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Locals Know Best: Indianapolis

By Liza Weisstuch
September 13, 2017
skyline at dusk
Rudi1976/Dreamstime
There's no better guide to a city than someone who lives there, so we asked Karen E. Laine and her daughter Mina Starsiak Hawk, stars of HGTV's "Good Bones," for their take on culture, food, and drink in the town they call home.

Indianapolis doesn’t like to beat its own chest, but the city has a lot to boast about. There are the varied cultural institutions, culinary traditions as well as progressive restaurants, green spaces, and its early 20th century status as a manufacturing hub that rivaled Detroit. However, Indy has long been known for just a few things: car racing, NFL powerhouses the Colts, and native sons David Letterman and Kurt Vonnegut. These days it’s increasingly known for Karen E. Laine and Mina Starsiak Hawk, the local mother/daughter team that hosts “Good Bones” on HGTV. In the show, they go around Indy fixing up dilapidated, neglected houses. You might even say they are on a beautification crusade to rehab the city they know and love, neighborhood by neighborhood. We met up with them when they were in New York City to get the lowdown on where to eat, drink, play, and hangout in Indy. 

HAPPY MEALS

Karen and Mina, whose show evolved from the fixer-upper business they started in 2007 called Two Chicks and a Hammer, play their mother/daughter roles with natural ease on the show, disagreements included. When you meet them in person, they’ll tell you that there are a lot of things they don’t agree on off-camera, too. Bluebeard, however, is a recommendation they agree on wholeheartedly. It’s one of the older restaurants in Fletcher Place, an historic residential neighborhood with a bustling commercial core. Among the many memorable dishes at this farmhouse-chic, locally minded restaurant is an indulgent grilled cheese breakfast sandwich with a sunnyside-up egg and truffle honey, which Mina describes with the giddiness of someone talking about a recent tropical vacation. Its nearby sister restaurant is Milktooth, a bustling, airy breakfast and lunch eatery with a diner-style counter. Mina’s friend from high school’s father owns them both, and these kinds of connections are a dime a dozen in town.

“Indy has a small-town feel, even though it’s a big city,” Mina says. “Everyone know everyone.”

Kinda like what happens when Karen visits her favorite coffee shop, Calvin Fletcher’s, which is owned and run by a father and his son. “If you go there twice, they’ll know your order and your name.”

Or consider Rook, a popular spot for traditional Filipino food. The chef here is Carlos Salazar, and Mina worked with him when he was had a less glamorous role in the kitchen and she was waiting tables. And as far as his menus today, “I don’t even have words,” she says as a look of bliss washing over her face.

Any city worth its salt in food culture has locals that will hold one restaurant’s burger in higher esteem than all the rest. For Karen, that supreme burger is served at Ember, where longtime waitress Shelly knows what she wants before Karen even orders. That’s usually the cheese burger, served with lettuce that’s cold and crispy and fries that are always hot and crispy. Or wait—maybe it’s the burger at Kuma’s Corner, an outpost of a rock’n’roll Chicago restaurant known for its giant patties served on a big pretzel bun. “Their burgers are transcendent,” Karen declares. “You can get it with egg, cheese, onion, but the meat is so good that if you just got a burger with nothing on it, you would not be sad.”

ONE SMALL NEIGHBORHOOD WITH A BIG PERSONALITY

The Indy Cultural Trail, a sleek eight-mile bike path dotted with public art, runs throughout the city connecting downtown to the various neighborhoods, including Fletcher Place and Fountain Square, the walkable community that Karen calls home. Virginia Avenue cuts right through the middle of the neighborhood and when the trail opened, all the businesses along it got a boost. That means most of the spots that Karen called local are now better known. And that’s not a bad thing. She recommends Wildwood Market, a shop in an old gas station specializing in meats, cheese, pickles. Each day they make one sandwich, two soups, and a salad, take it or leave it. Mina recommends taking it. They sell out in an hour. Another option is Pure Eatery, known for its local and natural-minded menu. It was a basic sandwich shop when Karen moved in, and now it’s a full-on restaurant and bar where the breakfast taco menu starts at 10AM, earlier than most other restaurants are open. But the real allure here is the mac’n’cheese, which is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure in decadence. Bacon, cheese, spinach, and more cheese are among the swoon-worthy add-on options.

Bars are easy to come by. You can get a flight of tequila to accompany the excellent Mexican food at La Margarita, but for something really distinctive, check out New Day Craft Meadery, a spacious, kid-friendly spot adorned with local art. They produce an intriguing variety of meads and cider and host regular events, like yoga and the cleverly named Mead & Knead, a night where you can get a massage while you sip.

