Category Archives: Colorado

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.

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Historic Downtowns: Where the Real Action Is

It may have been gussied up for tourists, but downtown Bisbee, Arizona retains the character of its mining past

It may have been gussied up for tourists, but downtown Bisbee, Arizona retains the character of its mining past

I recently read a New Yorker article on the demise of the traditional megamall, with their soulless concrete façades surrounded by a moat of parking somewhere in the suburban sea. It got me thinking about the entrances/freeway exits to most North American cities and towns.

Like a Las Vegas casino, they inexorably parade you past a gaudy, neon spectacle of gas stations, chain motels and the usual fast-food outlets. So familiar is this blueprint that without a map, you’d be hard pressed to tell where you are. It all looks the same.

The cookie-cutter gas/motel/fast food strip entrances to most North American towns and cities tell you nothing about the character of these places

The cookie-cutter gas/motel/fast-food strip entrances to most North American towns and cities tell you nothing about the character of these places

But from all my road-trip travels, I’m detecting a kickback. The glittering entrances may be where the traffic is, but the real action is someplace else—in the centre, in fact. And the key to finding it lies in the freeway signs, not the ones luring you to the chains but the ones saying “Historic Downtown.” (This obviously applies more to compact towns than sprawling cities, where interesting, independent places are harder for visitors to find).

Take that exit, drive for a few minutes and look for another indicator: a line of low downtown buildings, with little collections of cars and trucks parked out front. Not surprisingly, these businesses are often literally on Main Street. This is where these towns got started, where the remaining historical buildings are, where the true soul and character of these communities reside.

The historic downtown (the main street here in Lacombe, Alberta) is where the heart of these communities resides

The historic downtown (the main street here in Lacombe, Alberta) is where the heart of these communities resides

It’s where, as a road-trip diner, you’ll usually find two things. One is the local hangout, a diner or coffee shop where the regulars banter with the servers on a first-name basis and where the fare is basic but filling and affordable. The other is older buildings refurbished by, typically, youngish entrepreneurs interested in more modern cuisine but in a historic setting.

The character-filled Palm Cafe is where the regulars hang out in Orick, California

The character-filled Palm Cafe is where the regulars hang out in Orick, California

EXO Roast in Tucson, Arizona is a superb example of translating history into a funky cafe

EXO Roast in Tucson, Arizona is a superb example of incorporating history into a funky cafe

Finding these places involves a willingness to get off the bypassing highway and do a bit of exploring. There’s no guarantee you’ll hit pay dirt, but at worst you’ll get a drive past what defines, or once defined, these communities.

Recently, for example, three of us were driving on Highway 6 between Salt Lake City and Moab, in southeast Utah. It was a scenic road I’d taken half a dozen times without stopping. But this time, I glanced over at some old buildings in the small community of Helper and took the exit into the historic downtown.

Artists are leading the charge to revive historic Helper, Utah

Artists are leading the charge to revive historic Helper, Utah                                   Photo: Kairn Kunelius

While I was ordering a coffee at the nicely renovated and wonderfully named Happiness Within, a companion ducked into a potter’s studio and discovered that Helper had become a magnet for artists, who were helping refurbish a town named for the extra engines required to pull trains up nearby steep grades. I wandered across the street to the spacious, wood-floored Balance Rock Eatery & Pub. We’d already eaten, but I was impressed by a monstrous breakfast burrito being tackled by a local diner.
Balance Rock Eatery & Pub on Urbanspoon

A similar willingness to explore led me to one of my favourite western U.S. towns, Salida, in mountainous central Colorado. The approach on Highway 50 promised nothing but the usual commercial strip, but we persevered and drove into the heart of downtown. There, we discovered great galleries, an art park and, alongside the headwaters of the Arkansas River, painted containers of flowers and great little eateries like The Fritz.

Even the public flower planters are funky in Salida, Colorado

Even the public flower planters are funky in Salida, Colorado

The lesson here is what is old is new again. Finding it will unlock you from your chains.

