Our last significant pre-pandemic trip was four years in the making. During a 2015 vacation, we planned a stop in Henderson, Kentucky, in large part to try what was frequently billed among my roadfood circle of friends as the best fried chicken in the country. It was known at that time as Bon Ton Chicken, named after the restaurant that served it. Unfortunately, that restaurant closed shortly before we made it there. We went to Henderson anyway and I “settled” for what had previously been the second best fried chicken in town. It turned out to be the best I’d ever had. Yet I was still disappointed at having just missed out on a legendary roadfood item I had wanted to try for a fairly long time.
But I left Henderson with hope on that earlier trip. I was tipped off by my friend and guide, Louis, that there was strong talk that the owner of a to-be-opened restaurant had the recipe for Bon Ton Chicken and would serve it when his new place was up and running. Within a few months of our visit to Henderson, Louis notified me the rumor was true and the chicken was available once again. My wife and I had been going to southern Indiana, which is within easy driving distance of Henderson, every couple of years or so since we were married to visit close friends. So I told Louis I’d be back before too long. It turned out we went a little longer between visits. The wait stretched to four years. But it was now over.
Kentucky was still a few days off when we left home and hopped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike heading west. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know where we stopped for our first meal; the Summit Diner in Somerset, PA.
My wife had chicken-noodle soup with a very rich broth and thick noodles. For my order, I broke from tradition when I saw that their daily special was a patty melt, a favorite of mine. It had far less cheese than is standard for a patty melt, but the burger itself and the onions that bordered on caramelization made for enjoyable eating anyway. On top of that, I had hash browns on the side, and I absolutely love the Summit Diner’s hash browns.
I almost always get pie for dessert at the summit and this time was no exception. But I did try a flavor I had never sampled there; peach. It’s not usually one of the available flavors when I go to the Summit and I had been craving it around that time. Did I ever hit the jackpot. It turned out to be arguably the best piece of fruit pie I’ve ever had and the first of four items I would eat on this trip that I consider to be in my personal roadfood pantheon. It was full of big peach pieces and the crust had a delicious buttery quality.
Our first-day destination was Columbus, the capital of Ohio. As I’ve indicated in past trip reports, we make a habit of visiting state houses while on vacation. We arrived during the evening, so that would wait until the following morning. Our immediate concern after checking into our hotel was dinner. And I had what I hoped would be something special planned. One of my food loves is old-fashioned Americanized Chinese food, the kind of stuff I used to eat during the 70s and 80s, but which has taken a backseat to more authentic, regional Chinese cuisine in later years, at least in the major coastal cities. Ding Ho is the oldest surviving Chinese restaurant in Columbus. While it had a modern, generic exterior that’s probably been updated over the years, the interior was classic old-school Chinese-American, as was the menu.
Upon being seated, we were almost immediately asked by our server if we would like any egg rolls or bread and butter. Before my time, Chinese-American restaurants really were that. They had mixed menus of both Chinese and American food, and they probably served a bread and butter basket like you would get at just about any decent restaurant in those days. That was still the case at Ding Ho, although the menu was certainly more heavily tilted in the direction of Chinese.
I declined the bread, but was tempted to order a PuPu Platter, which is a sampling of appetizers served with a mini-grill for heating them. That’s not really my wife’s thing and would have been too much for me, so I did accept the offer of an egg roll for my first course. It had the style of crust I love. My wife’s entree was roast pork with snow peas. I was excited to see it arrive on the sort of metal serving dish that was standard in good Chinese restaurants when I was growing up, but which I probably hadn’t seen in a number of years. I ordered Sweet & Sour Pork, with which I have a very long history. The first Chinese meal I can remember eating was at a long-gone restaurant called China City in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. This would have been during the early 70s. We had Sweet & Sour Pork that night too, although it was usually called Sweet & Pungent Pork back then. Everything hit the spot and I had my desired nostalgia fix.
The following day started with two state house visits. The first was in Columbus. We were on a tight schedule and didn’t stay long. But we always enjoy ticking another capitol off our list. We’ll never get to all 50, but it’s still fun trying.
From there, we headed west, into Indiana, and on to another capitol, this one in Indianapolis. And that was the extent of our sightseeing during this trip, which had the twin purposes of visiting good friends and eating good food.
All of that state house viewing made us hungry and it was a short ride from the capitol to our lunch destination; Shapiro’s Delicatessen, an Indianapolis institution that has been owned and operated by the Shapiro family for over a century. I knew it was a cafeteria before we arrived, but I was still delighted by the layout and classic look of the place when we first stepped in. It appears to have been pulled out of the middle of the twentieth century and dumped into our era.
Shapiro’s also happens to be across the street from Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts.
They are known for their corned beef on rye, which many of you know is a sandwich for which I have strong feelings. We ordered a half of one with a bowl of chicken noodle soup, which went to my wife, and split an order of latkes. The sandwich was fantastic. The meat was flavorful and moist and I’ve never had better rye bread. It’s sliced thick and had more flavor than I’m accustomed to for rye bread. Shapiro’s corned beef sandwich was the second item I ate during this trip that went into my personal roadfood pantheon.
For dessert, I sampled Shapiro’s very good lemon-meringue pie.
Our vacation was off to a flying start.
To be continued.