Basking in Basque Cuisine in Northern Nevada

Customers sit at communal tables for the Basque-style meal at The Martin Hotel in Winnemucca, Nevada

Customers sit at communal tables for the Basque-style meal at The Martin Hotel in Winnemucca, Nevada

A quick glance at the The Martin Hotel‘s dinner menu is a bit sobering for the frugal road tripper. Thirty-two bucks for lamb shank, $28 for a full rack of ribs. But those plate-filling main courses are well into the future should you decide to sit down at a long, shared table in this Basque-style restaurant in Winnemucca, Nevada (Note: There’s a strong Basque presence in northern Nevada, thanks to long-ago gold mining and sheep herding immigrants).

For starters, there’s soup and salad, along with a basket of bread. Then arrive little dishes of green beans, mashed potatoes and chorizo. Did I mention, the server plunks down a carafe or two of included red wine for the table? All this is mere preamble to the table-shuddering mains, along with an overflowing plate of fries. Oh, there’s bread pudding or maybe ice cream for dessert. Hope you crawled through the mountain desert for three days to prepare for this extravaganza.

There seems no getting around this all-in, very popular, menu. But I manage to sweet talk my way into ordering just a side dish of that Basque specialty, tongue ($7), plus a few furtive sips of wine.

A Basque specialty, a heaping bowl of tongue

A Basque specialty, a heaping bowl of tongue

And I must say, it kinda tastes like…. beef stew. Lots of tender, thin slices of tongue in a rich sauce; must be more than one critter’s mouth parts sacrificed for the cause.

As I leave, a bartender shouts out: “How was the tongue?” “Cat got it.”

As for the rest of the full-fledged customers, suffice to say no one staggers away hungry. Not sure they all stagger away.

The Martin Hotel
94 West Railroad Street, Winnemucca, Nevada
Lunch weekdays 11:30 am-2 pm, dinner daily 4 pm-9 pm
Martin Hotel on Urbanspoon

Speeding to Salt-Stained Wendover, Utah

The salt-stained landscape provides some visual relief on the I-80 west of Salt Lake City

The salt-stained landscape provides some visual relief on the I-80 west of Salt Lake City

Call me crazy. But when I stare at a road map and see a prominent highway I’ve never driven, I’m almost powerless to resist. Even if said highway is an interstate that ploughs remorselessly through low mountain desert, with pockets of humanity only every few hours to relieve the tedium. Even if I’m almost certain to never venture this way again.

Welcome to the I-80 through northern Nevada, a 520-mile slog bookended by the bright lights of Salt Lake City, on the east, and Reno on the west. Added points for masochism if you attempt this in winter, when transport trucks might well be kicking slush in your face.

The first part of the trip provides some visual interest, as the interstate ventures right past the southern shores of Great Salt Lake. The landscape beyond is stained a surreal white from all that salt. Soon enough, you pass the Bonneville Salt Flats (home to myriad land speed records) and the first sign of civilization—the town of Wendover, straddling the Utah-Nevada border.

Bonus points for anyone who can explain this "sculpture" along the I-80 west of Salt Lake City

Bonus points for anyone who can explain this “sculpture” along the I-80 west of Salt Lake City

The Salt Flat’s Cafe is at the entrance to Salt Flat’s Speedway. So maybe it’s no surprise the Mexican food here comes out lickety split.

A sizeable basket of crispy tortilla chips—with a watery but sneaky hot salsa—arrives by the time my pants hit the counter seat, along with a honking big red plastic cup of ice water. I don’t come equipped with a stopwatch, but I’m sure my chile verde burrito hits the counter, piping hot, in under four minutes. Meanwhile, a steady parade of overloaded plates of enchiladas, tacos and tortas goes streaming past to various, colourful tables, flanked by wall photos of torpedo-shaped vehicles designed to go very fast.

The Salt Flat's Cafe celebrates all the land-speed racing near Wendover, Utah

The Salt Flat’s Cafe celebrates all the land-speed racing near Wendover, Utah

It’s by no means haute Mexican cuisine. But out here in the middle of salt-stained nowhere, it’s filling, affordable and, as I said, quick.

Salt Flats Café
1 North Bonneville Speedway, Wendover, Utah
Daily 9 am-9 pm. Cash only
Salt Flats Cafe on Urbanspoon

99-C Ice Cream doesn’t look so much sketchy as shut down, even though there’s a flurry of activity at the attached, equally faded auto shop in Wendover. But push through the well-worn aluminum doors, and inside is a mini diner serving Dreyer’s ice cream and tacos at $1.25 a pop.

99C Ice Cream is connected to an old auto repair shop in Wenover, Utah

99C Ice Cream is connected to an old auto repair shop in Wenover, Utah

After a minute or two on the grill, my little tenderloin taco comes cradled in two soft corn tortillas and doused in liquid heat. You can get tacos for the same dirt-cheap price at the much flashier Nugget Casino, up the street and across the Nevada border. But seriously, would it be half as authentic?

But the tacos are sure tasty at $1.50 a pop

But the tacos are sure tasty at $1.50 a pop

99c Ice Cream
601 East Wendover Boulevard, Wendover, Utah
99¢ Ice Cream on Urbanspoon

Pork Chop John’s is a Butte, Montana Original

They sell burgers and such, but at Pork Chop John's you want to head straight for the signature pork chop sandwiches

They sell burgers and such, but at Pork Chop John’s you’ll want to head straight for the signature pork chop sandwiches

Butte, Montana may be best known for its copper mining legacy, but it can also boast not one but two regional food specialties. One is the English mining import, the Cornish pasty. The second, which it can perhaps claim as its own, is the pork chop sandwich, a deep-fried, burger-like creation immortalized by a couple of local institutions and with a 90-year history.

