Friday, June 10, 2011

Nearly Perfect

Little House Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor
309 South Walnut Street
Bernie, Missouri
7 days a week, 6am to 9pm

I'm not entirely unaccustomed to stumbling on good home cooking when I travel. Since I stay off the freeways as much as I can, going from one small town to the next, I get to see just about every restaurant there is, because they're all, or nearly all, on the main road through town. And the type of unpretentious cooking they do is often close to perfect by local standards. I've found great little cafes in almost every state of the union, but every now and then I find one that's close to perfect by any standard, including my own version of arrogant culinary snobbery.


Little House is such a place. It sits modestly aside Highway 25 in rural southern Missouri, not even in the biggest town in a nearly-empty-seeming county in the Bootheel. We pulled in for lunch with no great expectations, and were surprised by just how good a place can be.

The dining room is extremely clean and neat. It seemed to have a new coat of bright yellow paint on the ceiling and green on the walls, which were decorated with contrasting shutters, a few tasteful arrangements of plastic flowers, and a few nicely-calligraphed down-home mantras. A couple of locals were planted in what must surely be their regular tables near the front of the small dining room; we took up station near the back. 

The young waitress was quick to bring us menus and drinks. The foods offered were ordinary: burgers, sandwiches, a few regular plate lunches and some daily specials. The hamburger, billed as being a quarter pound, was three dollars. My companion went for the double cheeseburger, at $4.25, plus potato wedges and a soda. I went for the hamburger steak plate lunch, which came with roll, mashed potatoes and green beans for $6. I also splurged with a Coke float for the ridiculously low price of $2.

The double cheeseburger had to be way, way more than a half-pound of good-quality beef, grilled to juicy perfection. It was, in the words of my friend, the kind of burger he would make at home on the grill on a good day. And he's a pretty good cook. The potato wedges were so far from greasy that he would have sworn they were baked; he may have been right. In any case, they were delicious, and nicely seasoned. 

For my part, the green beans were unremarkable, barely seasoned and cafeterial, but not too overcooked to be good. The mashed potatoes were entirely traditional, the gravy on them was delicious and neither too thick nor too thin, as it often gets when left sitting around in the kitchen too long. (Since we were there after the normal lunch hours, it wouldn't have been surprising to find it had thickened or, consequently, been recently thinned.) The hamburger steak was cooked medium, which is a little more than I would have asked for, had I been given a choice, but it was still juicy and well-seasoned. It, too, was about a half pound, much more than I expected for the price, which is the key fact about Little House. 

What does that mean?
I've often given high marks for food, for ambience, and for service, but this is the first time, I think, that I've ever been so pleased with a restaurant's prices. Maybe that's a consequence of being long out of my home territory, where low prices are the rule more than the exception. But I have to think that these prices are about as low as any I've seen for good-quality food in any place I've ever been in America. And from someone who's been to a whole lot more of America than most people (and who has thoughtfully eaten at least as much as most people), that should count for something.

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