11 Sep Top Ten Road Food Picks From My 10,000 Mile Tour

Some years ago, at a party, a friend and I were looking at the array of delectable food laid out on the table. We were particularly drawn to the desserts. My friend picked up a brownie and examined it. "What do you think?" I asked. She grimaced, shook her head, then returned the brownie to its platter. "It’s not worth it!" she said, meaning the excessive calories and ensuing guilt wouldn’t be worth the brief indulgence. Since that time, whenever Jill and I are tempted by sinful food, we repeat this line as a joke: "Is it worth it?"

In May, when I embarked upon my 40-state, From Animal House to Our House book tour, I anticipated finding plenty of good food. But I promised myself I’d be careful and make sure that whatever I ate had to be worth it. Despite my caution, I gained ten pounds.

The danger of eating on the road is that 1) you’re too often tempted by take-out because it’s convenient (you are, after all, right there on the road) and 2) it’s too easy to eat while driving. In fact, nothing keeps me more focused and awake during a long drive than eating: I might start with an apple, move to grapes, try an orange or banana, snack on some cashews, try some hummus with crackers, then dig into some oatmeal cookies. That’s before the meal itself!

My worst habit was using the GPS on my phone to target the nearest gourmet pizza place wherever I was. After a reading event, I’d be so keyed up and hungry, I’d order a large pizza to go, then eat it while I drove to the next city. Which brings up the third problem of eating on the road. 3) A road trip is a kind of holiday, no matter what its purpose. That means you get a pass, or you think you get a pass, to indulge yourself — it’s a special occasion, right? You’re not home, right? So you can make an exception, right?

Here are my top ten food hits from the trip:

  • Po boy sandwich: Magazine Po-Boy Shop, New Orleans.
    There are lots of specialties in the Big Easy — muffaletta sandwiches, gumbo, crayfish. But I’m a sucker for an oyster poorboy. The oysters have to be fresh, breaded in a peppery batter and flash deep fried, then laid out on a bed of shredded lettuce, tomato slices, a slather of mayonaise, a generous douse of hot sauce, several pickled hot peppers and couched in a soft bagette. Oh my.

  • Pork Ribs: Gates BBQ, Kansas City

    I know, it’s kind of a cliche to get ribs in Kansas City– and you have to be careful because there are so many wanna-be rib joints. Fortunately, I have a friend in KC who took me to his favorite place, Gates, where the instant you walk in you’re shouted at: "Hi, may I help you?" from the ladies behind the counter. You know it’s the real thing because you can see the brick smoke ovens (pits) in the far back where the pitman turns the ribs: only he knows when they’re ready. When they’re done right, the rib meat is moist but crusty on the outside and sweetly smoked. And always there’s a family recipe for the rub that coats the ribs.

  • Pizza

    Nearly everywhere I went, I ate pizza because nowadays you can find good pizza in most cities of reasonable size. Finding great pizza, however, remains a challenge. What makes a great pie?

    1. Fresh dough: Most cheap pizza places buy theirs frozen wholesale and it’s of wildly varying quality.
    2. Fresh ingredients: mozzarella, basil, and mushrooms. Missing any of these could be a deal breaker.
    3. Parmesan and oregano: got to have these for a complex pie.
    4. A good oven: it’s got to be hot enough to make the dough bubble and blacken slightly

    When I visited my friends Ken and Sally, in Half Moon Bay, CA, we had a pizza party. I made the dough and we cooked the pies in their wood-fired brick oven in their back yard. The pizza tasted as good as anything I could have bought just about anywhere. Here are the best pizzerias I found:

    When Pigs Fly, Kittery, ME
    Ken’s Pizza, Portland Oregon
    Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant, Big Sur, CA
    Transfer Pizza, Milwaukee, WI
    Pomo Pizzeria, Scottsdale, AZ As good as Pizzeria Bianco is in Phoenix, it’s not worth the 1+ hour wait
    Pizza Republica, Denver, CO
    Pitfire Pizza Co., Los Angeles, CA

  • Pork Barbecue Sandwich: Carlile’s, Birmingham, AL

    The arcane science of smoking pork butt for the most flavorful pulled pork sandwich is a reverent topic of discussion in the South. And eating BBQ sandwiches is a deeply rooted tradition. Working folk eat them every day, with a side of slaw and hushpuppies. And God save their colons. I cannot go to the South without getting my fill of BBQ pork. It has to be pit cooked — hickory smoked in a brick oven — otherwise, it’s not worth the bother. As much as I like North Carolina BBQ, Birmingham is king when it comes to the BBQ sandwich. Four places of note:
    Little Richard’s in Winston-Salem, North Carolina;
    Kreme Kastle, in Blytheville, AR;
    Carlile’s in Birmingham, AL;
    and Andy Nelson’s, in Baltimore, MD (yes, run by a transplanted North Carolinian).

