Monday, June 14, 2021

Biff Inquiry: Failed Fortunes

Hi Everybody! Zap here. Today's Broken Chains post was written by a guest author. My new pal Peter was nice enough to visit the last location of the old Biff-Burger chain that still uses the Biff-Burger name. His account of his visit is below:

No matter how long you park your carcass in a given locale, chances are pretty good there’s a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. It might be a patch of greenspace, a historical monument, a parking lot from where the sunsets are given an unreasonably pretty view. Having lived in the greater Tampa Bay area for longer than I’d like to admit, I find myself pleasantly surprised time and time again by something I’ve been overlooking until a chance encounter.

Thus, when I hear from Zap Actionsdower that a building I’ve passed by perhaps hundreds of times is one of the final remnants of a chain that’s been largely forgotten to the ravages of time and expanding multinational corporate dominance in fast food, I make a plan to find out what it’s all about. When I finally roll into the Biff-Burger in St. Petersburg (3939 49th St N) on an early Wednesday evening*, I have certain expectations. Logically, I know expectations are often impossible to meet, but I hold them anyway.

I can’t say with any certainty what this particular Biff-Burger was like when it first opened. A requisite archival search of the local papers doesn’t seem to note its establishment, though it’s hard to be surprised that a burger stand opening in an era where such fares were common wouldn’t have warranted even a passing mention. Given that the chain was founded locally and eventually covered perhaps hundreds of locations, it wouldn’t have been anything special then.

The beautiful, angular “Biff-Burger” sign, dated by the font every bit as much as its shape and complete with an old-style marquee, still peers out over 49th Ave N. The facade could probably use a good cleaning and a paint touchup, but even a newer, completely mismatched and haphazardly mounted sign beneath it (proclaiming a “World Famous Biff Burger” — where’s the dash between “Biff” and “Burger”?) fails to dampen its charm and splendor. There’s a feeling that it must have been meticulously maintained for quite some time, though possibly not recently (as hinted at by the vegetation growing out of it).

The original building (or, at least, what I believe must be the original building) is intact. The lovely red, white, and blue diamond-festooned gable is as inviting as any feature I can recall for a burger joint and it hints at what one must hope would be an era-appropriate interior. It’s underlined by a red and white metal awning. Judging by the pictures on the website, the building appears to have once been Biff-Burger’s “Port-A-Unit” from the early 60’s, pretty heavily modified over time to create enclosed space. Looking rightward reveals the results of what must have felt like an inexorable march of long-term changes: an enclosed dining room (that is likely not actually part of the original building; I’m no architectural or interior design expert, but it feels different than the rest of the building); a covered porch dining area; a long, covered bar that incorporates a line of palm trees into the corrugated metal awning; and another small free-standing building that advertises the “other” dining feature: Buffy’s Bar-B-Que & Catering (topped with a kitschy-in-a-good-way replica of a “57 Chevy”). My interest in making this journey isn’t in the bar, the bar-b-que, or in the myriad of possibly interesting architectural tales and bespoke design decisions of the property, however. I’m after a straight-forward burger experience.

Immediately opposite the front door, the counter presents a variety of mixed visuals. The old-school menu board behind the counter is superseded and obscured by newer LCD menu boards. An assortment of awards and clippings from newspapers about the quality of their burgers is scattered about, taped on various windows or propped up on random surfaces; perhaps worryingly, none of these kudos seem to be any newer than about 5 years ago. Next to the door, making a surprise appearance, is an old-school cigarette vending machine, and I certainly cannot recall the last time I’ve seen that. Seen in the kitchen through the countertop windows is the usual assortment of implements: deep fryers, flat tops, etc. Unfortunately, the location of the “Roto-Broiler” that is considered to be Biff-Burger’s signature cooking apparatus isn’t immediately obvious. 

I have plenty of time to pursue the menu: There is a single person tending to the entirety of the kitchen and (as I eventually find out) two wait staff patrolling the bar. Although there are few patrons inside, a steady stream of drivers from food delivery services and the handful of people ordering outside at the bar mean I am left standing at the counter for at least 10 minutes before one of the wait staff is able to come in and take my order. Perhaps it would be easier for me to join the bar patrons as they eagerly engage in karaoke (to paraphrase from Citizen Kane: Their singing, happily, is no concern of this department), but avoiding groups has become my default over the last 16 months or so, and I am in no mood to change that this day.
The interior dining area appears to be enclosed from the once-open overhang of the building. The booths (and they’re all booths in this area) are a mixture of faux-wood veneer along with orange and yellow laminate that to me suggests they were installed somewhere in the late 70’s or early 80’s. The kitsch adorning the walls might be excessive in another setting, but seem rather natural given the already crowded environs. A number of the tabletops include signs requesting patrons not sit there, even though all mandatory COVID-related restrictions have been lifted by the state government. You could imagine that Biff-Burger’s management has decided to retain some of those for the sake of their customers, but given the cleanliness (or lack thereof) of the tables, I’d posit that it’s equally as likely they have forgotten that those signs are still there, or just can’t be bothered to take the time to remove them.

