Sometimes writing this column is as easy as zipping down the road, and at other times arranging ideas and words is as hard as dealing with food you don't want to eat, pushing beans against potatoes and then against the gravy and hoping they taste better. And although I want to write about good road food, perhaps it is best to start with a trip that just didn't kick off so well.
Breezewood. The road-fooders' nightmare. The Town of Motels. The junction of three main highways. A place where you would think good food would be offered to truckers and families alike. But no, it is a mass of national fast-food chains. A sight that says you should have stopped to eat in Bedford or waited to chow down in a Carlisle diner. It is also a place where a fellow columnist implored me to find a "real" place to eat, but after chatting up the front desk clerk at my motel, all the choices were chains unless I wanted to fill up on pastry at the Gateway.
One place, though, held out hope in its building -- a modern steel and glass diner, with tile and counter stools and proper booths. It was a work of art. Denny's Classic Diner is a perfect corporate re-creation of the early 1960s, serving up the right music and, alas, the wrong food. Poorly conceived and inexpertly cooked by an indifferent kitchen staff. A tired Sherri Panza, my sidekick/wife, woke the next morning with an
upset stomach after we downed a couple of the house special skillet meals -- one a riff on a fajita dinner and the other a breakfast backed up by tasteless pancakes and little link sausages that had been split in half to make the portion appear larger.
Due the next day at Kutztown University to bolster the spirits of a homesick daughter, we drove into town and immediately pinned a tiny real diner slipped into a corner spot. Letterman's. Ramshackle from the outside, it proved to be a 1926 Silk City diner that was moved to Kutztown in 1941. With one long counter and a few two-top tables, it was the kind of place where a three-person family has to sit at the counter, with a perfect view of the griddle and the cook turning out breakfast after breakfast for the townies who jam in.
Letterman's is a diner with something to say about breakfasts. It is not known for its home fries, but for those and its hash browns because you get a choice. Sausage is 6 inches whacked off a long coil redolent of the smokehouse where it spent some hours before reaching the griddle.
Pancakes are the size of plates, and French toast can be topped with cooked apples that are crisp enough to make you think that they have never seen the inside of a can. Omelets ooze rivers of cheese. If you wonder what we ate, just add jalapenos to the omelet and backstop it with strong coffee served in a proper "mud" cup.
Accessible from Interstate 78 and state Route 222 out of Reading or Allentown, it definitely makes my road food map.
So, I guess we should say that just because something looks like a diner doesn't mean that the magic created by owners and chefs responsible to their communities can be reformatted on computer and stamped onto new metal. Diner cook is a term that must proudly take its place alongside the title of French chef.
Where you find road food has always been a point of contention. How far off the major highways should you have to drive before road food becomes a trip in itself? Is there road food in a city? Or does it have to be out past the suburbs? One of my favorite places (anywhere) is Corky and Lenny's Delicatessen off Interstate 271 outside Cleveland.
Many years ago its original location would never have qualified as road food because it was off the highway and then miles of driving through suburbs until you ended up in University Heights. Now it is ideally positioned so you can grab corned beef and scoot. Or sit down and do a full meal with matzoh ball soup (firm but tender), onion rings (whole rings fried in batter), chocolate phosphate (a chocolate soda), and a choice of sour and half-sour kosher pickles and green pickled tomatoes. It is one of the few places for which I will make the ultimate road food detour -- half an hour off the Ohio Turnpike for a chance at deli heaven.
I have never been on the receiving end of a bad meal there, and our recent stop ended with the obligatory piece of cheesecake taken "to-go" in a box because the kitchen had truly done a number on me. Of course, we left with jars of pickles and tomatoes and little bags of rugelach pastry that caught my eye as trays of them passed through the dining room from the kitchen on the way to the pastry case.
Larry Roberts, who works as the Post-Gazette's assistant managing editor/photography when he's not out foraging for road food, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1512.