Tip me so I can feed my children.

Tio Wally Eats America: SloCo Pasty Company

I’m happy to have Tio Wally (long-time Me So Hungry reader) aboard to send in his eating adventures from across America. Here he is in San Luis Obispo, California.

Tio%20Wally%20Eats%20America%20truck2 Tio Wally Eats America: SloCo Pasty Company

Greetings from San Luis Obispo, California
N 35° 16.8165’ W 120° 39.7814’ Elev. 200 ft.

I happened to take some Texans on a mini-tour of this area recently and, while atop Black Hill in Morro Bay (parking lot elevation 485 feet), we espied three separate pods of whales, probably California Grey whales and numbering well over two dozen, lollygagging their way up the coast. I mention it here only because it was a thrill. The most I’d ever seen before, at the same time, were two. Count ‘em: Two! And yeah, you’re right, I’m blessed. Thanks for noticing.

As part of Grande excursão do Wally we also went through downtown San Luis Obispo. I’m always surprised when I visit here because so many of the businesses seem to play a endless game of musical chairs with their locations. This is mostly because of rents skyrocketing due to the cost of earthquake retrofitting the buildings. Evidently the Powers That Be have issues with un-reinforced masonry crashing down and killing and/or maiming the unsuspecting every time some errant temblor rolls through, like the one that came a’callin’ in Napa last Sunday. As a result, you never know who’s going to pop up there or what new businesses will sprout where. They’re like whales … or sea serpents — you never know where they’re going to pop up! OK. Maybe more like whales.

One of newer (to me) arrivals in downtown SLO is the SloCo Pasty — pronounced PASS-tee — Company, which opened its doors in June of 2011, serving up those delicious turnover-shaped pastries filled with meat and vegetables. Pasties are not to be confused with certain abominable fried pies that are so popular in parts of the South. Pasties are baked. (SloCo, by the way, is the local abbreviation for San Luis Obispo County; SLO is the accepted abbreviation for the city surrounding Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.)

24 Pasty  TT pasty open Tio Wally Eats America: SloCo Pasty Company

Although SloCo Pasty Company offers traditional Cornish pasties, such as the Oggy, Shepherd’s Pie, and Bangers and Mash (pork sausage cooked in beer and sautéed onion with mashed potatoes), it also offers pasties with, according to their sign, a “California twist.” These hybrids run the gamut from Santa Maria-style barbecue beef to Greek to Mexican to Indian (curry) to old-fashioned Chicken Pot Pie.

My friend ordered one of the hybrids, the Tri Trippin’ ($10.50). This pasty is filled with Santa Maria-style barbecued Tri-tip, baked beans and salsa. It was served with an extra side of salsa as well as a side of broccoli cole slaw.

Tri-tip roast or simply Tri-tip is an extremely popular regional cut of meat. Its name is derived from the shape of the cut. Anywhere else it would be called a bottom sirloin roast or some such. It’s somewhat of a mystery to me why people here go crazy for it. It can be very tough and chewy or, when it’s cooked right, tender and succulent. You just never seem to know how it’s going to come out. Invariably it’s served without a barbecue sauce.

The beef in his Tri Trippin’ was fairly tender. Although they billed the beans as “baked” they are not sweet, like, say, Boston Baked Beans. They are actually Ranch beans, a savory version of pintos that’s routinely served with Tri-tip hereabouts. While it wasn’t bad by any means I just didn’t think it was all that exciting. It was sort of like a Santa Maria-style barbecue plate in a pastry dough. Oh wait, that’s what it was supposed to be.

I wasn’t really hungry so I ordered two pasties to go, an Oggy and a Shepherd’s Pie ($9.50 each). SloCo Pasty Co. will “par-bake” (partially bake) the pasties so they can be cooked at home. They kindly mark all of the pasties with a dough-letter atop so that you can tell which is what (or vice-versa). Both of these pasties are served with a side of red wine gravy.

