Category Archives: Travel

One of the World’s Grand Drives: Through the Palouse Hills

The fabulous Palouse Hills, just north of Pullman, Washington

The fabulous Palouse Hills, just north of Pullman, Washington

Anyone who’s used those AAA state maps is familiar with their dotted lines, indicating a scenic highway. I follow those highlighted routes whenever I can, because they’re a pretty reliable indicator of a fabulous drive, often on a winding, uncrowded secondary highway. But occasionally, I’m left scratching my head.

For instance, I was recently driving north of Moscow, Idaho on Highway 95. Pretty enough, I guess, but hardly worthy of its exalted dotted status.

But just to the west, across the Washington border, are the Palouse Hills, crisscrossed by a network of secondary and smaller highways. Nary a one of them has earned the precious dots. Now, this is a crime. Continue reading


Great Salt Lake City Restaurants

Finca is in the vanguard of nouveau cuisine in Salt Lake City

Finca is in the vanguard of nouveau cuisine in Salt Lake City

Normally, I just breeze past Salt Lake City, trying to get through the hour-plus gauntlet of freeway hell on the I-15 as painlessly as possible and avoiding rush hour at all costs. But at least once, you have to go into the city, visit the temples and taste the heart of the Mormon experience. Besides, lot of folks live in the ever-expanding suburbs, so things are often not as hectic in the downtown area as you’d think, and you can get around fairly easily, once you figure out addresses like 900 West 1400 North; what’s that all about?

There are a number of fine, affordable restaurants in Salt Lake City for road trippers, especially in the south part of downtown. “The dining and coffee culture in Salt Lake is blowing up. There’s a lot of good, eclectic food,” says Joe Evans of Nobrow Coffee Werks. “And it’s very casual. Nearly every place you can walk into in jeans and a t-shirt.”

The rainy Salt Lake City marathon is taking off across the road in Liberty Park as I pull up to a local breakfast institution, The Park Cafe. That should be me, I think, shedding calories instead of adding to an expanding waistline. But the smell of cooking eggs and hotcakes overwhelms my good intentions, and I walk into the bright, former house. The pancake sandwich—featuring four slices of bacon and two eggs—looks enticing, as do the thick slices of French toast and overflowing omelette plates at neighbouring tables. But in honour of the lean runners warming up outside, I stick with a lighter but still carbo-loading order of multigrain pancakes, the denser texture offset by liberal handfuls of blueberries and a topping of sugarless syrup.

The Park Cafe, Salt Lake City

Lovely blueberry multigrain pancakes at The Park Cafe

The Park Cafe
604 East 1300 South
Daily 7 am-3 pm
Park Cafe on Urbanspoon

Salt Lake City… a capital of third-wave coffee? In a state where most people don’t drink it. Who’d have thunk it? Yet at *Nobrow Coffee Werks, founder Joe Evans is expounding in passionate detail about his latest, expensive toy, the world’s first coffee-shop version of the Alpha Dominche Steampunk, manufactured right here in SLC by some folks also dedicated to snowboarding. “It gives us control over all aspects of brewing, from the temperature and filtering to the agitation,” says brewista Joe. The result is a custom-brewed cup, using beans from local Charming Beard and other high-end roasters. I must say, it’s a complex, lovingly-crafted coffee—a great partnership between man and machine.

Joe Evans and the very latest in custom-brewed coffee at Nobrow Coffee Works; I’d say this is high brow

Nobrow Coffee Werks
179 West 900 South
Weekdays 6:30 am-7 pm, weekends 7:30 am-7 pm
Nobrow Coffee Werks on Urbanspoon

Joe sends me on to what he affectionately calls the “coffee Nazi” at *caffe d’bolla, closer to downtown Salt Lake City. If anything, John is even more passionate about in-house roasting and a 19th-century coffee-making tradition known as syphon, or vacuum, coffee. I don’t have the 20 minutes or the $8-plus for this style of hand-crafted coffee. But another customer does order it, and I eavesdrop as John explains the long history of this technique and the perfect temperature (155 F.) for tasting the full flavour array of any coffee. In the meantime, my excellent $3 Americano is delivered, with an explanation of the three-bean blend and the melon and red apple notes I can expect to taste. The owners also travel to Asia annually to source top-quality teas. I take a pound of roasted coffee to go; it’s among the best beans I’ve purchased anywhere in the past couple of years.

