Every state plus the District of Columbia was blanketed with pins - remarkable given the investment required to access Paola, 40 miles south of Kansas City - and the name Houston was almost obliterated. I stuck a pin on Sugar Land and moved to a table where a waitress recommended I precede Briscoe Darlin's burnt ends with a 25-cent sampling of kerosene cucumbers.
There was no red 1967 Camaro convertible in the parking lot, but the TV show's impact was evident. Just as it was at the Rock Cafe in Stroud, Okla.; Cafe on the Route in Baxter Springs, Kan.; Chef Point Cafe in Watauga, Texas; and Ingrid's Kitchen Bakery & Delicatessen in an Oklahoma City residential neighborhood.
I've made road trips that focused on museums, sports events, historical landmarks and more. But driving to and from Kansas City for a conference this spring, I decided upon a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives motif, pausing for lunch not at DQs, KFCs or BKs but at "Triple Ds," as host Guy Fieri labels the eclectic eateries he profiles.
"Winner, winner, chicken dinner," Fieri likes to say.
To sum up my adventure in Fieri-speak: I was out of bounds in Flavortown.
Consider Watauga's Chef Point Cafe. Nigerian-born Chef Franson Nwaeze and his wife, Paula Merrell, operate a gourmet restaurant at a Conoco gas station in this Fort Worth suburb. What's your druthers: Unleaded and crab-stuffed blackened pork chops? Unleaded Plus and sea scallops? Diesel and rack of lamb? Oh, and how about a lottery ticket to go?
It's fitting that my favorite morsel here was "Whatnots" - otherwise known as mushroom caps stuffed with three cheeses and baked in garlic butter.
What's not to like about Chef Point? And there is a logical explanation for combining petrol with lobster bisque. Merrell explains that at the outset (2003), she and her husband couldn't procure a sufficient loan to open a restaurant, but their loan application for a gas station was approved. And if they could sell soda and chips inside, they may as well build a kitchen and market Alfredo pizza rumble and escargot.
Chef Point generated considerable attention before Fieri arrived, but the Triple D effect is staggering: "Our business grew more than 300 percent from 2008 to 2009," Merrell says.
In Oklahoma City, Ingrid's Kitchen has an even deeper pedigree with a faithful clientele built over three decades. Now, legions of out-of-towners negotiate streets just north of downtown Oklahoma City to savor schnitzel, sauerbraten and snickerdoodle. Take your pick: bratwurst, knockwurst, liverwurst, beerwurst. Bakers prepare almost 40 varieties of bread. Allow time and tummy space, too, for dessert - but how to choose among cappuccino chocolate muffins, raspberry cream puffs, piñ a colada cakes and Dutch apple pies?
Paola's BBQ Shack also has experienced a dramatic surge. Like more than 30 percent of the 350 eateries showcased since the TV series began in 2007, the BBQ Shack was detailed in one of Fieri's books, More Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which, along with Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: An All-American Road Trip With Recipes, was No. 1 for weeks on the New York Times' best-seller list. This exposure prompted owner Rick Schoenberger to shutter his original shack and move to a larger location.
The BBQ Shack has its fun story, too. Turns out Schoenberger is captivated by characters in TV's The Andy Griffith Show. Thus, the menu includes Barney's Cock-a-Doodle-Do Chicken Tenders, Goober's Baked Beans and Otis Campbell Onion Rings.
Fieri's favorites here included jalapeñ o poppers, which combine fresh jalapeñ o peppers grown in Schoenberger's home garden with smoked cream cheese. I didn't get to pop them - the kerosene cucumbers already had numbed me. Besides, I was cautious. As Fieri quoted one customer in his More Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives book, "I send my heavyweight wrestlers down here to gain weight." It's easily accomplished, too: With advance notice, Schoenberger will smoke an entire hog.
The Rock Cafe and Cafe on the Route share two bonds: Like the BBQ Shack, both anchor otherwise unsung mid-America towns with fewer than 5,000 residents - Stroud in central Oklahoma and Baxter Springs at Kansas' southeast corner, a short drive from Missouri and Oklahoma. More significant to history buffs, both were staples along renowned Route 66; indeed, the Rock Cafe was built from rocks used in Route 66's construction during the 1920s.
