Chicago -> Memphis -> Dallas -> Austin. Looking for good CHEAP food and lodgings along the way.
December 31, 2009 10:16 AM   Subscribe

Broke young couple driving Chicago -> Austin. Looking for best route and good cheap food and lodgings along the way. Recommendations?

Our current plan is to take 57 and 55 down to Memphis, then cut across to Dallas and down on 35 to Austin. We might consider a detour for big cheap awesome, especially if it makes a scenic drive (we're considering taking a more westerly route so as to pass through the Ozarks, for instance), but anything that adds a day to the trip is going to do a number on our budget. The real goal is just to keep ourselves sane, happy, warm and fed on the way down for as little dough as possible.
posted by nebulawindphone to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
CouchSurfing. It's entirely plausible that you could go the whole way without spending a dime on lodging. With careful planning you could conceivably stay anywhere you want.
posted by valkyryn at 10:28 AM on December 31, 2009

Best answer: I've driven Austin > Memphis multiple times and I would say, when you are in Memphis either get Corky's or Rendezvous bbq. Some of the cheapest gas I've ever seen was in Arkansas. Also, I-35 is a fucking nightmare: trucks, construction, shitty driving, shitty scenery. If you want to avoid most of it, there is a way that you can turn off of I-30 at Mount Pleasant, TX (thus skipping Dallas) and take 271 south to Tyler, then pick up 31 which takes you over to I-35 at Waco (about 90 min north of Austin). It doesn't save much time, but it gets you off of the interstates and into the small towns. If you elect to take I-35 the whole way, a good place to stop is Hillsboro since there is a Braum's and the motel from Bottle Rocket.
posted by mattbucher at 10:34 AM on December 31, 2009

I concur with Mattbucher that 35 is a nightmare between Dallas and Austin (I have made the trip at least 100 times)....slow drivers in the left lane being my biggest pet peeve. is (by far) the quickest route between the two cities and therefore, I have never gone any other way. Given the length of the drive, you may be ready to get to Austin quickly and I would choose this route despite its many stated drawbacks.
posted by murrey at 10:45 AM on December 31, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, I'm familiar with the awfulness of 35, but I don't go there often and I've never figured out a plan B. So thanks, mattbucher — and I would really, really welcome more suggestions on avoiding Dallas from anyone else who's got experience on the subject.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:56 AM on December 31, 2009

Best answer: I cannot oppose Rendezvous in strong enough terms. It is neither barbecue nor cheap ($7.50 for a sandwich, $14.25 for a small order of ribs). The food there is caked in cheap dry rub and quickly over-grilled. It has neither the subtle flavors of proper barbecue nor its tenderness. Its flavors may best be described as lighter fluid, ash, salt, and cheap chili powder; its texture is tough. I swear Rendezvous only stays in business because of a steady stream of ignorant tourists.

If you want good, affordable, local barbecue in Memphis, try one of the Neely's locations. For comparison, a sandwich there is $5.59 for a large. It's also actual barbecue, not that vile stuff that Rendezvous peddles.

Another place to consider for bbq is Pappy's Smokehouse in St. Louis, which is very much good, local bbq, though not as inexpensive as the Neely's. I can also recommend any of the Thai restaurants on the Loop, particularly Thai country, for a very filling meal at a reasonable price.

For a snack or light meal between Dallas and Austin, I can recommend the Czech Stop, which is a nice Czech bakery right off I-35. Their kolaches are tasty, cheap, and come in a great many varieties, both sweet and savory.
posted by jedicus at 11:30 AM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, I'm afraid you'd be pretty disappointed by going the westerly route (e.g., I-44 from St. Louis). That part of Missouri is pretty boring scenery-wise and, at least in my experience, doesn't have much to recommend it in terms of eateries, either. That route would take you close to Branson, if that's your thing, though, and northwest Arkansas.

Some of the best scenic driving through the Ozarks is from Branson to either Russellville by Highway 7 or Conway by Highway 65, but either of those would take you a bit afield for getting to Austin by way of I-30. The drive on I-540 from Fayetteville to (more or less) Fort Smith is actually very scenic; there are about a dozen very high bridges, a tunnel, and absolutely no billboards, which is incredibly refreshing.
posted by jedicus at 11:50 AM on December 31, 2009

Yes, yes, Czech Stop second! Get a big box of kolaches there and yum, yum, yum. They also have really good sandwiches and other interesting baked goods that I've always wanted to try.
posted by Addlepated at 11:56 AM on December 31, 2009

Response by poster: Yes, it was Highway 7 we were thinking about. Since you seem to know the area — do you have a sense of how likely we are to encounter snow or ice there this time of year? Or of how quickly it tends to run?

