Sunday, August 21, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: Prayer Station, Wallace

(Part 11 in an ongoing series.)

Today is my daughter's birthday, and we're celebrating with a road trip, which means there was no Silver Valley church visit this weekend. But one of the first stops we made on our church tour, way back in June, was to the old Methodist Church building in Wallace.

The building itself dates to 1900, and it held on as a place of Methodist worship for 120 years before membership had dwindled to one elderly parishioner. In 2020, Methodist services came to an end, and the building was leased out to a nonsectarian Christian group known as the Prayer Station. 

That group, organized and led by Art Fleming, continues to meet there, keeping the old building's spiritual purpose alive. And they live up to their name: By the entrance, there's a box where you can drop your requests for the group to pray on.

When you go inside, you find that the old stained-glass windows are still intact, as is the pipe organ that dates to the very early years of the church. Even the old pews have been retained for seating. 

However, the Prayer Station's church service itself isn't formal or liturgical, as the surroundings may lead you to expect, but rather carried out in a relaxed and informal way that's characteristic of so many of the nondenominational and otherwise evangelical churches I've visited around the Valley. There are no vestments or pulpits, just folks in street clothes, with Mr. Fleming holding a microphone, and lyrics to the praise-and-worship songs that open the service visible to the congregation on a TV screen.

This is the view looking down at the front door. The church is laid out like a split-level house: When you step inside, you have to either go downstairs to the basement, or upstairs to the sanctuary. 

On the Sunday my kiddo and I visited, Mr. Fleming and his wife were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Spirits were high, and the small crowd of a dozen or so people listened on intently as he introduced a new series called "Footprints," examining what it means to follow Christ. A friend of Mr. Fleming's, Pastor Gordon Mills, led the discussion, which focused on Jesus' proclamation in John 8:31 that those who abide in his word are his disciples. The core of his talk was that we have to conform ourselves to Christ's words and internalize what they really mean, taking action on them rather than just passively memorizing verses and going through the motions. We have to conform ourselves to God, the pastor said, yet so often we do just the opposite, making God in our image, which prevents us from being passionate about our faith and letting it transform us inwardly. Those who are stuck in such a position, he said, don't know they're starving until they eat -- in other words, they don't know that they're spiritually famished until they dive in to the Word and allow it to work in their lives.

There were scattered amens from the crowd as people wrote in their notebooks and followed along in their dog-eared, bookmarked, highlighted Bibles. It struck me as I looked around the room that these were precisely the kind of folks Pastor Gordon wanted to see carrying out the faith -- deeply involved, engaged, and passionate about their beliefs.

I noticed when we came in for the service that evening that there were three weekly events posted on the entrance: the Sunday event we were at, an intimate Thursday prayer service, and a liturgically styled service on Wednesdays.

I was able to make it to the Thursday service a week or two later. It took place within a circle of chairs and sofas in a curtained-off nook adjacent to the sanctuary. Folks casually chatted with each other, as Mr. Fleming encouraged people to speak freely about any prayer requests they had. Some requests were personal for loved ones and family situations, and others were for the well-being of the local community. Mr. Fleming took notes during the meeting and led the group in prayer at its conclusion.

The Wednesday service was led by another fellow whose wife had just had a baby, so that meeting ended up being postponed for a while as the new parents had their hands full with other responsibilities. When I stopped by one Wednesday in mid-July at the posted meeting time to see if the service had resumed, the church doors were locked. I asked Mr. Fleming by email whether he knew when things would start up again, but I happened to catch him at an inopportune time, just when he'd lost his father. So I respectfully stepped back and gave him time to grieve. 

I have to assume the liturgical nature of the Wednesday service was the reason there were still Methodist hymnals in the pews. But I can't say for sure. 

All I know for certain is that, as of late July, any mention of the Wednesday service had been removed from the list of weekly services on the front door.

Whatever its fate, the fact remains that Mr. Fleming does a lot of good for the community. He runs the local food bank out of the Prayer Station, and I know he's been involved with the local Chamber of Commerce in the past. Other pastors I've chatted with during my Churches of the Silver Valley tour have known him and spoken highly of him.

