Though she’s a native of Taiwan and has lived everywhere from Russia to North Dakota, today’s post from Shu-Huei Henrickson runs a little closer to home with an ode to an Illinois neighborhood favorite.
Mike Leifheit holds my dream job.
I tell people if I had another life, I’d be a chef and restaurant owner. Plus, I love food so much that I love to write about food. Mike, owner of the Irish Rose Saloon in Rockford, IL, and former columnist for the Rock River Times, proves to be an expert at both.
Mike and I chatted for a little over an hour one cloudy Friday afternoon before the dinner crowd started to pour into the restaurant. A Scotch in hand, Mike relaxed into a restaurant chair. As he listened to a question, Mike perked his ears and his brows moved in closer to each other. When he laughed, it was a widening of his lips and pinching of his eyes, giving him a shy, boyish look.
According to Mike, the Irish Rose has been around for 20 years, not counting the nine years during which it was part of the Old Rock River Café and Deli in Rockford. But Mike’s history with the restaurant business went all the way back to Gill’s Diner in Loves Park, IL, when he was 16.
At Gill’s, Mike found out making eggs over easy and flipping hamburgers came naturally. Since then, his long relationship with food included working in New York as a marketing analyst for Coca Cola and being influenced by Alice Waters‘ fresh food movement while living in California. (By coincidence, Mike’s mother’s name happens to be Alice Waters as well.)
If he has to sum up his philosophy, it’s “fresh always” and “organic as much as possible.” The only items shipped to the Irish Rose are coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol. “I hand-pick everything else,” Mike added. Mike goes to various Chicago markets twice a week to bring back supplies. “I like to personally inspect the quality of food I’m buying,” Mike explained, “and to do that I need to get as close as possible to the source.”
“You should tag along on one of our market days,” Mike suggested, “You would get a kick out of it.”
Of course I will. How can I turn down such a generous offer? I am Asian, and grew up shopping at traditional markets where you see the whole animal: head, guts, bones, blood. Most Asians prefer their seafood alive before they bring it home. I’m still somewhat confused by the “caskets” used in supermarkets to display meat. How would I know how old the meat is when it sits so prettily in the casket? My idea of fun is to take my time with almost every produce item, to sniff the berries, to thumb the peach fuzz, to fondle the shiny skin of colored peppers.
Mike is the kind of man I’d like to chat with all afternoon and evening about everything—politics, travels, education, music, writing (after all, Mike is a seasoned writer)—not just about food. By now, however, it was past 5:00 pm. The restaurant was getting busy. My dinner companions, husband D and 12-year-old GG, were getting hungry.
“Try fish,” Mike said, “Got them from Chicago yesterday. Super fresh. Highly recommended.”
GG loves lamb, so he would have lamb chops cooked pink. D wanted to try the filet mignon after Mike said that they only serve it one way at the Irish Rose—medium rare. Salmon, the special of the day, was a must-order after the ringing endorsement from Mike.
The lamb chops were juicy, tender, and not overly seasoned. D’s filet mignon, as Mike promised, was medium rare and beautifully presented with a red wine reduction. In keeping with Mike’s down-to-earth, unpretentious philosophy, he prefers food to be on the plate, rather than piled high into a tower (or, into a “food erection,” as he jokingly described it). Presentation, though important, is secondary to quality and taste.
I’m the kind of person who brings my own takeout box whenever I go out to eat. I kept telling myself not to finish all of my salmon dinner, but I couldn’t stop eating. I had asked for the salmon to be simply grilled without any sauce—I wanted to taste the original freshness. It was fresh. No freezer taste. People who work with fish a lot know that it’s tricky to get fish done right. Give it just a tiny little bit more time, and it gets too dry. Not my piece of salmon; it was grilled to perfection.
As we were leaving, Mike was circulating among the tables. From the way he leaned into the table as he bantered with his customers, it was clear this man loves his job. But since I can’t take it away from him, I shall content myself with writing about Mike and the Irish Rose. And as soon as the semester is over, I’m tagging along to the Chicago markets.
Irish Rose Saloon, 519 E. State St. Rockford, IL. 815-964-0480.
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