Category Archives: Phoenix

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

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My Best Road Trip Meals of 2013: Part 2

Jen Castle and a photographer friend at her Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah

Jen Castle and a photographer friend at her Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah. It’s my “middle of nowhere” food pick for 2013

Best Food Trucks

As if there’s any surprise, both my choices are in the mecca of Portland, Oregon, which boasts some 700 food “carts”, meaning they’re stationary. My overall winner is Wolf & Bear’s, which transforms the often throat-catching falafel into a wrap of silky beauty with hummus, caramelized onion and grilled eggplant. (Guess this one could also make my vegetarian list).

Fantastic felafel at Wolf & Bear's food cart in Portland, Oregon

Fantastic felafel at Wolf & Bear’s food cart in Portland, Oregon

     Honourable Mention: In the “how the hell does this combination work?” category, The Egg Carton takes fried egg, strawberry jam, cheddar, bacon and spicy mustard and sandwiches it between two thick, custardy slices of French toast to create something that could easily make my Best Breakfast list.

French toast/egg sandwich at Egg Carton in Portland. You know you want one

French toast/egg sandwich at Egg Carton in Portland. You know you want one

Best Microbrewery

Again, many contenders, but how can you beat the story of a microbrewery whose products can pretty much only be found, at least locally, in liquor stores because of the higher alcohol content? I’m talking about that drinking hotspot of Utah, of course, where Epic Brewing is overcoming the odds and turning out a great line of rich, complex ales and lagers.

But you'll have to go to a state liquor store to get higher-test beers like the excellent Epic Brewing ales, produced in Salt Lake City

You’ll likely have to visit a Utah state liquor store to buy the excellent, higher-test beers produced by Epic Brewing of Salt Lake City

Best Happy Hours

Happy hour is the route to some great deals at often more upscale places. The big bowl of chunky guacamole and first-rate salty chips goes down nicely with a discount margarita at Phoenix’s elegant Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar, which offers happy hours an unusual seven days a week.

Great happy hour guac and chips at Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar in Phoenix

Great happy hour guac and chips at Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar in Phoenix

If you’re thinking $2.75 is no Mexican street-food bargain for tacos, head to San Diego’s South Beach Bar & Grille, where my happy hour mahi mahi and wahoo fillings are nearly the size of filets.

The fish tacos at South Beach Bar & Grille, in San Diego, are nearly the size of filets

The fish tacos at South Beach Bar & Grille, in San Diego, are nearly the size of filets

Best Mexican

I spent a lot of time in 2013 in the southern U.S., so I ate my fair share of Mexican, authentic or not.

Tacos: Taqueria Pico de Gallo is a no-frills stucco taco shop in Tucson, Arizona that churns out excellent Mexican street food, like my fine fish and lengua (tongue) tacos, for a grand total of $3.75.

... like these fish and lengua (tongue) tacos

Fabulous  fish and lengua (tongue) tacos for a total $3.75 at Tucson’s Taqueria Pico de Gallo

Chilaquiles: I have trouble pronouncing it but no problem devouring the steaming dish of toasted tortilla strips, scrambled eggs, red and green chile sauce and melted cheese at MartAnne’s Cafe, in Flagstaff, Arizona.

The ultimate chilaquiles breakfast at MartAnne's Cafe in Flagstaff, Arizona

The ultimate chilaquiles breakfast at MartAnne’s Cafe in Flagstaff, Arizona

Enchiladas: The chicken-and-cheese filled tortillas at Santa Fe’s The Shed are great, as is the posole topping, but what blows me away is the best red chile sauce I’ve had in a busy week of New Mexican dining.

I went for the stacked enchiladas at The Shed, but it was the red chile that blew me away

I went for the stacked enchiladas at The Shed, in Santa Fe, but it was the red chile that blew me away

Best Middle of Nowhere Dining

The drive on Highway 12 through outstanding sandstone country to Boulder, Utah is half the journey, but dining at world-class Hell’s Backbone Grill certainly completes the experience.

World-class cuisine at Hell's Backbone Grill in the middle-of-sandstone nowhere Boulder, Utah

World-class cuisine at Hell’s Backbone Grill in the middle-of-sandstone nowhere Boulder, Utah

Honourable Mention: Okay, it’s right beside the I-15 in southern Idaho, but you can’t tell me Malad City is in the middle of somewhere. Just take the turnoff and pull up to Spero’s House of Barbecue, where half a dozen barbecues are slow cooking ribs, pulled pork and chicken.

Pull up to a half dozen outdoor grills at Spero's House of Barbecue in Malad City, Idaho

Pull up to a half dozen outdoor grills at Spero’s House of Barbecue in Malad City, Idaho

Miscellaneous

I created this category just so I could squeeze in elegant Seasons of Durango in Durango, Colorado, which serves me a fabulous lunch of fall-off-the-bone-tender Hoisin pork ribs.

Ribs and waffle fries add up to an outstanding, affordable lunch at Seasons of Durango in Durango, Colorado

Ribs and waffle fries add up to an outstanding, affordable lunch at Seasons of Durango in Durango, Colorado

Honourable Mention: The revelation at Crepes of Brittany, in Monterey, California, is the buckwheat galettes, slowly cooked till the crepe is a little crispy and the inner ingredients hot.

