The joys and dilemmas of road food (Looking West #3)

Ted Grimsrud—February 18, 2019

For as long as I can remember, I have loved road maps. When I was maybe 13 I found an almost mint condition road map for Oregon from 1950. What was special about that map was that it was of Oregon before the Interstate Highway System. I was fascinated especially by Highway 99 before it was superseded by I-5. Quite a few of the little towns, especially in the southern part of the state, virtually disappeared after the new highway came—Divide, Curtain, Wilbur, Azalea, Wolf Creek….

I spent hours imagining road trips around 1950s Oregon. Then, when I got hold of a road atlas for the entire US, the imaginary trips expanded. Finally, in 1971 when I was 17 I was able to hit the road with my parents and younger sister. We drove all the way out to Virginia. We mostly followed the interstates, and I got to drive about half the time. One highlight, though, was when I drove through pre-I-64 West Virginia in the rain. That was a long but beautiful drive. Since we moved to Virginia in 1996, I learned that the road I drove back in 1971 still exists in much the form it had back then because I-64 traversed a much different path. US Route 60 (the “Midland Trail”) from Charleston to Lewisburg remains a long and beautiful drive.

Happily, when I married Kathleen I found a kindred spirit who also loves road trips. We got started pretty slowly since we didn’t have a car for the first ten years of our marriage (though we did borrow her parents’ car for a memorable trip from Arizona to Indiana to Saskatchewan and back in 1983). But once we got our new Honda in 1991 we took every chance we could get. We’ve driven back and forth across the country at least seven times, with quite a few shorter trips as well. We would have liked to have done more and hope still to take many trips. We’ve learned that we have extra fun when we avoid the interstates as much as possible (at least once we made it all the way from Harrisonburg, VA to Eugene, OR, without a single mile of interstate driving).

Road trips mean road food

I have to admit to having a less than sophisticated palette when it comes to meals while traveling. All too often, I have been content to settle for fast food chains or bags of snack food. Even so, from time to time we have randomly struck gold. Surely the most interstate- and fast food-intensive cross country trip came in 1998 when it was just our son Johan (then 16) and me. But we stumbled upon a terrific breakfast spot in the mountains west of Missoula, MT (it might have been Durango’s in Superior, MT). If the two of us were to repeat that drive, that’s the one place where we ate that we would return to, as Johan would never stand for fast food these days.

When Kathleen and I started figuring out how to go west from Virginia to Oregon and Washington while avoiding interstates, we also began to pay more attention to finding decent, out of the way, non-chain places to eat. At first, we simply tried to guess at what looked good when we approached mealtime. Then, we joined AAA and I would try to plan ahead of time using the AAA Trip-Tik service that provided restaurant reviews. For one trip, this approach put us in one Mexican restaurant after another in places such as Ames, IA; Chadron, NE; Sandpoint, ID; Montrose, CO; Dodge City, KS; and Poplar Bluff, MO. Not real creative, but they were satisfying stops—we never tire of Mexican food.

Then, on a short trip to West Virginia, we followed AAA recommendations and ate at a dud (Italian, not Mexican). I did a little checking and discovered that the restaurants that AAA reviews all pay a fee for that service. That knowledge kind of soured us on the Trip-Tik approach.

About the same time, smart phones arrived on the scene, though we were late to invest in that technology. On a trip through New England with Kathleen’s brother and sister-in-law, we saw the power of mobile internet access for the first time. We were driving into Rutland, VT, at suppertime and had no idea where to eat. Mary got on-line and found a really nice local Italian restaurant.

So, when we got our phones, we started utilizing Google maps user reviews. Some of the other apps such as Trip Advisor and Yelp have also proved helpful, though Google is the easiest for me to use and has generally been reliable. My rule of thumb is to seek places that have a 4.5 rating or higher.

The best road food ever

Still, the greatest experience of road food Kathleen and I have ever had happened completely due to good luck. We were driving through wide open spaces in the northeast corner of Wyoming heading toward Montana as lunch time neared. When we entered Montana we saw a small billboard that claimed that The Judge’s Chambers in Broadus, MT, had the best food in 500 miles. We thought, why not? It’s not like we had many other options.

So we pull into this tiny town a bit before noon. We find the restaurant on a side street and the proprietor is out front sweeping the porch. Come on in, he tells us. We would be their first customers of the day. In fact, we are their first customers of the year—they were just re-opening after being closed for the winter. And was this place nice! The food was terrific, gourmet even. The chef was British and was professionally trained. People would fly their private planes from Denver just to eat there. A few more people filtered in as we ate, and business promised to pick up once word got out that they were open again.

Several years later on our next cross-country drive we made a point to get there at lunchtime again. But the restaurant was closed. We knew where the owner might be and we managed to track her down. She told us, sadly, that the chef had left and she couldn’t find a replacement. She still hoped to, but wasn’t optimistic. We made it back one more time on our 2015 trip, and there were no sign of the restaurant even existing any more. But we are sure we really did eat there!

A new resource

Now we have a newly discovered resource, thanks again to sister-in-law Mary. She discovered the web site some time ago. I think she may have one of the Road Food books too. This site has reviews of eating spots from around the country that, as a rule, are out of the way, locally owned, and reflect local cuisine. But also, as a rule, they are not super sophisticated, “foody” places so much as long-standing local standbys frequented by working people and knowledgeable travelers. Most travelers, though, wouldn’t know about these places.

A couple of months ago, Mary had us try a recommended place. It was the Orlean Market and Pub in the village of Orlean, VA—out in the middle of nowhere, about 30 miles south of I-66 a ways west of Washington, DC. It was a charming place, and my Reuben sandwich was fairly good. But it was clear that the review was out of date. I don’t think we felt that the drive was worth it, except that it was an experience.

Then, attempt number two came a few days later when we were returning Mary and Paul to New York City. This time it was the Dutch Kitchen in Frackville, PA—not quite four hours from home, perfect timing for lunch. And this one was a winner. Old fashioned Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. I had turkey pot pie that was excellent. The others were all quite happy with their meals.

So I spent some time at the website. They have reviews for hundreds of places around the country (41 in Virginia). They give ratings that go up to 5 stars (the Dutch Kitchen got 4 1/2 stars), though a perfect 5 is unusual. The one 5 I found with a quick search was Snappy Lunch in Mt. Airy, NC, whose featured menu item is a breaded and fried boneless pork chop sandwich. And I discovered that our local Fulks Run Grocery made the cut and has a killer fried ham sandwich served only on Fridays.

I can easily imagine a road trip out to the West Coast that would be guided by Road Food. The big problem is that I am striving mightily now to avoid eating things like fried pork chop sandwiches. Maybe I can find a site, and we can alternate meals between the two sets of recommendations.

[This is the next in a series of blog posts under the rubric of “Looking West” that will include reflections on numerous issues of our current day—politics, theology, memoirs, spirituality, and what not. An index for the series may be found at “Looking West.”]

5 thoughts on “The joys and dilemmas of road food (Looking West #3)

  1. Loved this post as we love road trips and finding local places to eat. One of our tricks is to head into the “downtown” area of small towns and look for their version of Main St; that often pans out for us. Please do take a road trip out West sometime soon! We would love to host you and Kathleen in Portland.

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