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By MARK NIXON
Women in East Lansing went braless, MSU students marched to the state Capitol in protest of the Vietnam War and a little joint known as Beggar’s Banquet introduced the world to the Richard Milhouse Nixon Baloney Sandwich.
Ah, the ‘70s. Those were the days, my friend. Things sure have changed. Bras are back, the war is long since over, we don’t have Nixon to kick around any longer.
Yet, Beggar’s endures.
Word on the street was that Beggar’s had lost its mojo. A message written in chalk at Beggar’s’ rear entrance begs to differ. “Beggar’s Can,” it says, as in “Beggars can be choosers.”
I am so happy City Pulse chose Beggar’s for a restaurant review; happier still that its persona remains true to its origins and its sprawling menu provides simple, tasty food in ample portions.
“Gimme Eat” is its credo, a play on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Beggar’s is not just a paean to the Stones but to an era they helped define. There are vestiges of the original menu: chili, London broil and beef stroganoff. And there are add-ons I’m pretty sure never made the 1970s-era Beggar’s menu: Ahi tuna and smoked whitefish pate.
Beggar’s has long been known for its Bloody Mary’s and breakfasts. On one visit, I indulged in both. The Bloody Mary ($6) was rimmed with celery salt, the way I like it, and included a spear of pickled asparagus, olives and a dill pickle spear. Perfect. For breakfast, I chose the Eggs Benedict flight ($12): A traditional Bennie with Canadian bacon, another with richly smoked American bacon and a third with avocado and tomato, each topped with the traditional poached egg and hollandaise sauce.
The only thing I would change next time is to ask for lemon wedges, because I like my hollandaise to be pucker-worthy with lemon.
On the first of three visits, Judy and I dined on smoked whitefish pate ($10), Ahi tuna and a small order of Mac & Cheese ($15 each). This was the best dining experience of our three trips to Beggars. The pate had the requisite smokiness and just a touch of spiced heat at the finish. The tuna came with pickled ginger, marinated cucumber and a robust wasabi paste.
Judy, who has a refined palate for all things Japanese, dove in and rarely came up for air.
Meanwhile, I did my own deep dive on Bob’s Way Mac & Cheese (named after Beggar’s co-founder, Bob Adler.) In addition to three kinds of cheese, this dish comes with bacon and blackened chicken. The latter was tender and juicy, unlike the dry, tasteless blackened chicken I find in many restaurants. This dish compares favorably with the famed Mac & Cheese at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor.
To top things off, this was Wine Wednesday, a staple from the beginning, I am told.
All wines are 50 percent off.
On our final trip to Beggar’s, we shared a baked brie ($15) that was wrapped in a puff pastry and baked. It came with a wedge of green apple carved into the shape of a swan. Beggar’s is not a froufrou kind of place, so the swan is about as froufrou as you’ll find here. In any event, the locally produced brie was baked to perfection.
Next up, we went the traditional route.
Judy ordered the London broil ($18), a staple since the 1970s. This flank steak, a tougher cut of beef, arrived rare as ordered. I chose another Beggar’s staple, Beef Stroganoff ($18). Here, a spirited debate ensued. My beef chunks ranged from chewy to tough. Judy said it’s because it was made with flank steak, just like her London broil. I said I wanted my stroganoff with chunks of beef that have more give and less chew.
We agreed to disagree. I will say that the silken mushroom gravy brought the whole stroganoff together brilliantly, beef notwithstanding.
Between courses, we admired the many posters from Broadway musicals that have appeared over the years at the Wharton Center. It turns out that cast members are regularly drawn to Beggar’s after performances.
I’m of an age when, as Paul Simon sang, “I seem to lean on old, familiar ways.” Beggar’s fits the bill. It proves that people and things can age with ageless grace.
Beggar’s Banquet turned 44 this year, but there’s still a young hippie abiding within.