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Tio Wally Eats America: Panera Bread

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.

Tio%20Wally%20Eats%20America%20truck Tio Wally Eats America: Panera Bread

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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Tio Wally Eats America: Love’s Travel Stops

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 North Baltimore, Ohio.

Tio%20Wally%20Eats%20America%20truck Tio Wally Eats America: Love’s Travel Stops

Greetings from North Baltimore, Ohio
N 41° 10.462’ W 083° 39.101’ Elev. 704 ft.

We love Love’s. So much so that Love’s Travel Stops are the only truck stops where the crew of the SS Me So Hungry will fuel the land yacht. There are a few reasons for this.

One is that they are kept cleaner than most other truck stops. From the fuel islands to the bathrooms, Love’s makes a conscious effort to make its properties as inviting as it possibly can. And for good reason: It’s a highly competitive business to be in. Moreover, Love’s really goes out of its way to take good care of the commercial drivers.

All truck stops have some sort of Driver’s Reward Program. After you swipe your fuel card, you swipe your Reward Card and are awarded 1¢ for every gallon of fuel you purchase. Although a measly penny per gallon doesn’t sound like much, it adds up in a hurry when you’re purchasing an average of 100 gallons of fuel per day; a rule of thumb is a land yacht will average about 6 miles per gallon.

What makes Love’s Reward Program different from all the others is that after you purchase 1,000 gallons in a month you’re classified as Platinum. You have not only earned $10 in credit, you get unlimited free refills of any size coffee, iced or hot tea, or soda (providing you have your own cup) for the following month. They even have hot chocolate. You also get unlimited showers; other places give you a free shower with a minimum purchase of 50 gallons.

Again, that penny may not sound like a lot until you compare it to what the other truck stops are doing. For example, to earn a “free” refill at, say, Pilot/Flying J you have to buy 169 gallons of fuel and then if you use the points — Bam! — all of your points/credits are gone. Pilot/Flying J (it’s the same company) does have a so-called Coffee Club where every sixth cup is free. Thus, if you don’t use any of your Reward points, you pay only $8.45 to get a “free” cup of coffee. Such unbridled generosity.

I’ve never tallied it up but, at $1 per refill, I’m saving a minimum of $50-$60 every month on coffee by fueling at Love’s. But wait, there’s more!

You can use the Reward points for any food and merchandise in the store, except alcohol and tobacco. The points can also be used in many of the fast food restaurants affiliated with the Travel Stops, sometimes receiving a 10 percent discount to boot. Additionally, Love’s always has something or other on sale each month, and quite often it’s a good deal.

In month’s past Love’s had been having Munchies® Sandwich Crackers on sale Three for $1. There are a handful of different varieties of these FritoLay products but my favorite are the ones filled with peanut butter between Ritz-like crackers. There are also peanut butter-filled cheese crackers but they are quite a bit saltier. All of them — cheese, jalapeño cheese, etc. — are pretty tasty. I think Munchies® are easily the best sandwich crackers on the market. And I swear the peanut butter ones are filled with Jif®. At least, it sure tastes like Jif®.

For November Love’s had been doing a Buy 1 Get 1 Free promotion on Double S Ranch (now Double S Foods) Natural Style Beef Jerky. This jerky is really good. Love’s carries two varieties, Original and Peppered; according to the package Double S also makes a Teriyaki flavor but Love’s doesn’t carry it.

It reminds me of some of the homemade jerky I’ve had. Although it’s chewy like run-of-the-mill jerky, unlike most of its bone-dry, shoe-leather counterparts, it’s moist and quite tender. The Peppered flavor is Mesquite Smoked and smells exactly like Campbell’s Vegetable Beef Soup. It also packs a little heat that builds up on your tongue after awhile. At $5.79 for two 3.25 ounce packages it makes for a cheap chew to keep your mouth occupied as you drag down the miles. What a bargain.

I’ve been taking packages of the jerky and distributing them to various folks when I take shore leave. It’s turned out to be a really a cheap way of buying a little bit of fast-fleeting popularity — about two seconds worth, to be precise.

Love’s also had Two for $1 Butterfinger® candy bars. I don’t eat much candy but I bought a half-dozen of the regulation-size 2.1 ounce bars anyway. Now I’m stocked with enough candy to last me until about June.