Thierry Crocquet  starts cooking his authentic Brittany crepes

Crepes of Brittany co-owner Thierry Crocquet starts cooking my buckwheat galette

Best Food Experiences

The most memorable road-trip experiences combine great food and wonderful interactions with the people that own or run the places.

I can’t tell you the name or the hours, and the little old Mexican lady with a hairnet that runs out from a nearby house to serve me doesn’t speak English. I just pull off the I-15 at Hamer, Idaho, and find the taco stand that serves me three great tacos for just $5.

The smile says it all at this little taco stand in Hamer, Idaho

The smile says it all at this little taco stand in Hamer, Idaho

The Venezuelan fare is excellent at Viva Las Arepas, mercifully off the Las Vegas strip. But what puts things way over the top is owner Felix Arellano cooking me a couple of mesquite-fired arepas, then hauling me next door to his gelato shop and then up the street to his taco truck.

Viva Las Arepas owner Felix Arellano delivers arepas to my table

Viva Las Arepas owner Felix Arellano delivers arepas to my table

They’re not kidding when they say the crab is fresh at Kelly’s Brighton Marina near Rockaway Beach, Oregon. A woman in rubber boots pulls a live one from a water bucket and cleans, cooks and delivers it in a tin to my picnic table, where I excavate the butteriest, freshest crab I’ve ever eaten.

Will this crab suit, I'm asked at colourful Kelly's Brighton Marina near Rockaway Beach, Oregon

Will this crab suffice, I’m asked at colourful Kelly’s Brighton Marina near Rockaway Beach, Oregon

Kelly Brighton, Rockaway Oregon

…Time to dig in

The floors are concrete, the lighting dim, the overall ambience dingy. But the century-old Grand Central Market, in downtown Los Angeles, is dripping with character and a great place to people watch and sample just about any ethnic cuisine you can think of.

You can't create the kind of atmosphere that's built up over a century at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.

You can’t create the kind of atmosphere that’s built up over a century at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.

Best Meal of 2013

626 on Rood in Grand Junction, Colorado hits every detail of what makes a meal memorable. Décor? How about wine glasses turned into chandeliers, water served from repurposed wine bottles or a bathroom decked out with cloth towels and olive oil hand lotion. Complimentary appetizer? How about a fresh French baguette slathered in house-made herb butter? And the blow-me-away highlight—an apple-wood-smoked duck club sandwich, with pepper bacon, Napa cabbage and roasted garlic mayo, all squeezed between two delightful slices of challah bread. All for the ridiculously cheap lunch price of $12. Descriptive words fail me. Just look at the picture. Then get in your car.

This duck club, at 626 on Rood, may be the best sandwich I've ever had

This duck club, at 626 on Rood, may be the best sandwich I’ve ever had. Just look and weep

            Honourable Mention: My best experience combined with outstanding food is at San Diego’s Alforon, where co-owner Samia Salameh’s sits down at my table for a chat. And then the other-worldly, from-scratch Lebanese fare—chicken pita pies to falafel to Turkish coffee, much of it unordered—keeps arriving. This is what makes 25,000 kilometres of driving in 2013 worthwhile.

Wouldn't you drive all the way down the west coast to visit lovely Samia Salameh, co-owner of Alforon in San Diego?

Wouldn’t you drive all the way down the west coast to visit lovely Samia Salameh, co-owner of Alforon in San Diego?

... which is matched by a chicken tawook flatbread that's out of this world

… which is matched by a chicken tawook flatbread that’s out of this world

My Best Road Trip Meals of 2013: Part 1

Even the hard-working cooks have fun at Pete's Breakfast House in Ventura, California

Even the hard-working cooks have fun at Pete’s Breakfast House in Ventura, California

What happens when you hit a couple of hundred independent diners, cafes, coffeehouses, bakeries and breweries in the western U.S./Canada in one year? An ambulance ride to emergency? Fortunately, no. Instead, I got to discover some great places to eat and drink, run by some seriously committed, wonderful people. Here are the best of 2013, in two parts.

Best Breakfasts

My best 2013 breakfast is the day’s locovore omelette at Chow in Bend, Oregon. Perfectly prepared, it features chicken-apple sausage, caramelized onions and local chanterelle mushrooms and cheese. What puts it over the top is the choice of three bottles of house-made sauce of varying intensity, so good I buy two bottles to go.

My best 2013 breakfast is the locovore omelette at lovely Chow in Bend, Oregon

My best 2013 breakfast is the locovore omelette at lovely Chow in Bend, Oregon

Pancakes: The pancake sandwich—bacon atop buttermilk blueberry cakes and, underneath, two over-easy eggs—at Pete’s Breakfast House in Ventura, California. Great vibe ups the ante.

Delicious blueberry pancakes over eggs at Pete's Breakfast House in Ventura, California

Delicious blueberry pancakes over eggs at Pete’s Breakfast House in Ventura, California

Breakfast Sandwich: Sometimes, all you want for breakfast is an egg or two between two slices of a bready product. But at Tweets Cafe in tiny Edison, Washington, the breakfast sandwich is a work of art, with a mini salad on top, a slice of melon bursting with flavour and perfectly cooked eggs and ham atop a home-baked biscuit.

