Our 2021 Road Trip #44: Restaurants Rundown Redux

huckleberry walnut salad!

Nobody makes huckleberry walnut salads back home in Indiana. Adventures got only marginally fancier from here.

Longtime MCC readers may recall our best annual travelogues usually include photos from the restaurants we’ve visited in other states and the foodstuffs we’ve found that we don’t necessarily have back home in Indianapolis. We do enjoy sharing those moments, but you may have noticed their conspicuous absence from this series except in Part 30, when we covered our culinary results from Days One through Five, the first half of our vacation. We had looked forward to leaving home and hopefully leaving the year’s troubles behind for just ten days. The more we drove, the more we had to face reality: it was the same kind of 2021 everywhere in America.

Days Six through Ten had their moments. In this context “moment” isn’t always a compliment.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen 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. We were each raised in a household that couldn’t afford annual out-of-state family vacations. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. Eventually we tired of some of our self-imposed limitations and figured out how to leave the comforts of home for the chance to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between.

We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

Technically not even 2020 stopped us. We played by the new rules of the interim normal and wandered Indiana in multiple directions as safely as we could. This year the long-awaited vaccines arrived. For 2021 we agreed we had to go big. Our new primary objective was Yellowstone National Park, 1500 miles from Indy…

And here’s the Readers Digest version of the intro from “Restaurants Rundown”:

The pandemic has been a horrid era for the restaurant business. Whether you’re an owner/operator trying and failing to balance the books and the pressing safety needs, a manager dealing with harsh demands from above and insurrection from below, or a staffer fed up with being treated like a disposable appliance by bosses and customers in competing measure…no matter where you are in the chain of culinary command, chances are there’re parts of your career that infuriate you like never before. So a lot of eateries haven’t been at their best lately.

Times were just as tough beyond Indiana’s borders. Throughout the last week of June and into July we saw crews dealing with obstacles the best they could. Some places fared a lot better than others. Maybe we should’ve simply bought lunchmeat and bread from nearby groceries all ten days, just left all those business alone and saved ourselves some hassles. But in years past, the food has often been one of our favorite parts of these getaways. As former restaurant workers ourselves with a combined 22 years between us, albeit pretty distant in our past, we like visiting classy and/or creative establishments, marveling at their talents and efforts, and exchanging funds and tips for the pleasure…if they’re in a position to let us in.

For the second five days of our trip, this is how mealtime went:

WEDNESDAY 6/30, BREAKFAST: In Gardiner, Montana, we were still wiped out from our amazing colossal Yellowstone day, but our motel had no dining options and the time had come at last to throw away the last remaining Flyboy Donuts scraps we’d been toting in our baggage since Day Three.

A couple blocks down the street we found Tumbleweed Bookstore and Cafe, your typically cozy purveyor of coffee, art, mismatched seats, and culinary options for vegan, veggie and gluten-free diets. I was honestly surprised Gardiner was large enough to have one of those. They also sell books aimed at travelers seeking local flair on paper. The head count was modest. The small menu attached to the register had several sold-out ingredients and dishes crossed off. My breakfast burrito nailed the basics.

Tumbleweed Bookstore and Cafe!

The table umbrellas made a full shot of the sign impossible from every angle.

Tumbleweed decor!

Sample decor and books, apropos of Yellowstone adjacency.

WEDNESDAY 6/30, LUNCH: We’d gone modest on our last few meals. Splurging on steak in the heart of Montana seemed the next obvious act for us omnivores to commit. Of the available lunchtime options we landed on the Montana Club in Billings, one of five such locations statewide. I thought it was a casino at first, and I’m not yet convinced I was wrong. The place was deserted, the staff was friendly, and the meal was serviceable but priced above its total merit. It was located in an area tangled with so many curving, twisting roads in defiance of Google Maps logic that I had to pull over and download a compass app to navigate back out of their labyrinth.

Montana Club Restaurant!

Maybe I was still thinking of South Dakota, where every business is also a casino.

John Petek casino painting!

A possible source of my confusion: this painting of a casino by late artist John Petek.

Montana Club steak!

I don’t even remember what cut this was. Anne’s salad from the same lunch is up there in our lead photo.

WEDNESDAY 6/30, DINNER: Before our life-threatening saunter through Makoshika State Park in in Glendive, MT, Anne and I hung out two blocks away from our hotel at C.C.’s Family Cafe, a rare place where the kitchen staff outnumbered the waitstaff. Two young ladies tried to keep up with hostessing, taking orders, delivering, and cashiering while plenty of folks hiding in the back kept piling completed meals on the pickup shelf.

