Category Archives: New Mexico

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

Albuquerque, New Mexico

It doesn't get more authentic than this at Taqueria Mexico in Albuquerque

It doesn’t get more authentic than this at Taqueria Mexico in Albuquerque

Sure, Albuquerque—or Burque as the locals like to call it—spreads out seemingly forever in a metropolis of “just” 900,000. Believe me, I’ve experienced it, driving from place to place and suffering interminably long, unsynchronized lights. You can view the sprawl by hiking, driving or taking the world’s second-longest tram to the top of the overlooking Sandia Mountains; the nearby cliffs make a good sunset photograph.

Despite the auto focus, there are lots of bike and foot trails both in the hills and urban areas, helping Albuquerque earn Men’s Fitness magazine’s fittest U.S. city in 2007. The preponderance of low-rise adobe-style buildings is also charming, especially in quiet neighbourhoods. Visitors from around the world flock here in early October for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. With more than 600 hot-air balloons, it’s the world’s biggest such festival.

Of course, Albuquerque is outshone by its much smaller but funkier neighbour Santa Fe. But spread throughout the city, you’ll find plenty of fine places to eat, especially those featuring New Mexican cuisine.

It’s the noon rush hour, and Golden Crown Panaderia is slamming busy. People are lined up deciding whether to order a pizza, a meat and cheese sandwich, a big salad or just some puffy loaves of bread and treats from the bakery. I don’t mind, as it gives me time to watch the staff scurrying around and to admire the old, festive adobe building and Christmas lights in the glassed-in porch. My personal-sized pizza is a delightful, four-slice lunch, highlighted by the blue corn crust I’ve chosen over the standard green chile dough.

Hey, it's New Mexico, so of course I have to go for the blue-corn crust on this little pizza gem at Golden Crown Panaderia

Hey, it’s New Mexico, so of course I have to go for the blue-corn crust on this little pizza gem at Golden Crown Panaderia

Golden Crown Panaderia
1103 Mountain Road,
Tuesday to Saturday 7 am-8 pm, Sunday 10 am-8 pm. Closed Monday
Golden Crown Panaderia on Urbanspoon

It’s not often I enjoy a fine meal and wish I’ve ordered something else. But such is the case at *Taqueria Mexico, a tiny, colourful place where you squeeze into an available table or grab a free stool. In my defense, it’s the second lunch I’ve had in an hour (I’m doubling up on road-food research), and a couple of loaded tacos (asada/grilled beef and crispy seafood) is the perfect, large snack for just over $4. But then I make the mistake of looking around me and spotting a couple of customers picking the flesh off a nicely grilled, whole Mojarra fish. Across the way, a guy and a girl are digging into coctels de camaron, large glass goblets stuffed with lime-marinated shrimp in a Clamato base. The highlight is watching the guy crush at least half a dozen packages of crackers into his soupy cocktail, turning it into a bready stew.

A couple of loaded asada tacos at Taqueria Mexico for just over $4

A couple of loaded asada tacos at Taqueria Mexico for just over $4

Taqueria Mexico
415 Lomas Boulevard NE
Monday to Saturday 7 am-7 pm. Closed Sunday
Taqueria Mexico on Urbanspoon

Located in an old two-car garage, Michael Thomas Coffee makes a fine, albeit somewhat pricy Americano. It helps that they roast their own beans, right behind the espresso machine, and are well versed in pulling their shots. They also sell a range of coffee-making systems from Aeropress to Chemex and Clever brewers, though they don’t make handcrafted drip coffees—something about it taking too long. On a warm Albuquerque afternoon, it’s nice to sit under an awning in the courtyard and watch folks go to and from neighbouring new-age health businesses.

Nice java at Michael Thomas Coffee, enhanced by the nice courtyard surrounded by new-age health businesses

Nice java at Michael Thomas Coffee, enhanced by the courtyard surrounded by new-age health businesses

Michael Thomas Coffee
1111 Carlisle Boulevard SE
Monday to Friday 6:30 am-6 pm, Saturday 7 am-2 pm, Sunday 9 am-1 pm
Michael Thomas Coffee on Urbanspoon

Amazing food comes out of this tiny kitchen at Sophia's Place

Amazing food comes out of this tiny kitchen at Sophia’s Place

Colourful *Sophia’s Place is in a little, wood-beamed old adobe building, with crowded counter service and bathrooms out back. It’s a great spot for Mexican-themed breakfasts such as tacos and quesadillas (both somewhat unusual in the a.m.), along with standards like big burritos and huevos rancheros. But I’m here for the weekend special of heavenly blue corn pancakes, topped with strawberries, blackberries and, the piece de resistance, piñon nut butter; a plentiful half order of two cakes is only $5. Sophia’s also serves lunch and dinner. Look for the duck enchiladas, at night, when they have them.

