Good road food story about a not so happy happening
He really goes the distance to savor Stroud’s
By STEVE PAUL
The Kansas City Star
By the time Paul Sepe arrives in Kansas City later this week, the odometer on his 1985 Volkswagen GTI will read somewhere around 910,000 miles.
Original engine. Worn, bachelor interior. Sepe is nothing if not passionate about driving.
And one more thing: He’s passionate about food.
He knows what he likes.
When he learned that on New Year’s Eve, Stroud’s would end its seven-decade run in its original 85th Street roadhouse, he had no doubt where he’d spend that festive night.
They don’t make chicken like that where Sepe lives in northern New Hampshire.
“They don’t make chicken like that anywhere else,” Sepe asserts.
So he’s making one more journey to his favorite restaurant in the world. Fifteen hundred miles one way for a plate or two of pan-fried chicken.
This will be his second trip to Kansas City and Stroud’s this year.
You might say Sepe, 42, has a driving passion for this city and one of its best-known eateries, which is being forced to relocate by a street-and-bridge project.
Although he says he doesn’t keep count, he figures he has dropped in as many as 80 times in the last dozen years.
Sepe (pronounced SEE’-pee) is a self-employed software engineer who writes custom corporate databases. Whenever he crisscrosses the continent for business or pleasure, he’ll stop here for chicken, plus barbecue and a handful of other attractions that have turned him into an unlikely ambassador for Kansas City’s quiet charms.
“Of all the cities in the U.S.,” he said, “Kansas City is one of my favorites.”
Kansas City seems to be on Sepe’s way to almost anywhere.
To Mexico. The West Coast.
He’ll drive hundreds of miles out of his way to get here.
From Lancaster, N.H., to Seattle? Done it.
On the way home from Winnipeg, Manitoba? Why not?
On a monthlong, 16,000-mile trip across Canada, up through Alaska, to the Arctic and back, Sepe headed home from Vancouver, British Columbia, by way of Stroud’s.
For a while Sepe made monthly business trips to Colorado. He stopped at Stroud’s every time.
Family and friends have sometimes joined him here for meals, coming in from Chicago or either coast. A few think him a bit nutty about the heartland. But they’ve also been convinced.
When Sepe first told his friend Yoshi Baba about the chicken he’d discovered in Kansas City, the Japanese immigrant didn’t understand why he’d travel so far for something like KFC.
“I used to think he was an idiot,” says Baba, a software engineer in Boston. “But now I seem to be a similar type person.”
Baba once rearranged a flight from Japan to Boston so he could deplane in Kansas City. Sepe, driving home from a vacation in Mexico, picked him up at the airport.
Where for dinner?
What do you think?
“I was amazed,” Baba says of that first meal at Stroud’s. “It wasn’t KFC.”
Baba has returned to Stroud’s a few times himself, most recently a year ago on a driving vacation with his pregnant wife and 9-year-old daughter. His wife prefers barbecue, he says, but he’s committed to Stroud’s.
Sepe’s passion for Stroud’s began in 1993, sparked by the noted road-food writers Jane and Michael Stern. (“Stroud’s makes the most delicious fried chicken in America,” they still note on their roadfood.net Web site.) After living in Germany a couple of years and driving all over Europe, Sepe realized he’d never seen much of North America. He began traveling extensively to make up for that.
It was on one of those trips that he stopped at Stroud’s Northland location. He had work to keep him busy during the two-hour wait, then bellied up to a dream.
“I couldn’t believe it was chicken,” he says. “I thought maybe it had to have been genetically altered.”
Not so far as anyone knows. It’s just a secret recipe and cooking process.
“He’s about the most unique customer we have,” says Stroud’s owner Mike Donegan. “I travel vicariously through him.”
While in Kansas City, Sepe also has worked up a liking for barbecue from Arthur Bryant’s and Snead’s in Belton. One night last July he was introduced to Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City, Kan., and after downing a plate of smoked chicken and fries, he went back for seconds — a half-slab of ribs.
The next two nights he had dinner at Stroud’s. His usual — the three-breast plate with cottage fries and all the rest.
Then he was off for an all-night drive back East. For dinner the next day, he met a friend at De Lorenzo’s in Trenton, N.J., his favorite place for pizza.
Sepe has managed to feed his passion without showing it. He’s a trim 6-footer. It would be a lot tougher if he lived here, he says. But he does know his limits. There’s no way he could eat at Stroud’s twice in one day.
As for traveling, it’s not so much that Sepe doesn’t like to fly. He just likes to drive and to see the country and culture beyond New England.
“I think Paul’s passion for Stroud’s is linked to his passion for traveling,” says his sister, Nancy Sepe. “And not being limited by distance.
“I don’t think those words have ever been uttered by Paul: It’s too far. If there were a restaurant on Saturn, I think Paul would go there. A good restaurant, of course.”
Nancy Sepe says her brother likes to push himself in ways other people wouldn’t even think of doing. A few times, returning to college at Carnegie-Mellon University after a spring or summer break, Paul rode his bicycle to Pittsburgh. From their home in Connecticut. Four hundred and fifty miles away.
So now that Sepe and his VW are nearing 1 million miles on the road, his sister says, it seems like he’s on a not-so-surprising mission.
Will the GTI make it to 1 million miles? Will the folks at Volkswagen notice? When the engine turned over 400,000 miles, Sepe says, Volkswagen gave him a T-shirt. They haven’t kept in touch.
Sepe’s most memorable journey to Stroud’s might have been four years ago.
It was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. He was living in California at the time and traveling around the state. His sister was living in Brooklyn Heights in New York and usually rode her bike to the World Trade Center every morning to catch the Staten Island Ferry. On that morning she chose to drive instead, and soon she was stopped in traffic with everyone else, watching the smoke and horror across the water. She had called her brother. He turned on the television as a jet sliced into the second tower.
Paul drove home to Palm Desert, repacked and pointed his GTI toward New York to be with his sister.
Heading toward Kansas City late in the evening of Sept. 13, he called ahead to Stroud’s. The staff stuck around, kept the place open and served his usual. And then he sat and talked with the servers in the shadow of that odd, traumatic American week.
This week he’s been working on his house, putting in a fireplace. He plans to leave Lancaster by Thursday.
Google calculates the trip to Kansas City at about 27 hours. Sepe usually makes it in 22.
After he arrives, he’ll take a nap. And by Saturday, maybe he’ll work in a barbecue lunch and a visit to the Arabia Steamboat Museum. Along with the Latin Mass at St. Vincent DePaul Roman Catholic Church, that repository of regional history is his favorite nonfood attraction in Kansas City.
And then: a late-night, New Year’s Eve plate of Stroud’s finest. If the driven past is any guide, it ought to make for one swell last supper.