More coffee-making wizardry (this time syphon style) at caffe d'bolla

More coffee-making wizardry (this time syphon style) at caffe d’bolla

caffe d’bolla
249 East 400 South, Suite 100
Monday to Saturday 9 am-6 pm. Closed Sunday
Caffe D'Bolla on Urbanspoon

After having my ID painstaking recorded at the door, I adjust my eyes to the gloom and enter Lucky 13 Bar & Grill. As advertised, it’s a dive bar, with a rock soundtrack and small, high tables, but too early in the morning for a Bloody Mary, at least for me. I’m here instead for the highly regarded burgers, though I can’t bring myself to try the recommended one with peanut butter. Instead, I go for the signature Celestial ($10), a big, meaty, juicy patty loaded with house-smoked bacon, caramelized onion and cheddar (hold the barbecue sauce). The included fries are hot and crispy and come with my first sampling of fry sauce, a tangy Utah staple that mixes mayo and ketchup.

Time for a great dive bar burger at Lucky 13 Bar & Grill

Time for a great dive bar burger at Lucky 13 Bar & Grill

Lucky 13 Bar & Grill
135 West 1300 South
Daily 10 am-2 pm
Lucky 13 on Urbanspoon

*Finca is a decidedly more upscale spot in a gorgeous building, with large windows, gray decor and piles of wood for the grill. Finca specializes in tapas and small plates such as my beet salad—a work of art, with a velvety house ricotta base, a ring of beet chunks and a middle tower of argula topped by macerated strawberries and toasted almonds. Bigger plates include huevos benedicto, a lamb and pork meatball sandwich and a shrimp-and-calamari decorated Cobb salad—all done with panache.

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

1291 South 1100 E
Monday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm, Sunday 10 am-3 pm
Finca on Urbanspoon

Half the fun at *Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli is just wandering around, looking at all the meats and cheeses and dipping bread in the excellent olive oils and balsamic vinegars. This Salt Lake City landmark ages more than 200 farmstead cheeses in its cheese “cave”, has an in-house salami maker and sells more than 300 types of chocolate bars. Ask for a sample of their house-made burrata, a creamy, stringy mozzarella that comes wrapped in little green pouches. Of course, you’ll want to order one of their famous sandwiches; a half will suffice moderate appetites and costs less than $5. The award-winning Caputo is loaded with prosciutto, mortadella, salami, provolone, olive oil and balsamic, while the Muffaletta adds a spicier olive salad to the deli cuts and comes on a ciabatta roll.

Just some of the cave-aged cheeses at Tony Caputo's Market & Deli

Just some of the cave-aged cheeses at Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli

Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli
314 West 300 South (and two other Salt Lake City locations)
Monday to Saturday 9 am-7 pm, Sunday (they mustn’t be Mormons) 10 am-5 pm
Caputo's Market & Deli on Urbanspoon

Red Iguana is as authentic as old-school Mexican gets in Salt Lake City. This longtime favourite is colourful and crowded, with tables tucked into every cranny of the sprawling rooms. At prime times, there’s a lineup of folks waiting to dig into healthy portions of good Mexican food, including the Iguana’s legendary mole plates, which cost around $16.