Can't beat the blue corn pancakes, topped with fresh fruit and piñon nut butter at Sophia's Place

Can’t beat the blue corn pancakes, topped with fresh fruit and piñon nut butter, at Sophia’s Place

Sophia’s Place
6313 4 Street NW
Weekdays 7 am-9 pm, Saturday 9 am-9 pm, Sunday 9 am-2 pm
Sophia's Place on Urbanspoon

The Grove Cafe & Market is a more upscale place, with better-groomed customers and somewhat higher prices for breakfast and lunch. But the payoff is quality ingredients and good execution in a relaxed, spacious environment. For example, the chef makes daily small batches of mozzarella, which can be savoured in an olive-bread sandwich accompanied by local tomatoes, arugula and basil ($10). At breakfast, fresh fruit is mounded on the pancakes and comes in a small dish with my poached eggs, perched above lovely, thin slices of toasted sourdough ($6.75). The breakfast sandwich features a thick layer of freshly scrambled egg, squeezed into a house-made English muffin, also for under $7. Oh, and the coffee is Intelligentsia.

First-rate poached eggs perched on sourdough at Grove Cafe

First-rate poached eggs perched on sourdough at Grove Cafe

The Grove Cafe & Market
600 Central Avenue SE, Suite A
Tuesday to Saturday 7 am-4 pm, Sunday 8 am-3 pm. Closed Monday
Grove Café & Market on Urbanspoon

I previously mentioned the *Guava Tree Cafe as one of my favourite sandwich places on a recent road trip. It features Cuban-style sandwiches and Venezuelan arepas, featuring an unleavened corn-meal bread. My pernil sandwich is a fantastic mix of slow-roasted pork, sweet caramelized onion, Swiss cheese and garlic sauce, prepared by a whirling dervish of a cook. Add a side of yuca crisps and a coconut flan for dessert, and I’ve got a full Caribbean dining experience.

The pernil sandwich is the bomb at Guava Tree Cafe

The pernil sandwich is the bomb at Guava Tree Cafe

Guava Tree Cafe
216 Yale Boulevard SE, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Weekdays 9 am-4 pm, weekends 11 am-3 pm
Guava Tree Cafe on Urbanspoon

Is it just me, or are some microbreweries just hard to find, located in an obscure spot that’s easy to drive past, especially at night, and even before you’ve had a pint? Fortunately, the effort to get to Nexus Brewery is well worth it. With my first sip of their malty Scottish ale, I’m transported to the Highlands. It’s one of about 10 ales and stouts available in the long taproom, with lots of patio seating and a garage door that opens on warm evenings. Chase your brew, if you wish, with something to munch on. I’d recommend the chopped pork sliders or the signature fried pickles.

Fine Scottish ale at Nexus Brewery

Fine Scottish ale at Nexus Brewery

Nexus Brewery
4730 Pan American Freeway East, NE, Suite D
Sunday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm
Nexus Brewery on Urbanspoon

Frontier Restaurant is definitely an Albuquerque institution, across the street from the University of New Mexico. It’s built for the masses, sprawling over five rooms and taking orders at up to eight stations. A green light goes on when a station comes open, and your order number is called out over an intercom when the food is ready, usually in scant minutes. Frontier has something for everyone, at nearly any time of the day or night. Want eggs at suppertime or enchiladas after midnight? No problem. New Mexican food? All the bases are covered, as they are for American standards like burgers and sandwiches. I’m here mostly for the spectacle and thus just order a small, well-flavoured bowl of posole, a thick soup featuring pork and hominy (hulled corn kernels), which along with a large tortilla sets me back $2.05. Frontier definitely isn’t fancy, but the food is cheap and plentiful, and the place is dripping with character.

Green means go: A unique ordering system at Frontier Restaurant

Green means go: A unique ordering system at Frontier Restaurant

Frontier Restaurant
2400 Central Avenue SE
Daily 5 am-1 am
Frontier Restaurant on Urbanspoon

If you’re hankering for real, old-fashioned New Mexican chile, you’d best head over to Mary & Tito’s Cafe. Their cooks have been doing it right for decades, using Salem, New Mexico chiles unadulterated by powder or other fillers. This dedication was recognized by a 2010 James Beard award. They make a first-rate green chile but are famous for their red. To avoid being distracted by rice and beans, I go for an a la carte order ($7.50) of their signature carne adovada (cubed pork), which arrives as a mound of tender, slow-simmered meat covered in bright red, full-flavoured chile. The burn is intense but manageable, though beads of sweat are soon forming on my forehead.

