Wonders of Waffle House

It wasn’t until Anthony Bourdain extolled the virtues of the Waffle House during a show about Atlanta that I took the humble roadside eatery into consideration. The squat square building capped by a yellow awning and the stark  self-explanatory words “Waffle House”  would be easily overlooked if not for the tall yellow scrabble-tile looking road sign. An Eater.com story by Khusbu Shah explains, Bourdain’s fascination with the place, as exotica,

“Bourdain revealed that while he did try local delicacies like hominy and hoppin’ john, he was most blown away by one discovery in particular: “The glories of the Waffle House.” Bourdain explained: “Talk about exotica, I’ve never been. It’s apparently a place you can go no matter how wrecked and obnoxious you are or how late at night… they are nice to you.” Amused by Bourdain’s admission, Colbert reveals his favorite part about the 24-hour chain: “The nice thing about the Waffle House is that the menu is all pictures, you don’t have to read.”

Yes, yes, I know those of you in the southern states and Indiana [southern in spirit] are rolling your eyes at Yankee anthropological attempts to understand and appreciate “the south” with a mocking undertone. I confess, I myself, entered the with an unacknowledged sense of judgment that quickly evaporated.  First of all, the waitress put  Jim and I at ease by making light of our misguided attempt to enter the diner through the front (where there is no entrance), “I was wondering where you were going?” she sweetly chuckled. Menus were on the table. Coffee soon followed. This was the first time I could choose to have my hash browns: smothered (with onions), capped (with mushrooms), diced (with tomatoes) and peppered (with jalapeno peppers). It was strangely satisfying to personalize otherwise standard and uniform potatoes. Even in the morning light the atmosphere was welcoming as Bourdain claimed. It didn’t take much to imagine what an oasis it would be in the darkness when everything else is closed and one is hungry, hungover, high or just sad and lonely. This is not a Edward Hopper painting of modern alienation rather a calming place  at the counter, watching the eggs sizzle, catching the wafting scent of waffles and allowing oneself to be held in the dance of hardworking cooks and waitresses around you. You are not alone, even if eating alone.

I happily had good company during  the post-holiday weekday morning rush.  Perhaps because of my low expectations or maybe the food WAS really just good, I don’t know, but I found the hashbrowns light and flavorful (not laden with grease), the eggs gently cooked sunny side up and the toasted (and buttered!) biscuit a perfect platform for strawberry jelly.  The line of people waiting against the entry wall made sense.

Just like the signage and building, the food and experience held no pretensions of grandeur, competition or beneficence. I suppose that honesty and simplicity is one of the wonders of the Waffle House [open for 60 years, year-round, including Christmas].

Here is a recent article shared on facebook about Waffle House (Thank You, Rachel!). Note: They take Valentine’s reservations. Despite my appreciation, I don’t think we’ll be attending.

Wishing you all happy roadside eating,



The Girl Who Cried Yelp

Is it possible to rely too much on review sites, like Yelp? On a recent trip to San Francisco I started to question my so far unconditional love of the app and discovered limiting conditions. How do you use the app?

I use the restaurant review app Yelp for the following reasons:

Discover Local and Hidden Good Eats: When I’m traveling and looking for a good place to eat beyond the standardized options of familiar chain restaurants. It is usually an excise in culinary tourism hoping to discover something delicious and try something local. Yelp is very good for direction and advice. For example, traveling back from Atlanta to Indiana, we found the highly rated, Wildfire BBQ and Grill in Franklin, KY. Would never have found it without Yelp. It was quaint, local, delicious, hidden and a wonderful find. They had a house hot sauce that made me cry. The chicken had this almost “peking duck” like caramelized skin while the corn bread was strangely flat and tasty. Small local establishments can sometimes seem unwelcoming and averse to strangers. Yelp reviews offer reassurance through pictures, reviews and recommendations. This is the best use of the application for me.                                      http://wildfirebbq.net/


Visualize Options: I rely on Yelp when we are debating familiar options. The list view allows us to go down the list and by the process of elimination find dinner that all (most) of us agree upon. In this case the app is used for efficiency rather than discovery. Depending on how indecisive the group is, the app, can be either helpful or distracting. It won’t answer what you “feel” like having but it can help the group find the solution that best “fits” their collective craving.