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

Heading From Colorado Into Utah

Tons of Italian meats on this calzone at Carelli's Pizza & Pasta

Lots of Italian meats on this sandwich at Carelli’s Pizza & Pasta

Hungry? I hope you bring company, or at least a healthy appetite, to Carelli’s Pizza & Pasta in Craig, a short drive west of Steamboat Springs on Highway 40 in northwest Colorado. The calzones are enormous, stretching in a couple of instances to two or three feet. A more reasonable monster is the Carelli Calzone, featuring a liquidy furnace of meatballs, sausage, ricotta and mozzarella. I settle for the merely massive Mancinelli sandwich—layers of mortadella, salami, capicola, ham and lettuce—heated in the oven till the provolone cheese melts and the focaccia is nicely toasted. Attacking with a knife and fork, I put a healthy dent in it but have to box the rest for a later road snack, er, meal. The two young women beside me have a more manageable strategy, ordering big, single slices of pizza.

Carelli’s Pizza & Pasta
465 Yampa Avenue, Craig, Colorado
Monday to Saturday 11 am-9 pm
Carelli's Pizzeria-Pasta on Urbanspoon

Farther west on Highway 40, Vernal, Utah is the nearest staging point for Dinosaur National Monument, established to protect an historic dinosaur quarry, which can be viewed by guided tour. If you’d like a quick, authentic Mexican meal in town, stop at Tacos El Gordo (“Never trust a skinny cook”). Behind some non-operating gas pumps, El Gordo retains a faded convenience-store feel, with fridges full of sodas and packaged snacks for sale. Soon after placing my order at a little window, two tacos (pollo/chicken and carnita/pork) arrive—hot, crispy, a little greasy and flavourful, with a little bottled hot sauce added from the drink fridge. It’s a good, light lunch in an unpolished eatery for $4, a few bucks more if I’d gone for a burrito or quesadilla.

Cheap., fresh food at Tacos El Gordo in Vernal, Utah

Cheap, fresh food at Tacos El Gordo in Vernal, Utah

Tacos El Gordo
395 East Main Street, Vernal, Utah
Monday to Saturday opens at 8 am. Closed Sunday
Tacos El Gordo on Urbanspoon

I guess you could say I hit a double bagel in Park City. The place I want to go to, Nature’s Wraps, is closed, so I head next door to Wasatch Bagel & Grill (1300 Snow Creek Drive), where I have a chicken parmigiano sandwich on a fresh, toasted bagel. It’s decent, but the service is distracted, despite the place being mostly empty. The next morning, I drive a fairly long way to reach a different part of Park City, where I have a pretty good egg bagel sandwich (something I rarely order) at Park City Bread & Bagel (3126 Kilby Road), though the pounding soundtrack is annoying at 7:30. I then navigate through construction in a new mall nearby to have a nice coffee at Park City Roaster (1680 Ute Boulevard), though by this point I just want out of town. I know Park City is a big ski resort town (it has a much bigger tourist than resident population), is the principal location for the Sundance Film Festival and hosted some 2002 Winter Olympic events. But I don’t know if Park City has a historic centre. It doesn’t seem to have any centre, just a bunch of new, disparate developments with little character. It certainly helps to have a GPS to find my way around.

Once you’re safely past the hour-long stress of driving the chock-a-block I-15 past Salt Lake City (it helps to tackle it on a Sunday morning), it’s worth slowing down and getting onto a quieter parallel highway. One such road, Highway 89 to the near east, leads into Brigham City, featuring a large, white Mormon temple, stately and well-tended historic buildings and a wide Main Street flanked by enormous overarching sycamores, their leaves still green in late October.

When you see a sign saying, “Gone fishing,” you just figure you’ll come back another time. But Kathie and Bert, owners of Bert’s Cafe in downtown Brigham City want to go fishing full time… in Oregon. After 30-plus years of running a diner Bert’s parents started in 1929, they’re ready to retire and have put the place up for sale. Their own kids don’t want to run it, and Kathie doesn’t blame them, saying it’s a 24/7 business. Here’s hoping the new owners can somehow carry on the tradition, because this is a real old-fashioned diner, where the cutlery comes in a little paper bag, the waitresses chat leisurely with the customers and the food comes out hot and fast. My omelette special has nice chunks of avocado, the home fries are crispy and the butter melts into the steaming pancake. Lunch items include a sirloin sandwich and an open-face pot roast sandwich with gravy. It’s good, old-fashioned comfort food.

Hey, if anybody knows what’s happened to Bert’s since I passed through last fall, let me know.

The good news: Great homestyle breakfast at Bert's  Cafe in Brigham City

The good news: Great homestyle breakfast at Bert’s Cafe in Brigham City

The bad news: the owners want to sell.

The bad news: the owners want to sell.

