Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Beginning with 2003’s excursion to Washington DC, we added my son to the roster and tried to accommodate his preferences and childhood accordingly.
After the record-breaking nine-day epic that was our 2009 trek to the farthest reaches of South Dakota, we decided to scale back in 2010 with a shorter drive in a different direction. We previously drove through the corners of Pennsylvania in 2003 and 2004 — through Washington in the southwest corner on our way to Washington, DC; and through Erie in the northwest corner on our way to Niagara Falls. This year, that extra-large wooded state would be the center of our attention.
As one of America’s original 13 colonies, Pennsylvania contains multitudes of U.S. history and authentic places and things from centuries past. For the three of us, we figured it would do well. Anne is a big history buff. I’m willing to drive just about anywhere within reason. My son would be dragged along for whatever ride until such time as he developed a separate life and identity.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
DAY ONE: Monday, July 19th.
Every year we rent an SUV because we can use the extra luggage room, because my 1996 Cavalier didn’t need the wear-‘n’-tear of extended travel, and because that one time in Ohio in 2004 scarred us well. This year’s model: the Ford Escape XLT. It’s the prettiest-colored car we’ve ever rented, but otherwise unremarkable — average (i.e., lousy) gas mileage, very few comfort controls, no impressive dashboard toys. My favorite feature was the satellite radio, which gave us much in the way of entertainment and debate fodder throughout the week, not to mention enough Ke$ha to last the three of us a lifetime apiece.
I picked up the Escape on Monday morning from Avis, where the friendly service reps generally make small talk about their customers’ plans. Whenever we mentioned Philadelphia to family and friends, the first response was always to ask about the Liberty Bell and other famous historical spots. The Avis guy went a surprisingly different direction and asked if I planned to check out Geno’s. I’m not sure if it was a sixth sense, a guy thing, or a subtle crack about my weight, but I had to admit that Geno’s — a famous Philly cheesesteak joint — was on our long list of possibilities. He revealed himself as a dedicated fan of Man v. Food and asked if we had plans to check out any of Adam Richman’s other stops along the way. It’s always a joy to watch fandom rear its head from the most unexpected places.
We returned home, filled the inadequate trunk space with minimal luggage, and kicked off our trip with three straight hours on I-70 and into our old nemesis Ohio, which tried to atone for past sins against us by not drawing attention to itself, except for this conciliatory offering of a gratuitous monkey between Springfield and Columbus.
Our lunch plans took us someplace the Avis guy hoped we would visit: the Thurman Cafe, As Seen on TV’s Man v. Food. It was located in a sedate working-class neighborhood, and appeared innocent enough from the outside.
For previous trips it hadn’t occurred to us to look to TV for restaurant suggestions. This year we thought we’d give the idea a whirl. At the time we were enamored of Richman’s show in particular. In fact, he visited our hometown of Indianapolis earlier that May. We thought it would be awesome to see him in action in person, but the producers and our local media refused to reveal his Indy itinerary in advance. Eventually his three stops were revealed after the fact — Edwards Drive-In, on the south side where we never go; Bub’s Burgers up in Carmel, for which we made a special drive to go try the following year for my birthday; and Mooresville’s own Gray Bros. Cafeteria, Anne’s all-time favorite eatery. We were sorry to miss him, but couldn’t fault his taste. Well, except for choosing Edwards over Mug-‘n’-Bun. So he got two out of three right.
Once inside the Café, we were duly in the presence of celebrity-by-association because That One TV Guy Ate Here.
TV celebrity has its price: the Cafe had a lengthy waiting list even at 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. The wait for our table was somewhere over half an hour, most of which I whittled away by getting to level 19 on Galaga, one of the coin-op games in their foyer. Galaga has been my thing for decades.
Shortly after I finished reconfirming my Galaga champion status, the host crossed our name off the clipboard, pointed to the dining room, and told us, “Go to the next clean table. You’ll find it.”
Once our turn came, I understood why we waited. Despite its As-Seen-On-TV claim to fame, the “Cafe” is a bar that only seats 25-30 people, tops. I suspect it only seated 20-25 before the show aired. The narrow walkway between the bar and the only row of booths was further obstructed by a couple more out-of-place tables that didn’t match the others. We had to weave around other families and out-of-place out-of-towners like us in order to squirm into our seats at the one clean table, as promised. The neon beer signs and the flat-screen CRT-TV were standard-issue drinking-hole decor that didn’t reach the level of “charming” we’d dreamed of finding.
