Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Friday, July 9, 2010

Middle of Nowhere Little Towns

Sprawling metropolis are always fun, as are days out in total wilderness, although small islands with perfect beaches probably head the list of desirable destinations. But few are the accounts of those little in-between towns, the one-road, semi-suburban dots that connect on the road to the big city or the big mountain. For road trippers and bored twenty-something year olds with a car, those middle of nowhere little towns are pure traveler anecdote gold. Here are some of my small town stops, what are some of yours?

A Little Town Called West, Texas

Somewhere between Austin to Dallas on the I-35, an old railroad runs parallel to the highway and leads right into what looks like a movie set for a western that was abandoned in the middle of the Texas desert. A large wooden billboard proudly welcomes you to West, Texas: the Czech Point of Central Texas. Pop. 2,694. Apparently that movie set was then found by some homesick Czechs who then added the word Czech to everything… There is a Czech Inn (get it?), an Ole Czech Bakery, a Czech Stop Gas Station, a Czech Collectibles Store... Obviously, this was where I needed to have lunch while on my way to Dallas.

I was traveling with my ex-boyfriend, who was already my ex at the time but we were still friends —long story if you’re new to this blog— and he was accompanying me to visit my brother up in Dallas before I took my one-way flight back to Puerto Rico. We stopped by the Czech Inn to ask for a restaurant recommendation then ambled down to the main street. The buildings resembled low, flat barns painted blue, red or brown, a slight dusty haze over everything.

It was around 3 in the afternoon so when we walked into the Czech American, recommended as some of the best Czech food in town, the place was empty. The afternoon light outside was so bright it made the dimly lit dining room, seem underexposed. The interior was all wood with high ceiling and tables covered in plastic tablecloths, The family that ran the place was having lunch then and looked at us with expressions of stale annoyance. We sat down at a table by the back wall under a chalkboard advertising a surprising variety of pies and cakes. A sullen teenage girl in a T-shirt brought us our menus. The cover read Czech – American Restaurant “Specializing in Everything You Love to Eat!” Feeling reassured by this promise we ordered some Pilsner Urquells while we browsed the menu. Along with stuffed cabbage and sausage with kraut, apparently we also loved to eat chicken-fried steak and chips and salsa.

I was on one of my vegetarian phases at the time but the only non-meat option seemed to be that sad-looking salad bar with about four options: sour kraut, cole slaw, corn, and peas. When I asked our sullen teenage girl if they could make the stuffed cabbage vegetarian she looked at me as if I’d just asked her to serve me a small dog grilled. I ordered the meat-filled Czech stuffed cabbage that include ONE trip to the salad bar. As our teenager and another cook got to work in the kitchen, we took our small white plates and filled up on the salad bar fixings which were actually surprisingly delicious and fresh despite their lackluster presentation.

When the main event arrived… well, I mean, it was good. It wasn’t the amazing Czech food I got at the pub down the street in Nuslé back when I lived in Prague but it was serviceable. Overall our meal was like a bottled, imported Pilsner Urquell—its more about the idea of what it is.

We walked back out into the blasting sun like cowboys stepping out of a saloon, er, a Czech saloon, and went into the Collectibles Store where another teenager with a T-shirt manned the counter. It ended up being room after room full of antiques. Each had a theme: one was all mirrors, another all clocks, one all blue. Inside a room turned into a child’s bedroom I picked out an impossibly soft blanket for my niece and in the library room next to it found a Czechslovak Cookbook and, obviously, a Second Avenue Deli Cookbook for $2.

While we paid we asked this teenager, who was a lot less sullen than the one working the restaurant, why there was such a Czech theme to the town. Apparently the railroad had brought a lot of Czech immigrants to town and they had stayed. This was good enough for me. I took one of the flyers on the glass counter advertising Westfest, their yearly Czech heritage festival, and headed out.

Before continuing on our journey north, we stopped by the Ole Czech Bakery where a couple spoke with the half-blind owner about being Czech and the Czech Republic (not making this up). Apparently some of the older folks still speak the language. The bakery reminded me of a doctor’s waiting except instead of seats they had glass counters full of strudels, butchas, and kolaches. We picked up some day-old pistachio kolaches, much to the owner’s disappointed since they were so cheap, and made our way back to the car.

To this day I can only pronounce West, Texas with a Texas drawl. Wehhh-st Tehhhxis.

