Akron Dish: Valley Cafe, Michael's A.M. mark milestones; winery tailgate party; Greek and Russian fests

There’s a whole lotta egg-cracking, pancake-flipping and celebrating going on in Akron’s Merriman Valley.

Two longtime breakfast-lunch eateries — cozy, locally owned places that are very serious about their food — are marking milestones.

It’s been 10 years since B.J. and Nicole Mikoda bought the Valley Cafe, in an old bank building at 1212 Weathervane Lane, by the Ohio & Erie Towpath Trail.

Less than a mile away is Michael’s A.M. at 1582 Akron-Peninsula Road, which is celebrating 25 years in business and its fourth year under new ownership. Gary Porto, who had never owned a restaurant before, bought the place in 2015. He set about significantly revamping the menu, as the Mikodas did at the Valley Cafe.

Let’s dig in.


Valley Cafe

You know the Valley Cafe isn’t your typical breakfast-lunch place when the “signature dish” is Shrimp and Grit Cakes. (They’re available for breakfast or lunch, both of which are served all day.)

On the extensive breakfast menu, this dish follows another with a Southern flair, the Breakfast Bowl, a scrambled egg “bowl” filled with a crumbled biscuit, home fries and cheddar cheese, smothered with homemade sausage gravy.

B.J. Mikoda, 57, a native of Sarasota, Fla., who graduated from Florida State University with a degree in marketing and business management, says he mines his Southern roots for ideas.

Shrimp and Grit Cakes didn’t go on the menu until February 2009, when B.J. and Nicole decided to try them for Mardi Gras. Now they’re the best-selling item.

Like virtually everything else, the dish is made from scratch. Soups, sauces, gravies are all homemade. Turkey is roasted on site, as are ham and brisket.

“There’s no GMO food [genetically modified] or antibiotics,” said Nicole, 51.

B.J. likes to call his offerings “comfort foods with a gourmet twist.”

The Valley Veggie Breakfast Sandwich boasts scrambled egg with house-roasted portabella mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes and choice of cheese. The Breakfast Burrito includes chorizo sausage and homemade pico de gallo.

The 6-ounce Filet Burgers feature 90 percent lean ground beef from Holmes County. All sandwiches come with can’t-eat-just-one homemade chips.

The menu is cheeky. “Amazing Breakfast Carbs” include “Ginormous Pancakes” that are “as big as the plate.”

Buying an eatery is risky at any time. Purchasing one in 2008, as the Great Recession was picking up steam, was especially so.

During the recession, while the couple was transforming the place to a from-scratch eatery, B.J. recalls a food distributor suggesting he cut back on costs by using fewer fresh ingredients.

"I didn’t get into this to do that,” B.J. said.

B.J. hadn’t run a restaurant since his college days before he and Nicole bought the Valley Cafe. But for years, he had helped friends with their eateries while working for Enterprise Rent-A-Car.

His passion was food, not the corporate world, and before the Valley Cafe, B.J. worked at Piatto in downtown Akron and LeFever’s in Cuyahoga Falls.

“We should have never made it,” Nicole said, recalling the early days of their ownership. Nicole, with a degree in economics and business administration from Kalamazoo College, worked as a Mary Kay cosmetics sales director until 2016, and B.J. delivered the Beacon Journal to ensure the couple didn’t miss a payroll.

They installed a second patio and enclosed the former drive-through to add kitchen space last year. The inside dining room was reconfigured to add more seats. The place now seats about 80, including the patios.

In 2015, they opened a second cafe in Wadsworth at 101 High St., in space that had been home to a coffee shop. Ron Bell, who started as a line cook at the Akron Valley Cafe, made the Wadsworth location possible, the couple said.

After Bell was hired in 2011, B.J. found out he had far more restaurant experience than he’d first let on. Bell worked in restaurants in the Cleveland area after serving in the U.S. Air Force, and in kitchens in New York and Las Vegas before returning to Northeast Ohio a few years ago to take care of his parents.

These days, Ron oversees the kitchen in Wadsworth and Akron and is chef-partner. Nicole is in charge of the front of the house at both locations and B.J. oversees the business. He frequently cooks at the Akron Valley Cafe.

“There’s enough business for everybody,” B.J. said, explaining he doesn’t give competition much thought. “You’ve just have to do what you’re passionate about.”

“God is good,” Nicole said.

Both cafes are open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week. (The shrimp and grits are not available until 12:30 on Saturdays and Sundays.) The Akron phone is 330-865-0101. The Wadsworth phone is 330-331-7555.


Michael's A.M.

Michael’s A.M. had me at crepes, but there’s a lot more goodies being made from scratch at the place in the Valley Centre shopping plaza, across from Papa Joe’s restaurant.

Gary Porto, 71, took over Michael’s in October 2015, keeping former owner Mike Goodridge’s name on the business. Porto quit using canned and boxed food and began emphasizing local and organic ingredients.

A longtime home baker, he also introduced his homemade breads and other baked goods.

On the regular menu are Porto's sourdough, cinnamon raisin, cinnamon, gluten-free cinnamon raisin and blueberry. He frequently makes Amish toasting bread.