  • Fried Oysters and Clams: Newicks Lobster House, Dover, NH

    Because of the vagaries of fishing and the caprice of the seasons, most fish house restaurants in America are going to serve you frozen seafood. So be sure to ask: what’s fresh on the menu? Jill and I went to one authentic-looking fish house in Oregon and were informed by our very honest waitress that everything was frozen. I tried the clam chowder anyway and couldn’t spoon down two gulps of the pasty glop. On the Atlantic coast, however, my friend Tim took me to a local favorite, Newicks, where I got the goods: fresh clams and oysters, deep friends in a tasty batter. Good tartar sauce too.
  • French Pastries: Saint Honore Boulangerie, Portland, OR
    My kryptonite. One day these sweets will kill me. Jill and I indulged in Portland, where we found a French bakery that made the best almond croissant we will ever eat. Nobody can beat the French, mainly because they’re unafraid to use butter. You have to be unafraid to eat it. Just go for it, moan and wallow in the moment. Life is short.

  • Tomales, Santa Fe, NM
    You can’t go to the Southwest without trying an authentic tomale. Yes, they’re made with lard. The filling is usually some kind of ground beef. If it’s a high-end tomale, the meat may be shredded beef, pork, or chicken. An alternative may be cheese and green peppers. I got my tomale fix in Santa Fe, NM, from a street vendor. Authentic tomales, you should know, are fairly bland on their own — you’ve got to douse them in salsa if you want a kick.

  • Pies, Vermillion, OH
    I love pies. One Sunday afternoon, I came across the Papa Joe’s Pizza and Pies shop,in Vermillion, Ohio. I didn’t feel like a pizza (didn’t really trust that they could meet my expectations) but, oh my, the pies looked delectable — and there were all kinds. So I bought two: banana creme and elderberry. The crusts were firm and flaky and the fillings were well above average. Another pie find occurred in Odgen, Utah, where I found “the pie lady” at the local farmer’s market. I got a blueberry from her and it was very good. Yes, I will eat an entire pie in a single day.

    Important: I always ask the pie maker what kind of oil/shortening she uses to make the crust because I don’t want transfats (those free radicals will mess you up = cancer). So, I will not take a pie made from Crisco — and it’s surprising how many piemakers are proud that they still use this stuff, stuck as they are in their mother’s 1960’s shadow. The worst offenders are the Amish. Be forewarned: as quaint as their baked goods look, the Amish use the most awful ingredients. I’d welcome any pie made truly the old fashioned way: with lard. But virtually nobody anywhere makes these.

  • Smoked Salmon, Seattle, WA
    You can’t go to the Pacific Northwest without getting smoked salmon. Make sure it’s wild salmon, not farm raised, because wild will be cleaner and more flavorful. Jill and I got some Salmon jerky (an intense version of smoked salmon) at a fishery on the Oregon coast; then we got a side of smoked salmon from Seattle’s Pike’s Market. We made killer sandwiches and salads from this for several days.
  • Food Trucks, Portland, OR
    No city has more food trucks (or carts) than Portland, Oregon. About 500 of them located in nine “pods” of food cart blocks. You could spend a lot of time trying them out. Oh my.

  • Whole Foods Grocery and Trader Joe’s
    Mock Whole Foods (as expensive and snooty) all you want: they’ve got great produce and prepared foods — and they are a sure bet when you don’t otherwise know the culinary terrain. I made a beeline for Whole Foods in nearly every city I came to. Same with Trader Joe’s, their modest cousin. The presence of these two stores across the nation makes finding or stocking up on good food relatively easy. These stores were my oases in a desert of mediocrity.
  • If you’ve got a favorite I want to hear about it!
    There is much more I could talk about, including the monstrous breakfast my new friends, PJ and Lydia, prepared for me in Ogden, Utah, and the killer Asian restaurant my friends, Allen and Ann Marie, took me to in Healdsburg, CA, and so on. But I’d really like to hear about your faves: I will drive a long distance to get at good food!