Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket, Willowbrook IL

Located on Historic Route 66 adjacent to I-55 in Willowbrook, IL, Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket opened in the late 1920’s as a lunch counter in gas station.

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As the story goes, in 1938 two women who ran a chicken farm overheard the owner, Ervin ‘Irv’ Kolarik, complaining about how much he hated running the gas station part of business and wished he could just run the food counter. They promised to share their secret chicken recipe with him on condition he bought his chicken from them. The chicken was so popular that by the mid 40’s it was clear he needed a bigger place and in 1946 he opened a restaurant adjacent to the gas station.

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One of the cute things that happened was it was the birthday of one of the customers and the whole staff came out to sing her happy birthday, only they clucked the words … as in made chicken noises instead of singing the words

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This is one of those places that has been a chicago are institution but I have never been because this is not a part of town I’d normally go to. As such, the odds of me being here again were equally low, so I had to try their specialty, the fried chicken. That said… The chicken was very good… but I’ve had better … the fried chicken at Disneyland’s Plaza Inn was in fact MUCH better. So I’m not in fact sure it was worth the damage to my diet (and in fact when I got back to Chicago I failed my blood test… my liver numbers had jumped again).

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My waitress was an obese middle-aged woman with the smile planted firmly on her face who was scurrying around the place checking on everyone regularly, Really friendly and asking all the right questions without being overly in your face about it…all while limping really badly with a sort of waddling walk. At the end of the meal I asked her what was wrong with her leg and she said it wasn’t her leg it was her back and by the end of the day she was in a lot of back pain. To which I exclaimed, “And you waitress?!!!” That woman deserves a reward… I gave her a $20 tip on my $18 bill.

Del’s Restaurant Tucumcari, NM

Del’s Restaurant in Tucumcari New Mexico, which Yelp ranks as one of the top three restaurants in town was kind of a major let down. But in a town with only 27 options, half of which are national chains… well beggars really can’t be choosers.

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Looking at the exterior you’d assume it was a steak place … because cows…

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BUT NO! It’s sort of a Mexican/Southern American combo type place that can’t quite make up its mind what it is….

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other than all the staff have to wear white cowboy hats… Oh and note the upper right corner of the menus… the woman next to me ordered the “light bite” of macaroni and cheese, and it was this MASSIVE plate full of the stuff… and note that there’s NOTHING low-calorie on that list… Light bites in the southwest apparently doesn’t mean what it means everywhere else

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The place has a fairly large gift shop (the room after the tables, AND the check out counter) that sells pretty much all the obligatory goods and not much else.

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and an all you can eat soup and salad bar, where most of the salads are swimming in mayonnaise (welcome to culinary sophistication of the southwest)

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I got my salad (blue cheese on the side) and the mushroom soup (because a waitress told me the bean soup wasn’t very good)…. and then I ordered the grilled salmon. I am pretty sure I was NOT brought salmon… it was fish, and other than it was woefully over cooked it wasn’t bad… but it sure as shit wasn’t salmon… Sockeye salmon possibly… but that’s not Salmon… it’s in the trout family… and to be honest what I was eating tasted more like something in the tuna family than trout.

 

 

Lunch and a tour: Grand Canyon Caverns;Peach Springs, Arizona

Located just off of Route 66 in either Peach Springs Arizona (according to their website) or Seligman, Arizona (according to Google) is a rather unique tourist trap that’s kind of hard to explain because it can’t really make up its mind what it is.

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The first thing you’ll encounter is a gas station/laundromat and gift store that calls itself Radiator Springs and claims to be the inspiration for Pixar Movie of the same name. (I have NOT found any external verification of that claim)

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what I was interested in was NOT the gas station, although it was a little cute, what I had come for was about a mile behind the building, via a private road

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there, above ground, you’ll find a restaurant, motel called the Caverns Inn & RV park, Restaurant and gift-store… but I didn’t take a lot of pictures of that cause it wasn’t what I was there for…

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Read the transcription below

In 1927, Walter Peck, a cowboy and woodcutter was walking through this area on his way to a poker game, when he nearly fell into a hole in the ground. The next morning Peck and his friends returned to the hole with lanterns and ropes. Peck was lowered into the hole. He purchased the property and began making preparations for a gold mining operation. Once the assay reports were completed, he learned that his potential mother load was iron oxide. Peck, being an entrepreneur then began charging 25 cents to lower early travelers and explorers down into the caverns. Today travelers worldwide come to visit these dry caverns

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The offerings, and the elevator you take to get down there… yes it’s an official fallout shelter

What I was there for, were the aforementioned underground caverns… and more specifically, to eat in the underground restaurant and see the motel (but no I did not stay the night, it costs $975/night. Too rich for my tastes.)

