In 2004, the Travel Channel, notorious for the compilation of “top-ten” lists celebrating America’s hedonistic excesses named Lambert’s Cafe the number one restaurant in America in which to pig out. Gluttons gorging on gargantuan, gut-busting platters of oysters, steak, pizza, pancakes, burgers and more were showcased in all their gastronomic glory as they taxed the limits of their engorged bellies. What separated the restaurants featured on this top-ten list was that all of them have achieved acclaim not just because of their prodigious portions, but because they serve genuinely good food. These shrines to gluttony were no run-of-the-mill all-you-can-choke-down cafes.
The second instantiation of Lambert’s, opened in 1994, is situated just off picturesque Highway 65 between Springfield and Branson in the cave state of Missouri. Lambert’s is about the size of a small town high school gymnasium with a parking lot as sizeable as you might find at a Wal-Mart. Legions of tour buses and motorized conveyances of all kinds bring hordes of hungry diners who queue for as long as two hours in fair and foul weather to dine at the “only home of throwed rolls.”
Throwed rolls might be what Lambert’s is best known for and the magnet that draws in first-timers, but ultimately these oversized (five-inches in diameter) golden rolls are but one of many culinary attractions that inspire return visits. Lambert’s rolls are baked fresh from scratch every day. In 2004, Lambert’s averaged baking 520 dozen rolls per day for a grand total of more than 2.2 million individual rolls. Served piping hot, the rolls are made not just for dripping butter, but for Lambert’s outstanding country sorghum molasses. Picture the best bread rolls you’ve ever had then add the best molasses imaginable and you’ll have an appreciation for just why Lambert’s throwed rolls are legendary.
Teenagers get paid for the task any mischievous youngster might envy–using overhand, underhand, three-quarter and side-armed tosses to deliver rolls to hungry patrons. While none of the roll tossers would ever be mistaken for Roger Clement, some of them have developed pitching repertoires any major leaguer would envy. With dozens of hot rolls flying through the air at any given time, it’s a wonder more people aren’t clobbered (although it’s highly unlikely these pillow soft rolls would take out someone’s eye). Roll catching is especially fun for gangly kids trying to impress their parents and siblings.
The menu is a celebration of carnivorism with multiple selections in the categories of chicken, beef, pork and fish, all of which are served with two “vegetables.” Order off the menu and you’re entitled to “pass arounds” at no additional charge. Pass arounds are a bountiful bonus carted to your table by servers carrying pots and containers of fried potatoes, fried okra, macaroni and tomatoes, black eyed peas, and an irresistible sorghum you might want to add to everything on your plate. By popular demand, you can also order pass arounds as your entree.
The fried potatoes are addicting, so tasty you’ll eschew your diet du jour to feast on greasy but terrific tubers fried with onion. The okra is out-of-this-world. Among the pass arounds, the biggest “wow” might be reserved for the macaroni and tomatoes. The saccharine tomatoes are a perfect complement to the macaroni and a surprising way to present the ubiquitous pasta and tomato marriage.
Our introductory Lambert’s experiences were shared with my wonderful mother-in-law Susan Laws, her two lovely daughters and their families. Our table of eleven gave me the opportunity to survey the menu’s diversity and sample more than the 14-ounce choice ribeye steak I ordered. Although the steak may not have been Chicago Chophouse prime, the kitchen staff graciously cut the steak into bite-sized cubes out of deference for my heavily bandaged hand (two days removed from carpal tunnel surgery). Better than the steak was Lambert’s golden fried, grade “A” chicken, as juicy and perfectly seasoned poultry as we’ve had in a long time with a crispy coating to die for. My “vegetable” choices included a frothy and luscious pineapple walnut salad.
Lambert’s also provides a visual feast with period paraphernalia and eye-catching brickerbrack at every turn. Our table was situated directly below New Mexico’s distinct Zia flag, one of many state and national flags to fly in the capacious dining rooms. While our state flag may not have triggered homesickness, it did trigger the realization that the Land of Enchantment has nothing comparable to Lambert’s…and that’s a sad thing for which our waistlines are grateful.
Lambert’s Cafe II
1800 West State Highway J
LATEST VISIT: 19 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Fried Potatoes, Fried Chicken, Ribeye Steak, Fried Okra, “Throwed” Rolls, Sorghum Molasses