We are grateful to #FoodieScore friend Alan Beam for telling us about this restaurant. It’s rare we get to experience a restaurant alongside a friend who tips us about it. Perhaps we can make that happen someday. In the meantime, my wife Molly and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity for a lunch date here when passing through the Rutherfordton, N.C. area.
One visit to a place like the 57 Alpha Café is not enough.
This little gem is located at the small-town Rutherford County, N.C. Airport, surrounded by picturesque mountain and countryside views. You can fly into the airport and enjoy lunch, or you can drive in and watch the planes take off and land. It was cold on the day of our first visit, so we sat inside. To fully experience the atmosphere, we’d need to return and take our lunch to the ample deck seating to breathe in the air and listen to the sounds of airport life.
Sitting inside was great, however, especially for first-timers like us, because it gave us a chance to talk to café owner Ron McKinney, who’s full of small-town Southern hospitality and well-traveled storytelling. Ron’s roots are in Rutherford County, but he traveled across the country as a young man, originally to see Evil Knievel attempt a Snake River Canyon jump. He and his traveling mates didn’t make it there because of a vehicle breakdown, but as a result of the experience he found his way into the restaurant business and learned how to make some mean Tex-Mex cuisine! Eventually, he returned to Rutherford County to be closer to his family, and he opened the 57 Alpha Café. How’d he decide to open a little restaurant at the local airport? “Come back, and I’ll tell you that story,” he told us. One visit’s not enough to hear all of Ron McKinney’s fascinating story.
And one visit is not enough to sample everything on the menu. We did our best, though, as I enjoyed a delicious homemade cheeseburger and Molly savored a beef Burrito Bueno, hers with chips and salsa and mine with potato chips and a pickle. We both sipped Ron’s special Limon-ade. And we shared a banana pudding for dessert. The banana was cut fresh on top, just the way Molly likes it best, and there were plenty of cookies in the pudding, the way we both like it. But we’d have to go back to sample what Ron says is probably his signature dish, the Chile Verde.
The space is modest, and the prices are low at the 57 Alpha. (Although, the common saying is that the café serves a $100 burger by reasoning that those who fly in might spend $90 on fuel for their aircraft and $10 for their burger. It’s been a popular spot over the years for solo fliers and couples to travel to and stop for lunch. A kind man from Georgia enjoyed a meal at the same time we were dining.) But Ron is serving much more than a simple lunch. He’s offering a slice of authentic American culture in his corner of the country, while drawing on his journeys to far-away places. He and his café are just what #FoodieScore is all about—exploring the world through the vehicle of food and people who enjoy it as much as we do.
For places like that, one visit just isn’t enough.
#FoodieScore Tips: Take cash with you and enough for a tip. Ron works the café all by himself. He’s the greeter, server, cook, cashier and story-telling host. Because he cooks everything fresh, he only keeps so much of his ingredients on hand, so arrive as close to his 11 AM opening time as you can to ensure he hasn’t run out of what you’d like to order for lunch. He typically closes by 2 PM each day, and he’s closed on Mondays.
57 Alpha Café, 618 Airport Road, Rutherfordton, N.C.