He said during the Sunday service I attended that he had no interest in competing with any other church in the Valley, which led me to believe that the Prayer Station is purely a project of love for him, a way for him to meet the spiritual needs of the people who live here. 

In the process of doing so, he's keeping a lovely old Wallace place of worship alive. Everybody wins. 

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: St. Rita's Catholic Church, Kellogg

(Part 10 in an ongoing series.)

I began this series by visiting one of the Silver Valley's three Catholic churches -- St. Alphonsus in Wallace. Today I visited another one, St. Rita's in Kellogg. 

Tomorrow, Aug. 15, is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which, in my personal theology -- focused as it is on Mary and the Sacred Feminine -- marks one of the highlights of the church year. At least one early pope regarded it on the same level as Christmas and Easter, and as theologically significant as the Incarnation and Resurrection. 

The pious belief that Mary was taken body and soul to heaven dates back to possibly as early as the second century. When the Catholic Church declared the Assumption a dogma in 1950, psychologist Carl Jung considered it "the most important religious event since the Reformation," declaring the church's declaration to be the fulfillment of a "deep longing in the masses for an intercessor and mediatrix who would at last take her place alongside the Holy Trinity and be received as 'Queen of heaven and Bride at the heavenly court.'"

Honestly, either you get it or you don't, and most people don't. Not even a lot of Catholics do.

Anyway, there isn't going to be an Assumption Mass in the Valley, other than a small gathering for the Coeur d'Alene Indians at the old Cataldo Mission. The tribe owns the church, which today is more a historical site than an active place of worship, and I got the impression from asking around that even though the Indians can't bar people from visiting a church that today sits on state park property, they don't really want the public around for their Mass. So I figured a stop at St. Rita's the day before the Assumption would have to be good enough for a pseudo-Assumption celebration this year.

First, a little bit about the building. Having been built in 1972, it's the youngest of the three Catholic church buildings in the Valley. 

A narrow narthex runs the length of the church, filled with bulletins, Catholic literature, and even a few free rosaries. A group of people were, in fact, reciting the rosary in the sanctuary when I got to church about 15 minutes before Mass. And if you were at all confused about what kind of church you'd walked into, there were photos of Pope Francis and Bishop Peter Christensen to greet you before you stepped off to the right and into the sanctuary.

The brick-walled sanctuary itself is laid out like an auditorium, with two middle sections of pews and one more section at an angle on each side, all pointing toward the altar at the bottom of the sloped floor.

I don't know what a typical turnout is for St. Rita's, but there were around 100 people there today. By the time Mass began, there wasn't an empty pew left. 

Although the Valley's Catholic churches won't be observing the Assumption, it was nice to see that St. Rita's at least acknowledged the day through music. Our opening song was "Immaculate Mary," and our closing one was " Hail Holy Queen," which just happen to be two of my most cherished Catholic hymns. 

As is my custom, I sat on the Mary side of the church, which seemed more fitting than usual today. After the Mass began, I glanced at the wall next to me and noticed I was even sitting next to the Fourth Station of the Cross, in which Jesus meets Mary on the way to his crucifixion. 

I always thought of the Fourth Station as an achingly poignant moment between mother and son, a tearful goodbye and the culmination of the sorrows that Mary was foretold she would bear. Her grief is indicative of the pains we all suffer as we traverse this valley of tears called life. And the church gives us Mary as someone we can commiserate with, a person whose shoulder we can cry on, a tender-hearted mother who shares in our suffering, comforts us with divine love, and carries our prayers and petitions heavenward because of her love for us.  

(Now you can see why, even though I'm not a religious literalist and I have my own personal theological views, I'll always be a Marian Catholic at heart.)

Today's Gospel reading came from Luke, when Christ proclaims that he came not to bring peace but division, and that he wishes the world were already ablaze with his word. Now, I take that passage to mean that his word will inflame strong passions that will divide people, but that those who follow him will be illuminated with the love of God. Fr. Jerome Montez today decided to run with a more forceful interpretation. It's funny that I've expected fire and brimstone at a couple of the evangelical churches I've visited so far in the Valley, and then I end up actually getting it from a Catholic priest. 

