Sunday, March 5, 2017

Back to the Smokies: Old Favorites and New Discoveries





For years, one of our most frequent travel destinations was to the Smoky Mountains National Park and the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area, the gateway towns to the park. Once our boys got involved in sports, it became more difficult to find time to visit. As a result, our visits to the Smokies became distant, but very fond memories. Recently, I decided a trip was in order, so I gave Luanne a call.

It has been a while since Lu and I have been able to sync our schedules, but this time we were successful.  I needed to go to Gatlinburg to do some redecorating on our mountain condo and I thought it would be a good time for old friends to catch up. We made plans to meet in Ft. Payne and off we went.

Our friend, Sherri, cutting up at Southeastern Salvage


On the way, we made a stop in Chattanooga at Southeastern Salvage, where I picked up some good deals on pillows and a mirror for the condo. We had fun remembering the last time we had been there with Parker. It was the beginning of much reminiscing about our friend. Almost anything can trigger a memory of Sherri. We especially laughed when we recounted a long ago visit to Gatlinburg with Sherri when she brought her mom along. We got the harebrained notion to walk from our condo on the far end of the park near the park entrance, to the Alamo restaurant way on the other end of East Parkway. It was freezing cold that night and Sherri's mom was not happy with us. She certainly let us know she thought we had lost our ever-loving minds.

Sevierville and Pigeon Forge


                           


After we loaded up the car with our treasures from Southeastern Salvage, we jumped back in and pointed the car toward Sevier County, Tennessee. The county was named for Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier. The county seat of Sevier County is Sevierville, the eighth oldest city in Tennessee. In 1861, Sevier county voted 1528 to 60 against secession. In the 1930's, the future of the rural mountain county changed dramatically with the formation of the Smoky Mountains National Park. Today, tourism drives the local economy and one of the biggest supporters of the economy of Sevier County is a home-grown girl, country music megastar, Dolly Parton.



Dolly, who grew up on Locust Ridge near Pigeon Forge, has, arguably, done more for her hometown than any single person has ever done for their hometown. Pigeon Forge was not much more than a drive through on the way to the park until Dolly purchased an old theme park that had seen incarnations as Rebel Railroad, Goldrush Junction and Silver Dollar City. Luanne and I both remember going to Goldrush Junction as small children. The highlight and certainly most memorable thing we took away from our visit to Goldrush Junction, was riding on a train that was under attack from train robbers. Luckily the sheriff and his deputies showed up and saved us from having all our worldly possessions stolen. As a kid, I wasn't aware of any of the story line, just that men wearing cowboy hats and kerchiefs over their faces jumped on our train and began yelling and waving guns around until they were chased off by more men with cowboy hats and gold stars. Pretty dramatic family entertainment.

Anyway, after Dolly purchased the property, she turned it into Dollywood and the rest is history. Today, Pigeon Forge is, much like Dolly herself, a bigger than life version of what it once was. It is still a little mountain town nestled in the Smoky Mountains, but it is a flashier, splashier version. Filled with tourist trappy neon lights, shops, shows and attractions, Pigeon Forge is now a destination in and of itself.

Pollo Loco



As we left Sevierville, headed toward Pigeon Forge, we realized we had not had lunch and were getting hungry. Luanne started googling a place to eat and giving directions as I drove. We've been in similar situations before, so I don't know why I was surprised to find us on a deserted, winding road twisting through the Tennessee mountains. I wasn't seeing any of the splashy lights or bumper to bumper traffic I knew to expect from Pigeon Forge. No. I was seeing the darkening sky and mile after mile of mountain forest broken up every now and then by a few cows standing in a pasture. I glanced at Luanne. Where were we going? She had selected a Mexican restaurant called Pollo Loco, and she assured me it had great reviews. I'm skeptically thinking, "Yeah, right!" More miles and what seemed like forever went by and I grew more doubtful of finding any place in which I would even consider eating. Finally, after the longest search for food in the history of searches, Luanne spies it. Literally, all by itself. A little concrete building, painted a hotter than hot orange and sharing space with billiards and hot tubs. Really? I quickly suggested that Luanne run in and check out the situation while I kept the motor running. I know, I'm smart like that. If anyone was getting out of this, it was going to be me. Sorry, Lu, I love you, but... I fully expected Luanne to come back out to the car and tell me we needed to keep going, but, to my surprise, she stuck her head out of the door and beckoned me to come on in.


Luanne had marched herself inside the restaurant and interviewed the customers, asking them what they thought of Pollo Loco. After getting glowing reviews and checking out the plates coming out of the kitchen, she determined we should give the isolated little place the benefit of the doubt, so here we were, in the middle of who knows where, in a Mexican restaurant sitting all by itself,  getting ready to order our dinner. Now, you would think the experience at The Seafood Bistro in Montgomery would have taught me that good food can be found in the most unlikely of places, but I'm a slow learner.