The breakfast sandwich in the hands of an artist at Tweet's Cafe in Edison, Washington

The breakfast sandwich in the hands of an artist at Tweet’s Cafe in Edison, Washington

Off the Radar: How about a breakfast burrito of smoked turkey, avocado, egg whites and a hash patty, chased by an invigorating iced drink of protein powder, espresso, peanut butter, banana and chocolate? It’s all on the healthy menu at D’Lish Drive Thru in Scottsdale, Arizona, along with a free dose of off-the-wall friendliness.

This excellent AZ Burro is one of many creative, healthy breakfast choices at D'Lish Drive-Thru

This excellent AZ Burro is one of many creative, healthy breakfast choices at D’Lish Drive-Thru in Scottsdale, Arizona

Best Coffee

In a year when I visit the coffee meccas of Seattle and Portland, it’s a roaster/coffeehouse in little Lethbridge, Alberta that serves my two best cups of coffee, one by Chemex, the other by Aeropress. Cupper’s Coffee & Tea‘s slightly darker roasts are so good, I’ve been ordering their shipped beans instead of just roasting my own.

Cupper's owner Al Anctil and the sophisticated roaster he helped build

Cupper’s owner Al Anctil and the sophisticated roaster he helped build in Lethbridge, Alberta

     Honourable Mentions: The espresso at Portland hole-in-the-wall Spella Caffee holds my tongue in a lingering, smoky embrace. My best coffee experiences are in Seattle’s also tiny Moore Coffee Shop—where I sink into a leather chair and savour a fine Americano served with a square of complimentary chocolate—and the funky vibe of Lux Central in Phoenix. I also have to include Nobrow Coffee Werks, in the coffee mecca of Salt Lake City (just joking) for the most sophisticated brewing machine, the Steampunk, I’ve ever seen.

Joe Evans and the very latest in custom-brewed coffee at Nobrow Coffee Works; I'd say this is high brow

Joe Evans and the very latest in custom-brewed coffee at Nobrow Coffee Works; I’d say this is high brow

Best Bakery/Café Santa Fe’s Clafoutis has a full-fledged menu, but it’s the ethereal croissants, brioche and baguettes, along with great coffee, that bring me back for more at this elegant, oh-so-French café.

A stack of baguettes amidst all the creative elements at Clafoutis in Santa Fe, New Mexico

A stack of baguettes amidst all the creative elements at Clafoutis in Santa Fe, New Mexico

      Honourable Mentions: Last year’s pick, La Baguette, in Revelstoke, B.C., keeps knocking it out of the park with things as simple but outstanding as Healthy Bread, its take on toast. San Francisco’s famed Tartine Bakery & Cafe lives up to the hype with brioche bread pudding and gorgeous gougère.

Gorgeously gooey gougere at Tartine Bakery & Cafe in San Francisco

Gorgeously gooey gougere at Tartine Bakery & Cafe in San Francisco

Best Sandwich The sandwich is a road-trip lunch staple, but it’s rarely raised to an art form like the Oxacan— shredded mole chicken, avocado, goat cheese and apple, served on lovely seed-crusted ciabatta—that I’m served at the fantastic Curious Kumquat, way out in Silver City, New Mexico.

This shredded mole chicken sandwich makes the drive to Silver City, New Mexico well worthwhile

This shredded mole chicken sandwich makes the drive to Silver City, New Mexico well worthwhile

     Honourable Mentions: My steak sandwich at Longview Steakhouse, in the ranch country of Longview, Alberta, is really a huge, superb strip loin on an overwhelmed single piece of bread, though the latter does soak up all the juices. In the heavyweight sandwich battle, my mortadella with all the fixings at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey Bay, California, reaches a sleep-inducing draw with the turkey-bacon monster at Sandwich Spot, in Palm Springs, California.

I gave half of this monster, fab $8 creation from the Sandwich Spot to a passing street person in Palm Springs, California

I gave half of this monster, fab $8 creation from the Sandwich Spot to a passing street person in Palm Springs, California. Kept us both fed for a day

Best Burger

A tie: Bobcat Bite has left its character-filled old adobe building and morphed into Santa Fe Bite, but it’s still pumping out its signature green chile cheeseburgers. Diablo Burger sources its natural, lean meats from open-range ranches near Flagstaff, Arizona. Both places offer their thick patties medium-rare.

The name and the location's changing, but there's no disguising these fantastic green chile cheeseburgers at Santa Fe Bite

This fantastic, medium-rare green chile cheeseburger, at Santa Fe Bite, is at least three inches thick

     Honourable Mentions: In the Asian fusion category, my fine wagyu burger at Bachi Burger in Las Vegas is edged by the Loco Moco—a Kobe patty over rice and Japanese mushrooms and topped with a sunny-side egg—at Carino Bistro in Calgary, Alberta.

Who needs a bun when you can have a Kobe patty atop rice and Japanese mushrooms at Carino Bistro in Calgary, Alberta

Who needs a bun when you can have a Kobe patty atop rice and Japanese mushrooms at Carino Bistro in Calgary, Alberta?

