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.
I was on CBC Radio’s Alberta at Noon show the other day, talking about my new Marathon Mouth ebook on great road-trip eats in the western U.S./Canada.
But the real stars were the province-wide listeners who called in or tweeted to champion their favourite food stops near or far from their homes. And despite my extensive research trips, many of their picks were places I’d never heard of. So this post is dedicated to their suggestions (I hope my spelling guesses of their names is reasonably accurate).
Bernie won a free download of the book for suggesting The Last Straw in Libby, Montana. How often do you find hand-pressed, fresh burgers made from your choice of Angus or longhorn beef or bison? Or, at breakfast, corn beef hash for under $7? It’s apparently great stuff, especially for a small town off the beaten path on Highway 2, between Bonners Ferry and Kalispell.
It’s a tough act replacing a dining institution, known as much for its colourful owner as the excellence of its food. Such is certainly the case with Pinky’s Cafe, a breakfast landmark in Livingston, Montana, a short drive north of Yellowstone National Park.
When I visited a few years ago, I was greeted and served by Pinky himself—a relaxed, gregarious guy with a white ponytail—while wife Terri ably tended the morning grill. When I returned this fall, the name was the same, but they were gone.
I was starting to get all nostalgic… that is, till my breakfast special arrived on the table. Chorizo breakfast tacos! Eggs, sausage, pico de gallo and a squirt of sauce, all loaded aboard a couple of little tacos. Great, imaginative stuff. I mean, if you can bring burritos to the breakfast table, why not tacos?
The tacos are the brainchild of newish owner Morgan Milton, a trained chef who spices up the morning menu with offerings like bacon-stuffed waffles, banana-walnut pancakes and bacon caprese omelettes. Apparently, his mother does the baking, so the family tradition continues.
So does the relaxed, small-town atmosphere, with a mix of locals and tourists filling the tables in this colourful little place.
Yes, Pinky is gone. But long live Pinky’s!
109 South Main Street, Livingston, Montana
Tuesday to Saturday 8 am-2 pm, Sunday 8 am-12:30 pm. Closed Monday
We round the corner of a quiet downtown street in Great Falls, Montana at 7:30 am. “There it is,” I tell my companion, pointing to the sign: 2K’s Kafe. “It looks closed,” she says doubtfully.
But the line of cars on a mostly empty street says otherwise. Sure enough, the little diner is jammed, at this early hour, with locals. They’re chowing down on substantial plates of bacon and eggs, hubcap-sized pancakes and biscuits and gravy, all while chewing the fat.
We squeeze into the lone vacant booth, order (I get a German sausage scramble) and chat with the waitress, who happens to be owner Karla. Her mother, Karen, used to run the place, hence the 2K name.
The breakfast is fairly typical diner fare. The real charm is the local, unhurried character in a world of cookie-cutter outlets.
When you’re located on the doorstep of the world’s oldest national park, it kind of makes sense that you’ve been making pizza here since the primordial days of 1953.
Such is the case with K-Bar Pizza, an unvarnished bar and restaurant on a dusty street in equally unpretentious Gardiner, Montana, at the northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
After a full day of hiking or geyser touring, it’s nice to appease your appetite and slake your thirst with a pie and pint. K-Bar offers some nice salads and an impressive selection of beers on tap from Montana microbrewers such as Bozeman Brewing, Bitter Root Brewery and Neptune’s Brewery (I go for the latter’s charged-up latte stout).
Pretty much everyone orders the thin-crust pizza; sorry, no burgers. This keeps the cook at the back busy tossing dough high in the air, loading it with typical toppings and then firing it into the oven. Our medium Crazy Woman—featuring alfredo sauce, sausage, garlic black pepper and red pepper flakes—is a generous amount for two.
Nothing fancy, but at the end of a week-long Yellowstone backpack fuelled by dehydrated fare, it hits the spot. It’s certainly better than any of the cafeteria offerings in the “villages” scattered through the park.
202 Main Street, Gardiner, Montana
Monday to Thursday 4 pm-9:30 pm, Friday 4 pm-10 pm, Saturday-Sunday 11 am-10 pm