Monday, May 25, 2015

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, the basics: 

630 locations in 42 states
Open 6:00 am until 10:00 pm Monday through Thursday, 6:00 am until 11:00 pm Friday through Sunday

Home-style Southern cooking, such as fried chicken tenders, fried or grilled fish, chicken fried steak, meatloaf, and chicken and dumplings.  Sides such as mashed potatoes & gravy, macaroni & cheese, turnip greens, pinto beans, and fried okra.  Salads, sandwiches, burgers and steaks also available. 

Breakfast served all day, with all the usual and expected items, such as bacon, sausage, eggs and grits, pancakes and waffles.  Country ham and sugar cured ham available.  Hash brown casserole and fried apples offered with many breakfast selections. 

Most menu items are less than $10, with a few pricier items such as steak and seafood.

 Fried Chicken Tenders dinner with 3 sides, hashbrown 
casserole, pinto beans, and fried apples

Cracker Barrel was founded in 1969, with the first Old Country Store & restaurant opening in Lebanon, Tennessee.  There are now 630 locations spread across 42 states.  While they initially appeared along interstate highways, they have started to spring up “inland”.  

I first experienced Cracker Barrel in the 80s, at the Bush River Road/I-20 location in Columbia, SC.  I have since eaten at a couple dozen Cracker Barrels on both sides of the Mississippi.  I served in the Air Force for 20 years, and made many trips of up to 1200 miles.  I’ve also made many trips from SC to the Charlotte, NC airport.  Cracker Barrel plays a big role in my road trips. 

 Sirloin Steak, hashbrown casserole, macaroni & 
cheese, fried okra

To this day, I travel like a child- I’m bored, I need to go to the bathroom, Are we there yet?  Cracker Barrel is my reward when traveling.  When I was in graduate school in Maryland, I chose my motel based on proximity to a Cracker Barrel.  I would usually set out about 7 or 8 pm with my dog, and drive about 200 miles, then stop for the night.  I’d have my Cracker Barrel breakfast the next morning before hitting the road for SC.  When I moved from overseas back to Illinois, I had breakfast in at Cracker Barrel every day while house hunting.  It would usually hold me until dinner (that’s supper in the South). 

 Breakfast plate with Sugar Cured Ham, scrambled eggs, hashbrown 
casserole, grits with sawmill milk gravy, biscuit

The Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurants have a huge selection.  In addition to the large lunch and dinner menu, they offer breakfast all day until closing.  There are many shamefully large breakfast platters.  One of my old favorites is the Sunrise Sampler, which boasts a piece of smoked sausage, a piece of thick-sliced bacon, and country ham or sugar cured ham.  It is accompanied by 2 eggs cooked to order, grits and gravy, biscuits & jelly, fried apples, and hashbrown casserole.  My original favorite was the Country Boy Breakfast, which used to offer the choice of marinated tenderloin steak, which was fabulous.  The tenderloin is no longer a choice, but you can get sirloin steak, ham or pork chop. 

Eggs in a Basket with sugar cured ham 
and hashbrown casserole

My new favorite breakfast is the Eggs in a Basket.  You get 2 slices of sourdough with an egg cracked into a hole cut in the center.  It is served with sausage or bacon, but I got mine with ham.  You also get hashbrown casserole or fried apples.  They also offer pancakes and French toast, which my brother sometimes gets. 

Apple Streusel French Toast with 
scrambled eggs and bacon

One of the most popular lunch and dinner meal choices is the Country Dinner Plate.  You choose a meat from over 10 choices, and 2 sides with over 20 to choose from.  All orders at Cracker Barrel come with biscuits &/or cornbread. 

 I usually take my biscuits home for later.  My favorite topping 
is my mother’s homemade fig preserves! 

Current Meat Choices for Country Dinner Plate: 

Fried chicken livers
Sugar cured ham
Fried chicken tenderloins
Grilled pork chop
Hamburger steak
Country ham
Lemon pepper grilled rainbow trout
Grilled chicken tenderloins
Fried catfish
Spicy grilled catfish
Chicken n’ dumplins

Sides include mac & cheese, pinto beans, turnip greens, green beans, mashed potatoes & gravy, hashbrown casserole, fried okra, baby carrots, corn, steamed broccoli, slaw, side salad, and 10 more. 

Country Dinner Plate with grilled chicken tenders, 
dumplins and slaw

My early favorite Cracker Barrel meal was the “vegetable plate”, which was a choice of 4 sides.  I always got dumplins, pinto beans, turnip greens, and fried apples.  Over the years however, I’ve had almost all of the meat selections.  My favorites are the fish and chicken n’ dumplins. 