Best Vegetarian

Yes, I probably eat more burgers than salads on the road, but I’m by no means averse to vegetarian or even vegan so long as it’s tasty. It’s no surprise that in the running capital of Eugene, Oregon, healthy folks head to Morning Glory Cafe for tofu scrambles, black-bean burgers or my baked squash mounded with chanterelle mushrooms, brown rice and goat feta.

This baked squash mounded with goodies made for a healthy lunch at Morning Glory Cafe in Eugene, Oregon

This baked squash mounded with goodies makes for a healthy lunch at Morning Glory Cafe in Eugene, Oregon

Best Pizza

Among the many contenders, my top pick is Pizzeria Seven Twelve, in Orem, Utah, where the focus is on fresh and simple but creative ingredients like hand-pulled mozzarella, house-made sausage, roasted fennel and a thin, bubbly crust with a nice tangy flavour from the sourdough starter.

Simple, house-made ingredients make this sausage and fennel pie a standout at Pizzeria Seven Twelve in Orem, Utah

Simple, house-made ingredients make this sausage and fennel pie a standout at Pizzeria Seven Twelve in Orem, Utah

     Honourable Mention: At neighbourhood pub The Flying Goat, in Spokane, Washington, my Kiernan pie is layered with Italian sausage, heavy cream, an over-medium egg and some truffle-oil tossed arugula.

Italian sausage, heavy cream and truffle-oil tossed arugula add up to a winner at The Flying Goat in Spokane, Washington

Italian sausage, heavy cream and truffle-oil tossed arugula add up to a winner at The Flying Goat in Spokane, Washington

Best Salad

Salt Lake City’s gorgeous Finca creates a work-of-art beet salad, with a velvety house ricotta base, a ring of beet chunks and a middle tower of argula topped by macerated strawberries and toasted almonds.

This arranged beet salad, at Finca, is almost too pretty to eat... almost

This arranged beet salad, at Finca, is almost too pretty to eat… almost

Feasting in Phoenix: Over 10 Food and Drink Stops in Under 48 Hours

Dinner-hour rush at Joe's Farm Grill in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert

Dinner-hour rush at Joe’s Farm Grill in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert

Here’s a news flash: Phoenix is big, sprawling and crisscrossed with freeways. It’s suburbia taken to its illogical conclusion in the water-parched “Valley” as the locals call it. Hope you like heat. The temperature climbed to over 90 F. when I was there in mid-April; at higher elevations not that far away, it dipped below freezing at night.

A friend said I would hate Phoenix: the heat, the crowds, the cookie-cutter retirement communities. I didn’t have strong feelings either way. It was mostly a navigation problem to solve, where a GPS device certainly helped. I was there over a weekend, so the traffic was surprisingly light, and a couple I stayed with through airbnb gave me a Monday morning route that avoided the choked freeways.

There are some good things about the Phoenix area for the road-trip diner. Because it’s so car-centeric and sprawling, it’s often pretty easy to find free parking at or close to your destination. The warm climate means it’s also a great place to have an evening meal or drink outdoors. And in a city this big, there are lots of good, independent places to eat or drink, often at reasonable prices. I managed to gorge at over 10 great eateries and drinkeries in less than two days… without requiring bypass surgery.

As to why you’d be going to, or passing through, Phoenix, there’s spring baseball, a surprising amount of hiking and climbing in the surrounding hills and, of course, golf all winter long. Thousands of Canadian snowbirds can’t all be wrong.

I’ve pretty much avoided the DDD curse on my road-food journeys. The airing of a Guy Fieri Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program on the Food Network can reportedly double the number of customers thronging to many featured restaurants. The infrequent occasions when I’ve hit a DDD spot, I’ve gone early or late in the meal cycle to avoid the lines. But I arrive at *Joe’s Farm Grill in upscale Gilbert, outside of Phoenix, on a glorious spring Saturday at 5 pm. Outside, the line extends to the curb. Inside, customers are inching along through those winding queue dividers you see in airports. The waiting gives me time to study the menu and the history of the Johnston family farm, which still grows lettuce and tomatoes used in the meals and tends olive, date and fruit trees.

The line does move smartly, thanks to a well-oiled crew of at least eight that churns out burgers, chicken sandwiches and smoked pork. In no time, a little pager buzzes and my Fontina burger is ready, loaded with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, pecan pesto and melted cheese. By the time I’ve put the lettuce and tomato on top, it takes a minute to get through the greenery and into the moist, perfectly cooked patty, wonderfully complemented by an order of rosemary-dill panko crumb onion rings. The clincher is sitting on the patio, looking out at the farm, alongside young families at picnic tables. Joe’s efficiently serves fine food, in a wonderful setting. Just try to get there before everyone else does.

Great patty, farm-fresh produce and panko onion rings add up to a perfect burger at Joe's Farm Grill

Great patty, farm-fresh produce and panko onion rings add up to a perfect burger at Joe’s Farm Grill

Joe’s Farm Grill
3000 East Ray Road, Gilbert
Daily breakfast 8 am-11 am, lunch and dinner 11 am-9 pm
Joe's Farm Grill on Urbanspoon

Want to check out the bar scene in the Phoenix area? Head over to SanTan Brewing Co. in Chandler, southeast of the big city. On a sultry Saturday evening, the taps are flowing, the music is pounding and the patrons are yelling to be heard. If it’s too noisy and hot inside, head to the outdoor patio (it’s one of the benefits of living in Phoenix), where there’s a long row of counter stools behind the busy bartenders. Mix the suds with something substantial, like a big plate of nachos or a massive sandwich.

