On our way into the Jolly Pumpkin Café & Brewery in East Lansing for a weekday lunch date, I told Mr. She Ate a story from my childhood. Most Sundays were spent attending mass and having coffee and donuts at St. John Catholic Church & Student Center on M.A.C. Avenue, and my family would always park on the ramp just west of the church. Whenever one of us kids would dare to touch the handrail in the stairway, my mother would immediately admonish us, telling us that “college students pee on those!” I was left wondering who, exactly, these degenerate, free-peeing university students were and why they were spending time terrorizing East Lansing’s parking ramps.
Having just returned from a family vacation to France, which involved plenty of public transportation, I now understand the urge to prevent your children from touching pretty much anything they see. With that in mind, we left the kids at home and enjoyed lunch tête-à-tête. I hadn’t been to any of the Jolly Pumpkin locations throughout the state, and I was extraordinarily interested in the menu, which included so many items that sounded appealing to me.
We dove into lunch with an appetizer order of the Red Chicken Nachos ($14.50). They arrived at our table quickly, and Mr. She Ate immediately went outside to take a phone call, so I made it my mission to eat as many of the pickled red onions as possible. The chips, while appropriately salty, weren’t thick enough to stand up to the volume of toppings. Constructing a perfect nacho bite is an art — you don’t want a mainly barren chip with a smidge of toppings or a smattering of burnt cheese, nor do you want a chip so entirely laden with chicken, beans and cheese that it crumbles before it can reach your mouth. I was so hungry that I threw caution to the wind, attacking the plate with my fork and disregarding the chips entirely.
Two things about me: I love to eat healthily, although I equally love to indulge, and I’m a sucker for marketing. If something is called a “bowl,” a “power bowl” or a “Buddha bowl,” I’m probably going to order it. This occasion was no exception, and I requested the Mediterranean Bowl ($15.50), while Mr. She Ate asked for the Perfect Fried Chicken Sandwich ($15.50) with truffle fries ($2.50).
I have never regretted an order more. When our lunches arrived, I took three bites of my bowl before I pushed my plate away and turned my attention to the fried-chicken situation across the table. The fries were thin, crispy and fragrant with the scent of truffle. I grabbed handfuls of them, dragged them through the accompanying aioli and let them melt in my mouth. I snatched my husband’s sandwich out of his hands, unable to resist the crispy fried chicken covered in bright, beautiful slaw and pickles, and took some of the most humongous bites I’ve ever taken in my life.
During another visit, we ordered dinner to go and sampled the Cobb (hold the olives) and Harvest salads ($14.50). Mr. She Ate inhaled the Cobb and proclaimed it to be highly above average. He loved the bacon buttermilk dressing and oven-roasted tomatoes, and this is coming from a man who resists an entrée salad and never eats fresh tomatoes. I’m happy to have found a satisfying option when we’re looking for a lighter restaurant dinner. My Harvest salad was huge, just like I like it, overflowing with fresh, crisp leafy greens and kale. I’ve never met a beet I didn’t like, and our recent vacation reinvigorated my love for goat cheese in salads, although nothing can hold a candle to a Parisian salade de chèvre chaud.
We all know fries don’t travel well. In the next few weeks, while you can still find parking, get yourself to the Jolly Pumpkin. Order the fried chicken sandwich and the truffle fries. You can probably share them with a friend — or a hungry wife. Just make sure you bring hand sanitizer if you’re parking on the ramp.
The dining scene in East Lansing continues to evolve, both in diversity of cuisine and quality of food options. With recent downtown investments in infrastructure and residential developments came new commercial spaces that have been filled with service, retail and restaurant options. On one hand, some of the new eateries mirror the area’s longstanding favorite fares — new American, Mexican and gastropubs — while on the other hand, some of them are elevating these flavors to new heights.
In addition to the new living and dining spaces, downtown East Lansing has offered the outdoor Albert El Fresco area for the last few summers. Born out of the pandemic’s indoor capacity requirements, the pedestrian space provides rocking chairs, games, hammocks and outdoor lighting. Albert El Fresco shuts down a portion of Albert Avenue and entices visitors with programming like live performances and group yoga. These are welcome recreational opportunities for all ages, and I have observed diverse crowds during my outings there.
Nestled in the middle of this space is the Jolly Pumpkin Café & Brewery, an offshoot of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. Founded in 2004, the Dexter-based craft brewery has been fermenting tasty and bold beverages for nearly 20 years, and in 2009, it opened its first restaurant in Traverse City. A second opened in 2009 in Ann Arbor, and there are now seven total locations across the state, known for envelope-pushing dishes and elevated flavors. The restaurants have come to be celebrated for their pizzas and their magnification of traditional American dishes.
The East Lansing location takes advantage of the extended sidewalk and increased foot traffic from the El Fresco action with its own outdoor seating that allows guests to enjoy beers and cocktails within a roped-off area. Each time I visited, diners and drinkers alike partook in the highlights of summer: sun, fresh air and people-watching. The restaurant itself has a large footprint, able to accommodate both intimate and large groups, and an under-construction second-floor spirits bar plans to accompany the main bar, which serves more than 20 Jolly Pumpkin and North Peak brews on tap.
What should have been better
Sometimes, when good restaurants franchise out, attention to detail and quality standards can dip. As I already mentioned, Jolly Pumpkin’s reputation for granite-baked pizza is strong. However, on my first visit, the Popeye pizza with smoked chicken ($20) was lackluster at best. The chicken was the sole source of flavor. Who would’ve thought spinach, shaved garlic, preserved lemon, extra-virgin olive oil, Parmesan and fresh mozzarella could produce such a bland, lifeless combination? I can’t imagine ordering this pizza without a protein add-on. It was disappointing, to say the least.
Also missing the mark was the Seared Sesame Tuna ($16.75). A few of the Thai-sauced bites were absolutely delicious, but the unevenness in the compilation of the dish was bizarre. Some pieces of tuna were seared appropriately, but others were way overdone. Some of the garlic-Parmesan crostini were too soft, and other pieces were hard as a rock. Some of the Asian-inspired bruschetta bites were draped in cilantro, but others had none. The kitchen could stand to keep a keener eye on consistency.
What’s really good
My love for burgers is well documented at this point, and I have a new fondness for Jolly Pumpkin’s Lamb Burger ($18). Spiced with cumin and topped with garlicky spinach, a fried egg and roasted-onion aioli, this handheld was juicy, flavorful and filling. I loved the runny yolk combined with the spinach, aioli and the crusty bark of the grilled lamb patty. It was a delightful mess and required multiple napkins.
The side of truffle fries ($2.50) came with a choice of sauce. I tried both the smoky aioli and the bright turmeric aioli, and each was wonderful.
Another strong dish was the Candied Brussels Sprouts ($12.50) with bacon and Parmesan. Bathed in a sweet and spicy honey sauce, the sprouts were crisped well, while the tangy but sweet flavor profile struck a balanced chord.
One of the restaurant’s summer specials is a slamming BBQ Salad ($16). A still-steaming smoked chicken breast arrived atop a bed of romaine, surrounded by corn, peppers and red onion. I was enamored with the pairing of barbecue sauce and jalapeño ranch dressing, which may seem odd, but I promise it worked. A final lovely touch was found in the cornmeal-breaded onion straws, which provided a perfect crunch in every bite.
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