Many of the country plate meats are available as Fancy Fixins, which is a meat with 3 sides.  The catfish, trout, chicken tenders, and dumplins are available, as well as meatloaf, roast beef, country fried steak, chicken fried chicken, steaks, haddock, and a sampler platter.  My sister is a fan of the roast beef, as are scores of others because it often runs out!  It’s very good, but sometimes not lean enough for me, and sometimes (I guess when it’s running out) it’s a small portion.  My sister and brother have ordered the sirloin steak dinner several times. 

 Fancy Fixins platter of Sirloin Steak, hashbrown 
casserole, corn and fried okra

I recently ordered the Sampler Platter, which serves up meatloaf, chicken and dumplins and sugar cured ham, and 3 sides of your choice.  I ordered the platter 12 years or so ago, and was not impressed with the meatloaf.  My taste must have changed, because I enjoyed it this time. 

 Fancy Fixins Sampler Platter:  Chicken n’ Dumplins, 
meatloaf, sugar cured ham, baby carrots, 
pinto beans, and turnip greens

As I mentioned before, I have mixed feelings about the Roast Beef dinner.  It’s kinda my favorite, but every time I get a big glob of fat (obscured by the gravy), I lay off of it for a while.  My favorite Fancy Fixins platter is currently the haddock platter.  I think it is a more recent offering, not on the early menu.  It is lightly coated in a flour and cornmeal mixture and pan fried.  It is always a large piece of fish. 

 Fancy Fixins platter with Haddock, baked potato, 
green beans, and fried apples

Cracker Barrel offers daily lunch specials at $5.99.  A house salad with grilled chicken and choice of baked potato or soup is available daily.  The special Monday is baked chicken and dressing, Tuesday is meatloaf and mashed potatoes, Wednesday is chicken pot pie, and Thursday is roasted turkey and dressing.  Monday, Tuesday and Thursday specials come with 1 side. 

Dinner specials are offered after 4 pm.  Monday is grilled pork chops, Tuesday is lemon pepper trout, Wednesday is broccoli cheddar chicken, and Thursday is roasted turkey and dressing.  All come with 2 sides. 

 Cracker Barrel dining area

Weekend specials are served all day.  The Friday special is Fish Fry.  You have a choice of cod or catfish.  It is served with steak fries and slaw, but they are usually willing to serve any 2 sides.  The Saturday special is Chicken and Rice, with 2 sides.  The Sunday special is Homestyle Chicken, which is 2 fried boneless chicken breasts, which are usually very large.  It also comes with 2 sides. 

My current favorite Cracker Barrel meal hands-down is the Saturday Dinner special, Chicken and Rice.  I get it with the vegetable of the day, baby limas, and baby carrots. 

Saturday special, Chicken & Rice, baby limas, baby carrots

Did you save room for dessert?  I virtually never do!  Once I asked for a carryout container as soon as they brought my meal.  I immediately put my biscuits and half of my meat and sides in the box.  Then I had dessert. 

Baked Apple Dumplin with vanilla bean ice cream, 
topped with apple pecan streusel

Depending on what time and day you go to Cracker Barrel, you may encounter a substantial wait.  You can pass the time on the large porch, enjoying one of the large rocking chairs.  You can always browse in the Country Store.  They offer a substantial array of goods, including old-style candy, home décor items, old-style toys, and clothing items.  I’ve bought several patriotic-themed shirts at Cracker Barrel Country Store.  Whenever I wear them, I always get compliments. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Lizard’s Thicket Columbia SC Area

SC Lizard’s Thicket, the basics: 

14 locations in the Greater Columbia Area, 1 in Florence, SC
Open 6:00 am until 9:00 pm; breakfast until 11:30 M-F & noon on weekends

Home-style Southern cooking, such as fried chicken, beef stew, cubed steak, fried pork chop, meatloaf and fried fish
A plate with 1 meat and 3 sides at $7.99; 1 meat and 2 sides $6.99, 1 meat and 1 side $5.99

 Country Fried Steak, fried okra, squash casserole, 
potatoes & gravy

The Williams family opened their first Lizard’s Thicket restaurant in a renovated house on Broad River Road in 1977.  As I recall, it was in the area of the Forestry Commission, SLED, and prison.  My family must have started patronizing the Thicket in that first year or two.  Then as now, the Williams family pride themselves on “offering authentic regional Southern home cooking that families have enjoyed for generations”. 

