog” was really a type of sausage called Kolbász, which tastes a lot like a cross between a hot dog and a kielbasa. About twice the size of a hot dog, he sliced it in half so it wasn’t like eating a sausage. Today’s versions are no more creative than other hot dog joints, but the fresh dog, house made chili and other offerings, such as pork and beef stuffed cabbage in sour cream sauce, keep Tony Packo’s bustling year round. Toledoans know their Hungarian food.

While Tony Packo’s might have been well known to the folks in Toledo, it might have remained another tasty but obscure little local treasure had it not been for the 1970’s and 1980’s hit TV show M*A*S*H*. For those of us who grew up watching this still-to-be-outdone comedy, one might recall Tony Packo’s being brought to the spotlight by Cpl. Max Klinger. In the character’s never ending quest to be kicked out of the ARMY and move back to his beloved Toledo, he referenced Tony Packo’s numerous times in the series. In one episode, they ordered sausage casings from Tony’s so they could be used as blood filters (crude dialysis) when the ARMY requisitioning process was too cumbersome. Jaime Farr, who played Klinger and is also a Toledo native, suddenly made Tony Packo’s a national sensation.

Since then, they have opened numerous locations in and around Toledo, but it’s the original, albeit expanded, restaurant that has the sense of nostalgia brought to light in the TV show. Hanging stained glass table lights and dark paneled walls reflect the origins of the place. The 1930’s and 40’s don’t seem so long ago. What is newer are all of the signed Hot Dog buns on the walls. There are hundreds of glass encased buns signed by every celebrity and politician that have passed through these doors since the first bun signing by Burt Reynolds in the 70’s.

For my meal, I ordered more than I could eat but I had to try what they were famous for on several fronts. Like a poker player salivating at a royal flush, if I see fried pickles on a menu, I’m all in. Served with 3 different dipping sauces –notably a spicy ketchup, their house made pickles are perfect for frying.

Tart, vinegar-y flavors layered with that welcoming fried texture and unique ketchup, I thought these were some of the best fried pickles I’d ever tasted. Next came the chili. It was pretty good but also pretty standard. Nothing jumped out at me flavor-wise, but I have to admit, I’m jaded with Chili. Still, it was perfect for dog topping. By now I’m starting to get full and I have 2 more things to taste. The stuffed cabbage was next. Braised and reduced in sour cream sauce, this Hungarian-spiced, meat-filled roll was terrific. My grandmother’s family was also from the “old country” and this food reminded me of my childhood. Sweet cabbage leaves filled with savory pork and beef is an art. I only finished a small portion of this because I knew the dog was coming. I ate the rest the next day. Lastly came the chili laden half sausage with mustard and onions (always my choice for toppings) and cheese to be layered on top.

One bite and I could see what Cpl. Klinger was homesick for. Not completely a hot dog and not completely a sausage, this creation that is cased on premises is so unique and delicious, I don’t believe I can find anything like it anywhere else.

I don’t expect anyone will head off to Toledo just to try Tony Packo’s but if you are ever in the area (30 minutes south of Detroit and 30 minutes west of Cedar Point –roller coaster capitol of the world), you have got to stop in and try this one-of-a-kind establishment. Thank goodness I have family not far away, because I will be visiting this gem-of-a-find again.