Posted on June 8th, 2011
What a week. I got a sunburn that may warrant a trip to the dermatologist’s office, leaving me with cracking and peeling on my ears, and shoulders that feel like they spent a fortnight moving refrigerators.
Monday was mostly a travel day, but offered a couple of charming joints. Johnson’s Drive-In in Acampo sported a somewhat limited menu (that magically included an ostrich burger that’s to die for).
A take-no-guff old broad took our orders, and we paid cash and had to futz around a bit with getting our receipts straight for our expense reports. The burgers came after the ten minute wait that was spent making eyes with the handful of grass farmers who came in for a visit and a shake. My burger was juicy, cooked medium, and had good char on it. Delicious, juicy ostrich – the “other red meat.” Burgers always taste better when lovingly slung by a butch dyke in a do-rag. The drippy ketchup and melted American cheese dumbed it down to the pedestrian levels expected by local folks and the road-weary, and I’d have it no other way. The French fries tasted of days-old oil. Thank god fish wasn’t on the menu.
A some-hour drive south brought us to our hotel and a dearth of culinaria. The only store within 15 miles was a Mobil Food-Mart. Fortunately, every little shit town I’ve worked in has a joint called “(Some Dude’s Name)’s Roadhouse”. In Kettleman City, it’s Mike.
Tragically, Mike’s Roadhouse did NOT have my go-to Salisbury steak (I was crestfallen), but they did have liver and onions. Topped with bacon! How could I say no? I channeled my inner geriatric and ordered without a shred of irony, with my potato mashed and my salad dressed in Thousand Island. I don’t take this diner business lightly—it’s all the way or no way.
Other selections included the California-style chicken burger, but since you had to request avocado I wondered what made it California-style. My compatriots had said California burger, steak and eggs, and Heineken. One, a fellow foodie, tried my liver but failed to share my enthusiasm.
The following day I was trying to ramp down the grease and red meat scene in my intestines, and opted to eat some chips and salsa with some store-bought guac. It’s kind of nice – since they grow so much produce in California, these simple things taste really good there. Even the free oranges from the hotel lobby were succulent and chin-dripping sweet orbs of sunshine.
After a 12-hour day in the field, on Wednesday I went for the In-N-Out experience. I’m a huge fan of Can Only Find it Here specialties, fast food meibutsu being no exception. Travelling with natives offered a peek into the (not-so) secret menu, and I went full bore, ordering a Double-Double with fries, both Animal Style. “Animal-style” means coated with gooey cheese, grilled onions, and “spread” (a mélange of ketchup, mayonnaise and pickle relish). “Spread” and “animal-style” are not evocative of fast food, but of something else.
Day four was another long one – by then we had covered more than 30 miles of spiny grassland overlaying gypsum and ancient sea floor on foot. It was June bug mating season, and orgies of giant, teddy bear beetles were grasping grasses with their tiny tarsi, clustered in shiny, brown lovemaking. Some of the guys wanted to drive a few miles out of the way for a steak at Harris Ranch, and even though I really just wanted to shower and get drunk, I tagged along. Since we looked like we’d been in the sun and dust all day, we were seated in the Ranch Kitchen instead of the nicer side of the restaurant. I took a quick paper towel bath at the restroom sink like a common hobo.
I had the prime rib sandwich au jus (medium rare) with fries and a green salad, the rest of the crew had tri-tip in either sandwich or steak form, with various sides. The sandwich was delicious and the meat was of excellent quality, but the service was gastropodan. It took at least 15 minutes before anyone even acknowledged our presence after being seated, another 15 or 20 before our order was taken, another 15 to see our drinks. This, at 5:00 on a Thursday. It was after 7:00 before we got back to our hotel, and I went to bed shortly after that.
The fifth day was another travel day, this time homeward. I was happy to return to grayer skies and the comfort of my own kitchen, but nonetheless picked up a tuna salad sandwich on white at the airport periodicals kiosk. I have a soft spot for these; a latent craving from the days when my dad would bring them home from his 7-11 graveyard shift.
I still hanker for the road food, but don’t miss the road. Tuna casserole, patty melts, chili cheese fries (with ranch for the chililess ends): when I get wistful for these tributes to simple home comforts, I opt to simply stay home. Nothing tastes better than a meatloaf sandwich made of your own meatloaf.
Salisbury steak with mushroom gravy
Mix a pound of grass-fed ground beef with a lightly-beaten egg; a few pinches of dried thyme, salt and pepper; a small handful of panko bread crumbs sprinkled with Worcestershire sauce; and one small shallot that’s been finely minced and browned in bacon fat. Form into four patties and brown on both sides in a large frying pan (add a little butter or oil if the meat is very lean). Remove the patties and add a handful of sliced mushrooms (such as crimini). Deglaze the pan by stirring the mushroom juices that are released during cooking, then add about a cup of beef stock into which a spoonful of flour has been whisked. Simmer until thickened (if necessary, add a little cornstarch mixed with a bit of water to assist thickening). Return the patties to the gravy to rewarm. Serve with mashed potatoes and buttered peas and carrots.