Omar's Hi-Way Chef is almost too real to be real.
If you were making a movie about a diner and wanted to shoot on location, you couldn't find a more ideal spot than Omar's Hi-Way Chef restaurant. This long-time Tucson icon is the epitome of truck stop cuisine.
Everything you'd need for your epic is there: the horseshoe-shaped counters, plenty of booths, a kitchen pass-through that is never empty and portions big enough to get you from Tucson to the Texas state line.
A full cast of characters is also there for the watching (though it's up to you to find the big name star who'd play the waitress with a heart of gold). Cooks are slinging plates all day. The servers are of a certain age and keep the coffee and the patter coming. Customers range from awkward teens to slow-moving retirees, business people to beefy-armed truck drivers. You'll find regulars and strangers passing through.
The menus are a handful, literally, and the choices are mind-boggling for every meal. A pitcher filled with ice water sits on every table.
The place is divided into two spaces. One has that typical diner look; the other is a little fancier and definitely quieter. Colors are Southwest blues and pinks and tans. The art work is a bit kitschy but fits the vibe.
As with many truck stop eateries, breakfast is served 24 hours a day. Breakfast comes with a choice of toast, biscuits and sausage gravy or grits and either hash browns or Omar's famous deep fried potatoes. Keep in mind grits are available only during the morning hours.
Our breakfast included the Baby O ($5.59) and a plate of corned beef hash, hash browns and rye toast ($6.59).
The Baby O has one cheese enchilada, one egg, shredded beef, refried beans, choice of hash browns or the house deep fried potatoes, two flour tortillas, salsa and sour cream. Rest assured if that isn't enough then you can always order the Omar's Favorite ($10.15) which is all of that tripled.
While the hash and hash browns were decent versions, the items in the Baby O were surprisingly good. The enchilada sauce was as good as any found in Mexican joints around town. The shredded beef too passed muster. Even the beans were done well. Topped off with fresh salsa, a perfectly cooked egg and sour cream, this was a most satisfying breakfast. The deep fried potatoes, which were almost unnecessary, were light and fluffy on the inside and nicely golden brown and crispy on the outside.
Dinner found the place more subdued, but the customers were just as colorful. Service wasn't quite as friendly or polished. Our server was a low talker and walked around with her hands in her pockets. She smiled but with effort. She looked like she'd rather be any place but there.
The dinner menu is divided into such headings as Mexican Combinations, Arriba a la Carte, Heartland Dinners, Sides and Desserts and the incongruous Rendezvous in Rome.
We went sort of surf and turf, ordering the truck stop staple of meatloaf dinner ($10.79) along with the Grilled Lemon Butter Trout ($10.89). Dinners come with a choice of soup of the day or salad, a side of your choice and dinner rolls. Oddly enough the non-traditional truck stop fare - the fish - turned out to be the better plate.
There were no surprises with the good-sized salad; chopped iceberg lettuce, shredded red cabbage, shredded carrots and grape tomatoes. The dressing was served on the side. I doubt it's made in house but there was plenty of it.
The soup - beef and potato - was passable. Nothing I'd order again, but as a starter it worked.
The meatloaf was an enormous portion. Four thick cut slices of meatloaf and two gigantic scoops of mashed potatoes were smothered in brown gravy with rice pilaf somewhere under all that. Sadly, it was mushy and the potatoes and gravy were over salted. The claim is that all items are prepared on site but the gravy didn't taste homemade at all. The side was the vegetable of the day, corn on the cob, which was overcooked. The trout, on the other hand, was fairly decent by truck stop standards (this isn't a fancy seafood restaurant after all). Grilled to a golden brown, it fell apart with the touch of a fork. I might've liked a little more butter slathered on top, but a squeeze of lemon helped bring up the flavors. Weirdly, though, the tartar sauce—which I would never put on trout—that was served with the fish was in little packets.
Desserts are big at Omar's, literally and figuratively. In addition to apple there are peach and cherry pies (both deep dish), something called the Brownie Bomb, strawberry shortcake, ice cream sundaes, soft serve ice cream and, I think, cheesecake. Phew!
We opted for peach pie ($5.19). The serving is a head turner. The pies are individually baked and come hot out of the oven. They are topped with a three-inch-high swirl of soft-serve ice cream. The ice cream melts as you dig in. I liked the cinnamon crust, and the peaches inside were plentiful but overly sweet. The ice cream was over the top and if I were to order any pie again I'd skip the ice cream or at least have it on the side.
Omar's Hi-Way Chef has been featured on the Food Network and featured in all sorts of national magazines. It's won awards and the hearts and stomachs of a large group of people. If I lived way out that way I'd certainly eat there when I was craving a good breakfast and an endless cup of coffee.
The apple pie with vanilla ice cream from Omar's Hi-Way Chef.