Mom-n-Pop Heaven

On our recent trip home to Memphis, Himself and I enjoyed all our favorite foods that we just can’t get in Los Angeles. I’m talking quality, y’all. Anybody can fry a piece of chicken or at least take a stab at barbecuing a hunk of meat, but that doesn’t mean they should. (For starters, people out West use the word “barbecue” when they mean “cookout,” but you’ve probably heard me rail about that quite enough by now, so I’ll spare you the rerun of Barbecue 101!) [Speaking of, this just appeared in today’s news, helping me make my point on barbecue]

This blurry little snap started our quest for the moms-n-pops on the road...

Here we are, eating like Vikings at Gus’s downtown. In case you don’t know, GQ Magazine included this monument to fried food in its list of restaurants worth flying to (a list that includes Napa Valley’s French Laundry, I might add). Gus’s serves the most amazing fried chicken on the planet–somehow they manage to blast their proprietary blend of seasonings past the skin and all the way into and through the meat. Mind you, there’s a ton of great fried food available in Memphis and environs, but when you see the volume of people who crowd into this place, you know it must be good. These people could get their fried fix anywhere in town, and they choose to do it here. And so do we.

fried green tomatoes & kosher spears

In addition to chicken we feasted on fried dill pickle spears and fried green tomatoes, with coleslaw and sandwich bread. Lots of it. There’s nothing as refreshing as a restaurant that’s so self assured that it can serve you big stacks of pre-sliced white sandwich bread with your meal with nary a trace of irony. After eating at Gus’s, Soul Fish and several other of our favorite local haunts, we resolved to eschew the chains and eat only at mom-n-pop establishments on our drive across the country. With a lot of sign reading and a bit of assistance from Yelp we did just fine.

Our first night on the road included dinner in Van Buren, Arkansas. We snubbed the local Chili’s in favor of Frank’s Italian Restaurant. Frank Sinatra on the p.a. system. All the time. Framed albums and photos of The Man everywhere. The place is owned by an Albanian man whose father’s name was Frank and who loved…guess who? It’s a little sad to be eating Italian in a dry county, so we stuck with a pizza, which can handle the absence of vino better than some foods. We chatted with our server, who explained the all-Frank-all-the-time thing to us and confessed that she was just a little weary of listening to Ol’ Blue Eyes. I guess you really can get too much of a good thing.

time for a picnic on the Oklahoma River in OK City

We had plenty of margherita pizza and salad left over, on which we picnicked the next day in a riverside park in Oklahoma City. You’ll observe from this photo that there were fitness stations next to the picnic tables. We studiously avoided them and focused on a rowing team practicing in the river next to us while we munched our leftovers.

According to the brightly-lit sign flanked by storm clouds there's sweet tea by the gallon here!

Late that afternoon a storm front chased us north from Amarillo into the Texas panhandle town of Dalhart, where we ate at Martha’s, the lone independent restaurant in a sea of fast food options. The basic American fare was quite respectable, but what really excited us was the sign on the door that told us Martha had an array of homemade jellies and jams for sale. It was Texas, so jalapeño jelly seemed the appropriate choice. We and a cluster of truckers holed up there and enjoyed our ringside seat to watch the ensuing storm as we ate our chicken and biscuits.

Before departing Dalhart the next day we stopped by the local museum (our being all the way up in Dalhart in the first place has to do with a project Himself is working on; he can fill you in on the particulars when he’s ready.). Dalhart was the home of an enormous ranch (3 million acres!), and the town’s museum details the history of not only Dalhart but the XIT Ranch and the lives of the cowboys who worked that massive spread.

the top of the chuckwagon, with a photo of one in use

Of course I was drawn to the chuckwagon, from which large numbers of hungry ranch hands could be fed quite adequately.

Hmm, those jugs look promising...

