NAVAJO TACO Arizona
My brother, Andy, and I drive through piñon and juniper, the high-desert scrub, and park beside the other pickups at the Tsegi Café, just a 30-minute drive from Monument Valley. The interior is furnished in fast-food style, but the radio plays KTNN, Voice of the Navajo Nation, with country music, morning chants, and the "stock market": prices of sheep and cattle. We're the only non-Native Americans here. A stately older couple wordlessly sips coffee at the next table. He wears a bow guard on his wrist and a white Stetson with an American flag pinned on the crown; she's in a long skirt and a turquoise and silver squash-blossom necklace.
We're here to have a Navajo taco, which is like any other taco except that the sauce, salsa, and sour cream are piled on fry bread: a soft round of deep-fried dough. This fry bread is beautifully light; it tastes like a huge, airy doughnut without the sugar. The rest of the taco is not light. No. After a Navajo taco, nobody moves. We sit and admire the red-rock walls of the canyon for a long while, watching a drifting thunderhead. There's something ghostly about this place, with its stolid waitresses and its view of the curving canyon—a scar in the dry mountains—that echoes a long history of endurance. In the distance, we see the first flash of lightning. But there's no sound.
Lumber-camp cookhouses used to be common all over the West. Today, only one survives—a relic of an era when the tree stump was a symbol of progress. On Route 101 in northern California, Andy and I glide between gargantuan redwoods till we come to the Samoa Cookhouse, west of Eureka. The big red farmhouse dates back to 1892, when it used to feed hundreds of loggers each day, and now includes a museum with sharp articles of the trade on display.
At the Cookhouse, you sit at long oilcloth-covered tables, on mismatched chairs, and chow down. Today we get split-pea soup, then wide platters of roast beef and turkey surrounded by deep bowls of peas and corn, gravy and biscuits, and for dessert a pumpkin pie. A whole one. With whipped cream. This is part of the American experience, too: we come to the wilderness and start consuming; then we feel sorry about it (God knows I didn't need that last piece of pie). The Samoa Cookhouse is the kind of place that European tourists shake their heads over and secretly adore. Though they may find Americans charmingly tasteless, that doesn't stop them from devouring another slice of that pumpkin pie.
CHILI DOG Oregon
Nick's Famous Coney Island might be that kind of place as well, if Europeans heard about it, which they wouldn't. Nick's is a throwback, a neighborhood bar in southeast Portland, Oregon, something like the one in Cheers was pretending to be. I drop in with my pal Tommy, a regular for the past 25 years. "It's like stopping home for lunch, except that there are always thirty people waiting for you," he says. We're welcomed by the booming voice of Frank, the owner: "Hey, look who's here." The whole idea that people in a public place actually know one another leaves the McDonald's version of America floundering in its special sauce. At Nick's, the special sauce is the ubiquitous homemade chili. Since 1934, they've been splashing it over the foot-long dogs and slathering it with shredded cheddar and raw, sweet Walla Walla onions. Tommy comes to Nick's for the company and the "pick-'er-upper": a Coney Island dog with only a little chili on it. "My dream," Frank confides, "is to get the goddamned menu down to one item before I go."
The chili dog stains your face orange, burns on the way down, and warms you in some deep place. When Tommy's mother died, Frank attended the service. Her picture stands among the memorabilia behind the bar, like the photos of starlets at Hollywood bars—only this one's of Helen McKenna from Rutherford, New Jersey. At Nick's, you're in America as we all want it to be.
Before World War II, a servant couple in heiress Evangeline Johnson's Connecticut household decided to start a business. In 1939, they opened a roadside hamburger stand in the northwestern part of the state. The Clamps did such a good summer business that they could afford to spend the winters in Florida. I know the story because I grew up with those burgers. They were the best in the world—slightly crisp on the outside, subtly infused with the smoke of the ancient grill, and peppered and salted to perfection. We had them with charred onions and ketchup and washed them down with slim bottles of Canada Dry birch beer sucked from a straw, and the very thought of them made our jaws ache with anticipation. All summer, barefoot on the gravel, we'd line up for burgers. By the 1960's the paint had peeled off the Clamps' sign, but they didn't repaint it because they didn't need a sign. Those summer evenings, as bats darted through the sunset, a light shone brightly on a naked wooden shingle. Eventually the Clamps died and the sign came down; their grand-nephew now runs the stand. It's still true to itself: still no sign, no telephone. This must be the place; every burger reveals the America where life is wonderful. In Frank Capra's hometown. Or mine. Or yours. This is a place where the American soul is best fed.
KEN CHOWDER is a novelist and has written for such magazines as Smithsonian, Gourmet, and National Geographic.