Cathy Free: Free Lunch: A fork in the road leads to greasy spoons and good times for two college chums

Published: Wednesday, April 11 2012 3:43 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Where some see a run-down gas station off a seldom-traveled exit in a small Utah town, Tyson Rollins and Tyler Gaisford see … lunch.

Never mind that they’ve usually already consumed a breakfast of French toast, bacon and eggs.

“When you smell hamburgers grilling inside a gas station and see a sign — ‘Best Burgers in Town’ — you have to take them up on it,” says Rollins, 24, recalling one of his new favorite fast-food finds at Santaquin’s Conoco.

He wasn’t disappointed. “The Rodeo Burger is one of the best burgers I’ve ever had,” he says. “In fact, we’ve been back several times.”

Adds Gaisford: “We’re not critics, but we do feel a sense of duty to get it right.”

Friends since grade school, he and Rollins have come across the ultimate hobby for two college pals with a craving for adventure and deep-fried onion rings:

Last year, they decided they would travel every back road in Utah, stop at every greasy spoon they could find and chronicle their artery-clogging good times on their website, forkintheroadutah.com.

“It all started because we took an exit to Mona one day and stumbled upon a place called ‘Big Burger,’ ” says Gaisford, 23, a physics student at Utah Valley University. “We had these delicious bacon cheeseburgers that we never would have known about if we hadn’t gotten off the interstate and driven into town.”

“From there, we decided to keep going and take a new direction on the highway each time,” adds Rollins. “Utah ‘road food’ is now our personal project.”

From biscuits and gravy at the Parowan Cafe to Frisbee-sized scones at Chick’s in Heber, “we’ve had to learn to pace ourselves,” says Rollins, a photography major at Brigham Young University who is thankfully married to a woman who tolerates his gluttonous weekend escapades.

Like Gaisford, Rollins is tall and lanky and can easily accommodate extra servings of chicken-fried steak and blueberry pie, “but we’ve learned it’s best to wait at least a couple of hours between meals before driving on to the next town.”

While gearing up for their next trip to Mexican Hat, the bloggers met me for a Free Lunch of margherita pizzas at Settebello, one of their favorite spots in Salt Lake City.

“It’s the most authentic pizza I’ve found anywhere,” says Rollins, who served an LDS mission in Italy. He folds his slice in half the way the Romans do, to keep the cheese and sauce from oozing out. “Good, local food. Is there anything better?”

In the past year, he and Gaisford have enjoyed roast beef at the Flying M in Panguitch, Ozzie burgers and fresh limeade at Hi Mountain Drug in Kamas, hubcap-sized pancakes at the Home Plate Diner in Fairview and coconut cream pie at Mom’s Cafe in Salina.

One of their favorite stops is now Maria’s Cocina in Beaver, a tiny Mexican cafe tucked away inside an RV campground. “She’s only open from May to October, from 4 to 9,” says Gaisford. “I was pleasantly surprised by Beaver. It’s a beautiful little town, but I honestly never had a reason to stop before. Now I can’t imagine not going into town.”

After numerous coffee-counter conversations with the locals, he and Rollins have developed a new appreciation for the rhythms of small-town life.

“People in small towns are so genuine — you always go away feeling like you’ve made a friend,” says Gaisford. “One of our goals with this project is to encourage people to take a vacation closer to home and see what Utah is really about.”

Good local eats aside, he and Rollins do have loftier goals. Providing that their waistlines and wallets hold out, they now dream of taking their “fork in the road” idea nationwide.

“What we really need is a sponsor,” says Rollins, “somebody willing to support two guys who love to eat.”

He'd be thrilled if everybody saw him and Gaisford rolling down the highway this summer with two words emblazoned on the side of Gaisford’s Subaru: “Pepto-Bismol.”

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column for the Deseret News since 1999, believing everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime Western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.

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