Filling out brackets has numbed your mind. That 5 a.m. wake-up call is wearing on your body, and rental-car clerks, faulty GPS devices and hotel check-ins have tested your patience.
You’re tired, you’re cranky and you’d give anything for this next decision to come easily. Especially because it's the most important choice you’ll make during this weekend’s NCAA tournament road trip.
“Where should I eat?” you ask yourself as you do U-turns in the Dodge Avenger you picked up back at the airport. All the fast-food joints look the same, and the local dives seem like a risk. The situation can be maddening.
Relax, child. I’m here for you.
Whether you’re looking for a hearty pregame meal, a place to eat wings and watch games on the off day or a watering hole where you can cry in your beer after a season-ending loss, this list should provide a good variety of options for whatever NCAA tournament city you’re in this weekend.
A few quick things:
I’m a blue-collar guy when it comes to food, so you won’t find any fine dining spots on this list. Burgers, wings, pizza, fried chicken, Mexican food and monster sandwiches and food trucks are what I’m all about.
I’m going to write a bit longer on Kansas City, simply because I live there -- and the food is incredible.
There are a few cities on this list (I’m looking at you, Dayton, Ohio; Auburn Hills, Mich.; and San Jose, Calif.) where I needed to solicit some suggestions from my fellow sports writer friends. I’m confident they provided some solid tips. If I put a * at the beginning of a review, that means I’ve dined there personally.
AUBURN HILLS, MICH.
24 Seconds Bar and Grill: Located in nearby Berkley -- just 15 miles from the Palace of Auburn Hills -- 24 Seconds is the place to go on the off day to watch other games. The menu is extensive, with all sorts of appetizers, pizzas, burgers, sandwiches and entrees. The firehouse nachos (made with buffalo chicken, jalapenos and blue cheese crumbles) sound particularly appealing.
Hoops: Considering it’s within walking distance of the Palace, I’m guessing Hoops will be a popular pre- and postgame hangout for fans this weekend. Hoops prides itself on the chicken fingers (grilled or fried), but there are enough appetizer, burger and salad options to satisfy anyone.
Red Ox Tavern: The Auburn Hills location upscale sports bar has 50-inch plasma television screens throughout the facility and 10-inch plasmas at various tables. You can even get the sound to the game you’re watching at your seat. Wings, burgers and pasta are menu options -- and so is pizza, where you can customize your crust with cajun, garlic, sesame or ranch seasoning.
*Franklin Barbecue: If you’re in Austin, chances are good that you’re going to want some barbecue. You might as well try the best -- not just in Austin but in the entire country. That’s what numerous food critics say about the brisket at Franklin, and I certainly can’t argue. The meat is as tender as a mother’s love, with a flavor good enough to make you shove aside the sauce. You won’t need it. Don’t let the long line scare you away. Opportunities like these don’t come along often. (If you want a second barbecue meal, the Salt Lick is also very, very good).
*Scholz Garten: Folks in Austin love to party outside. Almost every restaurant worth its salt has a large patio area filled with picnic tables and outdoor bars so you don’t have go inside to order drinks. The environment at Scholz’s is one of the best in town. There are plenty of outdoor television sets to watch games, and the food (barbecue, brats, burgers, etc.) is excellent. This is a great place for fun both before and after your team’s game.
*El Arroyo: There are tons of good Mexican food restaurants in Austin, but none of them is as popular as El Arroyo. Although it can often be tough to get a table, the enchiladas and burritos and chile rellenos and fajitas are definitely worth the wait.
Note: Some of the best cuisine in Austin can be found at the various food trucks that line South Congress Avenue. Park your car nearby, walk around and sample things from a couple of different trucks. You won’t be disappointed.
Taqueria Mixteca: Judging by some of the reviews I’ve read, this is the place to go in Dayton for Mexican. Street-style tacos, tamales, nachos, burritos and complimentary chips and salsa. I’ve never associated Dayton, Ohio, with Mexican food. Sounds as though I’ve been missing out.
*Dewey’s: This eclectic pizza restaurant near the University of Dayton Arena offers a wide variety of pies such as the Socrates' Revenge (olive oil, minced garlic, spinach, black olives, green olives, feta cheese, red onions and tomatoes) and the Bronx Bomber (red sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, sausage mushrooms, onions, green peppers and black olives). Salads and calzones are also on the menu, along with an extensive beer and wine selection.
The Pine Club: In the mood to splurge for a good steak? The menu features all sorts of steaks (filets, strips, porterhouses, rib-eyes) in the $30-$40 range. If that’s too expensive for you, there are a number of hamburger and chicken options for less than $20.
KANSAS CITY, MO.
*The Peanut: Do you like wings? If you do, you need to go to The Peanut. Even if it means being late to your team’s game -- or, heck, missing it completely -- make sure you try the bird at this bar located about 2 miles from the Sprint Center. I’m a self-proclaimed wing expert, and these are the best I’ve ever had. One word of warning: A wing at The Peanut is an entire wing, not just a drummie or a flapper. So one wing here is like two at most places. The other hot menu item here is the BLT. I actually get the triple BLT, but hey, that’s just me. I know it sounds weird that a BLT could be so good, but this one definitely is. Burgers are solid, too. The service ... not so much. Know that going in, and it won’t bother you as much. There are several locations, but The Peanut on Main Street is the one closest to the arena.
