Dive into diners and drive-ins



Special Contributor

Published 10 March 2011 02:21 PM

A huge multicolor U.S. map dominated one wall of the BBQ Shack in tiny Paola, Kan.

Beneath the map were scores of pushpins, strategically placed so patrons, especially those inspired by the Food Network TV series Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, could honor their hometowns

Every state plus the District of Columbia was blanketed by pins, remarkable given the investment required to access Paola, 40 miles south of Kansas City. So I stuck a pin on Sugar Land, Texas, where I live, and moved to a table where a waitress recommended I precede Briscoe Darlin’s burnt ends with a 25-cent sampling of kerosene cucumbers.

There was no red 1967 Camaro convertible in the parking lot, but the TV show’s impact was evident. Just as it was at the Rock Café in Stroud, Okla.; Café on the Route in Baxter Springs, Kan.; Chef Point Café in Watauga; and Ingrid’s Kitchen Bakery & Delicatessen in an Oklahoma City residential neighborhood.

I’ve made road trips that focused on museums, sports events, historical landmarks and more. But driving to Kansas City for a conference, I decided upon a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives theme, pausing for lunch not at DQs, KFCs or BKs but at “Triple Ds,” as host Guy Fieri labels the eclectic eateries he profiles.

“Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” Fieri likes to say.

After savoring bread pudding with rum sauce at the Rock Café and bread pudding with cognac sauce at Chef Point, I found myself humming, “Winner, winner, liquor dinner.”

To sum my adventure in Fieri-speak: I was out-of-bounds in Flavortown.

Consider Watauga’s Chef Point Café. Nigerian-born chef Franson Nwaeze and his wife, Paula Merrell, operate a gourmet restaurant at a Conoco gas station in this Fort Worth suburb. What’s your druthers: Unleaded and crab-stuffed blackened pork chops? Unleaded Plus and sea scallops? Diesel and rack of lamb? Oh, and how about a lottery ticket to go?

It’s fitting that my favorite morsel here was “Whatnots,” otherwise known as mushroom caps hand-stuffed with three cheeses and baked in garlic butter.

What’s not to like about Chef Point? There is a logical explanation for combining petrol with lobster bisque. Merrell explains that at the outset (2003), she and her husband couldn’t procure a loan sufficient to open a restaurant, but their loan application for a gas station was approved. If they could sell soda and chips inside, they may as well build a kitchen and market Alfredo pizza rumble and escargot.

Chef Point generated considerable attention even before Fieri arrived, but the Triple D effect is staggering: “Our business grew more than 300 percent from 2008 to 2009,” after the show first aired, Merrell says.