The fire in the scripture, Fr. Jerome said, is the fire of God's divine justice, a justice that won't sleep in the face of those who don't keep his commandments. "God does not play around," he said, and only a culture that does the will of God will find peace. If we fail to do God's will, our nation will fall, just as so many nations and empires that were turned over to their own immorality eventually rotted from within. It's not enough to join hands, sing "Kumbaya," and be all happy-clappy: We have to confront our loved ones, set an example for our kids, and be a Christ-like witness against our "godless" culture. If we "give in" to the "lifestyle" of the godless, we condone their sins and will be held accountable for doing so on Judgment Day. 

He went on to decry the "crap" and "junk" the culture feeds us, condemning abortion, same-sex marriage, and the "LGBTQRSTUVWXYZ" movement. "Don't give up your faith for this culture," he warned. Doing so will only lead to "eternal damnation."

Well, do with all that what you will. I've written before about my personal distaste for Fr. Jerome's preaching style. Technically, he didn't say anything theologically wrong, but there is something to be said for love of neighbor and tactful delivery. I've never gotten over when he said COVID was a punishment from God, much in the same way that high-level evangelical preachers in the past have said that AIDS and natural disasters were acts of divine retribution. He and I got off on the wrong foot, and today's homily told me that my objection to his style wasn't an isolated incident.

But that doesn't take away from the fact that the man works hard, tending to a total of five Catholic parishes in the area, and that parishioners seem to take a shine to him. Maybe he's a likeable guy when he's away from the altar. I don't know. But either way, this points to a stark difference between Catholic and Protestant culture: If you're a Protestant, you might shop around till you find a pastor whose preaching style you like and base your churchgoing decision on that alone, but in the Catholic church, you go because you're Catholic, not because you like or dislike the priest. He's only there to serve up the sacrifice of the Mass, not to win any popularity contests. (Not that you should just sit there and take anything a particular priest might happen to dish out, though. I left in the middle of a Mass once after a priest publicly embarrassed my daughter; we never went back to that church.)

I decided to receive communion today, after debating whether I wanted to following the bad taste the homily left in my mouth. I figured it's my birthright as a Catholic. 

Afterward, I went over to say hello to Mary, standing next to her rack of votive candles, and with St. Rita of Cascia, the woman after whom this particular church is named, looking over her. 

That was the prettiest view in the whole church, and it filled me with far more peace than the Mass itself did. 

Thursday, August 11, 2022

Dining in the Silver Valley: Backcountry Cafe, Kellogg

(Part of an ongoing series.)

Variety is the name of the game at Backcountry Cafe. This little place in downtown Kellogg, which feels a bit more like deli-meets-diner than an actual cafe, sports a big blackboard full of drink and ice cream flavors and mixes, and that's before you get to the eight-page menu jam-packed full of sandwich, salad, and basket options.

The number of options can border on information overload. Today, for example, I decided I had a taste for tuna -- but your choices include Tuna Salad, Tuna Salad and Black Beans, Avocado Tuna Salad, Tuna Salad Melt, Avocado Tuna Salad Melt, Tuna Salad Shredder, and Avocado Tuna Salad Shredder. And that's just part of one column on a three-column page. 

This approach is certainly one way of trying to create a have-it-your-way kind of dining experience, but if you haven't been to Backcountry before, it might take you a while to get your bearings as you're looking over your many, many options for food and drink.

No complaints about the food, though. We've been here many times, for breakfast and lunch alike, and the portions are always decent and the food fresh and tasty. I think most of what you get here, even including the potato chips that come as a side with most lunch options, is made to order rather than stored in a freezer. 

The drink options are especially generous, with a lot of the beverages served up in big old Mason jars. Here's my wife's iced tea. (Playing card shown for size reference. Luckily, we almost always have cards with us. Partaking in card games before our meals show up at restaurants is a cherished family tradition.)

