Some of my most cautionary tales start out this way: I thought it would be fun. Keep that in mind when I say that I thought it would be fun to take a road trip for my son’s spring break. Foreshadowing music would be handy to have in everyday life but I’d probably ignore it. John and I have always shared a love of just getting in a car and winding our way to a destination or simply meandering, hitting points of interest and unexpected detours along the way. This may be the last time for the foreseeable future we will be traveling with our son as he gets ready to graduate college and find his way in the world, so it was also a bittersweet recognition of that.
Many years ago, John and I took a slow, twisty drive from Chicago to New Mexico along Route 66 with our precious angel dog Lenny and this remains one of our cherished memories together, one we still reminisce about all the time. It was pre-internet and cell phones, so you took out your maps and your guidebooks and you just did it. It was also before social media, of course, email you didn’t want to pile up and a 24-hour news cycle so, hokey as it sounds, it was a simpler time and a vacation was a real time away. That previous sentence is to be heard in the voice of the narrator from the Country Time commercial.
At the time of our drive down Route 66, we were new vegans and access wasn’t nearly as simple as it is today, especially through the vast swath of area in the middle of our country but that was part of the fun, even as challenging as it could be at times. Would we get killed by a militia due to an ill-timed wrong turn in Missouri? [Spoiler alert: We didn’t.] Would we go hungry in Oklahoma? [Spoiler alert: Not quite but almost.] Granted, reviewing something from the comfort of a rearview mirror has a way of blurring and blunting the real-life difficulties but at the same time, don’t you want to have some funny or at least interesting stories to tell friends, the kind you won’t likely experience at an all-inclusive? Anyway, that was what I told myself, though I will admit when standing in the cold drizzle at a service station in Arkansas with a broken serpentine belt having just been diagnosed, keeping a sunny attitude was not the easiest thing to summon. More on that later…
The plan was to drive to Houston to visit some of my side of the family and then spend the remaining time in Austin visiting friends, and, let’s be honest, stuffing ourselves silly with vegan food before hitting the road back to Chicago. Two days driving out, three days in Houston, a day and a half in Austin, two days on the return drive: eight days altogether. What is really almost miraculous is we actually did just that despite the wrenches Mother Nature and technology threw at us at various junctures to and from Texas.
We survived it all in one piece, though, including the bananas which I’d forgotten my aunt made us pack along with us when we left Houston and my son stumbled upon when I asked for a chocolate from our snack bag in the back seat, but, you know what? I correctly calculated that they would actually be in perfect smoothie condition by the time we got to Chicago and my poor son, dry-heaving from the smell of the off-gassing, ever-ripening bananas, said, fine, but could we put them in the trunk, please? I said, sure, and seized the teachable moment that it’s not a proper road trip if someone doesn’t retch from a strong smell emanating from the back seat. See? He may be done with his formal education soon – I have no idea – but the school of life never ends.
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I mainly want to focus on the food and places we got to enjoy but there is no getting around the fact that the drive there was on the harrowing side. Before I get there, though, I have to give some recognition to Red Herring in Urbana, IL, the first official vegan spot we hit on the way out of the Land of Lincoln. Red Herring is, well, it is a trip: A hippie-era throwback, Red Herring is a living time capsule in a church basement of this college town that is pretty much the platonic ideal of a café forged in the heady year of the Summer of Love, a rarity usually only found in aforementioned college towns these days. We kind of tumbled in the back door like Alice after walking up and down the narrow church staircase and ultimately, turned the knob of an unassuming door, which opened the way to an utterly fabulous, busy operation happening without the barest of peeps outside those doors. I did feel like I fell down a rabbit hole when I opened the door to this glorious vision…
John got the Toasty Hexwrap, Justice got the Seitan Gyros, I got the Buffalo Tempeh and I will tell you right now that food reviewing isn’t my bag (please extend this warning to my other restaurant mentions as well) but what I had was super wholesome and delicious, including the peanut butter-thumbprint cookie I keep returning to in my taste memories, it was that perfect.
In between everything, I pretty much ran around gasping and mouthing, “O!M!G!” as I took another picture because, well, I’m a dweeb and it was basically the best place ever.
Did I mention Red Herring is a non-profit, activist and artist-supporting space and when we walked in on that Friday afternoon, a klezmer band was playing live? That they offer free food events to support the local LGBTQ+ community?