*Oklahoma Joe’s: No matter what anyone else tells you, Oklahoma Joe’s is the best barbecue restaurant in Kansas City. In fact, it might be the best barbecue restaurant in the country. Just make sure you order the right thing: ribs. They’re the best I’ve ever had, and the pulled pork is excellent, too. The brisket isn’t anywhere as good as what you’ll find in Texas. Stay away from it. If you’re there on a day when they’re serving burnt ends ... get them, too. They’re just as good as the ribs. And the fries, dusted with a secret seasoning, are incredible. Other K.C. barbecue restaurants are good, too. Arthur Bryant’s has good burnt ends, Gates’ ribs are solid and the side items at Jack Stack (especially the beans) are awesome. But Oklahoma Joe’s gets the all-around award for the best barbecue in Kansas City. If I were you, I’d order the rib-and-one-meat platter with pulled pork. It’s an $8 cab ride from Sprint Center.
*Johnny’s: I figured I should include a place to watch games near the Sprint Center. There are certainly plenty of options right across the street in the Power & Light District. I suggest Johnny’s for two reasons: the TV setup and the pizza. When it comes to the pie, I love the crispy crust and the fact that you can order it by the slice. The pieces are huge and not overly expensive, and while they don’t compare to the Peanut, the wings aren’t too shabby. The atmosphere here will be fun on game days.
*Village Host Pizza & Grill: Love, love, love the pizza at Village Host. Slightly crispy crust with just the right amount of thickness, a generous portion of toppings and just the right amount of sauce. The pie is so good that I’ve never ordered anything else, which is unfortunate because the sandwich menu at Village Host is huge and enticing. Two other things about this place: The salad bar is enormous and fresh (easily the best I’ve ever had) and the TV setup is as good as you’ll find anywhere. This is where you’ll want to watch games. Goodfellas Pizzeria is also a good pizza-by-the-slice place if you’re hungry late at night after hitting the bars.
*Ramsey’s: As a native Texan, I love down-home cookin’. So it’s no wonder that Ramsey’s is on my must-stop list each time I visit Lexington. I’m partial to the chicken-fried steak (because, honestly, it’s tough to find good chicken-fried steak outside of Texas), but I’ve heard the meatloaf, fried catfish and pot roast are also tremendous. Also, don’t sleep on the sides (mac-and-cheese, okra, fried green tomatoes) and homemade pies.
*Village Idiot: No relation to Village Host, the Village Idiot offers a tad more of an upscale dining experience, although you certainly wouldn’t guess that by their prices. A cornmeal-crusted catfish sandwich is only $14. A burger with caramelized onions, Dijon mustard and fries (which are incredible) is only $12. This has become a very popular place in downtown Lexington (although I wouldn’t suggest taking a large, rowdy group to Village Idiot to watch games).
*Reading Terminal Market: Longtime readers of my King’s Court column know that RTM is basically my favorite place in the world -- a foodie’s dream. I call it “the Nation’s Biggest Food Court,” because the downtown facility features more than 100 vendors cooking up everything from cheesesteaks to gyros to hot pastrami sandwiches to homemade ice cream to thick chocolate chip cookies. I’ve spent hours here.
*Chink’s Steaks: Opened in 1949, Chink’s is every bit as good as Pat’s and Geno’s, which are two of Philly’s most popular destinations for cheesesteaks. In fact, because of the delicious bread and generous portions of meat, I’d venture to say it’s even better. Or maybe it was the fountain soda or extra-thick banana milkshake that won me over. Thanks to ESPN.com colleague and Philly native Dana O’Neil for recommending Chink's.
Chickie’s and Pete’s: This self-described “Crab House & Sports Bar” likely will be a popular gathering place for fans wanting to watch games this weekend. The TVs are plentiful at Chickie’s and Pete’s, which ESPN once voted as the top sports bar on the East Coast. Looking for something to order? Try the crab fries, which are bathed in a secret blend of spices and served with white, creamy cheese sauce.
SALT LAKE CITY
*Red Iguana: Known as one of the top restaurants in all of Salt Lake City, the Red Iguana is a Mexican food joint known for its wide variety of moles (pronounced MOH-lays). I was a huge fan of the killer nachos and enjoyed looking at all of the autographed pictures of celebrities (ZZ Top, oh yeah!) on the wall. Red Iguana was featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Bruges Waffles and Frites: I’ve never seen a menu with so many options for waffles. The torpedo waffle (stuffed with bars of Belgian chocolate) sounds particularly appealing. But I also hear the machine gun Sandwich is the way to go. Served on a fresh baguette, it’s stuffed with lamb sausage and fries. Bruges is located in downtown Salt Lake City.
Lumpy’s Downtown: Plasma televisions in every booth, pool tables, Golden Tee machines, a DJ upstairs Thursday through Saturday nights ... Lumpy’s Downtown definitely has a lot to offer college basketball fans looking to be entertained. I looked at the menu, and if I ever end up at Lumpy’s, I’m ordering the mutha -- an appetizer platter filled with wings, poppers, mozzarella sticks, fries and onion rings.
SAN JOSE, CALIF.
Original Joe’s Italian Restaurant: Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Original Joe’s has been a San Jose staple since 1956. Have I been there? No. But I called three friends in San Jose who said this was the No. 1 place on each of their lists. Simply watching the video on the Original Joe’s website made me want to hop a flight to San Jose for some pasta and veal.
Britannia Arms: A British pub that offers everything from fish and chips to meat pies to burgers, Britannia Arms appears to be the place to go to watch NCAA tournament games in San Jose. It also has more than 60 beers available. Free wi-fi is also available to follow the NCAA tournament. What more could anyone want?
4th Street Pizza: Another sure-to-be-popular game-watching destination, 4th Street Pizza has an excellent TV setup and menu that should satisfy every craving. It offers its pizza in thick and thin crust and also by the slice, which is always a nice touch. It also has a variety of wing options (spicy barbecue, honey barbecue, chipotle and tequila lime) if you want to stray from the traditional buffalo.