There are now 15 Lizard’s Thicket restaurants, mainly in the Greater Columbia Area of South Carolina, and one in Florence, SC.  There are 7 restaurants in Columbia, 2 in West Columbia, 1 in Cayce, 2 in Lexington, 1 in Irmo, and 1 in Blythewood. 

The Thickets now have large printed menus with color photos, but their primary meat, side, and dessert choices remain on large boards, usually several in each restaurant, reminiscent of the original chalk boards.  On a recent visit, the Irmo Lizard’s Thicket offered a choice of 10 meats, 25 sides, and 10 desserts. 

Lizard’s Thicket Menu Board

There are also daily specials.  As of this writing, the following specials are listed on the Lizard’s Thicket website: 

Sunday:  Turkey & Dressing, Southern-Style Pot Roast
Monday:  Chicken & Dumplings
Tuesday:  Fried Chicken Livers
Wednesday:  Meat Loaf
Thursday:  Pulled Pork BBQ, Liver & Onions
Friday:  Grilled Boneless Chicken Breast
Saturday:  BBQ Chicken

One of my early favorites at the Thicket was the beef stew.  It is one of my mom’s favorites.  The broth is nice and thick, like brown gravy.  I find it to be far superior to the Cracker Barrel beef stew, which has a thin, soup-like broth. 

 Beef Stew with sweet potato fries, $5.99

Over the years, the country fried steak has been one of my top favorite meat selections.  It is also one of my sister’s favorites.  Countryfried steak is battered and fried beef cubed steak, that is then simmered in the pot with gravy for an hour or two.  (Chicken fried steak has a heavy coating of batter that is crispy fried.  It’s very popular in Texas, but I don’t care for it at all.) 

 Country Fried Steak, green beans, tomatoes & okra, 
macaroni & cheese

Tied for favorite for me is the fried flounder.  My sister and I often debate between the flounder and cubed steak, then divide and conquer.  One of us orders cubed steak, the other flounder, then we share. 

Fried Flounder, baby limas, macaroni & cheese, 
squash casserole

A more recent favorite for my sister is the baked chicken.  Ironically, she has not ordered it lately.  She also likes the fried chicken, leg and thigh.  Mom is a fan of fried chicken, always the breast.  Mom is also a fan of a good fried pork chop. 

Fried Chicken leg & thigh, squash casserole, cabbage, 
fried okra

Fried Chicken breast, sweet potato fries,
 cabbage $6.99

Fried Pork Chop, cabbage, dressing, baby limas

My cousin ordered the daily special last week, the grilled boneless chicken breast.  A couple months ago, my sister and I ordered the daily special, the hamburger steak.  It was huge, and very good. 

Friday special, Grilled Boneless Chicken Breast, cabbage, 
squash casserole, $6.99

Daily special a couple months ago, 12 oz 
Hamburger Steak with grilled onions, French fries, 
squash casserole, baby limas

As you can see from the pictures, my family definitely has favorite sides.  Mom and I often get the baby limas.  All of us like the squash casserole and cabbage.  We also frequently get the fried okra and mac & cheese.  Mom likes the sweet potato fries and dressing. 

Mom’s Sweet Potato Fries with powdered sugar

My family most often dines at the Irmo location, and one of the original locations on Broad River Road, near Dutch Square Mall.  The Irmo location is especially convenient to the area where Mom and I have our routine medical appointments.  We especially look forward to Lizard’s Thicket after fasting blood work!  My dad has breakfast at the downtown location after his fasting blood work.  It’s good too, but for breakfast I prefer Cracker Barrel. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Zesto Drive-In, Newberry, SC

Newberry Zesto Drive-In, the basics: 

2720 College St
Newberry, SC 29108

Open Monday through Saturday 11:00 am until 8:00 pm

Multiple burgers & dogs to choose from.  Sandwiches including pork chop, country fried steak, fish, grilled cheese, & BBQ pork.  Baskets include fries & slaw.  Fried chicken, chicken livers, & hamburger steak available.  Ice cream treats- milkshakes, ice cream sundaes, & banana splits. 

Burger, sandwich, and hotdog prices range from $1.65 to $4.95; baskets $3.60 to $7.15; 3-piece white chicken dinner $7.75.  Ten pieces of chicken, no sides $10.45. 

