Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"

Throwing My Loop…    

By:  Michael Johnson   



      It’s time once again for the annual MIGUEL GRILL AWARDS!  There have been a host of contenders, and I would like to thank all the chefs, waitresses, busboys, and kitchen help who have contributed so much time and effort to my eating this year.  In a moment the list of finalists, but first a bit of the cooking history here at Johnson Farms.
     My wife and I love to cook.  We have forty plus cookbooks.  We cook like our mothers and grandmothers did in the last century.  No small portions here – and we are not julienne carrot people.  Rather we indulge only in the basic nutritional health foods such as meat loaf, mash potatoes, chicken fried steak, fried squash, fried okra, fried catfish, and fried pies.  And yes, we are from the South.
     We have been on year-long quests to re-discover just exactly how our mommas made chicken and dumplings, chicken and dressing, and fried chicken.  There are no chickens here at Johnson Farms.  Me and Sherry and the Rowdy Cow Dog ate them all.
     We cook big rib eyes on the grill, twice-baked potatoes, green salads with homemade dressing, pinto beans with boiled eggs in them, and pies with a mountain of meringue on top.  But most of all, we cook Mexican food.
     We make tacos, enchiladas, beans, rice, guacamole, and sopapillas at least three times a week, and I have had a jalapeno, serrano, or cayenne with every meal since I was in elementary school.  My wife is convinced I was a Hispanic person in a former life.  I told her the other day we need to have more rice and beans.  She said, “How could we?  We eat them five times a week!”  Which brings me a bit closer to the reason we are here…the Miguel Grill Awards!
     My work requires a good deal of travel.  When we are not at home working the horses, roping or cooking, I’m on the road.  I travel about 50,000 miles a year and I drive every turn of the wheel.  That means I eat on the road a lot, and since I refuse to even drive through a fast food joint much less eat at one, I’m always looking for a mom and pop joint.  When I was little boy, my daddy loved diners, drive-ins, and dives.  I was with him in every one, and trust me when I say I still love them.
     To work at a fast food chain these days, there are three requirements.  You have to be a robot, you must not care about customers, and you must not care how the food tastes.   Yes, the menu at such establishments does have over fifty items, but it’s not a problem to prepare that many entrees because really they are preparing only one soybean cardboard substance that has fifty different names.  Everything tastes the same – and not one employee has ever been trained to say hello, good morning, or how are you?  And if any of the help ever does make the mistake of smiling at someone, they are fired immediately.
     But there are still jewels out there across the shining sea of America.  I’ve found them by the dozens, personally eaten at every single one, and after sampling so many; here are the three finalists for the 2009 Miguel Grill Awards…
     THIRD RUNNER-UP – Crazy R’s – Goodland, Kansas.
     This mom and pop bar and grill is located in downtown Goodland.  It’s a small corner café decorated with red and white checkered table cloths, and wooden walls covered with 40’s and 50’s baseball memorabilia, airplanes, and cowboy stuff.  The menu has only a few items and each is prepared to perfection.  The chicken fried steak is heavenly; hamburger steak is just as good, but order the cheeseburger and fries.  The conversation in Crazy R’s is limited to three topics.  Wheat, wheat, and wheat.  The waitress is named Pat.  She has it written on her blouse, and she wears a baseball cap.  She calls everybody, “Shug.”  First time I ever went in and sat down, she comes over and says, “Do you want to order or just sit and drink beer for a while?”  I said, “I sure do love you.”  We’ve been close ever since.
     SECOND RUNNER-UP – The Biltmore Hotel, Oklahoma City – Meridian and I-40.
     What a place!  This sprawling hotel has 1400 rooms and three grills.  One is a sports betting joint, the other is a cowboy place, but the best one is called The Bombay Club.  Hotel guests don’t patronize the Bombay Club, but rather the regulars are people who actually live in the neighborhood.  The food is okay – the boiled shrimp and the cheeseburgers are good – but it’s the customer service that gets you.  These people are actually glad to see you, and if they don’t know you the first time you come in, they will the next time.  This is a place where everybody knows your name.  Norris, an Iranian guy who is fiercely patriotic for America, runs the show.  Norris will let you park your truck in the hotel lot even if you are not staying at the hotel!  And he will take you to the airport.  If a regular gets a bit tipsy, Norris has someone drive them home.  But here’s the real deal…dogs are welcome!   Every time I go in the Bombay Club, the Rowdy Cow Dog is with me.  Everyone is always glad to see him, and the waitress – her name is Bonnie, and she calls everybody “Hun,” always has a treat for Rowdy.  Every time I’ve been in there and some other dog shows up, I secretly kick Rowdy under the table hoping he will think the other dog did it and they will scuffle.  That way I could finally write a column about how even my dog got in a fight in a bar in Oklahoma.  Sadly, he’s always been on good behavior so far.
     And the winner is…
     BLACKJACK’S BARBEQUE – Texas A&M University Commerce, Commerce, Texas.
     What a great place!  Wooden walls, two separate dining areas, clean, lots of menu items, and the nicest staff you can find.  Kenneth, the BBQ man, Darlene, Amber, and all the rest are genuinely glad to see you.  “Mad Dog” and his buddies sit at the bar discussing world events, good wines, the price of hay, and what the economy is going to do next.  Friday night fish is a killer; BBQ is superb every day, open from 6 a. m. for breakfast, seven days a week.  The owner, Richard Lee, comes ‘round to visit while you’re eating to see if you’re enjoying yourself, and the bartender is named “Bubbles.”  Bubbles is majoring in Ag at the university with a minor in Equine Science.  Can it get any better than that?
     So there you have it, friends.  Blackjack BBQ is the winner of the 2009 Miguel Grill Awards.  The food is great, the service is great, and so are the people who provide them both.   

     We’ll be back next year with the 2010 Miguel Grill Awards. 
     Coming soon to a cool little joint near you. 

                                                                                              -- Michael Johnson

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