MI-IL-MO-KS-NE-IA - September 2009
By way of introduction, I'm Mike. I'm a long-time lurker, and a first-time poster. For the past few years I have been scouring Roadfood.com every time I hit the road on my frequent trips around the Midwest and beyond. In my younger years I went through the predictable phases of growing up eating bland suburban food, discovering ethnic cuisine, and becoming an irritating wannabe food snob for a while. With the wisdom of my advancing years, I have now gone back to my roots and have been seeking out real local cuisine, homely as it may be. Local color can be hard to come by in North America, but I find the effort is doubly rewarded. I'm sure every one of you knows exactly what I mean -- that's why you're here.
I can trace my interest in road food back to a trip to Utah in 2000. I was in a gas station convenience store poring covetously over the candy bar selection when I spied a drab brown wrapper labeled "Idaho Spud." Bewildered, I bought it. The rest is history.
So I want to thank all of you for the time you have put into posting on this site. Your suggestions have enriched my life and my waistline for the past several years, and now I want to start giving something back.
------------------------- MI-IL-MO-KS-NE-IA, September 2009
John and I have to drive from our home base in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Independence, Missouri a couple times a year for different events. This year we added a swing through Omaha and across Iowa to the end of the trip, and as is customary, made as many stops as we could at Roadfood-style restaurants.
In the 175 miles along I-94 west from Ann Arbor to the Indiana border, we have never really found anywhere interesting to eat. So our trip started inauspiciously, with a quick stop at:
Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits
200 Baker Rd
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
I'm sure I just lost 75% of you right there. In our defense, we had never been to a Popeye's before, and John is a connoisseur of fried chicken, and we wanted to set a low benchmark for the rest of the trip, and it was easy to eat the Big Easy Chicken Bowl while speeding down the highway, and no illness resulted. This photo is really all you need to see:
The next day we made it to Springfield, Illinois, one of our favorite road food towns, right at lunchtime. That meant:
Joe Rogers' Chili Parlor
820 S 9th St
Springfield, IL 62703-1624
Now this is a popular place -- we had to circle like a shark to snatch a parking spot. I tend to stand for a long time gaping indecisively at behind-the-counter menus, which is not always welcome behavior at a place crowded with locals on their lunch hours, but the woman behind the counter was very patient with us and explained their system and options. The food came on a tray almost instantaneously. John, who loves chili more than many people love their own children, was talked down from the extra hot to a medium, and was glad. He pronounced the chili to be rather traditional, filling, and spicy, with a surprisingly high meat-to-sauce ratio. He felt it was very good, but not on his list of memorable favorites.
I ordered the chili-cheese dog, which was served open-faced, and most effectively eaten with a fork and knife. The cheese seemed to be of the processed variety, but the overall taste was to my liking. The chili dog had the seasoned ground beef without the tomato sauce of the bowled chili.
Considering that our drives often take us past Springfield, we both agreed that we would come back to Joe Rogers' again sometime.
I had hoped to follow up my chili dog with a glazed donut from local Springfield chain Mel-O-Cream, whose buildings and signage retain a charming 1961 irreverence, but it was closed by the time we got there. To my eternal frustration, I have never actually seen a Mel-O-Cream that was open, so my advice is to go before the sun comes up.
Late that same day, as we drove down I-35, we decided we couldn't wait to get all the way into Kansas City to gorge on barbecue. Our GPS told us there was a barbecue place nearby, so we swerved off the freeway and took our seats at:
129 E Washington St
Kearney, MO 64060-8392
Kearney is a little town with a big marketing campaign based on the fact that Jesse James was born and grew up there, and is now a resident of a local cemetery. Thus the "outlaw" theme at Outlaws Barbecue. The restaurant takes up two old storefronts in Kearney's compact, well-preserved old business district, with high ceilings, a nice old bar, and your choice of ESPNs. The outlaw-kitsch decor will appeal to the Jesse James groupies. Our waitress was very attentive and a shameless but charming up-seller, telling us after our meal that we could just order the dessert to go if we didn't have room.
Having entered the part of the US controlled by Kansas City's Boulevard Brewery, we ordered a pair of Boulevard Wheats and split the barbecue sampler platter. This came with some ribs and sliced beef, ham, and turkey, with a side of beans and fries. The ribs were dry, but not in a bad way; it gave them more of a cured meat texture than I'm used to for ribs, which was interesting. Of the sliced meats, the ham was my favorite, and the sides were very tasty -- in fact, I found the fries unusually good, and I'm not usually a big French fry fan.
