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Roadfood of the Day: Rex - Billings, MT
Posted on Sunday, August 17, 2014


A large, crisp, cool wedge of iceberg lettuce, smothered in 1000 Island dressing: not a trendy salad, but one we love.
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Posted by Bob Carriker on Saturday, August 16, 2014 5:42 PM

Lea’s (pronounced Lee’s) is a true Southern classic. Alternately known as “Lea’s Lunch House” or just “Lea’s Pies,” they are renowned for their pies—of course—and their “dough baked” hams. Baking the hams in dough adds to their succulance and the salty and sweet meat they cut off the bones makes its way into various dishes at the lunch house. With a definative coffe-shop appeal, Lea’s is the type of community hang-out such that one table even commemorates the spot where a local couple became engaged.

The ham sandwich, in particular, is a standout and folks are known to pack them back arcoss the state (even though they don’t seem like an item that would travel very well). The cut of ham between the buns is liable to change from visit to visit ( chopped, sliced, chunked, or any combo of the three). No matter how they cut it, the meat is tender and flavorful : complimented with just enough mayo, chopped lettuce, tomato, and a pickle.

The pies, all made on the premises by Lea’s special bakers, harken back to a time when simplicity and hand-made goodness were taken for granted. Central Louisiana produces its fair share of pecans, so it is no surprise that the sweetly sweet and expertly crafted pecan pie stands as their most popular seller. However, when I asked the young lady behind the counter which pie she’d recommend if I could only eat one, she unflinchingly suggested the coconut. Good advice. Stacked with nearly four inches of the lightest merangue I’ve ever eaten, the pie’s filling is a smooth and rich pudding-like concoction of coconutty goodness. An otherwise good pie can be done in by a dry crust, but Lea’s flaky pastry is a perfect compliment.
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Roadfood of the Day: Stella's - Billings, MT
Posted on Saturday, August 16, 2014

Cinnamon Roll

Goo City: a big messy breakfast that requires multiple cups of coffee alongside. I had to take this picture fast before the melting butter globe slid completely off the hot roll.
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Posted by Michael Stern on Friday, August 15, 2014 5:18 AM

There is no need to qualify kudos for Big W's Roadside Bar-B-Q by adding "for New York" or "for the Northeast" to the statement that this is first class smoke-pit food. It's good by any standard. I am particularly impressed by the brisket, which is luxurious beyond all expectations, but still on the decent side of fatty. Pulled pork is a handsome sight -- all different-size shreds and hunks expertly separated from their fat. Perhaps too expertly, because this pork makes me long for the flavor buzz that slow-smoked fat provides.

Lucky me: cracklin's, which are like bacon but better, appear at the counter while I am eating. They're meant to be a garnish for mashed potatoes, but pitmaster Warren Norstein sees me oogling them and graciously offers a cluster to nosh. I have yet to try the burnt ends, which sound great mixed with sauteed onions, nor have I attacked a rack of ribs. I did have a serving of corn pudding on the side of the meats -- like bread pudding, but dotted with sweet kernels.
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Posted on Friday, August 15, 2014

Chocolate Ice Cream

Rich, and possessing a deep chocolate flavor. I'll skip the butterscotch topping next time.
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Posted on Thursday, August 14, 2014 10:24 AM
Peak of the Season

Tomatoes taste like tomatoes! Sweet corn is sweet! Ice cream becomes a daily necessity. Yes, it is the end of summer, which also means that state fair season is getting into full swing.

As writers who have spent a career honoring normal restaurants where normal people eat normal food, the outrageous indulgence of state fairs is a grand exception to our creed. There is not much that is normal about a good state fair. The whole point is to award excess: the biggest swine, the strongest oxen, the most meticulous map of the Americas made entirely of different colored beans. These joyful celebrations are loud, vulgar, folksy, and all about eating large. Of course, nagging food nannies find them horrifying. Fears about nutritional correctness are anathema on a midway grazing gauntlet of chicken-fried bacon (Texas), scones and raspberry jam (Washington state), Iowa pork chops, and fried dough yardsticks (New York). Not to mention fried candy bars, fried ice cream, fried butter, and fried Oreos.


Butter Art

And, oh, the fine art at a great state fair! Sculpture, in particular. Butter sculpture, that is – a specialty of dairy-state fairs, nowhere more wonderful than in Minnesota, where delicious, USDA Grade-A salted butter is transformed into busts of the state's several regional dairy princesses, vying for the top title, "Princess Kay of the Milky Way." They sit in a refrigerated studio all day swaddled in heavy winter jackets for sculptor Linda Christensen, who turns a 68-pound block of butter into a princess's likeness. The last time we visited the Minnesota fair, a sitting princess was kind enough to offer us tastes of the artist's shavings on a paper plate. Cold, dairy-fresh butter melting on your tongue on a hot day at the state fair: that's the way the end of summer tastes in Minnesota.

Do You Love Food Trucks?

Are food trucks the most fun, ever? Or are they only opportunities to wait in a long line for food prepared under dubious circumstances and presented in a sloppy way that practically guarantees drippage on clothes or dashboard? The answer, of course, depends on the truck. During a recent trip to the Idaho Panhandle, we were delighted to find Oak Street Court – a small park in Sandpoint where a handful of trucks offered everything from chili dogs to Thai banana crepes. As at a grand cafeteria, we inevitably find such clusters of trucks frustrating because they offer too many good things for one appetite to sample. We loved the Old Tin Can's burgers and Lily Pad shave ice, but never did taste Oak Street Court's Bad J's Texas Barbecue or Tug's smokie dogs. We anticipate similar problems during the October trip to Charlotte, where "Food Truck Friday" hosts the city's most illustrious mobile food wagons, including Papi Queso's outrageous grilled cheese sandwiches and Southern Cake Queen's Key lime pound cake.

