Fairfield, Texas, population 3,094, used to be a sleepy, one-exit town. Blink once and miss it. There isn’t a lot between Dallas and Houston on Interstate 45, but after you’ve left the greater metropolitan Corsicana area, Fairfield is your last chance gas for the next hour.
Driving to Conroe, Texas, for a family visit, we actually made it through Dallas without hitting a traffic jam. In and of itself, that qualifies as a modern miracle, on par with Burger King actually getting your drive-through order correct. My wife, a Texas native and veteran of the drive twixt Dallas and Houston, was certain – as certain as breathing – that there were almost no dining options in Fairfield.
That might have been true for the old Fairfield, not for the dynamic new cosmopolitan Fairfield. My wife was aghast – and she is rarely if ever aghast – that Fairfield had grown to two exits with restaurants, fast food joints and greasy spoons galore.
Fairfield had become the fine dining hub of Freestone County. Well, maybe, the dining hub of Freestone County. OK, maybe just the grub hub of Freestone County. Whatever it was, when you’re profoundly hungry and road kill begins to look appetizing, every restaurant in Fairfield suddenly has three stars in the Michelin Guide.
Sam’s Restaurant, Ponte’s Diner, Texas Burger, Cole’s Barbeque, Roblow’s Café … Taco Bell, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Jack in the Box, Dairy Queen … and the I-45 Restaurant.
From this cornucopia, we had to choose a place that would get us in and out quickly and food that didn’t taste like deep fried lard. Naturally, to fit all these criteria we choose KFC. All of their advertising promoted a new menu of “grilled chicken.” Unfried, they say. But we bought into the dream, the dream of tasty grilled chicken. Alas, some dreams die on the vine.
After paying, we heard someone in the back of the restaurant yell, “tell them it will be 18 minutes.” Now friends, were I sitting down at a white tablecloth restaurant for a seven-course meal, I’d wait 18 minutes. At KFC during lunch rush for an item heavily promoted but out of stock, not so much. Refund our money. I won’t be back. I carry grudges.
Then what to our wandering eyes should appear but the I-45 Restaurant and a sign saying Eat Here. Across the dusty haze of the Shell station and the gravel hardpan that is its driveway, the I-45 Restaurant is not much to look at, not much to inspire confidence, but hunger can drive people to make desperate choices. Think of the last time you ate at Arby’s.
First impression: Apparently they still allow smoking in Texas restaurants. It’s been years since I’ve been in a restaurant that allowed smoking. When was the last time you had an ashtray at your table? As a former smoker, I know the allure of the demon weed, the cancer stick, the nail in your coffin. Camel Lights and a turkey club, two great tastes that taste great together. My wife wondered if there was a no smoking section. Technically, yes – it’s called “your car in the parking lot.” But never mind, lunch awaited.
Our waitress bought water and menus. She said it was chicken day, meaning chicken livers, chicken gizzards and chicken fried steak were the daily specials. I have very few hard and fast rules about eating, but internal organs are always off limits. And don’t talk to me about natural sausage casings. It’s different. Yes it is. Because I said so. (Speaking of natural sausage casings, what was the thought process when the first person rinsed out animal intestines to use in food storage and preparation? Talk about an a-ha moment.) We perused the menu. We were not hopeful.
My wife ordered hamburger steak smothered in brown gravy and grilled onions, with sides of turnip greens and a bowl zucchini and tomatoes. I went the safe route: western omelette and side of ham. Our waitress asked if I wanted hash browns. No thanks, says I, I’m trying a low-carb diet. How about some tomatoes, she suggests, for the lycopene? When a waitress is looking to load me up on antioxidants to neutralize free radicals, I’ll take her recommendation any day. Bring on the ‘maters.
While our food was being prepared, we surveyed our surroundings. I wish I could wax rhapsodically about the décor, but its booths and tables are straight out of a 1957 diner supply catalog. It has a juke box and an empty pie cooler. The ceiling tiles hadn’t been cleaned or replaced since, well, let’s just say Eisenhower was still a household name.
When our waitress came with our orders, we thought she was delivering relief supplies for a small country.
My wife’s hamburger steak as big as the spare tire of an ’88 Lincoln Town Car. She is a good child of the south, accustomed to large flat, things grilled or fried, smothered with gravy (pick a color: white or brown). Apparently whatever manner of fish, fowl or filet is underneath doesn’t really matter. Gravy on anything makes it better. It’s the law below the Mason-Dixon Line.
My omelette was the size of baby wombat and the side of ham was the thickness of a small garden paving stone. Now, let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the I-45 Restaurant makes a killer western omelette. And a great side of ham.
My wife took small bites of her turnip greens and tomato and zucchini and closed her eyes. Her face melted into a degree of bliss I’ve only seen on her when our grandson demonstrates his superior powers of cuteness. She couldn’t say enough good things about her vegetables. She was enraptured. She was mesmerized and beguiled, all by turnip greens, zucchini and tomatoes.
On our way out, I managed to slow the blur of motion that was our waitress and tell her that lunch was fantastic. Just fantastic.
So the next time you find yourself in Freestone County and need a bite to eat, head over to the I-45 Restaurant, next to the Shell station and the pool hall. Tell ‘em Phil sent you.