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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Sideways Snow, Truck Stops and the State Meal of Oklahoma

I will admit that most of the time I am a bit of a food snob.  I will drive by some eating establishments that look a little sketchy and wonder who would eat at a place like this.  However, I do know there are some of these sketchy places/greasy spoons that end up having some pretty decent food. Perhaps not 5 stars or Michelin stars, but still pretty good food.  Sometimes you just need to get over the food snobbery and give that place a try.

Over the holidays, I visited my parents in Albert Lea, MN.  For those of you not familiar with the area, Albert Lea is located at the interchange of Interstate 90 (East-West) and Interstate 35 (North –-South).  Needless to say it sees a lot of drivers, cars and 18 wheelers that drive these roads.  Like any good American highway driving, you will always find a truck stop along the way.  Truck stops can be a haven for weary drivers, especially truck drivers on long hauls.  They offer a lot of services; food, showers, restrooms, and a place to stretch your legs.  I would have never considered the truck stop restaurant a go to restaurant, until my recent visit to Albert Lea.

I probably had not been in the car for more than 30 minutes after dad picked us up at the airport, when he began talking about the chicken fried steak at Petro (the local truck stop).  He goes on and on about how good it is, and that he and my mom have been out several times just to have it.  He then suggests we should go out there for dinner during our stay.

In previous post, I have written about growing up in Oklahoma.  According to Wikipedia, “chicken fried steak is among numerous popular dishes which make up the official state meal of Oklahoma added to the list in 1988.” I don’t need Wikipedia to tell me this.  I grew up eating chicken fried steak.  This is my comfort foods, and one of the few dishes I MUST eat when I visit Oklahoma.  I’m sure any kid from Oklahoma probably says this, but my grandmother made the best chicken fried state.  My mom and I tried to learn how to how make it, but it never turned out or tasted as good.  I can never get the crust right or the gravy never turns out right. Granted the preparation is the same, finding that restaurant that makes the perfect chicken steak is very important.  Even then  it will not taste as good as my grandmothers, but it is close as I am going to get. This is why I have given up ordering country fried steak outside of the state of Oklahoma.  It is never cooked right, the gravy is bland, and I end up disappointed. So now you can see why I was a little dubious about my father’s positive reviews of the chicken fried steak at the local truck stop.  Minnesota + Chicken Fried Steak = I don’t think so!  I attempted not to take his recommendation for dinner at Petro seriously, and thought it just might get forgotten.  However, on Monday afternoon when I ask my mother what we are doing for dinner, her response was “Petro, your dad said you wanted to try the chicken fried steak…Don’t you?”.  I was now fully realizing I was going to be eating chicken fried steak, in Minnesota, at a truck stop.

So most of Monday it snowed, and there were moments were it came down pretty hard.  Now if we were in Seattle with this weather, I would for sure have a definite out.  No one ventures out in the snow in Seattle.  However, in Minnesota you venture out no matter whatever the weather is.  10 inches of snow..ahh… that is nothing.  Snow blowing sideways…ahhh… don’t worry about it. A little snow never stopped anyone!

So Monday night, my parents and my husband jump into the SUV, and head out into the frozen tundra, through the blowing snow, and head to the truck stop.  We pull into the parking lot, and my parents remark how empty it seems.  I think to myself this is because all the sane people stayed indoors, out of the snow to be warm and safe.  Although the good thing about this, is we got a parking spot right by the door.  So my trek through the snow to the door was not so frozen.
As you walk into the establishment you are greeted by grand Viking and his shield maiden.  I’m pretty certain I just did not just enter Valhalla.  We make our way back to the bar area to sit at a table
there.  Although I am not clear why we did not sit in the dining area, the bar did make for more of a colorful dining experience.

The menu reads like a typical diner; burgers, pastas, chicken, ribs etc. My dinner had already been decided, so there was no need to study the menu. However, if you are vegetarian, vegan, watching your figure, have high cholesterol and/or blood pressure then this is not the place for you.  The food is supposed to fuel the drivers and trucker patrons to allow them to carry on to their final destination. All I can say once I finished my meal, I was ready for nap and not for driving 200 miles.

Orders are placed, so now it is just sit back wait and listen to some interesting conversations at the bar.  There were probably about 7-9 what I assume to be truckers sitting at the bar.  Conversations ranged from NASCAR, the boss telling him not to sleep in his truck, one complaining about the size of his cab for sleeping (his belly hit the roof), and hearing the waitress being called sweetheart a handful of times.

Finally dinner arrived.  The infamous truck stop chicken fried steak had arrived!  At first look it didn’t look bad.  It was definitely generous portion of steak and potatoes.  Now for any chicken fried steak connoisseur, like myself, what really makes the steak is the crust and the gravy.  At first glance, the steak seemed to have a nice coating and looked good and crispy. The gravy was a white and thick, which is also a good sign.  You would think I was a Top Chef Judge, as I sat and analyzed the presentation, and was silent for my first couple of bites as I savored the flavors in my mouth to make my judgments about this fine steak I was consuming. My critique, was the crust was a little over seasoned with salt and pepper for my taste, whereas the gravy was a little under seasoned. All in all, for a steak in the Northern frozen tundra, it was not all that bad.  I have definitely had worse.  I least enjoyed the meal, and was not disgusted with it.  I can tell you I was a little surprised.  My expectations were a little on the low side, but I managed to be a little impressed.  Now does this mean I will be running out to my local truck stop to eat chicken fried streak??  UMMM..NO!  I can guess though I will be going back to the truck stop on my next visit home, and I am good with that.  Makes for some interesting storytelling.

Dinner is over, my belly full and pretty happy.  The family treks out into the freezing temperatures, the blowing snow, and begin our short journey home.  I’m just thankful we are going 5 miles instead of 200 miles.  As we pass an 18 wheeler struggling to make the hill in the snow, my day is cheerfully says see wasn’t that worth the trip out to tonight?

My recommendation is if you are going to eat chicken fried steak, go to Oklahoma and eat it.  However, if you do happen to be in Albert Lea, MN stop at Petro and treat yourself to some Northern style of chicken fried steak.

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