Stranded in Dover, New Jersey

Back when said ex and I were still together he somehow won a three day cruise for two in one of those raffles they have where you fill out your name and put down your phone number and that’s it. It was an all-expenses paid three-day trip to the Bahamas, the only things we had to do was visit one of their agencies for an orientation on the services that they offered. No obligations, no strings, just come down, listen to their spiel, and get our three day cruise. Their New York office, though, was in Dover, New Jersey. So we scheduled an appointment for 8 pm on a Tuesday.

It was February and that evening we met at Penn Station where we got on a New Jersey Transit train. Our journey would last an hour, as would the presentation, and we’d be just in time to catch our train back to the city. We watched House and shared sandwiches I’d picked up from Murray’s Cheeses. When we arrived at our stop most of the train was empty.

Dover is one of those non-descript little towns with a church, a few houses, some businesses scattered around, and a bar next to the train station. Aside from the passengers getting off (which weren't many) and the taxi drivers waiting around, the town seemed deserted at 8 pm on a frigid Tuesday night. It was like the opposite of a cruise but a cruise was what we were here for.

We arrived at an office building and were led into a conference room where a number of other couples of varying ages sat waiting. A woman stood at the front of the conference room with a slide projector and tried to sell us on wholesale vacations. After forty minutes of showing us slides of resorts made affordable because we bought reservations in bulk, she opened the doors of the conference room and about a dozen salespersons swoopedin calling out last names. Each couple was assigned a seller except for us and the other really young-looking couple. We were told to wait. Since we still hadn’t gotten our information about the cruise we hunted down the woman who gave the presentation who half-heartedly tried to sway us with their discount package while we made excuses about having to catch the train. We were given our reward for schlepping it out there and scurried out back into the cold.

When we arrived a train was already sitting by the station with the doors closed. We stood huddled against the wind talking about how awesome a three day cruise in the Bahamas was going to be. At the other end of the station were a rowdy bunch of Hispanic kids talking very loudly. A very long time went by and we kept our eyes on the doors, waiting for them to open but before they ever did, the train started moving. Suddenly I noticed the silence coming from the other end of the platform. “Did we just miss our train?” Only one door had opened at the front of the train and now we stood alone on the train platform watching the lit up words New York Penn disappear into the distance. The next train wasn’t for another 40 minutes. My insatiable ex was hungry so we decided to explore the town.

Our first stop was the loud bar next to the train station. A bunch of clearly under-aged and severely underdressed girls walked in before us and when we reached the bouncer, because I was over 21, I got an orange plastic bracelet. My ex didn’t just me. This wasn’t sketchy at all. Inside the music was very loud. I got a table but we didn’t stay for very long because apparently this bar didn’t serve food. So back into the cold we went, passing the under-aged girls with no bracelets smoking with older dudes outside the bar.

There was really only one street to choose from. We passed a church, turned a corner, and suddenly we were in Mexico. For blocks the only businesses were Mexican bakeries and restaurants, almost all of them closed or closing. We went about three blocks until we found one called Azteca. In the front the tables had chairs stacked on them but people were sitting at the bar and in booths near the back so we went in. Our waiter was a charismatic Mexican man who spoke good Jersey English in a thick Mexican accent. A few other men sat at the bar watching the telenovela. My ex was probably the only non-Spanish speaker in the whole place.

Our waiter placed a container of spicy tomato salsa and tomatillo salsa and what I can't help but think were homemade chips. The salsas were good, they had the rush of spicy sauce without the lingering burn afterwards. Our laminated menus listed everything as costing $8. I wasn't particularly hungry but when would I ever be in Dover, NJ again at 10 pm at night again? That's right. Never.

My ex ordered Enchiladas con Mole and I ordered something called Sopes. Our waiter joked and chatted with the other customers, every so often he'd come by our table to attempt to teach my ex some Spanish. His most memorable line all night was what he told a couple in the booth behind ours, "If you love a woman then forget about understanding her. Just love her."

My Sopes arrived first, just in time for the fúbol match between Mexico and who cares. Sopes are homemade corn tortillas, curled up around the edges with a layer of refried beans, shredded chicken, and lettuce lightly doused with mayo. They were incredible. The flavors meshed together harmoniously rather than fought for attention like some American Mexican food. The slightly spicy and sweet chicken was given center stage by the understated savory beans and crisp shredded lettuce. They were addicting and not heavy at all.

