I'm basing my most recent image of Hades on my last dinner at Olathe's "home-style" restaurant -- the fourth in a rapidly expanding Illinois-based chain -- where our harried waiter spent so much time complaining about his job that his tension became contagious. By the time dessert arrived, my nerves were so jangled by his nonstop litany of torture ("Look at how the kitchen loaded up this tray. Can you believe I have to put up with this?" "I'm sorry I got the order wrong, but I was double-sat!" "Look at that table -- they just sat in my station!") that I was ready to ask him to tip me.
It was my second bizarre experience at the Machine Shed, an establishment that's somewhat terrifying beneath its innocent façade. The restaurant's concept is, according to its motto, "dedicated to the American farmer." As if to prove that point, two tractors sit in front of the entrance.
The farming metaphor is all wrong, though. A moving van or a diesel rig ought to be parked out front; the Machine Shed -- right off I-35 on exit 220 -- is a modern-day version of highway traps like Stuckey's or Nickerson Farms, which had big dining rooms leading from gift shops that doubled as waiting areas. Whereas Stuckey's once peddled pecan logs and low-rent geegaws (I still cherish my gator-claw back scratcher), the Machine Shed's merchandise is a few notches above salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like hillbilly outhouses. But miniature outhouses might be a better fit for this free-standing restaurant on the edge of Olathe's busiest shopping district. On one visit, I got out of the car and encountered two empty beer cans, one beer bottle and a lumpy disposable diaper on the way to the front door.
Once inside, my friend Bob and I wandered through the artfully arranged gift display: nail brushes shaped like potatoes, cookie jars modeled after red apples, scented candles, bath salts and a fully decorated Christmas tree with lights resembling oversized peppermint balls. As the hostess escorted us back to a table in one of the building's four dining rooms, we decided that big is beautiful at the Machine Shed. Not just the wooden tables and benches but also the portions of food and most of the customers.
At that first visit, we were overwhelmed by the menu's array of heavy dishes. Fried chicken, roasted pork loin, pot roast, chicken-fried steak, hickory-smoked ribs and a 24-ounce porterhouse. When you sit down here, you'd better be as hungry as a farmer who's just plowed the back 40. Entrees include a bowl of cole slaw, a bowl of cottage cheese and a miniature metal washtub heaped with crumbly pumpkin-spiced sweet bread and slabs of pillowy white bread.
"Ya wanna start your dinner with some onion rings?" asked the dark-haired waitress as she languidly licked her lips. When she returned to the table with our drinks, she was chewing something.
"She must like the food here," Bob said. "She hasn't stopped eating since we got here. I've been watching her behind a screen over near the bus tubs."
He viewed her secret nibbling with great amusement ("She's at it again!") until it seemed to be taking forever for our dinner to arrive. When it did, Bob's face fell in disappointment. Our gal had persuaded him to order the pan-fried chicken rather than the "classic" fried chicken -- the former is "done the old-fashioned way" in a frying pan; the latter is deep-fried. But under their doughy breading, the two breasts and a wing were pink and bloody. To make matters worse, the cold mashed potatoes were covered with a gravy as glossy as latex paint. Bob pushed the plate away in disgust.
I had ordered the barbecued pork sandwich, but the chunks of dry pork slathered in sweet red sauce were barely lukewarm. We both picked at our food, then asked for a check. When our hungry waitress returned, though, she was carrying a tray with yet another order of chicken and another pork sandwich.
"There was a mix-up in the kitchen, and they made your dinners twice. You might as well take it. You want me to box them up for ya?"
Thinking this stuff might taste better at home, we agreed. It didn't.
At our next dinner, the anxious server -- a high-strung male -- didn't have time for snacking. "I think our soup is either barley-vegetable or vegetable," he snapped. "I've been here since 9 a.m., and I'm still in a haze!"
His defiant tone as he said the word haze was underscored by the man in the next booth, who chose that moment to pass gas loudly enough for our corner of the dining room to briefly fall silent.
"I'll have the salad, please," Bob said, giggling.
Not amused, I ordered soup. Not the du jour, whatever it might have been, but the more popular baked potato soup, a creamy chowder filled with chunks of unpeeled Idaho reds, sprinkled with shredded colby and loaded with bits of crunchy bacon and chopped scallions.
Appetizers are predominantly deep-fried concoctions such as the onion rings, which should be called onion strings because they're sliced as thinly as shoestrings and served in a greasy, salty clump. Even less appetizing are the "Sheddar Melts": flat squares of batter-dipped white cheddar that look -- and taste -- like fried scrubbing sponges. The deep-fried mushrooms, accompanied by a small bowl of ranch dressing, tasted a little better, though they were unappealingly tossed helter-skelter on a plate with a single kale leaf as adornment.
The Machine Shed seems incapable of cranking out a meal with all its parts in working order. Bob's 6-ounce petite-cut filet mignon was tender and juicy, but the white lump of garlic mashed potatoes was barely hot. My hunk of pot roast, which swam in a shiny brown gravy alongside two fat, boiled red potatoes and a couple of carrots, was remarkably tender but flavorless.
The waiter whisked away our plates and kept his eyes on all of his other tables as he rattled off the pies. I ordered coconut cream. But a few minutes later, he dashed back out of the kitchen, one hand holding another table's tray and the other on his hip. "I have bad news!" he announced dramatically. "We're all out!"
I took his suggestion and plunged into a giant wedge of German chocolate-cream pie, a trough of fluffy chocolate heaped with whipped cream, miniature chocolate chips, nuts and coconuts. It was closer in style to a Stuckey's nut log than a cream pie, a perfect fill-up on the highway to hell.