Bert’s Café
89 South Main Street, Brigham City, Utah
Monday to Saturday 7 am-7 pm, Sunday 7 am-2 pm
Bert's Family Cafe on Urbanspoon

It’s hardly a news flash to say interstate highways have helped shut down many restaurants in the small towns they’ve bypassed. But some manage to persist, such as Mollie’s Cafe in tiny Snowville, just off I-84 near the Utah-Idaho border. Located in a century-old building and owned by Mollie for more than 30 years, it’s the kind of run-down-looking place many travellers might hesitate to enter. But once you walk past walls of old ranching photos, sink into a red-cushioned booth and watch heaping plates of eggs and cheese burgers go past, you know you’re in good hands. Indeed, the cook looks over the counter and asks me if I want the onions atop my little bowl of chili grilled (all of $2.15, including tax). After I’ve licked my bowl clean, she wishes me safe travels. It’s not the kind of treatment you normally get in places on the beaten path.

A true, old-fashioned diner, off the interstate in Snowville, Utah

A true, old-fashioned diner, off the interstate in Snowville, Utah

Mollie’s Cafe
15 East Main Street, Snowville, Utah
Daily 6 am-10 pm
Mollie's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Chugging Into Carbondale and Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Nothing like a dog to draw customers into your Steamboat Springs restaurant

Nothing like a cute puppy to draw customers into your Steamboat Springs restaurant… or read your blog

I’m resuming my road trip through Colorado, hitting a couple of high mountain towns.

After following the tortuous road over Independence Pass (12,100 feet) and down into Aspen, Highway 82 heading west is a smooth, four-lane freeway, complete with high-occupancy vehicle lanes (I’m not sure where all this commuter traffic is heading, though). Beyond the chi chi town of Basalt, I pull into Carbondale. It partly made its early living supplying potatoes to miners in Aspen. The tradition continues, with Carbondale acting as a cheaper bedroom community to the resort. One cool thing, at night, is skies dark enough to see the stars, or the start of a meteorite shower when I’m there.

Looking for some spirited nightlife in this otherwise quiet town? Just stop for an excellent ale or two at Carbondale Beerworks (647 Main Street, Monday to Thursday 4 pm-11 pm, Friday till 1 am and weekends 2 pm-11 pm) especially during one of their boisterous Trivial Pursuits nights, when the cheers, cowbells and clinking of pint glasses make it hard for waitresses to be heard calling out orders for high-end dogs, wings and fries. Once the show’s over, many of the young patrons hop onto their bikes and wobble off into the night. If you want to pick up some distinctive Colorado microbrews to go, drop into Main Street Spirits (“Buy your ale in Carbondale”), where Rosemary lets me fill my own assorted six pack. 389 Main Street. Monday to Thursday 10 am-10 pm, Friday and Satuday 10 am to 11 pm.

Trivial Pursuits night packs them at Carbondale Beerworks

Trivial Pursuits night packs them at Carbondale Beerworks

For an early-morning eye opener, be sure to stop at The Blend Coffee Company. They make great coffee, whether it’s the house espresso blend or a nice pour over. This is coffee with rich, complex flavours, primarily from Denver-based roaster Novo. Let’s see: great coffee, cozy atmosphere, friendly, accommodating staff (Greg let me sample the drip brew before I order). Think it warrants a *.

Great pour overs at The Blend Coffee Company in Carbondale

Great pour overs at The Blend Coffee Company in Carbondale

The Blend Coffee Company
1150 Highway 133, Carbondale
Weekdays 6:30 am-5 pm, weekends 7 am-5 pm

*Village Smithy Restaurant (“We reserve the right to serve everyone”) is humming minutes after the 7 am opening. Customers are streaming into the 1904 house and tucking into hearty omelettes, breakfast quesadillas and pancakes or Belgian waffles mounded with fresh fruit. My breakfast is simple but first class, nailing all the details. The eggs are perfectly over easy, the hash browns hot and crispy, the slightly sweet apple-chicken sausages nicely grilled and the two pieces of multi-grain toast (you really don’t need four) covered edge to edge in butter and accompanied by a pot of fresh raspberry jam. The kicker is a delicious, house-made salsa that I dip everything in.

