Sometimes food just sneaks up and surprises you.
It can happen at any time, at any kind of place, and it can be bad or good.
At Curlys Village Inn on Bluffton Road, the surprise was good. The kind of good that makes you take note and not only hope to go back but plan to.
There was little doubt I was going to like the folksy, from-another-era tavern given how nice the folks there and their patrons were. It has been operated by Mary Armstrong and her family, including manager son Dave Brown, since 1942. Its dated furniture, array of old beer signs and drink decanters and especially its unique sunken bar were just quirky enough to make it retro and cool.
But the onions rings – oh, those onion rings – firmly stamped my seal of approval.
As she took my menu and headed to the kitchen, I sought my waitresss approval of choosing rings over fries.
Yeah, you will like them. They are the best in town, she said.
And they were. I have been asked a few times who has the best onion rings and always struggled to answer. Not anymore.
The rings were big, thick and coated in a crunchy, gritty breading that had a little cornmeal in it. There wasnt a drop of grease on them and the onion inside the breading was sweet and still just a little toothsome. Noticing how much my party was enjoying them, our waitress admitted she was jealous she couldnt have them more often because they are so good.
I just cant bring myself to eat them and then go talk to customers, she said, referring to the inevitable onion breath that comes with them.
Bad breath be damned, I say, because these rings were too good to pass up.
Although tasty fried treats seem apropos at a watering hole like Curlys, I was expecting a boring house salad with just iceberg, maybe a little cheese and a cucumber because that is usually par for the course at places like this. But Curlys is not a normal place and its salad was phenomenal. Fresh spinach and a diverse blend of greens were tossed with sliced mushrooms, chopped walnuts, boiled egg, cheese and bacon with a wonderful house-made, creamy Dijon dressing.
A couple of other deep-fried items coated in Curlys great breading, which is used on everything, also won approval.
If it works we stick with it, Brown said.
The pork tenderloin was a cut above the norm with a meaty, surprisingly tender slice of pork that covered most of the plate. The fish and chips featured two moist pieces of Pollock with a creamy, sweet house-made tartar sauce. And the button mushrooms were halved before being fried just like the rings, and they, too, ranked with some of the better ones I have had in Fort Wayne taverns.
In good tavern fashion, there were some cool drink specials at Curlys. During my first visit, a friendly bartender suggested I try a Köstritzer Schwarzbier, a beer brewed near Fort Waynes German sister city of Gera. And I was glad he did because I enjoyed the dark, almost black, brew with its strong malt notes tempered by its subtle sweet caramel finish.
During another visit, Tiki drinks were featured. I had the Pirate Killer – spiced rum, sweet and sour, grenadine and pineapple juice – which was served in a kitschy old stemmed glass that I can only guess was produced in 1970s. I enjoyed it even more when I heard the fitting Piña Colada Song playing on the house music system not long after it was served.
I also got a kick out of the fact that a little later during that same visit, Cheeseburger in Paradise was playing when my cheeseburger arrived. The burger had a smallish patty that was at least seared until a little crisp. I paid a little extra to have mine made deluxe with lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise and enjoyed it.
Everything at Curlys Village Inn was enjoyable, and I had a fun time. It is a comfortable place that seems to make everyone feel welcome, and I would go there again to have a couple of drinks after work for sure.
But I will be sure to bring some breath mints because I will definitely be having the onion rings.
Restaurant: Curlys Village Inn
Address: 4205 Bluffton Road
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Kid-friendly: 21-and-over only
Menu: House salad ($3.50), onion rings and mushrooms ($2.50), tenderloin ($3.50), fish and chips ($5.50), cheeseburger ($3.50; $4.50 deluxe)
* 1/2 (3-star maximum);
atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).