The Oggy is billed as “the one that started it all.” It’s the traditional Cornish miners’ pasty with steak, red potatoes, onions and rutabaga. My friend really enjoyed this one, saying it reminded him of the one’s he used to get in Grass Valley, California, a former gold mining region where there was a large population of Cornish miners in days past. I thought it was a little bland. But I think that was because I was comparing it to the Shepherd’s Pie, which I was having at the same time.

I thought the Shepherd’s Pie was incredible. It’s filled with a savory mixture of ground beef, carrots, onions and peas cooked in a red wine gravy, and mashed potatoes. I thought this was wonderfully flavorful, a classic. Even though I never really got a handle on the flavor, dipping it in the red wine gravy was also quite good.

37 Pasty 805 Tio Wally Eats America: SloCo Pasty Company

While there we sampled a great local beer, the Firestone 805 ($5.50/16 oz; $6.50/20 oz). Named after the local area code, the 805 is an incredibly smooth light blond ale brewed “just up the street” in Paso Robles by the Firestone Walker Brewing Company. It’s easy to understand the wild popularity of this fine beer; they also make a similarly wonderful DBA.

In addition to offering (what I consider to be somewhat frightening) Beer Floats (pick your poison: Guinness & Coffee Ice Cream or Boddingtons & Vanilla; $6.75/ea), SloCo Pasty Company offers a thing they call “Beer Flights.” You can choose any four of the 10 beers they have on draught and they’ll give you a 5-ounce glass of each for $8. Not a bad deal for the opportunity to sample the wares of brews from the British Isles to the West Coast, with a layover in South Burlington, Vermont, of course (Magic Hat #9). Wait… South Burlington?

Another cool thing SloCo Pasty Company did while I was there was the management had the good taste to take advantage of The Simpsons marathon — Every.Simpsons.Ever. — currently airing on FXX through Labor Day. Is there anything that could possibly go better with pasties and beer? Well, D’oh! Oops, I meant: No!

And so we roll.

SloCo Pasty Company, 1032 Chorro St., San Luis Obispo, California

Tio Wally pilots the 75-foot, 40-ton(max) land yacht SS Me So Hungry. He reports on road food from around the country whenever parking and InterTube connections permit.

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Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant

I never heard of Buca di Beppo until we went there for breakfast at Harrah’s Atlantic City. It’s a chain that serves Italian food family style (large dishes to share). I love saying the name “Buca di Beppo” over and over. I don’t know how to pronounce it!

Anyway, I don’t think most Buca di Beppos serve breakfast. But the one at Harrah’s did. Kind of a generic breakfast bar. I’d say if you are eating there for breakfast, get the Breakfast Pizza, because that is really good. Taste even better than it looks here.

02 Breakfast Pizza Buca di Beppo Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant

I wanted to try their famous Half Pound Meatballs, but they weren’t available during breakfast. I knew I had to come back for them. Good thing they have one in Manhattan. It’s above above Planet Hollywood in Times Square.

If you go online and subscribe to their emails, they give you coupon for a free small pasta (which is actually huge –feeds two). I’ve also been getting a lot of other coupons from them too. Todd and I had to strategize what would be the best deal.

We ended up getting the free small Spaghetti Marinara (feeds two) and an order of the Half Pound Meatballs (3 for $16.99 NYC prices). Man, there was so much food! I don’t know if you can tell by the pictures below. It was pretty good. Kind of a smoky taste to it, which I couldn’t tell if it was fake or not, but still good. Nice meatballs!

05 Half Pound Meatballs and Small Spaghetti Marinara Buca di Beppo Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant

I still get coupons from them in my email. Really good deals, like 20% off during this Labor Day weekend. Plus they have a good happy hour from 3-6pm of apps, beer and wine between $3-6 at the bar. With all these great deals, it’s a wonder why the place was so empty for dinner. Maybe everyone is at Planet Hollywood below.

