Soft shell crabs, hard shell crabs, soft ice cream, hard candy, discount chocolates, double yolk eggs, Kiwanis barbecues, Silver Queen corn, lima beans, green beans, pizza, pasta, pancakes, french fries, fried chicken, burgers, shakes, sodas.
The road to Rehoboth Beach is paved with indigestion.
It's a route that, as August approaches, Washingtonians seem compelled to travel, stampeding to the beach just as they rushed to Garfinckel's liquidation sale. And as construction workers chew up Route 50, this mass of motorists requires something to nibble on while waiting in traffic.
There is good food to be had here, although the road defines the choices and should limit expectations. Still, there are some rules of the road that will assist the traveler in avoiding the pitfalls (if not the pot holes) of eating unwisely:
If it's McDonald's you want, it's McDonald's you get.
The familiar fast food eateries that crowd the American roadside are in full force on this well-traveled stretch. Without having to sit on a plastic chair bolted to the floor, however, you can grab a meal or a snack at an authentic diner, family-style restaurant, barbecue joint, seafood market, shopping mall deli or roadside stand.
These places are full of surprises. The Shell gas station/deli at the intersection of Routes 404 and 309 may not serve Happy Meals, but it does offer Altered Beast and Bad Dudes video games with its tuna fish and chips. The Country Shop one mile past at the intersection of Routes 404 and 480 is a combination seafood market/antique store that sells pickled eggs and cured pigs feet along with its soft shell crabs and used furniture. And in the fall, the Seafood Palace at the junction of 404 and 18 sells muskrat.
If it's carry-out you want, it's carry-out you get (everybody seems to have Styrofoam). And if you're really desperate for an outdoor picnic on the way, there are a couple of cement picnic table turnoffs (exhaust fumes included). If you forget to take a cooler, there are lots of places to buy one.
That includes Chesapeake Gourmet. Located in Chesapeake Pottery, a warehouse-sized discount houseware store in the Chesapeake Village Outlet Center, this combination deli/bakery/fancy food supermarket/wine store sells everything from banana crunch peanut butter to sopressata. Chesapeake Gourmet will make sandwiches to go or to stay, and carries a decent selection of cheeses and Italian meats, which can be purchased by the pound. The deli will pack a travel cooler for you, provided you buy the Styrofoam container ($1.69).
There is an inverse relationship between the tackiness of the lawn decorations sold at farm stands and the variety and selection of produce.
Between Denton, Md., and Georgetown, Del., farm stands wedged between the corn fields are a welcome refresher. At two of the most visible, Adam's and Elmer's, figurines of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, chickens, deer, ducks, dogs, pigs, frogs, sea horses and more sit out front. Beyond the kitsch, however, both markets offer a bounty of beautiful plants, flowers and produce. Elmer seems to stock everything, even items that are obviously not local, such as kiwi, mangoes and California cherries.
Don't order a crab cake that costs less than $5.
Due to the type and quantity of crab meat used, there is frequently a direct correlation between the cost of a crab cake and its quality.
In a comparison of crab cakes from 12 beach-bound restaurants, the version from The Narrows, a pretty restaurant on the Kent Island marina, was clearly the standout. Full of buttery chunks of lump crab meat, it was served on a soft onion roll with curly lettuce and a tomato slice. At $9.75, it was also the priciest.
Other above-average crab cakes include those from the Ebb Tide, a dark, dank restaurant a few miles past the Kent Narrows Bridge, and Hemingway's, which is immediately after the Bay Bridge and has a spectacular view that probably improved the taste of the crab cake.
Ditto for Sunsets in the Kent Narrows marina, where you can sit on picnic tables near the dock and feed popcorn kernels to the ducks. The interior of the restaurant is just plain weird. Fisherman's Inn, also on the south side of the Kent Narrows marina, is a cavernous place with a model sailboat outlined in lights above the bar, sort of the nautical version of a disco ball. The crab cake was nicely fried but not a winner.
Harris' Crab House, on the north side of the narrows, makes a decent crab cake for the money ($5). It's not chock full of crab but it had a good flavor, and besides, this is about as authentic a crab house as you can get. The waitresses rip brown paper from a huge roll hanging on the wall and the crab-picking patrons do the rest.
Don't bother with the under-$5 versions, although this is not to say the eateries that sell them don't have other things to offer. Holly's Restaurant and Motel (Rte. 50) is probably better suited for Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, and the Angler's at Kent Narrows (where all the waitresses seem to smoke, even when they're on duty) is a red-vinyl-television-at-the-bar kind of hangout where they make fried clams from real clams, not strips. On the other hand, Cohee's 404 Restaurant and Lounge is probably not worth a stop unless you want to shoot pool or have a beer with the locals. The giveaway was when the bartender said the crab cake would "be ready in six minutes. The grease has to get hot."
The Short Brothers do everything in twos.
There are two Short Brothers farm markets on 404 and there are two Short brothers. Wayne Short owns the two Short Brothers stands and Donnie Short owns Donnie's Produce, a stand between Wayne's operations. The brothers' specialty: double yolk eggs.
Don't judge a barbecue restaurant by its exterior.
Texas Steaks & BBQ, which has recently taken up shop at the location of an old pancake house three miles before the Bay Bridge, looks like a Dutch barbecue parlor. The windmill on the top of the roof remains, and a western-style facade sweeps across the restaurant below.
The renovation has resulted in a sleek new kitchen turning out the kind of barbecue that sometimes comes from sleek new kitchens: not bad, but could use some character. The baked beans are terrific, both sweet and spicy and swimming with chunks of pork. The barbecued beef and meaty ribs are made from good-quality raw ingredients; the thin and vinegary sauce needs depth.
