You're going to like this one. I have literally eaten my way across Iowa ... actually, across the Midwest from Colorado, Nebraska, through Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota and Canada, and points in between.
I like mom and pop cafes. Each year, as I have for the past 18 years or so, I do a column called "On the Road Again" - usually, a two-part series. And each year, I devote the entire column to listing several restaurants, cafes, etc., that I've found where the outdoor family (be you hunter, fisherman, camper, snowmobiler, horseback rider, vacationer or whatever) that's doing some traveling on vacation can stop and get a good meal. These places offer the most bang for the buck; places where you never go hungry. Places where you or your family can stop and eat a meal without going bankrupt or putting a serious dent in the vacation or weekend budget. Places that offer wipe-your-hands-on-your-jeans fare. An oasis of simple, down-home food just like Mom used to cook. There aren't many of these places left. This year I came across eight new ones. There are bargains from the front door to the back door. Their food, service and atmosphere speak for themselves. Don't be in a hurry when you go to some of them because the kitchen staff is usually small.
You will get far more than what you bargained for ... you get tons of free advice from the town sages. You can catch up on local news, weather and road conditions, including weddings, new babies and funerals. I've told you this before ... but mom and pop cafes ... they tell a story, you know. Most times there is no doubt that you are entering yesteryear. Open the door to a mom and pop cafe and you're looking at history. And that right there tells you something. Those places are great little places to eat. They are ... or they wouldn't have stayed in business so long.
A-Pine RestaurantA-Pine Restaurant, Jenkins, Minn., is on the east side of Highway 371 just a stone's throw down the road south of Pequot Lake (the town with a water tower shaped like a fishing bobber). It's family owned and run by Rick and Leah Beyer. Tucked back into the pine forest, it has great - really great - fried chicken specials. Their blueberry pie ala-mode with coffee is out of this world. A large sign proclaims they've made 87 1/2 tons of french fries from 1984 through 2002 (don't do the math - I already did); that comes down to over 26 pounds per day, seven days week, every day of the year. It's also the home of the legendary north woods logger Paul Bunyan's watch - a huge wrist watch that hangs on the wall behind the cash register. This little A-frame cafe feeds a lot of people and they do it right.
Ginerich Cafe, Jamesport, Mo., is on Highway 190 west of Trenton. This is one of those towns you don't run across very often, a place with a sort of gutty elegance that makes you want to poke around for a while. This cafe is different. This one is special. It's an Amish community. When you walk in the door, you'll know ... this is the pace, and the food is so good and they really heap it on. The food is home-cooked the way they used to do it - the old-timey way by old-timey people in an old-timey cafe. I got this one from Verne Ratcliff (the Allis-Chalmers guy). If you are ever in Missouri, go out of your way to eat there. The quality is way up there. The prices are way down there. And I guarantee it ... you're going to feel at home. Bring your appetite.
Peggy Sue's, Mount Ayr, is on the southeast corner of the courthouse square. One million percent 1950s decor. There's a juke box (a Wurlitzer) that plays '50s era music (Elvis, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, etc.) all day - continuously for free. They've got a real red and white 1957 Chevy suspended over the front door. It has classic red and white furniture with black and white tile walls. This is THE place to go in southwest Iowa. Be careful - real careful - how much you order. Because they really pile the food on your plate. More than you can eat and they serve the best iced tea in the world there and in old-style soda fountain glasses. They have the biggest and longest hot dogs I've ever seen. Even if you don't eat, just go in and look around. It's all there here.
Family Table, Eagle Grove, on Iowa Highway 17 on the east side of the road. I should have written about this place a long time ago. This place is everything - real mom and pop comfort with plenty of room, and the food is "Oh, so good." They give you plenty of it. Nobody, absolutely nobody goes away hungry. This is a great place to be on a cold winter morning. I ate there for the first time on my way to a gun show. Day-in and day-out, they serve up the best meals that money can buy. This is rural, conservative, heartland America - the way it really is. We need to keep these little cafes open. People need a place where they can come straight from their jobs, or from the field without changing their clothes. They need a place where they can sit and visit and feel at home. This is one one of those cafes.
Well, that's a wrap for this week. Next week, I'll tell you about four more mom and pop cafes that offer eating places for outdoor travelers.
And now ... have a good weekend.