The food was good, but the story was the game

“I stopped at a small roadside cafe called ‘Deja Vu.’ The waitress asked, ‘Don’t I know you?’”

—My kind of place.

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Getting ready for a trip later this summer has me pumped. Not just any trip, though. Has to be one in a car that was on the dealer’s showroom floor when gas was 26¢ a gallon and you could buy a whitewall tire for what that gallon of gas will set you back today.

The experience of traveling in an old car captivated my sense of adventure decades ago. Finding fun places to eat along the way made it even better.

So much so that a group of 1950s two-seater Ford Thunderbird owners made somewhat of a challenge of it 35 years or so ago. Outdoing each other at finding the best eatery became secondary when telling the best story about where we ate became the game.

Reviewing the road worthiness of my ’57 out in the garage last week reminded me of San Antonio T-Bird Club member Jack Ralph. For my money, his story still stands as the best classic cafe account.

According to Jack, he found the J-J Truck Stop driving up toward the Midwest to judge a car show. “A bad experience with ‘Kentucky Fried Pelican’ the evening before had me looking for a good place to eat breakfast,” he said.

“Proceeding down 1-30,” Jack continued, “Some persuasive signs heralding J-J Truck Stop’s breakfast convinced me it was the answer to my search. Pulling onto the lot, I found wall-to-wall Peterbilts, big red Fords with Cat engines, and Kenworths—sure signs of good eating.

“I parked my little ‘Bird on the outskirts,” said Jack. “Didn’t want it to get squashed in a parking lot where giants roamed. Once inside, I grabbed one of the few counter seats left with great anticipation, knowing this place was going to render a story.”

“I was barely seated when a china mug came sailing down a chute on the inside edge of the counter and stopped about two inches off dead center of where I was sitting,” Jack continued. “This was a coffee man’s coffee—the color of Arco 10W40 that needed changing. Glancing down the counter, I saw a lass with a cross-your-heart figure in a waitress uniform sporting a name tag that read ‘Cindy’ and broadcasting a smile that moved with the rhythm of her non-stop gum chewing.

“Cindy had a nice smile,” Jack said, “obviously proud of her coffee cup shuffleboard demonstration. Patrons at the counter didn’t lift an eyebrow. Regulars, obviously.

“I’m not a coffee drinker,” Jack noted. “Years ago, the tummy let me know that enough was enough. However, good sense told me that if you eat here, you better drink coffee. Declining a cup after such a magnificent display of waitressing skills might have gotten me thrown out. I silently sent a subliminal message down to the tummy that read, ‘We’re drinking coffee today, so just shut up.'”

“In no time at all, Cindy was back with an order pad and still working on that chewing gum,” Jack continued. “Allowing as how I was hungry, I asked what she recommended. The sausage omelet was her favorite. Wanting to fit in, I said that’s what I would have.”

“While waiting for breakfast and sipping coffee, I smiled every time Cindy glanced my way. Keeping the waitress happy is the key to good service,” Jack noted. “Studying the environment, I felt out of place. The other patrons wore cowboy hats or caps with an inspiring message like the name of another truck stop, the brand name of their preferred rig, or a political candidate from three elections ago.”

“I, on the other hand, was sporting a clean tee-shirt and a fresh shave further identifying me as a newcomer,” said Jack. “They were all polite, eating breakfast, discussing ‘making good time,’ and keeping Cindy busy refilling coffee cups. I didn’t ask; just assumed that making good time meant ‘on the road.'”

Jack said breakfast arrived quickly. “The omelet must have contained a half dozen eggs. It came with a stack of pancakes as tall as the handle on Reggie Jackson’s baseball bat, a pound of bacon, biscuits the size of a Thunderbird headlight, and a bowl of cream gravy clinging precariously to the side of the plate. I knew I’d found the fix for the fried chicken fiasco,” Jack smiled.

“About halfway through the omelet, this Lincoln Continental pulled up near the front door,” Jack continued. “Sensing a social misalignment of major proportions about to happen, I held my cup in the air signaling my need for a refill and waited to see what was coming through the door.”

A well-dressed elderly couple stepped inside just as Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy,’ came on the jukebox,” Jack laughed. “Taking a long look around the room and frowning at the collection of gimme caps and well-worn cowboy hats, the missus spun the old man around in his nicely polished Florsheims before the door closed behind them. Hastily beating a retreat back to the car, they barely missed getting run over by a Kenworth pulling a reefer in the process.

“Sad part is,” Jack said with a smile as he wrapped up his story, “She will never know they missed out on the best breakfast this side of the Mississippi.”

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, and The Fort Stockton Pioneer.

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