Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Jeff City Braunschweiger Report #5: Zesto Drive-In Central

Hah! I’ll bet you thought I was kidding about all these Jefferson City “Braunschweiger Reports,” but I’m not. It’s the city’s unofficial, undersung official samwich ingredient.

Today we’re focusing on the second of the town’s two Zestos. (Last fall, we talked about the one out on Jefferson Street, Zesto South, which is run by different folks. That’s why I’m treating them separately.)

A Little Background

The Zesto I’m talking about today is the one closest to its original location, which was at the foot of the bluff where St. Mary’s Health Center’s parking garage is now. I remember going there as a kid (but more often simply driving past it on the way back to Columbia, which was always so frustrating!); it was right there at the intersection of Missouri Boulevard and Highway 50.

Tiny place. Bright lights. Soft-serve. Long lines stretching away from little sliding screen windows. Big neon sign: Zesto!

Zesto was at that location from 1945 to 1978, when it moved to the current spot at the corner of Broadway and Highway 50 (a.k.a. the Rex M. Whitton Expressway). It’s only a few blocks downhill from the state capitol building, so it’s within easy reach of the billions and billions of state workers when the St. Peter’s bells ring and they march off to lunch at noon.

I really love the thematic contrast of the humble soft-serve ice cream shack, with its hot dog, polish sausage, and pimento cheese sandwiches for sale right near the Corinthian columns and magnificent dome of the capitol. And all the rest of those august government buildings.

Recently the signboard at Zesto has promised a 10 percent discount if you present a Missouri state employee card. If you buy a three-dollar sandwich, you could save thirty cents! But you have to show the ID.

New Owners in 2008

Recently this Zesto underwent a major renovation. The fellow who had owned Zesto since 1973, Harold “Brownie” Brown, sold the place in 2008 to a couple from St. Louis, Kevin and Mellisa Berger. The new owners had had careers in law enforcement in the St. Louis metro area and were “over it.” Through with the violence, crime, and bad people in general.

Mellisa has roots in Jeff City, including brothers who’d worked at Zesto, and when they all found out Brownie was selling, they jumped on the opportunity. I don’t blame them one bit. I mean, who wouldn’t rather sell frozen dairy delights and hot tamales than deal with crackheads and murderers?

The first thing they did was close the place for renovation. Notably, they enclosed and expanded the inside dining area, and they added a mural on a retaining wall by their parking lot. Kinda nice, huh?

The seating area inside is no-frills, but it is clean and comfortable in there. The walls are decorated with photos of the Bergers in their police uniforms, American flags, Cardinals and Chiefs posters, miscellaneous St. Louis stuff, and Zestobelia. It is kind of a mish-mash, but whatever. You do get the idea that it’s a family-run place, and not dictated to by some corporate home office making decisions on the basis of a twit-faced focus group.

The prominent photos of them in their cop gear probably go far to keep the riffraff out of the place. This restaurant is located at the edge of a “transitional” older neighborhood and is right on a highway. But a crook would be pretty foolish to try to stick up these folks.

I was nervous just taking pictures in there.

Another thing the Bergers did was add double yellow lines to the drive into the parking lot, I guess so their patrons can more correctly negotiate the passage in and out of the place. I had no idea this was a problem. Well, maybe it bugged them. They are cops, for goodness’ sakes.

One Thing I Do Miss

Another change they made was to the big sign out front. It’s the kind of sign that has changeable letters, so you can update its announcement to drivers passing by. Here is what they did: They made it make sense.

Awwww. . . I admit it: I miss the way it used to be.

See, before the Bergers took over Zesto, the signboard usually read like disturbing haiku on the subject of dyspepsia. It regularly sent us into spasms of laughter. One time, the sign read:


Well, who wouldn’t laugh at that each time it came into view? Seriously, when it first went up, I almost passed out laughing that one.

But here is my all-time Zesto’s sign board favorite:


Ugh! . . . I think it said that for months. Right there on the highway, for everyone to see. Maybe I read too fast, but seeing that message almost made me reach for a Tums!

And then I started to think up other culinary atrocities they might advertise in the future: “Cappuccino - Taco - Milkshake”; “Polish - Ham & Bean - Dip Cones”; “Brownie - BBQ - Floats”; “Nacho - Cheese - Sundaes.”

See what I mean? That stuff used to brighten my day! (Note: recently, a similar type of sign at the local Walgreen’s has read: “HINI SHOTS AVAILABLE.” And that’s almost as good. Kudos to the clever comedian employee who put that up!)