As drinks go, I usually settle for a Green River, whose flavor takes me back to my younger years. There was an eatery somewhere near where I grew up -- I can, alas, no longer remember exactly where -- that served Green Rivers made in-house. I always enjoyed them then, and I'd never seen them offered anywhere since, until we came to Backcountry. Even looking around online, I can't find anything approximating the handmade lemon-lime-based drink I enjoyed growing up; the things that turn up are either Chicago-based prepackaged bottles of soda, or alcoholic beverages. Now I feel practically compelled to order a Green River when we come to Backcountry.

When it came to ordering our meals, I settled on the Avocado Tuna Salad Melt, with Swiss cheese, and chips and a pickle spear on the side. My wife got the peculiarly named Honeycrisp Apple Wienerwurst, served on a toasted roll. And the kiddo got deep-fried Mac and Cheese Bites, one of her favorites.

The restaurant itself throws off a delightfully eclectic vibe that mixes classical American diner (I love the old black and white-tiled floor) with rustic accents (rusty metal roof panels as wall coverings) and a touch of the endless North Idaho winters (skis and snowshoes) that I'm sure the winter-wonderland tourists find charming. The rest of us just get out the snowblowers and try to plow ourselves a path before the sun sets at 4 p.m.

We've come here often enough that we've settled into sitting in the same place, at a table right next to the front window. Great place to warm up when it's cold outside, though it can get uncomfortably warm on a summer day. 

The cost for three meals and three drinks came to about $52, inclusive of tip.     

The place just recently reopened after a temporary closure brought about by lack of adequate staffing. Seems no one can get help these days. But as long as it can manage to stay open, it's a great place to stop if you're looking for a lot of food options and a relaxed atmosphere. 

Maybe you'll even find a surprise on the menu that takes you back to simpler times.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: The Worship Center, Smelterville

(Part nine in an ongoing series.)

I'd been to The Worship Center once before, back in early 2020. So I figured I knew what to expect when I headed out today to visit the only church in the little town of Smelterville, known more for its Walmart store these days than for its historical role in smeltering ore that gave the town its name, back in the mining heyday of the Silver Valley.

It's been a rough week for me from a physical standpoint, so I had it in my head that reviewing a place I'd been before would require less effort on my part. In fact, I'd been thinking about putting this series on pause for August, so I could rest and prepare myself for our family's upcoming road trip. But in the end I reasoned, probably correctly, that if I found an excuse to take a break, I'd never get back to it.

I was also tempted to visit a Unity Church out in Coeur d'Alene, outside the Valley, after happening upon a book last week that explored Unity's beliefs -- which seem not all that far removed from mine, at least in terms of how Unity envisions God and Christ as concepts, and our relationship to both. But I watched snippets of a few services online and didn't feel particularly moved by what I saw to make the hourlong trek. And Unity's embrace of the Prosperity Gospel kind of negated in my mind all the good that they might otherwise do.   

So off to Smelterville I went. But I was on my own today, as the kiddo decided to beg off on going to church this week. Yes, I started this series as a kind of religious-ed homeschooling project for her, but if she didn't feel like going to church, I wasn't going to force her. Having church forced on me as a kid, after all, only ended up making me like it less.   

So, about the church itself. This rather generically named place of worship makes its home inside a big tan-and-brown building that, as far as I could see, had no exterior signage whatsoever. There were a few folks talking outside the entrance, in an open pavilion area with folding tables. My best guess was that people had gathered to eat on this warm summer morning before the service. I spotted a coffee dispenser near the entrance, grabbed a cup, and headed inside.

In the hall leading to the sanctuary was an information desk with merchandise for sale. I'd find my way back there afterward. I could see from a countdown clock on one of the projector screens in the sanctuary that I had only three minutes till the service started, so I went in and found a seat at the back.

Now, The Worship Center is one of two churches in the Valley that resemble what I think of as a typical megachurch. Not that The Worship Center is large in physical size; it's more about an approach to doing church that rubs me the wrong way. To me, it happens when the spectacle of the church experience supersedes authentic worship, or when selling and maintaining a brand takes precedence over everything else. In short, sometimes we're confronted in these communities with what feels uncomfortably like Christianity as a capitalist commodity, all flash and little to no substance. 