CCs Family Cafe!

After this one, we cooled on mom-‘n’-pop diners for the rest of the trip.

Monte Cristo!

I hoped a simple Monte Cristo and hash browns might be quick. Nope.

We then picked up a Subway takeout sandwich for my son, who’d stayed back at the hotel. We had to buy that before hitting Makoshika because Gardiner is so small, everything but the grocery store would’ve been closed by the time we returned. Doing separate back-to-back food stops, neither of which was particularly speedy, is why we were still in Makoshika at sunset, further elevating our risk factor if we’d done anything foolish in the middle of nowhere.

THURSDAY 7/1, BREAKFAST: Glendive was even smaller in the morning than at night. We settled for hotel freebies again. I should mention one of our hotels on this trip had an awesome invention we’d never seen before, a pancake machine containing a conveyor belt on which you plop pancake mix on one end and perfectly formed doughy disks plop out the other end in seconds flat. Neither of us remember which hotel had it and deserves all the kudos. To some hotelier out there: thank you for that moment of fast fun and faster food, wherever you were.

THURSDAY 7/1, LUNCH: We forwent our fatiguing forays into faux-foodie fun in Dickinson, North Dakota. On break from chasing down multiple Teddy Roosevelt statues we swerved a mile off course for Hardee’s, which we have back home. I clearly just didn’t care. Our clerk was as gracious as she could be in her very first day on the job. The place was mostly empty and every other table was out-of-bounds for distancing purposes, in case anyone else came in.

Chicken Waffle sandwich!

Please enjoy this slice of quotidian exotica, the Hardee’s Hand-Breaded Chicken Waffle sandwich.

THURSDAY 7/1, DINNER: Once upon a time in 2014 Anne and I spent our first night in Fargo and were compelled to investigate a themed family eatery called Space Aliens, one of three such locations (two in North Dakota, one in Minnesota). Call this evening RETURN OF SPACE ALIENS. Same space location, possibly the same space grub. None of us remembers our main dishes or documented a single calorie of it, only that parts of the appetizer sampler were adequate and the rest was not. Also, our waiter paid far more attention to the young ladies at the next table than to us. Next time I’ll try dressing more sexily for Space Aliens, which doesn’t strike me as a hot go-to for space macking.

Space Aliens restaurant!

They changed the exterior paintings since last time.

Space Aliens Fargo!

They changed the interior color scheme since last time.

Space Aliens bar!

We don’t drink and didn’t try space drinks from the space bar.

alien wall art!

Sample space wall art.

hands-on aliens!

Hands-On Aliens in search of their god, the Space Claw.

FRIDAY 7/2, BREAKFAST: Anne and I awoke early for a lovers’ walk through downtown Fargo, reprising our 2014 evening stroll but this time adding the all-new Super Mario mural and breakfast at an upscale bagel shop called BernBaum’s, the artisan sort that wields ingredients you have to Google if they’re not part of your everyday lifestyle or haven’t been used yet on Chopped. I’d love to come here daily if we were locals.

BernBaum's Bagels!

All restaurants great and small in every state shared a single characteristic that summer: Now Hiring signs.

BernBaum's toucan marker!

In lieu of shouting names or numbers, completed orders are called out by whatever tchotchke they lend you after paying. Ours was a tiny toy toucan.

BernBaum's bagel sandwich!

I ordered a bagel sandwich off the in-person daily menu and therefore can’t retrace its contents online anymore. I can tell you it had meat, the greens were nicely dressed, and the pickled red onions were a classy touch.

FRIDAY 7/2, LUNCH: In Alexandria, Minnesota, after the Runestone Museum we weaved north a few miles toward a pizza/Mexican double-proficiency joint called Zorbaz, one of 11 lakeside locations which I dearly wish were named after Zardoz rather than Zorba the Greek. Families packed the place, laughing and running and congesting, hither and yon amid the copiously random wall knickknacks.

Zorbaz!

Business on the outside, parties on the inside.

looming bear!

A ceiling bear looming in their doorway reminds us we never saw a single live bear on this vacation.

Zorbaz kickboards!

The letter ‘Z’ is everywhere and everything to them, from their decor to their menus to their website. No idea if they’ve ever seen Costa-Gravas’ Z.

Zorbaz Thai Pie!

We ordered a dozen Thai wings and this Thai Pie topped with “BBQ Peanut Zauce”, bacon, pineapple, banana peppers, cilantro, and red onions only on my half.

Lake Le Homme Dieu!