There is so much competition for good barbecue in Kansas City that I wouldn't advocate Outlaws Barbecue as a special destination for the KC visitor, but if you need a meal and happen to be in or near Kearney, I would say give it a try.
Everyone knows that Kansas City is a road food heaven. What visitors may not realize is that Independence, about 10 miles east of downtown KC, is also worth a visit. Aside from the commercial strips along I-70, most of Independence seems to have been preserved in a form that Harry Truman would still recognize. And that extends to the local restaurant scene, with the Hi-Boy Drive-Ins, the amazing Dixon's Chili, the Trolley Inn (in an actual converted streetcar), and Mugs Up Root Beer Drive-In, just to name a few. These places have not been "rediscovered" -- they have just continued on serving their loyal local clientele for 50, 60, even 80 years.
10904 E Winner Rd
Independence, MO 64052
Our Wednesday lunch break took us to the Englewood Cafe, tucked into the back of a 50s commercial building in the very charming little Englewood shopping area. VERY charming. This is a street that Hollywood location scouts should know about for their 1950s period pieces. The Englewood Cafe attracts a rather elderly crowd for their home-style cooking. The day we were there, they had seven different lunch specials, in addition to the traditional favorites on the menu.
I opted for the chicken-fried steak sandwich, served open-face with mashed potatoes and covered in an ample helping of gravy.
John went for the pan-fried chicken, and picked black-eyed peas and mashed potatoes as his sides.
The food was fine but not particularly memorable. Flecks of black pepper were sparsely distributed around the gravy, which lacked zest. The coffee was watery. But this is exactly why the Englewood Cafe is thronged with the neighborhood's senior citizens. There has probably never been a jalapeno pepper within six blocks of the place. With all the other notable food destinations in Independence, the road food connoisseur should turn his or her attention elsewhere when visiting the area.
After almost a week of banquet food punctuated by the occasional home-cooked meal or handful-of-cookies lunch, the following Monday we once again hit the road. Our first stop was in the prison-happy town of Leavenworth, Kansas, where we had lunch at:
Pullman Place Family Restaurant
230 Cherokee St
Leavenworth, KS 66048-2819
We had intended to eat at the Corner Pharmacy, but I had garbled the address in my notes and we didn't find it. Impatient and hungry, we instead went to the Pullman Place, which seemed to be sucking in all nearby pedestrians. Inside this non-descript building on the southeast edge of downtown Leavenworth, savvy locals had packed in to have what ended up being above-average family restaurant fare amid a decor of eye-catching antique railroad memorabilia.
In keeping with the railroad theme, the burgers on the menu were named after famous railroads, and being in northeast Kansas, I couldn't resist ordering the egg-topped Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe burger. I don't have the command of language to be a serious burger critic, but I was pleasantly surprised, remarking several times to John how much I liked it.
For his part, John had an "unusually good" bowl of bacon-studded baked potato soup, followed by a French dip whose details are lost to history but which is fondly remembered. The staff swirled around the crowded restaurant with choreographed precision and we were served with a cool efficiency. Unfortunately, I did not take any photos at this place, so you'll just have my words to go on.
Our next stop was just up the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. Atchison has done an amazing job of preserving the best of 1970s small-town living, with a main street (converted into a canopied 70s pedestrian mall) full of functioning businesses, including not one but two pharmacies with lunch counters! A combination of curiosity and thirst took us into:
Ball Brothers Health Mart
504 Commercial St
Atchison, KS 66002-2419
I asked the woman behind the counter what their specialty was, and she indicated that lots of people like the Green River phosphate. "It's pretty sweet," she warned me. Bravely and perhaps foolishly, I ordered a large. She assembled my beverage by pumping some iridescent green lemon-lime syrup into a cup, then filling it up with Sierra Mist. Now, Sierra Mist is already plenty sweet without the addition of a sugar syrup, and the end result was overpowering. I wasn't able to finish it. Health Mart, indeed! Next time I go to a soda fountain, I will get something a little less intense.
By dinner time we had just crossed the border into Nebraska, and aimed our car at:
1324 Harlan St
Falls City, NE 68355-2615
Sometimes when you are roadfooding, there are some grey areas, and Runza is one of them. Yes, it's a fast food chain, ubiquitous in eastern Nebraska, but it is unique to that region and its namesake menu item is unique to fast food. So we had our first Runzas.
"Whatza Runza? A Runza sandwich is homemade dough, stuffed full of ground beef, cabbage, onions and spices, and then baked fresh and served hot."
There were two Runza versions on the menu: traditional and mushroom & swiss. We ordered one of each, as well as a side order called "Frings", an inspired name for an inspired concept: a mixture of French fries and onion rings.