Mary & Tito's and its classic  red chile is an Albuquerque institution

Mary & Tito’s, with classic dishes like this red carne adovada, is an Albuquerque institution

Mary & Tito’s Cafe
2711 4 Street NW
Monday to Thursday 9 am-6pm, Friday-Saturday 9 am-8 pm. Closed Sunday
Mary & Tito's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Road Food Trip From Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico

Sugar Nymphs Bistro is a quirky spot with fabulous food in tiny Penasco, New Mexico

Sugar Nymphs Bistro is a quirky spot with fabulous food in tiny Penasco, New Mexico

On the scenic High Road between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico and along a considerable stretch of artist studios, the nondescript village of Penasco is nonetheless in the middle of nowhere. Yet *Sugar Nymphs Bistro (“City Cuisine, Country Atmosphere”) is a destination restaurant, as we discover when pulling up to a long line of vehicles for Sunday brunch. It could be the reputation of co-owner and former Greens chef Kai Harper Leah. But ultimately it boils down to the outstanding food, which isn’t vegetarian like the famed San Francisco restaurant (and eponymous cookbook) where she once toiled. The carnivorous creations include a dense, moist green chile cheeseburger, steak quesadilla, chipotle pork loin and grilled peach salad with chicken and goat cheese, all served with complimentary scones. Save room for a mouth-watering piece of maple pecan pie. If you have to wait for a table, head across the road to view the fantastic sculptural works of artist Nicki Marx, intricately incorporating feathers, claws and other natural materials.

A superb cassoulet special at Sugar Nymphs Bistro

A superb cassoulet special at Sugar Nymphs Bistro

Sugar Nymphs Bistro
15046 State Road (Highway 75), Penasco, New Mexico
Summer hours: lunch Monday to Saturday 11:30 am-2:30 pm, dinner Thursday to Saturday 5 pm-close, Sunday brunch 10 am-3 pm. Phone 575-587-0311 for hours the rest of the year
Sugar Nymphs Bistro on Urbanspoon

On a stormy, blustery mid-April day, there are still tourist tie-ups in Taos; God forbid what the place is like in prime season. Still, there are lots of folks going to visit New Mexico’s premier mountain resort to ski, hike or just gawk. Just don’t count on me joining Julia Roberts and Donald Rumsfeld in buying a ranch here. An eatery tip: Continue north on the main drag, past the traffic jam near the historic plaza, and you’ll find a couple of great local hangouts.

*Taos Diner operates two places: a southern location, geared more to the downtown tourist crowd, and a more utilitarian northern spot, which attracts more locals. I obviously head to the latter for a light, morning bite. The Hot Chick is a nicely-crumbed buttermilk biscuit squeezing together an egg, sausage patty and spicy sriracha mayo. It’s first rate and a Taos bargain at $3.95. A nearby, wide-eyed guy is gamely tackling a monster breakfast burrito (only $8.95). Wanting something egg free? Try the organic fried potatoes topped with chile and cheese. Lunch features burgers made from local, grass-fed beef.

The Hot Chick, with its egg, sausage and biscuit, makes a great light breakfast for under $4 at Taos Diner I

The Hot Chick, with its egg, sausage and biscuit, makes a great light breakfast for under $4 at Taos Diner I

Taos Diner I
908 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte (also at 216B Paseo Del Pueblo Sur), Taos
Daily 7 am-2:30 pm
Taos Diner on Urbanspoon

Things are a little more upscale a block south at Gutiz, a Latin-French-focused diner with interesting creations like a scrambled-egg tower, Parisian crepes and an Andouille sausage-chile bowl at breakfast and a variety of sandwiches on house-made French bread at lunch. I dig into a nice French toast made of homemade sweet bread, topped with a blueberry reduction and fresh fruit (well, other than the blueberries.)

French toast made of house-made sweet bread smothered in fruit at Gutiz

French toast made of house-made sweet bread smothered in fruit at Gutiz

Gutiz
812B Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos
Tuesday to Saturday 8 am-3 pm
Gutiz on Urbanspoon

Nearby, Lela is running the laid-back *The Coffee Spot, where I get a nice, strong Americano for only $2. But the real find here are monstrous, and I mean monstrous, Rice Krispies squares and chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies—both gluten free and only $3 (half price if there are any left after 3 pm).

