Traveling from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., by car is an easy trip on I-64, but it can be an Eater’s challenge. Louisville is full of interesting places, but moving on eastward, it becomes more and more difficult for travelers who. want to avoid chain restaurants, from "dinner houses" like Denny’s and the drive-throughs. However, we found a place on I-81 in western Virginia that’s a welcome relief from the "dinner houses" like Denny’s and the drive-throughs.
The Hi-Neighbor (we didn’t name it) in Strasburg is very much a local restaurant, and the food is definitely home cooking in the Southern style. If you’re looking for cilantro and goat cheese, you won’t find it.
What you will find is country ham.
For those who haven’t had this traditional American meat, a few words may be in order. Country ham is not the sort of ham that you buy at a deli counter or at one of those ham stores. Those hams are okay, and sometimes just what we want, but country ham is R-rated compared to them. It’s dense, salty and smoky. (The words "sugar cured" guarantee you’re not eating real country ham.) That denseness means it’s usually thinly sliced, so a sandwich of country ham can leave the unsuspecting feeling surprised, maybe even short-changed. But press on; the flavor is so concentrated that it doesn’t take an inch-thick layer of meat to give the diner his money’s worth.
Virginia ham is a regional tradition, one we’re beginning to realize is a tradition still alive around that state, a fine thing. And that brings us to another point: Missouri also has a tradition of fine country ham, but it seems to be disappearing. Burger’s Smokehouse, of California, MO, makes great stuff (even the lofty staff of the New York Times’ food section has acknowledged that), but we can’t ever recall seeing it on a menu anywhere except as an accent meat in a fine-dining restaurant. It’s a shame. And outside of Columbia, we haven’t seen Boone County ham in years.
Strasburg is a charming little town, with plenty of Civil War and Revolutionary War history. It’s near the intersection of I-81 and I-66, a few miles west of Front Royal and snuggled at the foot of Massanutten Mountain, and as we stumbled upon Hi-Neighbor, the after-church crowd was just thinning out. We knew we were in the right place when the chalkboard listed five different side dishes along with the day’s special. When we opened the menu, there were seven more sides - including vanilla pudding. Pot roast? Fried chicken? They even offer a "vegetable plate," just four side dishes. It’s real granny food, served up by waitresses who seem to have been there so long they can recite the menu from memory. One local specialty we didn’t try is puddin meat, Yes, that’s the way it’s spelled. It’s rather like scrapple, ground meats simmered in broth and seasonings, but without the cooked cornmeal that thickens scrapple until it sets up like polenta. It’s available at breakfast, including as a pancake topping.
The country ham is available as an entree or a sandwich. The latter is extremely simple. A little mustard or mayonnaise, perhaps superfluous, some toasted white bread, some pickles on the side. We also tried the Big Bob sandwich, a couple of thick slabs of grilled bologna on a toasted hamburger bun, minus the cheese that usually comes with it. Pecan pie and coconut cream pie finished things up. A first-rate crust on the clearly house-made pecan pie brought it in as a winner; the coconut cream’s topping seemed close to the stuff in the white plastic tub, but otherwise it was satisfactory.
As we left, we noticed that the public library across the street, though closed, had a whole shelf of books sitting on the front porch. "Honor system," announced the sign. Nice.
192 W. King St. (U.S. 11), Strasburg, VA
Breakfast and Lunch daily, Dinner Mon.-Sat (closes at 8 p.m.)