Looking to remain close to Biff-Burger’s roots, I order a “Cheese Biff Deluxe” (the “Deluxe” indicating the addition of lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, pickle, and onion), making it a platter with the addition of either fries or tots as well as a side of either beans or slaw (I choose the tots and the slaw, pretending for a moment that the inclusion of vegetables in the slaw somehow makes this entire endeavor slightly less unhealthy). I round this out with my usual beverage of choice: an unsweetened iced tea**. Several minutes later, I am summoned back to the counter to pick up my meal (table service appears to be reserved for patrons outside at the bar).

To say that I am underwhelmed by the presentation would be a mild rebuke, and I am willing to attribute that to the presence of only that single person tending the entirety of the food preparation line. It is possible, of course, that the taste might belie the lackluster appearance of the not-entirely-clean plastic serving tray and the handful of not-entirely-unsticky ketchup packets. After all, who among us hasn’t had something absolutely incredible from a greasy diner, or at least a better than expected sandwich from an otherwise unremarkable fast food joint? I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, that’s where the graciousness allowed by the otherwise nostalgic or understandable deficiencies comes to an end. The food, simply put, is not good. The patty on the Cheese Biff is probably about 2 oz. of overcooked charcoal. The so-called “Biff Sauce” that such burgers are supposedly dipped in after cooking does nothing to restore any moistness. If I had to venture a reason for this, I’d guess it’s that the Roto-Broiler is calibrated to cook the bigger patties used in the larger, specialty burgers, and these smaller patties simply don’t stand a chance. The tater tots, while seemingly cooked for an appropriate amount of time (though I might prefer them to be a bit crispier) are cooked in oil that may be stretched out approximately three changes too long. The coleslaw is simply tasteless generic mayonnaise with cabbage for texture. It is among the most disappointing fast food experiences I can recall; that’s a low bar to hurdle, too. The BIFF (“Best in Fast Food”) in Biff-Burger, alas, turns out to be a DIFF.
However, just like there may be something to Jerry Lewis’ purported popularity in France, maybe there’s something here I’m simply missing. Biff-Burger hosts what seems to be regular bike nights and classic car shows, which I’m led to believe are quite popular. Their specialty burgers might be a step above, and these smaller, classic burgers may still be on the menu only for the sake of maintaining expectations; what’s Biff-Burger without a “Cheese Biff Deluxe”, after all? Perhaps that solitary employee running the kitchen all by themself is as stressed and overworked as so many of us, and just isn’t able to put their best effort forward on this particular day.

St. Petersburg is awash in high-end burger options among the multitude of great dining experiences — both high-end and low-brow — in the city’s relatively recent emergence as a food center. If you want buzzwords around your “sandwich consisting of one or more cooked patties of ground beef inside a sliced bread roll or bun” like “wagyu”, “prime”, “akaushi”, “artisanal”, I promise you don’t have to go far around here to get it. If you want recommendations, I’ll give you several within a 15-minute drive of Biff-Burger. At the same time, I want to give Biff-Burger another chance. In part, it’s because I desperately want to see classic and under-appreciated brands like this succeed. I believe there’s a place in this scene for a straight-forward, unpretentious burger joint. I am, however, going to wait for a time when they’re hopefully better-staffed and recovered from the pandemic-influenced stupor so many of us are only now starting to emerge from. Just to be safe, though, I think I’ll check their inspection record before I try the next time.

*Truth be told, I’ve actually been to Biff-Burger once before, in a possibly ill-advised intra-pandemic visit that was, frankly, unmemorable. Whether this is due to the stress and anxiety of the time or rather due to my own usual faulty memory, I cannot adequately express.

**Whereas carbonated soft drinks are largely uniform in flavor across establishments that serve the same products (e.g., a fountain Coca-Cola from Wendy’s should taste the same as one from McDonald’s, etc.), iced tea can actually tell a diner something about the restaurant: Is it over-brewed? Has it been sitting too long? Is it brewed on-site or is it an instant or fountain abomination like Nestea?

Thanks Peter! 

If you, the reader, liked this post, be sure to check out Peter's podcast, Diggin' With Peter, at this link or on your favorite podcatcher. -Zap

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Death Awaits Us All

One of my earliest fast food memories was sitting at a tiny table under an anthropomorphic fiberglass apple tree opposite the ball pit, chowing down on my McNugget Happy Meal at my local McDonald’s. Another is pulling a free lollipop out of the hollow midsection of a seemingly larger than life Shoney Bear standee that towered over me at Shoney’s. Before the flame of my childlike wonder was snuffed out by a cynical world, I was mystified by a group of Chi-Chi’s employees gathered around my family’s table singing “Hey it’s your birthday” to the tune of “La Cucaracha” when I turned four. Across the street from the Lexington, Kentucky Chi-Chi’s at Darryl’s, sitting in the booth situated in an antique birdcage style elevator car was, and still is one of the highlights of my childhood. These early memories instilled in me an appreciation for a touch of whimsy in a dining experience. Well into my young adulthood a favorite weekend destination was Lambert’s Cafe, where hot yeasty rolls were thrown by servers from across the expansive dining room and customers would attempt, often successfully, to catch them at their tables. Now as a paunchy restaurant blogger with a mortgage and a bald spot, I find my favorite experiences are at restaurants that make a sincere attempt to make the dining experience fun and memorable. I was therefore excited to revisit Friendly’s.

