Every year this thing called the South by Southwest Festival happens in Austin TX. It's a free-for-all of sleazy music industry hacks and ladder climbers, musicians by the freight car load chasing/living the dream, deadbeats cabbaging free energy drinks and designer vodkas at any one of a thousand corpo-life-style day parties, bloggers documenting every spontaneous utterance or chord instantly, sleep-deprived and dead-eyed journalists attempting to be the first to spot TNBT (The Next Big Thing) spring breakers and the occasional sincere music fan. This year there was added comic relief (or depressing commentary on our country's withering safety net and hipster irony being elevated to a new "high"—depending on your outlook) of homeless people being used as Wi-Fi hotspots.
You wouldn't know it by looking at me, but I spend most of my time at SXSW in state of near terror and Woody-Allenish neurotic flare-ups; it's all I can do to keep myself from running into the Hill Country with a BBQ'd turkey leg in my knapsack and wait for the whole thing to blow over.
In order to keep a semblance of sanity, I drive to Austin every year. 1200+ miles. It gives me a chance to de-compress, collect my thoughts, listen to outrageous right-wing radio shows and soak in the glorious scenery of downstate Illinois (um…yeah). If other staffers or artists come along, it gives us a chance to really talk at length, plan strategies for the week, express concerns and opportunities outside the normally frantic confines of our busy little hive. It also keeps me from getting on an airplane. They're too damn heavy to get off the ground! Don't you people know that?
Finally, and bestly, it gives me a chance to eat wonderful things at offbeat places along the way.
"How's that?" you say, "There's lots of great food in Austin! Fuck You!" Yes, well that's true. However (and I'm not asking for pity here, merely understanding), most days I honestly don't have time to eat. Many is the day when all I've had to eat is a bagel. Or a taco from some industry gathering trough/buffet. Some days, the only fruit I get is the lime wedge in my margarita. Again, this, as Hyman Roth says to Michael Corleone in Godfather II, is the life we've chosen. Thus, the drive to and fro Austin is usually the only time I get to enjoy a meal like a human being and it's the aspect of the week I look forward to the most.
So, while every band and every trend of this year's SXSW has been documented to death via the interwebs, I humbly submit this angle of the festival for you, our Gustatory Journey to Austin.
Our publicist Josh, label manager Scott and I piled into the Toyota Camry rental on Monday after rush hour ("rush hour" is a maddeningly inaccurate term here in Chicago—it lasts from 2:30pm until 6p.). The hope was to get to Springfield, IL for a Cozy Dog or a Horseshoe. Alas, we left too late and wouldn't make it in time; they roll up the sidewalks pretty early down there. Compounding our food troubles was the food-dead stretch of the I-55 corridor. Josh scoured the Yelp listings for Bloomington/Normal. We figured, hey, it's a college town, there MUST be something interesting, right?
What we found was like a 2,000 acre open-air food court consisting of every food chain that’s every existed. In addition to the WhiteMcSubTacoWayBellCastles, there were the old friends Denny’s, Papa Joe's and that scamp Wendy, the catch of the day at Red Lobster, or the DownHomeCooking at Cracker Barrel. There was the veritable U.N. of cuisines: you could travel the Silk Road at Panda Express, go down under at the Outback, viaggio in Italia at Olive Garden, Maggianos’s, go Mexican at Qdobe or Chipotle, experience boho, po-mo café culture at Panera or Starbucks and even something called, I kid you not, Carlos O’Kellys with a banner heralding, again, I’m not kidding, margaritas and fish & chips. All those signs, all clamoring to fill our gullets. As a friend of mine once noted, they might be kinda pretty if you didn’t have the capacity for language.
The discouraging listings for the town led us to something that seemed marginally unique and at least not (to our knowledge) a transglobal foodstuffs provender, Big Daddy’s Dogs. Alas, the sweeper-upper guy was, in a moment of comic perfect timing, turning the “open” sign around as we drove up. Nerts! Across one of the labyrinthian cul de sacs (Big Daddy’s Dogs was on, again, I don’t kid, Krispy Kreme Ave), was something called Meatheads (or, as it became known for the rest of the trip “Me-theads.” It was about 75 yards as the crow, or scavenging molting pigeon, flies, but took us about 8 minutes and mile and a half of haphazard Access Road Navigation to get there.
I realize it may sound un-American, but do we really need 1/3 pound burgers? And that was the STARTING option. They made a good show of it, with the piles of potatoes, the dozens of different ingredients, the bacons, the eggs, etc. Kind of a 5 Guys vibe. Our counter dude had the verbal tic of saying "no worries" after every repeating every step of our orders. "Cheddar? No worries." The roasted red peppers I had on mine were a nice touch, I must say. Though, half an hour later none of us felt particularly good. Not a good start.
After staying in a Super 8 in St Clair, MO, right next to a 24-hour gun and ammo shop (which makes you feel either REALLY safe or really UNSAFE), we headed on down to St Cloud, past billboards for dentures, quick loans, moccasins, walnut bowls and pocket knives and got our Waffle House on. Now, maybe it’s because we don’t have them up here in Chicago, but I always look at a Waffle House breakfast as a genuine treat. Scott was practically giddy with excitement. Josh, I think, was beginning to wish he had flown.