Order a mole dish at this Salt Lake City institution: Red Iguana

Order a mole dish at this Salt Lake City institution: Red Iguana

Red Iguana
736 West North Temple and 866 West South Temple
Monday to Thursday 11 am-10 pm, Friday 11 am-11 pm, Saturday 10 am-11 pm, Sunday (yes, Sunday) 10 am-9pm
Caputo's Market & Deli on Urbanspoon

The flagship Mountain West Burrito (in Provo, just south of Salt Lake City) used to be a gas station. The only thing that could possibly give me gas now is the organic beans—which along with meat or veggies, brown rice, cheese and perhaps sour cream and guacamole is soon stretching a regular-sized burrito, and my stomach, with warm goodness. The jumbo is recommended only if I plan on running up a nearby hill overlooking Provo. Mountain West (“We do not own a can opener”) believes in using pasture-raised meats, making everything fresh daily and adding a little kick to the proceedings. In fact, the green chile sauce I pour over my burrito has more bite than anything I’ve had in New Mexico. My lower lip tingles as I drive out of town and back onto the interstate.

The name says it all: Mountain West Burrito

Mountain West Burrito
1796 North 950 West, Provo (also another Provo and a Lehi location)
Monday to Saturday 11 am-9 pm. Closed Sunday
Caputo's Market & Deli on Urbanspoon

Feasting in Phoenix: Over 10 Food and Drink Stops in Under 48 Hours

Dinner-hour rush at Joe's Farm Grill in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert

Dinner-hour rush at Joe’s Farm Grill in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert

Here’s a news flash: Phoenix is big, sprawling and crisscrossed with freeways. It’s suburbia taken to its illogical conclusion in the water-parched “Valley” as the locals call it. Hope you like heat. The temperature climbed to over 90 F. when I was there in mid-April; at higher elevations not that far away, it dipped below freezing at night.

A friend said I would hate Phoenix: the heat, the crowds, the cookie-cutter retirement communities. I didn’t have strong feelings either way. It was mostly a navigation problem to solve, where a GPS device certainly helped. I was there over a weekend, so the traffic was surprisingly light, and a couple I stayed with through airbnb gave me a Monday morning route that avoided the choked freeways.

There are some good things about the Phoenix area for the road-trip diner. Because it’s so car-centeric and sprawling, it’s often pretty easy to find free parking at or close to your destination. The warm climate means it’s also a great place to have an evening meal or drink outdoors. And in a city this big, there are lots of good, independent places to eat or drink, often at reasonable prices. I managed to gorge at over 10 great eateries and drinkeries in less than two days… without requiring bypass surgery.

As to why you’d be going to, or passing through, Phoenix, there’s spring baseball, a surprising amount of hiking and climbing in the surrounding hills and, of course, golf all winter long. Thousands of Canadian snowbirds can’t all be wrong.

I’ve pretty much avoided the DDD curse on my road-food journeys. The airing of a Guy Fieri Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program on the Food Network can reportedly double the number of customers thronging to many featured restaurants. The infrequent occasions when I’ve hit a DDD spot, I’ve gone early or late in the meal cycle to avoid the lines. But I arrive at *Joe’s Farm Grill in upscale Gilbert, outside of Phoenix, on a glorious spring Saturday at 5 pm. Outside, the line extends to the curb. Inside, customers are inching along through those winding queue dividers you see in airports. The waiting gives me time to study the menu and the history of the Johnston family farm, which still grows lettuce and tomatoes used in the meals and tends olive, date and fruit trees.

The line does move smartly, thanks to a well-oiled crew of at least eight that churns out burgers, chicken sandwiches and smoked pork. In no time, a little pager buzzes and my Fontina burger is ready, loaded with roasted red peppers, mushrooms, pecan pesto and melted cheese. By the time I’ve put the lettuce and tomato on top, it takes a minute to get through the greenery and into the moist, perfectly cooked patty, wonderfully complemented by an order of rosemary-dill panko crumb onion rings. The clincher is sitting on the patio, looking out at the farm, alongside young families at picnic tables. Joe’s efficiently serves fine food, in a wonderful setting. Just try to get there before everyone else does.

