There are sage pronouncements that should never be ignored.
In his 1956 short story collection, A Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren wrote: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s.” I have always avoided faux physicians at poker palaces, but once, after nearly two handfuls of driving hours, I was seduced into stopping for gas and food at Mom’s Cafe in Salina, UT. Here is my review.
A quaint, but utilitarian street, wide in its presentation, sets off two neons and a two-story, brick-sided wall sign proclaiming the home style cooking that only Mom offers in Salina (it’s “suh-LINE-uh” in Kansas; I do not know what is in Utah). Parking, usually an excellent indicator of restaurant popularity, is extraordinarily ample, there being a half-dozen spaces on the street, a similar number conveniently in the rear, and a large dirt lot across the highway. The front door is glass, as are the windows, opening into a spacious, yet homey linoleum, plastic, and stainless dining area, functionally boothed and tabled for simple, yet comfortable, food service. There is a surprisingly cozy, windowless back room of six or seven tables, none occupied at this Utahn post-dinner hour (6:30 p.m.) on a Tuesday, and a counter gripped tightly by a septuagenarian on a stool who clearly demonstrates that he is a regular by his familiarity with the local periodicals, one of which, the Richfield Register, includes very lengthy obituaries.
Mary, our uniformed waitress, a tall, solid, very direct matron who could be the counter patron’s chronological twin, suggests the salad bar and Mom’s renown scones with Ann’s rib eye and my baby back rib rack. In this land of unending cattle ranches, meat seems obligatory.
The salad bar is small, but packed with unusual and unidentifiable canisters of dressing-drenched vegetable matter. Who, I wonder silently, chose hot pink as the artificial color for artificial bacon bits? We hurry back to our table with our salads; Ann has requested her steak rare, and she does not wish to miss the heat of first bite.
Hair beehived, Mom herself, uniformed identically to her troops, mans (I says this with confident opinion that the feminist movement has not yet encountered Salina, UT) a desk, festooned with invoices, phone books, and the armaments of a cafe commander…and positioned precisely in the middle of the room. All traffic to and from the salad bar, the restrooms, and the back dining area must jog around Mom. She does not glance up as I pass, but I do not assume that her purview overlooks anything.
In short order, our meats arrive on truly sizzling platters, their branding-iron centers surrounded by Bakelite-black insulators. Anxious to sample Mom’s tasty fare, I am oblivious to the warning, bubbling sounds and immediately sear in my thumb juices with a misplaced grab at the leftmost rib. They are dry, overcooked, and slathered with canned sauce. Before I can comment, however, Ann has noticed that the quality of rareness so often desired in a fine rib eye has long ago disappeared from this cutlet. Nonetheless, she tastes the beef and is impressed by what is either a subtle aging (hints of oak with a blackberry finish) or an infraction of the Utah State Health Code.
She beckons our waitress, who, suddenly facing what must have been the first patrons ever to question the chef’s county-famous cuisine, approaches our table with a look somewhere between incredulity and cretinism. Ann lifts the steak, folding it upward along the incision, demonstrating the flesh’s drab grayness. Other than a slight bend at the waist to examine the specimen more closely, Mary offers no other response. Finally I suggest that Ann might want a replacement entree. Ann’s immediate über-politeness appears as a demurral, and Mary, satisfied that an insubstantial complaint has evaporated, recedes into one of those restaurantorial nooks invisible to patrons.
Moments later, Lu-Ellen, Mom’s service staff forewoman, replaces her underling and offers Ann the solicitude of a sirloin. Ann accepts, then demurs again, her opinion of Utah butchery arts having dropped below the table top. Left alone to split my ribs, it is only then that we notice the circular objects outboard of our main dishes. They are, we surmise, the “scones” for which Mom’s may have aspired to be named Purveyor to the Queen.
A scone, I remember from my Scottish baking class in college, is a crumbly, baking soda lump that serves well as an accompaniment to tea or coffee and may include currants, nuts, or even trendoid ingredients such as carob chips, persimmon, or jalapeño jack cheese. Mom’s scone is an eight-inch cowpie of white bread dough deep-fried to a golden brown and served with a yellow-plastic squeeze bottle of sweetened oleaginous goo that claims to be “Honey-Butter Topping.” I rip a geometric chord through the circle, eschew the squeezable frosting and chew the thalidomidic donut like a connoisseur…neat.
It is exactly what it appears to be: mucilage.
Mom, now finished with her bookkeeping, materializes tableside and expresses sincere concern, “I sure wish there was something I could do to make you two happy. The rib eye steak is just so thin that, well, when we drop it on the griddle, it’s just nearly impossible to get it out rare. And those sizzle platters, they just keep on cooking ’em.” We smile politely, and Mom evanesces, soon replaced by our original waitress with the check, and it is clear that by ignoring the sirloin suggestion, we have forfeited all rights. The bill is due in full—no adjustment for quality or lack thereof.
After several hundred miles of nearly nothing, Salina appears near the western end of I-70, well-positioned at the decision point for north to Salt Lake City or south to Las Vegas. Some people get hungry when they’re thinking hard.
You’ve been warned.