For most inveterate travellers born after 1945, the road is a potent symbol of freedom and adventure. Stretching out towards the unknown, it presents a moveable and moving feast of sights and sounds, tastes and smells. At times, the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met and known are thrown into high relief by some unexpecetd the sudden encounter with a familiar smell or the recollection of some memorable lunch or road-side stop – an acquaitance made in some cafe or dive at the back of beyond, some neon lit oasis that looms up out of the dark promising hot coffee and conversation.
I often recall the places I’ve been by their smell, or the food I ate and the company I enjoyed when I was there. It really started when I was a kid. From the age of five, every summer was a road trip, a grand safari conducted in my imagination from the backseat of a “98 Olds”, beating down some blue highway, reading the billboards, on the way to our annual family annual reunion with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The farings-forth and the long drives back at the end of summer opened my eyes and mind not only to the variousness of the world, but also to a keener and broader vision of the world-at-large, and how the apprehension of diversity might just as readily breed openness and tolerance as it does fear and prejudice.
Some people were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. My spoons were almost always EPSN with a commerical monogram on the handle, and sometimes not even that, depending on where one found oneself. No matter.
The life we live now is the sum total of the journey we made to get here. Some of the stopping-off places aren’t around anymore, but so long as the memory persists I’m not inclined to say they have disappeared entirely. So here it is – my small tribute to some comfort stops along the way to getting here…
THE ORIGINAL MEXICAN RESTAURANT
In 1957, my family moved to Randolph Field outside San Antonio, Texas, where we remained for nearly three years. One of the great - and perhaps most authentic – Mexican restaurants in the United States had already been doing great business for nearly 20 years. Don’t quote me on it, but “The Original” might very well have been the first successful Mexican restaurant ever to operate in the USA.
Situated kitty-corner across the river from Casa Rio, it was in the building that comes to a point on the end nearest Commerce St. Alas, the city shut it down for horrible sanitation, and an overall dirty kitchen, which was part of its charm, I daresay, though not charming enough to keep it open. For all the hooha, I never heard of anyone who died from eating the food. From what I hear they were always busy, almost everyday. And then, suddenly out of the blue, they were gone. What a shock. As far as I know it was the only place in San Antonio ever shut down by the city for being dirty.
Frenchy’s Black Cat may have been a really swinging scene back in the day because the old E. Commerce strip was loaded with joints, dives, greasy spoons, pimps & hookers, plus all the other clubs, pool halls, barber shops and shine parlors, Cameo Theater, Sunset Depot, some flop houses & hotels plus red-light cribs and other attractions, including Sam Wo’s chop suey shop beneath Avalon Grill and the Life Saver Club, etc. Lot’s of other places in between as that was a very busy stretch of real estate. And Frenchy’s was the place where one came to meet the world. Too bad the world eventually passed it by.
STEWART’S ROOT BEER STAND
When you’re ten years old, there’s nothing quite as cooling or as delicious as a root beer float – “Black Cows” my mother used to call them. And one of the best I ever tasted came from a place called Stewart’s Root Beer stand in Kanawha Boulevard, Charleston, West Virginia. Hank Williams was reputed to be a valued customer whenever he passed through, and various others, like Dillenger, sucked the the sarsparilla up the straw more than once. Stewart’s wasn’t a restaurant as such – it was what was called a drive-in, and it was extremely popular in its day. Later a Shoney’s would be built on the spot where it stood, and then a Captain D’s. Sigh.
Everyone that knew the place had a love affair with Nick’s. If you liked to eat Italian there was any other place to compare with it. Ironically, Nick wasn’t even Italian; he was Greek. But who cares. During WWII, Nick changed the sign out the front, blotting out the word “Italian” for fear some local patriot might get it into his small head that Nick was Italian and supported Mussolini. Located at 424 Main Street, where Charlie’s Barber Shop was, it was almost always full. I’ve heard tell the local newspaper published a picture of Nick frying a egg outside the shop one day when it was really, really hot, but I’ve never seen it. The place had a large kitchen and two restrooms in the back of the building where Lowry and Crouch was located. Upstairs was also a dining area. Course, Nick’s long gone now – but there’s some folks that still talk wistfully of his $2.75 lobster.
BOB MILLER’S RESTAURANT
The ever-charming and erstwhile, Bob Miller, operated restaurants in downtown Joplin, Missouri, for the better part of three decades. He started out with Miller’s Cafe, at 609 Main in the mid-1930s, then after World War II, opened Bob Miller’s Restaurant at 419 Main where Gladys Stewart had run her legendary Heidelberg Inn before moving it to “East Town”. Miller remodeled it in the latest style, using pigmented structural glass for the exterior facade as well as the interior walls, counters and floors. Vitrolite was all the rage in the 1940s. Advertised as “the last word in sanitation and and cleanliness” it was virtually indestructible. Apart from its glass, Bob’s was renowned for its “home-cooking”, particularly its friend chicken and baked pies. And the leatherette booths were a dream.
EARL ABEL’S RESTAURANT
Sadly, the old Earl Abel’s – an almost legendary, San Antonio institution – is gone, though a new one (in a new location) has risen from the ashes. This was the place you headed for if you were interested in Banana Cream or Coconut Cream pies. And Earl’s famous Chicken Fried Steak Dinner still rates as one of the most delectable dishes I’ve eaten in any restaurant anywhere in the world. The place was famous for lots of other things as well, including the odd, vaious sized signs that festooned the walls, proclaiming such witticisms as “Eat Here! Diet Home!”
The first time I ever ate here must have been around 1957, when I was nine or ten – though my parents had remembered the place (quite fondly) from the early 1940s. The last time I ate here – in the original location – was in 1994, a span of nearly forty years. And I have to say it was as good if not better than I remembered.