Great patty, farm-fresh produce and panko onion rings add up to a perfect burger at Joe's Farm Grill

Great patty, farm-fresh produce and panko onion rings add up to a perfect burger at Joe’s Farm Grill

Joe’s Farm Grill
3000 East Ray Road, Gilbert
Daily breakfast 8 am-11 am, lunch and dinner 11 am-9 pm
Joe's Farm Grill on Urbanspoon

Want to check out the bar scene in the Phoenix area? Head over to SanTan Brewing Co. in Chandler, southeast of the big city. On a sultry Saturday evening, the taps are flowing, the music is pounding and the patrons are yelling to be heard. If it’s too noisy and hot inside, head to the outdoor patio (it’s one of the benefits of living in Phoenix), where there’s a long row of counter stools behind the busy bartenders. Mix the suds with something substantial, like a big plate of nachos or a massive sandwich.

SanTan Brewing
8 South San Marcos Place, Chandler
Monday to Thursday 11 am-1 am, Friday-Saturday 11 am-2 am, Sunday 10 am-1 am
Santan Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

I walk into a dimly lit bar, where about eight guys are hunched over a wooden counter. It’s 7:30, on a Sunday morning in aptly named Dick’s Hideaway (there’s no sign above the door, only a menu in the window). The patrons are nursing Bloody Marys, beers, glasses of red and maybe hangovers. But they’re mostly here to inhale honking big breakfasts, served on hot pewter plates. There is another room, with a couple of cool, copper common tables. But really, you want to be rubbing shoulders on a bar stool, watching a short-order pro whip up everything from French toast to eggs Benedict with two chunks of tenderloin steak. It’s not cheap. My jalapeno Eggs Benedict runs $15 but features thick pieces of Nuesle’s pork loin and comes, as most of the plates do, with big scoops of good potatoes and beans. It’s a massive amount of first-class food (the couple behind me wisely shares a plate) in a unique environment worth checking out, if you can snag a seat.

Even my hands are a bit shaky as I dig into this massive eggs benedict breakfast at Dick's Hideaway

Even my hands are a bit shaky as I dig into this massive eggs benedict breakfast at Dick’s Hideaway

Dick’s Hideaway
6008 North 16 Street, Phoenix
Brunch and lunch daily 7 am-4 pm, dinner 4 pm
Dick's Hideaway on Urbanspoon

I’m not sure if everywhere in Phoenix is like this, but there’s a healthy line at *Lux Central at 8 on a Sunday morning. But they’ve nailed the efficiency thing, taking my Americano order while I’m standing in line. It’s ready, with a little nametag on a saucer, by the time I reach the till. En route, I pass tempting scones and mixed-berry corn muffins, but the most spectacular dish is a puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake (only $6) that’s made to order. Lux is a cool place to people watch from a retro couch or a table lined with old-fashioned typewriters.

Lux Central is a cool place to hang out and savour a coffee

Lux Central is a cool place to hang out and savour a coffee

This puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake is a stunner at Lux Central

This puffy, fruit-laden Dutch pancake is a stunner at Lux Central

Lux Central
4400 North Central Avenue (near downtown Phoenix)
Sunday to Thursday 6 am-midnight, Friday-Saturday 6 am-2 am
Lux Central on Urbanspoon

I seem to have hit a Phoenix daily double: a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives-featured place with no crowds. Indeed on a late Sunday morning, Los Taquitos Mexican Grill, a cheery but unassuming place in a Phoenix strip mall, is mostly vacant. It’s certainly not like this on Taco Tuesdays, when folks are lining up for $1 meat tacos. But the asada, pastor and pollo tacos are still a bargain at the regular a la carte price of $1.49, as is my excellent fish version ($1.99), featuring tender chunks of flesh topped by onions, cilantro and salsa in a double-tortilla envelope. What seals the deal is the server handing me a squeeze bottle of tomatillo-jalapeno sauce so fresh it’s still warm. I have room for a nice ceviche tostada—a crisp tortilla covered in shrimp marinated in lime juice and mixed with pico de gallo.

