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