Sweet ode to convoy grub

But Truckers grinds the breakfast gears

As a representative for a New York book publisher several years ago, I spent a good deal of time traversing a few of the more scenically challenged states such as Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Illinois. Until I got my "Super 8 V.I.P. Club" card, I stayed in motels that a flea wouldn't check into, no matter how many mangy mutts were living in the shower stall. I also spent a lot of time eating in truck stops.

Now, I had always heard that truck stops were the best spots to get a good meal on the road because a trucker would never set foot in a place that served bad food. This logic escaped me. Why would someone who wears a belt buckle the size of Oklahoma while hauling 80,000 pounds of everything from hogs to flammable liquids in a macho rig named Peterbilt filled with Slim Whitman yodels know the difference between pork chops and pork rinds? Truckers may have superhuman powers of discrimination when it comes to stimulants and hemorrhoid remedies, but food?

Through my travels I found that the only thing truck stops seem to do consistently well is weld yesterday's egg yolk to this morning's butter knife. But it wasn't always this way, according to Dick Ebel, owner of Truckers Midtown Cafe in Oak Lawn. In the 1940s and early '50s, truck stops really were the best spots to get good, fresh meals in the towns and cities along heavily traveled transportation routes. Local farmers and haulers would go to truck stops first to unload bumper crops and excess foodstuffs because they knew these cafes could move them fast. Much of this overproduction constituted their daily specials.

It wasn't until the early 1960s, with the interstate highway system firmly in place and a proliferation of chain restaurants and fast-food joints studding its course, that traditional truck stops deteriorated into greasy spoons. Competition from the casual-dining corporate chieftains and their predilection for frozen, standardized cuisine instead of the unpredictable menus driven by fresh local products forced the demise.

It's this golden pre-expressway past that got Ebel and his partner, Dan Hawbaker, both longtime Brinker International vets (Ebel was director of operations at Eatzi's), misty-eyed with longing for these old-style road eateries. So they jumped at the chance when the Rudy's Barbecue space on Lemmon Avenue (once a liquor store, and a Safeway before that) became vacant after a former Brinker executive took over the small chain and moved it to Austin. Splashed with a barbecue-sauce shade of red, the huge space is filled with old gas-station pump lights, truck monikers, and an expansive mural depicting a '40s neighborhood scene with...trucks. The back bar is jammed with long necks arranged in perfect rows inside whitewashed shelving pockets--like we need masters of the 18-wheeler universe singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" before they drop off a load of duct tape at Wal-Mart. A free jukebox plays hits from the '40s and '50s. Nearby, a huge map of the United States is speckled with colored dots where patrons can indicate their hometowns--a sort of truck-stop guest registry. Truckers' period ambiance continues with bathroom stalls constructed from what looks like corrugated aluminum truck-trailer walls in a stab, I guess, at '40s authenticity when such business was often conducted in a shed near the parking lot.

The menu is a road-food hall of fame with burgers, open-face sandwiches in their own signature gravies, meat loaf, oatcakes, and biscuits. Some of the food is absolutely astounding. A grilled pork chop in a country apple gravy with chunky mashed potatoes was juicy, tender, lean, and tasty--about the best chop I've had anywhere in a long time. The light gravy with an implied sweetness and spiked with a little spice married with the meat flavors instead of smothering them. This was accompanied by one of the freshest sides of green beans--crisp, tender, and speckled with chunks of ham and onion--ever tasted. Moist, hearty biscuits flecked with yellow cheese rounded the whole thing off with coziness.

Though it had tiny flavor hints reminiscent of river bottom sludge, the Mississippi catfish fared almost as well. Its crisp, golden corn coating seasoned with garlic, salt, and pepper embraced moist, tasty fish. Truckers' fresh, hearty tartar sauce holds big chunks of pickle and red onion plus shreds of fresh parsley. But an accompanying pickled green tomato relish, sweet and tangy, seemed a little much.

Slipping a bit further, but only slightly, was the mushroom burger gooed with a light Swiss cheese. Truckers serves thin, sprawling, quarter-pound hamburgers on wide, Frisbee-like buns, which is supposedly in old truck-stop fashion. So the patties are extremely easy to cook any way you like--as long as that's well-done. (In deciding between medium and medium-rare, our server interrupted us by stating that if we requested medium-rare, he would have to ask us to sign the guest check before the cook would prepare it. Now, I never made it to law school--and no doubt a gastrointestinal personal injury board certification already exists--but how does a guest signature on a check absolve a restaurant from serving meals that invigorate the embalming industry?) Our burger ordered medium came singed and dry, overshooting the well-done designation by a slight margin.

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