For those shaking off the last vestiges of winter, it’s not too late for a spring road trip to a climbing hotspot in the U.S. southwest. Both on the long drive down and as an occasional break from campsite cooking, it’s nice to grab something to eat or drink at independent, affordable, character places that won’t look askance at your chalky trousers. Here are some great such places, especially for those heading down the I-15 to Idaho, Utah and places beyond.
En Route on the I-15
Nine hours into a bleary-eyed drive south, it’s time to pull off the I-15… into Hamer, Idaho? Where the population has quadrupled over the past decade to 50? Trust me, just look for a little van with an awning on the edge of town. If there’s nobody inside, just wander around back, and you’ll likely see a little old lady in a blue hairnet come hustling up the lane. She doesn’t speak much English, but a look at the short menu board tells you all you need to know: burritos, quesadillas and tortas (Mexican sandwiches), all for ridiculously cheap prices, like $5 for three fresh, loaded and spicy tacos. Whether you eat them at a picnic table or in your car, it’s as authentic as Mexican street food gets, at least in southern Idaho. (I’m not sure of the name or the hours, but it only takes a minute from the Hamer interstate exit, north of Idaho Falls, to see if it’s open).
If a plate of ribs or a pulled-pork sandwich is what you’re after, persevere a little further to Malad City, also in southern Idaho. At the edge of town is Spero’s House of Barbecue, a shack-size structure surrounded by picnic tables and flanked by six barbecues. When I ask what’s in them, a woman lifts two lids to reveal thick slabs of pork ribs, then walks across to show me another filled with chicken. Spero and his wife and sister slow cook the meats till they’re fall-off-the bone-tender. My pulled pork sandwich is six ounces of juicy meat topped with slaw (for less than $6), with the barbecue sauce on the side, as I like it. Just about everything is house made including the garlic bread, BBQ sauce and potato salad.
Spero’s House of Barbecue
168 East 50 South, Malad City
Daily 10 am-8 pm
If you’re like me, you normally try to get past Salt Lake City and its hour-long gauntlet of heavy traffic as quickly as possible. But sometimes it’s worth a surprisingly quick detour, especially if you need a caffeine jolt. The second surprise is that in a state where many people don’t touch coffee, SLC has two of the most passionate “third-wave” java places you’ll find outside the wet coast. Nobrow Coffee Werks has maybe the most advanced individual-cup brewing machine on the planet, while caffe d’bolla has half a dozen glass siphons for the same purpose. They both also make excellent espresso-based drinks and are a good place to buy first-rate beans for your trip. While you’re in the downtown area, stop at Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli for terrific Italian sandwiches.
The joke is so many Canadians flee in spring to Indian Creek, and its world-class crack climbing, that it’s become a suburb of Canmore. Despite the addition of camp picnic tables and toilets, most climbers occasionally need groceries, a shower or just a break for their beat-up hands and forearms. So they head to the tourist mecca of Moab, where there’s plenty of eating choices.
I have two good climbing friends who are most articulate about a wide range of subjects. But when I ask them to rate Quesadilla Mobilla, a parked food truck specializing in, yes, quesadillas, words fail them. The best I’ve gotten so far is “That is f…ing killer, man” and “Best quesadilla I ever had”. This after two or three visits. I’d give you a lengthier description, but when I blow through Moab, QM is closed…. on a Tuesday and a Wednesday; I thought the default closing day in Utah was Sunday! Sure enough, the couple that owns it are climbers and like to sneak away when the crags are quieter mid-week. The climbing theme is evident in a vegetarian quesadilla called The Dirt Bag, though my friends like the slow-cooked beef in the Southern Belle. Despite the lack of first-hand evidence, I suggest you give them a try. It’s #!*% awesome.
83 South Main Street, Moab, Utah
Thursday, Sunday and Monday 11 am-4 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-8 pm. Tuesday and Wednesday closed
These same two friends give a bruised two-thumbs up to a new place, Twisted Sistas Cafe (11 East 100 North) especially for its roasted beet pomegranate salad.
The Love Muffin Cafe (139 North Main Street, opens daily at 7 am) gets a lot of early morning love in Moab. Get there much after eight, and a line of active folks will be stretching toward the door awaiting their organic coffee fix and breakfast items headlined by seven types of burritos. But things move quickly. Within a few minutes of ordering, I’m munching on a warm, satisfying egg and chorizo burrito, an adequate size for a relative Moab bargain of $6. If you’re looking for something more substantial in a funky setting, try Eklecticafe (352 North Main Street), featuring a huge, steaming cup in its front garden and large plates of huevos rancheros and giant cinnamon rolls.
Zion National Park, southwest Utah
After a night or two in a portaledge on one of Zion’s big sandstone walls, you’re no doubt ready to gorge.
“You will not leave Oscar’s hungry. I guarantee it,” the Zion shuttle bus driver says as she drops me off in downtown Springdale, just outside the park gates. “If you do, it means you haven’t finished.” Oscar’s Cafe is thus the perfect breakfast for big days of climbing or hiking. A couple of minutes after ordering, my huevos rancheros special arrives so hot it’s still bubbling. The house-made green chile, salsa and guacamole topping contribute to a first-class dish. Yes, it’s big enough to take five minutes of delving to get to the eggs in the middle. And if your bivy mate is hogging the space, Oscar’s has a list of half-pound garlic burgers, including The Murder Burger. As I leave, I flip over their business card: “Hungry??? Don’t Blame Oscar’s.”
948 Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale, Utah
Daily 7 am-10 pm
City of Rocks
Thousands of rocks climbers flock to this remote southwest corner of Idaho every year to scale granite face routes that rank among the finest in the U.S. It’s not far from the camping sites here to the whistlestop community of Almo, which might be a hair bigger than Hamer.
Canadian friends who come to City of Rocks most years always make the pilgrimage to Outpost Steakhouse (“Where the pavement ends and the West begins”) for its superb Angus rib-eye steaks, ranging from 12 to 16 ounces. I arrive too early for that much protein so instead opt for the $12 steak sandwich—tender slices of Angus beef with melted Swiss in a hoagie bun along with steak fries. I’m still working on my side salad when the hot meal arrives. “I keep telling her (the cook) she’s too quick,” the waitress says. Nearby, there’s a great selection of beer and made-from-scratch thin-crust pizzas at Rock City Mercantile.