Category Archives: American restaurants

A Fast-Food Burger Chain I Can Support

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In-N-Out Burger is lifted right out of the 1950s

Fast-food chains are the antithesis of what I promote in this road-food blog, which is good, independently owned, affordable restaurants.

But a western U.S. hamburger chain, In-N-Out Burger has long attracted a cult-like following among hip food lovers. And when I saw Anthony Bourdain extolling the virtues of In-N-Out’s thin, crispy patties, I figured I had to check it out.

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In-N-Out is a family run, Southwest US, chain based out of California

After a couple of years of procrastinating, I finally find myself pulling into an outlet in Kingman, Arizona during a long drive between Tucson and Las Vegas. And I must say, I’m suitably impressed.

Now, don’t expect a gourmet burger made from freshly ground sirloin, cooked medium rare and topped with blue cheese and charred hot peppers. But this California-based, family run southwest U.S. chain is definitely a good step above the usual fast-food suspects.

The first thing I notice when entering the spotless premises is the 10 or more cheerful staff behind the counter, each wearing a white shirt, paper hat and red aprons secured at the back with a giant safety pin.

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My companion says the place reminds her of the 1950s. Which makes sense, considering In-N-Out was founded in 1948 and has kept many of its practices and ingredients unchanged over the years.

The second thing I notice is the concise menu: three types of hamburgers along with fries, shakes and a few other drinks. That’s it!

I order the double cheeseburger, for a whopping $3.60. When the most-pleasant attendant asks if I’d like onions, I jokingly ask if they’re caramelized. “No, but would you like them grilled?” he responds.

To me, this indicates the burgers are cooked to order—a suspicion confirmed by the several minutes it takes for the food to be ready. Everything is nicely presented, with the burgers half exposed above the paper wrapper.

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The burger wrapper tells the story

The burgers are straight forward—adorned with lettuce, tomato and sauce—but well executed with toasted buns and flavourful, nicely crisped thin patties. The thin fries could be hotter but are otherwise tasty, as is a vanilla shake you could stand a spoon in.

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Nice, crisp, inexpensive burgers

My overall impression is “fresh”, both for the food and the fresh-faced staff. Simple, but simply well done.

In-N-Out Burger
1770 Beverly Avenue, Kingman, Arizona
Daily 10:30 am-1 am, except 1:30 am closings Friday and Saturday

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Spring Road Trip to Tucson, Arizona

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Sonoran Desert landscape in Tucson, Arizona

With winter persisting well into April in Calgary, it was definitely time for a spring road trip to the U.S. southwest and its warming sun. The destination this time was all the way south to Tucson, Arizona—a trip involving plentiful hiking, eating and drinking.

But as they say, the journey is often as important as the destination. So before I delve more deeply into Tucson eats and drinks over the coming weeks, here’s a pictorial sampling of road life on the three-day route down and on the way back.

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Road trip breakfast of chilaquiles at MartAnne’s Burrito Palace in Flagstaff, Arizona

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Early April snowstorm in Flagstaff (elevation 7,000 feet), 2 hours north of Phoenix

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Hanging out with the cool coffee crowd at Lux Central in Phoenix

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Two jumpers in the Wave Cave near Apache Junction, east of Phoenix

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Peeking into the kitchen at Porter’s Cafe in Superior, Arizona

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Open-pit mine south of Superior, Arizona

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Outside Oracle Patio Cafe in Oracle, Arizona

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Chalet Village Motel in Oracle, Arizona

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Aquarium fish at the Desert Museum in Tucson

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Sculpture in Metal Arts Village, Tucson

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Homeward bound: Lunch line at colourful Lone Star Taqueria in Salt Lake City

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Tacos Antojitos Naucalpan in tiny Hamer, Idaho: There’s no place like it

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Run by the incomparable Carmen

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Tesla super charging station in whistlestop Lima, Montana on the I-15

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Hills outside one of my favourite U.S. towns, Dillon, Montana

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Hitchin Post, Melrose, Montana

The Perfect Last-Minute Christmas Gift: Don’t Leave Home

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How would you like to do your last-minute Christmas shopping? At a crowded mall like this?

You’re not really thinking of hitting the mall for some last-minute Christmas shopping, are you?

Just think of the misery that awaits. The bundling up. The freeway gridlock. The musical chairs of finding a parking spot. The jostling with fellow customers, who grab the last copy of that lauded toy or book. The sweating under a heavy parka in an overheated store. The lineups at the till. The person in front of you trying to return a sweater, without a receipt. Need I go on?

Now consider the alternative. Sitting quietly at your desk, sipping a Pinot Noir or an amber ale while scrolling through your online options. Click. Click. Done. Delivered, perhaps for free, to your loved one’s door without you ever leaving the house.

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Or sitting at a desk, like this?