So you could say that I walked in today feeling a bit cynical about what I was going to experience.

The place was packed. I'd say there were around 125 people, which actually is a massive church turnout for the Valley. Excepting St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, which had an unusually high attendance the week I visited because of Fr. Jerome Montez's ordination anniversary, I'd say today's turnout exceeded the total number of people attending all the other churches I've visited so far. Heck, there were more musicians onstage today than there were total attendees at a couple of churches I've been to.

The worship music, led by the onstage band, was what I expected in terms of lyrical content. Washed in his blood. Perfect submission. Blessed assurance. My God is bigger, greater, stronger than you. Oh, what a savior, wonderful Jesus, repeated like a mantra. You're still on your throne, so whatever I'm feeling, I've still got a reason to praise.

Those are all direct lifts from today's songs, all sung with earnest passion, as outstretched hands swayed in the air.

I have to be honest: This type of me-and-Jesus worship feels completely alien to me. It actually makes me feel anxious. I don't like the emotionalism of it. It feels shallow and self-centered. It seems to promote overly simplistic answers to both life and faith, embracing an easy-believism kind of Christianity that requires nothing of the practitioner because Jesus already took care of everything. 

But again, this church was packed, while so many Valley churches I've visited have been hollowed out. So maybe people dealing with serious struggles in their lives, as many in this area are, need an uncomplicated faith that gives them a simple hope that everything will work out OK. It doesn't get the job done for me, but then that's why I was just visiting and not a member. 

A little bit of background: The church itself is part of the Pentecostal Church of God, a worldwide denomination with more than 600,000 members. I learned during today's service that the church takes part in overseas missionary work and has undertaken tours of the Holy Land, no doubt drawing on the resources available from being part of a larger church organization. That's something most churches around here couldn't do, given their small congregations and limited funds, so it was certainly nice to see that such opportunities exist in the Valley for anyone interested in taking part. It appears that there are also several local study and fellowship groups that take place during the week, and the church offers a weekly food bank for the needy. The Worship Center appears to be a very active and engaged church that maintains a strong focus on helping others and sustaining their members' faith. 

The lead pastor at The Worship Center is Silver Valley native Corey Berti. Pastor Corey spoke only briefly today, as regional bishop Kelly Lineberry was in attendance to present a certificate of credentials to Ed Warren, a Worship Center member. Though the certificate was, in one sense, "just a piece of paper," the bishop said, it more deeply represented a calling from God to minister to the people. I obviously don't know the back story, but it was clear to me that Mr. Warren has been active in ministry work for the church and was being recognized for his actions, presumably with the goal of giving him more of a pastoral role. 

In fact, after the certificate presentation and a brief prayer, Mr. Warren was handed the stage to deliver the day's sermon. And it's at this point that I have to admit that my cynicism about what I expected today was rather misplaced. 

If you recall from last week's visit to Grace Evangelical Free Church, I expressed my pleasant surprise over Pastor Nick Hoffman's Micah 6:8-based Christianity that takes us out of ourselves and has us focusing on service to the needy and those on the margins. Well, today I heard Mr. Warren delivering a similar message that leaned heavily on the epistle of James and the Sermon on the Mount -- two of my favorite parts of the New Testament. They both call us to action out of love.

Hearing this sermon was kind of a shock to me, because I'm so accustomed to hearing Protestants criticize so-called "works-based salvation," the idea that you have to earn your way into heaven. To me, this stance has always seemed like an excuse for Christians to do nothing to better the world they live in or to better themselves, as if it's enough for them to simply coast through life because their ticket is already punched for heaven. But today I heard just the opposite of that message, and it was wonderful to experience. 

Volunteering at youth camps, Mr. Warren said one of the things he hears over and over from the kids is that they just want someone to love them. As traditional religious faith breaks down and society grows more self-absorbed and angry, alienation and unhappiness are taking ever deeper root. People become disconnected from each other as families pull apart and social networks break down, and they're left feeling unmoored in a world where the ground is constantly shifting under their feet. They have nothing to cling onto. No hope. No love.