A fine shrimp ceviche tostada at Los Taquitos Mexican Grill

A fine shrimp ceviche tostada at Los Taquitos Mexican Grill

Los Taquitos Mexican Grill
7000 North 16 Street, Phoenix (also 4747 East Elliot Road)
Monday to Saturday 9 am-9 pm, Sunday 9 am-8 pm
Los Taquitos Grill on Urbanspoon

Hankering for a torta the size of a tortoise? Look no further than Los Reyes de la Torta, where the Latino locals head en masse for a fix of the big Mexican sandwiches, along with oversized quesadillas and sopes (layered masa disks). If you can’t decide which of 20 tortas to order, go with the monster Del Rey ($9.50): The meats alone include ham, pork sirloin, breaded beef, chorizo and hot dogs, along with some veggies for balance. My Mexican torta ($8) is a more restrained meal-and-a-half, featuring grilled steak and onions, refried beans and avocado. While manfully tackling this, I watch families converse in Spanish, tuck into their meals with gusto and sip from big goblets of agua frescas festooned with little umbrellas.

A hearty steak torta at Los Reyes de la Torta

A hearty steak torta at Los Reyes de la Torta

Los Reyes de la Torta
9230 North 7 Street, Phoenix (also another Phoenix and a Tempe location)
Monday to Thursday 10 am-9 pm, Friday 10 am-10 pm, weekends 9 am-10 pm
Los Taquitos Grill on Urbanspoon

How can a penny-pinching road tripper occasionally enjoy higher-end fare without blowing the budget? Why, by taking advantage of happy hours, which many fancier places offer to lure early-bird customers. Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar is no exception, knocking a dollar or two off many drinks and a number of menu items from 3-6 pm an unusual seven days a week. After getting, say, a discount margarita or Pinot gris, be sure to order a big bowl of excellent, chunky guacamole. The accompanying first-class, salty chips start out as house-made tortillas turned into tortilla chips. I would have been happy just filling up on this $5 treat. The grilled, wild shrimp tacos are also superior, emboldened by the hot sauce that’s, you guessed it, made in house. I should have stopped there, only $11 poorer for a pint and a couple of fine appies. But I then add a cortada salad, not noticing in the menu description the words “corn chips” and “crunchy” dried peas, which threaten my molars. Gallo Blanco is part of the charming, boutique Clarendon Hotel, which features a cool pool, framed on one end by a wall of water.

Fabulous guacamole and chips at Gallo Blance Cafe & Bar

Fabulous guacamole and chips at Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Be sure to check out the funky pool at the Clarendon Hotel, beside the Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Be sure to check out the funky pool at the Clarendon Hotel, beside the Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar

Gallo Blanco Cafe & Bar
401 West Clarendon Avenue, Phoenix
Sunday to Thursday 7:30 am-10 pm, Friday-Saturday 7:30 am-11 pm
Gallo Blanco Cafe on Urbanspoon

As I mentioned in an earlier post, *D’Lish Drive-Thru (“Healthy on the go”) is a fantastic place for breakfast. It’s well worth going inside to watch the friendliest, liveliest crew of guys in action. While I’m eating an excellent breakfast AZ Burro—featuring smoked turkey, avocado, egg whites and a hash patty—Josh comes over with a complementary cup of Breakfast Buzz: an invigorating iced mix of protein powder, espresso, peanut butter, banana and chocolate. Sounds strange, but it’s delicious. Why don’t more cafes concoct creative drinks like this? Another innovative breakfast item is an organic quinoa porridge with vanilla macaroon granola, fruit and steamed milk. Apparently, it’s popular with Arizona Cardinal football players, who double up with a burro or maybe a California Club on toasted artisan bread.

