There’s a cadence to the way Michael Stern talks.
You hear it when you tune into “The Splendid Table” on WUNC radio on Sunday afternoons and hear the “Roadfood” segment. He is so excited to share what he and his writing partner, Jane Stern, have discovered while traveling all over the country that he can’t hold back. Whatever gem of a diner, shack or family-run restaurant that they have visited, whatever house specialty, homemade pie or bite of barbecue they have consumed, his enthusiasm is palpable.
It was heartening for me to hear that same excitement in Stern’s voice when I interviewed him last week about the ninth edition of their book, “Roadfood: The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 900 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More.” It came out Tuesday from Clarkson Potter and costs $21.99.
Stern had just returned from venturing out to find a place in Orange, Va., described to him as a “shack with no sign across from the Comfort Inn.” His taste of a pimiento cheese sandwich on a locally made roll convinced him that he needed to go back. He made me want to go there, too.
I wanted to interview Stern because their book stumped me. I thought I was pretty well-versed in North Carolina dining destinations. As I flipped to the North Carolina section of their book, I found familiar names: Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, Skylight Inn and Bum’s, both in Ayden, even the Cypress Grill in Jamesville. But then I spotted a name I’ve never heard before. There is a restaurant in Siler City, which I have no excuse not to know about, known for its fried and pressure-cooked chicken, called Brownie-Lu.
For Stern, it is the classic roadfood spot: “It’s our kind of place. Locals know about it but it’s not a tourist destination.”
(For those interested, here are the key details: Brownie-Lu, 919 N. 2nd Ave., 919-663-3913. Open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays, 6 a.m.-noon Saturdays, closed Sundays.)
The Sterns have been traveling the country and writing about truck stops and diners, barbecue joints and rib shacks for more than 40 years. Michael Stern says they don’t travel as much as they once did. When they started, they were always on the road; now it’s down to four to six months of the year.
At some point, you’d think they might get sick of all that roadfood and put down their forks. But this is what Stern says keeps them going: “We’re not just writing about delicious food we find across the country. We’re also writing about – not to sound too pretentious – cultural context.”
The couple explores an area’s cultural traditions, the history of the town they are visiting, even the personality of the town and the locals eating at the establishment.
Stern adds: “That’s what keeps one going when appetite flags.”
To me, “Roadfood” is the type of book you curl up with on the couch, daydreaming of appetite-driven road trips in your future. It’s the perfect book to keep in your car, just in case you find yourself driving down Highway 64 and cannot remember the name of that good fried chicken place in Siler City.