Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Power of Advertising



Wall Drug
510 Main St.
Wall, SD



As a general rule, I try to avoid tourist traps.

But sometimes a tourist trap is so iconic it morphs into the obligatory.

Wall Drug is one of those places.

It also happened to be the only place in this town of 766 people to get breakfast that didn’t involve a fast-food drive-through window.

And I was hungry.

Like Kim Kardashian, Wall Drug is famous for being famous.

Unlike Kim Kardashian, Wall Drug has never leaked a sex tape onto the internet. As far as I know.

Wall Drug was founded by Dorothy and Ted Hulstead in 1931.

Their friends and family thought they were nuts to buy a drug store in a tiny town on the wind-swept Plaines of South Dakota.

Dorothy’s father said, “Wall is just about as Godforsaken as you can get.”

But the devoutly Catholic Hulsteads liked the local priest and friendly natives -- and were determined to make a living out here on the edge of the Badlands where cattle outnumber people by many multiples.

Dorothy and Ted quickly caught on to the power of advertising, placing billboards on the highway and offering “free ice water” -- a commodity that probably held more value to 1930s pre-air conditioned travelers than it does today.

The Hulsteads also gave traveling customers free Wall Drug signs and bumper stickers.

During World War II, GIs mailed back pictures of their Wall Drug signs and stickers from bases and battlefields around the world.

America was in on the joke.

To this day, you can find signs, stickers and even paid advertisements for this little drug store in rural South Dakota in the most obscure corners of Planet Earth.

From the London Underground to the Taj Mahal, don’t be surprised if you find billboards advertising that Wall Drug is “Only 10,728 Miles Away!!”

The tradition continues.

Wall Drug customers -- almost entirely tourists on their way to local attractions such as Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore -- still can get their “free ice water”, signs and bumper stickers. And coffee for a nickel.

Wall Drug isn’t so little anymore.

It literally takes up one half of downtown Wall -- a sprawling bazaar of Western knickknacks, tourist clutter, Indian artifacts and Wall Drug t-shirts and shot glasses.

Oh, yeah, you can still purchase a bottle of Bayer aspirin and Pepto-Bismol to cure what ails you from last night’s fun (not that there is any to be had in Wall).

Most interesting to me and my growling stomach was the café and donut factory tucked in the back.

In this part of the western Plains you can see for miles and miles across the grasslands dotted with cattle.

Starring from horizon to horizon at so much beef naturally made me hungry.

So I ordered the steak and eggs.

You know. When in Rome.

Or Wall.

The thin New York strip wouldn’t win any Grade A awards, but it was more than an adequate splurge for breakfast.

Charred just enough to be tasty, thin enough to be tender, Wall Drug’s steak and eggs more than satisfied the cravings that had welled up deep inside me after driving past so many cows in my travels through the grasslands of western South Dakota.

The eggs, toast and fried potatoes weren’t much more than an afterthought.

The bacon I tried on the breakfast sandwich, on the other hand, was top notch.

What certainly weren’t an afterthought were the tempting looking donuts piled up next to the take-out counter.

If Wall Drug is famous for anything other than their “free ice water”, then it’s got to be their donuts made right here in their “Donut Factory” in the back of the store.

You simply can’t come to Wall Drug without trying one -- or three.

These babies are fresh donut perfection.

A fried crunchy exterior gives way to a soft sweet cake inside that just melts in your mouth. Capped off with a generous yet not overwhelming dollop of chocolate frosting, I could eat these donuts all day.

In fact, of all the crap sold at Wall Drug from the useful to the useless, their fresh made donuts alone should spare this place from the label “tourist trap.”

By definition a tourist trap is a place travelers feel obligated to stop and spend their money -- but get little of value in return.

But Wall Drug’s donuts are worth a drive from anywhere -- even the Taj Mahal.

Rating: Bought an Obligatory “Wall Drug Gateway to the Badlands” Shirt.

Wall Drug Store Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 3, 2015

Utah, You Can Do Better Than This







Peach City Ice Cream
306 North Main St.
Brigham City, UT




Unfortunately, Utah isn’t exactly known for culinary creativity.

I mean, sure I’ve had some great Mexican at the Red Iguana in Salt Lake City. I enjoyed the heck out of the pizza at Red Rock Brewery. Devoured a decent burrito at Moab Brewery. Got a pretty awesome burger at Crown Burgers.