Lela holds up monstrous Rice Krispies squares and cookies at The Coffee Spot

Lela holds up monstrous Rice Krispies squares and cookie at The Coffee Spot

The Coffee Spot
900 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos
Monday to Saturday 7 am-5 pm
The Coffee Spot on Urbanspoon

A few minutes north of Taos is Arroyo Seco. A few shops on a bend in the road, this tiny place is refreshingly casual and worth walking around for a few minutes; there’s a couple of nice public gardens. Check out Taos Cow for great ice cream, coffee, breakfasts and sandwiches. Next door, Abes Cocina y Cantina sells tasty tamales made from hand-ground corn.

I’m pretty much the only Anglo in Torta’s Rainbow, a quick, unadorned Mexican food place in sprawling Espanola, on my way back south to Santa Fe. But the friendly owner greets me in English, and the bilingual menu helps me decipher authentic Mexican items like tongue and tripe tacos, brisket burritos and fresh limeade and tropical juices (aguas frescas). I’m here, though, for my first true torta, a big oval Mexican sandwich, in this case served on an oversized, toasted hamburger-like bun. It’s dense with my choice of desebrada (moist, shredded beef), lettuce and sliced tomato and avocado. I pour a little dish of green salsa over this mix to kick things up a notch; hey, I’ve been in New Mexico a good five days. It’s a damn big sandwich for $5.65, and I can happily tick torta off my virginal Mexican food list. But I’m not quite ready to give tongue a try.

A massive shredded beef torts for under $6 at Torta's Rainbow in Espanola

A massive shredded beef torts for under $6 at Torta’s Rainbow in Espanola

Torta’s Rainbow
7745 North Riverside Drive, Espanola
Daily 9 am-8 pm
Tortas Rainbow on Urbanspoon

Sensational Santa Fe, New Mexico

Fabulous art, plaza and views at Museum Hill overlooking Santa Fe

Fabulous art, plaza and views at Museum Hill overlooking Santa Fe

What can I say about Santa Fe? It’s a funky, artsy place with a much bigger cultural footprint than its population of 70,000 adobe-style- dwelling folks would suggest. It boasts some 300 art galleries, the third most in all of America, and has a summer-long opera in a semi-outdoor theatre. Its Museum Hill houses the world-class Museum of International Folk Art and Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (the latter’s gift shop had the best, affordable southwest jewelry we saw in New Mexico). And its Railyard district, close to downtown, features the fine Santa Fe Farmers Market (Tuesday and Saturday mornings) and some avant-garde galleries.

At any of these places, you’ll see elegant, gray-haired women with arresting eyewear, jewelry and haircuts; if they’re not active or retired artists, they’re certainly patrons of the arts. In sum, Santa Fe is one of the few U.S. mountain state cities I would list as a destination in its own right.

What's a visit to Santa Fe without a gallery opening?

What’s a visit to Santa Fe without a gallery opening?

Not surprisingly, Santa Fe has attracted an enviable list of top chefs. While many of their innovative restaurants are beyond the price range of this road-trip blog, there are still lots of tasty, creative choices for the frugal traveller. Though this may be a place where you splurge once or twice.

I pull into *Counter Culture Cafe, in a dusty parking lot off Cerrillos Road, thinking I’ll just get a coffee. But I walk in to discover a full-scale eatery, with big plates of huevos, pancakes, meatball sandwiches and cold sesame noodles swinging by. You name it, they’ve got it (even huge, icing-slathered cinnamon rolls), living up to their motto “every entree served anytime.” I opt for something light—brie and Chimayo-chile walnuts alongside seasonal fruit—chased by a full-bodied Americano. CCC has that Santa Fe retro rustic look, with concrete floors, aluminum chairs and plexiglass-covered pine tables. It’s a nice place to hang out, and work your way through the menu.

