Traveling? Eat local.

It was Father’s Day weekend and my dad, my friend Butch and I took a short field trip to hit some flea markets and maybe grab some lunch.

We went north to Scottsburg, Indiana, and then west to a small town called Salem (not that Salem… no witches here), where we roamed around Huckster’s Hall, an antiques mall set in an old National Guard Armory gymnasium. We didn’t want to have lunch at Arby’s, which was next door, so I used the miracle called Google and found a local place called Sissy’s Tasty House, a comfort food restaurant — something authentically Salem.

We tracked our way there only to find that it was set in a former Taco Bell building, which is to say, it was not exactly beckoning. But we were hungry and didn’t want to waste our time or appetites on fast food, so we decided to give Sissy’s a shot. As we approached the door, we noticed a handwritten sign telling us that the restaurant would close the next day and reopen after an “extensive remodel.”

Basically, we were going to be some of the last customers to eat in the old version of Sissy’s Tasty House. So, that’s something.

The interior had been decorated with mix-and-match furniture and striped blue and black curtains to help give it somewhat of a diner feel. Otherwise, besides the pies and cobblers on a table just inside the entrance, it just looked like an old Taco Bell, with the requisite tile floor and water-stained drop ceiling.

Worn out, photocopied and stained menus touted items like “Breathtaking Breakfast Sandwiches,” “Not Your Ordinary Omelets” and “Glorious Biscuits and Gravy.” The lunch/dinner menu was headed with, “Are You Hungry? Really, Really Hungry?” You get the idea — it was a laid-back place that wasn’t taking itself too seriously. Meanwhile, our server was a smiling, gregarious young woman who was eager to give us the kind of service you’d expect from a small-town restaurant.

Adding to the quirky charm, daily specials were handwritten on a piece of paper, which was sitting on the table, propped against a ketchup bottle. The daily meal special was three-piece fish dinner and two sides for $8.50. Coconut pie and cherry cobbler were the day’s desserts and the dinner special was all-you-can-eat chicken strips for $8.99. That’s right: all-you-can-eat chicken strips.

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We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

We all ordered the fish special because, well, why wouldn’t we? Not that it was easy to pass up a fried bologna sandwich or even the Randy Burger (topped with ham and A-1 Steak Sauce) or the Tasty Burger (with green peppers and the house Southwest sauce). Also, the Tasty House Omelet is made with bacon, sausage and ham and might not be good for your cholesterol. One of the available sides was marinated beets, something I can honestly say I’ve not seen on a restaurant menu before.

We chatted and, a few minutes later, our meals came out. We all almost laughed when we saw the massive hunks of fish. I remember my dad saying, “Oh, wow.” The amount of fish was, quite frankly, astonishing.

The sides were good, but nothing special (Dad and I had green beans and mashed potatoes, while Butch went with coleslaw and fried potatoes), but the three enormous slabs of Alaskan pollock were as tasty as they were sizable. And that’s three per plate, mind you. Pollock is a mild fish, a bit gray and less attractive to look at than cod, but the light, nicely seasoned batter helped to make it quite a treat. And it was a filling treat at that — we all had leftovers. I barely got through two pieces of fish and half my potatoes and beans before I was stuffed.

As we gathered to leave, I noticed a sign across the street in the lot of a strip mall that said “The Tasty House.” On our way out, I asked the cashier if the restaurant had moved recently, and she said it had moved across the street late last year. She identified herself as the sister of owner Melissa “Sissy” Pate and said they moved because they wanted a space they could make their own.

Thus, the renovation. Because, hey, you can’t really have a soul food restaurant in an old Taco Bell without some special touches, right? I’ll be interested to return just to see how far they took it from looking like a fast food joint to looking like a diner.

Anyway, the whole point of the story is that one of the best things I believe one can ever do when out of town, even if it’s just small-town Indiana, is to eat locally. You can get Taco Bell or Arby’s anywhere, but you aren’t likely to run into giant helpings of Alaskan pollock and marinated beets in The Highlands. •

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