A Cross-Country Culinary Adventure
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A Cross-Country Culinary Adventure

A Guide to Roadside Go-To Spots from Maryland to Los Angeles

With our car packed to the gills and a U-Haul attached to the back, a few thousand miles lay ahead of us as my fiancé and I began the trek from Maryland to California. We’d spent three years living on the Chesapeake Bay, and it was time to explore new places. You can travel the continental United States a million ways, passing through state and national parks, seeing historic monuments and unique sightseeing adventures, each offering its own cultural perspective and thrill.

For our tour, we traveled with food on our minds—and not just the usual gas station roulette. From friends’ recommendations to online searches, we pulled over along our journey to the Golden State, and documented the sights, sounds, and flavors of local hotspots.

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Sailor Oyster Bar

196 West Street, Annapolis, Maryland 21401

The lights are always low, and tunes from classic blues to Animal Collective groove Tuesdays through Sundays at our first stop, Sailor Oyster Bar. The close-quartered affair—with a handful of tables and a few bar stools on the lower level—is marinated in nostalgia, with posters of decades-old watermen, divers, and Navy and sailing memorabilia. And, in true nautical fashion, workers are all wearing striped uniforms.

The chef stands at his station, a large cutting board breaking up the J-shaped bar. A shucker mans the oysters to the chef’s right, while waiters and patrons converse to his left before a wall of vast liquor options. But if you don’t know which oyster offerings or craft cocktail (separated into three menus, according to strength) to order, simply ask. The staff knows their stuff. And this cozy spot does just that, with your chef just a foot away using a hand torch to char an octopus, scallop or pepper.

Spiced nuts, olives and pickles make up the snacks section of the menu, while poke, smoked trout dip, and medjool dates with gorgonzola, prosciutto and honey appear as more substantial options. Small plates serve up bright, spicy and savory flavors, and dishes like octopus with purple puréed potatoes, orange habanero peppers, green starfruit and goat cheese are as pleasing to the eye as they are the palate.

Even with all the crudo and tinned fish, salads, soups and seafood selections, the piece de resistance here are the “sammys,” namely the Merchant Marine—charcuterie and manchego with jalapeños, chive butter, and pesto sauce (aka my dying meal), and the baloney sandwich.

Fox’s Donut Den

3900 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, Tennessee 37215

From 5 a.m. to midnight, the neon open sign by the front door of Fox’s Donut Den blasts bright, signaling to cars traveling Hillsboro Pike that it’s ready for business, just as it has been for more than forty years.

Fox’s floors are checkered in black and white, while a few silver tables and diner-red vinyl chairs await the varied clientele. A long glass container filled with colorful donuts greet regulars and newcomers alike. Customers file in, placing orders for parties large and small, creating their own combinations of tried-and-true breakfast sweets. Fox’s is famous for its apple fritters, but owner Dr. Norman Fox says the place offers all the standbys.

On either side of the cash register, cabinets are filled with specialties: classic glazed doughnuts—still warm and airy and encased in crackling sugar—maple old fashioned doughnuts, chocolate and vanilla iced doughnuts, doughnuts with the sprinkles on them, and doughnuts filled with creams, jellies and custards. Not to mention the various fruit fritters (if apple ain’t your thing, cherry is a popular choice). And for the not-so-doughnut inclined, there are also massive cinnamon rolls, kolaches, bagels, biscuits and muffins.

All these confections have been made by the same man working the graveyard shift since Fox’s opened in 1973, Mr. Harold Graves. Items have been added over the years to satisfy changing palates and trends, like the croissant doughnut (here, called the “cro do”), but for the most part the fritters have stayed the same. Fortunately, Fox’s doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, because once in hand, those doughnuts don’t last long.

Folk

823 Meridian Street, Nashville, Tennessee 37207

As a follow-up to his celebrated Nashville restaurant, Rolf and Daughters, Chef/Owner Philip Krajeck has entered the hip East Nashville neighborhood with his latest effort, the pizza-focused Folk.

The hostess greets and guides patrons past the large marble bar occupied by people socializing, drinking and working on laptops. In the main dining room, tables and benches create a sense of intimacy in an open space with vintage speakers bump Kurt Vile.

Everyone in the kitchen wears the same light purple three-panel hat, apart from Krajeck, who wears green. They smile and move quickly, turning out mussel escabeche with toast, eye of goat beans with pulse vinaigrette, pork milanese, and of course, pizza. Pizzas are in and out of the oven in ninety seconds, and topped with everything from tomato and basil, to clams with bonito and chili, or heirloom peppers and smoked mozzarella. But the seasonally rotating menu means it won’t stay the same for long.

Offerings change seasonally but the pizza is always handmade with care. Like its Instagram handle, the place is @goodasfolk.

 

Goro Ramen

1634 N. Blackwelder Avenue #102, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73106

Along with co-owner Rachel Cope, Chef Jeff Chanchaleune opened Goro in 2016, less than two miles from where he grew up. He learned his way around a kitchen from his parents—one a restaurant chef and the other an avid home cook.

The front door to Goro faces Blackwelder Avenue, but notifies patrons to use the side entrance, past the outdoor seating and stringed lights. Inside, as one of the first ramen-centric restaurants in a booming food scene, Chanchaleune and his team create meals that introduce Oklahoma City residents and visitors to ramen, challenging diners with bold flavors a far cry from what they’d find at the grocery store.

The tebasaki are double-fried chicken wings coated in crunchy batter and tossed in gochujang fish caramel. Fried cauliflower is dressed with anchovy vinaigrette and a brussels sprout salad comes packed with mint and pickled fresno peppers. Still not ready for ramen? Three options of nikuman—pork belly, chicken and tofu—arrive in house-made steam buns.