 

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The view of the restaurant from the path to it
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A view of the restaurant from my table, I managed to get a booking at the last minute

 

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So there I sat, in the Grand Canyon caverns eating one very expensive grilled chicken sandwich, which was at best, ok… I asked around and pretty much everyone was underwhelmed with their food.

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But, of course what you’re paying for is the view, and the experience

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The view of the cavern from my table, and a group of four people who were touring

I suppose it would have been cheaper if I drank cause you can have 2 glasses of wine, and it comes with all-you-can-eat dessert. But I don’t drink, and I’ve finally managed to lower my blood sugar, and I had places to be later that day… so I must definitely did NOT get my money’s worth in terms of the cost of lunch… in my own opinion. But it was worth doing once… and after lunch came the tour

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At this point we ran into a 2nd family which was doing the more “challenging” tour. They were actually climbing through tunnels in the walls, and we ran into them as they were climbing up through one of these deep gaps. (They were wearing helmets with built-in lamps, like what miners wear.)

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And then we watched them climbing UP a staircase that later in the tour we’d be going down (we would ultimately be going up to that same point, but via a gentle twisting slope so that you barely notice it), … in other words our tour was negotiated so as to limit our level of physical effort, while this other group was being made to do it in the most demanding ways possible

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This is when we got to see the hotel room in the Cavern….

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Two double beds, a bathroom, and a big screen TV, and along side it a stone dog to protect you

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This is a location where they hold weddings, it is up the slope from the hotel room (a little stage and rows of seating; if you look past the stage area you see the big screen TV very clearly, and the wall that it’s held up by is for privacy in the bathroom…

Much Later, after we finally came back DOWN the stairway the others had gone up, (I’m jumping forward, but will cut back after) we were led to the opposite side of this same ‘auditorium’ where we saw these…

IMG_0252.JPGThe chairs used for 60 years in the American Film Institute in Hollywood and when they replaced, the caverns bought them. So your guests at your wedding can sit in chairs that MAY have had very famous movie stars and directors sitting in them at one point.

So, back to the tour…. After we first saw the hotel room and the wedding venue, we walked along the path to the Fall-out Shelter storage area of the cavern.

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We walked through the winding paths of the cavern, and came to a low ceiling point where everyone but me had to stoop to pass it… the d

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The mystery room (upper right corner, above) is called as such because fresh air comes into the cave, but scientists have not been able to verify how. They do know it is coming in from there… but not how it’s getting into there… hence the mystery. There are apparently special tours you can take that take like 5 hours, where you can go spelunking into that part of the cave…. but it’s only for serious caving people

Once we got up to the top we began to going down, via a path that took us OVER the stored supplies for the fall-out shelter

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Apparently when they brought in the pallets, they forgot to measure the size of the pallets versus the size of the entrances… and found they had to take all the supplies OFF them, bring them in, then reload them back on to them.

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I particularly loved the giant sloth figure, apparently they found the bones of one in the cave

At the end of the tour, which took a little over an hour …. the Dutch visitors who were in my tour group started telling me how much they loved Trump, and how they’d have voted for them if they were Americans…
no words

 

 

 

 

