We have been in intense decision mode at the Reed hacienda in recent days. Son is a high school senior, you see, and a fine university in Colorado was one of his options. We decided we needed to see it for ourselves and spring break turned out to be the best time to go. So off we went.
We were only thirty minutes out of Starkville when we faced our first food decision. Short of some travel supplies, I had already planned a quick stop in Columbus. While in the drugstore we ran across the ice cream section, full of intriguing flavors in handy pint size. Son looked at me with some anticipation, reminding me that it wouldn’t be the first road trip we had knocked back a pint of the cold and creamy. I couldn’t argue the point, and I rarely turn down ice cream, but given the lateness of the hour it didn’t seem like a good idea. We chose not to indulge. But lo and behold, as we pointed the truck back towards the highway, a bright red neon light beckoned us, pulling us in like a tractor beam on the Starship Enterprise. You know this light if you are of like mind. It is round, with hieroglyphics that cry out, “Hot Donuts Now”. This one was harder to pass up. (Did I mention the tractor beam? Pulling us unwillingly across the street and into the drive-through?) Our only saving grace was that we didn’t get a dozen hot glazed. Just four. Because when they are hot, they collapse into the mouth so readily that eating two is basically like eating a single that has reached room temperature.
This visit was entirely for Son, but I guess I’ve taught him well: he left the meal planning to me. We could have taken any number of flight combinations to get to Denver, but the best deal happened to give us a little over two hours in the ATL. Usually I’m not crazy about a layover that long, but it would fall at lunchtime and I had a plan. Airport food is not a culinary genre I often crave, but I think the options are improving now. In Birmingham there was a Jim ’N Nick’s and a Good People Brewing company – both have local roots. In Atlanta I spotted a Five Guys Burgers and a branch of The Varsity. I would have easily settled for a chili cheese dog and a Frosted Orange, were it not for another tractor beam that had locked in on us from Terminal E: a place called One Flew South.
Along the way in my association with the Southern Foodways Alliance, I kept hearing about this place in the Atlanta airport that actually induced tolerable layovers. I don’t fly that much anymore so this was my chance. After all, how many opportunities does one get to eat at a fine dining restaurant in the middle of the international terminal? And on top of that Chef Duane Nutter has competed on Iron Chef America and is a part-time comedian. Not to mention that I looked up the menu online – they call it “southernational” cuisine – and was sold even before I knew the chef was funny.
I was especially proud of Son when he ordered the OFS Dirty South: an open-faced meatloaf sandwich with pimento cheese, fried egg, sautéed spinach, Benton’s bacon, and barbecue sauce. Layers and layers of flavor happening on that plate. Son said that the slightly candied Benton’s bacon was the MVP of the dish – I picked the whole team. (Of course I tried his. That’s how it works when I’m buying.) I ordered the Pulled Duck Sandwich: duck confit, fig and peanut relish, and scallions. Pulled Duck Confit. In the airport. I was bordering on giddy.
We also tag-teamed on dessert. Banana pudding with vanilla bean flecks, house made whipped cream and a hazelnut crunch sprinkled on top. And Pineapple “Not” Upside Down Cake: grilled pumpkin bread, bourbon-braised pineapple chunks, and more whipped cream. Eventually we had to catch a plane to Denver, or we might have stayed and started over.
Dinner in Denver was already settled before we left home. First Cousin Y is married to Chef Ed, who recently took over the kitchen at The Park House in the Bluebird District of Denver. In a previous life, the Park House was a fine French restaurant called The Normandy, serving the likes of Liz Taylor and Elvis. These days they serve a different kind of French food – we know it as Cajun. Chef Ed is not a Cajun himself, but Cousin Y has deep Louisiana roots; as the story goes, when he fell for her he also fell for her food.
The signature item on the menu is The Peacemaker, an oyster po-boy. Neither Son nor I are big fans of that particular mollusk, but there were plenty of other Louisiana staples to pick from. The first plate sent out was Crawfish Cheese toast. I have had similar dishes – in other places – that were okay but not memorable. Chef Ed’s was great. Not overly crawfishy, plenty of cheese, and I’m pretty sure some rendition of the holy trinity of Cajun cooking was in the mix somewhere.
Next out was a big basket of okra (fried as the good Lord intended) with remoulade sauce; Son got a fried shrimp po-boy. I chose beaucoup small plates because I didn’t want to decide. A bowl of gumbo. Red beans and rice (with andouille sausage and pepper jack cheese, a tasty new twist.) Good Cajun food in the Rockies. Who’d a’ thunk? I hated to leave even a bite, but as you might imagine, by this point we were stuffed. Plus Cousin Y had been talking up the buttermilk pie (her own recipe) drizzled with blackberry sauce. We ate the pie – it was worth the ensuing waddle to the car – then drove on to Golden, where more good eats (oh, and a college) awaited.