You need to be from a place for quite awhile before you gesture out the window and say something like, “Well, the western winds are up.”
Truckee, California has a mythic quality. Everybody knows who is new. Various locals are said to have “been here forever.”
I sat down with Brian Smart, owner of the Wagon Train Coffee Shop in downtown Truckee. Brian is one of the “here forever” locals. We had some coffee and brunch, going over why people love coming to the Donner Pass through the generations.
Wagon Train is the quintessential stop if you’re going up to Truckee. While Truckee looks like a little stop along the highway, stopping by is incredibly rewarding. It’s a nice break for travelers wishing to wind down with a place a little more low key.
“We fill up every single summer, and sometime it’s people coming back from Denmark or Germany who visited Lake Tahoe on a vacation ten years ago. They’re like, Are you guys still here?!” The restaurant has been Brian’s for 39 years. “That’s 39 years of customers. That is a long, long time.”
One thing you notice around the restaurants is that the walls are filled with license plates. Brian told me the first was from Hawaii, some bric-a-brac his son found in a parking lot down the street. The two hung it up, and over the years they’ve procured a license plate from every state and a few international license plates as well.
“Once, you’ll love this,” he was shaking his hand in front himself and holding in laughter. “Do you see that license plate up there? The h18 plate. It’s from Tibet. Once, a few mountaineers were visiting here who used to climb out there. They came in and couldn’t stop laughing. Well, we had hung it up upside-down on accident.”
Brian has big bright eyes behind small circular glasses. “Do you want to see the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? Continue down this road, and don’t get on the freeway.”
Before the winter olympics in Squaw Valley in 1960, there was no free way. To get to Truckee, you needed to travel on a vertiginous two-lane cliff, paved with dirt. Your car drives right along gorgeous walls of granite.
“Wait, have you been to the Donner Party Museum? You know the Donner Party. Group that traveled here and ate each other?” Brian is referring to the group of American pioneers that pushed into California and due to some poor planning carried out a notoriously dark and sad piece of American history where cannibalism was noted.
“Yeah, well they’ve just dumped $4 million dollars into the museum and it is absolutely incredible. There is so, so much history here. It’s two bucks to get in and anybody that comes to Truckee is nuts if they don’t go there and learn something.”
Everyone on the waiting staff is swift, energetic. “Even on the busiest days, people don’t need to wait for breakfast. No. Our cooks are trained and generous. We say a four egg omelette, but if we actually did 4 eggs, it would look tiny.”
One waitress judged that in June she’ll serve a couple hundred people in a single shift. And the wait staff, they’ve heard almost every joke ever told, but if you have a new one they share it with everyone in the restaurant. That’s the kind of place you’re visiting. I stopped in to get a coffee to go, but a waitress saw me looking around at everything hanging on the wall. “Come on in, sit where you like. It’s windy out there.”
The menu at Wagon Train inspires mouth watering. Their chicken fried steak is made with real fresh elk from the area. Another big seller is their biscuits with a home made sweet sauce. The sauce is made by Brian’s grandmother, Nola. A waitress came over with a spoonful for me. It’s some sort of brown sugar mixture that others try to replicate. “We keep trying to get her drunk. But she just keeps saying the same thing over and over: “It is good, very good. You’d want it in your coffee.”
Good food is something everybody can get behind. It’s a funky little diner with a ton of character. You’ll get a local experience like no where else in Tahoe. OneRooftop recommends it as a place to stop before skiing all day. Even in the evening though it’s worth stopping by because the coffee shop doubles as one of Truckee’s longest standing bars.