Sweet ode to convoy grub

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.

Breakfasts were a big disappointment. And this is a potent misstep, as breakfast constitutes the ultimate road food no matter what the clock is doing. In a move that boggles the mind, Truckers ceased serving cooked-to-order eggs because they claim a favorable review brought in breakfast hordes that left them flat-footed with angry patrons waiting an hour or more for their over-easies. But if real truckers did business like this--hitting the jake brake instead of dropping into low gear and punching the gas every time the road presented steep hurdles--we'd all be marching on Washington demanding our beer deliveries instead of promising to cancel our Playboy subscriptions. At Truckers, you can only get your eggs scrambled and--though flawlessly prepared--the availability of a single option is exasperating. My guess is this strategic retreat will solve the problem: Those annoying crowds will take a hike and go somewhere else.

And that's the most likely outcome, because the remaining breakfast offerings kind of jack-knifed on the plate. The oatcakes, sparked with nutmeg, were singed and rubbery, while our sausage patties resembled fried Stridex pads and had to be exchanged for edible versions.

Truckers is a comfortable, relaxing space that's eminently inviting. Watching a football game at its bright bar void of pretension beats the pigskin out of tube-gazing at any sports bar you can name, no matter how well-endowed the screen. And the staff is friendly and genuine almost to a fault. But it's the heights this place reaches--in its food, service, and atmospherics--that make its menu blunders so frustrating. Kicking these stragglers into shape while giving customers the same egg choices offered by any greasy spoon worth its health code violations would make this spot the road rage for more than just hungry diesel-heads.

English satirist Jonathan Swift once wrote: "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." No doubt many of us can empathize with the sentiments in this statement. The oyster, most often eaten raw, with its creamy beige or pale gray flesh that's soft and moist delivering a light sea-spray flavor, is a little off-putting. The texture can sometimes border on slimy, and the flavor can sometimes strike with a sea potency that shoots shivers of revulsion down the gullet.

Someone once told me that you should never chew an oyster, but simply introduce it to your mouth for a few seconds and quickly swallow it, absorbing its ripe sensuality in the throat. I soon discovered consuming oysters in this manner--lubricated with plenty of champagne--is a great form of recreation. This discovery was made richer when I learned of the alleged aphrodisiac qualities these mollusks have long been thought to possess, though with time I realized this is due more to their eroticized appearance and texture than to any stimulative effect on libido.

I realized the flavor is not at all unpleasant, and that, with the exception of fresh-squeezed lemon, the dressings we shroud them with--cocktail sauce, drawn butter, vinegar seasoned with shallots and pepper--never did much except mask and pervert. That's why I was suspicious when Shell's Oyster Bar and Grill recently introduced, with a lot of fanfare, a new oyster concoction. Dubbed Absolut Oysters, this seemingly gimmick-ridden creation includes a dozen freshly shucked oysters topped with a pico de gallo marinated in Absolut vodka plus a side of lemon wedges and cocktail sauce. It also includes a couple of shots of cold vodka.

It's far from a gimmick, however. The pico de gallo treatment worked as well with these mollusks as a simple squeeze of lemon--maybe better. The clean freshness of the tomato, onion, bell pepper, and jalapenos blended seamlessly with the briny oyster flavor, while the fresh vegetable crunch provided a welcome contrast to the soft flesh.

Shell's introduced this item just after opening its third location on Lemmon Avenue (the other spots are in Snider Plaza and Colleyville). Launched in 1995, Shell's is owned by partners Randy and Michele DeWitt and Bill Bayne. The Lemmon Avenue spot is tucked in a circa 1916 house that was an Asian gift and antique shop before it was transformed into the restaurant in June. It's a comfortable spot stuffed with fishing tackle, distressed wood, lighting fixtures made from upended aluminum oyster buckets, and lots of celebrity photos with silly quotes about Shell's scrawled across them.

Unfortunately, the rest of Shell's menu seems to take its cues from the intentionally disheveled decor. The shrimp and crab platter for two was loaded with succulent, tender, sweet peel-and-eat shrimp. But the snow crab was mushy, lacking this crab's characteristic supple freshness and delicate flavor. Chunks of andouille sausage, firm and juicy with a good spice clip, were buried among these shellfish.

From the "things that don't swim menu," the Louisiana pot roast was a pleasant surprise. The meat is rubbed in Cajun spices, seared on a charcoal grill, and braised in a puddle of beef stock, creating a full-flavored, moist slice of roast, though the spices could be up-ticked.

Other selections were complete non-starters. The catfish, served lukewarm, was moist but bland, with no distinctive coating seasonings to engage the palate. Following suit, the blackened shrimp was dry, bursting with flavors reminiscent of musty cardboard. And the grilled amber jack with mango salsa--a fresh fish selection--was a complete mismatch, pairing huge chunks of mango with a flat, dry strip of fishy-tasting meat.

Despite these boners, Shell's is a great casual spot to revel in the pleasures of oysters, shrimp, or a sandwich (though not tried, the po' boy sandwiches looked inviting). The service is a bit awkward (orders were mixed up a couple of times), but it's consistently friendly and attentive. And dining here with an eye toward menu caution will almost certainly yield dividends, especially at Shell's reasonable prices.

Truckers Midtown Cafe. 3707 Lemmon; (214) 526-0188. Open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Shell's Oyster Bar & Grill. 3903 Lemmon; (214) 559-0101. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Readers with comments may e-mail Mark Stuertz at markstz@juno.com.

Truckers Midtown Cafe:
Mississippi Catfish Basket with Fries $6.45
Truckers Oatcake Special $5.95
Southern Style Breakfast $5.25

Shell's Oyster Bar and Grill:
Absolut Oysters (per dozen) $12.95
Shrimp Dinner $9.95
Catfish Dinner $7.95
Louisiana Pot Roast $6.95
Shrimp & Crab Platter for two $21.95


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