Road Trip Eats: Recipes Inspired By Route 66

A cross-country adventure inspires a food writer and illustrator to re-create regional favorites at home.

U.S. Route 66 covers a lot of miles of experiences (more than 2,400 to be specific). Thousands of miles and decades of road-tripping have taught my husband, Dan, and me that a great way to get to know (and remember) a destination is through the food. So when we set out in a rented camper van to drive the length of Route 66 last fall, our goal was to eat like the locals at each stop. Every regional dish was an edible snapshot of our trip. After we returned home to New Jersey, I started reverse-engineering some of our favorite dishes to relive our adventure. Even if you don't spend a month traveling Route 66, you can get a taste of the road with these recipes.

Route 66 road, car and food illustrations
Illustrations by Casey Barber, Background: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

One of the earliest parts of the original U.S. Highway System, Route 66 (aka the Main Street of America or the Mother Road) was established in 1926 and stretches from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, winding through eight states along the way. I mapped out an itinerary of must-see destinations, restaurants, and quirky stops.

Battered & Fried In Springfield, Illinois

The Cozy Dog Drive In is the self-proclaimed home of the "original hot dog on a stick." More than 70 years later, Cozy's corn dogs are still dipped and fried to order. At home, I translated these into bite-size dogs.

illustration of corn dogs in red basket
Illustration by Casey Barber

Mini Corn Dog Bites

You'll need 24 wooden crafts sticks for these corn dogs. The width doesn't matter. We had good luck with thin, regular, and wide crafts sticks ($3, Michaels).

Start to Finish: 40 min.

  • 8 hot dogs
  • 1¼ cups yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • Vegetable oil
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1¼ cups buttermilk
  1. Cut hot dogs crosswise into thirds and skewer each piece with a wooden crafts stick. In a large bowl stir together cornmeal, flour, sugar, 1 tsp. kosher salt, the baking powder, and baking soda.
  2. Preheat oven to 200°F. Line a rimmed baking pan with paper towels. Fill a 4- to 6-qt. Dutch oven with about 2 inches of oil (don't let it reach more than halfway up the sides) or fill an electric deep fryer with oil per manufacturer's instructions.
  3. Heat oil to 350°F. Stir egg and buttermilk into dry ingredients.
  4. Dip skewered hot dogs into batter to coat, spreading batter over ends of hot dogs. Fry battered dogs in hot oil 3 minutes or until golden brown, turning to cook evenly.
  5. Transfer to prepared baking sheet; keep warm in oven. Repeat with remaining hot dogs and batter.* Makes 24 mini corn dogs.

*Tip: Batter will thicken while standing. Add 1 to 2 Tbsp. of buttermilk or water to thin batter if necessary.

Per Corn Dog 119 cal, 7 g fat (2 g sat fat), 16 mg chol, 258 mg sodium, 11 g carb, 1 g fiber, 2 g sugars, 4 g pro

illustration of frozen custard and st. louis arch
Illustration by Casey Barber

Scooped Up In St. Louis

Even in cold weather, you'll see fans queue up outside Ted Drewes Frozen Custard shops, including the stand that opened in 1941 along Route 66. The stands are so ubiquitous in the STL metro that you can even get a fix at the zoo and ballpark. Frozen custard is like a thick soft serve; extra egg yolks add body and a rich, velvety texture. Do like they do at Ted Drewes shops and top yours with any combo of sauces, nuts, cookies, fruit, and/or candy.

Vanilla Frozen Custard

Hands-on time: 25 min.

Total time: 8 hr. 45 min., includes freezing

  • 4 egg yolks
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 Tbsp. vanilla
  1. Place egg yolks in a medium heatproof bowl. Whisk in ¼ cup sugar. Continue to whisk about 1 minute or until mixture is slightly thickened (coats the back of a rubber spatula).
  2. In a medium heavy saucepan combine cream, milk, remaining ¼ cup sugar, and ¼ tsp. kosher salt. Cook over medium until liquid starts to steam and bubble at edges, stirring frequently with spatula. Reduce heat to medium-low.
  3. Drizzle ½ cup hot mixture into egg yolks, whisking continuously to blend. Slowly whisk egg yolk mixture back into mixture in saucepan.
  4. Cook and stir custard 5 to 10 minutes or until it thickens enough to coat the spatula in thick ribbons.
  5. Strain custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl. Stir in vanilla. Refrigerate, covered, at least 4 hours or overnight.
  6. Pour cold custard into a 1½- to 2-qt. ice cream maker. Churn according to manufacturer's instructions. Freeze at least 4 hours before serving. Serves 8.

Each serving 303 cal, 25 g fat (15 g sat fat), 163 mg chol, 69 mg sodium, 16 g carb, 16 g sugars, 4 g pro

illustration of burger
Illustration by Casey Barber

Hot Off The Grill In El Reno, Oklahoma

There's certainly no shortage of burgers along Route 66, but if you stop for only one along the way, make it a cheeseburger at Robert's Grill. At the oldest burger dive in Oklahoma (est. 1926), the grillmaster piles shaved raw onions onto quarter-pound patties. He lets the burger sizzle on the griddle for a few minutes before flipping it so the onions are on the heat. A firm press with a spatula smashes the onions into the griddle to caramelize and frizzle under the burger. Tangy yellow mustard slaw comes on the side. My version uses a similar griddle technique, and I serve the slaw right on top.

Griddled Onion Cheeseburger

Hands-on Time: 15 min.

Total time: 1 hr. 15 min.