The Counter Culture Cafe has a cozy, retro feel along with a fine, eclectic menu

The Counter Culture Cafe has a cozy, retro feel along with a fine, eclectic menu

Counter Culture Cafe
930 Baca Street, Santa Fe
Sunday-Monday 8 am-3 pm, Tuesday to Saturday 8 am-9 pm. Cash only
Counter Culture on Urbanspoon

Tecolote Cafe, a relaxed family-run place since 1980, definitely has a catchy slogan: Great Breakfast, No Toast. Instead of the latter, you get a basket with a mini biscuit, muffin and cinnamon roll, or a tortilla. Tecolote also has a twist on New Mexican breakfast standards. Its Huevos Yucatecos, for instance, surrounds the usual tortilla, eggs, cheese and chile mix with fried bananas. And my Sheepherder’s Breakfast is a delightfully refreshing bowl of grilled new potatoes, jalapenos and onion, topped with red and green chile, melted cheddar and my choice of two poached eggs. The menu warns the restaurant is not responsible for the chile being too hot, but I find the lingering heat just right. Oh, Tecolote actually does serve toast but just the French variety, from one of six house-made breads.

Rounding up some eggs in my Sheepherder's Breakfast at Tecolote Cafe

Rounding up some eggs in my Sheepherder’s Breakfast at Tecolote Cafe

Tecolote Cafe
1203 Cerrillos Road (a block from Counter Culture Café), Santa Fe
Tuesday to Sunday 7 am-2 pm. Closed Monday
Tecolote Cafe on Urbanspoon

I’ve already covered *Bobcat Bite in a recent best burger post: Forget being my first green chile cheeseburger. It was in the top five burgers I’ve ever eaten: 10 ounces of medium-rare heaven. The bad news is a rental dispute recently forced Bobcat to move out of its low-beamed character joint. The good news is the owners are relocating to Garrett’s Desert Inn and renaming the place Santa Fe Bite, with a planned opening date of late summer 2013.

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

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

Santa Fe Bite
311 Old Santa Fe Trail, Santa Fe
Wednesday to Saturday 11 am-8 pm, Sunday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday
Bobcat Bite Restaurant on Urbanspoon

I practically wilted when I bit into this croissant at Clafoutis

I practically wilted when I bit into a buttery croissant at Clafoutis

It’s disconcerting in Santa Fe to be greeted with “Bonjour, monsieur.” But at *Clafoutis, I’m truly entering a French cafe and all the excellence and attention to detail that brings. It’s a world where baker/co-owner Philippe Ligier turns out mouth-watering brioche, tartine (like a little pizza), tarte au fromage and chewy baguettes, along with fruit tarts to die for. There’s a full breakfast and lunch menu, but I go for the early morning simplicity of a superb double-shot Americano, without too much diluting water, and a warm, plain croissant (a bargain $1.85). The latter is such a perfect combination of buttery, flaky and soft that I quickly order a second. Clafoutis is situated in a beautifully restored old building, with a washed-wood ceiling and artful decorations, naturally, on the walls. This place has it all: excellence, creativity, ambience and charm. If you hit only one place in Santa Fe for a coffee and sinful treat, make it here. “Au revoir. Bonne journee,” says elegant Anne-laure Ligier as I leave. “A bientot.”

Co-owner Anne-laure Ligier brings French elegance to Clafoutis

Co-owner Anne-laure Ligier brings French elegance to Clafoutis

Clafoutis
402 North Guadalupe Street, Santa Fe
Monday to Saturday 7 am-4 pm. Closed Sunday
Clafoutis on Urbanspoon

I’m not a big fan of Santa Fe’s tourist-centric downtown core, but I realize most visitors want to wander past, and through, the high-end shops and to check the historic plaza off their list. Okay, you’ve already paid for parking or walked a ways to get here. You might as well get something to eat and drink. Luckily, there are two good choices, at either end of a third-floor mall. Even better, you can hit both without leaving your seat.

Let’s start things off with a pint at Marble Brewery’s Santa Fe Taproom. From the 10 or so beers on tap, I get an excellent Irish Red seasonal, glad I order a 21.5-ounce glass so I can savour its full-bodied, well-rounded flavour. On a nice day or evening, you can join the masses on the taproom’s patio, overlooking said historic plaza.

Now, this is what I call a pint: 21.5 ounces of liquid amber at Marble Brewery Taproom

Now, this is what I call a pint: 21.5 ounces of liquid amber at Marble Brewery Taproom

Marble Brewery Taproom
60 East San Francisco Street, Santa Fe
Sunday to Thursday noon-11 pm, Friday-Saturday noon to midnight
Marble Brewery Tap Room on Urbanspoon

If you don’t feel like moving down the beautifully-covered tile corridor, you can order a savoury pie from *Rooftop Pizzeria right from Marble Brewery’s Taproom. Indeed, I watch a server constantly hustling duck and artichoke and fresh mozzarella pizzas down the hallway to beer-swilling patrons. Rooftop boasts arguably the best thin-crust pizza in New Mexico. 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, cotya and asadero cheese and alfredo sauce. It goes down nicely with another pint of red.

