Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
- Community Blog
- Tales of Adventure
"And I'll Take Some To Go..."
One of the more pleasant aspects of OTR or Over-The-Road Truck Driving is what I call "The Grand Culinary Adventure"---traveling around the country and sampling regional fare cooked by those with a passion for turning out good grub. I'm not talking about fancy restaurants, I'm talking about BBQ joints, sandwich shops, roadside stands, seafood markets and kiosks back East... all of those places where a hand can get a good meal for a decent price. In this short essay, I'll take readers to a few places where I've had some of the best food in my life. I'm no slouch as a cook, either, and I've been known to feed up to a dozen people here in my "Home 20" of Coronado, CA, making various dishes or slingin' heller BBQ. Although I carry a camp stove in my truck and often use it, there are times when I go out of my way to sample grub cooked by others.
Whenever I run up I-44 through Missouri, I make a point of stopping at Buckingham's BBQ in Springfield, consistently voted the best BBQ joint in the Ozarks. A big claim which covers a lot of ground, since there are countless BBQ joints in that area, many of them offering mighty tasty grub. But Buckingham's delivers on this claim, with luscious BBQ that literally melts in your mouth. The side dishes are also excellent, with a wide variety from which to choose. Believe it or not, I've never ordered anything but the "Jumbo #4 Sandwich Platter"---that was the very first meal I ordered way back in the day, and it was SO GOOD that I never bothered ordering anything else from the menu, although I have mixed it up with the sides, and sometimes ordered extra sides on top of the platter. I always ask the server to put both pulled pork and beef brisket on my sandwich... with several homemade sauces at each table, I'm in culinary heaven when I sit down and start macking. I can eat like a king, washing everything down with a large soft drink, and still be out the door for under $10, unless I order another sandwich to go so I have something delicious to mack later.
I used to run from San Diego to "The Big A" (Atlanta, GA) on a regular basis for one outfit, and I discovered the best sandwich shop by sheer coincidence. As a driver, I carry an "Exit Guide" with me in my truck; this guide lists truck stops, restaurants, hospitals, Walmarts, places of interest, the whole nine yards. After consulting the guide one day, I jumped off in Anniston, AL, to hit the Walmart SuperCenter. Walmarts are some of the few places where a hand can park a truck without major hassles. Once in the lot for the first time, I looked over to see the "Firehouse Sub Shop"---I wasn't in a big ol' hurry, so I decided to give the place a day in court. That shop has the best damned oven-baked meatball sandwich I've ever had in my life... the sandwich is smothered in sauce and melted cheese, and it probably has about 10,000 calories. The f-----r could feed an Ethiopian village for at least a month, and it's also dirt cheap; like Buckingham's, you're out the door for under $10. There must be 100 different bottles of hot sauce lined up on the counter... I usually mack right there in the shop, with half a dozen bottles of hot sauce at hand. Ever since I found this place, I've made a point of stopping there... I actually plan my trips around it, stopping in both directions the same way I do in Springfield if my loads happen to go that way.
Have you ever bought produce straight from the fields at those roadside stands in Georgia and the Carolinas? As readers can see from my photos, I'm a fairly active guy who's fully clued into enzyme nutrition, and I routinely stop at roadside stands if truck parking is available on the shoulder. Georgia gets all the credit, but there's nothing wrong with Carolina peaches, I assure you... the damned things are bursting with enzymes and flavor, luscious and juicy in season, and they're so messy that I usually eat 'em while outside the truck, or while standing on the side deck or upper running board, leaning outward while holding the mirror mount with one hand. You can buy peach cider too, which is absolutely delicious, and fresh blackberries so damned good they'll bring tears of joy to your eyes. And if you're in the habit of making sandwiches out of your cooler, using gourmet chicken salad, for example, you just haven't tasted a sweet Vidalia onion unless you bought the f-----r at a roadside stand outside Vidalia, GA. When I make sandwiches in my sleeper, I load 'em up with produce: fresh onion, tomato, avocado, hot peppers, the whole shebang. Like those meatball sandwiches I mentioned, these things have thousands and thousands of calories, topped as they are with Swiss, Muenster, or Pepper Jack cheese. You can buy pretty good raw and roasted peanuts down in Georgia too, unlike any you ever ate at your local ballpark.