Buca di Beppo – 1540 Broadway (b/t 7th Ave & 46th St) New York, NY 10036

Sexy Street Tease Food Truck

Apparently, food trucks just got sexy. One night last week, this truck was on the corner of 19th St and 6th Ave in Manhattan. It looks like an ad for a strip club, but it’s seemingly a regular food truck that sells chicken or beef with rice platters and also blitzes. I couldn’t see what the food looked like, just the sodas in the glass case. I tried to go back the next day, but it was gone.

Sexy Street Tease Food Truck Sexy Street Tease Food Truck

Tio Wally Eats America: Pupuseria Salvadoreña #2 — Take Three

I’m happy to have Tio Wally (long-time Me So Hungry reader) aboard to send in his eating adventures from across America. Here he is in Rogers, Arkansas.

Tio%20Wally%20Eats%20America%20truck2 Tio Wally Eats America: Pupuseria Salvadoreña #2 — Take Three

Greetings from Rogers, Arkansas
N 36° 19.0368’ W 094° 7.6424’ Elev. 1355 ft.

It’s funny how you can go to the same place time and again and then some little thing changes and it kind of chafes your hide. So it was on my latest visit to Pupuseria Salvadoreño #2.

I ordered a large marañon, the aguas frescas made from cashew apple that I first discovered in Provo, Utah. They have two sizes here, medium and large ($2.00). When I ordered it, I joked to the waitress that since refills were free I should probably just order the medium ($1.00). But I never do that because I don’t mind spending the extra buck for a couple of reasons: first, it sometimes takes awhile to get the refill and, second, I don’t mind spending the money for such a taste treat.

But then the waitress said they charge a buck for the refill. Whatever. That’s still pretty fair, although I’ve never been to a Latino restaurant that charged for refills of aguas frescas. And they didn’t used to here. When I got the bill, however, I discovered she’d charged me the full $2 for the refill. “Oh,” she said, “the refills on the mediums are a dollar.” I know it’s only a dollar but, well, it’s the principal. Waaaaaah! Moving on.

On this visit I decided to try something a little different, so I ordered the Mojarra Ranchera (Ranch Style Red Snapper). I’m not sure what I was expecting. On the menu they had a picture of the Mojarra Frita (Fried Red Snapper), which was a whole deep-fried fish. I kind of assumed the fish in the Mojarra Ranchera would be a filet. I thought this, of course, because I’m about as bright as a 20-watt bulb in an unplugged lamp.

06 plate Tio Wally Eats America: Pupuseria Salvadoreña #2 — Take Three

It turned out the Mojarra Ranchera ($9.50) was a whole deep-fried fish as well, smothered in sautéed tomatoes, onions and jalapeño peppers, and served with rice and beans, some shredded iceberg lettuce, and three pupusas (thick corn tortillas). Oh, and a fork.

The skin on the fish was really crispy and quite hard. So hard, in fact, that it was nearly impossible to get the fork through it. Thankfully the fish was scored and I was able to get the skin between the tines of the fork and kind of twist it and break it open. Once I got inside the flesh was really tasty, nice and moist. The combination of the skin and meat were quite a juxtaposition texture-wise.

It turned out to be kind of a chore to eat, often having to sift through all the little bones. Occasionally the meat would pull away from the rib cage intact, but not very often. In all it was very good, and the tomato, onion and jalapeño complimented it nicely. But like I said, it was somewhat of a chore. It most assuredly would’ve been a lot easier to eat with chopsticks.

As I ate I kept thinking that there wasn’t a lot of meat there. But much to my surprise I soon found myself stuffed. Throughout the meal that poor fish kept staring at me with a deep-fried frown on its face. It made me feel sort of guilty. Being a white guy from a processed-food nation I’m not used to my food staring back at me like that.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t actually red snapper. Judging by the price, as well as the shape of its head and the size and placement of its deep-fried eyes, I suspect it was probably tilapia. It’s pretty common for restaurants to advertise snapper and substitute tilapia.