                         

I looked around and assessed the dining room. It was clean and cheerful. A large pollo, wearing a pirate's hat,  dominated one wall, looking pretty happy about his surroundings. An equally cheerful looking man approached our table, brought us menus and asked us what we wanted to drink. Luanne had seen this review during her google searches: 

4 months ago

Authentic Mexican drinks! Try the cantaloupe and the Hibiscus drink, very refreshing! The salsas are delicious very authentic. It sucks going to a "Mexican restaurant" where nothing tastes actual Mexican. The tacos are yummy! And excellent service.

Clearly the mention of a cantaloupe hibiscus drink was the reason we ended up at Pollo Loco. So we quickly asked for one. Unfortunately, our server politely told us the drink was not available that night, but he suggested a Horchata. We had no idea what a Horchata was, but he explained it was made from rice soaked in water. After an extensive soaking, the rice is removed and vanilla, cinnamon and sugar are added. He offered to bring us samples. The Horchata was very good and Luanne ended up ordering a large one. I stuck with iced tea and we sipped our drinks and munched on some very good chips and salsa while we studied the menu.

                           

I've told you before about Luanne's weird food preferences. She does not eat salsa. I know. Strange. So when she ordered some pico, I was perplexed. Did she realize pico and salsa are made with the same ingredients? Apparently, salsa reminds her too much of catsup, another of her odd aversions, but she loves pico. I guess the salsa is too saucy and the pico is just chunky enough.  I know. I'm trying to explain something I really don't understand. 

Along with her pico, she ordered some pork tacos with well marinated pork. That's what the menu said. The menu was not kidding. The meat in those tacos was super tender and tasty. The whole plate was clean and fresh looking. No cheese, just well marinated pork topped with chopped lettuce, onions, and cilantro. Luanne asked for the green salsa to be served on the side. I can testify it was very good! The tacos really were authentic.


I chose a bean burrito filled with avocado, pico, onions and lettuce and smothered with creamy queso. It was just the way I like it, filled with lots of crunch from the lettuce and onions, bright flavor from the pico and creaminess from the beans and avocado. The queso was delicious, too. All in all, Luanne and I were extremely happy with our meal at Pollo Loco. 


We left, thanking the folks at Pollo Loco for a wonderful experience. Not only was the food fresh and authentic, the people were super nice and friendly. We just did not realize how great they were, though until after we had headed back toward Gatlinburg. As we drove down the road, we became aware we actually knew where we were. Just on down the road from Pollo Loco, we found ourselves on Gatlinburg's Craft Trail, filled with lots of mom and pop shops selling all manner of hand-made mountain crafts. We chatted, remembering the crafts our families had purchased over the years, handmade brooms with crooked broomsticks, homemade candles, fudge and hand carved wooden bears. Then we remembered something else. We had been low on gas back when we left the courthouse in Sevierville. That was long before we headed out on the twisty backroads to find Pollo Loco. We had about 18 miles before we would run out of gas. No problem. We turned off the Craft Trail and onto Gatlinburg's East Parkway. We stopped by our condo manager's office, picked up our key from the after hours lock box and stopped at the first gas station we came to, a Shell. I got out to pump the gas and realized I couldn't find my wallet. Where in the heck was it? I knew I had taken it out at the Southeastern Salvage, but beyond that, I could not remember taking it out of my purse. Luanne had insisted on paying at Pollo Loco, so I didn't think I had taken it out there, but I called anyway. I prayed it was there, because if I had left it in Chattanooga, I was in trouble. As soon as the phone was answered at Pollo Loco and I identified myself, the sweet man who had waited on us quickly told me he found the wallet in our booth and he had it for me. Thank you for answered prayers. 

Now we got back in the car, still with no gas, because I didn't want Luanne to put gas in the tank. We retraced our steps, but now it was pitch black and we are not good at reversing directions. Yep, we ended up going back to Pollo Loco, but a longer route, so it took longer than we thought. When we got back to the restaurant, Luanne ran back in, got the wallet, thanked our friend and gave him a big hug for me. She even brought him outside so I could see that he got the hug. I know he wondered about those two crazy, scatterbrained women. I tell you this so you know, not only is the food at Pollo Loco delicious and authentic, the people are genuinely fine, honest and friendly folks, so please check out this wonderful place the next time you are in the area.

The car was now running on fumes and for the third time, we were back on the road between Pollo Loco and Gatlinburg. We stopped again at our Shell and this time managed to fill the tank, much to our relief. This trip was off to an eventful start! 

