Going With My Gut in Nogales, Arizona

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Great, affordable Mexican seafood at Cocina La Ley in Nogales, Arizona

Before I hit a new town or city on a road trip, I usually do considerable online research on the best places to eat. But sometimes it’s best to just wing it.

Such is the case when we approach Nogales, a city of 20,000 on the Arizona-Mexico border south of Tucson. The critters in the car are hungry, and Nogales is only five minutes away.

Just time for a quick “best restaurants in Nogales” search on TripAdvisor. Up pops Cocina La Ley, where one reviewer said he was the only gringo in the place. Perfect.

So off a main street we turn onto a little gravel road past an auto body shop to a little slope-roofed concrete building, with a bunch of cars around it. Double perfect.

Inside, we join the fast-moving lunch line and order mainly shrimp and breaded fish tacos, for about $2 apiece; the place is also noted for its shrimp-laden cocteles (cocktails) and soups. No sooner do we take our seats at a table, than the food arrives on Styrofoam plates. We adorn our little tacos with toppings such as pico de gallo and squirts from bottles, ranging from mild to searing, and dig into our excellent fare.

 

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Delicious seafood tacos

Seeing our plates quickly cleaned, our sharp-eyed server/table cleaner orders us a few more tacos, which again appear out of nowhere. We hardly have time to soak in the busy atmosphere of local families enjoying their meals.

So, thanks to TripAdvisor for leading us to a wonderful, inexpensive lunch. But don’t take every review seriously. “This isn’t a place for ambience,” one visitor commented. Au contraire. The place is dripping with it.

Cocina La Ley
226 West 3 Street, Nogales, Arizona
Daily 8 am-4 pm
520-287-4555

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Best Road Trip Food & Drink of 2018

Sought and Found 4

Best Coffee: Caleb and Kitty Leung make exacting coffee in their gorgeous Sought and Found Coffee Roasters in Calgary, Alberta

Vancouver Island 4

Best coffee mugs: Katy Fogg’s sublime, hand-thrown mugs, at Tin Town Cafe in Courtenay, B.C.

East Calgary 13

Best brunch: Deane House, Calgary

La Baguette muffin

Best muffin: La Baguette, Revelstoke, B.C.

Edmonton coffee 21

Best doughnut: Made-to-order Portuguese-style doughnut at Edmonton’s Ohana Donuterie

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Best Bakery: Don Guerra’s Barrio Bread in Tucson, Arizona

Vancouver Island 17

Best bakery treat: Focaccia bread at Fol Epi in Victoria, B.C.

BreadMeat 3

Best sandwich: Meat balls on ciabatta at Meat & Bread in Calgary

Southeast Arizona 11

Biggest Feed. A tie: Sandwiches for three (three days!) at Salt Lake City’s Grove Market

B.C. West Coast July 2018 17

And the Oinker At Bubba’s Big Bites in Chilliwack, B.C.

Grande Prairie 1

Best Mexican: Owner James Nelson and his made-to-order corn tortillas at El Norteno in Grande Prairie, Alberta of all places

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Best hot dog: Can’t beat the Sonoran hot dogs in parking lot Ruiz in Tucson

Sunshine Coast 49

Best beer: Belgian-style Townsite Brewery in Powell River, B.C.

Vancouver Island 27

Best burger: Chucks Burger Bar, in Sydney, B.C.

Edmonton coffee 6

Best complimentary breakfast: The Le Creuset pots were the clincher at Hyatt Place Hotel in Edmonton

Atco Cafe 6

Best restaurant architecture: ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Cafe in Calgary

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Best farmers’ market: cSPACE in Calgary

Market Bistro Canmore 5

Best service: Brande at Market Bistro in Canmore, Alberta

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Best gas station experience: Maverick in Fillmore, Utah

Monkman iPhotos 17

Best foraged food: Wild huckleberries on Monkman Pass Trail near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

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Best dining experience: As always, incomparable Carmen making fresh tacos in Hamer, Idaho

ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Now Has a Gorgeous Cafe

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Calgary’s ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen has a gorgeous setting

For more than 80 years, the heralded ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen has provided culinary advice, mostly over the phone, to generations of Alberta cooks. “How do I cook a turkey?” “Do you have a good recipe for beef stew?” “How do I salvage a burned pot roast?”

