With winter persisting well into April in Calgary, it was definitely time for a spring road trip to the U.S. southwest and its warming sun. The destination this time was all the way south to Tucson, Arizona—a trip involving plentiful hiking, eating and drinking.
But as they say, the journey is often as important as the destination. So before I delve more deeply into Tucson eats and drinks over the coming weeks, here’s a pictorial sampling of road life on the three-day route down and on the way back.
It’s a great time to be an American, especially if you’re travelling to Canada. The soaring greenback is a big reason why Whistler, B.C. is enjoying a stellar ski season and Canmore’s vacation condo market is hopping in an otherwise bleak Alberta economy.
By contrast, it’s a terrible time to be a Canadian considering a U.S. vacation. The realization that it’s going to cost you $1.45 Canadian to buy one measly American dollar is enough to make most northerners curl up in the fetal position till the snow starts melting in, say, May.
But it’s still possible to have a reasonably affordable trip stateside, particularly if you make it a road trip rather than a flight to a destination resort. Mind you, the approach I suggest leans much more to the dirtbag than the five star. You have been warned.
Fill er up
The biggest advantage for a U.S. road-tripping adventure is the cost of gasoline. It’s traditionally been a bargain, given the much lower gas taxes south of the border. But even with the badly wounded loonie, you might still save some money.
It depends on where you live and where you’re traveling. In Alberta, for example, you can fill up right now for under 80 cents (Cndn) a litre, compared with more than $1 in B.C. Western U.S. prices range from about $1.76 (US) a gallon in Denver to $2.60 in Los Angeles. Obviously, there’s a price to pay for living on or visiting the west coast of either country. I call it a smug tax.
Figuring out your fill-up cost involves converting litres to American gallons and then converting Canadian dollars to those $1.45 American ones. For a fill-up of 50 litres (13.2 U.S. gallons), it will cost an Albertan $40 and a British Columbian more than $50, at home in Cndn. dollars. That same amount of gas will cost you $33.68 in Denver and $49.76 in L.A., in converted Cndn dollars.
The bottom line is the cost of gasoline isn’t going to be a deal breaker for deciding whether to hit the U.S. road or plan a staycation. And if you’re in Oregon, where you’re not allowed by law to fill your own gas tank, the attendant will usually clean your windows.
Skip the hotels and motels
I once did a month-long road trip where my total cost of accommodation was $50. How did I pull off this magic trick? Other than two nights of camping and a couple parked on urban side streets, I mostly stayed in 24-hour Walmart parking lots for free.
I’d much rather sleep in the great outdoors, preferably in a magnificent state or national park campground along the crashing ocean or beneath a lofty canopy. While it’s going to cost you about $30 US a night to camp in the redwood forests of northern California, you can find more spartan digs for maybe $10 elsewhere. Do a bit of sleuthing and you can discover national forest or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) spots for free. Running water and toilets, however, may be optional.
Still, it’s a much more pastoral experience than parking in the distant corner of an asphalt Walmart parking lot, with blinding street lights and roaring vehicles and motorized street sweepers at all hours of the night. A camper of some sort, with curtains, is the best way to keep the glare and din at bay. In a pinch, though, good ear plugs and an eye shade will suffice if you’re curled up in the back of your car.
While you’re tossing and turning, just think of the $50 to $100 a night you’re saving by not booking a motel bed, TV and rattling air-conditioning unit. And who needs a shower? If you’re desperate, you can always make do with the sink in a Walmart washroom, open around the clock.
Until fairly recently, I figured eating out at American restaurants was 10 to 20 per cent cheaper than in Canada, even with the exchange rate (portions are generally bigger, too). But when you’re paying upwards of 40 per cent to exchange loonies into greenbacks, that advantage has more than disappeared.
Of course, the cheapest feeding solution is to buy groceries and cook them wherever you’re staying. But since this is a road-trip dining blog, let’s look at a few ways you can still eat out somewhat affordably.