But wait, you say. With only a few days before the big day, isn’t it too late to get said online gifts delivered on time?

Well, I’ve got the perfect solution. It’s called e-books. I know, the publishing industry is properly chuffed about the revival of the printed book. And there’s no substitute for something that can be wrapped, placed under the tree, opened, held in the hands and lovingly flipped through.

But remember, this is about fulfilling your gift-giving duty—checking someone’s name off the list, if you will—without braving the last-minute horrors of the mall. Here, it doesn’t get better than an e-book.

Search. Select. Click on “give as a gift” to the recipient’s email address. Enter a delivery date. Pay. Done.

The beauty of this is you can even do your shopping at 9:00 Christmas morning, while hubby is poaching the breakfast eggs, none the wiser. And with a download, there’s no risk of an online retailer being out of stock.

But wait, you again say. There are millions of e-book titles to choose from and you don’t have time, at the last moment, to find the right gift.

Well, I just happen to have the perfect suggestion. Totally self serving, mind you, as it happens to be my own e-book, Marathon Mouth. If I do say so, it’s a lively, highly subjective guide to the best, affordable, independent places to eat and drink while on a road trip in western North America. It features nearly 900 cafes, diners, coffee shops, bakeries, brewpubs in 11 U.S. states (west of Texas) and two Canadian provinces and one territory.

Marathon Mouth ebook

The perfect road-trip gift, without getting in your car

I mean who doesn’t like to travel? Or eat? And if you happen to be on the road during Christmas, you can even find the best places to order a turkey sandwich. Dig in.

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If you happen to be on the road over Christmas, you can still get your turkey fix

Here’s where you can download Marathon Mouth, for a bargain-basement $10 or less: Amazon.com, (Amazon.ca in Canada), Kobo, Apple iBooks and Chapters/Indigo.

Eggslut Kickstarts My Los Angeles Morning

At Los Angeles's Eggslut, the "Slut" is a coddled egg served in a glass jar

At Los Angeles’s Eggslut, the “Slut” is a coddled egg served in a glass jar

The big bell clangs at 8 am, just as it has for the past century, and a small gang of regulars trots to the far end of Grand Central Market, in downtown Los Angeles. They’re racing to be first in line for their Sunday-morning fix at Eggslut, a name that might not go over well in San Francisco but that has done nothing to deter a devoted following in its short time in L.A.

The morning line at Eggslut moves quickly, thanks to an efficient staff

The morning line at Eggslut moves quickly, thanks to an efficient staff

Eggslut specializes in deluxe breakfast sandwiches such as my Fairfax ($7), a lovely blend of scrambled eggs, caramelized onion, melted cheese and sriracha mayo, inside a warm brioche bun. The leader of the trotting troupe insists I should add some crispy bacon for a couple of bucks more. A simple brekkie sandwich but nicely pulled off by an efficient crew that keeps the growing line moving.

The Fairfax is a lovely medley inside a brioche bun

The Fairfax is a lovely medley inside a brioche bun

A couple of seatmates order a Slut, racily described as “a coddled egg on top of a smooth potato purée, poached in a glass jar, topped with gray salt and chives and served with slices of baguette.” Take that, SF.

Eggslut
317 South Broadway (Grand Central Market), Los Angeles
Daily 8 am-4 pm

Favourite Road-Trip Dining Spots: The CBC Listeners Weigh In

Listeners to CBC Radio's Alberta noon program weighed in on their favourite road-trip food picks

Listeners to CBC Radio’s Alberta noon program weighed in on their favourite road-trip food picks

I was on CBC Radio’s Alberta at Noon show the other day, talking about my new Marathon Mouth ebook on great road-trip eats in the western U.S./Canada.

But the real stars were the province-wide listeners who called in or tweeted to champion their favourite food stops near or far from their homes. And despite my extensive research trips, many of their picks were places I’d never heard of. So this post is dedicated to their suggestions (I hope my spelling guesses of their names is reasonably accurate).

Bernie won a free download of the book for suggesting The Last Straw in Libby, Montana. How often do you find hand-pressed, fresh burgers made from your choice of Angus or longhorn beef or bison? Or, at breakfast, corn beef hash for under $7? It’s apparently great stuff, especially for a small town off the beaten path on Highway 2, between Bonners Ferry and Kalispell.

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Taking an Affordable U.S. Road Trip With the Battered Canadian Loonie

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

Am I loony to be considering a U.S. road trip?

It’s a great time to be an American, especially if you’re travelling to Canada. The soaring greenback is a big reason why Whistler, B.C. is enjoying a stellar ski season and Canmore’s vacation condo market is hopping in an otherwise bleak Alberta economy.

By contrast, it’s a terrible time to be a Canadian considering a U.S. vacation. The realization that it’s going to cost you $1.45 Canadian to buy one measly American dollar is enough to make most northerners curl up in the fetal position till the snow starts melting in, say, May.