We hadn't considered 540, but if it's that nice and a proper Interstate to boot that might be win/win.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:58 AM on December 31, 2009

I've never eaten at the Czech Stop despite the number of times we've taken 35 between Austin and Dallas (we're in one and his folks are in the other). Our friends do rave about the kolaches, though. I mostly poked my head in to check the recommendations and to note that I've eaten at the Braum's in Hillsboro and the service and food were both so terrible that my husband still makes faces when we go past it. So have a kolache instead.
posted by immlass at 12:42 PM on December 31, 2009

Best answer: 540 is a proper 4 lane highway. It's not officially an interstate, but meets the criteria in everything but name. If you take I - 44 west across Missouri from St. Louis, you'll end up passing through Joplin. Joplin is in Southwest Missouri, the last big city before you take 71 south to Northwest Arkansas. SW Missouri has one of, if not the lowest, cost of living in the country. As a result, the gas is incredibly cheap compared to surrounding areas. It's cheaper than anything I've found in Arkansas and anywhere else in Missouri. There's a Flying J right off the interstate and easy to get to. But wait, there's more!

Turning right out of the Flying J will put you on what is essentially 31st street in Joplin, which if you continue on for about five to ten miles will bring you to the Empress Lion, one of the tastiest Chinese restaurants I have ever eaten at. The main cook is a fellow named Tiger (he runs it with wife, Lily), and he was trained at one of the top restaurants in Taiwan, and then in the D.C. area. I have yet to understand how he ended up in Joplin. If you get there at lunch time, it's incredibly cheap. Get there for dinner, you get pretty good size servings for still a good low price. Joplin also has one of the finest BBQ joints in the region called Lumpy's, which is pretty decently priced as well.

Heading south from Joplin will also take you to Jane, which is on the border with Arkansas, and there's a roadside BBQ joint operated out of a trailer that is pretty darn good, too. Crossing into Arkansas, you end up on 540, which after you get through Bentonville, Rogers, and Fayetteville is scenic with a drive through the Boston Mountains to Fort Smith. In Fayetteville, there's a great burrito place called the Flying Burrito, and just a slew of good restaurants. (Note, there's a flying burrito in Bentonville, but the end product isn't as good). The burritos run around 6 to 7 bucks a pop, and you can easily make them into a super meal along with complimentary salsa and chips. Depending on your tastes, you should be able to find something low cost and tasty in the Joplin to Fayetteville corridor.

Joplin would make a good overnight stop. I've driven from Joplin to Chicago (44 to St. Louis, then north), and you're hitting that "I'm kind of tired and could stop" phase. I-44 isn't the most scenic, unless you like fields and pastures. The Ozarks are very beautiful, but to really get a good route through them for the scenic beauty, you may have to sacrifice some time. I-40 is direct, but one of those heavily used corridors so plenty of 18 wheelers and other traffic. Scenic speaking, not much to see.
posted by Atreides at 12:48 PM on December 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I-540 is a proper interstate.

Snow or ice is unlikely through Highway 7 or I-540. That said, if there is snow or ice, be warned that Arkansas is extremely slow to plow or salt. I'd wager that I-540 is more likely to be cleared first, and it's not nearly as winding and treacherous as Highway 7 can be (almost all of Highway 7 from Branson to Russellville is classed as 'crooked and steep').
posted by jedicus at 1:00 PM on December 31, 2009

P.S. When you get to Austin, stop in at Gourdough's and get a Flying Pig. It's a huge donut with maple icing and 4-5 pieces of bacon on it. The Odd Duck trailer next to it is supposed to be good, but I haven't tried it yet.
posted by Addlepated at 8:05 PM on December 31, 2009

This old thread and my comment in it still stand.
posted by deezil at 9:56 AM on January 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To paraphrase Dan Rather, I'm Ozark born, Ozark bred, and when I die, I'll be Ozark dead. I think it's great you're considering driving through the Ozarks. Pearl Spurlock, the first tour guide in Branson(back in the 1920s and 1930s when it was still all about The Shepherd of the Hills) used to tell a story to her clients that went like this: A man died and went to Heaven. He met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates and could see, just beyond the gates, the most incredible scene imaginable. There were streets of gold, buildings made of pearl and precious stones, fountains of crystal clear water. But the man observed that among the crowds of people there were a mournful few that had golden chains around their ankles. The said to St. Peter, “Well that’s very beautiful in there, but why are those people chained to the golden streets?” St. Peter replied, “Well, all those people are from the Ozarks [sometimes she’d just say Taney County], and if we didn’t keep them chained they would all go back!”

