Of Diners, Drive-Ins, and….Road Food*

I’m a car guy … have been since my youth. In my early 20s, I was obsessed with autocrossing … racing my car around a parking lot on a course defined by orange cones, racing against the clock. I rebuilt the engine of my ’73 Opel Manta from the ground up. There was grease underneath my fingernails nearly all the time; no weekend was complete without at least one skinned knuckle accompanied by a few choice swear words because of a slipped wrench.

Today, I let the mechanics do the dirty work and I’m quite a bit more laid back about my driving, but it should come as no surprise that road trips have a certain appeal to me as a “car guy.” If Route 66 is the Mother Road, then driving Route 66 today is the mother of all road trips.

To me, a big draw of road trips is food. Sure, Judy and I talked about staying close to our diets, eating lots of veggies and other healthy stuff, but let me ask you, did Ron Howard and Harrison Ford’s characters in “American Graffiti” go to Whole Foods in their souped-up Hot Rods? No, they went to Mel’s Drive-In for Burgers and Fries. In “Pulp Fiction,” when Uma Thurman and John Travolta went out to eat, the diner in which they danced was completely car-themed. Name one movie featuring Steve McQueen and a car that also had him eating sushi and hummus and I’ll become a Vegan … for a day.

But I digress … road trips are about eating road food, and Route 66 has plenty to offer. Our daily journals featured lots of paragraphs about food we ate along the way:

IMG_7409The Donut Man in Glendora, CA, had donuts made with FRESH strawberries. Yes, you read that right … fresh strawberries.

The Outpost Cafe at the north end of Cajon Pass had a pretty decent burger and a salad drenched in too much dressing, but it was a classic diner in every way.IMG_7443

 

Dinner was at Jenny’s Place in Barstow, reputed to have “something for everyone” by the owner of the Route 66 Motel. It turned out “something for everyone as long as it’s Mexican” but I had some delicious carnitas tacos and too many chips, rice and beans, completely sating my SoCal appetite for spicy south-of-the-border fare.

This was all on Day 1.

The rest of the trip would be remembered for similar culinary adventures.

In Kingman, Arizona, Floyd’s BBQ came highly recommended, but since it was Monday, it was closed. We went to the Diana’s Cellar Door, a combo brewery and wine bar next door instead and enjoyed a couple of glasses of red while chatting amiably with the patrons. But hunger prevailed and we dropped in to another recommended place, The Kingman Chophouse, where we shared a great Delmonico in a classic western setting.IMG_7583

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In Seligman, Arizona, we stopped at Delgadillo’s Sno-Cap Drive-in for lunch. The staff, reputed to be pranksters, didn’t disappoint. Rita was behind the counter and when I asked what a Choink Burger was, she gave me that look that only stupid tourists get (it’s a Bacon Cheese Burger, by the way. Duh.). I ordered the Choink and a Malt.

20170404_165452After “standing on a corner” in Winslow, Arizona (such a fine sight to see), we followed some local’s advice and made a reservation (reservation?!) at the Turquoise Room at the La Posada Hotel. Built in 1930 as a Harvey House, the hotel has been restored to much of its early glory and its restaurant draws raves worldwide.

Our window seat gave us magnificent views of the passing trains while the wide portico outside shaded us from the setting sun. We enjoyed Bison Taquitos, Elk in a Black Currant Sauce, Crispy Quail with Oaxaca Sauce, and a Braised Bison Tamale. Not exactly road food to be sure, but well worth the stop.

The Southwestern flavors of the road were a big highlight for me. At La Fonda on The Plaza in Santa Fe, we dove into local specialties offered with your choice of red sauce, green sauce or “Christmas.” Just thinking back on all that beef, cilantro, sauce, beans … makes me hungry.

In Shamrock, Texas, we ate at Big Vern’s Steakhouse – apparently, the only place in town worth eating at. Our waitress, Gail, was straight out of the Texas panhandle; pretty in a sun-beaten/leather-skinned sort of way, and most pleasant. She treated locals and tourists alike, but I am sure that if we had wanted steak sauce for our delicious ribeye, she would have chased us out the door with a hot branding iron.IMG_8051

And it continued…

In Arcadia, Oklahoma, Pop’s with it’s 50-foot Soda Pop neon sculpture out front, beckoned us in for burgers and fries, and a six-pack of sodas with the grossest names imaginable, culled from their 144 varieties; in Baxter Springs, Kansas, we were the only customers at The Smokehouse, which served some of the best barbecue we’ve ever had…the sauce was so good we bought a quart to bring home.