I also got a couple of tamales (one pork, one chicken, $1.25 each) to go. Central American tamales are simply the best. They’re wrapped in banana leaf rather than corn husks. As a result the masa (dough) is very moist and has a light, fluffy, almost cake-like texture. The filling in them is chunks of meat and cubes of yuca (cassava). Additionally, they serve them with curtido (a slaw of sliced cabbage, grated carrots and sliced jalapeño peppers) and salsa roja (red salsa) on the side. The silky texture of the tamal along with the crunch of the cabbage is truly a great combination.

And unlike the new just-to-piss-me-off aquas frescas refill policy, there was still no charge for the curtido y salsa.

And so we roll.

Pupuseria Salvadoreña #2, 1601 South 8th St., Rogers, Arkansas

Tio Wally pilots the 75-foot, 40-ton(max) land yacht SS Me So Hungry. He reports on road food from around the country whenever parking and InterTube connections permit.

Harrah’s Casino (Philly)

Harrah’s in Philly is interesting. There’s no hotel or the glitz and glamour of Vegas or Atlantic City. The casino is next door to a prison and you have to go through the ghetto to get to it. We actually took a limo through the ghetto to get there. But once you get there, it is definitely a casino.

Now I don’t mean to already talk down on Harrah’s Philly. Hear me out throughout the rest of this post. For one thing, I can see if I lived in Philly as a 30-something year old hipster, I’d come to the casino to check it out. Have some drinks. Gamble some cash. I don’t think it would necessarily be as an ironic adventure, but that I think it would be just plain fun –like how I think Disney World is fun. At the same time, I couldn’t tell if the place seemed more sad because it had less of the glitz and glamour of what I think casinos are supposed to be …and just watching people throwing their money away with a push of a button felt weird to me.

I can tell though, they are trying to make strides to make it more fun or family (non-family) orientated. Like, there are events! We were there during their Food and Wine Grand Market, where local and national vendors/businesses were giving away free samples (food and alcohol). Also there were live demos, including from celebrity chef, Lorena Garcia (Taco Bell spokesperson).

02 Philly Cheesesteak Potsticker Mien Noodles Harrahs Casino (Philly)

We had lunch there at Mien Noodles –an Asian Fusion Restaurant, right in the middle of the casino floor. We had a lot of different stuff. The most interesting was the Philly Cheese-steak Potsticker. It’s exactly what you think it would be. And to be honest, it was pretty good. And the Tempura Fried Ice Cream was great.

Now back to the casino. It definitely is a different crowd than what I’m used to. It reminded me of OTB (Off Track Betting) that used to be all all over New York. Heck, I live off the L train in Williamsburg, Brooklyn –probably the most trendiest hipster neighborhood in the world right now. Also, this wasn’t the type of casino where half of the people are there for a bachelor/bachelorette party like Atlantic City. But as we were about to get ready to head back to our limos, Todd pointed out this couple to me in front of us, who were arguing then had a moment of understanding of each other. He said he thought that was him and his future wife in thirty years. Then it kind of hit me. Yeah, these people are people too. Not that I thought they were any less than me in the first place …but I couldn’t relate until that moment.

12 Philly Harrahs Couple Harrahs Casino (Philly)

So maybe I was the most Asian hipster at Harrah’s casino that day. But I did have that moment of realization that everyone might not wear skinny jeans or have cool hair like me, but everybody is a person too. They all have feelings, emotions, and their own lives they live. Maybe they used to be hipsters a long time ago. Maybe I will be hanging out at this casino in thirty years …or maybe in the prison next door. Only time will tell.

Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino & Racetrack – 777 Harrah’s Blvd, Chester, PA 19013

Tio Wally Eats America: The Kitchen

I’m happy to have Tio Wally (long-time Me So Hungry reader) aboard to send in his eating adventures from across America. Here he is in Greeley, Colorado.

