Cowboys and cowgirls have known for years that if you want something cooked right, like it was in the older days of the wild, wild West, get out the old iron skillet inherited from grandparents or the old trail cook. Add some really fresh meat and vegetables, and use tested recipes to whip up a good meal, and sit down in a comfortable environment to enjoy it with friendly folks. Southeast Texans and others visiting our part of the country can still do that today, except that they don’t have to stand over the campfire and do the actual cooking.
A visit to The Iron Skillet located within the Petro Stopping Center on Interstate 10 at Exit 848 in Beaumont provides that opportunity for professional drivers and interstate motorists, as well as for locals families. Petro was founded in 1975 and is known as “the benchmark of quality” among travel plazas. More than one truck driver verified that for me while doing the interview for this article.
“I always plan to stop at a Petro,” said Joe, a 29-year professional driver out of Delaware making a long run through Texas. “The Iron Skillet has good food, cooked right, and at reasonable prices.” Joe said he varies his choices from the plentiful menu depending on how hungry he is at the moment. “I sometimes just eat from the buffet when I am hungry. If I am not quite so hungry, I might order breakfast (served 24 hours a day) or a sandwich, but you can bet whatever you ask for, it will be good. We always can count on that.”
It is Dwight Gaines’ business, literally, to see that these professional drivers and any other customer that comes in have plenty of good, solid food from which to choose on any given day. Gaines, originally from Alabama, has been on the job for a little more than three years and takes his duties very seriously. When asked what makes The Iron Skillet in Beaumont special, Gaines doesn’t hesitate. He said, “No doubt it is the kitchen. We have the best cooks in the area and they care about the food they serve.” Gaines said the recipes are tried and proven, the food is always fresh, and the kitchen team, both management and cooks, is simply top notch.
Gaines has 35 employees and is very proud of the fact that many of them have been on the job for decades. “I have several 20-plus year employees,” said Gaines “and they know what they are doing. Some of these customers think of them as family and look for them every time they come in to eat.” Lesa Young, a pleasant cashier, has been on the job for 23 years and is willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen for the diner. “I love my job and I thank God every day that in this economy, I still have a good one. I have a 16-year-old to get through school and he’s active in the band at Ozen High School and in his youth group at Saint Peters Missionary Baptist Church, so all of that takes money. We work hard, but we like what we do, and I look forward to seeing the different customers I’ve made friends with over the years. In my opinion, you just can’t beat our food.”
Janet Parks, the kitchen manager, has been working for The Iron Skillet for 27 years and for many of those years, she flew back and forth across the country as a corporate trainer. “I love what I do,” she said. “The company is good to us and we enjoy coming to work every day. Our customers are the very best and we feel that they are our extended family.” All of the time Parks was speaking, she kept an ever watchful eye on the buffet bar, seeing that the salad makings were kept orderly and clean and that every dish was refilled as needed. She also suggested things that needed to be done to younger employees, all the time making it feel as though it were their idea to take care of business.
Gaines said the No. 1 selling dish on the expansive menu has to be the big chicken fried steak — “Well, we are in Texas, right?” He said that the restaurant sells between 35 and 45 chicken fried steak meals each day, and on busy days or weekends, it might be more than that. The portions are large and filled the iron skillets. Gaines also said that at any given time there are at least six entrees on the buffet bar, a host of fresh vegetables, many side items, garnishments and a chilled, 52-item salad bar. “We also have fruit cobbler, hot fudge sundaes, strawberry and apple pie, shortcake, and ice cream to top off a good meal,” said the general manager.
The buffet begins with breakfast items at 5 a.m. and continues with lunch and dinner until midnight. Between midnight and 5 in the morning, guests can choose from the menu, which includes burgers, fresh-made sandwiches, soups and salads, skillet baskets, sizzling steaks, seafood, and home-style favorites. Most meals start at under $10 and the portions are large.
Andre Hyacinth, a 26-year professional driver from New Jersey, agreed with Joe that the food at any Petro was the best on the road. “I try to time my stops so that I end up at a Petro,” said Hyacinth. On this particular day, he had chosen to eat from the buffet and was building himself a handsome salad. “I vary what I eat, depending on how hungry I am at the time,” said Hyacinth. “But I can assure you that I’ve never ordered anything that wasn’t good.”
Along with the obvious drivers who were eating in the Professional Drivers area of the restaurant, families with small children, older couples, and travelers filled the other areas and mingled with each other as they chose food from the buffet line or ordered from the menu. Gaines showed us a private room where birthday parties, gatherings, business meetings, and family reunions can be held.
The Petro Stopping Center in Beaumont offers 275 parking spaces for big trucks, 14 clean and orderly showers, a complete travel center with the necessities of life filling the shelves, lube and service bays, 12 fuel lanes, a truck wash, an arcade area and televisions, but the most popular place of all seemed to be The Iron Skillet. Give it a try when you are not certain what you want to eat. You might find it meets all of your family’s needs nicely, and for sure, the food is very good.
The Iron Skillet is at 5405 Walden Road. Call (409) 842-9606 for additional information.Brenda Cannon Henley can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.