I spent a good portion of the mid-eighties in DeKalb, wandering aimlessly around the campus of Northern Illinois University. I had a lot of good friends, and I have had a chance to catch up with many of them through the marvel of the internet known as Facebook. As I have reconnected with various people from my old college days, I once again find that many of those memories seem to be connected to food. They include picnics and parties, The Cornball, and our first Thanksgiving dinner at Laura and Patty’s place. And of course, as with most college campuses, there were the various restaurants and bars that became our hangouts and meeting spots.
Being a Theatre Major, my home base on campus was the Stevens Building, and more importantly, the smelly old couches by the call board. This was also the backstage area for our main theatre, O’Connell. At almost any time of the day, students and sometime faculty could be found here talking or resting or studying. And almost certainly smoking. Although I myself am not a smoker, it would seem very strange to me to return to that spot now that smoking is no longer allowed inside the building. It was just a part of the ambiance of the call board. I guess back in those days, I was too dumb to realize my lungs needed saving.
Out the back door of the Stevens Building was a small parking lot which then led to a strip mall and our main source of food on most days. There was a McDonald’s on one side, but at least for me, it was not a place I would visit very often, mostly only when they were having a fifty cent cheeseburger sale. There were other fast food restaurants in the area, a Burger King and a Pizza Hut, but these types of establishments really lend nothing special to any area. It is the smaller local favorites that truly defined our eating habits. Our first choice if you were in a hurry and had to get back to class was a small hotdog stand called PJ’s Red Hots. It was much smaller than Tom and Jerry’s, the competition further down Lincoln Highway, but in my opinion, they had the better fries. Simply cut from whole potatoes and deep fried with the skin still intact. And for a little extra a glob of cheese or chili or both could be piled on top. PJ’s served the basic Chicago Style hotdogs and burgers. It is also where I first fell in love with that deep fried pastry known to many as the pizza puff. It has absolutely no redeeming dietary value, but come on, cheese and sausage and pizza sauce all wrapped up in a crispy crust that was soaked in scalding oil for two minutes, what on earth could be wrong with that? That is unless you bit into it too quickly and burnt the roof of your mouth.
A few doors down, if you had more time and felt like a deli sandwich or some good soup, there was The Dill Pickle. Considering that they actually named themselves after a pickle, I always thought they should have the best pickles, but they were really only ok at best. What they did have was some very good pastrami, and the best potato salad that ever came in a small condiment cup. Unfortunately, they were usually too expensive for my college budget, and the extra dark interior did not make it a good place to study. Study sessions were reserved for The Junction.
The official name was The Junction Eating Place, and since the idea of a coffee house had not quite caught on yet back in 1984 to 1987, it was the closest thing we had to a Central Perk. As the name would indicate, the theme of the restaurant was a train depot, and there was an actual working model train that ran around the restaurant close to the ceiling. We almost always met at The Junction in a group, so the little Greek owner would mostly sit us in the back. Our favorite corner was one of those half booths where those who sat against the wall sat on an orange pleather bench, and those in front of the table got chairs. I myself preferred the very corner of the bench where I could rest against the wall and put a foot up if no-one was sitting right next to me. But the Junction was not just a student hang out. I actually had a class one semester that met at the Junction. It was a playwriting class, and we would all sit around drinking coffee, eating giant cinnamon rolls, and reading our scripts. Many years later, I stopped at the Junction with my daughter Stephanie, who at that time could only have been four or five years old, and to my surprise, the little old Greek man at the counter recognized me. He offered to sit me in the back like the old days, but since it was just the two of us, we opted to be sat in one of the booths by the front windows. That way we had a great view of the Pizza Villa across the parking lot.
There are really just two words needed to describe The Pizza Villa. Beer Nuggets. Anyone who spent any time as a student at NIU just had a flashback to a late night munchies fest. Anyone who has never been to DeKalb just thought “Huh?” Beer Nuggets were originally made from left over pizza dough. It would be chopped up into rectangular cubes or nuggets, and then they were deep fried. That’s it. Deep fried pizza dough. The proper way to eat them was with a side of sauce. I enjoyed rolling them in parmesan cheese after they had been adequately dipped. At two in the morning, the best way to eat them was as quickly as possible. Pizza Villa cornered the market on late night munching with these little balls of deep fried dough. They had a fleet of trucks that could be seen weaving in and around campus, and besides delivering pizza, they also carried extra bags of Beer Nuggets. All you had to do was flag down a truck and present the driver with whatever crumpled up bills were still left in your pocket, and you had an instant late night snack.
For the more adventurous late night eater, there was one final stop that could be taken, but only the most fool hardy all-nighters would ever survive to actually see a visit to Dot’s. Just off the corner of Lincoln Highway and 1st Street, almost undetected by most passer-by, there was a small little restaurant that almost never seemed to be open. Its tiny green awning and window simply said “Dot’s”. The story as I heard it was that Dot’s late husband was a truck driver, and he would often have to make overnight hauls. When he would return in the morning Dot would get up early and make him breakfast. Over the years, this habit became a business, and Dot’s grew into a popular stop for overnight truckers and early morning delivery people. This is why the restaurant would open at 4 am, and then be closed before most inhabitants were even aware it had opened. Dot was a slight woman with short platinum blond hair. She was the cook and did not seem to ever come out from behind the counter. In front of the counter serving the food was a chunkier woman with dark hair and the standard waitress outfit like you would see Flo wear on Alice. I don’t recall her name, but I want to say it was Velma or Thelma or something like that. Or I might just be stretching it a bit in my memory because it seems like that’s what her name should have been. There was really no reason for a menu in Dot’s since the only thing she served was the Special. Two eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausage links and hash browns, all cooked in its own slab of butter. The coffee was awful but hot, and the food was greasy and good. Or as good as one can remember considering it was four in the morning.
I have to be honest and say that I probably only made it to Dot’s twice during my years at NIU. It always seemed like a good idea, but since my basement apartment was only a few blocks away on the curve of College Avenue and Linden Place, see it wasn’t really a corner, the two streets just sort of forked off each other, my apartment was often the meeting ground from where we would wait until Dot’s would open at 4. Most nights we didn’t make it, and I would wake up the next day with a floor full of people and an empty stomach. Dot’s closed down a few years later and got swallowed up by the mega bar next door called Otto’s. Dot passed away and it would seem a piece of history passed with her. But her story lives on in part because of people like me and my old college friends who also made it once or twice to the little place simply known as Dot’s. And because someone in DeKalb had the right idea to name the little ally that runs behind the building where Dot’s restaurant was once located. Go ahead and MapQuest it now.
It’s called Dot’s Way.