I discovered Friendly’s a decade or so ago on a trip to a large antique mall housed in a former Hills department store in Northwestern Ohio. The size of the store and the long duration of the modern day treasure hunt that took place there meant that my companions and I would need to eat two meals nearby, so naturally we had both breakfast and lunch at the Friendly’s situated in an outlot of the former Hills. It was my first experience with the Friendly’s brand, and I was instantly a fan. Everything about the place was specifically curated to exude an aura of fun. The whimsically styled Cape Cod style building, the brightly colored drums of ice cream on display as you walked in the door, and the imaginative menu items were all designed to signal to diners that they were in a fun, friendly place. I recall having a fairly conventional breakfast that day, but marveled at the images of stacks of pancakes topped with ice cream on the menu. When I returned later in the day, I found the lunch menu just as novel. Everything had a unique and memorable name. Shakes were called Fribbles. There was something called a Fishamajig. It was the first time I had seen a burger that used grilled cheese sandwiches for buns, and indeed, that was exactly what I ordered before concluding the meal with two scoops of maple nut ice cream in a waffle cone brought to my table in a metal holder designed to keep the cone upright. I felt as if I had discovered a magical place. 

What I didn’t know at the time was that Friendly’s was on the verge of bankruptcy, which they officially declared in 2011. All Ohio locations closed not much later along with many others. History repeated itself last year when Friendly’s declared its second Chapter 11 flavor bankruptcy in less than a decade, but the chain has its roots in tough times. In 1935 brothers Prestley and Curtis Blake opened the Friendly ice cream shop in Springfield, Massachusetts at the height of the Great Depression. One shop became two shortly thereafter, and following World War Two, Friendly became a full blown restaurant chain gaining an apostrophe and S in the process to keep branding in line with what locals called the place. The chain peaked at over 800 locations. The Blake Brothers would retire and sell the Friendly’s empire to Hershey Foods in 1979, but both would live long enough to see the company declare bankruptcy at least once after bouncing around different owners over the next four decades. Curtis Blake died at age 102 in 2019, and his brother Prestley died earlier this year at the age of 106, mere weeks after it was announced that the restaurant investment firm Amici Partners Group LLC would be purchasing Friendly’s out of bankruptcy and supporting the remaining 119 locations mostly located in the Northeast and Midatlantic regions. 

A friendly place under a foreboding sky

Circumstances were such last week that I had a chance to travel to Maryland, home to what are now the nearest Friendly’s locations to me in Metro Detroit. My schedule allowed for only one stop, but I was determined to make it count. I settled on the Friendly’s in the Perry Hall area on the outskirts of Baltimore because it was a vintage freestanding Cape Cod building. It was a little bit further away from me than the bland strip mall location in Hagerstown, but the architecture more than justified the additional drive time. It was an unseasonably cold, damp, dreary day in late May when I arrived for breakfast on a Saturday morning. I had risen at 4 AM that day and driven 5 hours through the dark and fog to be there after attending a funeral the day before. I was ready for some classic Friendly’s brand whimsy to lighten my mood which was as dreary as the gray sky that hung over the Charm City. 

A photo from back before Friendly's got all possessive 

An adequate breakfast, proficiently prepared, but where's the flair?

I walked past the deserted outdoor serving window which would have been jammed with customers ordering ice cream to go on a warmer day and into the front door of the little Cape Cod, where I was quickly shown to a booth and handed a menu by a personable hostess/waitress. I reviewed the breakfast offerings with dismay to find there were no ice cream-topped pancakes to be found. Nothing looked whimsical or over the top. It was just a regular breakfast menu with regular boring breakfast food. Mildly disappointed, I ordered the silliest sounding thing I could, the “Big-Two-Do” and surveyed my surroundings. They were pleasant enough with photos of vintage Friendly’s locations on one wall and a mural of a stylized Fribble on another. The place at least looked fun. 

Want an easy laugh? Read this in your best old time radio announcer voice. 

Delicious is not an overstatement. Fun is, unless you follow breakfast with ice cream. 

Concluding my perfectly adequate but in no way distinctive breakfast, I reviewed the ice cream menu on my phone with the help of a handy QR code at my table and found that like the ice cream topped pancakes, my beloved maple nut flavor was gone from the menu. When my server returned, I ordered two scoops of the butter crunch flavor after she assured me that it wasn’t overly weird to order ice cream after breakfast. I was there to have fun after all. The ice cream that arrived a short while later in an old fashioned metal dish was my favorite part of the meal. The sweet yellow buttery scoops interspersed with crunchy bits of toffee was simple as ice cream goes, but the flavor was solid. Butter and sugar are the basis of literally every delicious baked good, so why shouldn’t there be an ice cream flavor based entirely around the combination? It was the perfect blend of whimsical, old fashioned, and excessive that I associate with the Friendly’s brand, but just as I was finishing scoop one and moving onto the second, I heard two members of the staff discussing the recent death of their former longtime manager. The spectre of doom and gloom had nearly caught up to me once again. 

This is what fun looks like. 

