The next morning, we headed north into the Midwest to visit our friends in Bloomington, Indiana, where my wife attended Indiana University. A few of her closest friends from those days went to work for the school after graduating and never left Bloomington.
The route from Evansville to Bloomington took us right past Washington, Indiana, and I had spotted a burger joint there that appeared to have strong potential while doing my pre-trip research. I wrote about The New White Steamer as part of a post on our 2019 vacation, but our first visit to this classic small-town gathering place was during this 2015 trip.
Washington’s Main Street is the picture of small-town America with the addition of 70s and 80s pop music. That’s right. Upon parking and stepping out of our car, we were amused to discover that there were speakers attached to the corner lamp posts and that America’s, “A Horse With No Name” was blaring out of them. When that finished, Asia’s, “Heat of the Moment” was up next. It must be interesting to live or work on that stretch.
Although they specialize in burgers, The New White Steamer also serves breakfast and has a nice array of sandwiches for lunch. We grabbed a couple stools at their counter and soaked up the atmosphere. Several booths were filled with locals who I suspected were regulars there for their weekly get-together to catch up on the latest news and gossip.
The Steamer’s hamburgers reminded me of photos I’ve seen of the onion-fried burgers that are popular in El Reno, Oklahoma. Onions are smashed into the meat, which is pressed down and cooked on a flat grill until the onions are nearly caramelized and the edges of the burgers are crispy and lacey thin. I enjoyed my double-cheeseburger immensely and couldn’t wait to return the next time I passed through the area.
While I was tempted to wash my burger down with a malt, I passed on that opportunity because there was another roadfood establishment in Washington that we were headed to for ice cream after leaving the Steamer.
Mason’s Root Beer Stand is on the outskirts of downtown Washington. It’s a drive-in style stand, meaning the servers go out to the customers’ cars to take their order and bring them their food. My wife tried a hot fudge sundae, while I went with a banana shake. Both were very good. I tasted the sundae and the vanilla soft-serve was nice and dense, while my shake was thick and flavorful.
This is where I’d normally write that I’d like to return to Mason’s at some point to try their hot dogs or burgers, but a roadfooder friend told me at some point that they aren’t very good. So I will stick with The New White Steamer whenever I’m in the vicinity of Washington, Indiana. In fact, when I returned in 2019, I did wash my double-cheeseburger down with a malt and skipped Mason’s.
As we worked our way up north to Bloomington, we passed through southern Indiana cornfield country.
After arriving in B-Town, we caught up with our friends and made dinner plans. On a previous visit, I had noticed a gas station that had a big offset smoker in their parking lot and expressed an interest in checking it out at some point. It would happen that evening.
When I first spotted this little complex on that earlier trip, they advertised that they sold barbecue once-a-week. By 2015, they offered it daily in the Short Stop Food Mart, which was part of a complex that included the aforementioned gas station. The smoked meat portion of the business was called the BBQ Train.
My wife’s friend and I headed over there to take out enough smoked meat and sides for our entire crew. Unfortunately, it was not very good. The brisket was tough. I had the impression that they took it off the smoker way before it hit the desired 200 degree mark. The ribs were better, but still wouldn’t remind anyone of quality southern Q. I can’t recall what my impression of the burnt ends was, although that is probably not a good sign. I tend not to forget the good stuff.
Breakfast the next day was at a homey downtown Bloomington restaurant called the Runcible Spoon that was around when my wife was a student.
While she ordered a basic breakfast plate, I jumped at the opportunity to order their homemade corned beef hash. In my area, it’s very hard to find good corned beef hash. It generally comes out of a can. So I like to get it on the road when I see it billed as homemade on a menu. Unfortunately, I was again let down. The main problem was that there wasn’t nearly enough corned beef in it. It was like eating a dish of fried potatoes with little scraps of meat that didn’t add enough flavor or character.
I believe I mentioned in a report on an earlier trip to Bloomington that while I love the town, there isn’t a lot of the kind of food I look for on roadfood-themed vacations there.
