Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Diners & Disasters Road Trip 2006

As some of you may know, I've been a fan of the Donner Party for quite some time. "Fan" may not be quite the right word; perhaps it's more accurate to say I'm an obsessed rubbernecker. The Donner Party and all of their tragedies are among the most interesting passages in California history, and my friend Lucy and I have had a great bonding experience over our shared fascination with this story. A year or so ago she and I started talking about taking a little road trip up to Truckee, California, which lies near the site of the emigrants' winter camp, and this past weekend we actually went; our friend Norman, who loves road trips and possesses great navigation skills (not to mention an iPod packed with fantastic driving music), accompanied us. Half the fun of the planning was deciding where we were going to eat along the way. We opted to eschew chain restaurants and fast food joints. Lucy's dad recommended a diner in Mojave, and Lucy had made note of a tasty-sounding bakery in Bishop. I wanted to visit a chicken pie shop in Fresno. Thus, our route was decided -- we'd travel north on the 395 on Saturday, spend the night in Truckee, and head back home on Sunday on the 99 -- as well as the name of our journey, the "Diners & Disasters Road Trip 2006." Lucy has documented the "disaster" portion of the trip on her blog; I get to cover the food.

My breakfast -- my perfect breakfast -- at Mike's Roadhouse Cafe in Mojave, California. Chicken-fried steak, hash browns, scrambled eggs, and coffee. The only thing that could make this meal better would be a side of biscuits and gravy.

Well, lookee there. Mike's was our first stop on the trip, and it is a great little place that sells big, tasty breakfasts as well as oddities like a wide array of pedal cars. I ate this meal around 10 a.m. or so and it effectively cured me of hunger for the rest of the day. If only the Donners et al had been so lucky.

After we left Mojave we kept seeing billboards for a place called Gus's that promised us "really good beef jerky." Jerky seemed appropriate for our journey, given that the Donner Party, before turning to cannibalism, ate slaughtered oxen that they had preserved, presumably in the form of jerky, as well as the animals' bones and hides. Yum.

Gus is probably a great guy, but his place was a little creepy, what with all the bumper stickers and the numerous signs urging us to eat his really good jerky. Lucy was brave enough to enter the shop and sample a piece of it, just so she could call herself a customer and earn the right to use the bathroom instead of the outhouse. She walked into the bathroom and emerged seconds later with a tiny, almost imperceptible shake of her head -- we'd have to keep searching for a bearable loo.

As we drove away, Lucy said that Gus's had given her the willies. "What if that jerky place was like a Soylent Green/Sweeney Todd kind of jerky?"

"I'm glad I didn't eat any of that jerky," I said.

"I did," she said. "It was gooood."

In Bishop we found Erick Schat's Bakkery, which Lucy had marked in her Lonely Planet Guide. The place was bustling, and the inside was filled with the delicious aromas of baking bread and pastries. Lucy bought some shortbread cookies with macadamia nuts, and I got shortbread cookies with chocolate chips as well as a jar of peanut praline-flavored Peanut Better. I haven't tried it yet, but I'm sure it's divine. Norman bought something called sweet meat.

Strangely enough, nearly 300 miles from home, I ran into a co-worker eating lunch at Erick Schat's. He and some friends were going camping and had stopped for a bite to eat.

Back in the car, we each had a couple of the cookies, and Norman decided to break out the sweet meat. I was in the back seat and I didn't see the look on Lucy's face when Norman opened the package and dangled a thick, droopy slice of it in front of her. Apparently she didn't like the way it quivered.

"It's too thick!" she cried. "It's what I imagine Napoleon's penis looked like." We each tried a little bit of it and found it very strange -- while it tasted like teriyaki jerky, the meat itself was plump and moist and utterly the wrong texture. "I don't like sweet meat," was Lucy's assessment. "It's not bad... it's just not good. It's wrong." Norman wrapped the remains of that slice in a tissue and left it in the car. It hardened overnight and stuck to the Kleenex. Norman said he'd give Lucy ten dollars if she'd take another bite of it now, but she declined. The rest of the package was thrown into the cooler and avoided for the remainder of the trip.

Naturally, Norman's new nickname is "Sweet Meat."

We passed beautiful Lake Tahoe on our way into Truckee, which turned out to be a charming town with a genuine "wild west" ambience. The sunset on Saturday evening was stunning; the above picture hardly captures it. We asked the guy at the motel desk to recommend a good local diner and he reluctantly suggested the Truckee Diner. We could tell his heart wasn't in it, and he admitted that he isn't a fan of the place. "But you could try OB's," he said. He showed us a copy of their menu and although a lot of their fare is pretty upscale, they offer some pub grub that sounded good. We ended up dining there; my appetite was still pretty flimsy so I made do with a bowl of French onion soup (very good), and Norman and Lucy had salads and a selection of appetizers. While everything was fine, it wasn't quite what we'd had in mind.