I had managed to find a little bit of joy in the new, austere Friendly’s menu, toned down by a pair of bankruptcies that came amid the deaths of their founders whose longevity was all the more remarkable given how much time they likely spent making, and eating ice cream. The over the top menu items were gone. The ice cream flavor list was shortened. My drive time to the nearest location had increased by a factor of six thanks to widespread closures, but there was still fun to be had. The flavor and texture of the ice cream was just enough to drown out the depressing conversation I was overhearing, and I still managed to leave in a noticeably better mood than when I had arrived. I think that’s the magic of Friendly’s. Even in its diminished state on an unseasonably cold and gloomy day at what I hope is the tail end of a cold and gloomy era with reminders of inevitable death lurking around every corner, a decent breakfast and couple scoops of ice cream brought to my table by a server whose demeanor lived up to the name of the establishment were enough to elevate my mood. Having been founded in the Great Depression, Friendly’s was born into the darkness and shaped by it, and just as they managed to cheer up the down and out Massholes that darkened their doorway in those early desperate days, they had done the same for me, a bucktoothed Kentucky hillbilly transplanted to the stagnant potholes of Michigan. Perhaps thanks to their roots in the depression, they’ve seemingly weathered the various storms better than their direct competitors. 

Sound medical advice.  

The similarly Massachusetts-born Howard Johnson restaurant brand barely still exists, with only one sporadically open restaurant location still using the name, but bearing little resemblance to what most would associate with the HoJo brand. Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, a similar outfit that operated mostly on the west coast closed their last location a couple of years ago. If there’s a restaurant and ice cream parlor poised to defy death for an implausibly long time just as their founders did, it’s Friendly’s, and they’ll probably have fun doing it. After all, the feeling we call fun, at its core, is little more than a fleeting distraction from the fact that we are all going to die someday. We might as well enjoy a hearty meal, perhaps with a silly name, and some ice cream in a whimsically styled building while we wait out the inevitable. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021


Over the past year, I’ve done a lot more cooking for myself and my partner than I ordinarily would have otherwise. The food that we would eat that we didn't cook was delivered either through a drive through or at our doorstep by a delivery driver. While food procured in this manner served to scratch an itch for dining out, there was a clear dearth of emphasis on food presentation and freshness. It was in pursuit of a memorable presentation of freshly prepared food that I planned a stop at an MCL cafeteria on my recent trip through Indiana. I didn’t even plan on writing about that MCL meal because I had previously covered a different MCL in Ohio, but Uncle Alligator, patron deity of broken restaurant chains, had other plans for me. 

My original plan was to stop by Powers Hamburgers in Fort Wayne, the final location of a family owned chain of slider stands in Michigan and Indiana, on my way out to Terre Haute where I would eat at both Taco Casita, and a local MCL. I also planned on stopping by Miami Grill (aka Miami Subs) in Fort Wayne to see if that location had reopened since it announced a temporary closure last year. When I arrived at Powers Hamburgers late on a Saturday morning, I found the building dark and unoccupied during what should have been its operating hours indicated by both a sign on the door and Google. (The latter still shows the business as operational almost two weeks later, so I’m hopeful that Powers Hamburgers hasn’t closed for good.) 

"Eat here, get gas" is the wittiest caption I can come up with. 

Since Google had been wrong about Powers being open, I thought it was at least possible that they had also been wrong about the Miami Grill across town being closed, so my next stop was the Marathon gas station that shares space with the Midwest’s only Miami Grill. Unfortunately, I found in that case, Google had been correct. While signage was still in place, the restaurant had clearly been closed for quite a while. Disappointed, I sulked away. It was as I was driving past the mom and pop restaurant that now occupies what was until recently the last operating Azar’s Big Boy, that I decided I needed to formulate a new plan that would get me out of Fort Wayne. 

Much like a hermit crab, Top Notch Diner has moved into the discarded shell of the dearly departed Azar's Big Boy. 

While they have shrunk by 50% or so in recent years thanks to being predominantly located in or near shopping malls, the 13 unit cafeteria chain whose full name is “MCL Restaurant and Bakery” still has a strong presence in central Indiana. I decided that I would use my new found free time in the Hoosier state to experience a few different MCL locations to get a better feel for what they had to offer in terms of food and experience. Despite a few shortcomings, I looked back fondly at the one meal I had experienced previously at a Columbus area MCL, thanks in part to a lifelong love for old school cafeteria dining. Feeling ever hungrier, I plotted a course to Muncie, Indiana’s imaginatively named Muncie Mall, home of an increasingly rare mall-based MCL location. 

The Muncie MCL is located just inside a portal back to 1994. 

Meal #1 

Location: MCL Restaurant and Bakery Muncie Mall, Muncie, Indiana (One-time home of Norville Barnes, fictional inventor of the Hula Hoop) 

Order: Stuffed chicken, corn on the cob, coleslaw, deviled eggs, blueberry muffin, macaroni and cheese, coconut cream pie, Diet Mountain Dew

A disused MCL takeout counter

I arrived a short while later, driving into the mall parking lot, past the empty shell of what had once been a Sears. I parked, and walked through the once grand, but now decaying 1990s facade of the mall entrance with more than half of its doors marked “Out of order,” though it’s not clear if this was due to deferred building maintenance or social distancing measures. A non-operational MCL takeout counter greeted me nearly immediately as I walked into the mall. I found it curious for MCL to not be offering separate takeout service given the current climate. I shrugged and walked on to the main restaurant entrance, which looked like a residential house that was in the process of being birthed by the very mall that surrounds it. 

