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 Amherst, Ohio.

Greetings from Amherst, Ohio
N 41° 22.672’ W 82° 13.332’ Elev. 747’

I first discovered Panera Bread while in Galena, Missouri. I had a craving for a real, fresh-baked Bear Claw, not one of those crappy convenience store abominations.

After calling down the list through the phone book I learned an unfortunate truth about Galena: The nearest bona fide bakery is an hour away. The first bakery I found that had/made Bear Claws was Panera Bread, in Springfield. Being as sometimes you simply have to have a Bear Claw off we went on the 82-mile (round trip) trek on winding Ozark highways.

Panera Bread was founded in a St. Louis, Missouri suburb in 1993. In the greater St. Louis area, however, it’s called St. Louis Bread Co., but that’s another story. Regardless of the location all of them are identical and all feature breakfast and lunch items as well as a complete line of baked goods, from cookies and pastries to breads. And they have really good coffee.

I’ve only eaten the so-called “Cafe” food at Panera once, in Athens, Georgia.

(Should you ever go to Athens be forewarned: The worst drivers in North America — this includes Canada and Mexico — are in Georgia, and the worst of the worst are in Athens. Evidently REM is not just the name of a crappy, grossly overrated band from Athens; REM is also the only reasonable explanation for that burg’s general level of motoring incompetence. If anyone has a better explanation for Athens’ driver’s blissful ineptitude I’m all ears.)

I had the “Pick 2”, a Bacon Chicken Bravo sandwich (Smoked turkey breast, bacon, smoked gouda, lettuce, tomato & their “signature” dressing on Tomato Basil bread) and a cup of Creamy Tomato soup for $7.79. The “Pick 2” also includes a choice of chips — I got a bag of rock hard kettle chips that could only be generously described as “useful for cutting diamonds” — bread or an apple. I should’ve had the apple.

While the sandwich and tomato soup — I’ve had the soup a few times since — were quite good, I just didn’t feel I was getting my money’s worth. In fact, it seemed overpriced to the point that I was being charged for the privilege of being terminally hip.

It was a small sandwich and the bowl of soup was only half full. Why they don’t just serve the soup in a cup is beyond me. Unless, of course, they want to disgruntle the odd hungry, interminably un-hip street sailor.

The bakery goods on the other hand are a great value. I often get a Sweet Onion and Poppy Seed Bagel and Honey-Walnut Cream Cheese ($2.49) which is great. Why they put Poppy Seeds on an Onion bagel baffles me though. It would no doubt drive any self-respecting Jewish bagelmaker meshuge. But the Honey Walnut Cream Cheese is especially awesome.

The real bargain at Panera — if you have a house, a toaster and a bag of bagels — is to get a tub of cream cheese (I think it’s about 5-6 ounces) for $2.79. They’ve got five different flavors in addition to plain and low-fat.

Ah, but the Bear Claws. Although they cost about $2.50 each, they are perfection. Flaky crust, generously stuffed with almond paste. They are, well, perfect. I’ve often bought two or three of them, cut them in half and wrapped them in plastic wrap. I’ve actually found ones I’d forgotten about a month later and they were still good. A little flakier, but still edible. Yea, I say.

Then again, it makes you wonder what kind of super-preservatives might be in them. But maybe it all has to do with my expert wrap-job. Who’s to know? But hell, the food safety policy aboard the SS Me So Hungry is pretty straight ahead: If it isn’t visibly moldy and doesn’t smell bad, taste it and go from there.

And so we roll.

Panera Bread, nationwide

*Note that the prices in the photos are higher than normal. All of the menu pictures were taken at a “Service Plaza” on I-80 in Amherst, Ohio. In keeping with Ohio’s soul, it looks like a generic airline terminal. It’s also proof: If you can afford to drive on a toll road already paid for by your tax dollars, you can well afford to pay a lot more for food, too.

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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