Tio%20Wally%20Eats%20America%20truck2 Tio Wally Eats America: The Kitchen

Greetings from Greeley, Colorado
N 40° 24.841’ W 104° 41.5883’ Elev. 4671 ft.

Greeley, Colorado is named after Horace Greeley, the 19th century newspaper editor widely quoted for writing, “Go West, young man, go West.” What Horace actually wrote was, “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

Were he alive in his namesake city today, and still working in print, he might well be reduced to writing directions to The Kitchen for some alternative weekly: “Go northeast, young people, to the northeast corner of the University of Northern Colorado campus. That’s where you’ll find it, right across the street.” While it doesn’t have quite the same panache, it’s as accurate as his take on the District of Columbia was both then and now. Horace would like that.

Having spent the night in the parking lot of one of my favorite Internet Service Providers (The Home Depot), I awoke with the thought of a grumpy Horace. It made me hungry. So I Googled “Best Breakfast in Greeley” and The Kitchen popped up at the top of the list.

03 Kitchen outside 2 Tio Wally Eats America: The Kitchen

I read the reviews on various sites, most of them glowing. A few, however, were quite scathing, especially one that made mention of both flies and bad service. Having looked at the Google map I felt pretty confident I wouldn’t be able to park anywhere near it, even sans trailer. But I went anyway, just to see. It being early on a Sunday morning I figured I couldn’t get in too much trouble.

Miracles occur occasionally, and I was able to park. Moreover, there was a 7-11 located kitty-corner. I took that as a good omen as 7-11 has pretty good coffee. As I sat in the bridge sipping coffee a guy came out of a house behind the restaurant.

How’s the food at The Kitchen? I asked. “Good,” he said. “Good and cheap. Huevos Rancheros.” That’s your recommendation? “Yeah. That’s what you want. Huevos Rancheros.”

As I waited for The Kitchen to open (6 a.m.; 7 on Sunday) I decided that I didn’t really want Huevos Rancheros ($5.50), although I enjoy them very much. Being a former musician by inclination I decided I’d play it by ear.

I was the first person in when the lady unlocked the door. How are you this morning? I asked, cheerfully. “I’m not ready for this day at all,” she said. So far, so good, I thought.

The special that morning was Chicken Fried Steak ($7.50 menu price), which many reviewers raved about. They also raved about the Frazier Hall Omelette ($7.75). I asked the lady which one was more fun. “The Frazier has Chicken Fried Steak in it,” she said. Okay then, give me one of those, with hash browns; they also offer home fries. “What kind of toast do you want?” What do you have? She listed a bunch of breads, tagging the list with “We also have homemade white, whole wheat and raisin bread.” Oh joy: Raisin bread. I’ll have that!

As I waited for my meal, I tried to read my latest book, The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson. Amid Bryson’s bemoaning the homogenization of America a lone fly kept buzzing me. Landing on the table, landing on my hand, my head, my glasses. My glasses! The fly, I’ll call it Flo, was begging to be put to death, by my hand. Luckily, there was stack of local free papers nearby that could be neatly folded into an instrument of execution. I lay in wait, ready to strike. As I waited for Flo to land and meet its maker, I thought of Frazier Hall.

Frazier Hall was a mulatto born in 1888 in Blue Earth, Minnesota. Because he was extremely light-skinned, and his father was both an extremely successful Caucasian farmer and a respected Lutheran minister, Frazier was allowed to attend school, a rarity at the time. Although he didn’t really care for school academically, he became a star athlete, excelling in the nascent American pastime of baseball. Basic equipment for the sport, like baseball gloves, didn’t exist at the time. Players caught the ball barehanded. Fortunately, Frazier was blessed with freakishly large hands, and was recognized throughout Minnesota and the Midwest as a standout fielder.

