Saturday, July 10, 2010

Looking for Lunch in All the Wrong Places . . .

in Buffalo, Wyoming.

The folks who operate our campground in Buffalo had recommended the Sagewood Gifts & Café as a good place to have lunch, but it didn’t seem to be open. Neither did the Mexican restaurant across the street. And I knew that the steakhouses were only open for dinner. What to do? Then we spotted the “Open” sign in the window of the Main Street Diner and, by default, decided that this was the place to get some food.

When we walked through the doors it was closing in on 1:30 p.m. and I noticed that there was only customer seated at a small table by the front window. Then I began to wonder if this was customer or just someone visiting with the waitress. Whatever. Since we had our choice of seats (twelve stools at the counter, three booths, and the afore-mentioned table for two by the window), we opted for one of the three booths.

The menu was short and limited. There were nine variations on the hamburger and eight on the chicken sandwich. The choices were rounded out by a BLT, a Ruben (sic), a grilled cheese, a grilled ham and cheese, a Main Street Philly (they’re everywhere), a fish sandwich, a crispy chicken salad, a taco salad, and an open faced top sirlon (sic) sandwich. I hadn’t had a burger in a while, but was saving my burger selection for Mike Dannenberg’s Big Bodacious Buffalo Burger (at our next stop in Billings, MT). So I chose the Jalapeno Chicken Sandwich with grilled onions, pickled jalapenos, and cheese. From the choice of side, I selected the fries.

The sandwich proved to be a somewhat thin chicken breast that had been lightly breaded with a peppery coating. While the meat was thin, the cook (more on him later) had managed to cook this on his flattop without drying the meat. Under the large slice of cheese was a Mt. Everest of pickled jalapenos – so many that halfway through the sandwich I removed about half of the remaining peppers. According to our waitress, each order of fries is cut when ordered which probably explains why there were not twice fried and, as a result, were not as crisp as I would like.

Chuck selected the open faced sirlon (sic) sandwich with a side of onion rings. But he started with a cup of the day’s soup – the cream of potato and cabbage. His serving was full of potato, shredded cabbage onion, celery, and thin rounds of smoked sausage. The cabbage imparted a slight sweet taste and the sausage a slight smoky taste.

While he was enjoying his soup, I could see the cook preparing his steak on the flattop. Smoke was rising to the exhaust fan and the room filled with wonderful grilled steak aromas. And the meat was being cooked under a steak press. His plate arrived and contained a small steak (maybe four to six ounces) with a generous serving of onion rings that were your standard frozen diner variety onion rings.

Now for the steak. Oh my! It was cooked perfectly medium rare as ordered and was tender and juicy with great beef flavor. Why couldn’t we ever find beef like this in the East? And the cooking process left the surface with that great crunchy char without overcooking the meat.

As we are eating, I noticed that only one other customer had come in and that the staff (the cook and waitress) were beginning to pack things away. It looked like they were ready to close, so we asked if they closed at 2:00 p.m. “Yes” they replied. “But today we closed at 1:30. It’s been really slow today, and we saw that the staff at the Mexican restaurant left right after 12:30.” (Remember, we arrived just before 1:30.)

Thus began our conversation with the waitress and cook, who are, in fact, the co-owners of the diner – he coming from a former life as an executive chef for the Sheraton Hotel chain. Chuck complimented them on the potato and cabbage soup, and we learned a secret of the restaurant trade. Many cream soups are made with non-dairy creamer because it doesn’t break when kept hot on a stove or steam table. Having been served curdled soup on more than one occasion, I can appreciate why this is a concern.

The diner is located across the street from the Occidental Hotel (more on this tomorrow) that had just hired a new chef for their fine dining restaurant. Upon arriving in town, the new chef comes across the street to introduce himself. “Hello, I am Chef Norman.” And the diner’s owner/cook replies: “And I am Cook Bob” never letting on that he had Executive Chef experience. These are the kinds of conversations one enjoys in small restaurants in small towns.

I would rate Chuck’s lunch as a 4.5 Addie meal. Fresh house made onion rings would have elevated it to a 5.0. I give mine 3.5 Addies. I can’t believe that a former Executive Chef doesn’t twice-fry his French fries.

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