Ah, The Waffle Nation. Fortified with Vitamin Waffle. All the food was in the color spectrum of wan yellow to dishwater brown, except my cheerfully and unashamedly orange square of “cheese” on my hash browns (in case you are scoring at home, I had my scattered and covered, Scott had his covered and chunked, and Josh seemed appalled by the whole thing). I had more iced tea (un-sweet, thanks) than human kidneys should be able to process. Scott went a little batty with waffles, hash browns, bacon and coffee—going for the pig double play first thing in the morning. And indigestion. Josh went all “this is kind of scary” and got a breakfast “wrap.” Really, who gets a wrap at Waffle House? (I guess I should note that the guy directly behind me in the booth, out of my sight line, but square in Josh’s was a rather enormous dude with a dead-ender Juggalos neck tattoo, so maybe he was justifiably skittish). Thumbs up over all, though. We'll see you next year W-House.
On to a heretofore untried Road Food approved stop at Clanton’s in Vinita, OK. Road Food, in case you don't know, is THE Bible for backroads food hunting. I've had a tattered copy in my glove box since the 90's and eaten at dozens and dozens of fabulous joints I never would have found otherwise (unless, you know, I learn how to use a computer and get a Smartphone).
Clanton's, the book told me, is the oldest operating business on the original Route 66. It's a five minute drive off the Turnpike, you have no excuse not to stop. The décor was a mélange of rugged cowboy-abelia, Will Rogers homages, and Route 66 kitsch. Inexplicably, there was an autographed photo of former Illinois Gov Jim Edgar It's also where they have elevated the chicken friend steak to a glorious, succulent pedestal. A cursory view into the dim origins of chicken fried steak reveals that it, like so many other humble foodstuffs, was the product of trying to cover up less desirable cuts of meat. Pound that tough cube steak into submission, batter it and voila, you have chicken fried steak. Few things are more dreary and disgusting than a bad one; I've turned my back on them for years at a time after bad experiences (see also: bad Chicago Italian Beef sammiches). At Clanton's, they are moist and tender to the point of rendering the knife superfluous. We all dug in with great delight. My side dishes were mashed potatoes, green beans (with a signet ring sized hunk of pork in them) and applesauce. Also, below 40 degrees latitude, I am unable to resist the siren call of cream pies (I have a similar zombie-like draw to fruit pies in Michigan and Pennsylvania). I had to get it to go as I was stuffed to the proverbial rafters, but the coconut cream pie I had in the hotel room that night was divine. Thumbs way up. A sense of deep satisfaction floated us through the remainder of OK and northern TX. It was satisfying and filling enough to last us the rest of the day.
The next day (after a night at the Luxury Suites, which was neither, and was, in the words of someone else, a little “stabby”), at 11 am, we were the fifth in line for Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, TX. Louie Mueller’s is, and I will brook no argument, the Chartres Cathedral of Texas BBQ. This is one of my all-time favorite Road Food finds. Many hundreds of BBQ fetishists can tell you the whys and the whats and the hows better than I, but nothing says TX BBQ to me like walking into that 100 yr old converted gymnasium, patina-ed with decades of smoky smoke and having the carver throw you a little cube of peppered brisket while you make your order. When it’s good, it is impossibly good. When it’s great, it is sublime, it is transcendent. Every year I think I am romanticizing it, that it can’t really be as good as I remember it. Then it is. And then some. I somehow actually fail to do it justice every year. I had the chipotle sausage, brisket and chopped beef. Oh, and a side of slaw (a man needs his vegetables, but it was mostly for appearances). Scott went with brisket and sausage and beans. Josh got a brisket sandwich and a sausage. I got a lot of it to go and ate much of it late at night after returning to my room. A couple of the sausages even made it back to a couple staffers. It was a remarkable display of will power on our part not to make them disappear on the drive back. Thus sated, we headed to Austin.
And then this thing called SXSW happened. Dreams made, dreams crushed, livers abused, smarm and disingenuousness ran down the streets like a river.
Then we headed home. Sunday always comes early; voices hoarse, eyes puffy, desire to hear music ever again gone. It's a time and a mood in which I love to drive.
After years of making the same mistake of going up I-35 and getting caught it what I now believe is a perpetual traffic jam (one year, we went 3 miles in an hour, it took us 3 hours to go 20 miles. I almost wept), we cut off the interstate at Round Rock and headed up Rte 79 through the endless TX countryside.
In Buffalo, TX, we stopped at Pitt Grill Fine Food. A cool vintage sign that said ‘classic diner’ pulled us off the road, but an interior that said ‘half abandoned tire store” made us immediately question our choice. We almost turned heel and ran back to the car. Florescent lighting gave everything, the food, the patrons, a jaundiced pallor. The menus had mold on them. Mold! Dead flies on the sill. No joke. The ratio of people to portable oxygen tanks was alarmingly high, especially considering the amount of smoking going on. We all went with safe bets as nothing on the menu seemed local or noteworthy. Scott got a Patty Melt and Josh got a grilled cheese because he was afraid to eat anything else. I had eggs with a B+ biscuit and some good enough grits. And more iced tea than human kidneys should be able to process. Ultimately, it was worst than we had hoped but better than we expected.