Beefeater's, a dilapidated carry out/eat-in, screened-in patio right before the turn-off to Route 404, looks like it's about to collapse. Nevertheless, it makes formidable barbecued beef, a generous mound of crusty, minced meat mounded on a roll with a Sloppy Joe-ish sauce that lacks smokiness but ends up as a decent sandwich.
Don't forget about the barbecue places without interiors.
The Georgetown Kiwanis fire up their grill next to a small church and cemetery on Route 404 every Saturday and Sunday from about 9:30 to 5 or 6, according to club president William Jones, who is also sheriff of Sussex County, "the largest county east of the Mississippi," he said proudly.
At Scott's Corner on Route 404, across the street from a country store dating back to 1875, the Greenwood and Bridgeville Kiwanis grill chicken every Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. until dark. For $4, you get half a chicken, pickles, potato chips and a roll.
In a slightly different outdoor barbecue, the Bridgeville Lions Club periodically sponsors an oyster fry. Fried in batter on an outdoor griddle, the oyster fritters are stuffed into sandwiches. The next one is Friday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to whenever the oysters disappear. After that, you'll have to wait until Aug. 16 and 17. The Lions also sell burgers and hot dogs, and members of the Bridgeville Lioness Club bake brownies and cupcakes. You can't miss it; it's just on the outskirts of town on South Main Street.
The closer the farm market is to the Bay Bridge, the more expensive the Silver Queen corn.
Last week, a dozen ears of Silver Queen corn along Routes 404 and 50 ranged from $1.20 (Mickey's) to $2.75 (Applebee's). An unattended stand on 404 was offering what may be the biggest bargain on the road -- "self-service sweet corn."
Signs don't always mean what they say.
"Cholesterol menu" says the sign outside Andy's Diner in Bridgeville, Del., and the "cholesterol-free sandwiches" listed inside include tuna and chicken salad. According to owner Andy Cannon, the new menu was incorrectly printed and should have listed those items as "low cholesterol." The error will be corrected soon, Cannon said, "but I've been so doggone busy." Clayton's Farm Market in Denton, decorated with "Maryland with Pride" signs, sells a full line of Virginia Brand jams and jellies.
One sign you can't quarrel with is the billboard outside Bridgeville that says, "If you lived here, you'd be home now."
Those homemade-looking jams and jellies at roadside farm stands aren't always made in somebody's mother's kitchen.
Some of them are made by Polaner's, a New Jersey-based firm that sells its products in supermarkets, but which has a line it sells to farm markets. McCutcheon's, which sells jams at farm stands under its own label, also sells an unlabeled line to a small number of farm stands, which then affix their own labels.
Elmer's and Ma & Pa's farm stands sell pumpkin butter, prominently labeled from Cooper's Country Market in Bucyrus, Ohio. It's a nice spread on toasted cinnamon bread from Elmer's (made by a local Mennonite woman) and could be the foundation for a farm breakfast at the beach. Pick up some double yolk eggs and, from Elmer's refrigerator, the just-spicy-enough Old Home Made Brand sausage made locally by Milton Sausage and Scrapple Co. Fat and cholesterol watchers can opt for fresh fruit salad; Elmer's even offers it in plastic carry out containers, already cut.
If all else fails, there's invariably a Chinese restaurant, a deli and an ice cream and/or chocolate shop tucked somewhere along the row of stores in an outlet shopping mall.
Scalley's Grill in the Bay Bridge Market Place, about a mile before the Bay Bridge, makes a decent crab cake sandwich. Shortly after the Bay Bridge are the Eastern Shore Factory Stores, where the unremarkable Nate's Nearly Famous New York Delly will continue to remain "nearly" famous. Right after Route 50 splits off to Route 301, the Chesapeake Village Outlet Center is home to the Wall Street Deli, where the corned beef on the sandwich is piled high, shaved thin and pretty lean. The deli is next to a Fanny Farmer candy outlet, which sells ice cream, candy and "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" for $12.49 (regularly $19.95). Remember that the more discount food you eat, the more discount clothes you'll need.
Many restaurants require shirts; almost as many sell them.
This is relevant only if you've lost your shirt. If shoes are required and you've left your flip flops in the sand, we have no advice.
Openings and closings can be quirky.
For an early breakfast, the Georgetown House in Georgetown opens at 5:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and closes at 4:30 p.m. (2:30 on Saturdays). Being the county seat with 80 lawyers in town, according to the waitress, this is a hangout for courthouse regulars and an afternoon coffee-and-gossip stop for elderly corn lords. Its prices, like its facade, are in a time warp. A hamburger sells for 90 cents, homemade bread pudding is 65 cents and the most expensive item on the menu is sausage, two eggs and toast for $3.10.
The Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers' Market in the Chesapeake Village Outlet Center sells a wide variety of homemade foods in its booth-style market: doughnuts, lemonade, hot roast beef sandwiches, breakfast items, salads, soft pretzels, as well as fresh meats, produce and cheeses. It's open only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the days when the Amish farmers from Lancaster truck down their wares.
The Wye River Gift Shoppe, located on the premises of Wye River Spices and Seasonings, is open Monday through Friday but is closed on weekends. Jackie Christopher, bookkeeper for the company, said the store was open for a few weekends, but there wasn't enough traffic. No traffic? Motorists, she said, "sit on Kent Island for so long, once they get to an open stretch, it's 'get me to the beach.' "