Road food

Holiday travel for us means long road trips. About 2,500 miles or more, depending on the year. Spending an obscene number of hours driving means that we also consume more than our fair share of road food. I’m not particularly fond of fast food chains, so we avoid these. This certainly makes finding a meal on the road a bit more difficult, but thanks to the modern marvel of the smart phone, we research local restaurants on the fly, usually gravitating toward barbeque. A decent pulled pork or brisket sandwich beats a mcwhatever any day of the year.

pig-silhouetteSome people have very strong feelings about barbeque, but there are so many styles to appreciate that digging in your heels about any particular one means you miss out on some pretty awesome tastiness. There is some variety in meats and cooking styles, but the distinguishing characteristic tends to be the flavor imparted by a primary ingredient added to the meat either during the cook or as a condiment. There’s the molasses of Kansas City, the dry rubs of Memphis, the vinegar of North Carolina and the mustard of South Carolina, the white sauce and coleslaw of Alabama, and the hot sauce of east Texas. I enjoy it all, so long as it’s given the proper love. I must admit that not all barbeque joints bring the love; in fact, we tend to bat about .500, but most of the mediocre ones are still better than fast food and the best ones are extraordinary finds that we try to hit again and again. Guides on the various styles of barbeque can be found all over the internet, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. To me, the important thing is to know how to find a place to stop while traveling, adding as little extra time as possible. To that end, I’ve outlined a few steps that will make it easier to avoid the fast food chains and find some good grub.

First, and this goes without saying, you have to plan ahead. Billboards are sometimes helpful, but you can’t expect those exit-sign food listings to offer much guidance beyond fast food. Try to take the time to locate some possibilities before setting out, a necessary step if you’re traveling alone and don’t have the luxury of doing research on the phone while driving. If you’re like us and always running behind schedule then you might end up looking for a spot in an unforeseen area anyway, so this is where you get to enjoy the true thrill of the hunt, finding good food within a reasonable distance, well before the hangry sets in. Start looking for spots by location based on WHEN you’d prefer to eat, but no less than a good half hour down the road. Cities are easiest, but by no means does quality of the food equate to the ease of finding it (as evidenced by the ubiquity of fast food). Smaller towns or even the boonies often have the gems that are worth visiting more than once. Make sure they’ll be open when you’ll be passing through – don’t count on any place to serve past 9 pm, and many places in the Bible Belt are closed on Sundays.

Once you’ve found a good candidate, check the reviews. You should never allow one or two bad reviews to dissuade you from trying a place, nor should you commit based on one or two great reviews, but you can get a feel for a spot’s food and service by reading through what other people have to say. Keep in mind that it takes a certain kind of person to post a review at all, plus it may be that only the most memorable (for better or worse) food compels the most comments, but this step could save you from wasting your time. If you see that a place receives several complaints about any specific thing, find somewhere else. This is especially true for the service, as food tends to be more subjective than attention or attitude. You can afford to be a little picky since there are usually several options to choose from.

Most places now have a menu available online, and you can use this to order ahead to save time. Barbeque is usually ready for pickup in about 15-20 minutes, but you can always ask them to have it ready at a specific time. Still, people forget things, so I wouldn’t call more than about 30 minutes ahead of your arrival. Consult your GPS. And yes, you might have to drive a mile or so away from the interstate, and one of you will probably need to get out of your car, but calling ahead will get you back on the road quicker than a chicken on a junebug.

Finally, ordering barbeque. You’re almost guaranteed to see a pulled pork sandwich on the menu, and you’ll definitely want to order it since this is usually a signature item. You can tell so much about a restaurant’s priorities, methods, and standards from just this one item. For future reference (for both the restaurant and your personal preferences), consider the bread, the chop of the meat, the seasoning, the sauce, and any toppings. If any of these things are sub par, the rest of the menu will be, too. Common sides we enjoy are fried okra, baked beans, mac&cheese, and coleslaw. Try any unique items you see, such as corn fritters, fried pickles, and Brunswick stew. And be sure to distinguish between poor quality and personal preference. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s poorly made, but it’ll be helpful for you when ordering the next time.

Finding good food on a road trip is not all that difficult, plus it’s an enjoyable activity for what can often be a monotonous journey. Even if you’re not into barbeque, there are lots of local restaurants that serve all kinds of things, and most of my general recommendations apply broadly to these as well. The main thing is that you don’t need to feel obligated to eat fast food from a mega-chain. Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t eat the mcwhatsits. I’m just saying you can do better.

Noteworthy BBQ locations from our recent trip(s):

Bradley’s Pit Bar-B-Que & Grill in Sweetwater, TN – We’ve been here a couple times now, and everything has been good. Try the pulled pork sandwich and the sliced beef brisket sandwich, especially.

Three Li’l Pigs Barbeque in Daleville, VA – They offer several varieties of BBQ, so this is a good place to try if you want to sample a few different types.

Painting hanging over the bar inside Three Li’l Pigs Barbeque in Daleville, VA