The next morning, we stopped at the Riverton Market for some of the best deli sandwiches you’ll ever eat before crossing the border into Missouri. In Springfield, Missouri, we ate those sandwiches in the parking lot of the original Steak and Shake, where we bought chocolate shakes, just because. IMG_8125We bought fudge packed in Uranus, Mo., where we couldn’t stop laughing over all the innuendos. Shelly’s Diner in Cuba, Missouri, is one of those places where everyone knows your name, but also treats tourists like regulars. We ordered a BLT and their special for the day – a Chicken Melt – and talked about the trip so far. It was blissful. Nearing Chicago, we longed for deep dish pizza; after check-in, the hotel clerk pointed us toward Gino’s East where we dined and laughed our butts off with the waitress (another Rita…I’m sensing a pattern here)…an evening worthy of a blog entry on its own.

The Road is like that…stopping along the way, trying new things, and meeting new people. That’s why we travel, and we hope you will too. There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored…go out and see it. And order me a malt while you’re there!

*Don’t want that “guy” to sue me!

The Road is Calling

I grew up a Californian. The ocean, mountains, valleys and deserts all have a certain lure; the automobile was my ticket to ride, the vehicle that took me to all these majestic places. From my earliest days, the road was calling, begging me to explore.

I was on wheels at an early age…first a tricycle, then I learned to ride a bike when I was only five…motorcycles when I was 10. Sailing was introduced to to me when I was 8, and I became a water rat. An early dream to fly became reality in the early 90s. But my first love, the road, was always calling.

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Even though I grew up in the muscle car era, hot rods had no appeal…sports cars like those I read about in Road and Track and Car & Driver were my dreams as a teenager. My dentist had an old Porsche 356…he saw my passion and gave me a ride one day. I was hooked!

The road was calling.

In 1976, my family took a month-long road trip from Southern California through Arizona and Nevada into Utah and Colorado; up the eastern spine of the Rocky Mountains into Canada and the glaciers of Banff and Jasper. Heading west, we drove south along the Pacific Coast Highway. We had delayed the trip one week so I could complete Driver’s Training. Learner’s permit in hand, mom let me drive a good chunk of the time. I must have logged 2,000 miles that summer, an experience every new driver should have.IMG_0218

The road was calling.

On my 16th birthday, I was at the DMV when they opened. I passed the test and for the first time I was behind the wheel on a public road alone…well, at least legally. An old Toyota Corona bought from my sister for $300 and a new clutch installed by me with her boyfriend’s guidance became my chariot. Every chance I had, I explored the mountain and coastal roads of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. I discovered that a great way for me to shake off teenage angst and trials was to go for a drive through “a dark desert highway.”

The road was calling.

Forty years later, the road is still calling. This time, it’s Route 66…the Mother Road…the road that Bruce Springsteen sang about…”the highway is alive tonight.” As Judy and I prepare to set off on our epic Route 66 adventure, I can hardly contain my excitement…looking forward to driving through the deserts of my youth, into the high plains of Arizona and New Mexico; tornado alley (in Spring, which might make things interesting) and into the Heartland ending in Chi Town.

The road is calling.

I’ve driven cross country once before, when I moved to the East Coast in 2003. I did it in two and a half days…challenging myself to log as many miles each day as I could. The final push was from the eastern border of Oklahoma to D.C. in 16 hours, with stops only for gas and food. It was a monumental feat, but I missed the exploration…the joy that is called the road.

This trip will be different. We’re taking our time…we’re going to stop at every kitschy photo stop, stay in classic Route 66 motels, and eat all-American style.

There’s a whole world out there, waiting to be explored. Go see it, because the road is calling.IMG_0222

Diversion – Our Own Winery!

Romano signOkay, it’s not really ours, but it’s kinda cool to have a winery nearby that shares your last name. There’s nothing like having personalized wineglasses and wine bottles in the cellar to make your guests wonder!

Romano Vineyard and Winery is in Brandywine, Maryland, in southern Prince George’s County. PG County, as the locals know it, is mostly urban and suburban; home to the likes of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Cente, NOAA’s National Center for Weather and Climate Prediction, the U.S. Census Bureau, and Joint Base Andrews; and, according to U.S. Census data, the most affluent county in the country with a primarily African-American population. But this area of PG County is decidedly rural…former tobacco farms now yield lots of corn, soybeans, and more importantly, vineyards.  It’s a stone’s throw from historic St. Mary’s and Charles counties…even the infamous Dr. Mudd House, where Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth had his broken leg set, is nearby.

I’d like to say that Judy and I stumbled on this gem of a winery as one of our regular diversions, but this story is a bit different. When the winery opened in 2011, I lived just a few miles away with my previous wife and saw the “bootleg” signs announcing its opening and wine-tasting availability along the rural roads I regularly took to work. I vowed to visit and introduce myself to the proprietors.