Now, it’s putting its money where its mouth is by opening a gorgeous café in south Calgary. There aren’t many restaurants anywhere that can match the architectural splendour of the ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Café.

The curving, 100-metre-long space has a vaulted wood ceiling, with tables scattered throughout and light streaming in the side windows. It’s a place you want to just sit and savour a cappuccino for an hour. Plenty of neighbourhood residents seem to be doing just that, mixing in with workers in ATCO Commons, the headquarters office of this global infrastructure company.

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It’s counter service and a concise menu

On the first of what will no doubt be many visits, I just order a reasonable Americano and an excellent bowl of mulligatawny soup ($5), packed with chunks of chicken. Other enticing items on the concise, affordable menu include an omelette-style breakfast sandwich ($5.50), a steak BLT on a sourdough baguette ($10) and a curried cauliflower bowl ($9).

Only two minor quibbles. Everything is served on disposable ware, though much of it is recyclable or compostable. I suppose this works well for those taking food up to their ATCO office; there’s also a grab-and-go section of the café.

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A fabulous $5 bowl of mulligatawny soup. Pity it’s not in a real bowl

Parking is also a bit of an issue. There are visitor spaces around the building (all full when I visited late morning), and you’re supposed to register with the building front desk if you’re using them. Otherwise, it’s street parking about a block away.

It might also help to use Google Maps if you’re not familiar with the area. ATCO Commons overlooks the south end of Crowchild Trail a few blocks north of Glenmore Trail.

It took me a few minutes of driving around to find it. But I’m glad I did. It might well become a favourite local haunt.

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The spacious cafe is inside ATCO’s global headquarters in southwest Calgary

ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Cafe
ATCO Commons Building, 5302 Forand Street SW, Calgary, Alberta
Weekdays 7 am-3 pm, Saturday 9 am-2 pm. Closed Sunday

The Cactus Speared Cact-I

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Prickly pears are just one of many cactus species ready to spear you

There’s only one rule—besides carrying enough water—about hiking in the southwest American desert: Don’t fall.

The reason isn’t so much to avoid landing on unyielding rock as it is about impaling yourself on razor-sharp spines of the cacti that infest places like the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona.

Actually, forget about falling. You don’t even want to brush against or accidentally grab any of these thorny bastards, which are all too happy to abandon their desert homeland to hitchhike on your clothing or, all too often, your flesh.

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You don’t have to step off the trail to get attacked

Let me count the many species of cactus set to make your life miserable. There’s the majestic saguaro, whose multiple arms are not recommended for hugging. There’s the aptly named jumping cholla, whose stems easily break off and attach to the poor sucker who merely grazes them. There’s the ironically named teddy bear cholla, which is not so cuddly. There’s the barrel cactus, the hedgehog cactus, the fishhook cactus, the half dozen species of prickly pear.

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Not so cuddly teddy bear cactus

Have I forgotten any? The spindly ocotillo, with its gorgeous red flower tips, is technically not a cactus, but try telling that to anyone who accidentally embraces its many spines.

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Don’t reach too close to that ocotillo

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Hey, is that saguaro giving me the finger?

I was properly wary about colliding with any of the cacti that line the fine desert hiking trails around Tucson, and had successfully avoided any contact through most of two hiking-intensive visits to the southern Arizona city. But all it takes is a moment’s inattention to learn a severe lesson.

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Don’t get distracted by fruit or flower

I didn’t actually fall into a cactus. I was just descending a little rock step, focused on my footing, when I brushed against a prickly pear. There was no sharp pain, just a twinge not unlike a mild sliver. The problem was getting the barbs out, which you want to do  immediately, before they really start bothering you.

The thing about prickly pears is not the obvious long spines. It’s the tiny, fuzzy orange things called glochids that are the problem. As in the dozens of these little spears that launched themselves through my shirt, sticking me like a pincushion.

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It’s not the obvious long spines of the prickly pear you have to worry about

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It’s the little, fuzzy orange glochids that do the most damage

Luckily, I had a companion with sharp eyes and a nifty pair of of Uncle Bill’s tweezers. She spent a good five minutes plucking all the tiny spines out. And then, a short distance down the trail, another few minutes getting the ones she’d missed, the ones irritatingly still stuck to shirt and skin. We were still finding stray soldiers an hour later.

