For years I'd driven past the home to the Snack Shack in Jasper, Tenn., without realizing what it was.
But one day last summer when I passed by around lunchtime I noticed that people were carrying food out, and the parking lot was full. And I was hungry.
So I stepped in to sample what I figured was a standard, a cheeseburger, and I was sold.
A couple of weeks ago, I returned in the middle of a rainy Wednesday afternoon when there wasn't so large a crowd. After a couple of bites, I decided other people should know about the Snack Shack, tucked away just outside the entrance to Marion County High School.
The Snack Shack is the sort of eatery that in the South we refer to as a "dairy bar," though that's not part of its name. The Snack Shack took up residence in 2013 in the former home of the Jasper Dairy Bar on Betsy Pack Drive, so there's some dairy bar history already at the address.
Where: Snack Shack, 904 Betsy Pack Drive, Jasper, Tenn.
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Saturday; 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays.
Price range: $5-$10.
It's a dairy bar combined with a few convenience store offerings like coolers filled with soft drinks and a large rack of candy and snacks.
But it's the surprisingly large menu of burgers, deli sandwiches, salads, barbecue, hot dogs and all the sweet trappings that should be in a dairy bar, like sundaes and hand-dipped ice cream, that calls me when I'm in Jasper.
For a small restaurant, the Snack Shack's menu is packed. Burgers — all of them a homemade patty of juicy beef — come in the form of a standard burger with typical toppings ($4.99) and add-ons ($5.45 with cheese, ($5.99 with cheese and bacon). Other fancier choices from the grill include a patty melt on toast with Swiss and grilled onions ($5.49), BBQ cheddar burger on a bun with a patty paired with barbecue pork ($6.99), a mushroom, bacon and Swiss burger on toast ($5.99), chili cheese burger on a bun ($5.99) and pepper jack jalapeno on toast ($5.99).
Build-your-own deli sandwiches are $4.49 with a choice of ham, turkey, roast beef or bologna, any of the standard cheeses on Texas toast, wheat bread or a hoagie. The club sandwich, for $6.49, comes on three thick pieces of Texas toast with ham, turkey, roast beef, bacon and American cheese with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion.
"Good ole Tater's sandwiches" — which apparently refer to their creator — describes a lineup of the rest of the deli-style sandwiches: grilled or fried chicken on a bun, chicken melt on grilled toast, a Philly on a hoagie, Reuben on grilled toast , deluxe BLT on triple toast, deluxe grilled cheese on triple toast, fish sandwich with homemade tartar sauce, BBQ sandwich on a toasted bun with mustard slaw and a pickle spear, and a beef brisket sandwich with cheddar on a hoagie. All range from just under $5 to just over $6.
There are three salads — dinner salad ($3.50), grilled or fried chicken salad and chef salad (both $6.39). Three "plates" come with a choice of fries or baked potato and a salad and grilled toast. The meat options are grilled chicken (small $7.39, large $10.49), chicken fingers ($7.39 and $10.49), or hamburger steak with grilled peppers, onion, and mushrooms ($8.99 and $12.49). Barbecue plates come with fries, mustard slaw, baked beans and a roll with mild or hot sauce. Pick from a BBQ plate ($8.19 and $11.99) or brisket plate ($8.49 and $12.99).
There's a choice of six stuffed potatoes, ranging from about $5 for the broccoli and cheese topping to $10 for a double serving of barbecue. There are also hot dogs and nachos.
The kids menu consists of a chicken basket, grilled cheese sandwich, corn dog, chicken "fryz," burgers, hot dogs or "slider" versions of barbecue, chicken or fish sandwiches, ranging in price from 95 cents for a burger to $5.49 for a chicken basket.
And there's a whole second side to the menu that features dairy bar delights like sundaes ($3.69 for one topping to $4.19 for two) milkshakes ($3.29 to $4.29, depending on flavor), hand-dipped ice cream ($1.59 for one scoop, $2.59 for two), hot fudge cake and brownie delight (both $4.59) and an old-fashioned banana split ($6.49).
The Almighty Warrior ($16.99) is a monstrous eight-scoop masterpiece of ice cream loaded with bananas, chocolate syrup, strawberries, crushed cherries, pineapple, hot fudge, caramel, nuts and butterscotch, combined with chocolate chips, peanut butter chips and "nine dollops of whipped cream and nine whole cherries," the menu says.
A glance at the Snack Shack's operating hours — they open at 6:30 a.m. — means they serve a full menu of breakfast classics. Biscuits are priced at 89 cents for plain to $4.99 for the "ultimate" biscuit — no description of it here and that just makes me want one. Platters are served with two eggs, gravy or grits and a biscuit or toast combined with meat that range from $4.39 to $5.99, according to the combination of eggs, sausage, ham, bologna, tenderloin or hash browns.
Man, I can already feel the chest pains. Don't care.
On my most recent visit I ordered the club sandwich, which arrived as an enormous, quartered triple-Texas-toast monster with a side of crinkle fries. The sandwich was so thick, I recommend biting off the points of it as you work your way in and leave the toothpick in place to hold everything still. You'll still need to watch out for it, but the effort is worth it.
It's not only the bread that makes it thick; there's plenty of each of the meats that go on there, too. Although it was split four ways, I'm pretty sure there were at least three tomato slices and 20 pickle chips layered into the lettuce, tomato, bacon and cheese.
The fries were nice and golden with just the right amount of salt, which I upped to the amount my doctor dislikes. In the past, I've had some great burgers here, including an especially delicious mushroom and Swiss — again on that Texas toast — that has a tasty, cheesy mushroom sauce the chain place down the road can't approach.
The service is what you'd expect from a small-town dairy bar — friendly, fast and friendly. Well, being friendly is a hallmark of a good dairy bar. The waitress dutifully checked on me and my fellow diners every few minutes and seemed to already know what the other gentlemen wanted before they knew themselves. Regulars, I figured. For me, I never went for long without a visit, and my sweet tea never went dry.
OK, it's old, but that's what gives it character. From the aging, stained ceiling tile to the eight time-worn booths that line the walls on the south side of the building, the Snack Shack oozes "small town." There are also two high-top tables by the door and a regular table. Appropriate atmosphere is supplied by a cable feed of country music.
Despite the vintage look, everything was spotlessly clean with relatively sparse decor that was, not surprisingly, aimed at local sports teams.
I've already become a regular at this spot only partly because it's on one of my most well-worn paths onto the Cumberland Plateau. The food is good and fresh with a home-cooked flair that would make most moms proud. Quality and flavor will bring first-timers back. One thing's certain: If it's lunch time and I'm in Jasper, the odds are good you'll find me here.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.