This mall has a house in it. 

Good luck breaking through to the other side with these doors. 

After dinner, some kids from Gertie's granddaughter's school are going to sing for us. 

I found the restaurant’s interior similar to what I had encountered in Ohio; elegant but sedate decor befitting a nursing home or funeral parlor, along with a serving line with the day’s specials written on a chalkboard. My favorite thing about cafeterias is the way that food is presented in the serving line, all the offerings of the day freshly prepared, looking bright and vibrant. In addition to being good marketing, it makes a cafeteria meal feel premium and like an event, a welcome experience after a long hiatus from such culinary events. Having fasted since early in the previous evening I was quite hungry, and I left the serving line $20 poorer but with an overloaded tray to show for it. As I found a seat, I recalled an old Vaudeville joke I heard  on a tape of Abbott and Costello bits I’d listened to as a kid. “Marriage is like eating at a cafeteria, take what you want and pay for it later!” I began to ponder if as a never-married 35 year old I’d internalized that pernicious bit of misogyny from my childhood, but my server interrupted my anxiety spiral by plopping salt and pepper shakers down on my table and asked if she could bring me anything else. I requested some butter for my corn, and she replied, “No problem at all,” repeating the phrase again when I thanked her upon her return with the requested condiment. With every subsequent thank you from me following drink refills and clearing of empty plates, she repeated the same “No problem at all” to the point where it began to lose all meaning. I wondered if it was a company mandated alternative to “You’re welcome” in the vein of Chick-fil-A’s vaguely sexual “My pleasure,” but mercifully, I didn’t hear it from any other MCL staff for the remainder of the trip. 

My view of the serving line; I'm intrigued by the burgers stewing in their own juices in the foreground. I'll have to give them a try next time. 

Largely, the food was a welcome reprieve from the year of squashed burgers, soggy fries, and warm salads I’d just experienced. The stuffed chicken tasted like the essence of Thanksgiving, though I’d swear the gravy wasn’t as orange at the MCL I’d visited in Ohio. The coleslaw and deviled eggs tasted just like the ones my Granny Nova Scotia Actionsdower made on the regular, though her devout faith compelled her to call them “Dressed eggs.” The corn on the cob was sadly room temperature, but it was clear it was freshly prepared. If insufficient temperature is the price I have to pay for some bone-in corn that has never seen the inside of a freezer or microwave, it seems worth it. The mac and cheese was passable, as it was the last time I got it at MCL. No mac and cheese will ever surpass Morrison’s Cafeteria, yet I find myself chasing that dragon with every cafeteria I visit. The blueberry muffin was clearly also prepared from scratch and contained actual whole blueberries. Coconut cream pie is one of my go-to desserts, and I’m not exaggerating when I say MCL’s is the best I’ve ever had. It’s sweet coconutty filling and light meringue topped with just enough toasted coconut led me to finishing the whole thing though I was already very full. I left, laden with the best meal I’d had in months and the assurance that my presence was “No problem at all.” The closed Powers Hamburgers and Miami Grill I’d encountered that morning felt like distant memories. It was going to be a good trip after all. 

A movable feast, you know, because of the tray. 

Meal #2 

Location: Meadows Shopping Center, Terre Haute, Indiana (Birthplace of Scatman Crothers) 

Order: Small Cobb salad, hot roll, strawberry shortcake, sweet tea

The exterior of the Terre Haute MCL matches the brutalist aesthetic of the rest of its strip mall neighbors...

...but the dining room is pleasant enough

I had a touch of deja vu from my previous stop in Muncie as I arrived at the enclosed strip mall housing the Terre Haute MCL, driving past a recently closed Stein Mart that had once been the one of the shopping center’s anchors. I walked straight into the MCL serving line feeling not especially hungry, less than three hours after my giant meal at the Muncie Mall MCL. I picked up only a beautiful looking bestriped Cobb salad that came with three little cups of dressing handed to me on a separate plate, an individual portion of strawberry shortcake, and a hot yeasty roll. I'd like to take a moment to talk about the roll in particular. 

All the pretty salads. 

In my original MCL post, I took them to task for not serving hot bread. I realized after eating at the Terre Haute MCL that the bread products on the serving line are merely for display. If you tell the person working the line which of the displayed bread items you want, they’ll reach into a heated drawer on the wall behind them and pull out a hot but otherwise identical example of your selection, and hot MCL bread is vastly superior to cold MCL bread. (If anyone from MCL is reading this paragraph, please consider it my retraction and sincere apology.) It was this realization and guilt related to my unfair criticism that was occupying a significant portion of my brain’s processing power as I autopiloted my body toward a seat this time around. 

