Dairy Center – Mt Airy, North Carolina
407 W Lebanon St, Mt Airy, NC 27030
Consider the Southern sandwich.
Dairy Center is a North Carolina burgers-and-sandwiches joint that would be absolutely heaving with bored-looking foodies if it were located in a major metro area, the sort of folks who of a weekend find themselves seeking Americana, grease, and a rootsy addition to their food blog.
Located as Dairy Center actually is in small-town Mt Airy, it’s instead a circa-the-1950s part of the scenery — the sort of place where local high-school kids get after school jobs and stand behind the counter looking alternately nervous and perky, the walls are plastered in North Carolina errata, the owner/chef is gamely manning the fry-counter, and the decor has not perceptibly changed in at least 20 years (which is as far back as I remember it).
Dairy Center specializes in the ground steak sandwich, which has become one of those culinary specialties that Mt Airy people have flown in for their far-away weddings, or at least reminiscence about sadly past a certain hour in distant locales. This is really all you should be bothering with here, burger be damned.
What’s a ground steak sandwich? It’s a Great Depression-friendly combination of ground beef, flour, and milk, which creates a distinctly creamy and smooth filling — somewhat like a dairy-centric Sloppy Joe, with a much more pleasing texture.
They come dressed with chili, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise, as well as onions, and only a total degenerate would order one plain. It costs $2. Andy Griffith was rumored to have loved them, but it’s worth contemplating that Andy Griffith has been somehow associated with essentially every bush, shrub, and old lady in Mt Airy in one way or another.
The chili is the meaty, smooth-in-texture stuff that pops up often in the Smoky Mountains. It’s chock full of cumin, not particularly hot, and widely applicable in all manner of culinary contexts, including on the more famous porkchop sandwich found at Snappy Lunch on Mt Airy’s main drag.
There’s also North Carolina coleslaw, an exceptionally finely chopped and delicately dressed condiment to rival the world’s finest — not the mayonnaise choked and vile disaster that coleslaw so often becomes. It is superb on sandwiches, especially those involving smoked pork, and I am not sure how Yankees, the wretched creatures, stomach the alternative.
The fries on offer here are best described as the Wavy Kind: I find them a bit undercooked, but my uncle is very fond of them. They are what they are.
Dairy Center also makes small, eye-bleedingly-red hot dogs with the same chili on them, wrapped in paper and squished beyond recognition. They can be consumed in about 4 bites if you’re ambitious, and would probably be sublime if one is hung over.
Indeed, that nearly-translucent Paper You Wrap Fast Food, unprinted with slogans or cartoon art, is becoming something of a rarity in today’s America, unless it is used ironically.
There’s also ice cream: I remember eating the strawberry ice cream in the parking lot here over a couple of summers, out of a white Styrofoam cup. In the warmer months, the parking lot and picnic tables outside are a nice place to be, if you can stomach the humidity of a Mt Airy summer.
Here, you can be certain you are not eating anything flavored with irony. You are simply eating a good Southern sandwich in small-town North Carolina. This is more than enough.