Atreides has given you some great advice. I'm from Southwest Missouri and have spent most of my life running up and down Highway 71 and I-540 between Joplin and Fayetteville and points beyond. Empress Lion is the best chinese in the area, but should you want to eat cashew chicken, then stop in Springfield, Missouri, where it was invented. But I would rather go to Empress Lion or eat BBQ down at Bubba's at Jane, Missouri. It's the best.

On your way to Fayetteville, be sure to stop at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale. I LOVE this museum and it's free! It has the largest photo collection in the state, is dedicated solely to the culture, heritage, and history of the Ozarks, and has awesome award winning podcasts you can get on iTunes for free.

Flying Burrito in Fayetteville is fantastic.The hippies there make the best damn burrito I've ever had. It's located just off Dickson Street which is the main drag just down from my alma mater the University of Arkansas. Right before the 1930s, there were plans to design the UA campus to resemble that of Yale, but when the depression was hit the plans were scrapped. Still, Old Main is a gorgeous building and is the heart of the university. You can see the towers on a clear day on I-540.

When passing through Ft. Smith, you may want to stop at the Fort Smith National Historic Site and see where Judge Isaac Parker aka The Hanging Judge held court, assisted by countless U.S. Marshals. In fact, the U.S. Marshal Museum will be built there in the near future.

But, like Atreides said, you really need to get off the road to see the true Ozarks. There are a million other places I would love to tell you about. If you have any questions or want more suggestions, feel free to Mefi Mail me.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 5:28 PM on January 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One more thing - if you or your significant other are Civil War enthusiasts, you can visit three Civil War battlefields on your trip: Wilson's Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove.

The only caveat is that Wilson's Creek charges five bucks per person, but the visitor's center should be free. It has one of the best Trans-Mississippi theater collections in the nation. If I were you, I'd skip the battlefield and just visit the visitor's center. It's just a few minutes off of I-44 outside Springfield.

Pea Ridge is off of I-540, but it takes thirty minutes or so to get there. In my opinion, it's the most scenic of the three battlefields. It charges $3.00 per person.

Prairie Grove, which is an Arkansas state park, has a small museum. The short drive from I-540 takes you across the Illinois River in a pretty valley. The museum charges a $3 fee per person.

ALSO: You need to stop and see Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel in Bella Vista, Arkansas. It is ONE minute off of I-540 and it's FREE. Bella Vista was one of the first retirement communities in the nation (Melissa Etheridge's mother lives there). The developer, John Cooper, commissioned the chapel in honor of his wife. The chapel was designed by E. Fay Jones who was a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. This chapel won a ton of awards and was a fitting capstone to Jones' career after designing homes for the likes of Sam Walton. He also designed Thorncrown Chapel in nearby Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Gorgeous.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 5:44 PM on January 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for recommending I-540 — it totally lived up to the hype. (Future travelers: don't let the strip-mall-ishness of the towns along US 71 in Arkansas discourage you. Once you get south of Fayetteville, it's straight-up gorgeous.)

We continued on US 69/75 past Lake Eufaula, which was also gorgeous and completely unexpected. Seriously, they don't tell us Northerners that there's scenery in Oklahoma. Here's hoping I don't get in trouble for letting the secret out. (One warning, though: between McAlester and Denison TX, gas is plentiful but food and lodgings appear to be seriously sparse.)

We also made it to the Empress Lion in Joplin, which I'll vouch for as damn good Midwestern style Chinese food. It reminded me of my favorite Chinese place growing up in Michigan, and they just don't seem to do that sort of thing very well here in Texas — stir-fried lo mein and, yeah, cashew chicken and all that.

I've been living in Austin for a few years, and I'll be living here for a few more, so we disregarded a lot of the Texas-specific suggestions. But I've been to the Czech Stop on other trips and they're good too.

Sadly, we didn't have time for sightseeing, but I'm hoping to hit some of Coyote at the Dog Show's suggestions on another trip.

Thanks to everyone who commented for helping make a long and stressful drive somewhat more bearable. You guys rock.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:58 PM on January 6, 2010

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