A lively crew greets you at the fabulous D'Lish Drive-Thru in Scottsdale

A lively crew greets you at the fabulous D’Lish Drive-Thru in Scottsdale

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

D’lish Drive Thru
2613 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale (also a Tempe location)
Weekdays 6 am-4 pm, weekends 7 am-4 pm
D'Lish Drive Thru on Urbanspoon

The folks at D’Lish tell me to get a Philly cheesesteak sandwich at nearby DeFalco’s Italian Deli. “It’s the best in The Valley,” one server says. But it’s an Italian deli, and I’m feeling like meatballs, which are house made, as is the tomato sauce. Squeezed inside a soft roll, the meatballs are indeed large, fall-apart tender and nicely seasoned. A guy at the next table takes delivery of an overflowing Philly cheesesteak. Mmmm. I’m sure either choice would be the right one.

House-made meatballs and tomato sauce inside a soft roll at DeFalco's Italian Deli in Scottsdale

House-made meatballs and tomato sauce inside a soft roll at DeFalco’s Italian Deli in Scottsdale

DeFalco’s Italian Deli
2334 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Monday to Saturday 10 am-9 pm, Sunday 11 am-9 pm
Defalco's Italian Deli and Grocery on Urbanspoon

The hostess at *The Parlor Pizzeria guides me to her favourite seats, at the counter overlooking the wood-fired oven, naturally. The hair-cutting chairs are reminders of the previous tenant, a beauty salon. “Can I get a cut while I’m waiting?” I ask. “If we’ve got time,” she quips. After some five minutes in a 460 F. oven, my eight-inch Forager pizza ($10 for a generous six slices) emerges with a lovely, bubbly char on the thin crust. The topping is a compelling, rich mix of wild boar meatball, rabbit sausage and finocchiona (boy, these Italian salamis play havoc with spell check). Add some radicchio, thinly sliced fennel and rosemary and I’ve got a first-rate pie, chased with a little French press pot of java. As for the trim, I need an inch taken off… my belly.

Boar meatballs and rabbit sausage highlight this great thin-crust pie at The Parlor Pizzeria

Boar meatballs and rabbit sausage highlight this great thin-crust pie at The 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

When you get right down to it, the bedrock of Mexican cuisine is the lowly tortilla. It’s used to wrap burritos, embrace enchiladas and precariously hold together tacos. When deep fried, it becomes tortilla chips and the base for sopes, tostadas and flautas. But wanting to taste a tortilla unsullied by other flavours, I head to a Phoenix institution, Carolina’s Mexican Food, where they steadily churn out fresh tortillas. I order a single tortilla, with only a pool of melted butter added. It comes out warm, incredibly fresh, chewy… and large enough to wrap me as a shroud. All this for $1.25. The next time, I’ll try something fancier like a chimichanga. But this is about celebrating the tortilla in all its naked glory.

This massive, fresh-made tortilla set me back all of $1.25 at Carolina's Mexican Food

This massive, fresh-made tortilla set me back all of $1.25 at Carolina’s Mexican Food

Carolina’s Mexican Food
1202 East Mohave Street (and one other Phoenix location)
Weekdays 7 am-7:30 pm, Saturday 7 am-6 pm. Closed Sunday
Carolina's Mexican Food on Urbanspoon

Road-trip Dining in Tucson, Arizona

Saguro-studded landscape just outside Tucson

Saguaro-studded landscape just outside Tucson

For a city of 500,000, Tucson is relatively easy to get around for road trippers. The downtown is compact, and the funky, independent shops are mostly found along 4th Avenue, near the 27,000-student University of Arizona. Only the spectacular Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum are away from the city core. From a food perspective, I’ve kept things simple, mostly focusing on some fine places along 6th Avenue (exit 261 off Highway 10) and parts nearby.