Paul Mannion, chef/driver of the Green Grunion, a San Diego style burrito truck that usually appears in Kenosia Park in Danbury, Connecticut, did explain one hugely good thing about food trucks: they give restaurateurs the opportunity to launch a business without the expense of a fixed location. That reminded us that Super Duper Weenie, now one of the state's great hot dog emporia, started life as a truck (and still is a truck, for catering events).

Food Photos

If you are reading this newsletter, chances are good you take pictures of your food. We've been doing that for some 40 years, and when we started, taking Polaroids, 35mm slides, and large-format photos of everything we came across, people in restaurants thought we were either inspectors from the health department or certifiably insane. Why would anyone want to take a picture of a piece of pie or a chicken-fried steak? Of course, this was before the internet and the Food Network, and long before compact digital cameras. Here is a photo of our first encounter with real Texas barbecue, back in the early 1970s, at a place called Miller's, in Waelder:

Now, of course, lots of people photograph their meals, albeit less conspicuously. Is this a good thing? Or is it (are we) as annoying as people who blab on their cell phones in a nearby booth? In any case, I'll never regret taking this happy photo of two coffee-armed waitresses at the old Southern Kitchen in Charleston, West Virginia:

Posted by Michael Stern on Thursday, August 14, 2014 5:21 AM

Frito Pie

The Highland Park Soda Fountain, circa. 1912, is an anomaly. Whereas this Dallas neighborhood is rich and swanky (the TV show Dallas did location shooting here), the luncheonette, which until 2010 shared space with an actual, working drug store, endures as a relic of humbler times. The menu includes a panoply of soda fountain concoctions that would have made Archie and Veronica happy. Cherry Coke, anyone? A from-scratch cherry Coke, mind you.

Nothing I ate was in the least bit extraordinary, but the ordinariness of it all was itself rather amazing. A large number of ladies at tables and counter spoon into chili. It is not a formal Texas bowl of red, for it contains beans, but it is true luncheonette chili, a tremendously satisfying meal either by the bowl or spread across a plate of Fritos in Frito pie.

My chocolate soda was expertly concocted: first, chocolate syrup is squirted into a tall glass beaker; then a hard stream of soda gets jerked in, hitting the syrup hard enough that no spoon is needed to mix it; finally the whole foamy brew is topped with a couple of large scoops of vanilla ice cream. A long-handled spoon is provided; customers grab their own straws from a stash on the counter.
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Roadfood of the Day: Granary - Billings, MT
Posted on Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fine Dining

Billings has a number of restaurants that strive for culinary excellence. Of those we've tried, the Granary is at the top of the list.
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Roadfood of the Day: Lisa's - Greybull, WY
Posted on Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Puff Scrambles

A curious invention in which scrambled eggs are folded into delicate puff pastries and topped with hollandaise sauce. Breakfast meats can be included if desired. In lieu of toast on the side, we chose a slice of jalapeno polenta, which was moist and tongue-tingling hot.
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Posted by Michael Stern on Tuesday, August 12, 2014 4:27 AM

Double Brat

“My dears, everything we make is charcoaled except the BLTs and the egg salad,” a waitress informs us when we ask about the specialties at the Charcoal Inn, a luncheonette on the south side of Sheboygan (with another location at 1637 Geele Ave.). She points to a grill behind the counter where flames are licking up above the grate, and where sputtering Sheboygan brats are sending their pork-sausage sweetness into the air. (Brat, short for bratwurst, rhymes with hot.)

She suggests a double brat with the works. “People in Sheboygan like everything they eat with pickle, mustard, and onions, and butter oozing out on every side,” she informed us. Some brat enthusiasts add ketchup to the mix or delete the pickles or choose fried onions over raw ones, but every Sheboygan hot meat sandwich – brat, burger, or butterflied pork chop – drips butter.

A Charcoal Inn double brat is brought to the table without a plate. It is wrapped in wax paper, which you unfold and use as a dropcloth to catch dripping condiments. Each of the two brats inside the Sheboygan-style roll has been slit and flattened before getting grilled, which makes for an easily stacked sandwich. These are brats from Henry Poth, the esteemed butcher shop just down 8th Street, and they are deeply perfumed with spices that burst into blossom when they sizzle over a smoky charcoal fire. Thick and resilient but thoroughly tooth-tender, they are as luscious as sausage can be, oozing a delectable blend of meat juice and pure melted butter.

For dessert after a brat, one eats a torte. Tortes are another passion in the dairy state: the best way to get the maximum amount of cream flavor into a single piece of food. At the back of its little square dining room, the Charcoal Inn has a glass refrigerator case in which the day’s selection is kept. The lemonade torte is a square about four by four inches wide and two inches high. It is white and smooth, sitting on a pallet of Graham cracker crumbs, and there are other sweet crumbs on top, too; but in this dessert, the crumbs aren’t even a distraction. The thick band of faintly lemon-flavored torte has tremendous gravity, as if a pint of cream had been reduced, thickened, and sweetened. It is similar in texture to a cheese cake, but it is so pure and rich you want to call it cream cake.
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