A light (second) lunch 

An equally pleasant but less repetitive server again interrupted my overly analytic introspection and brought me my salt, pepper and butter. A distaste for bleu cheese usually prevents me from ordering Cobb salads, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a stripe of shredded cheddar on top of MCL’s offerings instead. The freshly cooked bits of bacon, chicken, and hard boiled egg also adorning the top of the salad were perfectly cooked, and the Christmassy colored stripes of green onion and tomato served to balance the flavors and textures nicely as well. As I picked up my first few forkfuls, the salad did what good Cobb salads do, and exploded all over the table, throwing bits of saladly flotsam and jetsam about the immediate vicinity. In retrospect, I should have placed the plate holding the little cups of pleasantly citrusy vinaigrette dressing under the bowl to catch the errant salad chunks. The strawberry shortcake was not what I was used to. I grew up eating a runny, chunky sauce made of chopped and slightly mashed strawberries and sugar over a dense, dry, not terribly sweet biscuity “cake.” MCL’s take on strawberry shortcake is a slice of sweet and soft white cake that bears no resemblance to an American biscuit covered in a sauce of unmashed sliced strawberries in a bright red syrupy glaze. It was drastically different than the strawberry shortcake I’m used to, but was no less good, and the carefully placed dollops of homemade whipped cream on top leant itself well to the elegant but approachable image MCL has cultivated for itself. Having had all the mildly fancy MCL food I could handle for one day, I hunkered down for the night in Terre Haute, preparing for a third and final MCL stop the next day. 

Meal #3 

Location: MCL Restaurant and Bakery in what looks like a large house just outside of the Merchant’s Square Shopping center, Carmel, Indiana (Carmel is *probably* named after the way unpretentious people pronounce “Caramel.”)

Order: Freshly carved ham (topped with hot cherries for some reason), broccoli and cheese sauce, more corn on the cob, ambrosia salad, devils’ food cake, sweet tea

To borrow a Mr. Delicious-era Rax slogan, "MCL, You can eat here!"

A mild to moderately fancy interior

Like the first freestanding MCL I visited a couple of years ago in Ohio, the Carmel, Indiana location would have been easy to miss were I not seeking it out specifically. It incongruously stands near a shopping center newer and more vibrant than the last two in a building that simply looks like a big brick house uprooted from a posh subdivision and dropped among various trendy and equally posh retailers. The only apparent exterior signage is a vague MCL logo plastered on only one side of the building. To the average passerby, the location would barely register as a business, and would not be at all recognizable as a place that serves food. Once I was through the parking lot that has the appearance of a paved-over residential lawn and past the large, inviting front porch I was inside the building. I was greeted by the least mild, mildly fancy MCL interior I’d encountered on the whole trip, and a serving line just opening up for the day. 

A good cafeteria puts the desserts early in the serving line. You're more likely to pick one up before selecting your entree. 

Ham, cherries, and the like. 

For what are as likely as not to be deep seated psychological reasons, I was craving ham that Sunday morning on the drive in from Terre Haute, and I was happy to see ham being carved on the serving line after I had picked up a bowl of ambrosia salad. Much to my surprise and delighted confusion, the woman carving the ham asked if I wanted cherries on it. Morbid curiosity compelled me to respond in the affirmative, and a ladleful of what looked like, and essentially was hot cherry pie filling was dumped on my freshly carved ham slices. I selected chees├Ęd broccoli and another corn bone as my sides. I found no one manning the bread station, and now knowing better than to grab a display bread item, my social anxiety compelled me to forego bread entirely rather than beckoning to an employee working the line. I corrected my unfortunate carbohydrated deprivation with a slice of devil’s food cake that:

If black forest cake is chocolate cake with cherries, does that mean Black Forest ham is meat to be ham with cherries?

A. Granny Nova Scotia would certainly not have approved of, for reasons including not limited to the name, as I’ll be discussing shortly. 

B. Conjured the millennial cultural touchstone that is that one scene in the movie, Matilda. You know the one I mean, assuming you were born in the last couple decades of the previous century.  

Once I’d found a suitable seat and requested the usual accouterments from my server, I was pleasantly surprised to find that cherry pie filling pairs well with ham. The salty, sweet, and sour flavors played nicely together, even more so than a more conventional pineapple ham topping would have. I suspect that cherry-topped ham is some dated semi-fancy presentation that has fallen by the wayside everywhere other than the marvelously dated and semi-fancy MCL. Thankfully, the corn was actually hot this time around, and tasted just as fresh as it did in Muncie. The broccoli tasted like broccoli, and unfortunately, what appeared to be a made from scratch cheese sauce had little flavor and didn’t adhere well to the surface of the broccoli stalks and buds. I was surprised to find the ambrosia salad had yogurt in it rather than the more customary whipped cream, or dare I say, Cool Whip. It was a pleasant enough side dish and palate cleanser, but less of a dessert than I was expecting. Then again, the ham was more of a dessert than I was expecting, so it all evens out. The devils food cake made me forget about the less than perfect side dishes. It was perfect, moist and rich with a made from scratch chocolate icing. It was the kind of cake that you want to use as a pillow, gradually devouring it as you nap, having the sweetest dreams of your life, dreams that would cause you to exclaim, “My pleasure!” even if you don’t work at Chick-fil-A. What I meant to say is that it was good cake, and I take back everything bad I ever said about MCL’s baked goods, and for that matter most of the bad things I’ve ever said about MCL in general. 