Across the street, Lake Le Homme Dieu beckoned. We did not answer the call.

FRIDAY 7/2, BONUS DESSERT ROUND: Later after our limited Prince experience, we stopped in the town of Zumbrota, Minnesota, for a snack and a slice of brief history. Once upon a time in the summer of 2011, President Barack Obama paused his ongoing bus tour at the Coffee Mill Cafe for sixty bucks worth of pies for himself and his roadies. For years afterward the cafe framed his cash and one of his cleared pie plates and hung them for all to see That One Time a President Stopped Here.

It is my duty to inform roadside attraction fans at large that as of July 2021 those mementos hang no more. A busboy told us they took those down a while back, but the bench Obama used is still there, though there’s no neon sign pointing to it. (We should probably notify Roadside America sometime.)

Disappointed but not deterred, not even by the massive Friday night crowd, we waited a few minutes and were seated in one of the farthest seats back by the restrooms. While we waited patiently for sugar, elderly gentlemen at the next table talked amongst themselves about the coronavirus’ Chinese origins and their not exactly enlightened thoughts about what they’d love to do to the guys what they reckon mighta started all this ruckus and oughta be given what-for. We did not interrupt to ask their opinions on that Obama fella.

Coffee Mill Cafe!

Coffee Mill Cafe!: now with more America ribbons than Obama souvenirs.

pecan pie!

Classic pecan pie for me. No artisan options offered.

Anne and pumpkin pie!

Anne flagrantly brandishing a pumpkin pie out of season.

Where Obama Sat!

The Bench Where Obama Sat. Hanging above is a print of Eric Enstrom’s “Grace”, taken circa 1918 and hand-colorized in the 1940s, now designated the official Minnesota State Photograph., Yes, really.

FRIDAY 7/2, DINNER: A deserted Noodles & Company in Rochester. We dig them back home but hadn’t had some in months. Their Korean meatballs are our drug of choice.

SATURDAY 7/3, BREAKFAST: Hotel breakfast again, probably. The mundanity of the days blurred ever more indistinctly, and we’d reached that inevitable point in every overlong road trip when we were ready to stab each other at the slightest provocation. But in a loving way. Even in exhaustion we can moderate our imagined cruelty as we desperately wish we were home.

SATURDAY 7/3, LUNCH: Apart from one rest stop, we stepped foot in Wisconsin only to try a fast-casual chain with seven locations called MACS Macaroni And Cheese Shop. Their store in Sun Prairie had had a rough day, and the only empty table wobbled. The place was otherwise exactly what it promised. We endured.

MACS Sun Prairie!

Self-explanatory on every level.

Carnitas Mac!

My hearty bowl of Carnitas MAC with pulled pork, pepper jack, corn-‘n’-black bean salsa, chipotle sauce and lime buried under tortilla strips that removed all traces of photogenic detail.

SATURDAY 7/3, DINNER: Once upon a time in 2009, we concluded our nine-day South Dakota road trip with dinner at the Machine Shed, a very farmer-forward home-cookin’ chain not unlike Bob Evans or Cracker Barrel, but with no toy section for your grandparents to play in while they’re waiting. That Machine Shed was in Davenport, Iowa; to conclude our ten-day Yellowstone odyssey, we hit up the one in Rockford, Illinois. Their waitress was exactly the kindly, homespun, speedy caretaker you’d want after nine days on the road when you’re on the verge of emotional collapse and all you want is for Scotty to beam you straight home. The Machine Shed couldn’t beam us home, but their comfort was like an engineering miracle to us.

Machine Shed!

Our 2009 meal was under cover of darkness. In daylight you can better spot the Americana flourishes and the farming implements…

pig statue!

…and a petite pig.

Machine Shed shed!

The literal machine shed.

bacon wrapped tenderloin!

The last supper worth savoring in memory: bacon-wrapped tenderloin. A+++.

SUNDAY 7/4, BREAKFAST: We found no tantalizing breakfast options anywhere nearby. All indoor dining was closed due to pandemic. We surrendered and settled for Dunkin Donuts drive-thru.

SUNDAY 7/4, LUNCH: Per long-standing family tradition, the final meal of every vacation is McDonald’s. It’s our transition ritual from varied and pricey menus across multiple states back to our everyday standards, self-controlled budget, and tampered expectations. This year’s lucky recipient of the last of our meal budget was a half-empty franchise outside Mahomet, Illinois.

SUNDAY 7/4, DINNER: More takeout from one of our usuals. Who cares. By this time we were home, thank the Lord and let our wrathful weariness subside.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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