At age 17, Frazier was offered a position playing for the Greeley Wranglers, a start-up team in the newly formed Rocky Mountain Baseball League. He was paid $2 per month for his services, a handsome sum in those days. The team played only when weather permitted, at best about two or three months a year. During the interminable off-seasons he worked as an assistant order-taker for Sears Roebuck and Company in Greeley. Frazier enjoyed his star status, regaling customers at the Sears Roebuck counter with his on-field exploits during the long winter months. But then the rumor started.

It originated with a rancher, one C.A. Buck, who’d ordered a pair of very expensive fleece-lined all-leather mittens that arrived many sizes too large for his diminutive hands. “Those mittens will fit only one man,” he told the townsfolk. “And that man is Frazier Hall.” Although Frazier informed him he could return the mittens for the correct size, Buck wouldn’t hear of it. He was convinced Frazier had ordered the mittens for himself and that, once Buck had paid full price for them, would offer to buy them at a considerable discount.

Buck had such influence on the citizenry that soon all of Greeley was ready to lynch Frazier. Recognizing the direness at his situation, Frazier fled to Ottumwa, Iowa where he lived out his days working handily as a midwife’s assistant. Or so they say. Truth is he actually earned most of his money as a gigolo, slapping the asses of Ottumwa’s many well-to-do fetishists.

As an aside, Frazier Hall’s granddaughter, Sissy Hankshaw, inherited at least a part of his ample hands, his thumbs. Sissy became a legendary hitchhiker, and subsequently became the subject of Tom Robbins’ biographical novel Even Cowgirls Get The Blues.

Yeah, I thought of Frazier Hall while I was waiting for my food, and Flo. Unfortunately, not a whit of what I wrote about Frazier Hall is true. I made it up because the truth about Frazier Hall is a bit boring; it’s a Performing Arts Center, I think. Oh, and Flo the Fly never got its most deserved reward. That’s the sad but honest to God truth.

06 Kitchen plate Tio Wally Eats America: The Kitchen

The Frazier Hall omelette should be called something other than an omelette. It’s cooked on a griddle. You can’t make an omelette on a griddle. Sorry. Can’t be done. You have to use a pan. Even employing the super-secret ingredient for fluffy omelettes — water! — won’t help. So the Frazier was dense, flat.

It was so flat, so bereft of “fluffy,” in fact, that the Flat Earth Society could understandably adopt it as a pitch-perfect culinary representation of the Earth. So flat was it that it wouldn’t make the cut if it were, say, a pet flounder named Eric. But it wasn’t bad. Just dense, flat.

It’s a shame, really. Many great elements are there: chicken fried steak, jalapeño bacon, cheese, topped with a really great country gravy. Although I thought the jalapeño bacon was odd. I got a couple of bites of it that were quite hot, unexpectedly and annoyingly so. I will never understand why anyone would think they could or should — or find a need to— improve on good bacon. As a wannabe all-pork-diet guy, I say it can’t be done.

Honestly, the only reason why bacon would be “adjusted” with “flavors” is because it’s a substandard product to begin with. But rather than just trash it, les propriétaires de l’abattoir want to — surprise! — sell it. So they resort to any measures available to facilitate that goal. I don’t blame them. If anyone wants to buy crap the butchers themselves won’t eat, well … they’re probably Americans.

The Kitchen’s hash browns were quite nice, truly a treat. Real potatoes! It’s always just short of miraculous to me to find anything other than the frozen-in-a-bag crap I haul around the country to feed the masses of demented, tastebud-less eaters nationwide. Even better, The Kitchen’s hash browns were cooked to a nice crispness. Another miracle.

But the true highlight — and a reason to go back to The Kitchen again and again — is the toast. Slices of this homemade heaven are an inch thick. While that’s a bit thicker than I like my toast, it’s sooooo good. So very, very, very freakin’ good. And they have Smucker’s® Apple Butter! There are few better combinations on this planet than toasted, buttered raisin bread and apple butter. It’s in the Top Five of my Ultimate Soul Foods list.

