Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Waffle House

Store # 1163
Festus, Mo.



Before we get started, I would like to extend a sad farewell to a beloved local eatery. Last week Bobby Munzert’s closed.
We always liked Bobby’s, though our last visit had some issues. The steaks were first class and the location was convenient. I’m really going to miss the German fries.
I don’t have the inside scoop on why it shut down, but it will be missed. Perhaps it was a little pricy for this small burg. It always seemed to be busy, but the economy is what it is, if that was the problem.
Restaurants come and go, it’s quite common in the business. Customers can be fickle and the slightest infraction can turn diners away forever. There’s a lot of competition for people looking for something to eat, home cooking included and it’s a seriously tough business.
So long Bobby, and thanks for the many excellent meals!

On Saturday, Angel was suffering medicine induced nausea. She’d had surgery on her elbow and wrist earlier in the week. Her arm was taped up and braced into a semi-permanent bend. She’s fine, recovering nicely, as long as she lays off the pain killers. It’s hilarious though. Any time she moves her arm out of the way of something her hand pops up into the air like an eager third grader that knows the answer. So for a few days now every time she does it I say “Yes, Angel, you have a question?”  It was gut splitting funny the first twenty or so times, and only gets funnier as time goes by.
Anyway we deferred this week’s outing to Sunday. She’d stated she wanted breakfast this week, and was bound and determined to see it through when she was not nauseous. So Saturday night we just grabbed some chicken strips from Hardee’s for her while the boy and I had burgers. It didn’t seem all that good though and Angel summed up the reason. “When you’re really wanting breakfast, nothing else will do.”
Sunday she was feeling better so we didn’t waste a moment. As soon as the dogs were fed and tucked away we hopped into the family truckster and hit the road for Festus. She drove, as she always does. It was just funnier this time watching her negotiate the big SUV with only one arm.  Parking was a real hoot.
At one point as she was adjusting her seatbelt, from the back Adam said “Yes, mom, you have a question?”  We laughed and laughed. . .
Mine!
The Place:
               A brightly lit, welcoming place above the interstate ramp. I think all Waffle Houses are on interstate ramps, though I could be wrong.  The template for WH is old-school diner. A long bar, a few booths, tight seating. From the bar you see it all. There’s no cooking behind walls, it’s all right there bare, naked raw, right in front of you. You order a couple of eggs you see them come out of the basket, get expertly cracked, and competently tended. You can watch the excess batter ooze out of the waffle irons as your order is made. It’s basic, quick and delicious.
We sat at a booth near the middle. There’s a smoking section and a non smoking section, though the distinction in the small place is impossible to determine. There are no dividers or special fans that  I could see. Most times this sort of thing bothers  me, but here the odor helped mask the sickly sweet syrup aroma. Maple syrup is my Kryptonite. I get sickly symptoms from the mere smell of it. It’s a long story that I’ve told before. I won’t repeat it here.
The place was buzzing, three quarters full early on a cold Sunday evening. Somewhere in this great nation powerful football men were facing off for a championship of some sort, but not here. No music, no TV’s no rolling news feed. There was a credit card ready juke box device, but no one was feeding it so it sat silent, sulking perhaps, the entire time we were there.
The only noise was the calling of orders and the happy chatter between the staff and the regulars. There seemed to be several regulars. Mostly middle age bearded men in work-wear coveralls or cammies or sweatshirts and jeans. They teased with the young female staffers, almost flirtatious, as if they actually had a shot. The girls, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, just a reflection of their relative age, played along like troopers. All harmless banter. I know this because my lovely and beloved daughter worked in a Waffle House as a teenager and quickly learned to banter and flirt with the best of them. She got it, these girls got it, it’s all part of the play.
We were attended and welcomed by Nicki and the trainee Jamie. Nicki was a seasoned pro despite her youth. Jamie looked eager and attentive and took on some of the menial tasks crucial to the operation of an eatery with pride.
They handed us the colorful, place mat-like laminated menus. They asked about drinks. Even though it was Sunday I was giddy. Monday was a work holiday for me so I didn’t have to get up on Monday. Any week you don’t have to get up on Monday morning is a good week, worthy of minor celebration. What it meant, why I was giddy, was that I could have coffee with my meal.
I used to drink coffee all day every day. Then old age set in and it started keeping me awake at night. Recently I’ve cut back a lot. I usually have no more than two cups a day, often less. This also means I will not pour nor accept anything less than good quality coffee. I’m not going to drink bitter, industrial swill if all I get is a very little. WH’s coffee is not gourmet, but it is always fresh.
The Heraldic Banner of George Calvert,
1st Baron Baltimore, on a license plate.
Coke and Diet Coke for Adam and Angel, but I got a steamy mug of fresh Joe.  I liked the thick, heavy mug. I said as much asking Angel if they sold the cups. She thought so, but wasn’t sure. Something about the contour of the cup seemed personal and not so mass-produced. The logo was the sell though. Black, Gold (yellow) red and white. It’s a color combination that I find attractive. I know this because it is the same color scheme as Maryland’s flag, which I consider to be one of the prettiest state flags.  I  was always proud of my Maryland license plates because they bore those colors. But I digress.