It’s a lively neighborhood in general, but it gets even livelier on First Fridays, the monthly event when pop-up shops arrive, bands play in the street, and businesses stay open later to accommodate the many people wandering.

Indy’s music scene is represented here, with spots like HiFi, a performance venue and ad hoc gallery. There’s a bar, but no kitchen, so lots of people order from nearby food trucks.

NATURE AWAITS

Indy has one of the biggest city parks in the country. Clocking in at 39,000 acres, Eagle Creek Park is more than four-times the size of New York City’s Central Park. An incredible urban oasis, it features a reservoir where you can rent kayaks or canoes, a six-mile trail along the periphery, and a half-dozen playgrounds. It’s not uncommon to find locals packed into the sheltered picnic tables or scattered throughout the greenspace in nice weather. The smaller Garfield Park, which boarders Fletcher Square, features European-style sunken gardens as well as a pretty greenhouse decorated with fish, birds, and seasonal decorations. There’s live music, including a summer concert season, and since it’s less than ten minutes driving from downtown, there’s no reason not to stop by.

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Inspiration

5 Reasons Why We Love Southwest's September Fare Sale

Are you inspired by our recent fall travel chat on Facebook and ready to pack up and go? Southwest’s current fare sale (good for travel through December if you book by Sept. 21) will enable that urge. Don’t expect to fly around the major holidays, but if you’re in the market for a weekend getaway, you may be in luck—cheap flights to some of our favorite destinations are up for grabs. Here, five especially great deals we love. Chicago to Austin, from $94 Like a booster shot for seasonal affective disorder, a serious dose of sunshine at the beginning of the season can help ward off the February blues, so head south and soak up some vitamin D before that Chicago winter really kicks in. Check out the Austin City Limits Music Festival at the beginning of October, or go on a five-hour meat binge with the Texas Monthly BBQ Fest on Nov. 5. If you’re not willing to plan your trip around a one-off day of carnivorous consumption, that’s OK—it’s always taco weather in this food-crazy town. Dallas to Boston, from $78 When the Texas heat has you dreaming of colorful leaves and crisp autumn air, consider New England. Boston makes a great jumping-off point for a fall-foliage tour, and the city is a destination in its own right. Catch a game at Fenway Park, channel your inner history nerd and play colonial-landmark bingo, have a bowl of clam chowder at Yankee Lobster, and mingle with the college crowd in Cambridge. We like dem apples very much, thank you. Indianapolis to NYC, from $89 For those who can’t get enough of that noel, New York in December is a must-do trip. Rockefeller Center’s tree-lighting ceremony kicks off the festivities on November 29, and the Fifth Avenue department-store window displays appear soon after, leaving holiday lovers with plenty of non-blackout dates to explore a city that feels just a wee bit softer under those twinkling lights. You won’t escape the cold, but you’ll definitely get into the spirit of the season. Los Angeles to Denver, from $93 Endless summer bumming you out? Swap sand for slopes with a stint in the Mile High City, a veritable paradise for outdoor-adventure enthusiasts. Denver boasts miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails, white-water rafting excursions, and, of course, ample opportunities to ski and snowboard in the nearby Rockies. There are even disc-golf courses for those who want to take it a little easier. If indoor activities are more your thing, may we suggest the Great American Beer Festival in early October? With 3,800 beers from 800 breweries, you’ll be sure to find something to wet your whistle. Washington, D.C., to Orlando, from $92 Orlando’s amusement parks hit peak capacity around the holidays, but if you absolutely have to plan a family vacation around the kids’ school schedules, at least you’ll get to Florida at a discount. When you book in December, do so knowing that the crowds will be nuts, and embrace the chaos. Our Disney survival tips are your secret weapon—they’ll help you keep your sanity on the ground, so don’t forget to bookmark and read before you go. All rates are starting prices, one-way, as quoted on southwest.com.

