I’m driving south down coastal Highway 101, near Rockaway Beach, Oregon, when I suddenly spot this sign: “You have passed Kelly’s Brighton Marina. Turn around.” I veer off the road and do just that, having read about the place’s fresh-from-the water crab, oysters and clams. There are boats leaving the marina, people pulling crab pots from the water and a group of hunters in camouflage outfits and smudged faces departing with bags of live and cooked shellfish.
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.