But when you think of Utah, does one unique delicacy or dish come to mind?

Hmmmm….

…thinking….

…um, no.

Nothing.

When Zagat did their celebrated 50 sandwiches in 50 states expose, every state was able to lay claim to some iconic must try specialty, whether it be Italian Beef in Illinois or the Hot Brown in Kentucky or the Lobster Roll in Maine.

So which sandwich did Zagat pick for Utah you might wonder?

Fry sauce.

Yeah. It’s a condiment.

Not a sandwich.

The best recommendation the foodie folks at Zagat could come up with is to try fry sauce at Artic Circle, a sprawling Western fast food chain that serves burgers and fish sandwiches.

That’s it? That's the best you can do, Utah?

Really?

Well, Suit757 can do better than that.

I was determined to find some local culinary specialty at a non-chain restaurant on my brief trip across northern Utah.

Unfortunately, my first choice of Maddox Drive-In in Perry was thwarted when I pulled up to an empty parking lot at 1pm on a Monday and found that most annoying of all neon signs fully illuminated: CLOSED.

So I texted a fellow Suit who grew up in the area.

He suggested Peach City Ice Cream up the road. However, he did add the caveat that he hadn’t been there since he was a kid.

Peach City Ice Cream is that kind of place. A local drive-in with booth, counter and car service that has been catering to generations of locals since 1937 -- and young families with rambunctious kids smearing ice cream cones all over their faces.

But Suit757 wasn’t there for dessert.

I was hungry.

I ordered the pastrami burger with that Utah-famous fry sauce, a side of onion rings and a “fresh lime”, which is a local soft drink made of…

…you guessed it…

…fresh squeezed limes.

Who knows, maybe my “fresh lime” would have turned out to be that quintessential Utah concoction that would have finally placed Utah on the Suits in Strange Places culinary map.

I kind of doubt it…but you never know.

And we never will.

My waitress never brought my “fresh lime.” Just Brigham City tap water.

Unfortunately, the burger was one of the most dried-out over-cooked slabs of beef I ever attempted to consume.

A terrible burger.

I suppose there are people out there who don’t like juicy, greasy burgers.

If you happen to be one of those people, I have two favors to ask you.

First of all, stop reading this blog.

Second, STOP ORDERING BURGERS. Because you are ruining it for the rest of us.

If a burger is not drippy and juicy, it is not worth eating.

Period.

The pastrami was okay. I mean, when isn’t pastrami okay?

But the only way I could even eat the dry hockey puck of a burger was to sacrifice my fry sauce designed to accompany my onion rings by dumping it on top of the pastrami burger.

Alright. So I know you are dying to know what this mysterious creative Utah exotica, fry sauce, is all about, right?

Are you ready?

Fry sauce is basically ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together.

Otherwise known in the other 49 states as Thousand Island dressing.

That’s it. This ketchup-mayonnaise condiment is the only unique Utah culinary creation anyone in the Beehive State has ever created.

Maybe these Mormons need to take up drinking to get the creative juices flowing a bit more.

All I can say is, Utah, you can do better than this.

Rating: Wouldn’t Wear Shirt if You Paid Me.


Peach City on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Do I smell smoked meat?





Louie Mueller Barbecue
206 W 2nd St.
Taylor, TX 76574




Smoked meat.

It's a Texas specialty.

And though I complain incessantly about Texas, this is one area that I am left speechless.

Louie Mueller Barbecue is legendary. I know this because my good friend Suit757 told me so. In fact, I made him quite jealous by visiting this establishment before him.

Well-smoked Texas Flag

Located about 40 minutes Northeast of downtown Austin, this place is an absolute must visit. But make sure you don't go too late in the day, because once they are out of meat, they're done for the day, and you're out of luck.

And, trust me, you don't want to miss this.

Walking into Louie Mueller Barbecue, you'll notice everything has a thin, or thick, layer of soot on it, and the wonderful smell of smoke in the air.

In fact, one of my compatriots shared with me that when the current owner took over the family business from his father, he attempted to clean the soot off the walls, much to the displeasure of the regular patrons of this fine establishment.

From then on, it seems that they don't bother with it. And why would you? It adds so much character to the place and it is how a good smokehouse should look.

It's a good thing that I came to this place with experienced patrons,
not to mention a large group, because I don't think I could have handled this trip alone.

