Last Of The Dinosaurs

There Amidst The Fossil-Fuel Stops And Corporate Mini-Marts, Omar's Highway Chef Keeps On Truckin' At The Triple T.

IT ISN'T OFTEN that a truck stop grabs the culinary spotlight. And yet, mutterings about the home-style diner fare at Tucson's Triple T Truck Stop have been piquing curiosity for years. Interest in the freeway eatery was heightened still further when Executive Chef Omar Ramirez was named Chef of the Year in 1998 by the Chefs Association of Southern Arizona.

What exactly was going on out there in the land of 18-wheelers and asphalt? Could it be that truck drivers and cross-country travelers knew something about our stretch of the desert that we full-time residents didn't? It was time to hit the road and get the scoop.

The first challenge was getting to the Triple T from midtown. Due to the location of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, it's difficult to cut straight through to the East Benson Highway address. Unless you live as far east as Wilmot Road, the best approach is to get on I-10 and make like you're headed for El Paso. That way you can't miss the giant T-T-T marquee beckoning from the side of the road.

Secondly, entertain no notions that this place is anything other than a truck stop. Semi-trucks, sheriff patrol cars, carloads of families on vacation and hitchhikers looking for a ride are everywhere, making your first impression one of noise, petroleum fumes and a marvelous maelstrom of humanity.

Anyone who reads the newspaper knows that the Triple T has had its share of prostitution, stabbings, homicides, drug deals, theft and escaped fugitives over the years.

A visible presence by the county Sheriff's Department has cut down on much of the unsavory side business, and these days it isn't unusual to find families and senior citizens crowding into the Triple T's café, known as Omar's Highway Chef Restaurant.

Once inside, the thing that's most striking is how very clean everything is. This is no small feat for an establishment that's open 24 hours a day and literally sees thousands of folks pass through each week. Somehow, the staff stays on top of the mess and nowhere is this more evident than in the restaurant.

Pastel shades in traditional Southwestern configurations accentuate the diner's décor, which consists of several cushioned booths individually equipped with a credit card-activated telephone. Large pitchers of cold water and glasses stand expectantly at every table, so if you come in hot and dusty from the open road, you'll have no need to wait for a busy waitress to notice your thirsty presence. Both smoking and non-smoking rooms are available, with the smoking room housing a U-shaped counter where single truckers can gather to converse with each other and the friendly waitress with the seemingly endless supply of freshly brewed coffee.

It's cool and mercifully quiet inside Omar's Highway Chef, and the atmosphere is laced with the scent of something delicious wafting out from the kitchen. For weary travelers, coming into the restaurant must be akin to finding an oasis in the midst of a barren desert. What blessed relief.

Omar's menu is divided into three sections (not surprisingly, breakfast, lunch and dinner), but all entrees are available at all times of day or night, in deference to their patrons' odd shifts and long hours. Whether it's bacon and eggs at four in the afternoon, or a juicy hamburger at the crack of dawn, Omar's Highway Chef will honor your request without comment. This may seem like an amenity of no great significance, but if you've ever worked third shift and felt yourself out of sync with the rest of the known universe, this is a profoundly appreciated accommodation.

Home cooking is definitely Omar's central theme, but remember, this is Tucson, and to Ramirez (a Tucson native) this means Mexican food is featured right alongside the chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes with gravy.

Breakfast features "Breakfast in the Southwest," three entrees served with Mexican rice, refried pinto beans, flour tortillas and salsa: entrees include scrambled eggs with diced green chiles, chopped tomatoes and onions ($5.95); a flour tortilla burro rolled with scrambled eggs, chorizo, diced potatoes, onions, tomatoes and green chiles ($6.25); and Omar's favorite, three cheese enchiladas served with shredded beef, three eggs any style and grated cheddar cheese ($6.75).

Omelets, pancakes, waffles, French toast, Texas milk toast and homemade pastries round out the breakfast menu, with Omar's "big" breakfasts especially appealing to those with insatiable appetites. Served with crispy hash browns or grits, and a choice of biscuits and cream gravy or plain old toast, these monster breakfasts feature a whole coop of eggs and meat in a variety of forms. My favorite was the I-10 belly buster ($7.75), three eggs cooked to order, two strips of bacon, two sausage patties, two pancakes (not tiny) and grilled ham. If this meal doesn't send your cholesterol into the stratosphere, you're invincible.

The only fare I haven't checked out yet are the waffles, which the menu promises are made with a "unique Highway Chef waffle iron." Maybe they come in the shape of a giant T...I'll have to go back just to find out.

Burgers, hot and cold sandwiches, salads and baskets of fried delicacies like chicken nuggets, beef fritters, fish and chips and mozzarella sticks characterize the lunch menu. Omar also features a soup of the day, which is invariably piping hot and thoroughly homemade, with big chunks of vegetables and a rich, flavorful broth. Always on the menu, and highly recommended, is Omar's Southwestern taco soup ($2), a close cousin to chili that features ground beef, pinto beans, kidney, corn, celery, carrots, onions, tomato and green chiles in a piquant broth. I don't usually have the urge to call up the chef to ask for a recipe, but I would love to be able to get a hold of Omar's formula for this one. It's absolutely delicious.

Burgers ($4.25-$5.25) are generous and juicy, cooked to a color you're most comfortable with and served with lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, and choice of French fries, potato salad, coleslaw or pinto beans. There's nothing remarkable in this version of the classic American food, but they're tasty and not overly greasy, which is always a bonus.

Chicken-fried steak ($7), the quintessential diner food in my opinion, is satisfactory at Omar's. The steak is modestly breaded, fried to a deep brown, and smothered in gravy; it's served (naturally) with a whomping mound of mashed potatoes and gravy. By nature this is a rather bland dish, but I thought Omar's could have used a bit more zip, perhaps a hint of some herb or spice in the breading or a more robust gravy.

The only true disappointment, however, was the day's chile relleno special ($7.95), which was thick and soggy on the outside, with a meager stuffing of cheese on the inside. The rice and refried beans were similarly unremarkable. Maybe out-of-staters would have been satisfied, but for those of us familiar with the local offerings on this score, this chile was a flop.

Homemade pies are always featured at Omar's, and if you do nothing else, you owe it to yourself to try a slice of your favorite. Deep-dish apple pie ($3.75) is the restaurant's specialty, served warm and with a topping of soft ice cream. I can confirm that it's marvelous; shy on crust perhaps, but what's there is flaky and light, and permits the cinnamon-scented apples to take center stage.

The Triple T is one of the few independently owned truck stops remaining in the country, most of the others having been bought out by mega corporations who turn them into mini-mart shopping centers with fast-food chains and Internet hookups. Next time you're hungry for a blast from the past, wander down the freeway and stop by Omar's Highway Chef. The song of the open road plays on there, 24-7.

Omar's Highway Chef Restaurant at the Triple T Truck Stop. 5451 E. Benson Highway. 574-0050. Open 24 hours, every day. No alcohol. V, MC, AMEX, DC. Menu items: $1-$11.50.
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