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 Needles, California.
Greetings from Needles, California
N 34° 51.0621’ W 114° 37.3804’ Elev. 550 ft.
I love the desert. I call it “The Land of Long Shadows” because a shadow cast by a mountain may reach tens of miles distant. It’s quite amazing. Almost as amazing as the ability to smell water miles before you reach it.
As you near Needles from the west on I-40 you roll down a long, long hill towards a verdant valley. The sudden appearance of green is a marked contrast to the hundreds of shades of sandy tans and washed browns that you’ve traveled through for 200 miles. The reason for the unexpected lushness is water, the strip of green tracing the path of the Colorado River.
It’s a rather stunning view. I’ve often thought it must be similar to what it must have looked like in days bygone when people driving oxen-drawn Conestogas came down the hills into Las Vegas. You see, Las Vegas is Spanish for “The Meadows” and is the site of freshwater springs. I’ve read historical accounts that said the sight was such a marked contrast to the surrounding desert that it literally glowed green and could be seen with the naked eye from 40 miles away or more. Thirsty travelers often thought it was a mirage.
The river does not run through Needles. Hell, the only things that run through Needles are I-40, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and an occasional roadrunner. Needles’ main claim to fame is, I think, as the mythical home of Spike, the desert-rat brother of Snoopy, the Walter Mitty-esque beagle of Charles Shultz’s remarkably unfunny “Peanuts” comic strip. Just off Highway 95 on the south side of town is Spike Road, named in Spike’s honor.
At the first eastbound I-40 exit to Needles is the Wagon Wheel Restaurant. According to its sign it’s been “A Local Favorite Since 1978.” I’ve been coming here for a dozen or more years. It’s a pretty kitsch joint, which I like. It’s full of odd Route 66/Desert Rat/Old West stuff, and whatever other gimcrackery might attract a tourist’s attention and, hopefully, their dollars.
Many boulevard boaters eat here because the food is consistently good and parking is more than ample. Plus, the waitresses are attentive, professional, fun, and always go the extra mile to make sure you’ve got everything you need and/or desire, within reason.
The thing that has always drawn me back to the Wagon Wheel was soup. After all, What could be better than a piping hot bowl of soup on a 112° day? The Wagon Wheel has great homemade soups and a regular menu item is a really soulful Navy Bean. It’s classic, creamy bean soup with plenty of nice bits of diced ham.
When I stopped this time I neglected to take pictures of the menu, which is unfortunate. It’s pretty extensive, chock full of standard American fare. But hey, if I order anything other than soup it’s usually whatever the special is.
“Special” is a special thing at the Wagon Wheel. It’s usually a regular menu item that’s priced, at best, 50¢ less than the standard menu price, if it’s discounted at all. And so it was this visit. I ordered the “Special”: 4 Pieces of Crispy Fried Chicken with Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, Veggies and Texas Toast ($10.99). That’s when things began to go wrong.
Here was the rub: I’ve had both the Chicken Fried Steak and the Fish and Chips at the Wagon Wheel. They hand-bread them there and they’re delicious. Not so with the chicken as it turned out. It’s pre-breaded bird. (Damn!). Then I found out they didn’t have chicken gravy to go with the smashed spuds. (Damn it to hell!). Still, chicken sounded good so I went with it, substituting a baked tater for the mashed potatoes.
When my plate arrived I realized things were actually going really, really right. The “veggies” that day were fresh steamed broccoli. Nobody serves broccoli, much less steamed, unless it’s been through a day-long sauna, thrown into a faraway steam tray to be rendered limp and mushy, bereft of life, color and spirit. But not at the Wagon Wheel.
The generous portion of broccoli was perfectly cooked, still slightly crunchy. Yum. It was as if my sister had cooked it. It was such a treat that I thought I should probably go ahead and draw up the papers notifying the cook, Dominic, that he’d soon be formally adopted into my family.
The fried chicken was also really great. It had a crunchy, nicely seasoned breading, perfectly cooked, and was moist and tender inside. Of course, being a professional Jerk-from-Hell™ I wondered what Dominic could do with a bird from scratch. Something similar to what my sister might do?
Texas Toast is a standard deal at the Wagon Wheel and is served with many meals. Unlike other places the toast is quite good, with a nice toasty, garlicky flavor.
Combined with my cup of Navy Bean soup (added for $1.69), the half-chicken “Special” was a real meal deal. If only they had breaded it there. Maybe next time.
I would be derelict if I didn’t mention one more thing, something truly special. While I was in Needles it rained; a first for me to experience. Excepting the torrential monsoons that inundate the lower halves of Arizona and New Mexico most every year, rain in the desert is rare, sporadic and haphazardly dropped. When it happens it falls from clearly defined clouds, the path of the rain easily delineated. You can see it from miles away.
And so we roll.
Wagon Wheel Restaurant, 2420 Needles Hwy., I-40 Exit 141, Needles, 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.