An Ode to the Roadside Diner

One thing must be assumed when stopping into a roadside diner for a meal. It’s usually about one of two things — the uniquely American experience, or the convenience. With rare exception, you are not likely in for great dining.

So it was on a Sunday early afternoon on one of America’s most beautiful highways — U.S. 395, which winds from the high Joshua Tree-dotted Mojave desert along the eastern Sierras, past the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48, miscellaneous charming frontier towns, dazzling Mono Lake, the stunning ghost town of Bodie, to Nevada and the eastern flank of Lake Tahoe and on to Oregon. We had just emerged from a long 20-mph southbound slog through blizzard-like whiteout conditions, descending toward home from a ski vacation in Mammoth, and were starved.

Our first attempt at a roadside diner meal happened in the town of Lone Pine, where there are actually quite a few pines. We stopped at Bonanza Restaurant, lured by the promise of “Mexican and American food”. The lone waitress sat us in the dark “back room” — there were literally no lights on; what little illumination we had came from the ambient daylight spilling in from the front. Eventually some lights were turned on, and lone waitress brought us menus. Between two of the menus was inadvertently tucked a grimy potholder from the kitchen. We reviewed the menu, which was priced like a beachfront restaurant in Waikiki, and watched lone waitress frantically attempt to service the several other large parties that had arrived before us. And that was enough for us.

Immy and Flynn await their meals at the Ranch House Café

A little further up the road, amidst shrubby horse and cow pastures in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Olancha, was a roadside diner — the Ranch House Café — which I had noticed for years but never had a reason to stop at. Now, hunger and the 75-miles-until-the-next-town were all the reason needed.

The Ranch House Café was everything Bonanza was not — bright, busy and well-staffed. A stout and cheerful hostess gave us the obligatory “Be right with you, honey,” (just like in the movies), and we admired the taxidermied bear, Canada geese, and moose and deer heads looming down at us from above. There were cowboy hats on a coat rack, and a grizzled guy eating at the bar who’s name could’ve only been Gus.

Leslie and Willa with her cheesy potato soup

The menu was reasonable and interesting. Daughter Imogen pitched a small fit at the lack of a crunchy taco (which she’d seen on the menu at Bonanza), but otherwise everyone was happy with the food options.

There were burgers and meatloaf sandwiches; there was fried chicken and pork chops. Leslie and Imogen decided to split the fish & chips dinner with soup and cornbread. Flynn got the chicken fingers and fries from the kids menu, while I opted for the fried shrimp. Willa, who was fighting a fever, only wanted a side of mashed potatoes and gravy.

Their “specialty”, it seemed, was Indian fry bread with powdered sugar. We ordered that, too.

Indian fry bread with local honey

A couple Mojave Red beers from the nearby Indian Wells Brewing Company, and we were set.

The waitress forgot the corn bread and the fry bread. (I would remind her before we left.) I poured gravy over my fries for an impromptu Sierra poutine. I heard the cheesy potato soup was good.

There used to be an adage — don’t order sushi if you’re more than a day’s drive from an ocean. With the global same-day transport of seafood, you can get pretty decent fish dishes just about anywhere. But something about fish & chips at a high desert roadside diner seemed off note. And the girls were disappointed with their lunch. My shrimp, probably from a Costco box, were tasty.

The view across the highway

Our friend with whom we had been skiing suddenly entered, looking for a bathroom. More people came and went, greeting each other by name and exchanging pleasantries — proving the unlikely existence of a local Olanchese coterie.

A rather dramatic windstorm greeted us as we left the diner, our corn bread and fry bread to go, and headed back toward the more familiar surroundings of home. The fry bread would turn out to be a superb breakfast the next day, spread with freshly churned butter and drizzled with Mojave honey.

At around $50, including two beers, the restaurant was a good deal. Worth it more for a truly authentic version of the American roadside diner experience than for the food. Which might be a truism for most American roadside diners.

The Cheeseburger Martyr

On our flight from Havana to Los Angeles, there was a Cheeseburger Martyr.

There are many things to be thankful for on your flight from Havana to Los Angeles. You have just experienced one of the most fascinating countries and warmest people in the Western Hemisphere; you will soon have access to your car, grocery stores and bank ATMs; you live in a place where you are free to say whatever you want about the government.

The Cheeseburger Martyr, up first to get his carry-on before anyone else

There is no reason to be shitty.

The man looked pleasant enough as he boarded and sat down in the row in front of us — grandfatherly, fit, Patagonia-esque dress, a kind smile. The facade would soon be betrayed, however, when the food service started. More

The Best Restaurant in Havana

Javier, one of the staff at the Airbnb where we are staying, was walking us through the dusty streets of Central Havana when he paused to point out a crowd of well-dressed people milling in front of a rather grand Baroque portal. A sign above the entrance read: “La Guardia.”

“That’s the best restaurant in Havana,” he struggled in his limited English. “Robert de Niro and Natalie Portman eated there.”

Javier was leading us to another restaurant just around the corner from La Guardia. We had asked him about good, authentic Cuban food, and he assured us that the deceptively named Notre Dame des Bijoux was the place to get it.

Jesus Gomez at his rooftop grill

We walked through a much less impressive portal into what seemed to be someone’s home (many of Cuba’s restaurants are run by people out of their homes). And quite a home it was — an explosion of tropical plants grew up from the floor, one wall was plastered with teacups, another was covered floor to ceiling with framed photographs. And in a throne-like chair, in a satin fuchsia robe with rings on every finger, surrounded by his ten toy dogs, was Tommy Reyes Martinez, a flamboyant former Cuban National Ballet dancer who owned the restaurant. More

Year of the Sandwich Goes to Cuba

One of my favorite sandwiches ever, the torta Cubana at the Vallarta Mexican grocery store, is a towering affair with ham, beans, bacon, salsa, jalapeños and an egg, all on a soft telera roll. It is delicious, but it is most definitely a Mexican sandwich.

So, in preparing for our recent spring break trip to Havana, I was excited to try the actual Cuban sandwich. According to my research, there would be sandwiches on pretty much every corner. More

Muddle & Wilde

What sounds like the name of a pair of bumbling, ineffectual British TV detectives is actually a new project by two of the most creative, beautiful women I know — Muddle & Wilde, organic drink mixes “handcrafted in small batches.”

Laura and Moira

Rereading the grammatical structure of that previous sentence, I realized it could be interpreted that my two friends are named Muddle & Wilde. They are not. They are Moira and Laura, two mothers at the elementary school where my daughters go — and are friends with their daughters. And we are friends with Moira and Laura, and so were impressed and excited when we heard about their venture. More

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