When I was heading from Roswell, New Mexico, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I stopped for gas in a very small town called Vaughn whose aesthetic can be summed up as “ghost town.” Standing out against the abandoned motels and dry, dusty landscape is a gleaming silver beacon set on the only healthy-looking green in miles.
According to the internet, this is the only place to sit down and eat between Roswell and Santa Fe. Also according to the internet, pictures of Penny’s Diner are all you’ll find if you do a Google Images search of Vaughn, New Mexico. Vaughn being un-photogenic has been established; here’s some pictures of Penny’s that prove why it’s so popular with smartphone photographers (like me).
From the moment you step into this veritable oasis in the desert, Americana beckons with black-and-white-checkered tiles…
Homemade cinnamon rolls…
Classic ’50s decor…
More shiny chrome fixtures, echoing the sleek building exterior…
And groups eating classic American food – the burgers, fries, chili, milkshake kind of menu.
Everything about Penny’s Diner was screaming Roadfood. Roadfood is the name of an online community of people who love eating, and the guidebook series on the places they love to eat. Roadfood is no Michelin’s Guide, although its target industry respects it like fine restaurants respect the haute cuisine guide. Roadfood isn’t about celebrity chefs, molecular gastronomy, carefully curated tasting menus with trendy ingredients and techniques, courses in the double-digits, starched tablecloths, or whatever else will impress strangers. So what is Roadfood?
“Roadfood means great regional meals along highways, in small towns and in city neighborhoods.
It is sleeves-up fare made by cooks, bakers, pitmasters, and sandwich-makers who are America’s culinary folk artists.
Roadfood restaurants are almost always casual and affordable. They are diners, small-town cafes, seaside shacks, drive-ins, barbecues, and bake shops. The best of them are colorful places enjoyed by locals (and savvy travelers) for their character as well as their menu.”
– Roadfood.com‘s About page
If you’ve seen Guy Fieri’s show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network, you’ll have a sense of the kind of authentic, casual, comforting regional specialties Roadfoodies go for. Or you could read along in one of the many trip reports in the Roadfood forums, which are unpretentious celebrations of unpretentious food. That still manages to get labels of “meal of a lifetime” without being elBulli.
As a devoted reader of Roadfood trip reports, I hoped Penny’s Diner would be worth mentioning. The atmosphere was so great, and the menu had all the regulars. Of these, I tried a plain burger and fries, the soup of the day, a side salad, and a malted shake – a fairy classic menu that would enable me to experience a cross-section of what Penny’s Diner could accomplish.
Ok, this was definitely not a meal of a lifetime, but there wasn’t anything wrong either – the food just wasn’t special. The burger didn’t have much flavor but the fries had lots. The soup tasted like white beans straight from a can but the ham chunks were interesting. The malted shake was huge – and only reinforced for me, again, that milkshakes are stupid because they’re just perfectly good ice cream diluted with milk and we could just be eating ice cream instead of struggling through what amounts to melting ice cream. This shake was too big, and would be a meal in itself if I had bothered drinking more than half a cup after getting bored of drinking my ice cream. Unlike waters and coffees, this came in a disposable polystyrene cup, so I’m guessing that the intent is so you can take it with you on the road – but then it’s going to lose even more texture and turn into melted sweet milk. Nah.
I don’t regret stopping by, because the atmosphere was super fun and going in presented the only opportunity in a long time to break the monotony of driving. Penny’s Diner’s status as the only normal dining establishment in 175 miles means I don’t need to recommend this place to anyone, even if I had wanted to. It isn’t as if competitors exist.
1005 US-285, Vaughn, NM 88353