EXO Roast is a great place to savour a handcrafted coffee

EXO Roast is a great place to savour a handcrafted coffee

Let’s wake up with a couple of first-class coffee roasters. *EXO Roast Co. is a great mix of old and new. The old starts with maybe the nicest refurbished brick place I’ve been in (see photo); it’s just a great spot to sip a brew. The roaster is gas fired, and there’s an actual turntable spinning Gunfighter Ballads by Marty Robbins. “We want to keep things as old fashioned as possible,” says co-owner Amy Smith. But then there’s the new, including one of those smartphone credit card readers and a row of newfangled ceramic filters for making handcrafted pour-over coffees. Ultimately, what matters is the quality of the brew, and my Bolivian pour over is pungent yet full of subtle flavours. Amy hands me a to-go bag of Ethiopian Sidano to keep the memories lingering on my tongue when I’m long down the road.

EXO Roast Co.
403 North 6 Avenue
Tuesday to Saturday 7 am-6 pm, Sunday-Monday 7 am-3 pm
Exo Roast on Urbanspoon

Cafe Aqui is a spartan space focused on only one thing: excellent coffee

Cafe Aqui is a spartan space focused on only one thing: excellent coffee

At *Cafe Aqui, it’s all about the coffee, as indeed it should be. Other than a small couch and a couple of chairs, the unadorned space is dominated by an 11-pound-capacity roaster that produces small batches of premium beans. From an espresso machine in the back, co-owner Sarah pulls me an excellent Americano, leaning toward the darker, full-bodied roast I prefer. While most of Cafe Aqui’s production is destined for local restaurants and the like, it’s nice to be able to get a casual, first-class brew from the two people doing the roasting.

Sarah and Oliver run Cafe Aqui in Tucson

Sarah and Oliver run Cafe Aqui in Tucson

Cafe Aqui
1317 South 6 Avenue
Wednesday to Friday 8:30 am-5 pm, weekends 10 am-4 pm, with sometimes “erratic” summer hours

“It’s a Tucson tradition,” says Oliver from Cafe Aqui. “You have to try a Sonoran hot dog.” “What kind should I order?” I ask. “There’s only one kind. Just ask for everything on it, and add some salsa and guacamole from a little cooler.” So I trudge a block in the warm Tucson sun to Ricos Hot Dogs (1150 South 6 Avenue) a little, award-winning outdoor stand in a gravel parking lot. A minute or so after I faithfully place my order, the cook has everything nicely grilled—bacon-wrapped dog, onions—and covered in sauce, with a charred jalapeño on the side. The fine, toasted bun really brings everything together. In no time, this $2.50 treat is down my gullet, a perfect mid-afternoon snack (order two if you want a more filling lunch) and something quite different than the dogs I’m used to. As a bonus, my server, Jesus, offers me some of his outside lunch, a Mexican shrimp cocktail.
La Baguette Parisienne on Urbanspoon

A Tucson tradition: a Sonoran hot, from Ricos

A Tucson tradition: a Sonoran hot dog, from Ricos

*Taqueria Pico de Gallo is a no-frills stucco taco shop that churns out some of the best and most affordable Mexican street food you’ll find in southern Arizona. Perfect. I get a succulent fish taco and take the plunge on a lengua one. It would almost be easier if I didn’t know lengua means “tongue” in English, but the chunks of meat are surprisingly moist and tender. Who knows, barbacoa (cow’s head) could be next. I order both tacos ($3.75 total) on thick corn tortillas, which add a flavourful, crumbly texture to the mix. Maybe a knife and fork would be better than the three-napkin, hands-on approach. Nah. A fellow customer explains what a couple of popular items are: a large jug full of a coffee-and-cream coloured liquid on the counter is horchata, (a rice-based drink with cinnamon) and big plastic cups, which keep being pulled from the fridge, contain slices of fresh fruit.