But it’s still possible to have a reasonably affordable trip stateside, particularly if you make it a road trip rather than a flight to a destination resort. Mind you, the approach I suggest leans much more to the dirtbag than the five star. You have been warned.

Fill er up

The biggest advantage for a U.S. road-tripping adventure is the cost of gasoline. It’s traditionally been a bargain, given the much lower gas taxes south of the border. But even with the badly wounded loonie, you might still save some money.

It depends on where you live and where you’re traveling. In Alberta, for example, you can fill up right now for under 80 cents (Cndn) a litre, compared with more than $1 in B.C. Western U.S. prices range from about $1.76 (US) a gallon in Denver to $2.60 in Los Angeles. Obviously, there’s a price to pay for living on or visiting the west coast of either country. I call it a smug tax.

Figuring out your fill-up cost involves converting litres to American gallons and then converting Canadian dollars to those $1.45 American ones. For a fill-up of 50 litres (13.2 U.S. gallons), it will cost an Albertan $40 and a British Columbian more than $50, at home in Cndn. dollars. That same amount of gas will cost you $33.68 in Denver and $49.76 in L.A., in converted Cndn dollars.

You can't fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won't cost any more than in Canada

You can’t fill your own tank in Oregon but filling up likely won’t cost any more than in Canada

The bottom line is the cost of gasoline isn’t going to be a deal breaker for deciding whether to hit the U.S. road or plan a staycation. And if you’re in Oregon, where you’re not allowed by law to fill your own gas tank, the attendant will usually clean your windows.

Skip the hotels and motels

I once did a month-long road trip where my total cost of accommodation was $50. How did I pull off this magic trick? Other than two nights of camping and a couple parked on urban side streets, I mostly stayed in 24-hour Walmart parking lots for free.

I’d much rather sleep in the great outdoors, preferably in a magnificent state or national park campground along the crashing ocean or beneath a lofty canopy. While it’s going to cost you about $30 US a night to camp in the redwood forests of northern California, you can find more spartan digs for maybe $10 elsewhere. Do a bit of sleuthing and you can discover national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spots for free. Running water and toilets, however, may be optional.

Still, it’s a much more pastoral experience than parking in the distant corner of an asphalt Walmart parking lot, with blinding street lights and roaring vehicles and motorized street sweepers at all hours of the night. A camper of some sort, with curtains, is the best way to keep the glare and din at bay. In a pinch, though, good ear plugs and an eye shade will suffice if you’re curled up in the back of your car.

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

Welcome to the Walmart Motel. Cost $0

While you’re tossing and turning, just think of the $50 to $100 a night you’re saving by not booking a motel bed, TV and rattling air-conditioning unit. And who needs a shower? If you’re desperate, you can always make do with the sink in a Walmart washroom, open around the clock.

Affordable dining

Until fairly recently, I figured eating out at American restaurants was 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than in Canada, even with the exchange rate (portions are generally bigger, too). But when you’re paying upwards of 40 per cent to exchange loonies into greenbacks, that advantage has more than disappeared.

Of course, the cheapest feeding solution is to buy groceries and cook them wherever you’re staying. But since this is a road-trip dining blog, let’s look at a few ways you can still eat out somewhat affordably.

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

A succulent burger and fries at Mountain Sun in Boulder, Colorado will set you back about $13 (US)

  1. Beer and burger – At Moab Brewery, on the doorstep of Arches National Park in Utah, a burger and fries is $9 (US) and a 16-ounce pint of their ale $4.25. By comparison, a burger and fries in the Alberta resort towns of Canmore and Banff will set you back about $16 (Cndn), washed down with a $7.50, 19-ounce pint. So even with the steep conversion rate, the equivalent total cost in Canadian dollars is $19.20 Moab and $23.50 Banff. Obviously, prices will vary in different places, but clearly not a deal breaker.
  2. Better breakfasts – Breakfast is generally the best value, both in cost (often under $10 in the U.S.) and volume; you might not need to eat lunch. Omelettes don’t seem much cheaper stateside, but you can often find a stack of pancakes for $5 or $6.
  3. Stock up on sandwiches – You can find some monstrous, made-to-order, delicious sandwiches in many U.S. delis and cafes. At the Sandwich Spot in Palm Springs, the humongous Grand Slam—featuring turkey, ham and roast beef—was $8. I gave half to a street person, but it would have fed me for two days. A half sandwich at Grove Market deli, in Salt Lake City, was $7 and still weighed nearly two pounds. It was $8 for a similar behemoth at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey, California.
This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno's Delicatessen in Monterey, California

This delicious half sandwich was only $8 at Campagno’s Delicatessen in Monterey, California

I could go on, but I have to wipe the drool off my face… and grab a road map.