Before I left the UK I met the Independent’s Travel Editor Simon Calder in a TV studio and his advice on my trip was ‘Go to Utah – more National Parks than anywhere else’ so here I am.
I would have passed through Salina even if I hadn’t taken a wrong turn but the way I approached it, from the West, gave me a view of the town from above and from afar. Something made me think, perhaps my rumbling stomach, that there would be a good place for breakfast here.
I passed a tatty billboard advertising Mom’s Cafe on the edge of town and its claim to have the ‘Best food in town’ didn’t seem likely to be greatly overhyped since the competition didn’t seem that stiff. Salina looked a typical small US town – I passed a bank with its ‘Drive thru” cashpoint machine, the Salina Lumber Company and an auto repair place, and perhaps more interestingly the State Liquor Agency (open Mondays). Perhaps the Burns Saddlery with its ‘Red Tag Boot Sale’ placed Salina more firmly in the West but I didn’t need a saddle or cowboy boots, what I needed was a good breakfast after an early start.
At the crossroads, and the crossroads more or less is Salina, everyone from each direction has to stop and decide who goes next. It’s a strange system but seems to work pretty well – although why Americans haven’t discovered the roundabout I am not yet sure. But paused at the crossroads I had, and you would have, if you pass this way, one of those instant decisions to make – there’s Mom’s Cafe, does it look OK? shall I go in?
It didn’t look all that promising but it did look open. I guess the line of large motorbikes, but not Harley-Davidsons, outside sent a mixed message – Mom’s was popular but was it welcoming my type of business? I decided to find out and parked up outside.
On entering I was immediately sure that I had made a good choice. The bikers were mostly older than me and were tucking into what looked like good breakfasts – steak, eggs, toast, hash browns – the works.
I chose a booth to sit in and Sharon, the waitress, brought me the menu with a broad smile. Sharon was a homely shape, dressed in a green waitress uniform with a pink collar and pink cuffs to her short sleeves. She wore sensible shoes as she delivered the menu and poured me my first coffee of the day.
The only other customers, apart from the well-behaved ageing bikers, and well-behaved me, were a young couple charging their mobile phone from a socket.
Mom’s has plenty to keep the lone traveller interested – the menu contains information about the place, so after ordering Breakfast Number 4 (2 eggs, medium, with hash browns and sourdough toast) I read that Mom’s had been here since 1926. The menu also explained that the local industries included coal, salt mining, ranching of cattle and sheep, gypsum, clay milling and now oil, and that one or other of these accounts for each of the large lorries passing cautiously across the crossroads outside.
Each table at Mom’s has a few books to keep you occupied. I noticed on other tables I could have been reading ‘If life were fair then horses would ride half of the time’ and ‘Understanding women – a guidebook for guys who are often confused’ – deep and useful material, and nice to see the subjunctive used so properly.
My own table’s reading matter comprised ‘Geezerhood – what to expect from life now that you’re as old as dirt’ and ‘How to stay humble when you’re smarter than everybody else’. Seemed too near the mark to be purely chance but I’ll leave it to others to spot what I learned from perusing these works.
What I learned from looking around Mom’s was that they don’t accept ‘out of State checks’ but that they had a sign ‘We accept Cash’. And the menu told me that many celebrities had stopped here and eaten.
I asked Sharon about the celebrities but she looked a bit flustered and just pointed to the photos and clippings on the walls before giving me another toothy smile.
If any passing celebrity is looking for advice on what to eat at Mom’s then Breakfast Number 4 is a good choice. The two ‘farm-fresh’ eggs were delicious, as were the hash browns. If you have never had hash browns in the US, and only had their UK counterparts then you haven’t had the full hash brown experience. Hash browns in the US do not come as a hard brown composite but as a sea of lightly browned potato shreds and those that temporarily covered my plate were delicious – the best yet, I kid you not.
Maybe the potatoes had come from nearby Idah0, a state which has a small share in Yellowstone and across one corner of which I had passed yesterday. Idaho’s cars’ state license plates have “Famous potatoes’ written across them which seems a bit down-market from Washington DC’s ‘Taxation without representation’, Ohio’s “Birthplace of aviation’ or Connecticut’s “Constitution State’ but each to his own I guess. And Idaho had presented me with Franklin’s Gull, California Gull and some White-faced Ibises as I drove, so no complaints from me.
I checked the celebrities on the wall but recognised none of them by name or picture. There was certainly no ZZ Top, Ol’ Blue Eyes or Big O but there was plenty of evidence that Mom’s itself was a celebrity. It featured on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in January 1996, for example.
On the wall by the window was a calendar whose picture was a family of bears enjoying a picnic outside their tent and next to their jeep, this was a gift from fellow Salina business Sorensen Electrics whose sign I could see across the street above the clothes shop “So Sheikh’ and along from another shop selling women’s clothes, Bella’s, which proudly proclaimed that ‘We know what she wants’ alongside a notice advertising a Father’s Day Special on designer jeans and shorts (so Bella’s ‘knows what he wants’ too?). I think the middle pane of Bella’s shop front must have been broken some time back as the left hand window had written in large white letters across it ‘Wedding Re’ and the right hand window picked up apparently the same message with ‘Gifts – Etc’ in the same font, but the middle window was blank allowing you to fill in the missing words in whatever way you chose.
Time to move on, and although the wall showed a Guest Check for Mom’s for Breakfast on 7 February 1947 for 57c my bill of $7.84 still seemed very good value and I left $10 to put another toothy smile on Sharon’s face.
Outside the bikers were standing in the shade – some smoking, some using their cell phones and I saw they mostly had Washington State plates.
Inside Mom’s I had noticed an old newspaper clipping on the wall from the Salt Lake Tribune with the headline ‘Mom’s Cafe makes Utah trips worthwhile’ and outside Mom’s there were vending machines for three local newspapers, the Salt Lake Tribune (Utah’s independent voice since 1871, 75c), the grimly entitled Reaper (75c) and the Deseret News (Utah’s locally owned paper, 75c) alongside the national USA today ($1). I didn’t buy but I did wonder whether the news from all those other states was worth the extra quarter to the citizens of Salina.
Mom’s seemed to be in good heart but its fellow businesses didn’t look in great shape. The Sunkyst Tanning, Lotsa Motsa Pizza and Sho Time Video shops were quiet. The Five and Dime Pawn and Thrift shop offered me ‘gently used clothes’ and American West Realty didn’t look like anyone was buying or selling property. I was disappointed that the Hatch Barber Shop was closed as I need a trim.
Two more bikes pulled up outside Mom’s as I headed left, south, in my turn, at the crossroads. I was heading for the National Parks where I might hope for chance encounters with nature, but chance encounters with those gems of small-town America are precious too. Mom’s looks like the liveliest place in Salina by quite some way and if I am ever passing by this way again I will take its pulse another time.