This is where Christianity has a bold opportunity to step in and fill that void of love that so many people are experiencing. After all, Christ himself said that the world would know his disciples by their love. 

Mr. Warren made an excellent point that Christ came with an incredibly radical message, one that would set his followers apart from the rest of the world. In essence, when the rest of the world tells you to retaliate, to punch back, Christ said to turn the other cheek and not resist your oppressors -- and, in fact, to kill them with kindness. If someone sues you for your shirt, give them your cloak as well. If a soldier presses you into service to carry his gear for a mile, carry it for two. We do so not to humiliate them or show our moral superiority, but to be such an advocate for radical love that they might be inspired to follow our example. As I've said before, we should always assume that we're the only Bible some people will ever read. 

This is the point that the epistle of James presses so urgently. As Mr. Warren pointed out, James reminds us that it's not enough to tell the person in need to be well and keep warm; we ought to actually help to the extent that we can. This is why James says that faith without works is dead. It's all well and good to thank God for saving us, but do we return the favor and help others? Do we become the hands of Christ in a world that needs his love, or do we just recite creeds and beliefs, telling others about our faith but not showing it? 

To Mr. Warren's way of seeing it, Christians have to be different, and that difference is loving others, even when you're tired or annoyed and the last thing you want to do is reach out. You have to make Christ your "because," the reason you do what you do, loving others because he loved us first. 

Imagine a world where Christians looked like that, selflessly giving and serving, rather than condemnding fellow sinners and acting indifferent to a fallen world because "I've already got mine," both materially and theologically speaking. As I've said before, if Christianity looked more like Christ, maybe the churches wouldn't be emptying out and the world would be filled with more hope and love.

Mr. Warren wrapped up by asking the congregation to reflect during the week on 1 Peter 2:11-25, a passage that exhorts Christians to set an example for others by living a righteous life and following in the example of Christ, who never retaliated against his persecutors but gave his life as an act of sacrificial love. 

I don't think Paul was mentioned once at today's gathering. That alone is remarkable, given how Paul-centric so many Christians are. And when he's absent, the flavor of Christianity you get is completely different. It exudes love, charity, and openness instead of restrictive rules and condemnations. Not that I'm implying that either Mr. Warren or The Worship Center are opposed to Paul. It was just nice to get a break from him, and to see how the New Testament message unfolds so differently without him. I've never hidden my distaste for his teachings. 

You'd think I'd have no interest in Christianity if I don't care for Paul and can't bring myself to believe in an anthropomorphic God. But today's message at The Worship Center was a reminder of why I stick around. There are actually several reasons, like the way Mary connects me to the Sacred Feminine and fills a role for me both as a nurturing mother figure and as an avatar of the Holy Spirit. But even more than that, I just continue to love the story of Christianity, and I think the world would be a much better place if we put Christ's ethics to work and demonstrated the kind of emptying love that he showed others. He's not just a creed or a sacrificial proxy, and when that's all he is, we miss the point and do both ourselves and the world a disservice. And that's why I'm always delighted to see folks in the Christian fold emphasizing love, charity, and mercy over creeds and condemnations. It's those folks who represent our best chance to keep Christ, and Christianity, relevant in our world.

On my way out, I stopped by that merch table and decided to take home some beautiful illustrated study guides from The Daily Grace Company. Along with a guide dedicated to Ruth -- one of only two books of the Bible named for a woman -- and a reflection on The Lord's Prayer, the two books that really caught my eye were reflective of Mr. Warren's sermon today: James, and the Sermon on the Mount. 

People more faithful than I talk about how the Spirit nudges you to pay attention by leaving little clues for you. The fact that I expected easy-believism going into today's service and then got both a sermon and study guides on James and the Sermon on the Mount, encouraging us to demonstrate the love of Christ to a world in need, could easily have those same folks saying, "See? Someone's trying to tell you something."

