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Friday, October 19 Living

Eat backwards (dessert first) at iconic Heibeck’s in Wilton

If a visitor asked me to take them to an iconic Connecticut roadside stand, I would choose Heibeck’s in Wilton. This wonderful seasonal place (opened in 1931) has been serving some of the best ice cream, burgers and hot dogs for generations.

Heibeck’s is such a townie institution that if you opened an encyclopedia to Georgetown, you would find pictures of the Heibeck family, who still own and run the stand. They also run the Sunoco gas station next door. The Heibecks are beloved fixtures of the community. Brothers Mike, Tom, Marty and George Heibeck are the backbone of the Georgetown Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 that incorporated around the same time the ice cream stand opened.

I have been coming here for years and can unequivocally say the place only gets better. Owner Bobbie Heibeck judicially adds new items keeping up with culinary trends but never being “trendy.” The place itself is a charming oasis tucked neatly on busy Route 7. If you dine in the lovely open air patio behind the stand, you can dream you are very far away from the honks and tire squeals.

Is there a better all-American triumvirate than hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream? If these were the only items on the menu, Heibeck’s would still be a treasured place. The rich, super premium ice cream has been made on the premises since the stand opened. Being a bit of a curmudgeon, it took friends quite a while to move me away from chocolate and vanilla. I am glad I did, but please note that the chocolate ice cream is made with legendary Bendsdorp Dutch cocoa and the vanilla is an egg-based custard ice cream flavored with pure Madagascan vanilla bourbon. You can see why it took me years to branch out.

Leaving my comfort zone I tried Mass Mocha, a wonderful conglomeration of homemade coffee ice cream , espresso beans and dark chocolate. I was about to order the newly listed butter pecan, but Bobbie Heibeck implored me to taste the newest delight, which is an all-natural soft-serve ice cream. I hesitated for a moment because soft-serve ice cream is usually a bottom-feeding poof of artificial ingredients. This was a revelation. Yes, it was the familiar soft-serve swirly thing, but the taste was pure and rich, truly something unique.

sundae scaries 🌈🌈

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At Heibeck’s I usually eat backwards, meaning I have ice cream first and then “real food.” This time I tried one old favorite (a chili dog) and two newer items, a “loaded” grilled cheese sandwich and shrimp scampi on a bun. I was prepared to be disappointed by the scampi. I mean what are the odds of a roadside stand serving really fresh shrimp in the exact right combo of butter and garlic? Amazingly, the shrimp scampi was as fresh and well seasoned as I have had at many upscale restaurants.

What makes a grilled cheese sandwich “loaded?” It is the addition of bacon and avocado slices that gild the cheesy lily. It is at once decadent and healthy tasting. Usually, I lay waste to a grilled cheese sandwich in 30 seconds; this was such a generous serving, I took half of it home.

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Heibeck’s Stand

951 Danbury Road, Wilton

Now, about the chili dogs. For regular readers of this column you might recall I recently visited the venerable Merritt Canteen in Bridgeport. I raved about the chili they put on the hot dogs. It is their signature offering and I could happily forgo the hot dog and bun and just slurp up the chili. Heibeck’s chili is a close contender: cinnabar red with finely minced meat. It is not as hot as Merritt’s, but it has the same depth of flavor. Some of you might laugh at the notion that chili for a hot dog has any special taste to it. This is wrong.

There are dozens of types of chilis to be had in this country, and all are very different. Although chili is usually served at the most unpretentious places, the recipes can be very complex. Heibeck’s chili (along with the Merritt Canteen) is similar to the legendary Cincinnati-style chili, which uses around 14 different spices to get it right. It is classic Macedonian food, in no way simple to make, yet few people realize it is anything but good old American road food.

Looking at the food being eaten by others at the Stand, I see the Mexican dishes are very popular. The most enticing being the Baja taco, a filet of crisp cod on a bed of homemade tomatillo slaw. The dish is topped with avocado salsa and sprinkled with lime and cilantro.

Fish and chips has recently been added to the menu. The chips part is a sure winner as Heibeck’s french fries are singularly delicious and have quite a following. I know more than one friend who thinks a well-balanced meal is french fries and ice cream.

Heibeck’s Stand is one of those places that defies conventional wisdom. If you take a hospitality course or hire a restaurant consultant and tell them your plan is to open a roadside stand next to a gas station where every single item is homemade and hand-selected, you will be laughed at. Starting a restaurant is (they will tell you) all about cutting corners, cutting costs, big-budget advertising and following trends. Thankfully, the Heibecks did not get the message. This unlikely little place with a well-curated menu would put many fancy places to shame. Sometimes taking pride in what you do outshines all the common formulas to success.

Jane Stern, a Ridgefield resident, coauthored the popular “Roadfood” guidebook series with Michael Stern. Join her each week as she travels Fairfield County finding a great meal in unexpected places for $20 or less.

Jane Stern|Columnist

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