On to the Food

I think the Bergers have upped the prices some. I don’t blame them. They put a lot of resources into fixing up the place, updating the electrical, and all that, plus nothing’s getting cheaper, eh? Meanwhile, the portions are ample enough that you don’t walk away hungry.

No, these aren’t “super-size” portions; indeed, this is the kind of restaurant a lot of people wish for: Less money for a reasonable amount of food, instead of more money for a serving that would satisfy three people. Haven’t you found yourself wishing for that? I have.

Regarding food, the most notable difference between the two Zestos is that the one on Jefferson Street is big on their own barbecue. Here at the Broadway Zesto, they serve a “BBQ Beef” sandwich, and that’s about the extent of the barbecue-type stuff.

The list of sandwiches is long, including various types of hot dogs, Polish sausage, Burgers’ country ham, ham or roast beef melts, foot-long torpedoes, grilled chicken, “rueben” [sic], turkey club, and good ol’ grilled cheese.

Here’s the turkey club:

The cold deli sandwiches include ham, turkey, roast beef, tuna salad, chicken salad, pimento cheese, BLT, salami, bologna, and, yes, braunschweiger! (Glory!)

Sandwich prices are as low as $2.98 for a grilled cheese, BLT, or pimento cheese, or plain hot dog; the more expensive sandwiches are the grilled chicken ($4.39) and foot-long torpedo ($4.19). Not bad, eh?

There are tamales, too. There are loads of condiments and toppings. And do you want your sandwich on white, wheat, or rye? Sandwiches come wrapped in paper, placed on a tray, Amen.

During the cold months when fewer people want frozen treats, the soups, stews, and chili are especially appealing. A bowl of each costs about $3.50. On a recent visit, I noted they had five different soups available: Ham and bean, chicken noodle, broccoli cheddar, potato and bacon, and something called “Dad’s Hobo Stew.”

I couldn’t resist. I had to ask: “Hobo stew? What’s that like? Is it made with real hobos?

Actually, it’s a thick vegetable-beef soup, with tomatoes in the broth. Sue and I agreed that we enjoyed the relatively small pieces of beef in it. No huge chunks of meat to gnaw on and worry around with your teeth. And I guess it’s fitting—hobos probably don’t have much money for beef, so they’d chop it up pretty good to make it go farther. Right?

(I’m sure I’m thinking way too much about this.)

Sides: Don’t look for french fries at Zesto. Instead, choose between potato salad, a hardboiled egg, various types of chips, nachos, cornbread (a must with the ham and bean soup!), and a disgusting preparation known as “Chili Cheese Fritos.” (I’ve seen that last sold at various places, like at outdoor festivals, and I just cannot abide by it. Mainly because I despise Fritos. But if you’re “into” it, then go for it.)

Dessert consists of all the usual soft-serve concoctions: Cones, sundaes, shakes, malts, dip cones, avalanches, freezes, floats, and slushes. (If I could change one thing, I would have them add “peanut butter” as a shake and sundae topping. Why? Because Sue wants it.)

Then there’s also the fancier soft-serve stuff—the strawberry shortcake, brownie supreme, banana split, and so on. You know the score.

None of this is very expensive; the most pricey desserts are the banana split and brownie supreme, which are $3.49, or “jumbo” sized shakes, malts, floats, and freezes, each a little over $4. The least expensive dessert is a plain cone: 99 cents. You can afford that, can’t you.

Finally, the Braunschweiger Report

Unfortunately, the afternoon I went to officially sample and photograph this Zesto’s braunschweiger sandwich, they were out of lettuce. It was disappointing, but at least they told me about it as soon as I ordered. As usual, I had asked for as many veggies as they had—onions, tomatoes, pickle, and lettuce.

Usually, the onions that go on sandwiches have been sliced, right? But here, the sandwich onions are chopped, so they can do double-duty for the hot dogs. So that’s something different. The lettuce would have added a needed crunch, but at least the rye bread, tomato, and pickle had enough body to keep the creamy braunschweiger from dominating the texture.

Overall, the braunschweiger is pretty good. I’ve had it several times from this Zesto, and apart from this time when they were out of lettuce, the sandwich is reliably simple and good, and the price is very reasonable.

Fine cuisine this is not, but the braunschweiger sandwich at Zesto Central pays homage to the generations of braunschweiger-nibbling German Americans of Jefferson City, for whom this liverwurst is a lunchtime staple the same as ham or egg salad. I’m so glad it’s still on the menu.

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