Lunchbox-Worthy Eats

The Hot Rod Café makes simple, tasty, down-home food

In school, I always loathed cafeteria food, and envied my friends whose parents would make them homemade sandwiches and soups, or perhaps pack up tasty leftovers from the night before. Of course, my friends with the homemade meals were always wanting pizza or chicken strips from the cafeteria—so we'd work out a trade, and everyone got what they wanted.

I'm pretty sure that if my friends' sandwiches were anything like those from the Hot Rod Café, they'd have been a little more reluctant to give them up so quickly.

Opened last year at the strip mall at Stone Avenue and Glenn Street made famous by the Paul Bunyan statue, the Hot Rod Café is run by the women of the Toia family; the Toias have had the property for more than 60 years. (By the way, you can check out the true story of the Paul Bunyan statue on the café's website.) The café occupies a spot on the north end of the building that was the original location for Don's Hot Rod Shop. The bright, racing-themed décor pays homage to the original shop, with truly awesome touches like a table made from the hood of a Thunderbird—complete with painted flames. The barstools and tables use other various auto parts and replicas, from shocks to struts and wheels.

Ted and I first checked out the café for a mid-afternoon weekday lunch—it's only open Monday through Friday until 2:30 p.m.—and were surrounded by regulars on a first-name basis with the all-female kitchen crew. We were greeted so warmly—including a "hun"—that I felt like the cashier should have had a beehive hairdo and some horn-rimmed glasses.

All of the sandwiches bear automotive- and racing-related names, so I ordered The Gasser ($4.79), an egg-salad sandwich on toasted wheat bread; a cup of Gas Powered Chili ($2.59) with shredded cheddar and thin-sliced red onions; and a root-beer float ($2.79 for the small, $3.99 for the large). Ted opted for the Pit Stop Pastrami ($5.99), a hot pastrami sandwich with provolone and spicy mustard on rye bread; baked-potato salad ($1.69); and a root beer float as well.

The floats came out right away, and the sandwiches weren't far behind. The portion sizes are just right for a quick lunch, especially since nothing on the menu is more than $6. My egg-salad sandwich had the perfect amount of egg salad to eat without it completely falling apart, and the crunchy thin-sliced toasted bread offset the creaminess of the egg, mayo and mustard mix. It reminded me of something that should have been in my lunchbox in elementary school, dill-pickle spear and all. Ted's peppery pastrami was sliced deli-thin and had a smear of spicy mustard and gooey melted provolone cheese. Though the sandwiches were basic, they were quite tasty—but the real highlights of the meal were the side dishes. The chili was not spicy at all, and reminded me more of a Midwestern-style chili; it was a thick, rich, tomato-y chili with lots of ground beef and pinto beans. The baked potato salad was delightful, with sour cream in place of the traditional mayo and mustard, and studded with crispy bacon bits and shredded cheddar cheese.

Breakfast at the café was every bit as simple, home-style and delicious as lunch. The next week, I picked up breakfast to go and took it back to the office to share with some co-workers. The Heartbeat of America breakfast platter ($5.59) includes two eggs any style, breakfast potatoes, either bacon or sausage, and a choice between a biscuit, toast or English muffin. I decided that since I was traveling and sharing, scrambled eggs would be a good way to go, along with sausage and an English muffin. I also got an order of biscuits and gravy ($3.99, or $5.99 as a meal with eggs and bacon or sausage); a breakfast burrito ($3.99) with bacon, potatoes, eggs and cheddar cheese; and an orange juice ($1.49 for a small, $1.79 for a large).

The eggs were scrambled nicely and not overcooked, but were a little lacking on the seasoning, as were the breakfast potatoes. However, the sausage patties were moist and flavorful. The burrito was wrapped up in a large, exceptionally buttery flour tortilla, and had a nice balance of ingredients. The salsa was spicy; the eggs weren't overcooked; the potatoes weren't undercooked; and the bacon was crispy—there's not much more you can ask for from a breakfast burrito.

My favorite was the biscuits and gravy. I've got family from the South, and I'm a sucker for good biscuits and gravy—and the Hot Rod Café held their own quite nicely. The gravy had actual, measurable amounts of ground sausage in it, something that is strangely lacking at many restaurants, and the gravy was neither too runny nor too thick. It didn't even get a skin on it in the 10 minutes or so that it took me to get back to the office. The biscuits were steaming-hot and flaky, and the whole dish, with the addition of some coarse-ground black pepper, was damn good—almost as good as the biscuits and gravy that my dad made my friends and me on Sunday mornings growing up. That is one big compliment.

The next time I'm craving that perfect lunchbox tuna sandwich, or an old-fashioned BLT with a milkshake or perhaps a root beer float, I'll stop in at the Hot Rod Café. From the looks of it, after two or three more visits, they'll be greeting me by my first name.

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