The Grove (shopping mall) & The Original Farmers Market, Los Angeles California

These two shopping areas, The Grove at Farmers Market & The Original LA Farmers Market are directly adjacent to each other, are built on what was initially one property, are radically different from each other and still, should be done as one visit. The Grove is a VERY upscale open-air shopping mall that is frequented by locals, and out-of-town tourist flock to in hopes of seeing movie stars. The Farmers Market, by comparison is a historic landmark, is a far more down-market, mostly indoor facility where the locals go to buy fresh produce and to grab very tasty but affordable meals from over 100 small vendors … that also sells a lot of affordable tourist stuff (T-shirts, mugs, etc).IMG_0168.JPGAnyone who watches TMZ is familiar with The Grove; it is supposedly frequented by Actors and stars; and as such, it’s just a major draw for tourists hoping to run into said stars. According to a friend of mine who is movie star adjacent (he grew up in Beverly Hills and has worked in the film industry his whole life, not an actor) they in actuality NEVER shop there… with the caveat that if they do, they’ll usually call the photographers before they get there to let them know they’re coming. Usually they have a project about to be released that needs press, or their marriage is rumored to be in trouble so it’ll be a “happy family” outing, etc. My friend went so far as say that the mall has a sort of copacetic (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) relationship with said actors, singers, etc., to make sure that they choose The Grove as the location for said ‘upstaged out-on-the-town ‘ photos. And it’s “outdoor” venue is highly useful in that respect.

[I have to admit, I watch TMZ live regularly, as in almost every night. I load their pod cast, put it next to my pillow; I don’t usually really listen to it closely, so much as it lulls me to sleep. Occasionally it holds my attention and is genuinely interesting and informative, but more often than not — on the days when there’s no real “news” of any note, they’ll start with something about the Kardashians or Kanye West and I’m out like a light. So, that said, I was a bit excited to see it. (AND, my cousin lives walking distance from it so it was it was walking distance from the Airbnb I rented in order to be near her.)]

But, now that I’m here, I don’t get what the big deal is…

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In the middle of the mall area is a water feature, that does the dancing waters thing

it’s an outdoor mall, a bit like Old Orchard in Skokie, near where I grew up… maybe a bit nicer/newer.. but similar… although a bit more upmarket… unlike the Grove, Old Orchard does NOT have its own trolley that runs INSIDE the mall area

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The Trolley only runs during the daytime, probably for safety reasons

Among the stores was this desert place called Dominique Ansel Bakery that was kind of to die for from the looks of it. It makes all sorts of very fancy looking deserts and ice cream concoctions that look like other kinds of food. IMG_0179.JPG

I got the water melon thing, which was made with a non-dairy ice-cream… but in retrospect I wish I’d gotten the avocado sandwich, because the other than the little chocolate seeds and the actual hollowed out melon, it was a major let down. (The non-dairy ice-cream kind of seriously sucked. It didn’t taste good, nor did it taste like watermelon… I ended up dumping it into the trash and just eating the fruit and the chocolate)

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—OK then, I had to go to the bathroom and discovered it is the NICEST mall bathroom I have ever seen, it is far more like a 4-star hotel’s bathroom.

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… and after that, as I was standing at the roundabout where you’re supposed to get picked up by “Taxi”‘s (including Uber and Lyft), the valet guy offered me two bottles of water one for myself and one for the cab driver… (this is NOT a level of service I’ve ever encountered at a mall before) …so, that said, I think I’ve discovered what the big deal is

The Farmer’s market was (with the exception of the Grove’s bathroom) far more my speed. I went there one night on my own, and discovered it has a music scene

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The night that I was there (a week night) a game of trivia was being hosted

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Note all the different food stalls surrounding the area

There were SO many tasty choices… I could eat here over and over and go months before I had to repeat a dish.IMG_0182.JPG

But I found this Afghan/Middle eastern place called Moishe’s — known by most for their Falafel, but they were also selling one of my favorite things, so I bought it, and it was good… I got a doughnut at Bob’s for desert, as they were described as baked and not fried (it was too bready/cakey for my taste).

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A Afghan/Turkish sort of ravioli that covered in yogurt, spices, and a some spicy oil

and then my cousin and her spouse brought me here for dinner. They’re vegetarians, so they got the Falafel from the vender I had eaten at the night before, and I opted for this seafood place which I discovered puts all the food that’s already out in their case for sale at half price starting at 7pm on weekdays. I got a very large lox and bagel sandwich — tasted like they were using Costco purchased lox and bagels, but I love that stuff. Afterwards we got ice-cream from Bennet’s, which they promised me was handmade. I got one of those cones dipped in chocolate and topped with nuts. It was very good.

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Like I said my cousin lives nearby, and she and her wife come here to eat regularly and buy produce — which she did again that night.

