For this years road trip vacation we are going to cover 6,100 miles of these great United States. A 21 day food and travel adventure that starts in Gurnee, IL stops in St Louis, Memphis and then goes deep into Austin Texas BBQ country, then makes a hard left heading west for the Pacific Ocean into Los Angeles. The return leg of this journey stops at the Grand Canyon, Santa Fe and Kansas City and back up to Chicago. Whew!
Day 1 – Departure
- Cooks Spice Rack & Chili Co - Springfield, IL
- Cohokia Mounds - Collinsville, IL
- Carl’s Drive in - St. Louis, MO
- Tuckers Place - St. Louis, MO
- Jefferson Expansion Memorial – Gateway Arch - St. Louis, MO
A few of the great old signs and structures that lined route 66 sill can be seen as you drive, starting with Del Rey Chicken and Funks Maple Grove.
As with so many rides downstate, I always make mental notes of places that I have to somehow get back and try, or visit. But on this trip, I’m reminded of our route 66 road trip vacation from 14 years ago, which is the last time we left Chicago with the duel intention of going to both California and New Mexico to spend time.
This time however, the roads we are traveling to California are the roads of the BBQ trail going south, and the pioneer trails and Spanish conquistador routes going west to California.
Our first stop going south was at Cook’s Spice Rack & Chili Co., a Springfield chili parlor that I had read about in several food blogs and had seen well reviewed in Roadfood.com as a must try. After eating here today, I must agree.
This is a great example of how the eating power of a family of six allows for great menu diversity and sampling! And for the record, I am proudly raising some very discerning kids, I call them “foodies in training”.
Cook’s is a serious chili parlor they have several different types, we ordered a cup of green chili with white navy beans, a cup of greasy pot chili with black beans, and a cup Terlinga red. In addition, we also ordered a bowl of chili -mac with the greasy pot chili, an order of fried chicken, and of course a Springfield horseshoe, but pony sized.
Each chili was unique and delicious. My wife the South-westerner opted for the green chili. She liked the mild twist on her families favorite variety of chili, thinking that the white navy beans were interesting and tasty. I found the green chili to be a bit too mild for my taste,lacking that spicy heat punch that real New Mexico green chili should have.
The two cups of red chili were good, but both were on the sweet side of the chili spectrum. The Terlinga red had a pleasant hint of cinnamon that was a real hit with the foodies in training. I had the greasy pot, which was a hearty diner style chili, but also was a touch on the sweet side as well. I guess when I think of Terlinga, the image of spicy Texas red with no beans and ground beef comes to mind, again, it was nice bowl of red even if it lacked the authenticity of its namesake.
My oldest daughter ordered the fried chicken, it was excellent with peppery breading, and the meat was tender and moist inside.
The horseshoe was better than the D’arcy’s Pint Shoe I had just a week earlier, with 1/2 white and 1/2 yellow cheese sauce, I still prefer the white cheese sauce, but the yellow cheese sauce was tasty as well.
I know when food is great because we ate everything served and there were no leftovers.
About 2 hrs later, we arrived at Cahokia Mounds. This year we found out that it was one of a select few parks/historic sites to be chosen to as one of the World Heritage Sites, keeping company alongside other great places like the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. Upon finding this out ,we knew we had to see this special ancient site that's just 250 miles downstate.
The Cahokia Mounds are human made dirt mounds, with Monks mound being the biggest, it rises up 200 feet from the ground. The mounds were hand made by the Cahokia Mississippian Indian tribe about 1,000 years ago. They did it by lugging 50 lbs of dirt in baskets one at a time, and its estimated that it took around 300 years to complete.
The other thing that makes the site so special is that Cahokia was the second largest ancient city in North America, after Mexico city.
These things really rise up high, and even on our overcast cloudy day, the St. Louis skyline was clearly visible.
Walking all those stairs made us hungry! So it was off to Carl’s Drive in, or at least so we thought. We arrived from the 15 mile drive west of Cahokia Mounds with no problems only to find out that Carl’s was closed on Mondays! Who knew? I guess I should have checked..
We decided to go plan B, once again, we were denied! The next choice was in Old North St. Louis and apparently there was some major crime scene going on in at least three of the surrounding neighborhoods because news crews and ERT were on the scene, and police had taped and blocked off much of the area.
Given the circumstances, we opted for the less risky option of just going Downtown to the Arch since we were close by and then afterwards we would go with plan C for dinner.
The St. Louis Gateway Arch, or more properly, the Jefferson Expansion Memorial. I just love this place. It part coaster, part history, and part engineering and marvel. The stainless steel reflect the light back at you like a shiny spoon, and inside this 635 ft arch is an articulated self leveling train that takes you to the top so you can view the city and the massive Mississippi river through 12” high rectangular windows. It’s awesome!
We finished our site seeing, and were ready to get on with the business of dinner!
For option C, I chose Tuckers Place. Had I known what a great dinner this was going to be, I wouldn't have selected it as my plan C backup option at all, but rather as my option A. Great food, fantastic prices, open late- every day, and its in a nice neighborhood. Its a no brainer!
This place is a frugal gourmets dream, the $17 rib eye steak was excellent, the $6 burger was a monstrous hand packed high quality juicy meat delight, and the pork tenderloin was not only large, but done perfectly.
The pizza? Also very good…for St Louis!
As a hardcore Chicagoan there's two things about St. Louis that will never quite sit right with me; one, those darn Cardinals, and secondly, and even worse in my book, is pro-vel cheese on a pizza.
Pro-vel, that unholy marriage of Provolone and Velveeta. I just don't get why someone would destroy what would be an otherwise tremendous pizza with pro-vel cheese. But that’s what makes it St. Louis style, and Tuckers place does it about the best that I’ve ever had. Tuckers pizza had a nice buttery crust, crisp and thin, not quite as thin as a Chicago/Wisconsin tavern thin pizza, but thin. And at Tucker’s Place, even the St. Louis pizza is good stuff.