The enchiladas came out shortly after, four rolled torillas encasing chicken and drowning in dark-brown mole sauce. The flavor was flat, almost chalky, like unsweetened baker's chocolate but underneath that there's a richness to it that makes it incredibly difficult to describe but really interesting to eat. My ex ate almost the entire plate and fought his stomach's request to cease and desist, taking in half of the last enchilada. It was one of those meals that makes you feel all warm inside.

When I asked for the check our waiter looked disappointed, "Leaving so soon?" We explained that we had a train to catch and he said that if we missed it we could come back, he didn't want us to be stuck in the cold. We thanked him, left him a good tip, and ran back to the train station where we board the train back home. It was the best Mexican food I'd ever had.

Daytrip to Cataño, Puerto Rico

I’m the kind of person that one night while I was still in college in New York, unwilling to work on a term paper, I went for a walk to Union Square and somehow ended up at the top of the Empire State Building. So one summer when I was in still in high school and going stir crazy from the boredom, I loaded my friend Jenniffer into my Jeep Cherokee and went for a drive. At first we were going to San Juan via the Martínez Nadal expressway and as I was about to pass the exit to Cataño, as I always did, I took the exit instead.

“You ever been to Cataño?” I asked Jenniffer.


“I guess that’s where we’re going then.”

Soon we were by the Capeco oil refinery. If you’ve ever wondered what an oil refinery exploding at 10 pm at night sounds like ask anyone present in the Metropolitan Area around the end of October 2009. It was a few weeks after the governor had announced almost 30,000 layoffs of government employees, a week after a general strike where thousands of people took to the streets in protest, and shortly before they created a position called Secretary of Government and gave it to the financial manager of the richest families in Puerto Rico. If someone had told me the explosion was a government tactic to distract people from their bad PR, I would’ve believed it. Apparently it was a gas leak, though. No one died and the fire was contained after a few days. But on that particular summer afternoon when I’m driving by with Jenniffer, the oil refinery was still intact.

Cataño is across the bay from Old San Juan and provides a, uh, interesting view of a sparkly industrial wasteland from the walls surrounding the Old City. What hadn’t occurred to me was that from the wasteland side of the bay you get a beautiful view of El Morro and the walls that wrap around the islet of San Juan. Around this point I realized I was running out of gas but I would get some later.

We then passed the Bacardi Factory, a large, out of place white mansion with a green lawn. I had no idea that was in Cataño! A few years later I would take my friend Mike there when he came down to visit me in PR. We’d take the free tour, get a history lesson on rum production in the Caribbean, and film ourselves in front of a green screen doing a “Bacardi commercial” we could then email to our friends and family. The tour concluded with some free rum drinks, a piña coloda, a mojito slushie and I guess the bartender liked us because he also gave us samples of aged rum we couldn’t finish. Afterwards we went home and drank beer. But at the time when I was discovering the existence of the Bacardi factory, I’d only ever been drunk once and I had no idea beer came in variations such as ale, lager, stout, pilsner. At the time I thought beer came as Medalla, Coors Light, Budweiser, or Heineken and they all tasted about the same to me.

Once past the Bacardi factory I was cruising down a long road with nothing around, a worrisome fact considering I was dangerously low on fuel by this point. We passed a gas station but it was on the other side of the road and I had to drive for a while before I could turn around and go back for the road to get gas.

That was the end of our little trip. It broke up the tedium of the day and foreshadowed a few interesting returns.


  1. I want more road trips in my life after reading this.

  2. Sounds like you had quite the road/train trip surprises. I like how these nothing towns to most people turned into interesting experiences for you. There is so much to see in the world and these little trips remind me that behind every town there is most likely something incredibly unique.

  3. I've actually been to West, Texas! How funny to find it here!

    We had a lovely lunch with the best homemade bread in the whole of the Metroplex but unfortunately can't remember the name of the place. And we too bought kolaches. It could have been at the same bakery. Ours were fresh and delicious.


  4. @Ana- Hahaha, I want to someday tell someone, let's meet in West, Texas. During their Czech festival. I feel like that would be some sort of gonzo journalism.

    @Suzy- yeah, little towns have something about them. Its the devil in the details, you know. And the idea that you probably wont go back. Except maybe to West, Texas...

    @Angela- We should roadtrip some time. Just sayin'.