On the long travel days during our Great Square Route (MN – MS – GA – CT – MN) car trip in May, we would aim to get on the road early, then stop for a late breakfast at some place with local flavor, trying to avoid national chains. We might snack a bit on the road, but would not eat another meal until the evening, again trying to avoid national chains. Here are the most memorable food stops. Like my father and brothers, when I travel I tend to remember the meals above all else.
First breakfast stop – Our first breakfast stop on I-35 South out of Minneapolis was at the Perkins restaurant in Clear Lake, IA. Despite being a national chain, it offered the big plate of biscuits and gravy that I was determined to indulge in at least once on this trip.
Greasiest omelet – After a nice visit with my stepbrother and his family in Kansas City, MO, we hit the road early on I-70 East. We didn’t see much with local flavor until we got to the Midway Auto/Truck Plaza near exit 121 between the Missouri River and Columbia. Their Southwestern Omelet needed extra tabasco to cut the grease as much as to add spice.
Most filling meal – We made good time around St. Louis, whose waterfront we had each visited before, then dawdled down I-55 South on the way into Sikeston, MO, where I was determined to subject my wife and mother-in-law to regionally famous Lambert’s Cafe, “The Only Home of Throwed Rolls.” I ordered just 4 vegetables (cole slaw, green beans, turnip greens, and white beans), but helped my mother-in-law with her (very tasty) catfish and my wife (very little) with her polish sausage and kraut. Between those ample portions and the irresistible black-eyed pea and fried okra “pass-arounds,” I came away stuffed to the gills.
Tiniest restaurant – After stopping two nights in Paducah, KY, to see two brothers, a new sister-in-law, a niece, and a nephew-in-law, grand niece, and grand nephew that I hadn’t met yet, and also to pick up my wife’s sister who flew in from Minneapolis to join us for the jaunt across the South, we headed out on I-55 South, stopping for breakfast at The Grill on Main Street in New Madrid, MO. It had only three or four tables, but served a steady stream of take-out customers and had a lot of local flavor. Above the kitchen doorway was a sign honoring a local U.S. Army lieutenant killed in action.* Every table had a well-used ashtray, emptied but not washed between customers. The restroom in the kitchen contained various cosmetics used by the staff. And the steak I ordered with my eggs—on the chef’s recommendation—was very nicely marinated, very nicely grilled, and very tender.
(*The New Madrid KIA was 1st Lt. Amos C. R. Bock, 4th Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne, killed when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in Baghdad, Iraq, on 23 October 2006.)
Fanciest restaurant – We found a motel in Jackson, MS, before driving over to Vicksburg. After little success finding a restaurant overlooking the Mississippi River, we ended up at Bourbon’s in the Ameristar Casino. (It was my first time in a casino.) The food and drinks were excellent and we could look out on the river when we weren’t fiddling with the wooden blinds trying to keep the glare of the sunset off the water out of the eyes of our neighbors and ourselves. I had a cup of their Seafood Gumbo (which turned out to be dirty rice, not soup) and Caribbean Steak Salad.
Emptiest restaurant – Traveling east the next day on I-20, we stopped for breakfast at a Barnhill’s restaurant in a ghost-town of a shopping center in Meridian, MS. Barnhill’s is a regional chain that mostly offers Southern-style buffets, but some branches offer breakfast buffets on the weekends. I had sausage, grits, and a good bit more. It was Sunday morning about time for Sunday school to start, so the huge dining hall was practically empty.
Strangest smell – We crossed most of Alabama on U.S. 80, passing through Selma and Montgomery on the way to visit old friends from Micronesia who now live on Ft. Benning, GA, where the father, a Sgt. 1st Class born and raised on Yap, has been teaching infantry tactics to officers ever since he returned from deployment in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry). During his 20+ years in the Army, he earned a B.A., and is now pursuing an M.A. in international relations.
After a long visit and a quick chew of betel nut, we repaired off-base to Country’s Barbecue in Columbus for a late supper. The food was tasty, but the dining room smelled more like a wet mop than a hot grill. When the party at the booth next to us left, I understood why. The waitresses not only cleared, wiped, and reset the table, they also pulled it out and mopped the floor beneath it. The wait help doubled as bus help and tripled as janitorial help. We left a good tip.
Best grits – It was slim pickings for breakfast the next morning along GA 96 through the heart of pecan and peach country. We got off course in the old railroad junction town of Fort Valley and ended up in Perry, where we settled on an outlet of the Krystal regional fastfood chain. I tried their breakfast “scrambler” with egg and sausage atop grits in a bowl. It was surprisingly tasty, billed as low-carb but plenty high in fat, salt, and cholesterol. The outlet we stopped at seemed exceptionally well managed.