Taqueria Pico de Gallo serves up authentic Mexican cuisine

Taqueria Pico de Gallo serves up authentic Mexican cuisine

... like these fish and lengua (tongue) tacos

… like these fish and lengua (tongue) tacos

Taqueria Pico de Gallo
2618 South 6 Avenue
Monday to Thursday and Sunday 8 am-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 8 am-10 pm
Taqueria Pico de Gallo on Urbanspoon

It’s full-fledged spring in Tucson, so what could be better on a balmy, shirt-sleeve evening than quaffing a frothy red Irish ale in an outdoor garden? *La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina may be near the heart of downtown, but it feels like a pastoral retreat miles removed. Under the wide spread of a magnificent Arizona silver-leaf oak (“I don’t know what we’d do without it,” says the owner) bedecked with tiny white lights, maybe a hundred people are sipping drinks and munching on meals while listening to a tight, five-piece bluegrass band. It’s a mix of very young and old, and everyone in between. On nights like this, I’d consider moving to this climate.

What could be nicer than hanging out in La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina's garden on a warm spring evening?

What could be nicer than hanging out in La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina’s garden on a warm spring evening?

La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina
201 North Court Avenue
Opens daily at 11 am, except 10 am Saturday, and closes late except for mid-afternoon Sunday and Monday
La Cocina Restaurant and Cantina on Urbanspoon

The problem, for me, with most pancakes, waffles and French toast is they’re stuffed and layered with syrups, compotes, sweet creams and even sugary whipped cream. So it’s a distinct pleasure at *Mother Hubbard Cafe to order a savoury green-corn waffle, with corn and red onion sprinkled inside, a swirl of roasted green chile on top and sugar-free syrup or jelly on the side. Bonus points for offering Cafe Aqui coffee, also available in a four-cup French press pot. Mother Hubbard’s (“Contemporary Native American Comfort Food”) features a lot of gluten-free foods and a wide range of red and green chiles, prepared in house and explained in detail on the menu.

First-rate green-corn waffle at Mother Hubbard Cafe

First-rate green-corn waffle at Mother Hubbard Cafe

Mother Hubbard Cafe
14 West Grant Road
Monday to Saturday 6 am-2 pm, Sunday 7 am-2 pm
Mother Hubbard's Cafe on Urbanspoon

I’ve had a lot of chile and meat on this road trip. It’s time to switch gears and go vegetarian at Cafe Desta. To add a further twist, let’s make it Ethiopian, which uses complex spice mixes to create unique flavours. There are various meat options, but I’m using a steal-of-a-deal lunch special for $9 to choose three excellent vegetarian dishes. They range from a spicy red lentil to wilted collard greens to curried cabbage, potatoes and carrots. What makes Ethiopian cuisine unique is its use of a crepe-like, slightly sour injera bread. You break off a piece of the spongy bread and use it to grab hunks of the stewy dishes, which are then popped in your mouth. I miscalculate the amount the injera I need, and end up with food on my plate and nothing to eat it with. The kind owner spots my dilemma and quickly brings over another basket of injera. Either way, it’s finger-licking good. Not surprisingly, their coffee only uses Ethiopian beans.

Fabulous Ethiopian vegetarian plate at Cafe Desta

Fabulous Ethiopian vegetarian plate at Cafe Desta

Cafe Desta
758 South Stone Avenue
Daily 11 am-9 pm
Cafe Desta on Urbanspoon

It’s mid-Saturday morning at La Baguette Parisienne, and there’s a line stretching to the door. Regulars are there for big flat French cookies, turnovers, croissants and a wide range of fresh-baked breads, including braided baguettes, cranberry walnut and miche. A sign in front of the treats reads “Do not reach over the glass.” It’s all I can do to obey.

Choose a loaf, or two, or three at La Baguette Parisienne

Choose a loaf, or two, or three at La Baguette Parisienne

La Baguette Parisienne
7851 East Broadway Boulevard
Weekdays 7:30 am-5 pm, Saturday 7:30 am-3 pm, Sunday 7:30 am-1 pm
La Baguette Parisienne 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

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

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