Chicken, piñon nuts and a blue-corn crust add up to a fabulous pie at Rooftop Pizzeria

Chicken, piñon nuts and a blue-corn crust add up to a fabulous pie at Rooftop Pizzeria

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

Like folks in many parts of the world, New Mexicans can be particular about their cuisine. So it is with enchiladas, typically a chicken-and-cheese-filled tortilla doused in chile sauce. Rolled and side-by-side is best, say some. No, say others, get them stacked, with chile sauce between and on top of the layers (and sometimes with an egg on top). At *The Shed, a downtown adobe hacienda and Santa Fe landmark for six decades, I go for stacked, just to see what the fuss is about. I’m not normally a fan of the undistinguished rice and mashed beans that come with much Mexican food. But the accompanying pinto beans here are whole and flavourful, as is the posole—a hominy-like corn stewed with pork, garlic and red chile. As for stacked versus rolled, I can’t say. I’m too bowled over by the red chile this third generation of the the Carswell family is rightly famous for. Using chiles from the New Mexican mecca of Hatch, The Shed’s version is freshly ground, thick and concentrated, the best I’ve had on this three-week eating journey. Only at meal’s end do I notice the two pieces of French garlic bread, which I use to sop up the last bits of chile.

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

I go for the stacked enchiladas at The Shed, but it’s the red chile that blows me away

The Shed
113-1/2 East San Francisco Street
Monday to Saturday, lunch 11 am-2:30 pm, dinner 5:30 pm-9 pm. Closed Sunday
Shed Creative Cooking on Urbanspoon

Forget the chains when it comes to fast-food Mexican. Instead, seek out independent, hole-in-the-wall gems like El Parasol, which has grown from a little taco stand in the late 1950s to five family-owned New Mexico locations, each marked by a colourful umbrella logo. I go to the Cerrillos Road location twice—once for a warm breakfast burrito filled with egg, potato, cheese, chorizo and chile and again at lunch for a nice, handmade chicken tamale and a deep-fried shredded beef taco. It’s good, authentic stuff for only a few bucks. It’s mostly a takeout place, with benches around the spartan perimeter for waiting or hoovering down your food.

Handmade chicken tamale and deep-fried beef taco at El Parasol

Handmade chicken tamale and deep-fried beef taco at El Parasol

El Parasol
1833 Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe
Monday to Friday 7 am-8 pm, Saturday 8 am-7 pm, Sunday 9 am-3 pm
El Parasol - Santa Fe North on Urbanspoon

For me, the atmosphere at Tune-Up Café shares top billing with the food. Set in a quiet neighbourhood away from the tourist mobs (other than devoted fans of the Food Channel’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), the restaurant welcomes customers with festive outdoor lighting and an indoor, informal intimacy of mostly local, younger people sharing long tables. The lone bathroom is also worth checking out for its big bouquets of fresh and artificial flowers and a nice ceramic sculpture on the wall. The El Salvadoran influence of chef Jesus Rivera can be found in tamales wrapped in banana leaves, pupusas (thick, crispy cornmeal tortillas stuffed with flank steak and cheese), and mole chicken enchiladas.

The Tune-Up Cafe is a character place matched by some fine El Salvadoran-influenced food

The Tune-Up Cafe is a character place matched by some fine El Salvadoran-influenced food

Tune Up Cafe
1115 Hickox Street, Santa Fe
Weekdays 7 am-10 pm, weekends 8 am-10 pm
Tune-Up Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Museum Hill Cafe is one of the best lunch stops in Santa Fe, almost for the location alone. It’s situated on the lofty, expansive patio between several great museums and beside magnificent sculptures and gardens. There’s great art on the cafe walls inside and expansive views outside of the valley below and mountains beyond. The food is tasty and inventive, with menu specials such as beef and mint soup, curried lentil salad or, when we visit, a Mediterranean plate of dolmades, lamb wrapped in cabbage, pierogies and Greek salad. Top it off with a nice Illi-brewed coffee or Italian espresso and you’re ready for a couple more hours of museum wandering.

A fabulous Mediterranean plate at the Museum Hill Cafe

A fabulous Mediterranean plate at the Museum Hill Cafe

Museum Hill Cafe
706 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe
Tuesday to Sunday 11 am-3 pm. Closed Monday
Museum Hill Cafe 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