I once ran out of hours after delivering a load in Gloucester City, NJ. This meant I had to pull a 34-hour restart before reloading and heading west. I drove into Camden looking for a place to chill out; Camden is a crime-ridden sh!thole, a straight-up ghetto chockablock with crackerheads and lot lizards, but the city did a good job of renovating the waterfront down on the Delaware River. After touring the NJ State Aquarium in Camden, I drove across the Ben Franklin Bridge and made my way to the waterfront in Philly, intent upon touring the historic tall ship "Moshulu" (a beautiful four-masted barque well worth visiting). I found parking for my truck near "Al's Pier 40 Cheesesteak Shack"---a tiny little joint that turns out some of the tastiest Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches and Grilled Italian Sausage Sandwiches you'll ever eat in your life. Hey, if you can't get a good Cheesesteak Sandwich on the waterfront in Philly, where the hell can you get one??? Torn between the Cheesesteak and the Grilled Italian Sausage, I said "F-- it!" and ordered one of each, and they were delectable. I macked the Cheesesteak and pounded a few cold beers in my sleeper, then roamed the decks of the Moshulu, which is an awesome ship. Afterward, I macked the still-warm Italian Sausage number, and it was so damned good I laughed out loud between luscious bites. Not for dieters, those sandwiches, but mighty tasty nevertheless.
I was cruising through Delaware one time, along a lesser known highway not frequented by many trucks, when I stumbled upon a small roadside shack that sold seafood: crab cakes, clam sandwiches, chowder and the like. The place didn't even have a name or signboard out front, it was just a tiny little shack that sold some of the freshest seafood I've ever eaten in my life... no idle claim, since I once worked as a deckhand aboard a sportfishing boat which operated out of San Diego, and I know a little bit about fresh seafood. I've also been to those all-you-can-eat crab-cracking eateries back East: Chesapeake Bay Seafood House, Alexandria Fish Market, and others of that nature, where customers can dine like royalty for a few lousy bucks. Maryland has some good little seafood shacks too, and the state is famous for its crab cakes, but that little shack in Delaware turned out some pretty good grub... good enough for me to wolf it standing right there by the shack, then order another round. Before the ugly BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one could find similar seafood shacks down there along the Gulf Coast, not to mention some pretty tasty Cajun eateries in that area. Some people don't like Cajun food, but I'm not one of 'em... I love sampling different cuisine, and I'll eat just about anything if it looks or smells tasty enough.
Speaking once more of those Gulf Coast States, I stumbled upon a little ol' truck stop off I-20 in western Alabama one day, and the restaurant had the best Southern Fried Chicken I've ever tasted. The place had nothing but elderly black women in the kitchen, but, boy, those little ol' ladies could cook like nobody's business... one meal was enough to convince me to stop there every single time I passed through. The side dishes were also heller good, regional in flavor and mighty tasty. One little ol' gal used to light up whenever I walked through the door... she remembered me, of course, and I never failed to enthusiastically commend her and her fellow cooks for putting forth such tasty vittles. I never bought fuel at that truck stop, but I always made a point of stopping there to eat at every opportunity. I never left hungry, either... and I never had any complaints. Sadly, that little truck stop closed down a few years ago, but I'll never forget that luscious, mouth-watering Southern Fried Chicken, or the nameless and kind-hearted little old ladies who worked the kitchen and cash register.
Chicago is another place that has great food... ah, Chi-Town, "The Windy City", where a hand can find anything to suit his palate. I've had many damned good meals there, in neighborhoods where I just happened to be loading or unloading down the street. I remember walking a block or two to a restaurant that specialized in gourmet hot dogs... damned if I can remember the name of that one-arm joint, but it had the best hot dogs I've ever eaten in my life. You might think: "Hot dogs??? WTF???" But you've never had hot dogs like these before... the establishment was entirely devoted to frankfurters, every imaginable kind made with myriad spices and seasonings, and at least a hundred different condiments from which to choose. Patrons grabbed trays and worked their way past the meat counter, then loaded their dogs sky-high with condiments. I had never eaten dogs like those before, and it was a real eye-opening experience for this chowhound. I've eaten all kinds of food in Chicago: steaks, freshwater fish, Chinese and heaps of other ethnic foods, but I'll always remember that hot dog joint with mouth-watering fondness.
Speaking of steaks, you can buy a pretty damned good one just about anywhere in Nebraska. Omaha is famous for its beef, of course, but I used to make a point of stopping at the Petro in York just to mack specially-ordered steaks from the menu or BBQ beef off the buffet table. They had a good cook there back in the day, and the beef supplied by surrounding farms and ranches was some of the best I've ever had. I've been to those steakhouses in Kansas City too, and their food doesn't suck, but I'll always remember those steaming plates of delicious BBQ beef piled high at the Petro. Man, that was some good eatin'... sure, you can find good steakhouses and chophouses throughout the Midwest, and clear down to Texas, but it's those unexpected gourmet meals that really make one appreciate life. Nothin' like good food available for a relatively cheap price, unlike some of the rip-off poser restaurants in certain urban areas. I'll take a little ol' solitary steakhouse tucked away in the country over a nationally-recognized urban chain restaurant any day of the week.
