I’ve learned from food writers Jane and Michael Stern to look for small eateries that specialize in regional specialties, so-called “Road Food.” These restaurants aren’t chains; they may be expensive, but more often they’re cheap. Sometimes they’re hole-in-the-walls.
Recently when I was heading out to Portsmouth, Ohio, several students told me to eat at Hickies, and I also learned it was a favorite of my friend, Neil Gilliland. It’s a hamburger joint that serves small 85-cent burgers with onion and pickles in steamed buns. Hickies has several variations of these burgers, including one served with tartar sauce and another with three patties served on an outsized bun. French fries with gravy are also a big hit. I noticed lots of people also ordering their bean soup and homemade chili.
Sitting there with my friends, Aaron Reed and David Snow, I felt transported back fifty years to the days when I regularly got burgers and fries (without the gravy) at the soda fountain at Burgie Drug Store in Elizabethton. I really miss those steaming machines, where the cook put the bun in a stainless box and pump the lever, sending steam around the burger, fusing meat to bun and giving the bread a soft, hot texture. Whatever happened to those? Well, they still have one at Hickies.