The starter for the sourdough dates to 1849; Gary has been feeding the starter since he got it in 1981 in San Francisco, from the great-great-granddaughter of a woman who used it to make biscuits in mining camps.

Porto makes other breads on a seasonal basis or when he wants a specific bread to be featured in a special — such as wedding soup with brioche, a sweeter type of French bread.

Porto was director of development at Kent State University. He retired in 2015 and for about six months, “I did the normal retirement things and I thought it was unfulfilling.”

He looked at dozens of businesses for sale before a broker told him about Michael’s.

While he had spent his career in college fundraising, his grandfather had owned an Italian restaurant in Chicago that his parents eventually took over. It was largely a made-from-scratch operation, said Porto, who worked there as a child.

Attracting Porto to Michael’s A.M. were its loyal workers, including Scott Jones, a cook for 20 years, and Jones' wife, Rebecca, who has worked there 18 years and is the service manager. The two met at Michael’s.

In the short time he has owned the place, Porto has not only transformed the menu, he also created a dining room/function room that seats 50 in a former jewelry shop next door, and added a small patio, which opened on Mother’s Day.

In addition to the homemade breads, he now gets all his meats from Duma Meats in Suffield Township and offers only organic eggs.

Crab cake and lobster Benedicts are available along with regular eggs Benedict. All are served on house-made biscuits. Homemade quiche also is on the menu.

About those crepes: There are sweet ones served with whipped cream (plain with powdered sugar; apples and cinnamon with caramel sauce; strawberries or blueberries) and savory (spinach, onion, bacon and ricotta with hollandaise sauce; ham and cheese).

You can get crepe combos with eggs and a meat. Unless you’re a big eater, don’t do what I did and order a two-crepe combo. The crepes are filling.

While the food has changed, the old green booths and the mauve and green wallpaper remain — for now.

Porto said next month customers can write their names on the wall at a “goodbye to the wallpaper” celebration. Shortly afterward, the walls will be painted yellow and raspberry, and new tables and booths are planned for early next year.

A kitchen expansion to be completed next month will allow the kitchen crew to make pasta and more breads.

Michael's A.M. is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. seven days a week. The phone is 330-929-3447.


Food and crafts

This is the second year for the Friends Food and Craft Market, from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays, in the parking lot at the former Riverside Wine at 911 N. Mantua St. in Kent.

The market will continue there through Nov. 3 and move inside to Trinity Lutheran Church at 600 Water St. in Kent until the Christmas holidays.

This is a small market with produce, gluten-free and vegan desserts and breads, candies and sugar-free items. It also features cage-free eggs, hand-blended organic teas, popcorn, fudge and protein snack balls. Vendors are being accepted. Call 330-678-1800.


Winery tailgating

You can tailgate with Bob Golic, the former Browns defensive tackle and radio host on WNIR 100.1-FM, from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Red Horse Winery in New Franklin.

Golic will sign any bottle of wine purchased that day, and T-shirts will be sold. The winery makes a sweet blackberry wine named for Golic.

Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the door, which include a pulled pork sandwich with potato salad by Chef Tom Finn, a glass of any wine, Golic's Mad Dawg Hard Cider or soft drink.

The winery is at 5326 Fairland Road, New Franklin. www.redhorsewinery.com.


Native foods dinner

A Native American foods dinner will be from 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 30 to help commemorate Akron's inaugural North American First People's Day Oct. 1.

Students at Lippman School brought the idea to council, and the dinner will be in the pavilion outside the Shaw Jewish Community Center, on the same campus at the school.

The dinner will observe Jewish dietary laws, and will be overseen by the Jewish Community Center’s chef, Efrat Ohayon. The dinner will include guacamole, salsa and chips; baked salmon; Three Sisters (corn, squash and beans); bison stew; bison chili; wild rice pilaf; pumpkin cookies and mulled cider.

The Jewish Community Center is at 750 White Pond Drive, Akron. The dinner is $50. Reservations must be made in advance at https://bit.ly/2CdU3fc.


Festival time

• The Greek Festival returns for its 60th year to the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church at 129 S. Union St., adjacent to the University of Akron. Hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.

Admission and parking are free. Attendees can buy gyros, pastitsio, moussaka, soutzoukaki, dolmas, spanakopita and Greek pastries. Some vegan dishes are on the menu, and there will be a new lamb kabob dish.

There will be dancing, a silent auction and the Attic Treasures sales area. For information, call 330-434-0000 or see annunciationakron.org/greek-festival/.

• The fourth annual Main Street Kent Oktoberfest, featuring seasonal beer, German food, music and more will be noon to 10 p.m. Saturday on Franklin Avenue in downtown Kent. More information is at the Main Street Kent website, mainstreetkent.org.

• The Something Russian Festival at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Suffield Township runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 2 and 3. Yes, that’s a Tuesday and a Wednesday. There will be Russian and ethnic food, music, dancing, tours of the church and more. Go to somethingrussian.com for information. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church is at 755 S. Cleveland Ave., at state Route 532 and U.S. Route 224.


Send local food news to Katie Byard at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com. You can follow her @KatieByardABJ on Twitter or on Facebook at www.facebook.com and read the Akron Dish blog at www.ohio.com/food.