I’m already planning my next visit to The Kitchen. And I know exactly what I want: Over-easy fried eggs, hash browns and toast ($5.25), with a side of toast ($1.50?). I’ll even bring my own Jif® peanut butter for the eggs. On second thought, they also make French toast (with one egg and bacon or sausage, $4.95) with that awesome bread. And I travel with a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s®! Oh my. Decisions, decisions, delicious decisions.

And so we roll.

The Kitchen, 905 16th St., Greeley, Colorado

Tio Wally pilots the 75-foot, 40-ton(max) land yacht SS Me So Hungry. He reports on road food from around the country whenever parking and InterTube connections permit.

Jacob Jonty Biltong South African Jerky

01 Jonty Jacobs Biltong Jerky Jacob Jonty Biltong South African Jerky

Biltong is South African Beef Jerky. And there’s this new company, Jacob Jonty, that’s selling it. It’s pretty good. Less saltier or Teriyaki-flavored than traditional jerky. I would say it’s closer to Spanish Jamón or Prosciutto.

They also have a new store in the West Village where you can have them freshly slice it for you …or buy it pre-packaged.

Jonty Jacobs – 114 Christopher Street (between Bleeker & Hudson) New York NY 10014

Tio Wally Eats America: Sam’s Original Restaurant & BBQ

I’m happy to have Tio Wally (long-time Me So Hungry reader) aboard to send in his eating adventures from across America. Here he is in Fairfield, Texas.

Tio%20Wally%20Eats%20America%20truck2 Tio Wally Eats America: Sam’s Original Restaurant & BBQ

Greetings from Fairfield, Texas
N 31° 43.104’ W 096° 10.561’ Elev. 579 ft.

Sam’s Original Restaurant is one of those places I’d passed by many times. It had all the hallmarks of a great place to eat: Nondescript building, packed parking lot, located at an intersection of some highway to nowhere and the Interstate, in Texas. When I discovered that I could park in a lot right next door I finally stopped and went in.

02 Sams sign Tio Wally Eats America: Sam’s Original Restaurant & BBQ

I was kind of taken aback at first. The entrance to the restaurant was a gift shop. People were buying all kinds of over-priced crap — waiting in line two-, three-deep to pay for it! Sam’s is evidently some sort of landmark.

I asked the lady manning one of the two cash registers to see a menu. Though she wore no name tag, I’m pretty sure her name was Surly. She grudgingly obliged me and I took it to the foyer, to take pictures, and figure out if I wanted to eat there. After perusing the menu and taking pictures, I took the menu back. Surly was still there. I gave her the menu, thanked her and offered some chitchat. A cricket chirped somewhere, figuratively speaking. I was amazed how easily one can read certain people’s body language. Surly’s surely said: Go away, scum!

Ah, the hospitality industry.

I have to say this: I’ve been to a lot of places and nowhere have I seen more unsmiling faces on the staff than I saw at Sam’s. I ended up counting the smiles I saw. Indeed, of the 20+ person staff I saw just three people smile. It was kind of sad. It wasn’t that they were unfriendly per se, Surly notwithstanding, just that they were, well, sort of glum, like they’d all much prefer to be most anywhere else.

Sam’s has been here forever it seems. Indeed, it’s been such an institution for so long that I think their credo has devolved to “We don’t care because we don’t have to.” That doesn’t stop people from coming in droves, which may explain the lack of any need for geniality. Then again, it’s an extremely busy place and maybe the staff is just frazzled.

Although the restaurant is centered around an all-you-can-eat buffet, they also offer a complete menu that’s rather extensive. In fact, one of the things I saw come out of the kitchen was a stack of Hand Battered Onion Rings (Small $1.99, Large $2.99) that looked as if it could give Cheddar’s a run for its money.

