As this column is published, TBK and I are off on an adventure, albeit a brief one. We’ll be in Pensacola, watching my oldest graduate from college. While this launch was somewhat delayed, it is every bit as wonderful as anticipated and, bursting with pride, it also allows us to indulge ourselves in one of our favorite pastimes.
I honestly cannot remember the last time I bought a meal at a place that wasn’t locally or regionally owned. Even if it has been a chain, it has been at least a local or regional one or one that has local or regional roots (Popeye’s counts, right?). I am all about the local folks in any region of the country, and we plan to eat the graduation lunch and the evening meal at places owned by Pensacolans.
The exception to this rule is the highway time between Point A (Orleans Parish) and Point B (in this case, Escambia County). We use this time to reacquaint ourselves with favorites from our respective pasts. Just to make sure they haven’t deviated too much from What They Used To Be. We feel it’s not as much nostalgia and it is quality control — making sure these outfits put out the same great stuff we remember, even though the quality might not have been that great from the beginning. Keepers of the flame, if you will.
Local example: Bud’s Broiler. I wasn’t raised in New Orleans, but I know plenty of displaced locals who can’t come back to town without at least one stop at a Bud’s. Or their favorite po-boy place. Or wherever. It’s part of the Being Here experience, no matter how old they are. I think it’s how things oughta be.
TBK was raised in Southern California — home of Jack in the Box. This San Diego-based chain doesn’t exist in New Orleans, but there IS one in Gonzales near the outlet mall. On the rare occasions we go to Baton Rouge, a stop there is mandatory because I was also raised with this particular chain. It’s cheap and we‘re not sure what all is in the taco meat. But we don’t care, as long as the flavor‘s right. And it is.
My must-stop is at a Whataburger, which has expanded its presence along I-10 over the past decade. Again, there is no outlet in New Orleans. But this Corpus Christi-based chain is ubiquitous in Texas and is, given my place of birth and raising, a mandatory stop. The biscuits and gravy are tremendous when you’re on the road at sunrise and just want a cheap and good filler.
I used to spend a lot more time on the road than in the past several years. I always made it a point to invest as much meal money as possible in the foods of whatever region I’d be visiting at the time, and that included the local and regional chains. There’s some biscuit outfit in North Carolina I really liked when I‘d travel there (can‘t remember the name — it‘s been awhile).
I think all of us have particular and cherished memories of high-volume manufactured food from out childhoods or from various other points in our lives. Quality was and remains immaterial — it’s that the smells and tastes and decor evoke places and times and faces and stories. While we might have moved on into more detailed selection of what and where we eat, I think we’re cheating ourselves if we try to ignore the things we loved (health considerations being an exception, of course).
For about two years in my 20s, I shared an apartment with a radio co-worker in Huntsville AL. We’d get off work and go to some bar and try to get lucky with the ladies (a usually fruitless pursuit), then we’d stop by a Krystal and get a bag o’ tinyburgers and go back to the apartment to watch baseball on the West Coast at like 2am. We’d swill Coke and eat these greasebombs until we’d both fall asleep on the couch.
It was glorious. I still have a weakness for Krystal, despite its recent history on Bourbon St. The food still tastes the same, and I love that.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.