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I was half-expecting to see a Chesire cat smiling at me from behind the counter, which means I was in heaven. I should say that I had no, um, mood enhancers on my person and thank goodness for that because after we stopped for that meal and we climbed back up the church steps and stepped out of the good vibes womb of Red Herring, buzzing and sated, we basically drove into a tornado for the rest of the day and night. I needed my wits about me.
At first it was kind of like, “This is some rain, huh?” and it was just a steady gray stream for a couple of hours, from one to ten on the windshield wiper scale, about a five in speed. John and I both had the sense that it was a lot, but maybe we just weren’t used to that kind of rain, much like people in warm climates experiencing a rare snowfall. The thing is, though, we do get lots of rain here, especially this time of year, so that wouldn’t explain it. We just seemed unable to evade the cover of a giant rain cloud. You know how on The Munsters, there was always a rain cloud over their home? That was how it felt.
The more we drove south, though, the more the rain accelerated. It became more and more evident that this wasn’t just an experience we weren’t used to, it was extreme. Cars and trucks started pulling over or driving with their hazards on. Bob Dylan’s Buckets of Rain kept going through my head, then turned into A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, then I could hear no music because I was white-knuckling it, either as a driver or in the passenger’s seat. We’d planned and hoped to get to Memphis that first night for dinner but it wasn’t safe to keep going. I finally told John I thought we should pull off the next exit with a hotel and call it. The rain was pounding and the visibility was getting worse. The first hotel we saw had no vacancies. They were slammed with drivers who’d also pulled over. The second one, a little down the road, had a single room left. As John was getting things set up, I got the Emergency Weather notifications: Tornados. Find shelter.
Don’t need to tell me twice. We were so lucky to have found a place.
The next morning, the rain was gone. We did not stop in Memphis to make up for some lost time, but we did get to drive through Johnny Cash’s boyhood hometown, Dyess, AK. It’s a very small town, fewer than 350 residents, but has an interesting history, having been founded during the Great Depression as an incentive for people willing to farm the land in exchange for 20 acres and a modest home. Johnny Cash’s father was among the 500 applicants accepted. A theater, town hall and resettlement-era city hall remain standing.
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Back on the road. In Little Rock, AK, we had a great meal at MeMe’s Twisted Potato on a picnic table – the food is delicious and worth the wait – and met a super friendly orange tabby who is part of the family. John got the Boss Hook Em Burger, Justice got Kazim’s Fried Chicken Plate and I got King Mushroom Philly Tacos. So good!
We wouldn’t get to Houston until late that night, John somehow lost his phone (lost as in never got it back), which was fun, and then we visited family, played with a gorgeous doggy friend and ate at vegan-accommodating chains for three days with extended relatives. I also saw a Great Blue Heron and had some terrible vegan sour cream.
It was great to see family but the culinary adventures were on pause in Houston.
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That ended when we made our way to Austin. Now I’m getting to the foodie portion of our trip.
Our first meal in Austin was lunch at Nissi Vegmex, which was a great start to our time in vegan food heaven. John got the Flautas, Justice got the Carne Asada Fries and I got the Birria Tacos. All filling, warm and flavor-packed. We also got a chance to charge our two remaining phones, so that was appreciated.
We then spent a couple of hours wandering South Congress Avenue, poking our heads into some shops, being introduced to some local grackles, and just soaking up the warm air.
We found a hotel, charged things up and then met one of my dear friends from high school and her husband for dinner at The Beer Plant. My friend Deb is a writer, creative writing professor and vegan, by the way. Check out her fabulous novel, Barn 8.
John got the Eggplant Parmesan, Justice got the veggie burger special (can’t find the name) and I got the Beer Plant Curry. Perfectly delicious! Again, I’m not a food reviewer. It was good! Unless I tell you otherwise, assume it was delicious.
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The next day, Thursday, we met one of my dearest friends from college at Citizen Eatery, which was a bright, modern spot with a great thrift store in close walking distance. I ordered the Paleo Bowl, which was my favorite kind of dish, just packed with interesting textures and flavors, and John and Justice both got the Pecan Pesto Noodles. We were on vacation, so we also got the Banana Pudding and Chocolate-Avocado Mousse, both so rich and comforting, and we talked and talked and talked. A great time and meal.
We went back to the hotel for a bit to recharge and. Then. I. Got. A. Notification. On. My. Phone. That. Made. My. Day. It warmed the cockles of my heart to break the news to my husband and be the one to tell my son, who was in a room across from ours. Oh, those heartwarming family moments!
I will be living off the fumes of that high for a while. My body extracts every last drop of dopamine like a camel does a glug of water.