I got the buffet ($11.99), which consisted of chicken fried chicken (that I thought was fish), fried chicken, smoked sausage, barbecued beef, and chicken fried steak. Because it was my first time there I got all of them.

Although I was hoping it was fish — they only have fish on Fridays — the chicken fried chicken, fried chicken breast filets, were pretty good. If I had an ounce of self-respect I would never admit that I circled the salad bar looking for tartar sauce before discovering it was actually chicken.

The fried chicken was somewhat Swanson-esque, though much moister than TV dinner chicken. I was thinking that perhaps they’d merely overcooked that batch a bit or, at least, I hoped so. The smoked sausage was good but run-of-the-mill, but the barbecue beef was quite good. The chicken fried steak, however, was … O.M.G.! How do you make the perfect Chicken Fried Steak? Well, you make it tender with a nice moist breading and you have a decent gravy. Sam’s did just that.

When I first saw the Chicken Fried Steaks I thought they were dressing, like patties of leftover Thanksgiving stuffing/dressing. I had to ask a lady, who ‘splained it. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only person to discover that these Chicken Fried Steaks are to die for. Fork tender, simple gravy. Sam’s truly has this dialed in.

Sam’s has a very, very extensive salad bar, all of it quite fresh. It contained a couple of real treats: pickled watermelon rind and pickled green tomatoes. The pickled watermelon rind was perfect; a pickled, almost candied, piece of opaqueness. It tastes slightly like bread-and-butter pickles. The pickled tomato is likewise a treat. Less seasoned than the watermelon rind, it too has a little pucker going on with the sweetness. What a treat such things are!

They had two soups on the buffet. I think one was a cheesy broccoli affair, while the other was a hearty vegetable. Obviously homemade, the vegetable was just slightly salty but still very, very good.

A nice thing Sam’s does is they bring you a mini-loaf of homemade bread, if you want it. I was pretty excited when it came until I discovered that it wasn’t warm. It kind of surprised me that it wasn’t. I mean, Is there anything better than warm homemade bread? I would’ve asked them to nuke it for me but that seemed like a nonstarter.

Another real standout at Sam’s are the desserts. They’ve got a rack of various slices of pie, as well as a steam table with warm desserts. I had both the raspberry cobbler with a little soft-serve ice cream and the peach cobbler. They were both very good. Then I had a slice of Chocolate Pecan Cream pie. I had to ask a staffer who passed by, unsmiling, what it was. This was the best piece of pie I’ve had in awhile. The merengue was perfect, nice hard crust atop, dense yet fluffy underside. But that’s not what really made it.

30 Sams chocolate pecan pie Tio Wally Eats America: Sam’s Original Restaurant & BBQ

The chocolate filling in the pie took me back to my childhood. I’d tasted that filling before. It’s made with Hershey’s cocoa, milk, and lots and lots of sugar. When I was a kid our neighbor, Georgia, who was originally from Arkansas, used to make Chocolate Gravy (chocolate pudding served while still warm) and Baking Soda Biscuits for us for breakfast. Then send us off to school. I suspect eating such wholesome Southern breakfasts may have had something to do with my being suspended from school for a week when I was in the First Grade.

Now that I’ve been to Sam’s I can definitely see eating there again, especially now that I know what to expect and what not to, like a slew of smiling faces. Heck, for all I know maybe the frowns at Sam’s Original Restaurant are actually part of a stealthy cult thing, like the service at the now-closed Sam Wo Restaurant in San Francisco, and the staff are vying to become as notorious as the late Edsel Ford Fong. Having experienced Edsel’s terrifying “service” firsthand, however, I can say the frown thing at Sam’s Original isn’t even remotely in the same league.

And so we roll.

Sam’s Original Restaurant & BBQ, 390 East I-45, 1-45 & US 84 (Exit 197), Fairfield, Texas

Tio Wally pilots the 75-foot, 40-ton(max) land yacht SS Me So Hungry. He reports on road food from around the country whenever parking and InterTube connections permit.