Rural America gets a bad rap for food. That’s especially true in the South, where the food is often seen as grease bombs. There’s some truth to this of course. But if you do your homework, you can get really great examples of local food. Moreover, there is good beer, or at least acceptable beer, nearly everywhere in America today. This is amazing. I thought I’d highlight a few of the places I ate on my recent trip. I am not even going to try and give these states a region since if there’s one things Americans will argue about to no good end, it’s what region their state is in.
Anyway, when in areas that do meat well, I like to try the local varieties. That’s especially true of BBQ, in all its various forms. One good guide to figure out where to try is Roadfood, which is flawed but still a good place to start. When the Sterns started this as a book, there was no guide at all that I know of to classic American foods if you were on the road. This was the McDonald’s era of traveling, where if you did stop at a roadside cafe, it could be anywhere from inedible to awesome and fast food was both fast and you knew exactly the quality, as low as it really is. So they helped fix that. Today, the limitations are a bit more obvious–mostly the rather random restaurants that get covered these days and the near total lack of both Latin American and Asian food, which is a big part of the local American food scene.
But still, Roadfood remains useful. I don’t find the recommendations flawless. I’ve stopped at a couple of their recommendations over the years and found the food not very good at all. Luckily here, all three places I stopped at were definitely worth your time. First, right after I flew into Oklahoma City and got my car for the long adventure, was Van’s Pig Stand in Shawnee. This was first rate pork BBQ. I got the chopped pig sandwich with fries and okra. All were excellent. Look at the crispiness on that okra! The spicy BBQ sauce also served as an excellent dipping sauce for the fries. Really just a classic style of BBQ done a classic way.
A couple of days later, I was in northwest Arkansas and I ate at the AQ Chicken House. I have to say that I was impressed here. Chicken is one of those things that is often done well enough but rarely hits the point of transcendence. I got the chicken platter that allows you to try all three of their chicken styles. The BBQ chicken was just OK, but perfectly acceptable as a facsimile of your family’s picnic. The pan-fried chicken was excellent. But the chicken cooked on charcoal with a lemon-pepper rub, this was arguably the best piece of chicken I have ever had in my life. Astounding. Very tasty baked beans as well. Could do without the rolls.
Then, in Kansas City, I ate at one of the most famous joints in the country, Arthur Bryant’s. I did a bit of research on KC BBQ and saw some recent rankings that were useful. And though Arthur Bryant’s did not rank first here, it ranked the highest in what made sense with where I was in the city. I also planned this very carefully, going before the lunch crowd hit. See, if you are going to eat like this, you can’t be an idiot. When I ate this meal, I did not eat breakfast that morning. I did not eat dinner. I did not eat breakfast the next morning. I had no snacks. I went 24 hours without eating. Here’s why:
Damn that was good. I got the brisket sandwich with the burnt ends on top. Amazing. The baked beans might be the best I’ve ever had. The pickles work perfect. The fries are fine. But if you eat like this, you have to do it as a plan or your health will go south very quickly. Also, as per reputation, the floor is indeed pretty greasy.
What I didn’t expect about this trip was the glory of being back in a land with good Mexican food. The Mexican population in Rhode Island is so small that the choices are just deeply limited. I know of a couple of good taco trucks but that’s really it. And if you are on the road these days in any place with a Mexican population, you automatically have a fast and inexpensive meal that will beat the pants off of any McDonald’s or Subway (c’mon we can all do better than that crap). I did this a few times, to great happiness. Little stand in Tulsa near a brewery gave me a great torta. Was filling up in Kansas City, Kansas and a burrito stand at the gas station was absolutely first rate. Had some perfectly acceptable little tacos in rural Oklahoma too.
The best moment was when I ate at El Toro in Emporia, Kansas. This is just a little restaurant for the local population. What made it so great though is that they are clearly used to Kansas tastes from the whites. When the lady who owned it asked me if I wanted my chilaquiles spicy or mild and I said spicy, the look she gave me was priceless. It was the classic raised eyebrow that said “I’ve dealt with you damn gueros for 20 years and I know what you like, which is bland.” I assured her it would be OK. And it was great. The chilaquiles were covered with two eggs and it was amazing and nice and spicy. This kind of skepticism toward whites is a very Midwest or Plains (or whatever) thing; I’ve not seen that in the West in years. But definitely recommend this place the next time you are in Emporia.
As for the beer scene, largely I had a lot of pretty good if not utterly astounding beer. Probably the best beer was the Prairie bar in Oklahoma City, with their great sours. Crane in Kansas City was quite worthy. So was Fields & Ivy Lawrence (excellent corn chile dip too, though the hot chicken sandwich was definitely Kansas “hot.”). American Solera in Tulsa was a step above worthy, grabbed some very tasty IPAs there. I wouldn’t say the breweries of the greater Fayetteville area were exactly amazing, but I had some completely fine beers at Crisis in Fayetteville and Hawk Moth in Rogers. Sweet outside seating at Crisis too, was a great way to spend a hot summer southern evening. Also, having an Arkansas beer leaves only North Dakota as a state from which I’ve never had a beer. That one might last awhile since I’d have to actually go somewhere near North Dakota and why would I do that? Although if I’m spending time in Kansas voluntarily…..
Anyway, maybe beer and food reports from around the world make sense to put on this site. Why not, it’s an outlet for all my other obsessions.