The next morning we said screw it and decided to give the diner a try.

No regrets there -- we had good service, a great view of the town from our booth window, and excellent breakfasts. You'll notice that my oatmeal came with raisins, brown sugar, and a big ol' chunk of butter. I would never put butter in my oatmeal, but the fact that somebody thought I might and thoughtfully provided some warmed my heart. Lucy and Norman ate omelettes and pancakes.

After breakfast we went to Donner Memorial Park. We visited the Emigrant Museum and took a short tour of the park that included visits to two of the Donner Party's cabin sites. Norman wanted to go back to the car and get the sweet meat to leave as an offering at the remains of the Murphy cabin. "I hear those Donners will eat anything," he said. Lucy and I dissuaded him, pointing out that nobody would want to consume sweet meat and that his offering would, in effect, just be littering. I think we foiled his plan (a sensible one, come to think of it) to rid ourselves of the stuff.

Please note the name "Lewis Keseberg" listed among the survivors of the Donner Party. He is generally considered the, shall we say, hungriest of the group; he was also the least repentant about his winter diet. Rumor has it he later opened a restaurant.

Lucy and I found our retirement homes when we visited nearby Donner Lake, which is one of the most beautiful, serene spots I have ever been. It's hard to understand, in the warm, sunny days of summer's end, how desperately cold and trapped the Donner Party must have felt. Lucy, by the way, gets the golden brown house with the fancy windows; Sean and I will be next door in the dark brown place.

It was nearly one o'clock by then and we needed to get on the road. We followed Norman's suggestion, which was to drive to Sacramento, pick up the 99 South, and look for a place to eat lunch once we got past the capital city.

The only problem -- since we were at that point adamant about sticking to our no chains/no fast food rule -- was finding a place to eat. We drove and drove and drove, growing so famished that we eventually broke into our small stash of rice cakes, pita chips, carrots, and hummus. (Hey, we had to balance the diner fare with at least an attempt to snack healthily.)

Eventually we came to Galt.

Galt bills itself as a Great American Little Town. I convinced my traveling companions that Galt was such a terrible name that the town must be old and thus not overrun with fast food joints -- we'd probably find several cool old-timey diners to choose from.

No such luck.

We drove around and around, growing hungrier by the minute, trying desperately to find a place to eat. Any place that wasn't a McDonald's or Taco Bell was closed. We spotted a sign at a strip mall that promised us both Mama's BBQ and a place called Chubby's. When we got out to investigate, we found that Mama's BBQ was now Mama's Sushi (and it was closed, anyway), and Chubby's was nowhere to be found. Eventually we admitted defeat and went to a Carl's, Jr. drive-through for shakes and fries, just a snack to hold us until Fresno and chicken pot pie.

Galt sucks, man. Avoid it.

We were disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to find the Chicken Pie Shop closed when we got to Fresno. We drove around a sketchy part of town looking for another possibly interesting spot for dinner but had no success, though we did see businesses called Hair Abduction (wha?) and Discount Gun Supply. Norman expressed his fear of "getting shanked." "Say no to Fresno," he said, and we did. We decided to head down to road to Visalia and try Mearle's Drive-In, a real old-timey drive-in with carhops and lots of neon. This is what we found when we got there 45 minutes later:

Also closed. Jeez, doesn't anyone want something besides Carrow's or Del Taco on Sunday evening? We threw in the towel at that point and went to Marie Callender's, where Norman at least got some ersatz chicken potpie and we all enjoyed pie for dessert. Mmmm, double cream blueberry... Dinner was solid if uninspiring fare, and we all were full by the time the check arrived. "Will it offend you if I take my pants off for the rest of the trip?" Norman asked. Hey, he only said what the rest of us were thinking.

Lucy and Norman at Donner Lake.


~ Lucy said...

I'll remember this road trip for a long time to come thanks to your great post. I can't help but notice there is no picture of you anywhere. What gives?!

shandon said...

Nobody wants to look at a picture of me. Especially me.

area51 said...

Not true. I would love to see a picture of you!

Chris said...

MMMM....love the picture of the breakfast in Mojave. You ordered exactly what I would have ordered!!! Yum! Sounds like a great trip. I used to go to Tahoe and Truckee a lot as a kid, so I know those places as well. Beautiful part of California!

area51 said...

Just curious, what would you consider to be the best diner for eggs in Pasadena or nearby areas?

shandon said...

Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles has the best scrambled eggs. Twohey's has the best roast beef hash with poached eggs.