We took off from there for the vegan bakery, Zucchini Kill, which was freaking adorable and fabulous and next door to a witchy shop I wanted to spend alllllll my money at because of course I did. We got three cupcakes: Sweet Lemon Cream, Cookies n’ Cream and S’mores for the drive back the next day because we were still so full from lunch. The cupcakes were just the right size, AKA not gutbusters, and brightly flavored. (Also gluten-free.) I may have also picked up a souvenir in the form of a t-shirt. Zucchini Kill was a definite highlight of the trip, warming my Riot Grrrl heart and nourishing my vegan spirit.
We kind of toodled around the area, then we made our way to the nearby Rebel Cheese for dinner. Rebel Cheese, which I absolutely had to hit, just blew me away. I don’t know if I was just high from the indictment or it was all that awesome, but I suspect both are true. It’s just a beautiful space and the food was just perfect. I got the Egg Salad Sandwich (it’s the only gluten-free sandwich), Justice got the, well, I’m not sure, we seem to have missed taking a picture of it, and John got the Reuben. All was super delicious and we really enjoyed this different kind of culinary experience than is the norm for vegans who came of age during the era of not many options.
From there, we stopped to see the famous migrating Mexican free-tailed bats of Austin make their evening flight from under the Congress Avenue Bridge. Photos are dark because it was overcast so I didn’t get any pictures of my nocturnal friends but they were fun to see in person.
Honestly, there was enough to see and do in Austin to last a week but we only had a short time. I feel we packed it in, though! Next time, I will want to spend at least four or five days in the beautiful town.
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The next morning, we got an early start and had our Zucchini Kill cupcakes for breakfast as we started our way home.
The first stop was El Palote Panaderia in Dallas for lunch, which was adorable and very filling. I neglected to take a photo of John’s food (d’oh!) but I got the Enchiladas Plate and Justice got the BBQ Sandwich Plate.
We drove through the day, once again planning to get to Memphis, but we couldn’t quite make it. This time, there was about thirty minutes of hard rain but from the dark clouds and lightning on either side of us, we could tell there were some serious storms we would be lucky to avoid.
We missed the natural disaster on the way back but we didn’t get so lucky with mechanical issues. Our serpentine belt broke in rural Arkansas and we were lucky enough to be able to limp off the expressway and find a service station that was minutes from closing. Nothing else would be available for miles. It was expensive and cost us a couple of hours but we were so damn lucky. We found a standard Chinese restaurant off the highway for dinner and then booked ourselves into a hotel, planning to get up early the next day, Saturday, to get home in time to pick up my darling Ruby-Mae from her sitter.
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The next morning, we drove by landscapes that were fully submerged. This was what we missed the day before by sheer luck and timing; it is also a lot of the same places slammed by tornadoes the week before on our way out. My heart goes out to those who have been hit by these disasters. Please consider donating to the Red Cross’s disaster relief fundraiser.
Okay, so it’s time for a radical pivot and I hope you don’t think I’m insensitive but we’re getting close to the end of this thing and there are still terror tacos to cover. Okay, so all I am saying is there is a metal-horror themed vegan taco (and more!) restaurant in St. Louis and because of how perfect the space was, I thought that even if the food were mediocre, I’d still have been happy we went to Terror Tacos and I would have been but the food was as amazing as the vibe. Absolutely freaking delicious and probably our favorite meal on the trip, which is saying a lot because there was not a disappointment among them. Feast your eyes and hit them up if you are ever in St. Louis. John got the Carnage Asada Burrito, Justice got the Chorizo-Mango Quesadilla and I got the Buffalofu Bowl, which was a big bowl of absolute fun. We would be going to Terror Tacos weekly if we lived in any proximity to it but as it is, I will be going out of the way to hit them up the next time we’re traveling through. YUM!
Afterwards and fittingly, we happened upon the old Cleveland High School, which was built in 1911 and abandoned in 2006. Isn’t it spooky and awesome?! Phyllis from The Office is an alumna!
Last but not least, we hit up the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, IL on the way back because I have wanted to see the GenX exhibit (or is that X-Hibit???) for a while and it was super fun! Watching my son try to dial a rotary phone – well, it doesn’t get better than that. He gets to be smug to us about our tech issues without consequence? I don’t think so.
Despite setbacks along the road, we hit all my goals – bats in Austin, GenX exhibit, two friends and family, a fabulous variety of vegan food – on this trip and made it safely home Saturday night to cuddle with the dog and cats.
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