Inspiration

Hurricane Help From Airbnb and HomeAway

The immediate danger posed by Hurricane Harvey may have passed, but the regional crisis in Texas and Louisiana is far from over, and Hurricane Irma is approaching Florida and the Caribbean.  As the shelters in the Houston area empty out, many residents are returning home to discover that their onetime sanctuaries have been damaged beyond repair, and the devastation runs deep: Thousands of people in Texas and Louisiana have been displaced, with FEMA-funded hotel rooms in short supply and renters in a particularly precarious situation. (In the past week alone, hundreds in the Houston area have been served with eviction notices.) Help often comes from unexpected sources, though, and vacation-rental sites such as Airbnb are stepping into the breach. Hundreds of hosts from Corpus Christi to New Orleans are opening their doors to evacuees and relief workers—and they’re doing it for free. Under a disaster-response policy implemented in the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, Airbnb is encouraging hosts in the affected and surrounding areas to list their homes at $0 until September 25, and in return, the company is waiving all booking fees. Nearly 1,000 properties have been offered to date, and demand is high, with many vacancies filled soon after they’re posted. At last count, some 500 urgent accommodations were available on the website’s dedicated page. “We are proud to see our Airbnb community coming together to help their neighbors in need,” says Kellie Bentz, Airbnb’s head of global disaster response and relief. The hurricane hit close to home for the Texas-based HomeAway, and in response, the site is giving its property owners and managers the option of renting to survivors for free or at a discount through the end of the month, waiving service and booking fees in the process. The company, which also runs VRBO and VacationRentals.com, has set up a temporary-housing page for those who want to make their homes available, and so far, more than 100 have opted in. For good samaritans who may not be able to pitch in physically or monetarily, offering up their space is tangible way to offer a helping hand. “I personally don’t have the financial funds to donate as much as I’d like to,” Austin resident and Airbnb host Edith Flores told The New York Times on Sunday. “This is one thing I can do.”