Maybe; maybe not. I'm content to keep an open mind about it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Dining in the Silver Valley: Broken Wheel, Kellogg

The Broken Wheel was, well, broken for quite a while. Shortly after we moved to the Valley, we stopped in one day for breakfast and sat at a counter just inside the front door. The food, as I recall, was all right, but the decor was dark and uninviting, the service was somewhere between indifferent and gruff, and most of the place, from what I can remember, wasn't even being used. It didn't give off a great vibe, to say the least, and I wasn't surprised to see the restaurant go out of business. 

The building sat empty until last year, when it came under new ownership and opened in early 2022 following some serious renovations. We looked forward to trying it out after discovering that Tee Jay Larsen, a waitress whom we knew well from Sam's Restaurant just down the street in Kellogg, was involved with the reopening of Broken Wheel. She always took good care of us at Sam's, and now she's the manager at Broken Wheel.  

We've been there probably half a dozen times since the reopening. That little counter by the front door is still there, and right next to it you can see the cooks working away in the kitchen. 

On the other side of the room is a salad bar. And across from that is a lounge area with an adjoining game room. 

The bar in the lounge area is insanely long, running pretty much the length of the entire room.

Then there's the dining area, which is equally massive, with an abundance of tables and booths to choose from, and what looks to be a small stage or a karaoke spot in the far corner, in front of the fireplace. The TV on the wall is usually tuned to some kind of sporting event. During one of our visits, much to my delight, they were actually showing an American rugby match!

The food is typical diner fare, but the menu is extensive, with an impressive variety to pick from. Soups, salads, burgers, steaks, you name it. There's even a separate kids' menu.

If you're in the mood for an adult beverage, you have lots of options there, too. They're putting that big old bar to good use. I heartily recommend their spin on the Tequila Sunrise, though it looks like it's currently not on the menu. Hopefully it'll be back.

We usually come for breakfast, but today we made a stop for lunch. My kiddo got the chicken strips, just as she almost always does, both here and at Sam's. Tee Jay, at this point, just assumes that'll be her order. She knows us well. (Though, oddly, I'm not even sure she knows our names.)

My wife got a cheeseburger. I remember when the place reopened that there was talk of featuring top-tier Black Angus beef for all their burgers and steaks, and though I lack a sophisticated palate, the few burgers I've had during our visits here have been pretty tasty, I must admit. 

Me, I got a meatloaf panini, just because it sounded unusual, and a side of chili. I say "side," but I opted for the bowl over the cup, and it was massive -- like so many things at Broken Wheel are. I think even Tee Jay was surprised by the size of the darn thing.


And boy, was the chili good. Thick and flavorful, with a nice mix of seasonings and generously sized chunks of onion that added a hearty texture. A lot of chilis I've tasted over the years have tended toward being too tomato-heavy and tangy. Not this one. This was a full-flavored, stick-to-your-ribs kind of soup. It was by far my favorite part of the meal.

I know the kiddo likes the fries at Broken Wheel. I do, too. They're basically thin-cut wedges that retain their satisfyingly potato-ish texture inside a slightly crispy exterior. 

Oh, and they have hush puppies, too. The kiddo got some with her chicken strips. I love hush puppies, and I'm not aware of any other restaurant in the Valley that even offers them. 

Our total for our three meals, plus a milk, a coffee, and an iced tea, was $62, inclusive of tip. And that's for very healthy portions of food. I had to take more than half of that bowl of chili home -- but it sure heated up well for an evening snack.

This is only my second restaurant review, I'm already I'm acutely aware of the prices I'm sharing with my readers. It makes me realize that while there are a lot of places to dine in the Valley, there's not a lot of money to go around for many of the folks who live here. This is a fairly poor part of the state. As such, I imagine a lot of our local restaurants rely on tourists to get by. We certainly do what we can to support the local establishments, but even we're trying to cut corners. So if you had to pick a few eateries to visit with not a lot of funds to go around, I'd put Broken Wheel up there among your best options -- along with Sam's, Snake Pit, Hilltop, Muchachos Tacos, Casa de Oro, City Limits, and Blackboard Cafe, all of which I'm sure I'll eventually review here. 

And if you happen to pop in at Broken Wheel, tell Tee Jay I said hi, even if she probably has no idea who I am, other than the guy whose kid loves chicken strips.