SanTan Brewing
8 South San Marcos Place, Chandler
Monday to Thursday 11 am-1 am, Friday-Saturday 11 am-2 am, Sunday 10 am-1 am
Santan Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

I walk into a dimly lit bar, where about eight guys are hunched over a wooden counter. It’s 7:30, on a Sunday morning in aptly named Dick’s Hideaway (there’s no sign above the door, only a menu in the window). The patrons are nursing Bloody Marys, beers, glasses of red and maybe hangovers. But they’re mostly here to inhale honking big breakfasts, served on hot pewter plates. There is another room, with a couple of cool, copper common tables. But really, you want to be rubbing shoulders on a bar stool, watching a short-order pro whip up everything from French toast to eggs Benedict with two chunks of tenderloin steak. It’s not cheap. My jalapeno Eggs Benedict runs $15 but features thick pieces of Nuesle’s pork loin and comes, as most of the plates do, with big scoops of good potatoes and beans. It’s a massive amount of first-class food (the couple behind me wisely shares a plate) in a unique environment worth checking out, if you can snag a seat.

Even my hands are a bit shaky as I dig into this massive eggs benedict breakfast at Dick's Hideaway

Even my hands are a bit shaky as I dig into this massive eggs benedict breakfast at Dick’s Hideaway

Dick’s Hideaway
6008 North 16 Street, Phoenix
Brunch and lunch daily 7 am-4 pm, dinner 4 pm
Dick's Hideaway on Urbanspoon

I’m not sure if everywhere in Phoenix is like this, but there’s a healthy line at *Lux Central at 8 on a Sunday morning. But they’ve nailed the efficiency thing, taking my Americano order while I’m standing in line. It’s ready, with a little nametag on a saucer, by the time I reach the till. En route, I pass tempting scones and mixed-berry corn muffins, but the most spectacular dish is a puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake (only $6) that’s made to order. Lux is a cool place to people watch from a retro couch or a table lined with old-fashioned typewriters.

Lux Central is a cool place to hang out and savour a coffee

Lux Central is a cool place to hang out and savour a coffee

This puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake is a stunner at Lux Central

This puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake is a stunner at Lux Central

Lux Central
4400 North Central Avenue (near downtown Phoenix)
Sunday to Thursday 6 am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 6 am-2 am
Lux Central on Urbanspoon

I seem to have hit a Phoenix daily double: a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives-featured place with no crowds. Indeed on a late Sunday morning, Los Taquitos Mexican Grill, a cheery but unassuming place in a Phoenix strip mall, is mostly vacant. It’s certainly not like this on Taco Tuesdays, when folks are lining up for $1 meat tacos. But the asada, pastor and pollo tacos are still a bargain at the regular a la carte price of $1.49, as is my excellent fish version ($1.99), featuring tender chunks of flesh topped by onions, cilantro and salsa in a double-tortilla envelope. What seals the deal is the server handing me a squeeze bottle of tomatillo-jalapeno sauce so fresh it’s still warm. I have room for a nice ceviche tostada—a crisp tortilla covered in shrimp marinated in lime juice and mixed with pico de gallo.

A fine shrimp ceviche tostada at Los Taquitos Mexican Grill

A fine shrimp ceviche tostada at Los Taquitos Mexican Grill

Los Taquitos Mexican Grill
7000 North 16 Street, Phoenix (also 4747 East Elliot Road)
Monday to Saturday 9 am-9 pm, Sunday 9 am-8 pm
Los Taquitos Grill on Urbanspoon

Hankering for a torta the size of a tortoise? Look no further than Los Reyes de la Torta, where the Latino locals head en masse for a fix of the big Mexican sandwiches, along with oversized quesadillas and sopes (layered masa disks). If you can’t decide which of 20 tortas to order, go with the monster Del Rey ($9.50): The meats alone include ham, pork sirloin, breaded beef, chorizo and hot dogs, along with some veggies for balance. My Mexican torta ($8) is a more restrained meal-and-a-half, featuring grilled steak and onions, refried beans and avocado. While manfully tackling this, I watch families converse in Spanish, tuck into their meals with gusto and sip from big goblets of agua frescas festooned with little umbrellas.

A hearty steak torta at Los Reyes de la Torta

A hearty steak torta at Los Reyes de la Torta

Los Reyes de la Torta
9230 North 7 Street, Phoenix (also another Phoenix and a Tempe location)
Monday to Thursday 10 am-9 pm, Friday 10 am-10 pm, weekends 9 am-10 pm
Los Taquitos Grill on Urbanspoon

How can a penny-pinching road tripper occasionally enjoy higher-end fare without blowing the budget? Why, by taking advantage of happy hours, which many fancier places offer to lure early-bird customers. Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar is no exception, knocking a dollar or two off many drinks and a number of menu items from 3-6 pm an unusual seven days a week. After getting, say, a discount margarita or Pinot gris, be sure to order a big bowl of excellent, chunky guacamole. The accompanying first-class, salty chips start out as house-made tortillas turned into tortilla chips. I would have been happy just filling up on this $5 treat. The grilled, wild shrimp tacos are also superior, emboldened by the hot sauce that’s, you guessed it, made in house. I should have stopped there, only $11 poorer for a pint and a couple of fine appies. But I then add a cortada salad, not noticing in the menu description the words “corn chips” and “crunchy” dried peas, which threaten my molars. Gallo Blanco is part of the charming, boutique Clarendon Hotel, which features a cool pool, framed on one end by a wall of water.

