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Dive Right In

By Donna Covrett · August 27th, 2003 · Bite Me
The names are enough to make me veer from my itinerary: Pete's Eats; Junior's Ribs, Real Estate and Ammo; Grandpa's Cheese Barn; Annie's Dutch Diner -- Live Bait and Entertainment in the Rear! (ahem). These are the little caf├ęs, crab shacks, truck stops, diners and mom 'n pops I love whenever and wherever I travel. Whether it's 100 miles from home or 1,000, I'm attracted to the culture of down-home, blue plate, all-you-can-eat, square meal, four-alarm, finger lickin', Elvis-Is-King road food. And if it includes beehive hairdos, bibs, paper plates or bad taste -- all the more glorious.

The diversity and range of regional specialties in America makes this a continuous adventure. Besides the accessibility and cheap fare, I'm partial to the people. What's a New York deli without a crabby waiter? I'd be suspicious of any rye bread served by a well-scrubbed Abercrombie co-ed. A big plate of pancakes is always tastier when it is delivered by a gum-crackin' Dolores with plasticized hair holding several No.

2 pencils who sashays by the local deputy sheriff in such a way to receive a pat on the ass.

I'll eat just about anything made with hush-puppy humor and church wisdom by anyone named Big Momma. And the only place to enjoy the succulent marine tang of fried clams is where R's are randomly dropped and added -- as in "Uh yup, ya won't find betta chowda oh steama's anywhayuh than Baxta's."

The dilemma for those of us who have a love affair with a tiny cafeteria or barbecue joint is how many people we pass along this insider information to. The worst thing that could happen is that the establishment becomes too well known and less accessible to us. K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans is a good example. For years known only to Nawlins locals, a meal of peppery crawfish in Paul and Kay Prudhomme's diner with its Formica tables was the place to be for in-the-know travelers. Word got out, and before you could say "celebrity chef" there were block-long, two-hour waits to get in. Two best-selling cookbooks later, K-Paul's was a tourist attraction without the locals or the charm.

Additionally, too much notoriety can drive up prices. Second Avenue Deli in New York City was for years one of my favorite places for breakfast. Old World waiters dispensed complaints and weary wisdom with fluffy omelets and the best challah French toast for a few dollars. It's enough that 7 million New Yorkers know about it. But those damn West Coast movie stars talked it up, left their signed 8x10 glossies on the walls and subsequently drove the prices up to $15 for three scrambled eggs with lox.

Despite this, I'm always on the hunt and willing to share. Especially close to home in Cincinnati.

Do you know of a joint with blue-ribbon pies? Write me. I'll trade for a barbecue sauce spicy enough to "make you slap yo' mammy."



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