Zesto Cheeseburger with chili, and fried okra, onion 
rings, and fries

The Zesto chain was founded by LAM Phelan in 1945.  The Zest-O-Mat frozen custard machine was crucial to the evolution of this national chain.  Fast forward, and there are still a fair few Zesto’s scattered around the country.  All are now independently owned and operated.  Interestingly the website for SC Zestos does not list the Newberry Zesto.  It lists two in Columbia and the Chapin Zesto.  My mom and sister tried the Chapin Zesto and were not impressed at all. 
Zesto was likely the first ‘fast food joint’ in my hometown of Newberry, SC.  I couldn’t find a good history of the Newberry location of Zesto, but Road Arch website said it emerged in ‘the 1950s’.  My family used to go to Zesto’s a couple times a month on Sundays when I was a child.  We were a working class family, and our Zesto trips were about as close as we came to eating out on a regular basis.  We usually had milkshakes, sundaes, or banana splits, but occasionally had burgers.  We chose ice cream treats or burgers, but couldn’t have both.  My favorite selections were banana milkshake, banana split, and strawberry sundae.  I also enjoyed the occasional burger. 

Newberry Zesto's 3-piece dark fried chicken snack 

Back then there was no McDonald’s, no Burger King, no Wendy’s.  We enjoyed our trips to Zesto for many years before Hardee’s, the first fast food chain restaurant came to Newberry.  The other chains were several years behind Hardee’s.  I think it had to do with population numbers.  In 1960, there were about 8200 residents in the city of Newberry, and about 29,400 in Newberry County.  In 1980, we were just under 10,000 city and just over 31,000 county.  Today Newberry still sits at just about 10,300 city, but has climbed to 37,800 county residents.  Now we have at least a dozen fast food burger and chicken places.  Newberry even has several “fine dining” restaurants! 

Newberry Zesto's Cheeseburger, which comes with chili

During the 60s, our Zesto had a small air conditioned entry, where you placed your order at the window.  You could see the food prep and cook area.  The lady who usually took the orders sat at a stool, and was scary stern looking.  She was the great aunt of my neighbors, but never seemed amused by anything.  There was a round cement table with cement benches outside, but we always retreated with our food to the car.  Not much has changed, but the cement table has been replaced by a few metal mesh tables.  We always get carry out though. 


Somewhere over the years, during the time I was away from SC I think, the Zesto closed for a few years.  They are now back and going strong.  I’d say they are now most popular for their burgers and fried chicken.  My mom and sister have burgers fairly regularly.  They’re very affordable.  When I’m home visiting, we try to work in a few burgers.  What I love about Zesto burgers is the chili.  And it’s not an extra.  All burgers come with chili unless you request otherwise. 

 Fried Onion Rings

My sister also likes their fried chicken.  We like their fries and onion rings.  They recently started offering fried okra, which is also good.  They offer a pretty good selection of sandwiches, which is probably nice, as well as affordable for local workers. 

 Fried Okra

I tried a chocolate shake a couple months ago, but was completely unimpressed.  I like my chocolate shakes beige.  This one was really dark, rich chocolaty looking, but strangely I did not pick up a strong chocolate taste from it.  I’ll stick to Rush’s and Arby’s for my chocolate shakes, and stick to Zesto chili cheeseburgers.  I would be curious to try a banana split though! 

Newberry Zesto Hours, Sides, and Kid's Menu

 Newberry Zesto's Burgers, Hotdogs, Sandwiches, Plates, 
Fried Chicken, and Ice Cream treats

Monday, May 11, 2015

Shealy’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant in Batesburg-Leesville SC

Shealy’s Bar-B-Que, the basics:  

340 East Columbia Ave
Batesburg-Leesville, SC 29070

Lunch & dinner buffet, 11:00 am-9:00 pm Mon, Tues, Thurs, Fri, Sat; carryout 9 am to 9 pm
Breakfast 7:00-9:30 Sat

Buffet with BBQ pork, fried chicken, and lots of great Southern-style sides
Price $10 (lunch)-$12 (dinner) for adults for buffet with beverage

Bar-B-Que pork with mustard sauce, rice and gravy, greens, 
baby limas, cream corn, and green beans

Shealy’s Bar-B-Que has been around since 1969, which I’m guessing is about the time that my family started eating there.  I definitely remember going with my parents and grandparents when I was a child.  The restaurant is located in Batesburg-Leesville, SC, which was a 30 mile trip on rural roads and highways for us.  That’s was and remains 30 miles of anticipation.  Shealy’s is always on my short list of things to do when I visit family. 

Shealy’s is family-owned and operated.  The matriarch, Mrs. Shealy passed away some years back, but the restaurant has maintained great food, in the tradition of the Southern home-cooked meal.  They have a long newspaper article framed and hanging on the wall, outlining Shealy’s history, highlighting their legendary food, and marveling over their legions of devoted diners.  I’m guessing there have been other articles over the years. 

