Delivering a knockout in the food court
MICHIGAN CITY — His boxing days may be behind him, but Kenny Larson is still scoring hits at his Hammer’s Restaurant, 2134 E. U.S. 20, Michigan City.
You might say that the restaurant business is in his blood. His father, a former sailor named Roger Larson, owned a successful chain of restaurants called “Roger’s Chow-Mein” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As Kenny grew up, it was the perfect opportunity for him to learn the ins and outs of life as a restaurateur.
Then the family moved to Beverly Shores to own and operate the beachfront Red Lantern Inn. As a teenager, Kenny fulfilled all the positions at the restaurant and realized his true calling.
While earning his bachelor’s degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management, Kenny was on the wrestling team at Purdue University. Looking for something different to try, he took up boxing at 21, an age considered late in the game. At first the learning curve was steep, but within two years Kenny had caught on well enough that he excelled in the sport. In 1981, he won the Indiana Golden Gloves Tournament, earning him the title of “Lafayette Hammer” by a sportswriter. He later shortened it to simply the “Hammer.” Larson enjoyed a successful amateur and professional boxing career until his retirement.
After his return to the local area, Kenny operated The Red Lantern Inn with his brother, Danny, until 1986. Next, Danny opened Pumps on 12, and Kenny began a carryout extension of his brother’s restaurant called Pumps Pasta and Pizza in 1995. First located at the Park N Shop Plaza on the corner of Coolspring Avenue and Franklin Street, he moved to Lighthouse Place three years later. Then, on Sept. 11, 2001, he opened Hammer’s in the building formerly known as Sumarita’s on the corner of U.S. 20 and Johnson Road. This fulfilled his dream of owning his own full-service restaurant.
Hammer’s is known for its handmade pasta and pizza, hand-cut steaks, lake perch, BBQ ribs and much more. Keeping with the boxing theme, the menu is divided into “Round 1 Preliminaries” (appetizers), “Round 2 Lightweight and Middleweight” (soups and salads), “Round 3 Main Event” (entrees), “Round 4 Knockout” (pastas), “Round 5 Ringside” (Pizzas), “Round 6 On The Card” (specialty pizzas), “Round 7 Golden Glove Sandwiches,” “Round 8 World Champion Desserts” and Specialty Martinis.”
“Our appetizers are so big that you could eat half as a dinner. We have very generous portions,” Kenny explained.
Appetizer choices include Calamari Fritti, Buffalo Calamari, Buffalo Wings, Spinach Artichoke Dip, Sausage and Peppers, Chicken Quesadilla, Baked Meatballs, Hammer’s Potato Skins and Grilled Naan Flatbread Margarita.
There are several big entree hitters including the Potato Crusted Walleye, a popular staple for the restaurant, and Grilled Beef Medallions, one of Kenny’s best-sellers.
The unique Adolpho’s Steak Fettuccine, another customer favorite, is described as “grilled shish-kabobs of marinated steak, red peppers, Bermuda onions, and portabella mushrooms over spinach fettuccine, tossed in a garlic butter and topped with boursin cheese.”
“We make 90 percent of our food from scratch,” said Kenny. “We blend our own cheese – a blend of three different cheeses.”
This selection from scratch includes six different salad dressings, croutons, salsa, bread, pizza dough and sauce and sausage, just to name a few.
“I’ve been going through a lot of homemade lasagna over the past few months,” Kenny said, explaining that he combines ground beef with homemade sausage for this dish.
The Honey Roasted Chicken Salad, which has grilled chicken on a bed of greens topped with honey roasted walnuts, green apples, tomatoes, Bermuda onions and Gorgonzola cheese, is another favorite of customers. So is the Pesto Chicken Sandwich, which is made with Hammer’s own homemade caramelized onions and red peppers roasted on the premises.
One of Hammer’s specialty pizzas is named after friends Barb and Stan Holdcraft , who begged Kenny to add it to the menu after sampling it.
For “Barb & Stan’s Pizza,” Kenny omits the pizza sauce and uses garlic butter, Fontinella cheese, grilled chicken strips, diced tomatoes, artichoke hearts, portabella mushrooms, red peppers, spinach and feta cheese. He said “White” pizzas, such as this one that replace traditional pizza sauce with garlic butter and Fontinella cheese, sell very well at Hammer’s.
Kenny said his “World Famous Turnovers,” available in cheese and spinach with optional additional toppings, “are huge-enough to feed two to three people.”
Rounding out the menu are homemade dessert options including Famous Bread Pudding, Peach Cobbler, Sherri’s Molten Chocolate Cake (named after Kenny’s wife, Sherri) and Blond Brownie Ala Mode.
A special New Year’s Eve Menu beginning at 4 p.m. on Dec. 31 offers Beef Wellington, Prime Rib, Bacon & Herb Crusted Trout and Mediterranean Stuffed Chicken Breast, among other options.
“Everything that is on the menu is available for carry-out — I do lots of carry out,” Kenny said.
Hammer’s also has a special Catering by Hammer’s menu that includes choices of Baked Lasagna, Chicken Marsala, Cajun Tilapia, BBQ Ribs, Baked Ham and Roasted Turkey, among several others.
And, the restaurant can accommodate large groups up to 70 in its Banquet Room. In the summer, up to 60 guests can enjoy outside deck dining.
Guests will appreciate the ambiance of Hammer’s too with plenty of sports memorabilia on the walls. Many photos show Kenny during his boxing days and with celebrities such as Larry King. Several college football teams, including Boston College, the University of Southern California and Duke University have savored Hammer’s specialties and left behind memorabilia footballs, which line one wall.
Several Ironman Triathlon posters can be seen on another wall as Kenny began these nine years ago as “something to do.” He explained that a full triathlon consists of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a full marathon of 26.2 miles “one right after another as fast as you can.”
He works out one way or another daily, preparing for the next competition and averages 12-13 hours to complete the event.
“It’s a way of life for me. I’m turning 60 which is a good thing because I’ll be at the bottom of my age group,” he explained.
Competing in Ironman Triathlons in such locations as Austria, Cozumel and Lake Placid, Kenny said, “You can go anywhere in the world and do a triathlon. That’s what makes it fun.”
“I do it for fun, for excitement and for travel. I tell everyone that’s how I get out of work,” he said with a laugh.
For more information on Hammer’s go to www.hammersrestaurant.com or look up “Hammer’s Food & Drink” on Facebook, which contains specials. The restaurant can also be reached by phone at (219) 879-0760. Hours for Hammer’s are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., on Friday and Saturday, and noon to 9 p.m. on Sunday.