I don’t usually go in for follow-ups and sequels. Blues Brothers 2000? Sacrilege. The Star Wars prequels? I stopped after Episode One. The Datsuns’ Outta Sight, Outta Mind? Nowhere as invigorating as the band’s debut album. That said, when I was given a chance to relive a weekend spent out on the road, visiting baseball stadiums, salivating over freshly baked apple pies, and downing a hot dog (or several), I was willing to make an exception.
A brief recap: two years ago, I was facing a three-day Memorial Day weekend with no real plans or commitments. I also found a bright red 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS convertible sitting in Automobile Magazine‘s parking garage. A light bulb went off in my head. If this is America’s weekend, why not spend it enjoying baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet? After all, those elements were what Campbell-Ewald suggested made America great during a famed ad campaign launched in 1974.
Decades later, Chevy still regularly references that very ad, most recently as part of its “Chevy Runs Deep” campaign, which again tried to stir up nostalgic memories of vintage Chevrolets. If Chevy can revisit that idea, we can too — but with a twist. Although we would have loved to crisscross the Midwest in the new Corvette Stingray, a muscle-bound 2014 SS, or the redesigned Silverado, one new addition to Chevrolet’s lineup seemed ideal for our trip: the 2014 Cruze Diesel.
As we’ve previously reported, the Cruze Diesel is virtually identical to the Cruze 2LT with the exception of what’s nestled between the front fenders. Power comes from a 2.0-liter turbo-diesel I-4 designed and supplied by GM of Europe. Its 151 horsepower and 264 lb-ft of torque aren’t big news, but its fuel economy figures are. The EPA rates the car at 27 mpg in the city, 46 mpg on the highway, and 33 mpg combined, besting every other Cruze variant sold here. Just because we’re aiming to be gluttonous doesn’t mean our road trip vehicle has to be.
DAY 1 — JUNE 7, FRIDAY: DETROIT
Once again, our journey starts in the Motor City when I pick up the Cruze Diesel from our offices in Ann Arbor. There’s little to indicate it’s a diesel; its lone badge modestly bills the car as a “2.0 TD,” not a diesel. Crank it over, however, and the diesel identity is immediately apparent. The engine clatters away nosily even at idle, although the din is far less apparent inside the cabin. I venture across town to pick up photographer Ian Merritt, who just rode in from Chicago on Amtrak’s Blue Water. I toss his luggage and camera case into the Cruze’s trunk, something that would have been much more difficult with the Camaro’s constricted aperture. I didn’t know if a guy who regularly shoots exotic and luxury cars would be excited by a weekend filled with sports, junk food, and driving a compact car, but my doubts are quickly eliminated — minutes into our trek, he’s already coined a bespoke Twitter tag for our trip (#ballparkspietubularmeat ) and is eagerly talking up our food stops. No surprise, really, given the fare on Amtrak’s overpriced café car.
The Tigers’ home game against the Cleveland Indians isn’t until 7 pm, but we waste little time heading for downtown Detroit in search of a proper lunch stop. One regret I hold from my last trip is that I never managed to squeeze into Lafayette Coney Island. I mean that literally — even hours after a Tigers game, the tiny restaurant was packed with baseball fans looking for a meal after the final inning. I ended up next door at the larger American Coney Island, which offered immediate seating and no wait — but I wondered what I missed.
Crowds aren’t a problem at Lafayette this time around, as we slide into a booth around 2 pm, well after the lunch crowd. We order up a pair of Coneys and a plate of chili cheese fries; our waiter quickly shouts the order to the kitchen staff located just over my shoulder. The food arrives almost instantly, and we quickly find ourselves in Coney heaven. Interestingly, Lafayette’s dogs are no longer drastically different from American’s, but its chili is a little more flavorful than next door. We’re both blown away by the chili cheese fries: the potatoes are perfectly crisp, and the shredded cheddar on top is beautifully melted. We wholeheartedly approve; our arteries, however, aren’t as amused.