After another long wait to order and an intermission appetizer of Fried Brownie Bites (not breaded like fried carnival food, but warm and tasty just the same), what you saw in our lead photo was the kind of volume level that lured the esteemed Mr. Richman into their establishment: the Thurman Burger. It’s a ¾-pound burger topped with — or, more accurately balanced precariously with — ham, mozzarella and American cheese, lettuce, tomato, mushrooms, sautéed onions, pickle, peppers, and mayo. It’s a burger! It’s a salad! It’s a pizza! It’s a burpizzalad!
That’s not even their largest sandwich. That honor belongs to the Thurmanator, which contains 1½ pounds of meat, even more cheese than the Thurman Burger (subtract mozzarella, add provolone and cheddar) and extra bacon to back up that ham. Some indulgence is to be expected on vacation, but I wanted to limit my vacation heart problems to some mild arrhythmia rather than tempting myself into a straight coronary on Day 1.
The Thurman Burger itself was hard enough to handle. My only attempt to lift it with two hands was thwarted because the combined juices of all the ingredients had dissolved the bottom bun. Instead I had to carve hunks from it with a knife and fork. I never successfully incorporated more than four or five ingredients into any single bite. Also not helping: cooked into the core of the burger patty itself was an interdimensional wormhole that wouldn’t stop spewing a never-ending supply of sautéed onions at me until several minutes after I surrendered. Amid my unfinished wreckage were most of my chips, several bites of bun, and one or more whole onions.
Anne was content with her Reuben, frequently her deli sandwich of choice. My son, on the other hand, resented his meal. He ordered half a dozen teriyaki-coated “jumbo wings”, each of which had the same amount of meat as a standard Buffalo wing stretched across three times the bone. One of the many reasons he dreads our vacations is that he’s never been an adventurous eater and doesn’t respond well to culinary challenges. To him “teriyaki” is usually a menu safeword. These, to his chagrin, were an unwelcome intrusion into his narrow comfort zone. He took it as an omen of even worse meals to come. I had to wonder to myself if perhaps the Man v. Food quest for quantity may not always give due consideration to food quality as well.
Once our late lunch was over with, we needed gas ASAP before returning to the interstate. I pulled into the first gas station I saw past the Cafe and parked next to a pump that refused to cooperate. I went inside to prepay, only to have the clerks inform me that a random power surge had knocked out their computers — pumps as well as registers — so we all had to stand there for several minutes until everything rebooted. No doubt this annoyance was part of the state of Ohio’s ongoing need to vex us every time we try to drive through it for any reason other than Kings Island.
Not until a week later while reviewing vacation receipts did I notice it was a BP station. Three months after the infamous Deepwater Horizon disaster, it went without saying that “BP” didn’t stand for “Be Prepared”.
To be continued!
1. I’ve been a SiriusXM subscriber since August 2015, after we returned home from our road trip to New Orleans and I decided I was fed up with commercial radio and a jazz station would be nice to have. Now I don’t really care if our rental cars have satellite radio or not. Sometimes it’s more fun to try tuning into local radio and see what passes for entertainment elsewhere. Like that one time in 2012 we were driving through southern Illinois, spun the dial and listened to a young lady reading the day’s obituaries aloud, word for word.
2. The cameo from our old cars gave me a sweet frisson of nostalgia. My ’96 Cavalier eventually got the death sentence of one oil leak too many and had to be put out to pasture in April 2011. Anne was fully committed to running her ’95 Saturn until pieces began falling off and other commuters began mistaking her for a pro demolition derby driver. That day arrived at last in October 2017.
3. When the great American food truck trend came to Indy circa 2012, the Edwards Drive-In was among a few preexisting businesses that joined the bandwagon with a truck of their own. Then I found out for myself what the fuss was all about and repented of my scorn.
4. A few dozen neighbors on Nextdoor have been grumbling lately that Mug-‘n’-Bun is not the unassailable tenderloin paradise it once was in its heyday. This sucks to hear. I’ve been afraid to go see for myself.]
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