This trip made me realize that I love MCL. It’s a close second to Morrison’s in the pantheon of broken cafeteria chains, and the closest thing I can get to Morrison’s without taking another trip to the last operating one at the far end of Alabama. I drove home knowing I had made the most of a weekend on the road, even if it didn't go exactly as planned. I even stopped in Fort Wayne on the way home for some ice cream at my favorite Zesto to show the city I harbored no hard feelings toward it as the result of my thwarted weekend plans. 

The mad scientist L.A.M Phelan's gift to Northeast Indiana

My newfound love for MCL has led to me planning a stop at the Kettering, Ohio MCL on my upcoming trip down I-75 to Kentucky, and I’m not even planning on writing about it, unless that stop leads me down the rabbit hole of visiting every operating MCL, which knowing my proclivities, I’m very likely to do eventually. In the meantime, if you ever find yourself hungry in Central Indiana, the suburbs of Columbus or Dayton, Ohio, or in Springfield, Illinois, a slightly anachronistic and well above average meal awaits you at a nearby MCL. Do yourself a favor and check them out. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

You Don't Have to Call it Taco Tico

Up until the beginning of last year, I made efforts to maintain a relatively timeless tone in my writing, keeping my posts about places I’ve visited divorced from current events as much as possible and allowing my writing to exist in a similar way to many of the surviving locations of broken chains do, in an apparent vacuum isolated from the world around them, operating has they have for decades. Circumstances later on in the year made operating in that manner impossible for both restaurants and for yours truly. As restaurants began to rely more heavily on delivery and takeout, and as they began hanging clear plastic dividers at order counters and requiring staff and customers to wear PPE, my writing gradually began to acknowledge the realities facing the restaurant industry and humanity in general. Later that same year, when the most consequential election of my life was on the horizon, I allowed my usually staunchly apolitical writing to get a tiny bit political. (I will never explicitly discuss my political beliefs here, but you’ll get a pretty good idea of which way I lean if you read The Kewpee, and probably the rest of this post, too.)

Now that things are beginning to trend toward what looks and feels normal, I was excited for my writing to do the same, so I set out on a trip across Indiana last weekend for what I hoped would be a normalish trip for a few normalish restaurant experiences, but with less than a week in my tenure as a fully vaccinated person, I should have known better. It’s still more than a little weird out there, and over the past year, my understanding of what is and is not normal entered a time of profound transformation, a transformation which is still in progress. 

To paraphrase my favorite Canadian TV show, there’s such a thing as too much pandemic talk and a feller ought to be aware of it. I am acutely aware of the amount of pandemic talk I’ve allowed to seep into my writing, and I’ll make a promise here that’s roughly as firm as a flour tortilla that barring the very real possibility of any new, unforeseen pandemic-related calamity, this will be the last Broken Chains post where I discuss my processing of the pandemic at length. However, the realities of living through a pandemic, and how to navigate the world as one of the lucky vaccinated people weighed heavily on my mind when I stopped by Taco Casita, a former Taco Tico in Terre Haute, Indiana that I suspected might still be a Taco Tico in all but name. 

Clever re use of the original Taco Tico sign pole

Where's the T&A?

My weekend jaunt to Indiana was my first time leaving Michigan since my trip last June. My home in the bluest part of a bluish-purple state was my only real frame of reference for pandemic-era etiquette, and I was scandalized by the occasional maskless individuals I encountered at truck stops, stores, and in common areas of my hotel in firmly red Indiana. Here in Michigan, the mostly older, mostly white people who don’t wish to wear masks in indoor public spaces will at minimum, make the entirely pointless gesture of wearing one on their chin below their mouth. Before I was vaccinated I would at least give these people dirty looks, and would occasionally confront them outright, but I made myself a promise that on this trip that I was going to let things go. I would ignore anyone with an exposed nose or entire face, and I would trust my antibodies to keep me safe. I would assume that any adult I encountered in public was either vaccinated themselves or at least unvaccinated and out in public by choice, and therefore did not require me to speak on their behalf to any inconsiderate individuals with unnecessarily exposed faces. This adjustment was easy enough for me to make when encountering the occasional unmasked trucker at a Love’s truck stop or while dining maskless at a safe distance from other maskless diners at some meal stops you’ll hear about later this month, but it took dinner at Taco Casita to put my promise to myself, and my belief in vaccine efficacy, to the test.

The menu board has a decidedly vintage look, despite the modern Pepsi branding. 

I walked into the 1970s era Taco Tico building on a Saturday evening to discover a mostly full, tiny dining room full of maskless diners and a maskless staff working behind a recently-added plexiglass partition at the counter. I stood, masked, in the order line of mostly maskless people ordered, and took a seat to wait for my number to be called as I watched new maskless customers, representing a surprisingly diverse selection of ages and ethnicities enter the building and stand in the order line. I suspect that since Indiana and other nearby states were spared from the recent surge in cases that hit Michigan earlier this spring, the locals see wearing a mask as less of a priority, regardless of their political affiliation. It really shouldn’t have been a political issue to begin with anyway. Still, after a year of masking up, social distancing, and not so silently judging anyone who didn’t, sitting in the crowded dining room waiting for my food as more and more air-sucking, droplet-exhaling disgusting squishy human bodies entered the little trapezoidal faux-pueblo, I found myself feeling more and more uneasy. 

