- Walter Novak
- We told you the food was big.
Mike's Place is less a restaurant than it is a three-dimensional profile of owner Mike Kostensky. Oh sure, the much-modified former Dutch Pantry on the Kent-Brimfield line serves food -- heaping platters of it, along with more than 140 brands of ice-cold beer. But you don't have to be a Gestalt therapist to appreciate the fact that the eatery also serves as an enormous canvas on which Kostensky projects his passions.
It's hard to make it through the front door (where you'll come face to face with the rear end of an Edsel, hollowed out, filled with ice, and pressed into service as a bar for burger toppings) without realizing that Kostensky has a thing for Star Wars, medieval times, and the Cleveland Browns. You mean you didn't notice the full-sized mockup of an X-Wing fighter (property of a certain "Captain Mike Eggwalker") stationed at the entrance? How about the merrily incongruous castle attached to the rear of the building, complete with heraldic banners and a catapult, not accidentally aimed at the nearby Bob Evans? And surely you spotted all the Browns paraphernalia, including the sign proclaiming Mike's to be "The Home of the Portage County Browns Backers"?
But this isn't the extent of Kostensky's mania. The decorative onslaught gains momentum inside. Nearly every square inch of wall and ceiling space is occupied by kitsch and clutter, everything from full-sized Amoco and Marathon signs and vintage soapbox derby cars to rusted license plates, old photos, and a framed copy of "You May Be a Jedi Redneck If . . ." To say Kostensky collects junk is an understatement. Taken as a whole, the decor brings to mind a mutant Cracker Barrel.
As for the menu, it is a multipaged compendium of inside jokes, advertisements for Kostensky's banquet hall in nearby Brimfield, more or less successful attempts at sardonic humor, and -- oh yeah -- food. Kostensky jokes that the kitchen deals in the three major food groups: sugar, salt, and fat. In fact, the eats include everything from the Barnes Barn Bustin' Saladarama (what must be an entire head of shredded iceberg lettuce, topped with bacon, diced Swiss, breaded chicken tenders, tomato slices, a hard-boiled egg, and Hartville Kitchen's thick sweet-and-sour poppyseed dressing) to Ronnie's Godzilla Nachos vs. Mike's Place Megalon Kitchen Sink, a 16-inch pizza pan mounded with tortilla chips, seasoned ground beef, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, tomato, mild pickled pepper rings, cheddar cheese sauce, mozzarella, and sour cream.
And then, there are The Rules, 17 regulations that govern a meal at Mike's Place. They are printed on the menu's back page, just above a paragraph that cautions guests, "If you are a time freak and expecting a fast-food experience, you will not be happy at Mike's." Rule No. 10: Stop stealing our menus and we'll stop keying your car. Rule No. 12: Please refrain from using "The Force" to remove treasured items from our hallowed walls or levitating the X-Wing. And Rule No. 14: We realize the ingredients are similar (water, grains, and yeast), but you may NOT substitute beer for toast.
Given the -- ahem -- personality that shines through all this, as well as the dust bunnies, the littered floors, and restrooms that cry out for a good scrubbing, we didn't have great expectations for a fine meal at Mike's. We should have known better -- that Kostensky, as deeply invested in this project as he obviously is, would deliver the goods. Beyond the huge portions, low prices, and wild abandon with which the kitchen throws together the ingredients, nearly everything we sampled simply tasted good. Those nachos, for instance? Rather than the soggy, grease-laden mess they might have been, they were crisp, light, and full of flavor.
This is not to imply that Mike's is a gourmet's dream. Mashed potatoes, for example, are the instant kind, doctored up with whatever herb or spice the cook du jour gets his hands on. Mushrooms come out of cans. Meats are frozen. Still, salad greens are fresh and crisp, burgers are thick and savory, and homemade biscuits, with the gravity of the Death Star, are tall, warm, and served with real butter.
Because "we don't know when your lazy butt gets out of bed," Mike's dishes up breakfast all day long, and the options are nearly limitless. There's everything from oatmeal to giant grilled sweet rolls, straightforward buttermilk pancakes to madcap combos like the unfortunately named Dump Breakfast -- two eggs atop a mound of hash browns, with ham, peppers, onions, and tomato, topped with mozzarella and served with toast. Corned beef hash is lean, well seasoned, and practically addictive. Omelets are enormous, moist, and thoroughly stuffed with ingredients ranging from gyro meat to broccoli. Big tumblers of good-quality juice are served nice and cold. Double-sized white diner-style mugs brim with fresh, steaming hot coffee.
Sandwiches -- country-fried steak, catfish, gyros, corned beef, knockwurst, grilled ham, and sausage patties, to name a few -- are the size of small torpedoes. A two-fisted Boss's Bacon Cheeseburger Deluxe -- a five-ounce patty topped with lots of meaty, well-drained bacon, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and mayo -- was deliciously messy; a side order of seasoned curly fries was large enough to feed the whole table.
Entrée inspirations come from all over the map, including Italian ravioli, Asian stir-fries, pineapple-topped "Polynesian" chicken breasts, and good ol' American meatloaf. Each entrée is a full-meal deal, served with a cup of homemade soup (thick egg noodles and a rich broth distinguished the chicken noodle soup; vegetable beef soup featured savory little meatballs and a broad selection of canned beans and veggies) and a choice of side dishes, including crunchy hush puppies; crisp, chunky hash browns; and decent teriyaki-glazed stir-fried vegetables. Barbecued meats -- ribs, steaks, pork chops, chicken, and ground beef -- are also good choices, swabbed as they are with a thick, peppery, sweet-and-tangy homemade sauce that has won awards in local burn-offs.
Mike's even serves desserts, although the chances of a guest being hungry after downing one of the massive main courses seem slim, indeed. We did our best with a baked apple dumpling à la mode, a typical grocery-store bakery version with a flabby crust and a filling of hard, undercooked apples. Much better was "That There Strawberry Thang," a satisfying riff on the venerable strawberry shortcake, made with one of Mike's big, warm biscuits, a slather of strawberry preserves, ice cream, and whipped cream -- and plenty big enough to pass around the table.
With its huge portions of homey, inexpensive fare, Mike's makes a welcoming stop for budget-minded KSU students, families with rambunctious kiddies, weary-looking farmers in suspenders and feed-store caps, and pinch-faced academics, who seem to have temporarily abandoned their diets of tofu and bean sprouts to splurge on fried eggs dripping with cheese. Youthful servers are friendly and casual, and the parking lot is large, well lit, and free of charge -- but mind the X-Wing.
Amid all his other interests, Kostensky (a father of four who is running for a seat on Brimfield's board of trustees) also finds time to indulge his inner musician, playing guitar in his recently resurrected American Steal Band, cutting an occasional CD, and hosting local performers like Alex Bevan, Pat Daily, and Blue Taxi in concert on a small stage inside the restaurant's castle. In another galaxy, the boundlessly energetic Kostensky might well have been Northeast Ohio's answer to superstar restaurateurs Richard Melman or Cameron Mitchell. As it is, Kostensky is just a hardworking guy with a wacky restaurant on the outskirts of Kent. And given the looks of things, that suits him just fine.