That never happened. In 2012, I moved out, filed for divorce, and moved to much more urban Northern Virginia. When Judy and I got together, we discovered a shared passion for good wine and often enjoy visiting wineries as a regular weekend activity. Romano vineyardVirginia’s wines have become world-class and there is no shortage of wineries to visit. Our neighbors even gave us a Virginia Wine Pass to enjoy regular discounts!  But I still harbored the desire to visit the winery that shares my family name, so when a trip to Annapolis offered an opportunity for a Southern PG County diversion, we jumped at the chance.

We weren’t disappointed. Unlike many of the Virginia wineries, the Romano winery has a very casual, rural farm feel. Owners Jo-Ann and curiousities sidebar 2Joseph Romano were delightful. We quickly figured out we weren’t related, but then, we Romanos are like the “Smiths” of Italy…many in number, not related, but all happy to meet one another.

The wines were excellent, too, so naturally, we joined the Romano Wine Club. We received our membership materials a couple of weeks ago, including our card for two free glasses of wine each month.

Today, we found ourselves in the area once again, top-down on the Fiat spider enjoying the spring weather with temps in the low ‘60s – a nice break from recent freezes. Naturally, we stopped at “our” winery.  Jo-Ann instantly recognized us. We sat outside, each enjoying a glass of merlot.  We chatted with several ladies who were enjoying a similar fine day.  With other errands to run, we didn’t stay long, but for a brief respite, Judy and I reveled in the joy of each other’s company, a fine glass of wine, and the peace and quiet that only a rural atmosphere can bring.

We have long held that part of the fun of traveling is getting off the beaten path to find hidden gems like Romano Vineyard and Winery.  Stop in and say hello, even for a just few minutes.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored.  Go see it.

Fiat at Romano

 

 

Diversion – Getting to Know You, Part 2

A reader responded to my recent post about talking up servers and bartenders with a simple question, “Why?”  I’m not really sure where she was going with this question … “Why travel?”  “Why enjoy yourself?”  “Why talk to people?”  But if ever there was any doubt about the last question, it was answered this past weekend…again.

As often happens, Judy and I needed to spend a night in Fredericksburg, Va., about an hour south of our Alexandria home.  In a few previous instances, we’ve enjoyed the food and vibe of Fahrenheit 132, located in the heart of historic downtown Fredericksburg. Fahrenheit 132 In all our previous visits, we’ve sat at the bar, enjoying fine cocktails (their French Martini is always a hit), excellent appetizers, and even one of the best Filet Mignons we’ve ever tasted.  But this time, I wanted to make it a bit special, so I booked a table (through Open Table…one of my favorite apps) for 8:30.  We arrived scandalously early to the crowded restaurant, so we checked in an ordered a drink at the bar.  We were only halfway into our first cocktail when we were shown to our table.

Two things stuck out about this visit.  First, we had never seen the wine list before.  It was extensive…the selection of Italian reds, alone, took up the better part of a page!  We chose a 2006 Villa Gemma Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (one of our favorite varietals) and to say we were pleased is an understatement. Villa Gemma The legs were longer than Cyd Charisse’s and the color was an incredibly deep, inky maroon.  If you held the glass to the light, you couldn’t see through it.  The nose took you away to some other place, and the first taste on the tongue was captivating.  THIS is why you spend good money on good wine.

Second, our server, Jessica, was everything you could hope for.  Like Araceli in our previous post, Jess was sweet, beautiful, and like our wine, captivating.  In our two hours together, we learned much about this lovely young lady and her zest for life in between bites of the best pork chops you will ever taste.  As a server, she was there before we needed her, suggested brilliant accompaniments to our entree, and instantly recognized and appreciated our desire to take our time enjoying our meal. As a new friend, we learned that she has tackled hardship and heartache in a way that is truly inspiring.  She truly made our evening joyful and we cannot wait to see her…and Fahrenheit 132…again.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it…and take the time to get to know those around you along the way.

Here’s to you!

Greg & Judy

Diversion – Getting to Know You

Travel is often about the people we meet on your adventures. Our brief trip to Los Angeles last week brought that home.

Here’s the setup…Judy and I are gregarious by nature; extroverted and always willing to make new friends. So naturally, we have a tendency to “talk up“ everyone we meet…especially bartenders and food servers who can make or break a good meal. We are also people who get to the airport very early. We hate being rushed and would rather spend some time in an airport restaurant than stress about the traffic or the security lines.

This story began in December when we found ourselves at Los Angeles International Airport with about two hours of wait time until boarding. It was late morning, so we sought out a place where we could get a drink and an appetizer or two.  We found ourselves sitting in a window seat at Osteria by Fabio Viviani (of “Top Chef” fame). OsteriaOur server, Araceli, was beautiful, attentive, and sweet. She appreciated our comments about her name.  The drinks (they make a to-die-for Strawberry Basil Martini) and food were fantastic – a far cry from most airport food. But it was Araceli’s service that made the stay memorable. Too soon, we had to leave and board our plan.