Fabulous guacamole and chips at Gallo Blance Cafe & Bar

Fabulous guacamole and chips at Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Be sure to check out the funky pool at the Clarendon Hotel, beside the Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Be sure to check out the funky pool at the Clarendon Hotel, beside the Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar
401 West Clarendon Avenue, Phoenix
Sunday to Thursday 7:30 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 7:30 am-11 pm
Gallo Blanco Cafe on Urbanspoon

As I mentioned in an earlier post, *D’Lish Drive-Thru (“Healthy on the go”) is a fantastic place for breakfast. It’s well worth going inside to watch the friendliest, liveliest crew of guys in action. While I’m eating an excellent breakfast AZ Burro—featuring smoked turkey, avocado, egg whites and a hash patty—Josh comes over with a complementary cup of Breakfast Buzz: an invigorating iced mix of protein powder, espresso, peanut butter, banana and chocolate. Sounds strange, but it’s delicious. Why don’t more cafes concoct creative drinks like this? Another innovative breakfast item is an organic quinoa porridge with vanilla macaroon granola, fruit and steamed milk. Apparently, it’s popular with Arizona Cardinal football players, who double up with a burro or maybe a California Club on toasted artisan bread.

A lively crew greets you at the fabulous D'Lish Drive-Thru in Scottsdale

A lively crew greets you at the fabulous D’Lish Drive-Thru in Scottsdale

This excellent AZ Burro is one of many creative, healthy breakfast choices at D'Lish Drive-Thru

This excellent AZ Burro is one of many creative, healthy breakfast choices at D’Lish Drive-Thru

D’lish Drive Thru
2613 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (also a Tempe location)
Weekdays 6 am-4 pm, weekends 7 am-4 pm
D'Lish Drive Thru on Urbanspoon

The folks at D’Lish tell me to get a Philly cheesesteak sandwich at nearby DeFalco’s Italian Deli. “It’s the best in The Valley,” one server says. But it’s an Italian deli, and I’m feeling like meatballs, which are house made, as is the tomato sauce. Squeezed inside a soft roll, the meatballs are indeed large, fall-apart tender and nicely seasoned. A guy at the next table takes delivery of an overflowing Philly cheesesteak. Mmmm. I’m sure either choice would be the right one.

House-made meatballs and tomato sauce inside a soft roll at DeFalco's Italian Deli in Scottsdale

House-made meatballs and tomato sauce inside a soft roll at DeFalco’s Italian Deli in Scottsdale

DeFalco’s Italian Deli
2334 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Monday to Saturday 10 am-9 pm, Sunday 11 am-9 pm
Defalco's Italian Deli and Grocery on Urbanspoon

The hostess at *The Parlor Pizzeria guides me to her favourite seats, at the counter overlooking the wood-fired oven, naturally. The hair-cutting chairs are reminders of the previous tenant, a beauty salon. “Can I get a cut while I’m waiting?” I ask. “If we’ve got time,” she quips. After some five minutes in a 460 F. oven, my eight-inch Forager pizza ($10 for a generous six slices) emerges with a lovely, bubbly char on the thin crust. The topping is a compelling, rich mix of wild boar meatball, rabbit sausage and finocchiona (boy, these Italian salamis play havoc with spell check). Add some radicchio, thinly sliced fennel and rosemary and I’ve got a first-rate pie, chased with a little French press pot of java. As for the trim, I need an inch taken off… my belly.

Boar meatballs and rabbit sausage highlight this great thin-crust pie at The Parlor Pizzeria

Boar meatballs and rabbit sausage highlight this great thin-crust pie at The Parlor Pizzeria

The Parlor Pizzeria
1916 East Camelback Road, Phoenix
Monday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm. Closed Sunday
The Parlor Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

When you get right down to it, the bedrock of Mexican cuisine is the lowly tortilla. It’s used to wrap burritos, embrace enchiladas and precariously hold together tacos. When deep fried, it becomes tortilla chips and the base for sopes, tostadas and flautas. But wanting to taste a tortilla unsullied by other flavours, I head to a Phoenix institution, Carolina’s Mexican Food, where they steadily churn out fresh tortillas. I order a single tortilla, with only a pool of melted butter added. It comes out warm, incredibly fresh, chewy… and large enough to wrap me as a shroud. All this for $1.25. The next time, I’ll try something fancier like a chimichanga. But this is about celebrating the tortilla in all its naked glory.