Menu recommendations:  The third reason to refer to Yelp is when already in the restaurant looking for recommended dishes. It answers the question, “what is good here?” with pictures and reviews. For me, this use of the app is somewhat problematic. It risks handing over my own preferences to others. Sure, a certain dish can be the signature of the restaurant, like Salt and Pepper Dungeness Crab at the R and G Lounge in San Francisco’s China Town (Recommended also by Anthony Bourdain) which we had to get and was as promised a delicious experience. The Peking Duck was also as reviewed and recommended, wonderful. The recommended pineapple fried rice was also delicious. All the recommended dishes were worthy. But, I feel I relegated too much of that meal to the preferences of others. The rice was good but nothing close to the novelty of the crab, all the dishes were tasty but dry together as a meal. Most importantly, I felt I stopped thinking and experiencing the place and it’s taste for myself. Still a great experience I would’ve missed without the Yelp reassurances. In contrast, at the Hog Island Oyster Co. in the Ferry Building, we ordered the fried anchovies based on Yelp recommendations, along with dishes (raw oysters) of our own preference. Fried anchovies are my new unlikely favorite!  My new rule should be to order one recommended item and another item of my own discovery. Or, maybe once inside the restaurant, turn off the app.


Validation of Choice: On walk-able city streets sometimes we let our nose lead the way. Last week in San Francisco, we found a small, unassuming, south Asian restaurant with fantastic food. We had a  Chicken Keema with mushrooms dish (the special of the day), along with naan and rice. We noticed the small restaurant because we both liked the graphics, the aromas wafting as we passed and the serving dishes the couple seated outside were diving into. I can’t wait to try to make a version of that delicious spiced ground chicken with peas and mushrooms.  It was too yummy to wait and take a picture at the restaurant. After we finished eating, my beloved Jim, aka “Milk” of my chopped and blended family, went on Yelp to find our find validated by others with high recommendations.   http://www.curryleafsf.us/


We also found Out the Door at the Ferry Building, on Yelp, after we already ate and enjoyed it’s chicken curry and chicken bun.


Lesson Learned:

Use, Yelp,  liberally during the search for unfamiliar yumminess and sparingly once seated.

“Here too the gods dwell”……….

Heraclitus was warming himself by a stove when a group of visitors arrived hoping to meet the great philosopher and was surprised to see him in such mundane circumstances. Responding to their obvious disappointment, Heraclitus famously announces, “here too the gods dwell.” His simple statement locates meaning…..”here”…….by the stove, by the fire, where we feed and warm our bodies. Heraclitus, reminds his visitors and us that the philosophical self-examined life is not lead apart from everyday needs. In doing so, he shatters the ideality and the celebrity of the tranquil philosopher.  Heraclitus’ statement has been closely examined by many scholars, most notably by Martin Heidegger.

I simply invoke this statement as an ancient recognition that the “mundane” is the un-thought, unexamined, unattended, unfelt and that everything, everyone, everyplace harbors the meaningful. A philosophical life is not one of removed, meditative, tranquility apart from human struggle. On the contrary, a philosophical life begins with the simple gesture of warming oneself and attending to the warmth, the fire, the pleasure, the heat, the glow, the light that makes us see, ourselves among and against things in the world.

We can find moments of self-examination and awareness even when we buy a blender or when we boil a pot of pasta. It is ordinary and mundane when I buy the cheapest or most expensive blender with no thought to how it affects my life, it is philosophical when I consider where the blender will live in my home when not in use, why I need it, how often will I use it. Boiling a pot of pasta is ordinary if it becomes an mechanical exercise of producing an efficient dinner. It becomes a human moment when I consider the heat, the water, the pot, the family, the pasta itself, dinner time, the host of variables that converge when I make dinner. This attention doesn’t mean, I’m pausing to ponder….it just means that when I’m boiling pasta, I’m boiling pasta…..I’m attentive and in the moment. Food can be easily be relegated to mundane meaninglessness. That’s why, to me, Heraclitus’ statement that “here too (by the stove) gods dwell” seems so poignant.

Counting calories, intellectualizing, carefully designing menus to meet allergies, nutrition, brand etc, is not the attention I’m talking about. Anthony Bourdain describes the moment of awareness and successful eating in Medium Raw (2011), as follows,

If cooking professionally is about control, eating successfully should be about submission, about easily and without thinking giving yourself over to whatever dream they’d like you to share. In the best-case scenario, you shouldn’t be intellectualizing what you’re eating while you’re eating it. You shouldn’t be noticing things at all. You should be pleasingly oblivious to the movements of the servers in the dining area and bus stations, only dimly aware of the passage of time. Taking pictures of your food as it arrives — or, worse, jotting down brief descriptions for your blog entry later — is missing the point entirely. You shouldn’t be forced to think at all. Only feel.

I am guilty of taking pictures and blogging…..but I also remember many moments, the best moments when I completely forgot to do so and just enjoyed what was placed before me. Philosophical self-awareness includes the Bourdain receptive sense of giving yourself over to your needs and wants as it meets what is given. It may seem like a contradiction, how can one be both self-aware and self-negating? But that edge between thinking and feeling, control and reception is the philosophical moment of living of life of meaning, whether buying a blender or boiling a pot of pasta. Think and feel. Heraclitus, wasn’t just thinking. He was feeling the heat.