I really like those hole-in-the-wall restaurants that claim to have “world-famous” food items. They are usually located in tiny towns, somewhere in the middle of nowhere USA. When you get there, you drive down Main Street and you turn right at the light. If you go past the old First Baptist Church you went too far.
A little ways down where the road gets a little bumpy and the only other business you see is a general store looking kind of place is where you will find an eatery with a world-famous food item.
They are often named after people with one or two-syllable names like Rudy’s Diner or Jim’s BBQ. If you’re lucky, on your visit you’ll get to meet Rudy or Jim.
Near the entrance are clips of old newspapers that are turning yellow. They include pictures of the original owners standing outside their restaurants wearing long white aprons and big smiles. The captions tell you that they have been calling their hamburgers and their fried chicken world-famous since almost opening day.
When you walk in, the door chimes are heard and everyone turns around to see you. They know you aren’t around those parts but that’s O.K. with them and they welcome you with a smile or a folksy phrase like “partner” or “fella.”
Whether it’s a Rudy’s or Jim’s or even a Grandma’s Café, the places usually look the same. Pictures of family members line the walls. The tables are small and there’s often a diner area with a few stools that look like they’ve been there since the day the place opened.
No matter where you sit, you can see cars slowly passing by and people chatting up the latest gossip in the parking lot. No one is in a hurry and everyone seems to be enjoying life just the way it is.
Almost everyone eating is a regular. You know it to be true because the waitress walks up and says, “hello honey” or “coffee with cream sweetie?” even though they know the customers’ real names.
The tables usually have those old-fashioned salt and pepper shakers, sometimes with the little holes at the top of the shakers in the shape of an S or a P, and the sound of the local radio playing country or light rock tunes is heard somewhere in the distance. No one sees the radio but everyone can kind of hear it.
When it’s time to order, you feel like you have no other option but to order the “world-famous” item. You see it listed on the menu in bold letters and the back page has the story on how that one menu item happened to become world-famous.
Sometimes it’s a world-famous hot dog and other times, it’s the world-famous macaroni and cheese. In a truly American, red-white-and-blue kind of place, you’ll also come across a world-famous dessert. It might be apple pie or maybe peach cobbler. Either way, the world-famous dessert is always more believable than the world-famous main dish item.
As you enjoy your meal, you start to think that you are on a movie set or living out a chapter from your favorite book. The people sitting at each table feel like familiar characters. The food is somehow the best you’ve ever tasted. The song playing in the background is the perfect song for the moment.
I like those hole-in-the-wall places. They remind me that good people are out there, making a humble living and enjoying it. They have a sense of humor and they are courageous enough to sell something they believe is world-famous.
One bite of it, and you believe it too.
Abe Villarreal writes about the people, culture and traditions of America. He can be reached at [email protected].
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