This massive, fresh-made tortilla set me back all of $1.25 at Carolina's Mexican Food

This massive, fresh-made tortilla set me back all of $1.25 at Carolina’s Mexican Food

Carolina’s Mexican Food
1202 East Mohave Street (and one other Phoenix location)
Weekdays 7 am-7:30 pm, Saturday 7 am-6 pm. Closed Sunday
Carolina's Mexican Food on Urbanspoon

Best Pizza in the Mountain West

Can I get this entire pizza, from Pizzeria Prima Strada in Victoria B.C., in my gut? You bet

Can I get this entire pizza, from Pizzeria Prima Strada in Victoria B.C., in my gut? You bet

Over time, I’ve become a sucker for thin-crust pizzas. Preferably, the dough has some sour sourdough starter and has been rested/proofed a while. The decorated pizza should then be cooked in a smoking-hot brick oven for scant minutes, emerging slightly blackened on the bottom and puffy and leopard spotted along the edges. The true test of a great, chewy-but-still-soft-in-the-middle crust is I could eat it all by its lonesome.

I’ve also learned to love simplicity—a few outstanding, house-made ingredients that complement and don’t overwhelm that fine crust. So, no more three kinds of oily meat, blankets of greasy cheese or hearty ladlings of indifferent tomato sauce; heck, increasingly, I don’t want any sauce. As for ham and pineapple, just banish it to Hawaii, please. Instead, I’m all over freshly-made mozza and sausage and maybe something I’ve never tried before: dried cherries, yes, peanut butter, not so much.

I’ve organized these by best pizza in each mountain state and province, extending the latter to include British Columbia. The list is by no means exhaustive, a starter in pizza parlance. For instance, I’ve yet to try two Arizona standouts: Pizzicletta in Flagstaff or Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. By all means, let me know about your favourites.

Mountain States

Utah
At Pizzeria Seven Twelve, in Orem, the focus is on fresh, creative ingredients like hand-pulled mozzarella, house-made sausage and roasted fennel and cauliflower, all riding atop a thin, bubbly crust with a nice tangy flavour from the sourdough starter. The servers wear t-shirts hammering home that point with single words on the front—simple, local, inspired. Check, check, check. Definitely check it out.

This pie from Pizzeria Seven Twelve has it all: hand-pulled mozza, house-made sausage and sourdough crust

This pie from Pizzeria Seven Twelve has it all: hand-pulled mozza, house-made sausage and sourdough crust

Pizzeria Seven Twelve
320 South State Street, Orem, Utah
Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am-2:30 pm, dinner Monday to Thursday 5 pm-10 pm and Friday-Saturday 5 pm-11 pm. Closed Sunday
Pizzeria Seven Twelve on Urbanspoon

Arizona
It’s a tossup (sorry, bad joke), with entertainment winning the day at Screaming Banshee Pizza in Bisbee and The Parlor Pizzeria taking the flavour crown in Phoenix.

I’ve always thought if you’re going for wood-fired pizza, you might as well get a front-row seat and enjoy the show. Sure enough, as soon as I sit down at Screaming Banshee Pizza and start sipping a hearty Kiltlifter Scottish ale, the pizza maker starts rolling out discs of dough and tossing them ceiling-ward three or four times. I’m so entranced, I don’t notice my own Screaming Banshee pizza ($15) getting lifted from the 760-F. oven with a long-handled wooden paddle. It has a lovely, lightly charred crust strewn with creamy fresh mozzarella, strips of fennel sausage and caramelized onion. After a game effort, I’m still left with half to go.

Enjoy the show at Screaming Banshee Pizza

Enjoy the show at Screaming Banshee Pizza

Screaming Banshee Pizza
200 Tombstone Canyon Road, Bisbee
Tuesday-Wednesday 4 pm-9pm, Thursday to Saturday 11 am-10 pm, Sunday 11 am-9 pm. Closed Monday

At Parlor Pizzeria, it only takes five minutes in a 460 F. oven for my eight-inch Forager pizza to emerge, with, no surprise, a bubbly char on the thin crust. The topping is a compelling, rich mix of wild boar meatball, rabbit sausage and finocchiona. Add some radicchio, thinly sliced fennel and rosemary, and I’ve got a first-rate, six-slice pie for only $10, knocked down to $6 during happy hour (3-6 pm).

Boar meatball and rabbit sausage highlight this gem at Parlor Pizzeria

Boar meatball and rabbit sausage highlight this gem at Parlor Pizzeria

The Parlor Pizzeria
1916 East Camelback Road, Phoenix
Monday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm. Closed Sunday
The Parlor Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

New Mexico
Any surprise that Santa Fe takes the pie here? At Rooftop Pizzeria, you can dine in-house or, even better, head down the elevated hallway to Marble Brewery’s Taproom and enjoy a pint with your pizza from a patio seat overlooking the historic downtown plaza. I pick a New Mexican theme for my plentiful 12-incher—green chile with a fair kick, toasted piñon nuts and a blue-corn crust—alongside tender chunks of chicken, cotija and asadero cheese and alfredo sauce ($13.50). I must say, it goes down nicely with a 21.5-ounce tumbler of Irish Red.

This Rooftop pizza has a New Mexico twist with a blue-corn crust, pinon nuts and green chile

This Rooftop pizza has a New Mexico twist with a blue-corn crust, pinon nuts and green chile

Rooftop Pizzeria
60 East San Francisco Street, Santa Fe
Sunday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm, with slightly reduced winter hours
Rooftop Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Montana
There’s no contest here. As previously mentioned in my Best of 2012 road food post, the guy sitting next to me at Bob Marshall’s Biga Pizza, in Missoula, says it’s the best pizza he’s ever tasted. Here, they use a sourdough starter, known as biga (bee-ga), add fresh, ingenious ingredients like fig paste and toasted hazelnuts and slide it all into a 650 F. brick oven for about eight minutes. I get a half and half—one side their award-winning sausage, cherry chutney and smoked gouda (my favourite of the two), the other a medley of local squash and pumpkin. I wash it down with a pungent, Missoula-produced Kettlehouse Cold Smoke Scotch ale.