The Runzas themselves were definitely miles away from anything I have had at a fast food restaurant. The bread is smooth and chewy, kind of like a bagel but not as dense. The fillings are more flavorful than a typical fast food burger -- of course, you can't go wrong with cabbage. Two thumbs up on the Runzas
The onion rings were unusual: clothed in a thick crispy cornmeal batter, they were not greasy at all, and in fact seemed to lack salt as well. The lack of seasoning was their downfall, because otherwise they would have been very good. The fries were typical fast food fries. John rated his chili as "fine", but not as good as Wendy's chili.
Our final verdict was that we wish Runzas were more widespread, because we would like to have a Runza option when faced with the horror of a fast food meal. I hope you Nebraskans appreciate what you have there.
Tuesday we spent in an around Omaha. Our morning meetings were in the southern suburb of Bellevue, right by one of America's legendary hamburger places:
106 Galvin Rd S
Our host in Bellevue was a long-time resident, having been stationed at the nearby air force base during the 60s and 70s, and he said that Stella's has always been popular with the military crowd. I can think of no better recommendation than that. Although Stella herself is apparently no longer with us, her restaurant and recipes live on in a relatively new but still-quaint building.
I'm one who usually just drinks tap water with my meals, but when I saw that they had grape soda on the menu, I couldn't pass that up. It came in a can, but no matter. The burgers came on paper napkins, a gimmick which I assume goes way back, but which really doesn't lend itself to the juiciness of these burgers. And they are juicy. My patty melt and John's cheeseburger both were sloppy and delicious, with generous helpings of perfectly fried onions.
More onions were to be found in our basket of onion rings, which had a more traditional light and flaky breading than yesterday's Runza rings, and were perfectly seasoned. Others have surely made more detailed and colorful descriptions of the Stella's burgers, and I will agree wholeheartedly with whatever they say. Stella's deserves its place in the pantheon of burger joints.
Our marketing-savvy waitress was nice enough to take a photo of her happy customers:
By the time the sun went down on Tuesday, our stomachs had emptied enough for dinner -- or so we thought. Unbeknownst to us, our host Lew was planning to take us to Omaha's ancient south-side Central European eatery, where a single entree could feed a family of four:
1406 S 13th St
Omaha, NE 68108-3504
The Bohemian Cafe is an Omaha institution, having been in business since 1924, serving the old Slavic community on the city's south side. Unlike many of the places I previously reviewed, the Bohemian Cafe seems to have been reanimated of late by a younger crowd, who mix with the more traditional clientele. Although the crowds have changed, the food has not. This is stolid, non-trendy food, served on heavy plates in a throwback atmosphere.
There seems to be a continuum of cuisine across northern and eastern Europe, continuing through the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East. Czech food, at least as served at the Bohemian Cafe, is on that continuum right next to Germany, and is very similar. Not wanting to deviate from tradition, we started our meal with a pair of draft Pilsner Urquells, served in cute ceramic mugs.
Out came the basket of caraway rye bread, followed by a cup of liver dumpling soup -- about the only form in which I will eat liver.
Suitably appetized, we were then treated to our gargantuan main courses. I opted for the Czech version of sauerbraten (see, I told you it's like German food), with sauerkraut and dumplings, all covered in a mild yellow sauce. Notice in the photo how the plate hangs over the edge of the placemat. These are not diet-friendly servings.
The sauerbraten was tender and tasty -- I think after 85 years the restaurant has had time to perfect its recipe. The sauerkraut had a perfect amount of tartness and an almost creamy texture. The dumplings were strange: dry and sliced like bread from some mega-dumpling in the kitchen. Strange but good, and a great antidote to the tang of the beef and the cabbage, as well as an ideal way to sop up the gravy.
John bravely ordered the boiled beef with dill gravy special, with the sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. The boiled beef was, well, boiled beef, but John did rave about the dill gravy.
Lew had the good sense to take half his dinner home in a box, but since we were leaving in the morning, John and I instead consumed our complete entrees, which I didn't think would be physically possible.
Central European food is not about delicacy and refinement, it's about broad strokes. If French food is a harp, then Czech food is a tuba. The Bohemian Cafe is not for food snobs, but it's a worthy stop for the doughty roadfooder.
To our surprise, after our ten-pound Bohemian meals the previous night, we actually were ready for some food again by early afternoon on Wednesday. Lunchtime found us in the tiny southwest Iowa town of Villisca, for a stop at:
D & D Bar & Grill
307 E 4th St
Villisca, IA 50864-1146
This is a place that has never been mentioned in the Roadfood.com forums, but was listed by the author of Iowa: An Explorer's Guide
as having her favorite pork tenderloin sandwich in the state.