It wasn’t my only close encounter with glochids on our November trip. One day, I, found a few stuck mysteriously in the top of my head, despite wearing a hat and not falling on my noggin. Good thing I’m bald up there.

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The up-close saguaro spines have a lulling, geometric pattern to them

Wish This Tucson Bakery Was In My Barrio

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Don Guerra owns the fabulous Barrio Bread in Tucson, Arizona

I walk into Barrio Bread in central Tucson, Arizona and the tiny place is suffused with the wonderful smell of just-from-the-oven loaves.

“Wow! This looks and smells like a fantastic bakery,” I say to no one in particular.

“No. It’s the greatest bakery in the universe,” a fellow customer corrects me.

Not going to argue with that.

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Customers snapping up the fresh-from-the-oven loaves

It’s actually a little overwhelming, at first, scanning the shelves of artisan bread choices—about a dozen on any given day. On our visit, for example, there’s a Guadalajara-style birote (made with beer malt and lemon), a pan rustico, a khorasan, a rustic nine grain.

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A loaf of Barrio’s signature Heritage bread, complete with saguaro logo

For help, I turn to a guy unwrapping tea towels from risen little loaves waiting to go into the oven. Turns out he’s the owner, Don Guerra, who started the business out of his garage in 2009.

He explains the breads are created with ancient baking techniques and locally grown heritage grains such as organic durum and hard red spring wheat, as well as more exotic einkorn and khorasan wheats. Some are leavened naturally or with a wild yeast culture. The result is exceptional bread with a chewy interior and great crusts.

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Don getting ready to put risen loaves in the oven

We pick up a puffy einkorn loaf for breakfast toast and an apricot-cranberry pain levain for snacking; it disappears before we’ve driven a couple of blocks.

Thank God I don’t live nearby.

Barrio Bread
18 South Eastbourne Avenue, Tucson, Arizona
Tuesday-Friday 9 am-5 pm, Saturday 9 am-2 pm or “until gone”. Closed Sunday and Monday
520-327-1292

Ranch of Dreams

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At the Crossed J Ranch, in southeast Arizona, you’re surrounded by vast swaths of mountainous grasslands

When I do stay in a motel on a road trip, I tend to pick generic chains that offer reasonable value, even if it costs as much as a couple of days of Marathon Mouth eating and drinking.

So it’s pure pleasure, for a bit more money, to stay at the Crossed J Ranch, just outside Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona. It’s a 10,000-acre working family ranch, raising polled Hereford calves on sustainable pasture.

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The drive, past giant sycamores, to our studio (centre right)

Our cozy little ranch house studio is a base for hiking among Chiricahua’s amazing volcanic rock formations and for discovering Mexican blue jays, swarms of wintering sandhill cranes and foraging, raccoon-like coatimundi. But over a couple of days, the ranch itself becomes a major destination, not just to hang out in but to soak up the surrounding landscape of elevated grasslands, scrub brush, desert cacti and reddish summits.

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The ranch is 140 years old, but our rental studio has all the modern comforts

For one thing, there’s all that quiet, surrounding space, several miles removed from any pavement. The night before, we had stayed in a highway-side Motel 6, where our neighbour’s every cough and Spanish TV melodramas echoed through the paper-thin walls.

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Javelina trotting past our door

On the ranch, the loudest noise is a breeze sighing through sycamore leaves. We are treated to javelinas trotting past our door to a watering tank. And we soak up the morning light warming our front-porch coffee and the vast western sky turning orange and pink over a sunset beer.

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How’s this for a front-porch sunset?

At a motel, your principal and likely only interaction with management is during the lengthy sign-in procedure and bestowal of room card keys and Wi-Fi passwords. At the Crossed J, owners Jim and Janna Riggs come by to welcome us and point out native artifacts that Jim’s father unearthed many decades ago. The next morning, their young grandson, Nathan, cycles over with a friend to introduce himself and show off a vintage truck his father used to drive.

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Ranch patriarch Jim Riggs

Our second, and last, morning, we dally over breakfast, last viewings of displayed fossils and farewells to family members heading out to check distant pastures. We don’t want to leave.

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Grandson Nathan (left) and his friend Mark

Crossed J Ranch (VRBO)
Just outside Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona, about 30 minutes southeast of Willcox