When I used to pull reefer wagons, I'd often load up at those dairies in Wisconsin, and those places had the best damned milk and cheese I've ever tasted. I already mentioned my fondness for chocolate milk in a previous post, but I must add that the chocolate milk available in that neck of the woods is the bomb, like night and day compared to other places. The milk is so fresh and delicious, you'd think the cow just broke with it seconds ago... and the cheeses are so tasty you can eat 'em alone, or slap 'em in your sandwiches if you're so inclined. Some people are down on dairy products for so-called health reasons, but I gotta have my milk and cheese. I don't buy into the bullsh!t: anything that tastes that good has to be health food!!! Don't get me wrong, you can buy some pretty good dairy products in other farm areas nationwide, but those dairy products up in "The Badger" (WI) are famous for a reason. The coolest places to load up there were the ones where some ol' boys would give you samples of their wares while you were waiting to get your truck loaded... some of those places had refrigerators chock-full of primo dairy products in their employee lunch rooms, and the boys would tell you to grab whatever you wanted if you were hungry or thirsty. Good old-fashioned hospitality goes a long way in my book, believe me.
How about the Pacific Northwest? Have you ever had smoked salmon so tasty it brought a smile to your face? I don't mean that packaged crap meant for tourists, I mean salmon straight from the smoker, hot and delicious... and what about crisp apples grown in Washington State? The kind that make noise when you eat 'em, they're that crisp. Sure, there's an apple festival in Julian, CA, but did you know many of the apples sold, pressed, or made into "Julian Apple Pie" are actually harvested up north and shipped down to San Diego? Local growers can't produce enough to meet the demand, you see, so truckloads of apples are brought down and thrown into the mix. Maybe they should change some of the package labels to reflect this reality: "Yakima Apple Pie" and "Chelan Apple Pie" just don't have the same ring to 'em, I suppose. Anyway, you can buy a mighty fine and unbelievably crisp apple up there in eastern Washington, if you happen to be in that part of the country. The cider is pretty good too, but if you leave it on your back doorstep for too long, it might just ferment and turn hard... which isn't a bad thing, if you like cider and you're not driving.
Well, all this talk about food is making me hungry (lol), but before I sign off and make breakfast (Sunday is gourmet omelette day), I have to say a word or two about roach coaches. Sure, we've all made fun of these mobile kitchens, perhaps with good reason, but I must admit that I've had some pretty darned good grub off these wagons in various locations nationwide. I once loaded my truck at some warehouse in Chino, CA, and the roach coach that rolled into the yard had some of the best burritos I've ever eaten. I'm no slouch at making burritos, and I'm known in my own small circle of friends for making some delicious gourmet burritos, using chicken, shrimp, Chilean Sea Bass and assorted other fillings, with heaps of fresh-cooked vegetables and hot peppers in the mix... but the burritos sold off that roach coach were mighty tasty, I assure you. Big sonsofbitches too, weighing several pounds each, I reckon. And the hot sauce was also gourmet quality, none of that rancid crap seen aboard other roach coaches in the past. I paid $5 for two huge burritos, grabbed a styrofoam cup full of fresh salsa, and macked every last bite in my sleeper, washing it all down with one of those Mexican sodas to add authenticity... I'm tellin' ya, that meal was F----G DELICIOUS, and easily worth every last penny of the lousy $5 I paid. So don't be too hasty in writing off roach coaches, just because a few crappy ones give the industry a bad name. As long as there's a good conscientious cook aboard that wagon, you can buy some mighty tasty grub dirt cheap in the most unexpected locations.
Okay, that's my spiel for now, time to prepare my standard Sunday morning meal... whenever I'm here at the house, I make an omelette with the works on Sunday. I call it "the cholesterol feast" in jest, but it's usually pretty damned good, and filling too... I won't have to eat again till tonight, if I even eat at all. But that's what life is all about, enjoying oneself to the absolute limit. Yeah, I've heard all the bullsh!t about health risks and whatnot, and I couldn't care less. If I die ten years sooner because I use real butter on my toast, so be it... at least I'll die happy, and I won't have to force down any of that fake margarine or oleo spread. That crap might work okay for lubricating auto or machine parts, but I'm damned if I'll eat it. Give me real butter every time, and plenty of it. I once ate some blueberry buttermilk pancakes at a truck stop in Rapid City, SD, topped with real butter and real Vermont Maple Syrup, and they were the best pancakes I ever ate... good enough for me to clearly remember them fourteen years later. Alright, I'm outta here, my stomach is positively growling after writing this short essay... enjoy your day, and don't be afraid to put something new or different on your plate at mealtime, 10-4??? CIAO!!! "THE RAILSPLITTER"