The specialty of this place is beef ribs. In other words, dinosaur bones. And you buy them by the pound. For our group, we ordered over four pounds of ribs.

This was a massive pile of meat. And it just fell right off the bones. It was so tender and delicious, I was tempted to throw some in my carry on, but figured TSA might have an issue with my suitcase leaking grease.


 I had no idea how to even divide the spoils among our group, so I passed my knife to the native Texan in the group to handle the situation. When in Texas, trust the Texan.

And this is where I will start my regularly scheduled rant. I don't understand barbecue bigotry. I am constantly reminded by my Southern brethren of the atrocities of the North against the South in the War Between the States, which happened over 150 years ago, and I had nothing do with it.

My point in bringing this up is that the South can't even get along with each other. I'm told by folks from Tennessee and the Carolinas that you can only smoke pork. Meanwhile, in Texas, the only true barbecue is beef.

Not trying to sound like a hippy here, but why can't we all just get along? All smoked meat is a good thing. And that includes pork, beef, chicken, turkey, fish, alligator, and so on. Smoke does a wonderful thing to meat, and it should all be enjoyed.

So, until the South can get along on the issue of smoked meat, I'm not too concerned about them "rising" again anytime soon.

End of rant.

To go along with these delicious ribs, we also purchased a quart of potato salad which, in my book, is a must with BBQ. I'm often disappointed by the potato salad offered at what would be considered good BBQ joints. For some places, it's almost an afterthought.

In my book, a truly good BBQ joint has excellent potato salad, and Louie Mueller didn't disappoint. Their potato salad is full of flavor and went very well with the ribs.

While enjoying this delicious meal, I started to realize that my eyes were starting to sting from all of the smoke. It fell like I was sitting around a campfire, and I loved it.

To finish things off, I was given the recommendation to try the peach cobbler. I was not disappointed in this endeavor as well. It was warm and fresh, and completed with a scoop of Texas' own Blue Bell vanilla ice cream.

I left Louie Mueller Barbecue with a full stomach, a satisfied craving for barbecue, and smelling like smoke that would make anyone sitting next to me on my flight jealous that I had enjoyed delicious smoked meat, and they hadn't.

 Take my word for it. This place is worth the detour if you are in the Austin area.

And if you are one of those close-minded "There is only one true form of BBQ", get off your high horse and go enjoy the diversity of smoked meats that are all over this great country of ours.

Rating: Bought the Smoke-filled Shirt!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Pizza and Brew With A View




Backcountry Pizza
20 East Lake View Dr. #212
Nederland, CO 80466




You know what they say about real estate;  it's all about location, location, location.

And you'd be hard-pressed to find pizza with a better view than what I found at Backcountry Pizza.

Tucked away on the second floor of a quasi-strip mall in the scenic Rocky Mountain town of Nederland, CO, Backcountry Pizza is an unexpected gem.

The mountain towns in Colorado are like visiting a different country. The culture is foreign. The pace of life is slower. And for some people living there, being "high" is a lifestyle. There are at least two pot dispensaries in this town with a population of just over 1,400 people.

Nederland is home to the Frozen Dead Guy Festival, in which they celebrate some guy who had himself cryogenically frozen and, at his request, had his frozen body brought up to the town of Nederland.

It seems with the dying off of the mining industry in Colorado that many of these mountain towns are quite economically depressed. I don't know if I should blame the unions, NAFTA, the EPA, or perhaps all of the above.

In any case, the people of Nederland, and other mountain towns, are rugged. You'd have to be to live above 8,000 ft, with harsh winters far from civilization.

After a full morning of snowshoeing just outside of Nederland, we were quite hungry, so we meandered our way into Nederland.

Having been there previously, I had a pretty good lay of the land. Wanting to try something new we found our way to Backcountry Pizza.

As soon as we walked through the door, our noses told us we were at the right place. Thankfully, a table opened up just as we walked in, as the place was pretty well packed.

The place smelled amazing, and after seeing the pizza, we couldn't help but be excited for the deliciousness to come. Of course, being that this is in Colorado, they had a decent selection of craft beers on tap.

I ordered a Gilpin Black Gold Porter from Hogshead Brewing in Denver, CO. After a nice morning of snowshoeing, a dark malty beer is exactly what I had in mind.