Prices are reasonable at about $10 for lunch and a couple bucks more for dinner.  Monday prices are discounted.  Their buffet always has BBQ pork with mustard sauce or pepper vinegar sauce, fried chicken, rice, hash, and milk gravy.  They also usually have fried fat back, and often have chicken livers.  I have been when they have “pulley bones”, and set them aside separate from the rest of the fried chicken. 

Hash & rice, Bar-B-Que pork, chicken liver, liver nips, 
baby limas, green beans, greens, and fatback

Plenty of places serve good barbecue, but for my family it’s Shealy’s sides that move them to the top of the heap.  They usually have green beans, cream corn, and baby limas.  They often have greens, noodles, and sweet potatoes.  Sometimes they have baked macaroni and cheese or scalloped potatoes.  They also have a salad and dessert bar, and soft serve ice cream. 

Shealy’s is open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.  They have daily specials most days, in addition to the usual buffet offerings.  Tuesdays they have seafood at dinner (that’s supper in the South), Thursdays is country fried steak at dinner.  Friday they serve ribs all day, and fried fish at lunch (that’s dinner in the South).  The website lists “Chef’s Choice” on Mondays and “BBQ Country Buffet” on Saturday.  I’ve not been on Monday or Saturday in years, but I’m assuming Saturday is the regular buffet items with no special additions.  Although no longer listed on the website, historically they have had liver nips at lunch on Thursdays.  I was there last week on Thursday, and they had liver nips. 

Liver Nips, or Liver Dumplings, with beef, 
cooked in beef broth

You get to serve yourself from the buffet, without the staff hovering over you.  They do however “direct traffic” when the restaurant is crowded.  They will make sure diners know they can go down either side of the hot line, and they help diners seeking seconds “break line” with the incoming diners. 

My mom often gets the fried chicken, but I never get chicken.  For a born and bred Southerner, I’m not much of a fried chicken devotee, and I would never sacrifice belly room on chicken.  I always get the mustard sauce pork barbecue.  I think their hash is pretty good, but I always get the rice and milk gravy.  When they have liver nips, I always get them.  Green beans and baby limas are always on my plate.  I also find that their greens are really good.  I’m not sure if they are collards, mustard greens, or turnip greens, but I have never been disappointed.  I sometimes get a tad of corn, but to me, their corn is not really cream corn.  It may have flour or cornstarch to thicken, but it is just frozen or canned corn that has been thickened.  It is not cut and scraped from the cob like Grandma’s.  Be warned, they seem to put sugar in all their vegetables. 

Fried pork cutlet, rice & gravy, baby limas, and green beans

The salad bar is respectable, but I usually don’t waste belly room there either, except the bread and butter pickles, and carrot salad.  As often as not, I don’t get anything from the dessert bar.  They usually have some type of fruit cobbler, and some type of sheet cake.  I usually get a little peach cobbler when they have it.  They typically have multiple cold &/or layered desserts, which seldom tempt me.  They usually have what I call “steak house banana pudding”, which I abhor.  For me, banana pudding is always made with cooked custard, not instant vanilla pudding.  It’s all about the vanilla wafer texture. 

I suppose I should say a little bit about the seating and ambience.  Nothing fancy at all.  They have some old license plates and such on the walls.  There are 3 large dining areas.  Long tables, much like those used for a church social or family reunion, are lined up in long rows.  In the main dining room where my family usually sits, there are probably around 5 or 6 long tables laid end to end in each row, and about 6 rows of tables.  There is a certain logistic to sitting together with your group when it’s crowded.  We tend to go in a party of 3 to 6 of us, and head down each side of the table to sit across from each other.  To avoid the crowds, I recommend going on a weekday for lunch, arriving when they open at 11:00. 

Once you’re seated, a staffer will come and take your drink order.  We sit in the same area and have had the same server for many years.  They have the basics of water, sodas, and tea.  Their sweet tea is very good. 

The original building has small restrooms with two stalls near the entrance where you pay, and the hot bar.  The newer part of the building has another large dining room, and additional restrooms.  In the halls on the way to the restrooms, they have a half dozen or so pictures of Boykin Spaniels, the state dog of South Carolina.  I’ve had two Boykins.  They have a marvelous people-pleasing temperament. 

As you exit the building, they have a few things for sale, such as their barbecue sauce.  They usually have Happy Home flavorings too.  If you requested anything to take home, such as Bar-B-Que pork or hash, it will be waiting for you at the exit, where you will pay for them.  I’ve bought pints or quarts of their carrot salad.  Recently we bought a quart of liver nips, which they will not always sell you if they think they might run out. 

Enjoying carrot salad at home