Villisca is not easy to get to. It is between nowhere and nowhere. Luckily, we happened to be driving from nowhere to nowhere, so we dropped in. The D&D is in an old commercial building on the town square. One consequence of Villisca's location and not being Roadfood.com-listed is that you get the distinct impression that they don't get a lot of outsiders there. The D&D is a place where everyone knows everyone else, as we saw during our visit, when the lone woman working as cook and server greeted everyone by name as they came in. The lunch crowd was not big -- just us and three farmers sitting behind us talking shop. A big, loud TV showing All My Children
provided the entertainment.
In our travels across Indiana and Iowa, we have tried many pork tenderloin sandwiches, but only a few have remained in my memory. "Best in Iowa" is a tough label to live up to, but the D & D's tenderloin must rank as a competitor.
This is a no-nonsense tenderloin, thrown in the fryer behind the bar where you can hear it sizzle. It is not pounded out to the size of a hubcap, so it's actually edible as a sandwich without folding. Unusually, the pork curls up into a convex form, so the edges actually extend higher than the top of the bun.
It's fresh, crispy, and juicy, served just with a couple pickle slices and some squeeze bottles of ketchup and mustard. Simple and delicious. Like, really good.
I would encourage the Sterns to pay a visit to the D & D to see how their experienced palates respond to this elemental pork tenderloin sandwich.
Our Wednesday dinner in Lamoni, Iowa, was (gasp!) healthy food at the local cafe, so that is outside the purview of this trip report. However, for Thursday lunch we discovered the new:
109 S Spruce Dr
Lamoni, IA 50140-6300
This Maid-Rite is in a newly constructed Lamoni visitor's center next to the US-69 exit on I-35, just north of the Missouri border. The building also contains a shop with products from the local Amish community, as well as an official Iowa welcome center with its racks and racks of brochures.
I think people here agree that Maid-Rite gets the same fast food exemption that Runza does. Why should we punish a small regional chain just because they successfully use a franchise model? Of course we shouldn't.
Maid-Rite has been amply discussed and illustrated elsewhere, so suffice it to say that we enjoyed our loosemeat sandwiches as we always do, and once again lamented that Maid-Rite has not yet conquered the world. The thought of a Maid-Rite/Runza co-brand in Ann Arbor makes me weak in the knees.
Later in the day, our swing through Des Moines took us past:
3802 Ingersoll Ave
Des Moines, IA 50312-3487
From all accounts, Bauder's is a beloved local Des Moines landmark. In a non-descript building in the fashionable North of Grand neighborhood west of downtown Des Moines, Bauder's is a small old-style pharmacy with lunch counter. Behind the pharmacist's counter at the back of the store are shelves of big old-fashioned dark glass bottles that look like the store room of an alchemist.
The lunch counter has a few stools and serves the usual selection of lunch counter options. Having read the rave reviews of Bauder's ice cream, but in too much of a hurry to linger over a sundae, I ordered a hot fudge malt to go. Considering that it cost over $3.00, I expected more than the little eight-ounce cup that I got, but this is some amazingly rich ice cream. Thick, heavy, and dense, my malt was no thin Dairy Queen concoction that you can easily slurp down 20 ounces of in 90 seconds.
The dreary, rainy day quelled my inspiration to take photos, but these two capture some of the details that you may not see in other write-ups of Bauder's:
In the same way that no franchise brand has ever managed to create a nationwide gyros chain, none of the candy conglomerates has ever entered the seemingly limitless market for cherry-based chocolate bars. As a result, that market is left to small, historic regional candy manufacturers. This is why I always scan the convenience store candy racks in far-flung parts of the US for unusual cherry candy bars (more like "candy blobs" than "candy bars", in this case). Among these are the Cherry Mash (Chase Candy Company, St. Joseph, Missouri), the Twin Bing (Palmer Candy Company, Sioux City, Iowa), and the Cherry Cocktail (Owyhee Candy Company, Boise, Idaho). Iowa is definitely the territory for the cherry candy bar, so you should make sure to get one when you're filling up your car.
Alas, our last two meals on this long trip, in Iowa City and Davenport, were indulgences of one of our other interests, micro-brewed beer, and so the food and beer reviews are outside the scope of this trip report. But as we drove off into the rain-streaked, overcast sunset, I had one last road food moment, enjoying my Cherry Mash from the Kum & Go as we sped home across the fields of Illinois.