From there, we head south to find dessert. We’ve heard rumblings of a good pie place just north of the Michigan border — Kate’s Kitchen in Flat Rock — but we cross over into Ohio. Sacrilege, maybe, but Schmucker’s Restaurant in Toledo (a city that was once briefly considered Michigan territory) is worth it. I stumbled upon this little diner last year, and haven’t forgotten it. How could I? The place offers a full menu, but with more than twelve types of pie baked fresh daily and proudly placed in a display case at the front of the restaurant, it’s hard not to skip straight to dessert. I stare at the vanilla ice cream vapors rising off my warmed slice of Dutch apple while Merritt nearly faints from the sugar rush provided by his mountainous piece of chocolate peanut butter pie.
How we escaped slipping into diabetic comas is beyond us, but we make the hour-long drive north to Detroit in time to ease into our seats at Comerica Park. Our upper club seats hardly feel like nosebleeds; in fact, our position over home plate affords both a good view of the game and of the Detroit cityscape. Tigers pitching ace Justin Verlander has a solid start, while Victor Martinez, Brayan Pena, and Ramon Santiago cross home plate in the second inning. Avasail Garcia and Andy Dirks score in the fourth. The Indians gain momentum in the fifth inning, driving in three runs. The Tigers enter the eighth inning up four runs, but controversial closing pitcher Jose Valverde — who was released by the team after a subpar 2012 season but brought back earlier this season in a desperate attempt to find a decent closer — doesn’t find those margins wide enough for comfort. Cleveland squeaks in two runs in the top of the ninth before Indians first baseman Nick Swisher grounds out to end the game. Tigers win, 7-5.
We leave quickly afterwards, and hit the road towards our layover in Kalamazoo. Valverde, on the other hand, is sent down to the Tiger’s minor league team — in Toledo, ironically — two weeks later.
DAY 2: SATURDAY, JUNE 8 – MILWAUKEE, WITH A DAB OF CHICAGO
My original goals were clear: have a hot dog, slice of pie, and a baseball game in each city on each day. But I’m forced to bend slightly in the name of amazing hot dogs. Although we were spending most our time Saturday in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we stopped in Chicago on our way — and for good reason.
Hot Doug’s, located in the Avondale neighborhood, is the stuff of foodie legend. Featured in virtually every food TV show and publication you can name, it combines old standards (Chicago-style hot dogs, Andouille sausage, etc.) with gourmet ingredients (foie gras, anyone?) and some exotic meat choices. Don’t be surprised to see venison, alligator, or even buffalo on the menu. It’s clearly the stuff that hot dog dreams are made of. And it’s not open on Sunday, when I’ve scheduled our other Chicagoland activities.
No matter. We pop in early Saturday, shortly after the restaurant opens at 10 am. There’s already a line around the block, but the wait is welcome; I’m stuck between at least six menu choices, and cannot make up my mind. By the time we finally approach owner Doug Sohn behind the counter, I have my order ready: a chicken Cordon Bleu dog (chicken sausage, asiago cheese, and fried prosciutto) and a Luganega sausage topped with garlic pesto aioli, slow roasted tomato slices, and a generous heaping of burrata cheese. Merritt orders up a portabella mushroom and Swiss cheese pork sausage that’s topped with smoke blue cheese and sage mustard, along with a red wine and demi glace venison sausage buried beneath Mufaletta mustard, Pate de Campagne, and goat cheese.
Oh, and an order of French fries cooked in duck fat, for good measure.
If that sounds overwhelming, imagine trying to eat it all. Two bites into the Cordon Bleu dog, and two things are apparent: Doug’s team doesn’t skimp on the toppings, and they also don’t skimp on the tubular meat — the dogs are large and dense. By the time I’ve finished the cordon bleu, I’m stuffed. I’m only able to get through about half the Luganega before waving the white flag. I’m done eating for the time being, but the Cruze is finally feeling a little thirsty. Its first fill-up comes after 530 miles on the road, and we need to put only 12.9 gallons in the 15.6-gallon tank. Despite averaging about 80 mph on the freeways, we’re getting 40.9 mpg thus far. That’s pretty impressive.
