Remember the good ol’ days when the most lethal forces you had to worry about at any given family restaurant were calories, fat, carbs, grease, and sugar? And not uncontrolled international pandemics whose rampaging microbes could destroy your organs from within like an exotic assassin’s poison made from extinct jungle predators? One nifty little cafe in the town of Mitchell sure does.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events 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. Then came 2020 A.D.
Even in an ordinary average year, sometimes you really need to get away from it all. In a year like this, escape is more important than ever if you can find yourself one — no matter how short it lasts, no matter how limited your boundaries are. Anne and I had two choices: either skip our tradition for 2020 and resign ourselves to a week-long staycation that looks and feels exactly like our typical weekend quarantines; or see how much we could accomplish within my prescribed limitations. We decided to expand on that and check out points of interest in multiple Indiana towns in assorted directions. We’d visited many towns over the years, but not all of them yet.
In addition to our usual personal rules, we had two simple additions in light of All This: don’t get killed, and don’t get others killed…
By the time we finished our miles of walking around Spring Mill State Park, we were more than ready for lunch. In the past we’d only seen the parts of Mitchell visible from State Road 37, which cuts through the center of town. Their figurative and literal Main Street is a couple miles east from the highway, a small row of mom-‘n’-pop shops that include a diner called the Railroad Cafe.
Traditional diner menus aren’t enormous, so we have no idea if the Railroad had followed the lead of many other restaurants and pared down their offerings in the wake of The Virus. We didn’t need that many options. We knew what we wanted. Anne had her go-to favorite, that proud staple of the Hoosier heartland, a tenderloin sandwich. Some chefs make the patty close to the same size as the bun. Some chefs spoil you with a hearty sandwich whose meat extends well beyond the bun’s borders, because Hoosier hospitality. Then there are chefs who go hog-wild and aim to deliver the largest, most eye-popping tenderloin you’ll ever see.
I’ve remarked on this phenomenon before, but we’ve lost count of the number of meals we’ve had in which I ordered something that turned out to be a dainty repast, while Anne found herself sitting in front of a one-dish smorgasbord fit for The Rock. We thought we’d done it again, as Anne stared down her tenderloin patty large enough to double as a beret, a hubcap, a turntable, or possibly a warm, scratchy blanket.
And in this corner, I ordered what they call the Mainliner: a donut burger topped with bacon, egg, and cheese. It wasn’t my first donut burger — see also our previous experiences at the Indiana State Fair in 2010, in 2013, and in 2016 — but it’s the first time I ever saw one on an official permanent restaurant menu. This is no mere summer dalliance like fair food normally is: this is a year-round staple. You can walk in and order one anytime during business hours, not just when the carnival’s in town.
We had no complaints as far as quality goes. Anne ate all her fries, gnawed off all the bare tenderloin around the circumference, and couldn’t eat any more. The entire bun and the center of the patty had to come home as leftovers. She graciously let me borrow some of her sandwich toppings to add to my own, which upped my veggie quotient. The sweetness of the donuts and the saltiness of the burger complement each other well, and yet when you add onion and tomato it somehow reaches a bonus level of flavor. And it’s slightly less of a guilty pleasure if you read ingredient labels and realize donuts and white-flour buns are evolutionary cousins with only a few molecules of difference between them.
My only qualm about our otherwise pleasant and satisfying visit: toward the end of our meal, a father and son were seated in the booth directly behind us, unlike the distancing between us and all other patrons up to that moment. At that point I could feel my heart rate elevating as I nervously finished and hoped we could skedaddle ASAP before their breathing got us killed. Then again, that also could’ve been the donut burger nutrients kicking in.
When we first pinned Mitchell as a stop on this trip, I had no plans to go out of my way to reference the Joe Don Baker cult-classic flick Mitchell. In this hour, with these colossal creations before us, I realized this was the kind of place where a lawman like Mitchell could truly feel someone was speaking to his heart.
To be continued!
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