Truck Stop Love
The note tacked on the wall at the Peppersauce Cafe offers it up in a friendly drawl. "If you're a handyman who will work for food . . . and don't have a sign . . . we have work, and we have food."
The sign's something straight out of the Whistle Stop that feel-good, old South cafe that centered the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. And so is almost everything else in this cozy little restaurant, hunkered in the shadow of I-10 as it yawns above 40th Street.
The cafe is nearly invisible, cocooned among diesel-belching semi-trucks, F-150s laden with tool racks, and service vans stickered with 1-800 emergency numbers. I found it only when led there by my own handyman, as we combed the surrounding salvage yards in search of yet more obscure fix-up items for my House from Hell. Unless I was in desperate need of something like a used truck bed, some galvanized pipe (which, actually, I do need), or a mobile snack kiosk for the State Fair, I'd never have had reason to venture down this snaking side street.
I feel strangely secure just knowing the Peppersauce is there. Because as every real home needs a handyman, every real city needs a hideaway like this. It's a sad truth that a home isn't really our home until we know its innermost workings. That means something always is broken, usually with great explosions and gushing water involved. And a city isn't a real home until we've discovered an inexpensive, comfort-food-serving, known-only-to-the-locals cafe. A good, can-count-on-it Thursday special of Burgundy beef tips over noodles with canned vegetables and a roll is salvation from increasingly strange society.
While my handyman doesn't work for food I should be so lucky it sure seems I spend a lot of time feeding him. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, as he toils around the clock to make my 1962-built shack livable. But it's plenty fine with me when it involves secret treasures like the Peppersauce.
He's positively beaming as we pull into the lot delighted to introduce me to a restaurant I'd never heard of plus, he's getting to eat again. It's his kind of food, too, manly truck stop grub like meat loaf, chicken fried chicken, and that trucker's staple, homemade chili. He first saw the Peppersauce while motoring down the freeway the other day, he announces proudly, stopped in and had a meal to "test it out" for me. Good little handyman that he is.
I'm smiling as soon as we step inside. The Peppersauce is packed with men. They're handsome fellows, too, rugged types in jeans and work boots, tool belts and cell phones draped low on their hips. Some have a scruffy growth of a day's beard, most all are honey-skinned from time in the sun. It's charmingly quiet men taking a break to fill their bellies don't have call for much conversation and it's just a little silly. Because Peppersauce doesn't look like a truck stop, but like a Whistle Stop, all cute and clean and quaint farmhouse cafe. Like the Whistle Stop in that movie, Peppersauce is owned by two entrepreneurial women: Diane Sayers and Denise Kimball. And like me, these ladies are honest enough to ask a handyman for favors in a fair deal of trade.
With barbed wire storm fencing, gutted car bodies and giant machines with sharp claws sleeping in yards all around, the pretty Peppersauce is like a doily put over a grease spot. But it works: Big, rough-and-tumble, blue-collar fellows keep their elbows off the table, chew with their mouths closed and frame every request with "please" and "thank you."
My handyman is fixed on the chili size, an open-face burger capped with chili, Cheddar and onions. Chili is a serious concern in places like this my All American Truck Stop Cookbook devotes an entire chapter just to this dish and here, "chef Gilbert" treats his with respect. There's nothing fancy, but a hearty, tasty helping of ground beef, hot pepper, soft beans and onion the thick, stand-a-fork-in-it paste usually found on chili dogs. No question it's a working man's lunch, bringing a monster platter of soft bun, charbroiled burger, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle slices plus a choice of homemade crispy coleslaw, macaroni salad, potato salad, cottage cheese or chips (add 85 cents for hot, mealy steak fries).
Handyman has dispatched me to fetch our beverages though everything else is table service, it's a do-it-yourself operation for sodas, iced tea, water and coffee. His idea is that with my being a female, I'll have better luck breaking through the crush of sweaty men jostling to fill their 24-ounce glasses. The men part like the Red Sea for me; obviously, Mama taught these boys their manners.
The All American Truck Stop Cookbook dedicates another chapter specifically to meat loaf, at its most humble a splendid blend of hamburger, tomato, eggs and breadcrumbs. For the life of me, I can't make the simple dish, which is why it tastes all the better when someone else can. What should be firm and still fluffy, in my hands turns to soggy sludge. What should be an exquisite balance of sharp tomato, spunky salt and pepper, mild meat and rich juices turns to a queer Neapolitan of infighting ingredients. I can never get the breadcrumbs or egg to incorporate; my meat loaf is more like greasy quiche.
Good fortune, Peppersauce has a brighter bulb than me in the kitchen. "Chef Jesse" crafts the comfortable, ketchup-slathered loaf as a Monday special (down home with chunky, skin-on mashed potatoes, cream gravy, canned corn and fluffy dinner rolls), as a daily melt grilled with onions, tomatoes and Muenster on beautiful grilled Parmesan sourdough, or as a daily sandwich (hot or cold), plain, on a choice of breads.
Some recipes from my truck stop book leave me queasy, like the vulgar "poup soup" made with sautéed hot dogs, steak sauce, tomato soup and baked beans. Who's that sick?
But Peppersauce's more genteel dishes would keep me finding reason to return even after my handyman's services no longer are needed (ha!): A Mighty Melt fashioned with real carved, grilled breakfast ham and succulent turkey breast under Swiss and Cheddar with green chiles. Chicken salad that's a sincere success, the pulled breast barely slicked with tangy mayo and chopped celery on 12-grain that's as thick and moist as cake. A patty melt groaning with seconds-off-the-grill bacon, grilled onions, Swiss and tomato smeared with mayo-tartar sauce. And chicken fried chicken as a Tuesday special, bringing a plump breast dredged in golden batter, mounded with mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans and rolls with lots and lots of butter.
My handyman tells me that Peppersauce breakfasts are extremely popular with the local police; regular folks can hardly get in (and he the expert on such things, after one visit). There are no police in sight when I come in for a 9 a.m. repast, but wow, such food. Daily specials for just $4.25, like two eggs, biscuits, gravy and hash browns; two eggs, two pancakes, sausage or bacon and toast; a ham and green chile scramble with hash browns and toast. Omelets are like I make them (yes, those I can handle, though scrambled is a safer bet), stuffed with cream cheese for silky richness.
I'm digging through my truck stop cookbook again for a surprise sandwich I find at Peppersauce, a big thick ahi tuna steak basted in lemon garlic butter, charbroiled to black outside and perfect pink inside, moistened with mayo/tartar and lounging on a soft kaiser roll. It's spectacular. The closest I come is Trucker's Tuna Salad, the basic stuff made glamorous with chopped Cheddar and pecans.
And there really is a Whistle Stop Cafe, the book informs me, though it's not in the romantic setting of the movie. It's in Van Buren, Arkansas. Appropriately enough, its contribution to the cookbook is a recipe for chili. It reads like a delicious concoction, blending hamburger, onions, bell peppers, garlic, tomatoes, corn, beans and lots of crushed red pepper.
Like most everything at Peppersauce, it's simple, comfortable, cheap and satisfying everything truck stop grub is supposed to be. Hey, that works for me.
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