Undeterred by a fire in 2008, current proprietor Dawn Wells rebuilt with respect to the original cafe - and her menu ranges from German-style spaetzel to mixed berry crepes.
Cafe on the Route occupies the ground floor of a former bank robbed by Jesse James in 1876. The dwelling's newest notoriety is due to chef-owners Richard and Amy Sanell, who show - as do many of Fieri's subjects - that quality cuisine isn't limited to the big city.
I may return for another helping of Sanell's almond-crusted catfish. Or will I be tempted by Aztec chicken with shrimp, bacon, avocados, chiles and rum? Fried potato salad - that's right, deep-fried and mixed with mayo and mustard - is a must-order side dish.
"Being on the show has been great for us," Amy Sanell says. "We had a nice business before; now we have a great business. After the show first aired, we had a guy from California come in. He said he was so intrigued by the show he decided to jump on his motorcycle and drove to Kansas just to eat. They come from all over the U.S."
A 1,600-mile road trip like mine isn't required to enjoy a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives experience. The show has profiled seven Houston-area eateries, from Bob's Taco Station in Rosenberg to T-Bone Tom's Steakhouse in Kemah. Overall, Fieri has visited 24 Texas establishments. But you'll find that the red convertible has preceded you to almost every state. Fieri abandoned the car only long enough to present episodes from Hawaii this season.
One suggestion: Prepare to be flexible. These aren't McDonald's. At the Rock Cafe, alligator burgers and buffalo burgers - each exalted by Fieri - were on my priority list. Neither was available that day. Aztec chicken is a signature item on Cafe of the Route's dinner menu, but not at lunch when I visited. And hours before my visit to the BBQ Shack, the deep-fryer had, in our waitress' words, "blown out." No Otis Campbell rings.
On the other hand, there were mouth-watering surprises such as Ingrid's Kitchen's snickerdoodle cookies. I bought a dozen for the road.
Wherever you point your car, you'll likely find the grub good, the stories fascinating and the personalities warm and welcoming.
Here are tips to get you started on a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives adventure:
Where to go: The Food Network’sWeb site website (foodtv.com) lists establishments profiled on every episode. You’ll find recipes for 100 of host Guy Fieri’s favorite dishes. Also valuable online are two dedicated “fan sites”: flavortownusa.com, with videos of all episodes, maps and an invitation to “tell Guy where to go” for future shows; and iloveflavortown.com, with videos and viewer recommendations.
Plotting your route: Some establishments are in or near cities, or otherwise easily accessed. Cafe on the Rock in Stroud, Okla., is just off Interstate 44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsabetween Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Others are well off the beaten path. MapQuest (mapquest.com) is your best friend, but I’ll concede to temporary madness when I arrived in Paola, Kan., to find the original BBQ Shack shuttered. A friendly convenience store clerk got me oriented.
Books: Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives: An All-American Road Trip With Recipes and More Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives are published by William Morrow. Nondiscounted prices are $19.99 and $19.95, respectively. Each book profiles more than 50 eateries, region-by-region. I enjoyed the 31 pages of anecdotes and other background in the second book (which includes Cafe on the Route and the BBQ Shack).
Your tour guide: Guy Fieri won The Next Food Network Star competition in 2006. He now hosts three shows on that network and also hosted a prime-time game show on NBC. Check guyfieri.com for more background.
Flavortown at home: Area restaurants covered in Fieri’s show to date are Cafe Pita, Kenny & Ziggy’s, Lankford Grocery & Market, Niko Niko’s and the Red Lion Pub, all in Houston; Bob’s Taco Station in Rosenberg; and T. Bone Tom’s Steakhouse in Kemah. Austin, San Antonio and Dallas also are well-represented in the series. View all these episodes at flavortownusa.com. Austin, San Antonio and Dallas also are well-represented in the series.
BBQ Shack: 1613 E. Peoria St. in Paola, Kan. (thebbqshack.com).
Cafe on the Route: 1101 Military Ave. in Baxter Springs, Kan. (cafeontheroute.com).
Chef Point Cafe: 5901 Watauga Road in Watauga, Texas (chefpointcafe.org).
Ingrid’s Kitchen Bakery & Delicatessen: 3701 N. Youngs Blvd. in Oklahoma City (ingridskitchen.com).
Rock Cafe: 114 Main St. in Stroud, Okla. (oklahomaroute66.com).