First-class breakfast at Village Smithy Restaurant in Carbondale

First-class breakfast at Village Smithy Restaurant in Carbondale

Village Smithy Restaurant
26 South 3 Street, Carbondale
Daily 7 am-2 pm
Village Smithy Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Now, here’s a concept: give customers samples to help them decide what to order. That’s what The Lost Cajun does with its soups. When you sit down in this small Frisco eatery, you’re given three little Dixie cups of gumbo—one a Gulf shrimp and crab in a dark roux and another a spicy chicken and sausage—along with my favourite, a creamy shrimp and lobster bisque with a mild bite. Then, to cover all the bases for you readers, I actually switch gears and order a breaded and fried catfish po boy, a crunchy treat inside a garlic-buttered mini French loaf.

Catfish po boy at The Lost Cajun in Frisco

Catfish po boy at The Lost Cajun in Frisco

The Lost Cajun
204 Main Street, Frisco
Sunday to Wednesday 11 am-8 pm, Thursday to Saturday 11 am-9 pm
The Lost Cajun Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Steamboat Springs has hot springs, of course, ski hills and all the usual outdoor sports that demand the Colorado emblem that goes with this lifestyle: the Subaru wagon. I swear that in five minutes of sitting on a street corner, I watch 20 Subarus go by. Almost as popular in these parts are half-ton trucks. I’m guessing you can tell who’s a Democratic or Republican supporter simply by what they’re driving. I’ll let you guess who’s who. Most of the town’s restaurants can be found on or just off the main drag, Lincoln Avenue.

The emblem of outdoor, active Colorado: the Subaru wagon

The emblem of outdoor, active Colorado: the Subaru wagon

This lovely old brick building is home to Creekside Cafe & Grill

This lovely old brick building is home to Creekside Cafe & Grill

On a long road trip, I’m always looking for something different, especially for breakfast. So when I peruse the menu at *Creekside Cafe & Grill, I’m ready to move right past the usual eggs Benedict with hollandaise atop an English muffin until I see a version with a quarter pound of shredded corned beef. When I hear the corned beef is seasoned, cooked and pulled apart in house, I’m on board. And I must say it’s a delight, with the tender, slightly salty meat nicely balancing the lemony sauce. Creekside also offers a corned beef hash, large enough, the waitress tells me, that many folks take the leftovers home to make a pseudo Reuben. Creekside looks after the small details, making their own breads, biscuits, hamburger buns and gluten-free granola; you can buy a bag of the latter to go. When I say I’m hitting the road right after breakfast, the waitress even offers to refill my coffee in a to-go cup. Nice.

Eggs Benedict on a mountain of corned beef at Creekside Cafe & Grill. Yum.

Eggs Benedict on a mountain of corned beef at Creekside Cafe & Grill. Yum.

Creekside Cafe & Grill
131 11 Street, Steamboat Springs
Daily 6 am-2 pm
Creekside Cafe & Grill on Urbanspoon

I don’t get a chance to eat at Winona’s Restaurant & Bakery (I’ve just polished off a big breakfast at Creekside). But judging by the recommendation of two locals and the full house by eight on a Saturday morning, I’d say it’s well worth a breakfast visit. The restaurant is famous for its cinnamon bun, featured in Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, and big enough to feed a linebacker. Winona’s also makes highly regarded French toast, Belgian waffles and creative pancakes such as apple streusel, banana granola and chocolate strawberry.

A full house for breakfast at Winona's Restaurant & Bakery

A full house for breakfast at Winona’s Restaurant & Bakery

Winona’s Restaurant & Bakery
617 Lincoln Avenue, Steamboat Springs
Daily 7 am-3 pm
Winona's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

5th Street Market & Deli is a good destination for a quick, hot pastrami, turkey-bacon or roasted pepper sandwich. My grilled meatloaf sandwich with melted provolone and arugula greens on a rectangular panini hits the spot; it comes with a small pasta salad. At $10, the price is a little steep, though perhaps not by resort standards.

Grilled meatloaf sandwich at 5th Street Market & Deli

Grilled meatloaf sandwich at 5th Street Market & Deli

5th Street Market & Deli
435 Lincoln Avenue, Steamboat Springs
Monday to Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Sunday 10 am-3 pm
5th Street Deli & Bar on Urbanspoon

Just up the street, and down the stairs, The Steaming Bean has nice java (including French press) and smoothies. Besides the usual breakfast treats, it also offers toasted bagels, homemade granola and oatmeal with blueberries. 635 Lincoln Avenue. Daily 7 am-6 pm
Steaming Bean 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