Fast forward two months, and we’re back at LAX with time to spare…same flight, same terminal.

So back to Osteria we went, and asked for a window seat.  We were seated in the same place as before, and wouldn’t you know it, Araceli was our server.  We joked about the irony, and she remembered us.  We chatted about her kids…and grandkids!  She told us she was 37…when during our last visit we thought she was a college student! Once again, our flight called too soon and we had to head off, telling Araceli that we’d be back in four weeks!

The lesson here…whether you know them for an hour, days, or a lifetime, the people we meet — like travel — make our lives richer. There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it…and take the time to get to know those around you along the way.

2017 – Trimming the Fat – A Life Reset – Getting Rid of What We Don’t Need

We’re not New Year’s Resolution makers. We’ve both done it once or twice with great results, but both Greg and I believe resolutions should be made when you’re ready to change your life – not just at the beginning of a new year.rose-bowl

2017 is no exception. We welcomed the new year without a real resolution in mind. I talked about losing weight. In fact, I’d talked about it for a couple of years. When you’re ready to commit, it just happens. Greg and I decided we both had a few pounds to lose and were ready to commit about halfway through the second week of January. We made an appointment at our local Jenny Craig office, did the initial weigh-in and started the plan.

We both felt immediately lighter. Admittedly, it was more the load off our minds than anywhere else, but it led to a few other changes…

We spent an entire day cleaning out our closet. We generated three huge bags of clothes for donation. We cleaned out the bathroom cabinets. We moved into the closet in the guest room that had become a storage place for stuff we didn’t want to think about. We tidied up everywhere! I called AMVETS and arranged for a pick-up.

It’s been less than a week and we are already lighter at home. Less stuff leaves you feeling lighter anyway. There’s more room to move. It’s easier to find your things. We’re both feeling a little exhilarated.

What’s next? Who knows? For now we are just letting this “out with the old” mentality sink in. Stay tuned.

D is for Dublin — a do-over

My first trip to Dublin was disappointing. My travel partner didn’t want to check out the pubs in a city that is known for its nightlife. He said no to a visit to the Book of Kells at Trinity College. He turned up his nose at shopping. I describe the whole trip as D is for Dud.20161203_163544

Last fall, Greg and I decided it was time to give Dublin another chance. His best friend was living there (on a work assignment) and had a guest room. We could visit Chris and his wife in their new home, get something of an insider’s tour and sleep for free. It was a win-win-win.

We exchanged emails, scheduled a few things to do and bought our tickets for the Emerald Isle.

What a difference! Dublin is fun, vibrant and exciting. We arrived mid-day on a Saturday in early December and hit the ground running. img_6757Our hosts took us to the longest, The Hole In The Wall, and oldest, The Brazen Head, pubs in Ireland (both in Dublin). We wandered along the main shopping street and window shopped from pub to pub.

We stopped at the famous Temple Bar and elbowed our way to the bar for the essential Irish pub drink, a Guinness.

20161209_143056Over the next couple of days we enjoyed tasty Irish bar food and a few classics: fish and chips, Irish stew and others.

We checked out Kilmainham Gaol which “symbolises the tradition of militant and constitutional nationalism from the rebellion of 1798 to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23.”.

We visited Osteria Lucio, a favorite restaurants of our hosts for an incredible Italian meal with an excellent red wine. Who knew Dublin is a bit of a foodie town?

img_6792We toured the only Irish Whisky distiller still located in the Irish capital and sipped some delicious gin cocktails.

Bad news struck on Tuesday.  Our hosts grabbed a flight back to the states and we headed to Edinburgh, Scotland for a pre-arranged side trip (stay tuned for a blog about that trip). Back in Dublin, we had a couple days to explore on our own.

20161206_152758We visited the Guinness Brewery and learned how to pour a perfect stout. img_6913 img_6921 img_6924

We went to the library at Trinity College and ooo’d and aaah’d  over the history captured on the ancient volumes. We went to see the Book of Kells (but they don’t allow pictures!).

We revisited The Bank on College Green, a downtown Dublin restaurant converted from a late-1800s bank. The food and ambiance were PERFECT both times, and our server was absolutely delightful.

We wandered a little more, enjoyed the cheerful, friendly people of Ireland and took a local train to Dun Laoghaire. img_6841The Dublin suburb is home to the National Maritime Museum of Ireland. We walked out along the breakwater to the lighthouse in a light mist. It was a classic weather day – just what you expect.

After a week it was easy to admit that D is for Dud was WRONG! Dublin is “d”elightful and “d”arling.

Go see for yourself. There may not be many people who remember me, but you can still say Judy sent you.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Go see it.