Inspiration

The Hippest Little Culinary Hub on the Canadian Prairie

Louise Black loves cheese. Like, really, really loves cheese. She talks about it with the mastery of an academic giving a dissertation, and also with the enthusiasm of a parent describing her kid's first homerun. As general manager of Bulk Cheese Warehouse, she oversees the daily bustle at the shop near the South Saskatchewan River. Despite the store's name, it's actually a modest size, and every square inch of every shelf in every case is occupied by cheese. For the most part, they're organized by country--French, Italian, Danish, English. I cannot show you what it looks like, though. There's a strict no-photo policy. Louise deems the store a "diamond in the rough" and she likes to keep it that way. (She's not kidding. Search for photos online. You'll find two images of the shop's interior. Clearly shot on the sly.) Sampling is encouraged here. Ask for anything, she's happy to cut you a piece. She wants you to love cheese as much as she does. When I visited the store on a sunny July morning, she started waxing poetic to me about Chateau de Bourgogne, a triple cream cheese from Burgundy, France, and was nearly offended when I told her I've never had it. She immediately went behind the counter, spread a dollop on a cracker, and pushed it towards me. "It's triple cream heaven!” she exclaimed. "It’s just butter. When God created this, man, oh, man, step back!”  Louise’s passion is merely a small sampling of the excitement that courses through this small yet vibrant city, an urban enclave surrounded by prairies and wheat fields smack in the middle of Canada. It’s a city with culinary traditions that can be traced back thousands of years to when the native people lived off the land straight up to today, as entrepreneurial types showcase their creativity at restaurants, cafes, distilleries, shops, markets, and farms. The South Saskatchewan River cuts through the city, a culinary oasis in the middle of the Canadian prairie. Those ancient traditions are on display at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a sprawling, majestic site with a vast crater used millennia ago for bison jumping. Native people occupied the land up to 6000 years ago (that’s about 3000 years before the Egyptians built the pyramids, by the way) and today it’s known as Canada’s longest-running archaeological dig. It’s a cultural center today where you can camp out in teepees, roam the museum-meets-art-gallery space, or try smoked bison. When I visited on a sunny day in July, I watched a descendant of the native people effortlessly slice and smoke the meat in a minimalist smoker pit the way her father taught her. When I asked whether she ever uses any seasoning, she looked at me suspiciously and retorted “You don’t disrespect the meat that way!” I tried a piece that had been over the fire for three hours. Then I understood her reverence. Wanuskewin Heritage Park staff demonstrates ancient methods of cutting and smoking bison meat. She also told me about Bannock, an ancient food made from Indian bread root, which I sampled with a lunch of bison burger and Three Sisters soup, another customary food made with corn, squash, beans, and a medley of vegetables. Dry and crumbly, it was utilitarian, to be diplomatic. It's easy to understand why so many people lived by a paleo diet millennia ago. READ: 3-Day Weekend in Monterey, CA My carb-fueled cravings were filled later that day on a visit to Night Oven, a small but bustling bakery with piles and piles of cookies, grainy loafs of bread, baguettes, brioche, croissants, and sundry pastries stacked up in pyramids. Nearly everything is made with heritage grains that the soft-spoken owner, Bryn Rawlyk, sources from area farmers and mills in-house on a 30-inch stone mill he constructed. But to say Bryn is handy would be an understatement. Behind the cases of sweets and racks of bread, the bakers scurry around in a compact space anchored by a hulking brick oven, which Rawlyk built. It has a 9-foot dome that, he explained as I savored a gingersnap cookie, bake the loafs with radiant heat stored up in the bricks from the wood-burning fire. It imparts an only subtly smoky flavor to the bread and, you might say, a sense of heritage. Heritage is the cornerstone of Baba’s Homestyle Perogies, a no-frills perogie joint on the side of a busy thoroughfare. There’s the option to order at the drive-through. Or you could eat in the small canteen-like eatery. The perogies are served on Styrofoam plates on plastic cafeteria trays. They are the best perogies I have ever had. (And I come from an Eastern European heritage.) Owner Rob Engel told me that he became obsessed with the dumplings through his wife’s Ukranian family. His obsession has become a wildly popular business.  The unassuming Baba's Homestyle Perogies turns out some of Canada's most exquisite from-scratch perogies. He took me into the sweeping warehouse-esque kitchen behind the dining area, where two Ukrainian women were industriously scooping dough, flattening it in their palms, topping it with a potato and cheese mix, and pinching it shut with jaw-dropping speed and efficiency. They make seven different varieties. They offered—nay, forced—me to try it myself. It’s not easy, to say the least. When Rob told me that they make 5,000 to 8,000 perogies a day most days, and 12,000 to 15,000 a day during the holidays, I nearly passed out. A plate of warm Saskatoon berry perogies topped with vanilla ice cream helped revive me. Saskatoon berries are, as you might guess, unique to this region of prairieland. Their relatively short growing season makes them a prized bounty, one worthy of celebration. My late-July visit was perfectly timed to the Saskatoon Berry Festival, which takes place at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, a year-round bazaar that's featured the local bounty and baked goods since 1975. I stopped by expecting to wander around for an hour or so. I left four hours later. Saskatoon has that classic small town atmosphere of coziness and warmth, which is to say that conversation flows easily among strangers. Wandering through the marketplace, I spoke to a woman known around town as the Prairie Pasta Lady, who offered me a sample of her signature pasta pudding, a delectably gooey concoction that could stand up to the finest bread puddings the American South. I took a photo of the recipe, but I’ve yet to try to make it myself. Some things are more delicious when you’re not aware how much heavy cream is involved. The Prairie Pasta Lady, a fixture at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market, is known for her variety of homemade pasta. I chatted with a woman who sells dips and spreads inspired by her Polish parents who served dill dip with every meal when she was growing up. That day she had Saskatoon berry cream cheese on offer alongside her own rendition of her mother’s dill dip and a few other savory spreads. I was regaled with the various health benefits of sea buckthorn berries, acidic orange morsel that grow on shrubs in Canada, Russia and China. The superfood is the calling card of local company NVigorate, which uses it to make juices, jams, vinegar, syrup, and lotion. But it was what appeared to be the most unassuming-looking women that left the biggest impression. Jean, who has short-cropped hair, cat’s eyes glasses, and a wide toothy grin, was busily organizing jars of salsas and sauces on her table while two young teenage boys clowned around behind her. She firmly warned them to settle down. They did. When your aunt the kind of woman who buys thousands of pounds of cabbage at a time and ferments it for three weeks to make sauerkraut or shows up to the market each week with anywhere between 33 and 50 cases of mason jars of her handmade condiments, from her “million-dollar relish” to an array of salsas to the crowd-pleasing red pepper variety, you listen when she tells you to behave. Sisters-in-law Jean and Dorothy sell baked goods, homemade salsas, relishes, perogies and more each week at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market. "They’re my nephews, I want them to learn. If they wanna earn money, they’ve gotta work for it,” she told me as I browsed her offerings. Jean lives on a farm where she grows wheat and grain and fruit and if anyone can teach work ethic to young people, she can. Jean told me that she has a computer in her house but she hasn’t used it in three years. She works 12 to 15 hours a day except on Sundays. “That’s when I nap,” she concedes. Also, Jean is 74. She did, however, work the prior Sunday because she had to pick 24 pails of Saskatoon berries in a day in preparation for the weekend's festival. She pointed to the other end of the table at a tall woman with high cheek bones and auburn hair done up tidily. That’s her husband’s sister Dorothy, a former professional ballroom dancer and flight attendant. She made 175 Saskatoon berry pies for this weekend, baking them 35 at a time. Dorothy is 87.  Jean's farm is over an hour away, but Black Fox Farms, which was selling gins and liqueurs at a table nearby, sprawls out across a valley alongside the Saskatoon River. It's just a quick drive from the center of the city, but I would have willingly spent lots more time on the road to get there. For husband-and-wife owners John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote, running the 80-acre farm is something of a homecoming. John started his farming career 100 miles north, then moving to Mexico and then to Chile, from where he commuted to Kazakhstan. True story. Barb, meantime, is an award-winning soil scientist.  Little wonder that John waxed rhapsodic about a head-spinning array of topics when he guided me and my friend across the property: the misconceptions of organic farming (“The truth lies somewhere in the middle—it’s not just about organic farming, but also using good genetics.”); grape breeding (“My job is to kill them. If I can’t kill them, they’re pretty hardy. It’s old-fashioned breeding. We’re just guessing.”); the start of their floral business (Barb got 30,000 daffodil bulbs at an auction. They grow about 12,000 lilies annually and hold a Lily Festival each July to celebrate. Peonies are their biggest crop today.); and haskap berries, a tart pod that looks like a cross between a blueberry and a tiny sugar snap pea and tastes like the platonic ideal balance of sour and sweet. (They’re made from two flowers blooming on both ends and they can take a frost of minus-8 degrees.) And so on.  Veteran farmers John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote, blend traditional and progressive farming methods on their 80-acre Black Fox Farm, where they grow about 90% of the ingredients they use to make gin, liqueur, and whiskey in their distillery. All that farming has led up to the couple’s newest endeavor: Black Fox Farm Distillery. Nearly 90% of the ingredients they use in their three gins and various liqueurs are grown on the property. “Anything edible is likely to be pickled and used in a gin recipe,” John told me, ticking off calendula flower, rhubarb, to name a few. One of the gins he produces, the lightly aged Oaked Gin Barrel Two, won top honors at the 2017 World Gin Awards. I picked up a bottle of it as well as a bottle of Saskatoon berry and wildflower honey liqueur and a jar of unpasteurized, unfiltered honey. I couldn't wait to get it home and share it with my friends. It was the least I could do to spread Saskatoon's bounty around. 