And then there’s the main event. Spicy miso ramen is a chicken broth base with pork meatballs and roasted garlic miso—and it lives up to its name. For those with a palate for the flame, three types of house sauces are on hand to further amp up the heat, one of which is Chanchaleune’s mother’s “chili bomb.” Cooler options are also available, like the brothless, cold noodle ramen bowl.

For dessert, house-made ice creams change seasonally, ranging from matcha and chocolate, miso corn with blueberries, to Vietnamese coffee or cinnamon apple crumble. Goro also offers a ramen special on Mondays, which sells out fast. Check their social media to see what unique ramen is offered every week.

La Boca

72 W. Marcy Street, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501

There is as much (or more) wine, sherry and liquor as food on the menu at La Boca, but the plates—created by multi-time James Beard Award nominee Chef James Campbell Caruso—are what bring life to the Santa Fe tapas spot.

Spanish-inspired music bounces off white walls simply decorated with framed artwork of vegetables. All the seats are filled in this intimate space. Its menu changes throughout the year, but a few items are untouchable: eggs and chorizo, bruschetta and paella, and classics like croquetas and grilled octopus. But then there is the New Mexico flat iron steak with smoked sea salt caramel. It may at first seem like an unusual preparation, the but by the time they take a bite, diners are convinced of the pairing’s perfection. Savory slices of beef are met with a hint of balanced sweetness and salt, complementing the caramelizing sear.

The mojama is elegant and light, bursting with color from the yellow fin tuna, boquerones, cucumbers, preserved lemon and grilled scallion—placed in whole alongside the curated ingredients. All are to be placed on toast and consumed immediately. With each dish comes a server to describe different sherries, the traditional pairings with certain herbs and ingredients. Pastries are made in-house by Chefs Sandra Nitschke and Leslie Campbell, with flourless walnut tortes and gateau basque—a vanilla cream tart with brandied cherries and creme fraiche.

If you catch a meal on a Thursday, La Boca offers a tapas and sherry flight, during which you can devour multiple plates, enjoy new drinks, and settle into the space.

Harry’s Roadhouse

96 B Old Las Vegas Highway, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505

Sticking to Santa Fe’s vibrant style, a kaleidoscope of colors are splashed on every wall, and surface at Harry’s Roadhouse. Whatever a hungry traveler might desire can be found at the roadhouse, with three varying menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and with its massive dirt parking lot along Historic Route 66, Harry’s has enough room to seat the endless flow of customers as the old gas station-turned restaurant has expanded in size and culinary offerings.

At Harry’s food comes out fast and the coffee refills even faster. The signature blue corn waffles are topped with bananas and a healthy coating of syrup. Another breakfast to binge is the Mexican chilaquiles, a hefty dish that comes along with tomatillo salsa, cheese, eggs and black beans.

Diners young and old fill the eclectic looking restaurant, and every month new art adorns the walls by local creators for spectating or purchase. In a place where everything from walls to waffles can come in funky colors, Harry’s Roadhouse has something for everyone.

The Grande Stand, Arizona

7366 E. Shea Blvd #112, Scottsdale, Arizona 85254

The menu at The Grande Stand in Arizona isn’t expansive due to its owners Ava Garcia and Ron Ingram focusing on the idea of only doing a few things, but doing them well—namely burgers and tacos.

“Today’s taco for today’s guest,” the motto of the joint, rings true through their fresh products. Ingram says all ingredients are sourced and produced daily.

The street-style tacos, double white corn tortillas five-inches in diameter—filled with chicken, slow roasted pork, short rib or with veggies, and topped with variations of cotija and queso fresco, pickled cabbage, onions and cilantro—are similar to what would be found at Ava’s mother’s original stand, the inspiration for Garcia and Ingram’s restaurant.

Two types of tender beef patties are offered. The Standard reigns king, akin to a burger found at a backyard summer cookout topped simply with onions, tomatoes, crisp leaf lettuce, and secret sauce. The Royale, its dressed-up sibling, comes with fresh guacamole, jalapeños, bacon, and butter caramelized onions. Hotdogs, fresh-cut potato fries, chips and salsa—the spiciest being a Garcia family recipe—are available, but the menu doesn’t reach much further than that.

The bar near the front entrance—with six seats in view of a large overhead television and a window into the busy kitchen—offers primarily local brews and liquors. For those seeking sweets, super thick chocolate and vanilla milkshakes are available with an extra-wide straw for maximum ice cream intake.

 

Leo’s Taco Stand

1515 South La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, California 90019

One half of a corner on La Brea Avenue and Venice Boulevard is a Sinclair’s gas station. The other half is Leo’s Taco Truck, parked in the converted fuel respite. White plastic tables surround the old gas pump station, cars parked alongside those. It’s lunchtime, and people keep appearing to make their orders.

Leo’s offers the usual suspects ranging from tacos, burritos and quesadillas to tostadas, tortas and huaraches. All can be filled with carnitas, al pastor, chorizo tacos and the like—topped with cilantro and onions. The cash-only spot also cooks up breakfast daily with various eggs and ham, and rancheros options, as well as fresh piña or horchata fruit drinks.

Under the menu, a tray is filled with canned and bottled sodas tucked in ice. There’s a spot to pour pico de gallo and salsa verde into small plastic containers, and a group of people waiting for their meal a few steps back. When you’re order is up, your name is called over the loudspeaker. The tacos can be devoured in three generous bites, as the tortillas are small but spilling of spoils.

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