As a child growing up in Bulgaria, Nikolay Ivanov didn't care much for oatmeal. "I always thought it was the food that horses eat," he jokes. But as an adult, the South Side coffee-shop owner is perfecting the breakfast porridge.
Big Dog Coffee, opened in November by Ivanov and his wife, Cortney, doesn't serve just any oatmeal. "It's not instant, it's not microwave," Ivanov assures. "[Our oatmeal] is the real deal. ... We take our time."
This writer can attest that Big Dog's oatmeal ($4.75 a bowl, and served daily from 6-11 a.m.) is worth all 40 minutes of slow cooking. Unlike instant oatmeal, which is often lumpy in texture, Big Dog's is smooth and creamy. If you require a variety of texture, simply ask your barrista to pour on the toppings -- strawberries, bananas, walnuts, raisins, brown sugar, granola -- at no extra cost.
Big Dog -- named after the Ivanovs' hefty German shepherd -- buys its organic, hand-rolled oatmeal from Frankerd Farms in Valencia, Butler County. While the coffee shop gets its oats from a local farm, Ivanov says he got the unique idea to serve oatmeal from a Manhattan bagel shop.
During a trip to New York City a couple of years ago, Ivanov stumbled upon a bagel shop serving hot oatmeal on a bitterly cold day. "I thought it was the best thing ever," he recalls. "In general, I'm not a huge oatmeal person, but the cold weather and the hot oatmeal just sold me."
There's certainly more to Big Dog than just oatmeal. The cozy coffee shop -- housed in the former Kohler Bakery building -- boasts a wood-burning fireplace that complements Big Dog's warm, relaxing atmosphere.
Ivanov buys his coffee from Chicago's Intelligentsia, a direct-trade company that purchases straight from growers. And in addition to the oatmeal bar, Big Dog also serves homemade soups daily from 11 a.m.-6 p.m., as well as pastries made in-house. The whoopie pies and sugary ho-ho cakes (inspired by the original Hostess treats) are a hit with the kids, and come from East Liberty's Vanilla Pastry Studio.
But for folks seeking a wholesome start to their day, Ivanov recommends the oatmeal, topped with fruit and granola. "I don't think you can get healthier in the morning," he says. He adds with a laugh: "We try to balance it out with our ho-hos."
Big Dog Coffee
2717 Sarah St., South Side