We carried on …
After dawdling through east Texas, we hopped on I-30 at Texarkana and thoughts turned to dinner. We gunned it for Big Jake’s in Hope, AR, his billboards tantalizing us with offers to “pig out on BBQ and fried pies.” “What the fuck are these fried pies?” Josh kept asking. The very notion of them seemed to make him angry. We got to Hope and the jolly neon pig in the window of Big Jake’s was turned off. His giddy countenance, his willing sacrifice to our gluttony was a dark, cruel mockery. I know the South has its cultural traditions and mores and all, but a BBQ place closed on Sunday? My Yankee blood was deeply annoyed. And discouragingly free of pig meat. We drove around Hope (a most inappropriately named town, in my opinion) looking for a Plan B, and found only shuttered storefronts, a Pizza Hut and sign to Bill Clinton’s boyhood home. It was tilted, faded and, perhaps appropriately, the size of a pizza box lid.
And on we went. It was Sunday, it was dark and we were in the barrens of west Arkansas. The pickings were slim and getting slimmer. We resigned ourselves to a restaurant attached to a truck stop in Prescott AR, the Country Fare. The sign did not lie. The fare was fair.
The menu went overboard with its AMERICAN-osity, pushing menu options like the Wisconsin cheeseburger, the San Antonio Tex-Mex wrap, the Cincinnati pork chop, and Brooklyn ziti. All the place names in quotations and all had accompanying luridly colored photographs of the dishes making them even less appealing. There was lots of coughing by the patrons, who all sat scattered around to the netherest reaches of the place. Now and again a trucker would stiffly walk in and fill up his half gallon drink cup with soda. The waitress, who looked like she was 16 and had a quiet Dolly Parton accent, would disappear for long stretches, which I guess is understandable considering it was a ¼ mile between occupied tables.
I settled for the grilled cheese, as it is my experience that it's an order that is hard to mangle. Rather, I had The “Ultimate Grilled Cheese!" I hope not, as I'd hate for it to be my last one. I asked for fried okra instead of fries to get some southern flair. It was perfectly ok. Josh also went safe and got a turkey wrap with mashed potatoes (what's up with him and wraps?) Scott got the very substantial and very brown hot turkey sandwiches with the brown gravy.
It was a disappointing stop, but we needed, as Mickey Rourke as Charles Bukowski in Bar Fly said, "fuel for the machine, yeah …" It got us to the eastern side of Little Rock.
Monday morning was clear and warm, the azaleas outside our motel were in full bloom. We could practically see the eye color of the crop dusting pilot buzzing the parking lot.
In Du Valls Bluff, AR, a town you wouldn’t ever stop in because you wouldn't be driving through it in the first place, is one of classic Road Food finds of all time: Craig's BBQ.
A non-descript, low slung white building on the south side of the two lane hwy that parallels I-40 in the flatlands between Little Rock and Memphis. Smoke billowing out of the back. This is BBQ that leaves the influence of TX behind and reaches more towards Memphis. The chopped pork sammiches are vinegary, smoky and peppery, the dollop of cool and creamy slaw on top a perfect compliment. And they're like $4. Thumbs way far up. A true gem of cheap, unique roadside dining. Go there.
After that we meandered through the back roads of AR and southern MO. We stopped at a promising looking diner in the town square of Piggott, AR, but it had just closed after the lunch hour. We stopped at a place called "Mom's Diner" in St Francis, MO, just over the border and decidedly immediately to not eat there. Sagging, stained ceiling tiles, fake wood paneling full of nails. And dark. It had all the appeal of a flu epidemic. I got a 12 gallon drum of iced tea and we begged forgiveness and ran. We stood over the Mississippi at New Madrid, site of the great earthquake. We tried to find a fried chicken joint in town I'd heard about, but it was closed.
Chastened, we got on I-55 and made the call to cover some miles and get to Cozy Dog in Springfield before it closed at 8. With five-hour energies in abundance, Josh's "WTF?" podcasts, and a casual disregard for the speed limit, we made it to Cozy Dog at 7:30. Cozy Dog, the purported inventor of the Corn Dog (do NOT call it a corn dog there…) is another Road Food staple that's a little overcome with Rte 66 nostalgia. Ah, but the dogs are cozy indeed. Fluffy, yet chewy batter, full of corny goodness surrounding the hot dog on a stick. We got the family plate, 4 cozy dogs and a mountain of fries for, I think, $7 or $8. Not only comfort food for the road, but also a Pavlovian sign that we are nearing home. As we got up the from the table, I said " I wish I had a little sweet treat to eat after that." Josh pointed out they had ice cream sandwiches. He did not know that I have long standing but rarely acted upon fondness for the humble ice cream sandwich. It was the perfect capper. Shortly afterwards, they turned off the bright canoodling hot dogs sign and they closed.
We got on the road and made the last 3 hrs to Chicago seeing I-55 and downstate Illinois the best possible way—in the dark.