I know this couldn’t have been the easiest way to cook and eat, but there’s something about the fold-it-up-and-go utility of a chuckwagon that appeals to me. I have the same fondness for our trunk of camping cookware, which I have to take out and admire periodically, since we don’t manage to go camping very often. I like what it represents–that feeling of self sufficiency, of being able to say I-can-live-out-of-this-trunk-just-fine-thank-you-very-much.

Oh c' can you NOT stop to eat at a place shaped like a hat?!

Back on track, we headed for New Mexico and stopped at La Cita in Tucumcari. Confession time. We selected this restaurant because it’s a giant sombrero. But at least it wasn’t a chain, right? The tacos, burritos and guacamole were good–and the chips freshly made–and they were generous with the guacamole, which always impresses me. Some folks are so dang stingy with their avocados. Not these folks!

On the far side of the state we bedded down for the night, but not before visiting El Metate Tamale Factory, in a residential section of Gallup. At first we thought the map on the iPhone was wrong (this was our sole Yelp find on this trip), but we drove on through block after block of tiny houses, taking care not to knock over any of the swarms of kids who were playing in the street. Finally we found this local temple to the tamale.

bodacious tamales

That may well be the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, flavorful and well crafted (I’ve eaten many a sloppily constructed tamale in my day). Apparently we weren’t the only ones to scope out this place–there was a photo on the wall of the owner with t.v. chef Jamie Oliver. While we were there a woman came in who had grown up in Gallup but who was currently living in California. She placed an enormous order to go and while she waited, she waxed long and loud and eloquently to all of us in the place about how wonderful their tamales were and how she yearned for them as she was forced to survive life without them out west in the land of the lackluster tamale. And we thought California’s deficit was in the barbecue and fried chicken department! By the end of the evening we felt a kinship among ourselves, the tamale-starved woman, the staff and the other diners. Just one of those lovely little bonding experiences that can happen over food.

Our last day on the road took us to Williams, Arizona and Rod’s Steak House for lunch. I’ve looked forward to visiting Rod’s for a long time. Almost 60 years ago–to the day!–my parents drove from West Tennessee to California, picking up Route 66 in Oklahoma City. My dad had been called back into the Army and was shipping out of San Francisco to Korea. My mother was perhaps a whole two months pregnant with my brother. This was the biggest trip they’d ever take together.

Yep, it's what's fer the way, those "closed" signs were flipped around by the time we finished taking pictures.

My mother kept a scrapbook filled with mementos from their trip, and in it is a cow-shaped menu from Rod’s. Of course we had to stop there! I’m betting the place hasn’t changed a whole lot since my parents’ visit. I picked up another cow-shaped menu.

My mother's scrap book, the corner of which made a good chin scratcher for Blaze...

The menu certainly hasn’t changed much in 60 years, that is until you look inside:

Today's $27 filet mignon was $3.95 in 1952!

We opted for burgers over steaks, and those were some remarkably luscious burgers, as you’d expect in a place with a cow-shaped menu loaded with beef options. They had the taste and heft of burgers before the assembly line rendered most of them square, flat, rubbery and flavorless. They certainly fortified us for the home stretch, that last big push onward to LA.

We noted some curiously named restaurants along the way. My favorite was The Catfish Hole. Wow. Any restaurant name sounds classier if it has the word “hole” in it, don’t you think? Still, I’m betting the food there is good, but it was not mealtime when we rolled past, so we’ll have to save that adventure for another day. Ditto for the Pig Out Palace, the Catfish Roundup and the Cowpoke Cafe. I’m thinking that if you inquired about tofu options at any of these places, the piano music would stop, everyone would turn to stare at you and the lone cricket would commence his solo.

You’ve probably noticed that I didn’t include very many pictures of food in this entry, nor did I give many detailed descriptions of what we ate. The meals were all good, hearty stuff, some better than others. And some of those meals were without equal and worth the drive. All were provided by individuals and families, not the megacorporations with the snappy ad campaigns that make it so difficult for independent businesses to stay in afloat.

I appreciate these folks. I salute them. And the next time I drive cross country, I’ll give them my business.

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