Gatlinburg
The Old Smoky Candy Kitchen is still open and cranking out sweet treats for Gatlinburg visitors.

                     
It was dark when we got to the condo, so it was the following morning before we got our first look at the damage the town had sustained from the recent fires that threatened Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and the national park. As far as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are concerned, there is very little visible damage. Everything on the Parkway looks much as it did before. Hillbilly Golf has been part of Gatlinburg for as long as I can remember and it was completely destroyed. The putt-putt course was unique in that golfers rode an incline 300 feet up the side of the mountain to the two 18 hole courses at the top.

More damage was visible on River Road which runs parallel to the Parkway between the Mountain Mall and Ripley's Aquarium.  Most everything on River Road was spared, though the fire got mighty close. The aquarium was fine, as was the Mysterious Mansion haunted house and Christ in the Smokies museum and gardens. But right next to Christ in the Smokies, the Riverhouse Motor Lodge was devastated. The long motel was damaged or completely burned out from one end to the other. Also, Gatlinburg's iconic chair lift suffered a lot of damage. It was such a sad thing to see. We were told that temperatures in Gatlinburg reached 120 degrees during the fires that circled the town.

Burned out hull of Riverhouse Motorlodge on River Rd. in Gatlinburg



Pancake Pantry


A long line of hungry folks waiting to get into the Pancake Pantry

We were ready for breakfast and really happy to see that one of our favorite Gatlinburg eateries, The Pancake Pantry, was untouched and open for business. We got in the familiar line outside the restaurant, knowing that it would move fairly quickly. I can think of very few times when I have not seen a line at The Pancake Pantry. Everyone loves the landmark restaurant. 

When we finally got seated, I ordered eggs and bacon with three silver dollar pancakes. Luanne ordered these orange and black walnut pancakes. 

                                      

One of my favorite times to eat at The Pancake Pantry is after 11:00 am when you can order off their famous sandwich menu. I have tried nearly every sandwich on the menu at one time or another and I have loved them all. With names like The Continental, Dutch Diplomat and Polynesian Delight, they are all as tempting as they sound. The sandwiches are served with homemade chips and a crock of marinated cucumbers, which I absolutely crave. 



After fully fortifying at The Pancake Pantry, Luanne and I spent the day shopping for the condo in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.  It was dinner time before we realized we hadn't had anything since breakfast, so we started looking for dinner options in Pigeon Forge. We came up with this creatively named restaurant, the Local Goat.

Local Goat



Local Goat is billed as a New American Restaurant, and while the outside looks like a generic chain restaurant, the inside and the food are quite different. The Local Goat specializes in locally sourced and sustainable foods made from scratch in house. It is anything but a chain and the place was packed. Luckily, they took our phone number, so we could sit in our car while we waited. As soon as we were seated, our server brought us menus. We admired the restaurant as we studied the menu. 

We loved the name of Local Goat's bar, Billy Goat Tavern.

                     

This cozy fireplace is in the dining area next to the bar.
The television screen in the bar area is enormous.

That is a Valentines Day tree. 

I played it safe with a drink called Caramel Apple made with Skyy vodka, sour apple and caramel. It was good, but it paled in comparison to Luanne's choice. She got a concoction called Tail of the Dragon made with rye whiskey, elderflower and smoke. Yes, I said smoke and I am not kidding. Her drink arrived in a glass jug filled with smoke. The presentation was remarkable. She loved it.



Caramel Apple


Tail of the Dragon: a smoky situation





I spied deviled eggs on the appetizer menu. Now you know, if there are deviled eggs on the menu, I am going to be very tempted and these had a hard to resist twist. The white parts of the eggs were breaded in panko bread crumbs and deep fried. Then they were filled with the creamy yolks and topped with candied bacon, sriracha and green onions. How could I not? Since I knew I would have no help from Luanne eating these tasty morsels (remember her strange mayonnaise aversion?) I decided these along with a bowl of soup would be my meal. The soup I chose was a creamy chicken soup and it was delicious. Luanne had a spinach salad with blue cheese, grape tomatoes bacon, red onion and grilled shrimp. We both had enough left overs to take back to the condo.





We made our way back to the condo, exhausted from the busy day. Saturday promised to be just as busy, with more condo shopping and a drive into the park.    



Crockett's 1875 Breakfast Camp




Breakfast on our second full day in Gatlinburg began with a short walk from the condo to a restaurant called Crockett's 1875 Breakfast Camp. Crockett's is located in the building that used to be Maxwell's Steakhouse. Before that, it was the original location for Open Hearth, before Open Hearth's owners constructed and moved into the large building across the street. Open Hearth was our all time favorite place in the Smokies for dinner, but sadly it is no more.

