3636 West 5th Ave.,
“Wow, I haven’t seen you guys in a long time!” the waitress percolated as she handed us our menus and poured our coffee. We gave each other sideways glances and laughed nervously. Only moments earlier, before we’d even walked into the Flying J Travel Plaza Restaurant in Post Falls, we were discussing how it had been ages and ages since we’d last eaten there. “It’s been at least since I was a senior in high school, if not earlier,” I calculated aloud, “so that’s nearly twenty years.” “I think it was 1991 for me,” decided Q. “Wow, you guys are older than Joan Rivers’ granddads” amazed our pal Miss A., who was actually still wearing diapers and eating mashed peas the last time either Q. or I dined at the landmark Interstate 90 truck stop. She couldn’t quite recall when she’d had the pleasure of a Flying J experience either, if ever.
I answered the waitress with a question mark on my lips. “Yeah, I guess so. It has been really quite awhile.” My gaze was fluctuating between her face and her name tag, hoping something might spark a memory, some explanation, but she still seemed terribly unfamiliar. I looked at Q. and Miss A. and they appeared equally flummoxed. There’s just no way this woman, who didn’t appear to be much older than us, if at all, could possibly remember us from our last visit, back in the day when MC Hammer pants were all the rage. Where else has she waitressed? Was she in one of our college classes? Did she ever have a yard sale, maybe? We racked our brains trying to figure out how she knew us, concluding that there must be another identical group of three friends, a triple doppelganger one could say, that occasionally frequents the Flying J and she simply mistook us for them. “Wouldn’t it be eerie to run into ourselves on the way out?” I pondered aloud.
Before our arrival, we were possibly a little caught up in the enigma, the classic Americana of the 24-hour truck stop diner. We wanted glossy cakes and pies displayed in bright pastry cases. White and cherry red porcelain tiles on the countertops and floors, stainless steel fixtures in the kitchen. Beehived waitresses hopped up on diet pills and strong coffee, flying around and acting sassy like Flo from Mel’s Diner: “Kiss my Grits!”
The only part of our little retro fantasy to come true were the telephones at every table, for the modern-day Flying J restaurant has absolutely zero kitsch factor and is done up in morose dark greens and boring beiges with lighting like a funeral home. A tragic attempt to pull Native American elements into play is evident with a ratty old Mexican flea-market blanket draped over a short wooden ladder hung on the wall next to a dusty dream catcher and some framed prints of mystical wolves purchased on clearance at Coldwater Creek in 1994.
An entire wall is devoted to plaques recognizing various employees’ corporate accomplishments: “This is to certify that Norma Gradwohl has met all the qualifications of a certified prep cook and is hereby awarded the title of Certified Prep Cook.”
I love this kind of circular corporate-speak. They also let us know that “a tremendous amount of research, development and testing goes into the many items you find on our menu.” That perfectly explains the resulting product. It’s all a big experiment where the idea is to replicate actual, natural food with something else, some kind of ultra-realistic mock-up, done in a way that no one really notices the difference. This makes our dear prep cook Norma Gradwohl more like a mad scientist, I suppose.
The glossy menu is fairly predictable; Steak and Eggs, French toast, Ham & Cheese Omelettes and a Breakfast Burrito. Lunchtime brings the usual assortment of burgers and fries, chicken sandwiches, and something called “Not Your Mom’s BLT.” Sorry, there’s nothing in it that would remotely faze my mother, who’s been known to enjoy such oddities as peanut butter, pickle and mayonnaise on rye. Dinner offerings include a list of Italian Pasta dishes and entrée salads as well as Honey Mustard chicken, which answers last week’s conundrum about where all the Honey Mustard dressing disappeared to.
We were impressed at first when the waitress brought out our meals spread across three plates each. There was so much food there almost wasn’t room it on our rickety little table. My scientifically engineered eggs actually tasted pretty good, their yellow color and fluffiness like an artificial sunshine in the gloom. The hash browns were fully heated and made to look like they were cooked, but their soul remained in the freezer. The biscuit was beamed in from a bakery on Planet Crumbly, and the gravy that smothered it and the chicken fried steak showed the promise of flavor only after a heavy salt and pepper attack.
The steak itself was battered in more ways than one. It was large enough, but was tough in texture, got cold immediately due to the weak consistency of the fried outer shell, and tasted so salty I could barely glom it down. I finished half and never wanted to look at it again. A. pretty much agreed with me, but inexplicably she got a box to take her leftovers home. Faring much better were Q.’s Blueberry Pancakes with Blueberry Syrup. “You’re going to turn into Violet Beauregarde, a big, bloated purple berry” I told him between all the bites I kept sneaking from his plate. For being nonfood, those pancakes were actually pretty good. Ultimately though, Flying J is most likely at its finest either totally sloshed at 3 a.m., or after 16 straight hours of driving a semi.