My table had a peeling top and graphics by Powerpoint.

I took the opportunity to use one of the grounding techniques I had discussed with my therapist for exactly this kind of situation, and began to assess my surroundings, identifying individual items in the room, and silently noting them in my head. I took the time to look at, and appreciate the large, taco-shaped window at the front of the building, then the ancient wrought iron lamps hanging from the vintage drop ceiling. It was around the time that I noticed the prints of stylized cacti hanging on the opposite wall that I realized that the dining room was largely unmodified. Even the Taco Ticos I grew up with in Kentucky that likely last had major redecorating done in the late ‘80s were not this original. I wouldn’t have dreamed of walking into this place were I not fully vaccinated, but I’m glad I did. The original decor was well worth the six bucks and change I paid for a taco, sancho, “cinnamon chips” and a Diet Pepsi. 

The cactus pictures and funky frames calmed me right down. 

The food occupied the opposite end of the Taco Tico Authenticity Spectrum from the building. While I was pleased to see they had a sancho (essentially a burrito shell stuffed with taco ingredients) on the menu, it came on a little disposable tray, not in a wrapper as Taco Tico would serve it. I suspect most Sanchos here are served covered in an enchilada sauce (“Deluxe” in Taco Tico speak, “Wet” in Taco Casita parlance) as the Sancho I ate had an unusually dry and brittle flour tortilla shell that would have benefited from some extra sauce, whereas Taco Tico sancho wrappings are always soft, pliable, and pleasantly chewy. The Taco Casita sancho fell apart when I tried to pick it up and eat it as I would its Taco Tico counterpart. It's most noticeable characteristic however was its flatness. The sanchos I've come to know are almost perfect tubes of deliciousness. This one looked like it had been run over by a taco truck. The sancho appeared to have been microwaved lettuce and all, which is not to say that Chef Mike has never been employed at Taco Tico, but they know enough there to microwave the meat separate from the tortilla and toppings. Unfortunately, the flavor of the meat bore no resemblance to Taco Tico’s signature blend. Rather, it tasted like Taco Bell’s meat with a few glugs of Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce added to the pot. 

That's a sancho on the right, not an extra napkin. 

The taco at least looked the part of a Taco Tico product with its unevenly folded hard tortilla and half tomato slice, but the salsa on the taco overpowered the flavor of the meat, rather than working with it in transcendent fast food harmony the way Taco Tico sauce does with Taco Tico meat. 

The taco looks the part, but fails to deliver Taco Tico flavor. 

Weirdly enough, while the cinnamon chips were quite unlike Taco Tico’s analog Cinnamon Crustos, I liked them better. The fried bits of tortilla were softer, a little greasier, and had a more complex flavor than the ones at Taco Tico. I suspect Taco Tico’s crustos only get seasoned with cinnamon and sugar, but the cinnamon chips at Taco Casita also had hints of nutmeg and allspice. I suspect they’re seasoned with sugar and a premixed apple pie spice, and the flavor, and texture work really well together. They were the only menu item I bothered finishing after a long day of eating. 

Order the cinnamon chips though, and you'll be glad you did. 

So is Taco Casita a bootleg Taco Tico? I’d have to say no. There’s more than a passing resemblance in the menu, and the building is a must see for any hardcore Taco Tico fan, but the food tastes little like the Taco Tico menu items that inspired it. What makes Taco Casita worth a stop for broken chain enthusiasts is the intact nature of the vintage Taco Tico building and the legitimately delicious cinnamon chips. There is, however, still hope of a better approximation of Taco Tico in Terre Haute. 

Terre Haute's other former Taco Tico/Casita, now closed. 

There were once two Taco Ticos in Terre Haute, and both became Taco Casita at some point before I was alerted to their presence, however, the second location closed permanently, in a way making Taco Casita a miniature broken chain having lost 50% of its locations. We can all keep our fingers crossed that some enterprising individual or group might move into that empty, but similar building, and open a legitimate Taco Tico, or at least a more convincing imitation, and keep the interior intact to create an immensely authentic vintage Taco Tico experience. 

With my pandemic-related hackles mostly lowered, I concluded my meal, and put my mask back on. I was making some notes on my phone as my favorite David Allan Coe song came on the decades-old wall-mounted speakers. 

It was then I sent a text to my good friend Sid Hoffman, and I told him that I was about to write the perfect Broken Chains post.  Well, he texted me back and told me it wouldn’t be the perfect Broken Chains post if I didn’t say anything about olive burgers, or G.D. Ritzy’s, or Ford Festivas, or if I didn’t make any silly rhymes. Well, I sat down and wrote another paragraph, and after reading it, I realized I had written the perfect Broken Chains post, and I felt obliged to include it here. The last paragraph goes like this:

Well I made a burger, but I was fresh out of olives. 

So I went to pick some up in the rain. 

But as I drove past G.D. Ritzy’s in my Festiva. 

I saw a guy who looked kind of like Conrad Bain. 

And I’ll eat up all the tacos down at Tico

And I never minded sanchos with no sauce. 

But you don’t have to feed me tacos, Casita. 

Because you didn’t try to copy Wichita’s.

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