But the sweetest part of these deals is that it doesn’t cost me a cent. I couldn’t begin to guess how many penny points I’ve gone through over the years. I do know that, in addition to whatever snacks I’ve snagged, I’ve made off with a veritable fleet of die-cast cars of varying sizes for my great nephew.

It’s the little things that makes me love Love’s — from the cheerful greeting when you walk in to there always being a trash can strategically placed right next to the bathroom door so you can use your paper towel to grab the door handle, thus allowing you to make a clean, germ-free getaway. Even my evil twin, crack lead navigator Skippy, particularly likes this little amenity. It makes him feel hygienic. Dream on, Skippy, you mangy, scurvy dog.

And so we roll.

Love’s Travel Stops, nationwide

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.

Tio Wally Eats America: Olive Garden’s Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow

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 Lima, Ohio.

Tio%20Wally%20Eats%20America%20truck Tio Wally Eats America: Olive Gardens Dinner Today & Dinner Tomorrow

Greetings from Lima, Ohio
N 40° 43.592’  W 084° 04.433’  Elev. 848 ft.

I’ve mentioned before that I think the lowly Lima bean is the most underrated and oft-ignored bean there is. It’s nice, then, that the good people of Ohio had the decency to name a city after it.

As Chrissie Hynde might sing: “Eh. Oh. Way to go, Ohio.” NOT!

(According to the InterTubes, the origin of Lima’s moniker is much more romantic. The town was actually named after Lima, Peru, the source of the “quinine bark” used for the treatment of “swamp fever” aka malaria in pioneer days. Malaria was prevalent in Lima, Ohio at the time.)

A few days before I arrived here I’d seen an ad on the TeeBee for a special Olive Garden was running. In the ad they showed these hunger-inducing cheese raviolis.

At the time I didn’t pay all that much attention to it. But evidently the ad worked on my subconscious or, rather, my submerged consciousness, and I ended up at the OG.

The special they’re running, until about December, is called “Dinner today & Dinner tomorrow” ($12.95; prices may vary in NYC, Alaska and Canada). It consists of two entrees  — there are five to choose from — one that you eat in the restaurant and another to take home.

The entree you eat in the restaurant is served with unlimited soup or salad and their buttery, slightly salty breadsticks. The one you take home is only an entree, but if you’re nice they’ll throw a couple of breadsticks at you, figuratively speaking.

Although the OG has really great fresh, crisp salad, I chose a new soup they were offering: Chicken & Potato Florentine. This stuff is great! Nice chunks of perfectly cooked potato in a creamy zuppa that’s the perfect consistency. But I couldn’t really detect any chunks of chicken. I guess they were in there. Perhaps they were hidden by the Florentine; Florentine just means it’s made with spinach. But the soup had something else in it that tasted kind of like sausage or something. Regardless, it was so good that I ate two bowls of it. This soup is a real keeper.

For the in-house entree I ordered the as-seen-on-TV Mezzaluna Ravioli with Five Cheese Marinara. The fairly generous portion of half-moon shaped raviolis were generously stuffed with cheese that tasted slightly smoky, as in smoked-cheese smoky. I thought the sauce was a little misnamed as it’s actually more of a tomato-cream sauce.

I kept thinking the dish would be really good with the addition of thin slices of portobello mushroom, but it was fantastic nonetheless — both hot and cold. Truly another keeper.

I ordered the Lasagna Rollatini with Meat Sauce for the to-go portion of the meal. Rollatini is usually made with eggplant, but this was just cheese lasagna covered in meat sauce, with a generous dollop of really creamy ricotta cheese on top. It’s good, and Olive Garden makes a really decent meat sauce, but it wasn’t nearly as heavenly as the Half-moon Cheese Pillows.

I’ve been to Olive Gardens all over the place over the years, and they are consistently good from location to location. But I’ve learned one thing about them: Always order the specials. The reason is that this is how OG tests new menu items and, more often than not, they’re usually really, really good and fairly cheap.

One of my favorites, which they introduced a few years ago and ended up keeping as a regular menu item, is the Braised Beef & Tortelloni, “tender sliced short ribs and portobello mushrooms tossed with asiago-filled tortelloni in a basil-marsala sauce” ($14.95). It is unbelievably good.