  • 1 14-oz. pkg. shredded cabbage with carrot (coleslaw mix)
  • ½ cup yellow mustard
  • 6 Tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • ½ tsp. celery seeds
  • 1 lb. ground beef (80% lean)
  • ½ small white onion
  • 4 slices American cheese
  • 4 potato hamburger buns, split
  • Ketchup, mustard, and/or dill pickle slices (optional)
  1. For mustard slaw: In a large bowl combine coleslaw mix, mustard, mayonnaise, sugar, and celery seeds. Chill 1 hour or until ready to serve.
  2. For burgers: Shape beef into four 4-oz. patties (approximately 3-4 inches in diameter). Season lightly with kosher salt and ground black pepper.
  3. Cut onion with a mandoline ($50, Williams Sonoma) or sharp knife into paper-thin half-moons. Heat a griddle over medium-high at least 5 minutes.
  4. Place patties on griddle; top each with a generous handful of onion slices.
  5. Cook patties 6 minutes. Gently press down on each patty with a flat, heavy metal spatula ($11, Target) occasionally during cooking to coat onions in beef juices.
  6. Carefully flip the patties; smash by pressing down with a spatula to flatten and spread the onions on the griddle. Cook 2 minutes. Halve each cheese slice; place two halves on each patty.
  7. Cook 1 to 2 minutes more or until onions are browned, an instant-read thermometer ($23, Bed Bath & Beyond) registers at least 160°F when inserted in burger, and cheese is just melted.
  8. To assemble: Flip burger so onions are on top; place on bottom bun. Top with mustard slaw and, if desired, ketchup, mustard, and/or dill pickle slices. Makes 4 burgers.

Per burger 731 cal, 49 g fat (16 g sat fat), 116 mg chol, 1,319 mg sodium, 40 g carb, 5 g fiber, 15 g sugars, 32 g pro

plate of enchiladas and grand canyon with couple
Illustration by Casey Barber

Sauced & Smothered In Albuquerque

My husband and I had a rule rolling into New Mexico: Every meal we ate had to include green chiles, the culinary trademark of the state. At Frontier Restaurant, a 300-seat spot close to the University of New Mexico, a house-made green chile stew studded with pork and potatoes smothers the enchiladas.

Green Chile Enchiladas

Casey's green chile stew recipe makes 8 cups. You'll need only 3 cups for each batch of enchiladas, but it's worth making a full batch to serve the extra with nachos, tacos, or smothered burritos, or eat it by the bowlful.

Hands-on time: 30 min.

Total time: 1 hr. 20 min.

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 cups finely chopped yellow onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 lb. ground pork
  • 4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 lb. russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
  • 4 4-oz. cans diced Hatch green chiles (mild or hot), or four 4 oz. cans diced green chiles plus 1 fresh serrano chile, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. yellow cornmeal
  • ½ cup minced white onion
  • 8 8-inch flour or corn tortillas
  • 3 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese (12 oz.)
  1. For stew: Heat oil in a 5- to 6-qt. Dutch oven over medium. Add finely chopped yellow onion and garlic; cook 5 minutes or until softened. Add pork. Cook 5 minutes, stirring to break pork into small pieces.
  2. Stir in chicken broth, diced potatoes, chiles, and ½ tsp. each kosher salt and ground black pepper. Cover and bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a small bowl combine cornmeal and 2 Tbsp. water; stir into pork mixture. Cook 2 to 3 minutes to thicken. Season to taste with kosher salt and ground black pepper.
  3. Preheat oven to 375°F. Soak white onion in cold water 10 minutes (to mellow the flavor a bit); drain. Spread about 1 cup stew in a 2- to 3-qt. rectangular baking dish to cover bottom. Line the center of each tortilla with about ⅓ cup cheese and 1 Tbsp. onion. Roll up each tortilla and place seam-side down in prepared dish.
  4. Ladle about 2 cups stew over the tortillas; sprinkle evenly with remaining cheese. Bake 20 minutes or until cheese is melted and stew is bubbling. Makes 8 enchiladas.

Per enchilada 592 cal, 32 g fat (13 g sat fat), 82 mg chol, 1,249 mg sodium, 46 g carb, 2 g fiber, 5 g sugars, 28 g pro

*Tip: Store leftover green chile stew in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 3 days or freeze up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator and reheat in a saucepan over medium 8 minutes or until heated through.

illustration of prickly pear and limeade in glass
Illustration by Casey Barber

Tart & Refreshing In Arizona

It seemed like prickly pear was on every drink menu in the Southwest. The fruit of the opuntia (prickly pear cactus) tastes similar to kiwi or melon and is often made into an electric-pink syrup used in all sorts of drinks. My Prickly Pear Limeade starts with lots of lime juice (naturally) and easily transitions into a shortcut margarita.

Prickly Pear Limeade

Hands-on time: 5 min.

Total time: 35 min.

  • ½ cup fresh lime juice (3 to 4 limes)
  • 3 Tbsp. Lime Simple Syrup*
  • 2 Tbsp. prickly pear syrup (Casey recommends Cheri's Desert Harvest)
  • 1¼ cups water or plain seltzer

Stir all ingredients together in a small pitcher. Serve over ice. Serves 2.

Each serving 126 cal, 6 mg sodium, 32 g carb, 28 g sugars

Prickly Pear Margaritas

Pour 2 tsp. kosher salt onto a plate. Wet rims of two cocktail glasses with lime wedges; dip rims in salt. Fill glasses with ice. Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add 3 oz. tequila, 1 oz. Cointreau or other orange liqueur, ⅓ cup fresh lime juice, ¼ cup Lime Simple Syrup*, and 1 oz. prickly pear syrup. Shake until cold. Strain into glasses. Serves 2.

Each serving 274 cal, 566 mg sodium, 39 g carb, 32 g sugars

*Lime Simple Syrup: Combine 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water in a small saucepan. Simmer over medium until sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in 1 Tbsp. lime zest. Cover; steep 30 minutes to 1 hour. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a jar; chill. Store, refrigerated, up to 1 month. Makes 1½ cups.

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