My stomach is starting to quiet down by the time we reached Milwaukee, and after we spend a few hours roaming around the city and photographing the Cruze, it’s even starting to feel a bit hungry. We head to the city’s Bay View district, located south of the downtown area, and stop by the Honey Pie Cafe. In addition to lunch and dinner entrees, the joint serves up a wide variety of fresh desserts, but true to its name, there are always a handful of pies to choose from. I order a slice of apple walnut and Merritt picks out a slice of millionaire’s pie. While our server runs to the kitchen, we observe others eating what appear to be giant-sized dinner portions, and cast each other worried glances. Sure enough, our pie slices are incredibly large. My slice looks much like a crumb top pie, but has flakes and chunks of walnut mixed in with the sugars and spices. The apples are tarter than the saccharine-sweet pie I had at Schmucker’s the day before, but it’s a refreshing change; it also pairs well with the walnuts’ flavor.
We make our way to Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, with a couple hours to spare, fearing we’d be twiddling our thumbs until the game began. We shouldn’t have worried. As soon as we pull into the parking lot, it’s as if we somehow teleported to Green Bay. Tailgating, it seems, isn’t just a football tradition; in Milwaukee, it’s also tied to MLB games, and is a social event in its own right. The parking lot is flooded with people grilling hot dogs (what else?) and brats, downing a brewski (or six), playing cornhole, and having a grand time, possibly unaware there’s a baseball game taking place across the lot.
But there is. As tonight’s game pays tribute to Hispanics in Major League Baseball, the team’s jerseys replace the Brewers script with “Cerverceros.” Clever. The Brewers — I mean Cerverceros — allow the Phillies to take a one run lead in the top of the second before tying the game later that inning. After loading the bases in the bottom of the sixth, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez score, then a single from Braun in the seventh allows Jean Segura to reach home plate. The Phillies threaten again with two runs in the eighth, but Francisco Rodriguez replaces Brandon Kintzler on the mound and walks away with the save. Cerverceros barely win, 4-3.
We don’t leave the park until well after 10:30, by which time we’re munchy enough to seek out a late-night hot dog. Luckily, The Dogg Haus, tucked in the city’s lower east side, is just the ticket. Conveniently located near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a slew of vibrant watering holes, the Haus likely makes its keep catering to non-sober clientele, but that doesn’t mean we need to be sloshed to enjoy their fare. All dogs on the menu start with a Vienna Beef frank and get creative from there. Merritt’s Wisconsin dog is buried beneath three types of cheese, while my Rome dog hides the frank beneath a pile of seasoned Italian beef and thermonuclear giardiniera. Even completely sober, the food hits the spot, and we call it a night shortly thereafter.
DAY 3: SUNDAY, JUNE 9 – BACK INTO CHICAGO
I stumble out of bed in the morning, roused by an unhappy stomach. I’m unsure if I want to consider eating anything heavier than saltine crackers today, but the story must go on. We pack our bags and point the Cruze Diesel south, in the direction of the Windy City.
Like we did in Milwaukee, we opt to lead with dessert, and seek out Hoosier Mama Pies, an unassuming little shop in the Ukranian Village district. Squeezed between stores and devoid of any large, boastful signage, first-time visitors are apt to drive right past it, as we did. Twice.
Hoosier Mama prides itself on its old-time, country-style approach. And indeed, standing in line to place my order, I feel as if I’m in a farmhouse kitchen somewhere near Terre Haute, not in a modern bakery. There’s little room for more than a half-dozen eat-in customers, so I quickly order a slice of apple pie, a glass of milk, and take a seat at a small table near the front door.
After two days of outstanding pie, I’m not expecting to be blown away by anything but I couldn’t have been more wrong. More than anything, Hoosier Mama’s pie envelops you in a cinnamon-rich embrace, and doesn’t want to let go. Merritt says his slice of pie, a cream-laden concoction of some sort, is also amazing, but I can’t pay much attention to what he’s saying — I’ve already reached pie-vana.