Inspiration

Book a Great Hotel Deal Right Here at BudgetTravel.com

Where are you going this fall? At Budget Travel, we’re all about inspiring you to “see more for less” and to discover great new affordable destinations. Now, we’re upping our game: Our new “Book a Hotel” page allows you to book great hotel deals through our partners at Booking.com. I took our new “Book a Hotel” page or a spin, planning some fall travel for me and my family. Some highlights include: Select a Destination and Travel Dates. On the left of the page, type the name of the destination you’re thinking of visiting. The Booking.com database will almost certainly recognize even the most far-flung places (I tried to play “stump the database” with some islands in the South Pacific, and it recognized every place I could think of, including tiny Cooke City, MT, a cool small town with a population under 100). With leaf-peeping season coming soon, I searched for hotels in Bennington, Vermont, one of Budget Travel’s “51 Best Budget Destinations in America.” Get Inspired. Even if you’re not sure where you’re going next, our “Book a Hotel” page can help you make up your mind, with recommended destinations along the right-hand side of the booking tool. The more you use the tool, the better the page will get at making appropriate suggestions for you. In my case, it has already figured out that I’m interested in family-friendly weekend escapes in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Review Available Lodgings. Hit "Search" and a list of available lodgings appears within a second or two, and, using a menu at the top of the listings, you can order the lodgings by price (low to high is what most of us Budget Travelers prefer), or starting with "top picks," which are frequently booked and/or highly recommended properties (an especially good idea the farther your destination is from your cultural or geographical comfort zone). When I searched hotels in Bennington, Vermont, I was pleased to find rates in early October starting as low as $85. Get Picky. Using a menu to the lower left of the hotel listings, you can get a bit choosy, filtering using criteria such as price range, breakfast included, free Wi-Fi, and even kitchen facilities. For my leaf-peeping search, I filtered for breakfast included and free Wi-Fi (because my trip will be in October, I didn’t filter for “swimming pool,” but it’s nice to know I can do that for summer travel): I was psyched that, post-filtering, my $85 deal was still available. Read Customer Reviews (and the Fine Print). Your lodgings list will give preference to properties that have received good reviews, but you can dive into the world of customer reviews if you’re curious about details. As I started to read the (glowing) reviews, the fine print about check-in and check-out, and some additional helpful info about nearby landmarks, I realized that the $85/night hotel in Vermont was actually a property I’d already taken my family to a few years back - and we’d thoroughly enjoyed the place. That was an unexpected, and welcome, confirmation that our new booking tool was steering me in the right direction! Reserve It. Selecting a room and making a reservation takes just a minute or two, and you don’t have to share credit card information or set up an account, just your name and email address. I found the experience inspiring and refreshingly easy. Ready to explore some affordable fall travel ideas? You’ll find a “Book a Hotel” button on the upper-right corner of the BudgetTravel.com homepage. Or just CLICK HERE.

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