The dining highlight of our stop in B-Town turned out to be the Afghan food that we took out for dinner that evening from a restaurant called Samira. My wife and I used to live around the corner from a couple Afghan restaurants in Philly and like it very much. What we had in Bloomington was an outstanding mix of chicken and shrimp with highly seasoned rice and vegetables.
It was time to head east, in the direction of home, the following morning. But there were many miles to go and plenty of food to eat along the way.
Our lunch stop was a central Ohio shack that can fairly be described as legendary among those who share my proclivity for seeking out these types of places. Crabill’s of Urbana, Ohio, specializes in mini-hamburgers, also known as sliders. They are cooked on a flat-surfaced grill in the grease that builds up over the course of the day, resulting in a finished product that has a beautifully crispy char and great flavor.
I had single and double sliders, while my wife went with a hot dog. It was the only hot dog on the grill, which we had a perfect view of from our counter seats. Watching the grill-master cook it was an experience I’ll never forget. He must have spent several minutes shoveling hamburger grease onto this lone hot dog with his spatula. It was a sight that I’d describe as both enticing and slightly disturbing. Still, I was glad to accept my wife’s offer of a bite and loved it almost as much as the sliders.
I didn’t want to go overboard at Crabill’s because we had another major food stop planned not that far from Urbana. As we discovered on a previous vacation, Henry’s in West Jefferson, Ohio, a former gas station-turned diner, served some of the nation’s best pie until it closed a couple years ago. I was very eager to get there to try some of the flavors I couldn’t fit on that earlier occasion.
But we ran into a bit of trouble as we tried to get out of Urbana and onto the road to West Jefferson. The town was holding its annual Chili Festival parade that day. We had no choice but to sit in a long line of cars watching the parade go by for what seemed like an eternity. Under other circumstances, I may have enjoyed the sights and sounds of a small-town event like this. But I knew that Henry’s gradually ran out of pie flavors throughout the course of the morning and afternoon and I feared the delay would hurt my chances of getting the flavors I sought. It turned out I was right.
By the time we made it out of Urbana and arrived in West Jefferson, Henry’s pie board was looking somewhat barren, at least in comparison to what I had envisioned. There was no banana, butterscotch or sugar-cream pie, the three flavors I was most hoping to try.
I settled for blackberry, which I also had the other time we stopped at Henry’s, and meringue-topped chocolate-cream pie. They were both good. In fact, the crust for Henry’s fruit pies was incredibly good. But I was disappointed that I missed out on getting any of the flavors I most desired and silently cursed that parade in Urbana!
My wife couldn’t resist trying Henry’s grilled bologna sandwich while we were there. I had a taste and shared her high opinion of it. This wasn’t anything like the Oscar Mayer bologna I ate when I was a kid.
We stopped in Pittsburgh to spend the night and visit with close friends. They took us to a long-closed steel mill that has become something of a tourist attraction. Pittsburgh has remade itself into a hub of modern industry and technology, but it was enjoyable to get a taste of the city’s old heyday.
It was time to head home the following morning, but we had one final stop on this vacation. As I’ve mentioned a number of times in previous posts, we never drive to or from the Midwest or Pittsburgh without stopping at the Summit Diner in Somerset, Pennsylvania. I’ve been there so many times that the place almost feels like home to me.
I stuck with one of my standards there, a classic breakfast plate with their homemade sausage patties and the best hash-browns I’m aware of.
And naturally, there was pie for dessert. I’ve finished many a vacation with a slice of meringue-topped cream pie at the Summit. I went with banana this time around.
For the combination of food and the several sightseeing stops we made along the way, this was unquestionably one of my all-time favorite vacations. While some of the food I had was disappointing, there were enough standouts to more than make up for the let-downs. And on top of that, we avoided the massive crowds in Philly that were there to see the Pope.
It’s time to start planning an encore for the big Six Oh.