Despite our previous day’s Hot Doug’s visit, we were not done sampling hot dogs in Chicago. “Oh, we have to do Superdawg,” Merritt insists, and I have no objection. Sure, it may just be a drive-in fast-food joint, but ever since I fought my way through a snowstorm to make my first visit several years ago, I’ve been hooked. The combination of unique atmosphere (which hasn’t changed much since Superdawg’s inception in 1948) and incredibly tasty food makes it hard to beat. We both go with a Superdawg itself — a proper Chicago-style hot dog (all-beef frank with pickle, neon relish, onion, and hot peppers) placed in a box and hidden beneath crinkle-cut fries. It’s an old tradition, but it’s amazing every time I visit.
Speaking of old traditions, it’s time to head to Wrigley Field to catch the afternoon Cubs game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Wrigley is by far the oldest stadium on this tour, and it’s also the oldest stadium I’ve ever been to. Time advances slowly here: there’s a live organist, for starters, and even the scoreboard is operated by hand (although a new high-definition electronic board will replace it in time for the 2014 season). The building is a bit grimy thanks to nearly a century’s worth of use, but it’s not the cesspool Cubs haters will have you believe. The atmosphere created by a charismatic building and an equally charismatic (and sizable) audience is unlike any other in the Midwest.
The game is fairly evenly matched for the first three innings. No runs are scored until the top of the fourth, when the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen doubles and is then driven home by a single hit by Garret Jones. The Cubs finally get a run of their own in the bottom of the sixth inning, then come alive in the seventh when Cody Ransom hits a home run, allowing Julio Borbon and Darwin Barney to round the bases and score. Those three runs were enough to earn the Cubs a 4-1 win, and their lone victory in a three-game series against Pittsburgh.
Merritt says goodbye, catches an L-train home, and I fight post-game traffic before finally making my way to the Skyway and then back home to Michigan. I get in just before midnight, and make my second and final fuel stop of the day. After 508.5 miles, the Cruze Diesel takes on another 12.8 gallons of diesel. Mileage this time works out to 39.7 mpg, a mild decrease I blame mostly on stop-and-go driving. On the bright side, it’s still far better than the EPA’s combined rating of 33 mpg. And for an even shinier silver lining, we averaged 40.3 mpg for our entire trip.
I enjoyed finding new and amazing places for pie and hot dogs in two of my favorite cities, but I also came away from this trip impressed with the Cruze Diesel. Is it as entertaining to drive as the Camaro SS? Heavens, no — I would have loved to soak up the sun on Lake Shore Drive with the top down — but it proved a composed and comfortable travel companion.
And there’s also the matter of the fuel economy. It’s an apple to oranges comparison, certainly, but we drove 305 miles further with the Cruze than I did with the Camaro two years ago, but used only 25.8 gallons of fuel. The Camaro, on the other hand, drank 37.6 gallons of premium gasoline. Had we used the Camaro SS this time around and gotten the same 19 mpg average as last time, we would have consumed close to 37 gallons of gas, and spent nearly $212 filling up — $100 more than we spent to fuel the Cruze Diesel.
Perhaps you may not have room left for another $100 worth of pie or frankfurters, but that money would easily buy a seat or two at any of the games we attended, and that’s entertaining in its own right. Play ball.
TRIP LENGTH: 3 Days
DISTANCE TRAVELED: 1040.8 miles
GALLONS OF FUEL CONSUMED: 25.8
HOT DOGS/ SAUSAGES CONSUMED: 11
SLICES OF PIE CONSUMED: 6
ANTACID TABLETS CONSUMED: 4
NUMBER OF GAMES: 3
NUMBER OF HOME TEAM VICTORIES: 3
AVERAGE MPG: 40.3 mpg
TOTAL FUEL COST: $105.74
CRUZE DIESEL BASE PRICE: $25,695
CRUZE DIESEL PRICE AS TESTED: $26,595
TOTAL GAME TICKET COST: $347.90
TOTAL FOOD COST: Can you really put a price on culinary happiness?