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Fair Oaks Dairy: Fair Oaks Indiana

I’ve been to Fair Oaks Dairy restaurants twice now, but have yet to visit their theme park. Apparently, it the ONLY theme park devoted to dairy in the who country. The first time I was in 2015 when I was driving from Chicago to Florida, and spotted the road side advertising for the place (there’s a lot of them, and they are all way cool, MUCH nicer than the shoddy billboards you usually see — when researching this I learned the dairy had been bought out by Coca-cola in 2014), and they are one of the biggest and most high-tech dairies in the country.

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Last time I was here I was able to grab a meal at their cheaper food option, which is off on the other side of the parking lot from the restaurant and theme park (above)

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but that closes at 6pm (I didn’t show up there till about 6:30 today).

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which they call the Cowfé… it’s a no frills cafe that serves produce and food items fresh from their farms…

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cuban sandwich, $7.75 and an iced tea

and from what I could tell it’s SOME of the same foods as at their restaurant called ‘The Farmhouse,’ (the cafe has a MUCH smaller menu), for about half the price… I know this because I apparently ordered the same dish both times I’ve been there (hey, I like cuban sandwiches… )

IMG_2396.JPGbut without the table service, massive order of fries, and the all you can eat jalapeno cornbread… So the Cuban sandwich which was $7.75 at the cafe, is $14 at the restaurant. (I’m also willing to consider that the cafe sandwhich might be a bit smaller in size — I could only eat half of the restaurant’s sandwhich.) Looking at the foods offered, a lot of it is the same stuff you’d expect to find in Appalachia, which is not surprising as the culture extends about this far north.

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while walking back out to the parking lot I passed the table where some people who I had gotten friendly with when I entered were sitting, and they allowed me to photograph their food (I was amazed at how MASSIVE their portions were)…

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I stand corrected: There IS good food near Dollywood! PigeonForge, TN

What I now know is that food in Dollywood comes in TWO varieties, 1) quantity over quality, or 2) quality over quantity.

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Mea Culpa back in May of 2016 I visited the Dollywood area for the first time and had nothing but horrible meals. Just recently I visited the town for second time with a friend who is a vegetarian, and as such, opted away from all of the tourist spots that promised massive portions and/or all you can eat options — as none of them were going to be vegetarian friendly, and instead opted for smaller local/places that offered normal sized meals where we cold pick and choose … and to my delight was MUCH happier with everything that was served to us. In fact I found TWO very tasty places in Pigeon Forge, and another down the road in nearby Gatlinburg.

Hidden among the shops right behind the Old Mill restaurant (where I had a TRUELY awful meal during my last stay) is an eatery owned by the same company called the Old Mill Pottery House Cafe & Grille

It’s a MUCH smaller place (easily 1/10th the size of the old Mill), that seems to attract an older crowd (I’m guessing snowbird types who come through town on a semi-regular basis) and locals, and neither I nor my friend were served anything we didn’t enjoy… and the prices are very reasonable. I had the salmon cakes appetizer with a baked sweet potato and Cheese grits, while my friend had the vegetarian sandwich. (Google maps for some reason refuses to load for the cafe, so I’ve loaded the Old Mill instead, but it’s right next door.

Across the street and about a quarter mill from the Old Mill we found a tiny hole in the wall Cuban place embedded in a strip mall called Smokies Cuban Cafe, which was also very tasty, where we could talk to the cook who directed my friend to what he could and could not eat; essentially she warned us that they only had one fryer, and as such all meat and vegetable dishes that were fried, were done so in that same single fryer. My friend, who has been a vegetarian for many years was given a mental heads up by this … having only really lived in places where vegetarians were normative, he’d never thought to ask about that before.

In this case I had the Cuban sandwich, while my friend had black beans and rice and a side of yucca with garlic sauce — the yucca fries being verboten (see above)

Finally, at the next town over, Gatlinburg, we took the suggestion of a shopkeeper and ate our dinner at Loco Burro Fresh Mex Cantina, a two story restaurant hidden above a Jonny Rockets burger joint and two small shops selling tourist junk. Even though it was a bit chilly we opted to sit in the roof top bar so that we could continue to enjoy the night view. I opted for a collection of side dishes: grilled shrimp, guacamole and black beans while my friend opted for a cheese quesadilla and a margarita.