Second most gimmicky (after Lambert’s Cafe) – After an afternoon exploring a bit of historic downtown Savannah, GA, we drove out to Tybee Island on U.S. 80, which ended at a sign saying “my other end is in San Diego” (an assertion that hasn’t been true for several decades). We dined that night at The Crab Shack, at an outdoor table that had a hole in the middle to discard the shells and corncobs from our heaping platter of seafood. The baby alligator pond was the gimmick that most caught my fancy. I asked the host on the way in if I could pick which one I wanted to eat. He said, “You can pick one, but we ain’t gonna cook it for you.”
Homiest atmosphere – Driving up I-95 from Savannah, we stopped for breakfast at the Olde House Cafe in Walterboro, SC. It was the only “unchained” restaurant we could find. The food was great but the architecture was more interesting. As the name suggests, the building really was built to be someone’s home. We ate in what may once have been a bedroom, and the front porch had a rocking chair on it.
Second worst chitlins – Before we arrived at my dad’s place in South Boston, VA, I had asked him to find some place in his neck of the wood that served decent chitlins (= chitterlings). A long time ago, when he lived in Roanoke, he had taken my wife and me to a mostly black restaurant that served the only good Southern-style chitlins I’ve ever tasted. They were chopped, marinated, and sauteed with vinegar and pepper. (Since then, I’ve had pretty decent Korean-style chitlins several times, both grilled and in soup.) The worst (and first) chitlins I ever tasted was when I was a kid in Winchester, VA. My mother boiled them without enough flavor to disguise the taste and they were terrible. I couldn’t get them past my tongue (or nose). I’m sure my father made a valiant effort to eat them, but we kids all turned up our noses.
Well, on this occasion, my youngest uncle and an older cousin and their respective spouses had driven over from Tidewater Virginia, so we all went out to Paulette’s Place in Halifax, which served batter-fried fish, shrimp, oysters, and chitlins. My father, my uncle, and I ordered the chitlins. Everyone else had better sense. My uncle drowned his in vinegar, and I dumped tabasco on mine, but I think my father was the only one who didn’t leave any on his plate. The rest of the menu was fine.
Oldest restaurant – The next leg of our journey ran through the Blue Ridge Mountains and up the Shenandoah Valley to Middletown, VA, where we stopped for a light snack at the historic Wayside Inn, founded in 1797, before paying respects to my aunt, who lives on a farm nearby, and my cousin’s wife and mother-in-law, who live up the road a bit in a house that dates back to the 1740s. (My cousin was off hunting big game on a South African preserve.) The four of us confused the waitress by ordering three house salads and three bowls of their signature Colonial Peanut Soup, reputed to be one of George Washington’s favorites.
Most sushi – The reason we snacked so lightly in Middletown is that we were headed for another family reunion at the other end of I-66, at the Todai [= Lighthouse] Restaurant in Fairfax with: my brother, sister-in-law, and their two kids; my sister and brother-in-law from Annapolis, MD; my father, who came up from South Boston; and my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who were flying back to Minneapolis the next day, leaving us the car for the rest of our trip. When I eat at Todai, I concentrate on the huge variety of sushi and a few cold salads. When my brother in Fairfax turned 50, I took him to Todai for lunch and we ate 50 pieces of sushi between us.
Best oasis – Our worst day of driving, by far, was between Fairfax, VA, and New Haven, CT, on the Friday before Memorial Day. Even though we avoided I-95 as much as possible, we spent far too much time in bumper-to-bumper traffic until we got past Baltimore during the morning rush hour, then again after we got across the Hudson on the Tappan Zee Bridge later that afternoon. After trying a stretch of U.S. 1 between Greenwich and Stamford, we decided to break for an early supper in Stamford. After finding the food court still under construction at a brand-new downtown shopping plaza, we discovered Fiesta Atlantic, a refreshing Peruvian restaurant across Atlantic Street that was already open for dinner before 5 pm. Their Sangria had canned fruit cocktail in the bottom of the glass, but tasted quite refreshing, and the two appetizers and two side dishes we ordered were fresh, flavorful, and nicely presented. We had cebiche (ceviche) mixto, ensalada de pulpo (octopus), platano (plaintain) frito, and yuca (yucca) frita.
Most unexpected language – After a long but lovely ride through Pennsylvania on I-80, then through a rather ugly corner of Ohio, we took the North Ridgeville exit on the way to the pleasant Cleveland suburb of Avon Lake, OH, where a busy friend had invited us to stay the night. We had agreed to meet her for breakfast the next morning, so we looked for supper on our own. The Gourmé [sic] Family Restaurant (“Good Home Cooking”) on Lorain Road caught our fancy, so we sampled their fare. I had their lake perch and pierogie combination. Two things puzzled me. Why did every table have a squeeze bottle of syrup as well as ketchup on it? (If ketchup was for the fried fish, was syrup for the pierogies?) And which language was the staff speaking to each other? Their appearance and their accents were vaguely Eastern European, but I heard enough of their talk to rule out Germanic, Slavic, Romance, Hellenic, Turkic, and even Finnic and Ugric. It turned out to be Albanian. We never did solve the mystery of the syrup.