While we wait, we watch a guy peruse the dirty magazines. A sign above the rack says, “No magazines in restaurant unless you’ve paid for them.” To be clear, it’s not that you can’t take one into the restaurant, it’s just that you have to pay for it first.
A truck stop’s gotta have rules.
It’s lunch on Wednesday and the restaurant is just about full up. Guys wearing baseball caps and cowboy hats and jackets with the logos of various engine lubricants occupy stools and booths lining a counter that snakes through the room.
Many are talking on bluetooth headsets. Not the prissy earpieces worn by white-collar drones trying to impress the barista with their ability to order a caramel macchiato and conference into a meeting. No, these are built for life in the cab of big rig. They fit over the head and come with big, noise-canceling, gooseneck microphones. These guys wear them while they eat, because if they miss a call, they miss a load. And every load is a paycheck.
The waitress hands us menus and slaps down a couple of printed paper placemats advertising specials on rubber mallets, diesel fuel treatment, and CB radios. She hitches a hip and flips open her order pad. “What can I get you?” She’s not actually smacking gum, but she might as well be. We ask what she recommends. By the time she reaches the eighth item on her list, we realize we’re on our own. After we give her our order, we ask if we made good choices. She nods slowly and rolls her eyes back in her head like a Great White clamping down on a tender baby seal. A good sign.
All around us a din of road-honed voices go on about the trucks they drive or wish they drove, about the load they have or don’t have yet, about where they’ve been or where they’re headed next.
A slab of a man with an evergreen smile tells us he hasn’t been home since the day after Christmas. We ask where home is. “Janesville, Wisconsin. Just down the road a ways.” We ask if he plans on going home soon. “Depends on where the boss decides to send me. If he don’t call soon, I’m headed home.” We ask how many miles he puts on in a year. “Two hundred fifty thousand give or take. Got fifty-eight hundred since last Thursday.” He follows every answer with a raspy chuckle as if he finds his own answers funny.
A driver walks out with a Styrofoam container filled with turkey scraps for his puppy. Later we see them out for a walk. His “puppy” turns out to be some kind of mix between a Rottweiler and a Clydesdale. Faithful company on a darkened interstate. And one hell of a vehicle alarm system.
You might not expect to find homemade soup at a truck stop. But here it is. The tomato garden rotini with beef is chock full of flavor and suspiciously healthy, given what hits the table next.
The waitress presents us with a scale model of a volcano with thick brown lava erupting from a crater at the top, oozing down the side, and pooling around the base. Excavating this mound reveals a tower of bread and tender roast beef toppling under the weight of a massive pile homemade mashed potatoes. Let this be a warning: The Hot Beef Special sticks to the ribs (and everything else).
The corned beef hash is golden crispy around the edges and moist in all the right places. Hunks of fried potatoes and onions and juicy meat are topped with two eggs just begging to have their yolks broken and mingled into the mess below. Two thick slices of buttered pumpernickel toast handle sopping and scooping duties beautifully.
Our one regret is not trying the steak. Stockmen’s made a name for itself on steaks hand cut from loins they bought fresh from the St. Paul stockyards next door. The stockyards are gone, but they still cut the steaks themselves. You won’t get that at some chain “travel stop.” We vow to come back at try one. Probably at two in the morning. Because we can. And because late nights have to be interesting at what amounts to a 24-hour crash pad.
After lunch a directional sign pointing toward a game room and showers proves itself too tempting not to follow. Upstairs we find private showers, a laundry room, and a TV lounge with a small tube television in the corner airing a Lifetime movie to an empty house. In the back of the building there’s a room lined with Formica booths, each outfitted with a corded telephone and a stack of phone books. Temporary offices. The game room features a pool table, a pinball machine, a digital jukebox, a couple of coin-op video games, and wood paneling straight out of your grandfather’s basement.
The place is ugly with function. But it’s a true oasis for nomads. A place where a 100-gallon fill-up earns you a free breakfast. Where you can eat a square meal, wash the road off you and swap stories with strangers who probably understand you better than your own family. Just don’t get too comfortable. You gotta put a thousand mile markers between you and this pit stop by tomorrow night.
BEST BET: A 16-oz., never-frozen “top butt sirloin steak” is $15.65. For reference, Murray’s charges $25.95 for an 8-oz. top sirloin steak. That’s twice the steak for 10 bucks less. And you can take a shower afterward. Bargain.
Stockmen’s Truck Stop, 501 Farwell Ave, S St. Paul, MN 55075, 651.455.3044