“Eat Here. Get Gas”: It’s a roadside jest as old as gas stations themselves. (Before gas stations, pioneering motorists bought gas in pharmacies.) The fact is that most food found in gas stations, if not actually odious, is forgettable. But the Roadfood roster contains a handful of places where you can fuel up, coffee up, freshen up, and buy sundries … and also find a memorably delicious meal. Here are 15 favorites where the regional food is so good that they are worth a detour even if your tank is full.
Some of Chicago’s best Roadfood is eaten standing up at a counter or at outdoor tables. Here are eight of our favorite only-in-Chicago places where eating outside is the right thing to do on a beautiful spring day.
When we started hunting Roadfood many years ago, good tacos were hard to find anywhere other than the southwest borderlands and southern California. Today, great ones are nearly everywhere. Here is a baker’s dozen list of Roadfood favorites coast to coast.
If you’re in Louisville, Kentucky, for the Derby (or any other reason), Roadfood has a few essential eateries to recommend. For Derby Pie and countless other fabulous pies and cakes, the Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen is a gem. Kentucky’s legendary hot brown sandwich was invented at the Brown Hotel, and is still great there. Mike Linnig’s Restaurant is the place to go for a grand beer-garden fish-camp meal. A rich taste of local color can be sampled with a short trip out of town, either north over the river for fried chicken at Joe Huber’s Family Farm Restaurant, or west to Owensboro for superb smoke-cooked mutton at the Moonlight Bar-B-Q.
From pressed-flat, wafer-thin, white-bread-and-Velveeta cooked on a lunch-counter flattop to effulgent bouquets of imported cheese melted between halves of an artisan bun, the grilled cheese sandwich has countless personalities. Some have regional character, such as pimento cheese in the South, the Frenchie of Omaha, the grated hot cheese of Fall River, Massachusetts, and the cheese crisp of southern Arizona (which tests the definition of grilled cheese). They can be comfort food, health food, or a challenge to the mightiest appetite. Here is a baker’s dozen favorite Roadfood grilled cheese destinations around the U.S.
New Orleans is where the po boy sandwich first was conceived, and where it’s at its best. In addition to NOLA favorites, this Best-of-the-Best list also includes a few must-eat versions outside the city along the Gulf Coast. How does a po boy differ from a sub, hero, hoagie, grinder, wedge, or zep? First, there’s the bread, which is lighter and fluffier than the chewy loaves used in most northern versions; then there is a roster of ingredients seldom found in sandwiches outside of southern Louisiana. These include fried shrimp, crawfish, and/or oysters, roast beef debris (meat-laced gravy), and Creole mustard.
Unlike southern tomato pies, which tend to be savory casseroles (as at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta) or pastry cups (as at Grits & Groceries in Belton, South Carolina), tomato pies of the northeast are clearly members of the pizza family. In fact, they are arguably the foundations of American pizza, originally created in Italian neighborhood bakeries over a century ago when mozzarella was a luxury. The original pizza pies, which were flatbreads topped with crushed tomatoes, spice, and maybe a few anchovies or a sprinkle of hard cheese, are still billed as Tomato Pies at Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana and DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies. At “DeLo’s,” cheese is mostly applied below the tomato sauce, directly on the crust. At Roma Sausage & Deli, there is no cheese whatever. At Maruca’s Tomato Pies on the Jersey Shore, mozzarella is enriched by cheddar, giving it a buttery taste. And at Marzilli’s Bakery in Fall River, Massachusetts, cheeseless tomato pies are cut into squares and served at room temperature — like tomato-seasoned bread to accompany a meal.
Other than drinking more or not drinking at all, the way to banish hangovers is to spoon up some menudo. Made from tripe with a large charge of hot chilies, a fragrant blast of epazote, and (usually) hominy, it is served in Mexican restaurants throughout the Southwest, often only on weekends — a visceral comfort food of the kill-or-cure school of gastronomy. Besides fully-dressed chili dogs, murder-burgers, and garbage plates at 3am, one other legendary hangover cure is yakamein. Also known as Old Sober, yakamein is a Chinese/African-American soup of noodles, shredded beef, green onions, and a hard boiled egg. It is now virtually impossible to find in restaurants.
Barbecue’s newfound nationwide popularity has put burnt ends on menus across the country, but in all too many cases, the burnt ends are bogus. Genuine burnt ends are cutting-board scraps: crunchy edges, veins of fat, shreds, and debris that fall from slices destined to be served on plates or in a sandwich. At their best, they are a lascivious indulgence — barbecue at its most nutritionally incorrect. Burnt ends have become popular enough that when there aren’t enough scraps to be found on the cutting board, some places purposely shave the edges of brisket (or pork shoulder) to create them. This is not necessarily a horrible thing, but in general, such artificially created burnt ends are too dense and meaty to deliver the wanton succulence of the real thing. While good burnt ends can be found in Phoenix (in the beans at Little Miss BBQ) and even in the northeast (at Big W’s Roadside Barbecue), they are at their best in Kansas City, where they first were recognized as a regional specialty, sometimes known there as brownies.
Long ago, a slider was just one thing: a dime-thin patty of griddle-cooked cheap beef from 1 to 2 ounces nestled in a mini bun less than 2 inches across. The term has expanded to include small, bunned sandwiches made with high quality beef (Kobe sliders!) and even ones made without beef (tuna sliders, lobster sliders, even veggie sliders). They all can be good, but there is something transcendent about the taste and aroma of greasy beef oozing into a spongy bun with a pile of glistening fried onions — a classic formula used at White Manna, Crabill’s, Powers Hamburgers, and Cozy Inn. Admittedly, District Donuts Sliders and Brew ups the ante by using “house blend Creeekstone Black Angus” beef and dressing it with campari tomato and slider sauce, but we forgive the heresy: it’s a delicious slider!