I was curious to see what this new incarnation of the old Open Hearth/Maxwell's building looked like. I was not disappointed. Crockett's honors the legacy of David C. "Crockett" Maples, a frontiersman and soldier who fought with the 9th Tennessee Calvary in the Civil War. After the war , because of his extensive knowledge of the area, he was often called upon to guide people through the rugged mountain pass. After one such excursion, he found himself caught in a blizzard. He was so badly frozen, his legs had to be amputated. That did not discourage Crockett, however. He rigged up a pair of boots with wooden feet which he tied to his stumps and, with the help of two canes, he was able to maintain an active life until he died at the age of 88 in 1928. A wooden statue of Crockett stands in front of the restaurant. 







Inside, the decor pays homage to all things Crockett and his rugged mountain lifestyle. A large wagon ready to haul wooden barrels and boxes takes center stage. Along one wall is a makeshift mountain camp with an oilcloth tent and a clothes line strung with clothes drying near a campfire. 

                                

Lots of mountain animal trophy heads decorate the walls along with farm implements from the period. A large window gives diners a peek into the kitchen where a busy chef makes the restaurant's most notable claim to fame: fat, fluffy cinnamon rolls


Speaking of large, fluffy cinnamon rolls, we ordered one. It was amazing. Instead of icing, Crockett's douses their cinnamon rolls in a snowcap of whipping cream. We should have stopped there, but we didn't. 



We had the largest breakfast either of us had ever eaten. I don't even think I ate a fourth of what was on my plate: eggs, bacon, hashed browns, fruit, and a cathead biscuit. It gave new meaning to the term "hearty breakfast". 


As it turned out, it was a good thing, because, after breakfast, we went full tilt beginning with a drive into the park to see where the fires had burned. While we could see chunks of forest that were charred, we noticed the fires, much like tornadoes, had skipped around burning patches here and leaving other areas completely untouched. Even the Chimney Tops, where the fires were started, had lots of new green growth. We were told that a lot of the really bad damage had occurred at the Pigeon Forge end of the mountains, where many homes were completely burned down. The winds were blowing hard while the fires were burning, so fires burned in a skip-jump fashion, often far from Chimney Tops where they first began. While it was sad to see and hear about the damage, we were encouraged to see how well the mountains were recovering. After our drive into the park, we had more shopping and redecorating to attend to, until we realized the day was gone and we had, once again, forgotten about lunch. 

The Peddler


                          

When we finally slowed down enough to think about dinner, we headed to another restaurant within short walking distance of the condo. This time we had our sights set on an old favorite, The Peddler. The Peddler is a steakhouse known for its extensive salad bar and for cutting steaks on carts brought to the tables according to the diners' specifications. The thing I like best, however, is that salad bar. It is amazing.  It is chock full of the usual salad bar suspects, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, radishes, cucumbers, carrots, etc. But then, they tack on other items such as smoked oysters, marinated artichokes, beets and pasta, potato and bean salads. Finally, they round out the bountiful display with nuts, croutons, cheeses and an array of homemade dressings. It is just about perfect as far as salad bars go. I love, love, love the smoked oysters and artichokes.



Luanne and I decided to order an appetizer of crab and shrimp stuffed mushrooms swimming in a creamy seafood sauce. These little bombs were amazing.


As far as the rest of our dinner went, Luanne could not resist the French onion soup. She is a complete sucker for French onion soup and I know if it shows up on a menu, she will probably order it. I chose a petite filet and plain baked potato. It was a mighty fine meal. After all these years, the Peddler did not disappoint. 

French onion soup

I had enough of my filet left over to make two little breakfast sandwiches using two rolls we had remaining in our bread basket. That was our breakfast for the following morning, which was spent doing more shopping and decorating. Before we left town to drive back home, we picked up some sandwiches from the Pancake Pantry (a Continental for me and a British Diplomat for Luanne) and brought them back to the condo for a quick lunch. Those sandwiches were so good, we practically inhaled them. They were accompanied by homemade potato chips and those crunchy cucumbers (which, to my delight, Luanne would have no part). Ahhhh! It was a great way to end a busy and fun weekend.

If you have not been to the Smokies recently, you should go. The park, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge are open for business and ready for your visit. You will find most of your old favorite restaurants, attractions and shops are still there and you might discover some new favorites, too. I also know of a sweet little Gatlinburg condo, currently getting a makeover, that you might want to check out. It has a king size bed, a sleeper sofa and bunk beds. It's tiny but the location could not be better. Sitting just behind Ober Gatlinburg on River Road, it is near the Park entrance and a very short walk to The Peddler and Crockett's 1875 Breakfast Camp.
Richi Reynolds
Richi Reynolds

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