This “Dinner today & Dinner tomorrow” special is a real value at essentially $6.50 a meal. Truly a sweet deal. So sweet, in fact, that it even comes with an after-dinner (Andy’s) chocolate mint.

And so we roll.

Olive Garden, nationwide

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.

Tio Wally Eats America: Buckeye Express Diner

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 Bellville, Ohio.

Tio%20Wally%20Eats%20America%20truck Tio Wally Eats America: Buckeye Express Diner

Greetings from Bellville, Ohio

N 40° 38.872′  W 082° 32.536′  Elev. 1197 ft.

I’ve have trick parking spots scattered around the country and have parked in this particular one numerous times. There’s a McDouche’s and a 24-hour gas station/convenience store not 50 yards away and, on good days, InterTube connections either from the McClown McPalace or a nearby motel.

Whenever I’ve parked here I’ve stared at the train-car diner up on the hill. I always lamented the fact that it was closed, as in “out of business” closed. I thought it’d be kind of cool to eat there even though, due to the novelty of the place, the food would probably be grossly overpriced and would suck.

The last time I was here, however, I noticed a banner saying it was open from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. I was simply coming and going at all the wrong times (read: at night/early morning) it seems.

I showed up at about 6:45 p.m. CDT one evening and, as I was securing the yacht, kept hearing the locomotive’s bell ringing. Cute, I thought, thinking it was programmed. A few minutes later I heard the whistle “whoo-whoo.” Cool. I could see a neon “Open” sign in one of the windows of the dining car so I decided I’d check it out. But as I packed my eating gear — book, reading glasses, camera — the place went dark.

At first I thought they’d closed early. Then the SS Me So Hungry’s crack lead navigator Skippy discovered we were in the Eastern Time Zone. They’d closed at 8, just as the banner had predicted. Cue Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks’ “Woe The Luck.”

The next day, just as the banner predicted, it opened again — at 11 a.m. EDT! So I trekked up the hill and checked it out.

My initial reaction was “This place is overpriced and the food is going to suck.” Still, I asked the guy if I could take some pictures. “Sure,” he said, “five bucks.” Huh? “I’ve got a train to pay for,” he said. He was joking, of course.

He was Tony, the owner of the Buckeye Express Diner. Or as he said, “According to the bank I’m the owner. I won’t live long enough to own it but I’m going to try.” Tony’s a lovable card, to be sure, with an acerbic wit that scalawags like me find endearing. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to eat there.

As I was about to leave I noticed the day’s special was all-you-can-eat fish and chips (Alaskan pollock, hand-cut fries) with “our applesauce” for $8.95. I left. Then I thought, “When was the last time I had fish and chips … in a rail car … perched on a hill … in Ohio?” I can’t remember when. Oh, wait, yeah I can: Never.

So I turned around and ended up having one of the finest fish-and-chips meals I’d had in ages. (Note: I’ve had fish (halibut) and chips from the Fish Shanty in Morro Bay, California back when it was good, so I know my fish and chips. No novice, me.) The fish was lightly battered, perfectly cooked, and virtually greaseless. Good tarter sauce, Heinz malt vinegar. In a word: Perfect. Tasty, tasty.

But the applesauce really made my day. Who serves applesauce with fish and chips? Well, Tony. It was delightfully cinnamon-y with big chunks of apple that made you remember that applesauce is not a pureed, flavorless pablum that we all know too well. It was real. Homemade Applesauce! Yea!!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that not only was the food excellent, the service was as well. As I was leaving, Tony said “If you like hamburgers, we make the best.” While I’m not a hamburger guy, I believed him.

By the way, you can ring the locomotive’s bell all you want for free, but it costs 50¢ to blow the whistle.

And so we roll.

Buckeye Express Diner, 810 State Route 97 & Bellville Johnsville Rd. (I-71, Exit 165), Bellville, Ohio

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.

Diner Train

Here’s a cool pic Tio Wally sent me…

“Bellville, Ohio. (One of my “trick” parking spots.) Out the window is this place that’s never open. Bummer.” –Tio Wally.

Diner Train Bellville Ohio Diner Train