This half cherry chutney standout at Bob Marshall's Biga Pizza is in my top three favourite pizzas

This half cherry chutney standout at Bob Marshall’s Biga Pizza is in my top three favourite pizzas

Bob Marshall’s Biga Pizza
241 West Main Street, Missoula
Lunch weekdays 11 am-3 pm, dinner Monday to Thursday 5 pm-9:30 pm, Friday-Saturday 5 pm-10 pm. Closed Sunday

Colorado
I can’t say I’ve tried enough pizza in this great culinary state to yet declare a winner. Here are some places chosen as much for character as fine pizza. One is The Sink, a graffiti-laced rabbit’s warren on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder (try the Buddah, featuring tofu, spinach and artichoke hearts). Moonlight Pizza & Brewpub and Amica’s Pizza are two good reasons for making the pilgrimage to Salida, my favourite Colorado town. Oh, they also both make their own beer.

The atmosphere rivals the Buddah pizza at The Sink in Boulder

The atmosphere rivals the Buddah pizza at The Sink in Boulder

Wyoming. Okay, I’ve only eaten pizza at one place, Lander Bar in downtown Lander. But it gets high marks for character, largely because of the boisterous, young crowd and my seatmates: three local women with a ranching heritage and a penchant for chewing tobacco. As for the pizza, it was a fine chicken and artichoke medley thrown down with a Five Pound brown lager from Lander Brewing next door. If you’ve noticed a theme here, it’s that pizza goes down well with a good craft beer. Sorry, wine just doesn’t cut it for me.

Again, the liveliness of the Lander Bar kept pace with the pizza

Again, the liveliness of the Lander Bar kept pace with the pizza

Lander Bar
126 Main Street, Lander
Monday to Saturday 11 am-2 am, Sunday noon-10 pm. Note: The Gannett Grill is open daily 11 am-9 pm

Canadian West

Alberta
As the name suggests, Una Pizza + Wine obviously breaks my beer-and-pizza rule. It’s also somewhat expensive ($15-20 per pizza) and often has a lineup (though it does Tweet about how long the wait is). But it’s worth bending some rules for one of the top-rated restaurants in Calgary, somewhat unusual for a place largely dedicated to pizzas. Creativity, first-class ingredients and execution are the reasons for its popularity, plus it’s a fun, noisy place to hang out. Our pizza choice is a puffy crust covered with roasted cremini mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, fresh arugula and the trump card, splashes of fragrant truffle oil. Una has also transformed the predictable Caesar salad into a mountain of kale topped with crisp Serrano ham, garlic panko, an organic egg and shaved pecorino Romano.

Una Pizza + Wine
618 17 Avenue S.W., Calgary
Daily 11:30 am-1 am
UNA Pizza and Wine on Urbanspoon

Coco Brooks also breaks some of my rules. It’s not thin crust, it’s a little heavier on the cheese and its toppings are by no means leading edge. Indeed, it pumps out the little cardboard boxes of pizza with industrial efficiency. But the Egg n Bacon is a guilty pleasure, with the soft, puffy filling offset by just a slight crunch of smoked bacon and melted mozza and aged cheddar. And at $6.29, it’s maybe the best value on this list for an individual-sized pizza.

Egg n bacon works spectacularly well at Coco Brooks

Egg n bacon works spectacularly well at Coco Brooks

Coco Brooks
640 42 Avenue SE, #80 (two other Calgary locations)
Monday to Thursday 8 am-8 pm, Friday 8 am-9 pm, Saturday 9 am-8 pm
Coco Brooks - Highfield Industrial Park on Urbanspoon

British Columbia

Getting the pizzas ready for the 850 F. oven at Pizzeria Prima Strada

Getting the pizzas ready for the 850 F. oven at Pizzeria Prima Strada

Here’s how Pizzeria Prima Strada, in Victoria, earns its Italian certification for thin-crust Neapolitan pizza. It begins with a well-aged sourdough starter, mixed with fine-ground Caputo flour from Italy and left to rest for two days. After it’s stretched out and loaded with toppings, it goes into a 650 F. wood-fired oven for a minute, is turned and then finished for another minute in the 850 F. section. “The cook’s eyes are on the oven at all times,” the waitress tells me. My Salsiccia Piccante pizza ($15 for six substantial slices) features house-made fennel sausage, roasted peppers and mozzarella. But it’s that deliciously chewy, leopard-spotted crust that makes it a home run for me.

The sourdough crust at Pizzeria Prima Strada is among the best I've tasted

The blistered sourdough crust at Pizzeria Prima Strada is among the best I’ve tasted

Pizzeria Prima Strada
230 Cook Street (one other Victoria location)Sunday to Thursday 11:30 am-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 11:30 am-10 pm
Pizzeria Prima Strada on Urbanspoon