In a shabby building out on old Congo road sits one of Saline County’s last gastronomic monuments to that abstraction they call “the good old days”, The Salem Dairy Bar. My hubby and I arrived there at 7:15 on a Monday evening to, among other things, a hand written sign in purple sharpie advising us that the grill closed at 7:45 and Ice cream stops at 8:00 pm. In the heyday of Taco Bell’s “4am and later” and 24 hour McDonald’s, The Salem Dairy Bar proudly closes it windows (not doors, I’ll get to that) before the summer sun has turned the blue sky red because “we gotta get the kids to bed and sleep sometime”
I feel pretty good about this place. It is a childhood connection to the taste of summer. My hubby is not a native and it shows when my directions “drive out Congo until we get there” earn me a skeptical Look. Really, though, that is all there is too it. You just drive until you get there. It isn’t in town. Heck, it isn’t even in a neighborhood. It just sitting all alone halfway between Benton and Salem on the old Congo road. There are a few houses around, but nothing else. It also doesn’t look like much. There is a ancient sign to pair with the ancient building and a gravel area that doesn’t even qualify as a parking lot. Yet somehow this place has not only survived,but flourished on this patch of road between places.
When we drive up on this Monday evening, it was my desire for ice cream that had charted the course. The Salem Dairy Bar is one of the last reliable ice cream places in the county. Dairy Queen is gone, Shakey’s is gone, and Baskin Robbins is… not what I wanted. The gravel is packed. Mercedes, Jeep, Volvo, Toyota, Ford, GMC, Kia… social class is not a factor. Gucci bags and Fendi heels, (Thank you Bryant, I spotted them on my own) mixed with baseball caps and flip-flops. Kids are here and a few teens, but this place is mostly adults.
There is no indoor seating. There is one picnic table under the porch and two more out in the grass, but everyone seem to stand and chitchat in a relatively short arc of the window from which the food emerges. We stand in line at that window to order our food. Cheeseburger with pepper-jack, large onion rings and a vanilla shake for me, Jumbo cheeseburger with American and vanilla malt for hubby. A holler to the back about the availability of onion rings, with a apologetic “sorry, we’re out” yelled back. Damn. I look at the menu and select tater tots. Total 18$ and some change. “where you at?” I must have looked at the girl like she was a alien, because she continued “which car?” Enlightenment dawns and I tell her. Matt wanders off to have a smoke and I sit at the picnic table to people watch.
It surprised me, really, to see such a eclectic group of people at this out of the way burger joint. If someone had gone out of their way to pick every age, gender, race and income range available they would have come up with a similar group. The hum of desultory conversation is broken by the opening of the window and the emergence of a brown paper bag. Like the solitary egg of a critically endangered bird, no paper bag had ever been the subject of such intense scrutiny before this one. “Red Tahoe!” A happy response from some teenage boys and a whiff of a sigh from the rest. The boys retrieve their prized bag and leave. No sooner then they are clear of the gravel and on the road, another car is pulling into the briefly vacated spot.
This sequence continues for a few minutes. Every car is replaced within a minute of it being vacated. The hum of conversation broken only by the swish-thock of the window opening to take orders and deliver brown bags. After about ten minutes our order is called and we are given our own precious brown bag.
The burgers are wrapped in white butcher paper, as are the tots. In fact, there is not one identifying label on anything. No logo’s on napkins or cups. Nothing identifies this place as the origin point of this food… except the taste.
Buns are fresh and fluffy, without sesame seed and slightly sweet. The shredded lettuce and cold fresh tomato are included during a time when many of the big chains aren’t serving tomato because the cost is so high. Dill pickle, spicy pepper-jack cheese, and mayonnaise round out the condiments included on the thick beef patty that is clearly meat. Crispy tots that are fried in very fresh oil and hot, painfully so. Cold thick vanilla shake and Matt’s malt is just as good. I remember this taste…
It tastes like summer.