Road trips tend to be about the experience, the journey more than the destination. For many, the importance of budgeting time is as important as budgeting gas and tolls. Travelers want to see as much as they can in the time allotted them. This often means driving by highway or other major arteries. This, in turn, often means feasting at fast food restaurants overrunning rest stops, or from whichever bag of mass-produced corn chips hanging in prepackaged plastic along the aisles of the cheapest gas station contains the most real ingredients.
Eating healthy on the road isn’t particularly easy. Few items are natural, many are saturated with sodium and other preservatives that slowly rot the body from the inside out. Normally I’d recommend shopping ahead of embarking. Preparing food is perhaps the most cost-efficient and time-efficient means of eating while on the road.
But if for whatever reason this is not an option, travelers can still enjoy healthy fare, picturesque scenery, and a hint of collegiate nostalgia.
Ahead of a recent road trip from Western Massachusetts to the Dayton, Ohio suburbs, my fiance and I decided against the most expeditious route– I-90 West, known colloquially to Mass. natives as The Pike — which would take us westward through Upstate New York, down the coast of Lake Erie, southwest from outside of Cleveland to Columbus, and finally due west again. We knew it’d be lined with stops peddling Auntie Anne’s, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, Papa Gino’s, Roy Rogers, Tim Hortons, Sbarro, Subway, Steak ‘N Shake, and, well, you get the idea.
Instead we charted a course for State College, Pennsylvania, roughly halfway between our start and our finish, accessible off I-80 West by way of a smaller highway that would also put us back on track to our destination, all nestled within the verdant Ridge-and-Valley section of Pennsylvania’s Appalachians.
State College is also the home of Penn State University, a massive public institution, a fact echoed throughout the small business community. It seemed every window and storefront was decorated with a point of Nittany Lion pride.
We hypothesized the college town is ideal stopping points for food because its restaurants must cater to an expansive and diverse faculty and student body. Some educators and scholars hail from different regions of the country, some from abroad. Some adhere to specific diets and regimens, some frequent the late-night or early bird scenes. With an eclectic population of students and teachers come eclectic tastes.
State College didn’t disappoint. It teems with taverns, diners, and sandwich shops; an abundance of joints serving Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Italian, Austrian, and Cajun-Creole cuisine; a bevy of noodle bars, American bistros, vegan cafes, counter-service chains, and bookstore-coffeehouse combinations.
Newly anointed vegans, we planted ourselves in bar stools at Cafe Verve, a 100% meat- and dairy-free spot just blocks from campus. Nobody has to be vegan to delight in a vegan meal. In fact, I’d recommend this place to any foodie of any culinary persuasion. And for those on the cusp of revamping their food intake to something less animal-heavy, this place provides for the perfect segue.
Cafe Verve is a small shop with less than a dozen seats, serving over-the-counter meals and a rotating glass case full of baked goods. Their menu is pretty basic, consisting of wraps, burgers, bowls, salads, nachos, and dishes with the words “chick’n” and “cheeze” in them — an obvious play on words alluding to the various faux entrees.
We split a platter of nachos and a poblano burger with fries. If I hadn’t known we were in the heart of a vegan establishment, I never would’ve guessed every item of food we ingested was plant-based.
The tortillas, salsa, guacamole were as expected; crisp, aptly spiced, and creamy and zesty, respectively. The lightly charred “meatless crumbles,” though, added a welcome dimension, providing both the taste and texture of beef chili when mixed with the other fixin’s. My taste buds recognized the soy-based sour cream the same as it would the dairy-based. The proverbial cherry on top was the aforementioned “cheeze,” a perfectly melty and gooey coconut-based product seasoned with fermented tofu.
To the traditional eater, this may not sound like the most appetizing Tex-Mex plate but it’s striking how identical the plant- and animal-based versions are. In a blind taste test, a trained and refined palate may distinguish between the two. I bet you wouldn’t be able to.
Framing this in a way all you carnivores may better understand: do you really want to know what’s stuffed in the sausage casings you’ve been grilling up and noshing down all summer?
The poblano burger was a daily special and lived up to its status. The veggie patty was thick and cooked through, and the essence of the poblano was just right; not too overpowering, not too subtle, and medium spiced. With the usual burger toppings, a slice or two of melty “cheeze,” and perfectly plump and crispy fries, the poblano burger special proved indomitable.
We bade goodbye to State College having refueled and re-energized our minds, stomachs, along with our gas tank. Our route not only delivered us to a plethora of lunch options, but also a panoramic view of the bucolic Pennsylvania countryside.
For the sake of time we opted to return from our trip via the aforementioned I-90 route, which from our point of departure looked on a map like a wide northeasterly arc just brushing the shore of Lake Erie and running parallel to the Erie Canal across New York.
The timing was opportune, though, for us to put our theory again to the test only this time with the slight variance of taking a major interstate highway as our primary road instead of a smaller and more scenic one.
This time we decided on the college town of Syracuse, New York.
Like Penn State, Syracuse University boasts a hefty student population on its expansive campus. Both institutions enroll enough students to be small cities in and of themselves.
Unlike Penn State, though, Syracuse happens to be in more of a college city than college town. Like its constituent communities located along the Erie Canal and around its junction with the Hudson River, Syracuse is a post-industrial municipality that’s seen its population dwindle decade-by-decade since the 1950s. The setting is, perhaps, a little harsher on the eyes than State College (it has character, though) but its variety of eateries is equally bountiful.
Due to time constraints we were unable to meander around to find a spot and opted instead to find the perfect place online while en route.
Sure enough, Syracuse boasted a vegan establishment not all that different from Cafe Verve and we descended on it.
Strong Hearts Cafe is nestled in the first floor corner of a three-story brick building with Art Deco designs that looks as though it was once used for housing, offices, government, or really anything, just across the street from a public park and a stone’s throw to the elevated I-81 highway.
The juxtaposition of the exterior and interior decorations was striking. Brick and mortar on the outside, inside was an ornamental explosion of the vegan lifestyle; brochures and materials for animal rights, environmental protection, and holistic living were strewn about; the walls were adorned with art depicting activists, some local and some widely known.
The menu was longer than Cafe Verve’s but this had no negative consequence on the quality of its contents. The Cajun seitan sandwich was wonderfully spiced with the essence of the bayou, complemented by melted Daiya cheese, chipotle mayo, lettuce, tomato, and cucumber, all between panini-pressed pieces of rye bread. It dripped with sauce, not too much to create an unenjoyable mess but just enough to know that this sandwich was legitimate.
We took it on the go, but not before a pre-sandwich dessert: a vegan butterfinger milkshake named after Syracuse’s own Ernie Davis, the first black man to win college football’s Heisman Trophy, and unfortunate leukemia victim at age 23.
All were satisfying. We stopped only to gas up on our remaining trek home.
By using college towns as a stopover for eating, unenthusiastic road-trippers may elevate their sojourns from painstaking or banal to gratifying and rewarding. They offer deviations from the most direct routes, which tend to be most boring (albeit quickest), transporting travelers from seemingly endless stretches of pavement to beautiful byways that ebb and flow through densely forested hills, narrow mountain passes, and infinite stalks of corn.
Most importantly, college towns provide variety of which health-conscious options are often available. Like how menus offer customers individual servings and sides, college towns offer a more general assortment of styles and ethnicities from which customers can then whittle down their choice of meal.