The Food:
If there were no penalty against it, monetary or nutritional, we’d just tell them to start bringing us plate loads of everything on the menu. Well, except for maybe the grits. It’s hard to choose a meal at WH. It’s like choosing a dog at the rescue kennel, you simply want them all.
I knew I wanted hash browns, they do the shredded tater perfectly at WH. Other than that I was willing to take just about anything and everything else. Adam and Angel were of the same mind.
It took us a few minutes, almost an entire cup of coffee’s amount of time to come up with a satisfactory combination.
Angel chose the hash browns with every available option except for peppers and chili. She added bacon and scrambled eggs and asked for raisin bread as her choice of toast. Adam had the All Star, a little of everything, replacing the grits with hash browns and having his eggs scrambled and a side of white toast. The All Star also included a world-famous waffle. When he asked for the grits/hash brown substitution Nicki exclaimed “Certainly!” as if he’d just won a prize.
“Not a fan of grits?” I asked her. She paused, Jamie panicked.  Nicki, I said she was a pro, came back. “Between the two I personally prefer hash browns to grits.”
“So what you are saying is that the grits here aren’t any good?” I suggested.
Jamie giggled, Nicki flushed.
“No, no, in fact the grits here are very good, I just prefer hash browns myself, it’s a texture thing.”
“So the texture of the grits here is disgusting?”
This went on for a while.
I ordered hash browns, smothered (onions), covered, (cheese) with only a little country (gravy.) I added bacon and eggs, over-medium and wheat toast. She wrote this up without a pause. I heard the order called, the grill master acknowledged.
In only a few minutes the food arrived, on too many plates for the small table. Nicki pushed all the bacon into one plate to save room. “Three slices each, I don’t want to see you guys fighting over it.” She instructed.
I asked about the cups, sure enough they sold them. “We’ve got three different kinds, and one we call the mother of all mugs. I’ll show them to you if you like.” I returned a ‘yes’ to that. Then we dug in.
My cup was topped off a couple of times, steamy, hot, fresh.
The food was all perfect, flawless. The bacon was thick and crispy, the eggs were picture-perfect, the hash browns crispy on the top and edges. Sure enough they’d given me half the gravy that Angel had, exactly what I wanted.
There was little conversation as we tore thought the dishes, sopping up and moaning ‘Mmm’s” almost caveman-like in raw, carnivorous delight.
Nicki dropped off the tab, and noticed Angel’s arm. “What happened?” She asked familiarly. “She had it coming.” I replied.
They discussed nerves and pains and other quease-inducing things for a moment. We’d sopped up every bit and  I decided to ask again about the mugs.
“You were going to show me your cups?” I asked.
Her face wrinkled up. “It sounds kind of strange when you say it that way.”  She brought them and I decided the one in my hand , though not the cheapest at five bucks, was the style I wanted.
“Do you want the one you have or one in a box?”
I looked down at the cup. “This one’s dirty, I think its been used.”
“I can get you a new one hon’.”
“I’m not your ‘hon’.”
She got it, that I was just funning her along. “I can get you a fresh one if you want.” She insisted.
“No, that’s okay, I like this one, it already has coffee in it.”
Summary:
In the ritual of going around the table for thoughts, comments and opinions, the clan of introverts that is my family offered up very little, but what they did say said it all.
Angel : “Yum!”
Adam : “I concur.”
I distracted them with thoughts of my own, how the menu was simple, the dishes simple, but simple food is very hard to do perfectly, consistently.  Finally Angel opened up:
“Just like I always wished my mom could make it.” She yelled at me when I wrote that down, so I promised not to publish it. I lied.
The bottom line is this. Waffle House, this one and every other one we’ve been to nails it, every time. Sure the recipes are not complex, but when you order your egg ‘over medium’ and ask for just a little gravy, you get exactly that.
The bill came in at thirty six dollars, including the coffee cup. Not bad at all since most of our orders were a-la-carte.
Later that evening I was on the phone with my younger brother Jeff. As soon as I mentioned Waffle House he got as excited and animated as I’ve ever seen or heard him. Jeff knows food, he makes the best pizza, from scratch, that I’ve ever had. That’s not by accident, he worked at it, he tried this and that and this and that until every component was exactly as he wanted it. He also smokes meat that melts in your mouth and just about everything he cooks is guarantied to be near perfect. He’s a state certified master gardener and works at a blueberry(etc.) farm so he knows his produce. He doesn’t mince words either. He’s not going to say he likes something, ever, unless he really means it. He is no one’s yes-man.
“If there is a restaurant on this planet that is my favorite, it’s Waffle House. It don’t matter if you’re in the one in Amarillo, Little Rock, Hopkinsville, Oak Grove or even Albuquerque.”
I knew this about him. He used to travel a lot more than he does now. He lived in El Paso for quite a while before taking on the yeoman’s task of being the dutiful filial son and moving into a house in  Kentucky, a mere block from our saintly yet aging parents. He would often comment that the best food on the road, any road, could be found right there under the yellow and black sign, in a simple diner setting, where the smell of syrup masks the smell of the smoke and the old farts tease and flirt with the young ladies that work there.

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