|Chicken-fried steak and eggs at Jimmy's Egg. © Ryan Schierling|
But when we're on the road, any and all respectable regimens of normal dietary discipline go out the window at 75-miles per hour, sometimes even before we leave Austin proper. I'd like to think that I can blame it on genetics – mom always packed boxes of Cheez-Its for vacations, and dad had to make pit-stops for Dr Pepper and peanuts – but the truth is, the road is kind of like the bottle. "It don't make you do a thing, it just lets you."*
Wichita, Kansas is 543 miles from Austin, Texas. There are a number of other, perhaps more desirable destinations within that 543-mile radius. Tampico, Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. New Orleans, Louisiana. Mobile, Alabama. Jackson, Mississippi. Las Cruces, New Mexico. Certainly these are all more favorable locales than the largest city in Kansas? Perhaps. Depends on your history, and what your motivations are. We are headed to Wichita.
It's a long, due north haul, so we hit the road after work Saturday evening. We get as far as Arlington, Texas and decide to stop for the night. There's an In-N-Out here, and according to believers, that's road food of the highest order when it comes to fast food. It qualifies first by being a novelty in Texas - there are a mere 16 locations as of this writing. When we first visited in December of 2011, there were three. It also qualifies by simply being a solid hamburger. But we're more tired than hungry. We pick up a bottle of red and a cherry pie and stop for the night.
The next morning, we exit the top of Texas and traverse Oklahoma's Arbuckle Wilderness. Stomachs rumbling, we jump off the highway in Ardmore and stop at Jimmy's Egg. For a chain of breakfast joints, this is a pretty decent one. My road breakfast requisite chicken-fried steak and eggs is very nicely done, certainly warranting a TGICFS insert. It's been a while.
Disclaimer: I don't get to eat chicken-fried steak and eggs that often anymore. There just aren't many places in Austin that serve CFS for breakfast, and the ones that do mostly serve up anemic, pre-breaded and frozen Sysco meat that's dumped unceremoniously into a deep fryer. So when we hit the road, I'm always looking for the next breakfast stop, where – fingers crossed – chicken fried steak and eggs is featured on the menu. Now, here's your TGICFS haiku...
a pillowy cream blanket
Still time for more sleep.
But it's not all road food and poesy.
The Toy and Action Figure Museum in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma is action figure nerd paradise. We've driven through Pauls Valley many times, knowing we should stop and check out this shrine. I worked at Toys R Us in the early 1990s, and collecting action figures was just something most of the managers, the assistant managers, the employees did. I was there when Playmates released their Star Trek: Next Generation figures. I was there for Starting Lineup's first Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan figures. Toy Biz busted out X-Men figures right about then, and Todd McFarlane's Spawn series was redefining action figure sculpts with highly-detailed molds.
|Nerds. © Ryan Schierling|
Once we hit the Oklahoma-Kansas border, it's a short jaunt of tollway to Wichita. When we enter the city limits, there are addresses, and directions, and restaurants punched into the iPhone. Kirby's Beer Store, where Seattle band Gibraltar are playing, is the final destination. But we're hungry again, and looking for a little old-school Wichita.
|Nu-Way loose meat burger and fries. © Ryan Schierling|
There is also Jack's Coffee Shop, which is actually a little misleading. There is no Jack. There is no coffee. There is no sign. For 50 years there have only been hamburgers and cheeseburgers, and that's it. You can have a plate of grilled onions if you like, and pickles are available. Mustard and ketchup are on the tables, they'll pour you a bowl full of potato chips, but you'll get nothing else. No fries. No shakes. The hamburger patties are large, thick, and cooked a nice medium. It's well worth the stop if you can find them, and find them open – which is 11 am to 2 pm, Monday through Saturday.
|(L) Paul Kroeker, Kirby's bartender extraordinaire. (R) Jack's Coffee Shop. © Ryan Schierling|
The mid-day drunks shuffle out, we sit at the bar and take in the 40-years of nicotine-stained concert posters, band promos and stickers that cover all four walls and the ceiling of Kirby's.
Paul keeps us beered-up as we wait for Aaron Starkey's band Gibraltar to pull into the parking lot. When we planned this trip, we kept it a secret. I told Starkey that, as much as we'd love to see his new band, there was no way we were driving all the way from Austin to their southernmost tour stop, Wichita. Too far, too much gas money. So when he walks into Kirby's, scans the bar from right to left and then stutters visually on a balded, bearded, slightly-inebriated Austinite and his beautiful red-headed lady, it is an unexpected Sunday night surprise. They play a rowdy, raucous set to a packed and appreciative room, but I like to think that they give a little bit extra for us.
|Gibraltar. © Ryan Schierling|
When we hit Oklahoma City, text messages are exchanged with Steven English, a former Austinite who knows where to find the good stuff. He directs us to Big Truck Tacos. We eat the Wojo, the Guardian, and the Oklahoma-appropriate Flaming Lips (with hickory-smoked lengua). Everything is delicous, and the variety of tasty handmade salsas is staggering. We continue south toward Texas.
|The Wojo. © Julie Munroe|
We sit down at a table that has a view of the river valley, and the waitress approaches our table.
"What can I get you to drink?"
"Iced tea, please," we both replied.
"...And catfish?" she asked.
J and I slowly look at each other and say "Uhm...yes, please?"
We are offered no menus, don't know if there are menus, don't even know what this catfish will set us back or what it comes with. We are at the mercy of McGehee's to be kind and generous with their seemingly singular expertise – we are ordering Oklahoma omakase.
|Catfish at McGehee's Catfish Restaurant and Airport. © Ryan Schierling|
It is easily the most glorious divinity that bottom-feeding fresh farm-raised fish could ever hope to attain.
The road back to Austin is long, but it has been a good, full road trip.