After looking over the menu, we decided to go with an order of chicken tenders and The Works Pizza, complete with ground sausage and beef, mushrooms, banana peppers, feta and mozzarella cheeses. It usually comes with olives, but considering that olives are a communist plot to ruin pizza, we had those deleted.

The chicken tenders came out first, and they far exceeded our expectations. Here we thought we were just ordering the standard run of the mill pizza joint chicken tenders. Not the case. These were hand-breaded and served with a house-made BBQ sauce. So good...

Then came the pizza. I'm not sure what measuring system they were using, but supposedly we ordered a 16" pizza. Maybe they meant 16" radius, instead of circumference. This pizza was massive.

And delicious. And we'll be eating it as leftovers for the next couple days. Everything about this pizza was great. The crust was perfect.

If you ever find your way out to Nederland, CO for some snowshoeing or for the Dead Guy Festival, I highly recommend checking out Backcountry Pizza. Good pizza and brew with a view.

Rating: Bought the Shirt!


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tales from the Bill Clinton Eating Tour




Cotham’s Mercantile
5301 AR 161
Scott, AR




“What the...???”

That’s what I mumbled to myself as I wheeled my suitcase past the gleaming new sign welcoming arriving passengers at the Little Rock airport.

“Welcome to Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.”

Are you kidding me?

After eight years of President Clinton -- and now the prospect of eight more years of another President Clinton -- can’t these people just leave me alone?

What happened to the days when they waited a few years after you were dead to start naming stuff after you?

You know, in case it turned out you did something embarrassing -- like molest an intern or something.

While I don’t particularly share Bill Clinton’s affinity for chubby interns and tax increases, I’ll follow the man to Texarkana and back on a restaurant tour of Arkansas.

Say what you will about President Bubba, but the man knows how to eat.

One of Bill Clinton’s favorite haunts (before he and Hillary shook the fertile Arkansas mud off their boots and moved to the leafy New York suburbs) was Cotham’s Mercantile, just ten miles southeast of what the locals now refer to as “Hill-Billy” National Airport.

In the old cotton plantation town of Scott, Cotham’s Mercantile is geographically near the state capital -- but light years away in laid back attitude and ambiance.

Cotham’s is a century old country store perched on stilts high above the banks of Horseshoe Lake -- a cut-off bayou that was once connected to the meandering Arkansas River generations ago.

Not much has changed in Scott, Arkansas over the past century. The landscape is still blanketed with fertile farmland from horizon to horizon.

And farmers, locals, tourists and Little Rock politicians alike still creak across the old floorboards of the Cotham’s dilapidated front porch in search of an epic Southern meal.

The “Hubcap Burger” is what put Cotham’s on the culinary map.

It didn’t disappoint.

Yes. It really is as big as a hubcap -- nearly a foot in diameter.

But this burger isn’t just wide -- it is nearly an inch thick too.

We’re talking over a pound of beef here!

The beauty of this burger is how well it is constructed.

Onions, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and meat all held together by over-sized buns that are actually up for the job.

I briefly considered taking my knife and cutting it in half. My grandmother would have considered that the polite thing to do.

But what fun would that be?

Miraculously, I was able the lift the whole thing off my plate and eat it like God intended with minimal condiment spillage.

A bit more well done and drier than I would have preferred (my waitress never asked me how I wanted it cooked), the meat was still very tasty with plenty of salty burger seasoning evident.

The side dishes were a major dilemma.

Cotham’s is almost as famous for its fries and giant hand-battered onion rings as for its Hubcap Burger.

The menu also offered the option to upgrade my side to fried green tomatoes for $2.75.

I couldn’t resist.

More yellow than green, the generous portion of fried tomatoes packed a powerful flavor wallop. The tart tomatoes and crisp thin corn meal breading was a perfect Southern treat.

It was a lot of food.

But not TOO much food. I finished every last bite.

Unfortunately, that meant I had absolutely no room for dessert.


Cotham’s is also famous for its decadent fried chocolate and apple pies. And for its Mississippi Mud pie.

Cotham’s left me wanting to come back for more.

I mean, what about Cotham’s famous fried chicken and catfish?

And those towering piles of onion rings I saw on my neighbors’ tables that gave me junk food envy?

Oh well. I’m sure there will be a next time.

After a century, Cotham’s Mercantile isn’t going anywhere. It’s the kind of place you feel like will always be in your life.

Just like Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Only in Cotham’s case, that is actually a good thing.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt.



Cotham's Mercantile on Urbanspoon