In the interests of research, I venture into Pork Chop John’s to sample this invention. It’s a fast-food place, where I approach the counter and order my pork puck, topped with onion, pickle and a thick coat of regular mustard.

The heart of the beast is the boneless pork-sirloin chop, lightly breaded and battered. It’s then flash fried to provide a surface crunch to the softer but still chewy centre. Call it a poor man’s schnitzel. The pedestrian bun’s only duty is to not fall apart.

Hope you like mustard on your pork chop sandwich

Hope you like mustard on your pork chop sandwich

You can throw a cooked egg aboard for another 50 cents, but why sabotage the pure porcine experience? Overall, it’s quick, reasonably affordable at $4 and small enough to keep the cholesterol levels in check.

Maybe that’s sufficient reason to knock the porch chop sandwich off your culinary bucket list. And if you get hooked, you can always have a box of 50 frozen pork chops shipped to your door.

Pork Chop John’s
2400 Harrison Avenue, Butte, Montana (one other Butte location)
Monday to Saturday 10:30 am-10:30 pm. Closed Sunday
John's Pork Chop Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

KoMex is Fusion Gone Wild in Las Vegas

At KoMex Express, the fries adopt the flags of several nationalities

At KoMex Express, the fries adopt the flags of several nationalities

As the name suggests, KoMex Fusion is all about mixing ethnic cuisines. Obviously, there’s a Korean component—witness kimchi and bulgogi—and Mexican standards like enchiladas and burritos, along with some cross-breeding of the two at this little strip-mall diner in Las Vegas. Chimichanga with marinated cabbage anyone?

But at KoMex, the boundaries have been further expanded to embrace Chinese (wonton soup) and American cuisine. All this comes together in my Bulgogi fries—with melted mozza, meat, pico de gallo, jalapenos and Korean hot sauce all soaking into a mound of fries. It’s a surprisingly good, filling amalgamation. The substantial order is only $6 and, along with complementary chips, salsa and guacamole, is a substantial lunch.

The owners are in the throes of expanding their boundaries beyond Vegas. Here’s hoping they don’t lose that grunge attitude of experimentation at their flagship shop.

KoMex Fusion
633 North Decatur Boulevard (one other Las Vegas location)
Monday to Saturday 11 am-8 pm. Closed Sunday
KoMex Fusion on Urbanspoon

Bachi Burger in Vegas Puts Asian Twist on American Classic

 

Bachi Burger's glorious wagyu patty, loaded with onion rings and an egg

Bachi Burger’s glorious wagyu patty, loaded with onion rings and an egg

When I see oxtail chili fries on the menu, I know I’m in for a decidedly different dining experience. And Bachi Burger certainly delivers, bringing an Asian twist to American classics like burgers, fries (there’s also a truffle version) and sliders—here converted to a steamed bun containing, say, Peking-style duck. The list of cocktails and beers also includes drinks like black milk tea and cherry yuzu soda.

My miyagi-sans burger features a wagyu patty that is rich, moist and just past the advertised medium pink. The crispy onion rings and thick pieces of caramelized bacon provide some crunch to offset the fried egg and splash of chili mayo.

The poor Taiwanese-style sweet bun takes a bit of a mauling, and I eventually resort to knife and fork to savour small bites. This is one great, complex burger, and I’m glad there’s no cheese, lettuce or other paraphernalia to distract me.

Bachi Burger
470 East Windmill Lane (two other Las Vegas locations)
Sunday-Monday 11 am-11 pm, Tuesday to Thursday 11 am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 11 am-1 am
Bachi Burger on Urbanspoon

Keeping Customers Happy in Ashton, Idaho, the World’s Seed-Potato Capital

Talk about cute: Coffeecake served inside a mug at Chocolate Moose Royale in Ashton, Idaho

Talk about cute: Coffeecake served inside a mug at Chocolate Moose Royale in Ashton, Idaho

As she hands me my Americano, the barista in Chocolate Moose Royale looks at me expectantly and says, “Let me know if you like it.” Why? “I’ve been told to ask that.” What a concept: Customer satisfaction.

Owner Beth is also willing to help customers concerned about their waistlines. Don’t want a full slice of Ann Oldham’s homemade pie? No problem. You can just order a sliver for $1.65. The inventive baked goods include a red velvet cake and a coffee cake served inside a mug. Enjoy it all in this cozy café inside a restored, century-old hotel in Ashton, Idaho (“World seed-potato capital”), an agricultural town on Highway 20 between Idaho Falls and West Yellowstone.

Chocolate Moose Royale
406 Main Street, Ashton, Idaho
Weekdays 9:30 am-5:30 pm, Saturday 10 am-4 pm. Closed Sunday

If you pine for the days of bobby socks and school fight songs, fret not. Just head straight over to Ashton’s Frostop, a drive-in that’s been providing car-window service for burgers, shakes and root beer floats since it opened in the mid-1960s.

Frostop Drive-In has been providing car-window service since the 1960s.

Frostop Drive-In has been providing car-window service since the 1960s.

Frostop Drive-In
26 North Highway 20, Ashton, Idaho
Daily 10 am-10 pm
Frostop Drive In on Urbanspoon