On the Road Again: The Waffle House of America
Whether I’m pursuing goat eyeball tacos or iconoclastic farmers, my brain, nose, and palate are trained to dig out the obscure or novel. It seems I’m always on the hunt for the story about a former Wiccan high priestess CIA agent who chucked it all and became a sushi chef. What’s been there everyday just seems to fade into the background.
For example, because most of my family still resides in southeastern Michigan, I’ve been driving the stretch of I-94 between Chicago and Detroit almost every month for more than seven years. With its ubiquitous orange construction barrels, or, as we call them, Michigan flowers, and because of lobbying of Hoffaesque union folk for continued work, some part of I-94 has been under construction since my birth, which often makes it quite the haul. You’d think, as I hurtle on this five-hour trek on a regular basis, I’d be an expert on the food along this trail.
Unfortunately, the drive’s usually made on inky black Friday nights after my hungry wife gets off work. When her blood sugar runs low, she makes Gordon Ramsay look like Mother Teresa, and so we usually scam a quick pre-travel Maxwell St. Polish (a garlicky beef sausage studded with caramelized onions and mustard) at Jim’s Original, or, sadly, some kind of McGordita thing along the way.
Another reason we rarely stop along I-94 is that there’s a question of whether there’s anything there. As Alton Brown’s thoughtful Feasting on Asphalt and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation have documented, the major freeway arteries have been clogged with corporate pap, while mom-and-pop spots are dying out on fractured branches of old Route 66 and America’s rural highways.
One spot that’s always been along I-94, though, is a ramshackle chalet with neon-yellow shingles in Lawrence, Michigan. This piece of Americana whose architecture evokes both Switzerland and Las Vegas is known as the Waffle House of America. I’d always assumed it was part of the national Waffle House chain and so we always flew right by.
On a recent Sunday, as we were returning from my brother’s wedding and found ourselves with a bit more leisure time on the drive back, we decided to give it a try. The Waffle House of America is in fact, an independent entity owned by local couple Barbara and David Kirby. With its vinyl booths, copper-bodied plastic-rimmed coffee jugs, and plywood wainscoting, it’s also the very essence of Mayberryesque truckstop diner. A G-scale model train circles the dining room as you eat, and there’s even a gift shop featuring local baked goods from the townsfolk.
The paragon of provincial pomp, however, lies in the women’s bathroom which, with its Royal Doultonesque china patternstyle toilet seats, was once named one of the best restrooms in America.
Since pork is practically my middle name, I ordered up the bacon waffle with a side of juicy ham steak. What we received, along with a heated carafe of maple syrup, was a fat, inch-and-a-half-thick rosette-style waffle dotted with an inlay of smoky bacon bits. The buttermilk tang of the batter and the crunch of the crust was spot on.
Of course man can not live on waffles alone, so I also figured we’d rock it Roscoe’s style and ordered up some of the Waffle House’s broasted Henny-Penny chicken. The flaky and crunchy crenulated crust, studded with flecks of pepper and spice, was moist and well seasoned, save for an errant piece that was dried out for some reason. My only real quibble was that the mashed potatoes were instant, which was totally incongruous with the chicken and waffles made to order and the fresh baked goods.
On the way in, I’d spotted a bevy of glass cake domes filled with tufted hunks of chocolate buttercream, carrot cake replete with orange flecks, and a tower of pies that included glossy pecan and oozy cherry. To the embarrassment of my wife, and to the delight of the establishment, I ordered a piece of each and can confirm that my eyes and my palate were on the same page. Having made this rural score on the way home, I’m now resolved to make more stops along I-94 in the months to come. I’ll keep you posted.
Waffle House of America
Address: 60631 County Road 365 N, Lawrence MI 49064 [map]