- Beer and burger – At Moab Brewery, on the doorstep of Arches National Park in Utah, a burger and fries is $9 (US) and a 16-ounce pint of their ale $4.25. By comparison, a burger and fries in the Alberta resort towns of Canmore and Banff will set you back about $16 (Cndn), washed down with a $7.50, 19-ounce pint. So even with the steep conversion rate, the equivalent total cost in Canadian dollars is $19.20 Moab and $23.50 Banff. Obviously, prices will vary in different places, but clearly not a deal breaker.
- Better breakfasts – Breakfast is generally the best value, both in cost (often under $10 in the U.S.) and volume; you might not need to eat lunch. Omelettes don’t seem much cheaper stateside, but you can often find a stack of pancakes for $5 or $6.
- Stock up on sandwiches – You can find some monstrous, made-to-order, delicious sandwiches in many U.S. delis and cafes. At the Sandwich Spot in Palm Springs, the humongous Grand Slam—featuring turkey, ham and roast beef—was $8. I gave half to a street person, but it would have fed me for two days. A half sandwich at Grove Market deli, in Salt Lake City, was $7 and still weighed nearly two pounds. It was $8 for a similar behemoth at Compagno’s Delicatessen, in Monterey, California.
I could go on, but I have to wipe the drool off my face… and grab a road map.
A sure sign you’re culinary funky is the ubiquitous presence of the bleached-hair god, Guy Fieri, ruler of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Well, when some 10 Salt Lake City eateries have appeared on the show (plus endless reruns), you know you’ve arrived on the road-trip food map.
An appearance on Triple D can easily double the turnout of diners, leading to long lines, the bane of road trippers. But with a bit of careful planning, I’m mostly able to slide right into three Salt Lake City restaurants that have graced DDD.
Does it count that I ate at *Lone Star Taqueria a good decade ago, before it became discovered by the outside world? Didn’t think so. Back then, it was an insider hotspot, recommended to us by a local backcountry skier we met while making powder turns in the nearby Cottonwood Canyon mountains. It was certainly funky, a brightly painted old drive-in with a decorated junker out front and cold beer served in cowboy-boot shaped glasses. And the fish tacos…. oh, my. There certainly wasn’t anything like that back in Canada.
So I’m curious to see what it’s like now. I’m delighted to report it’s still dishing out great tacos and monster burritos ($7.69), with only one guy at the counter in front of me at 11 am. It’s still also laid-back quirky: cowboy boots on the fence posts, little metal tables and lots of natural lighting.
My pescada tacos ($3.49 per) are loaded with grilled fish, shredded cabbage and jalapeño mayo, the double corn tortillas needed to keep everything intact. On a side table are four bottles of house-made salsa to add more flavour and heat, if desired. On my way out the door, I pick up a little bag of their addictive, crispy tortilla chips to munch on during the long drive north to Canada.
Lone Star Taqueria
2265 East Fort Union Blvd, Salt Lake City
Monday to Thursday 11 am-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-10 pm. Closed Sunday
Oh Mai Vietnamese Sandwich Kitchen was recently featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, so cue the lineups. But when I walk in at the strategic opening hour of 10 am, I’m the first customer, and they’re still getting set up for the lunch-hour rush.
Having already watched the dish being made on TV, I immediately know what kind of banh mi (Vietnamese sub-style sandwich) I want: garlic butter ribeye steak on a toasted eight-inch baguette. It’s an unusual combination, the tender meat enhanced by the crunch of house-made pickled carrots and a flavourful black pepper onion vinaigrette. I must say it’s one of the best Vietnamese subs I’ve had and a hefty bargain at $5.68.
Oh Mai Vietnamese Sancwich Kitchen
3425 South State Street, Salt Lake City
Monday to Saturday 10 am-9 pm. Closed Sunday
After a very short wait on an outside stool at *Red Iguana, I’m beckoned by host Mitch: “Grandfather always said: Time to eat!” But what to eat? I’m here for the signature Mexican moles (all $16), but there’s no fewer than seven styles to choose from. No problem.
My server, Jesus, simply brings me a little plate with samples of all the rich, complex sauces to try. After careful deliberation, I go for the mole negro—featuring chile mulato, negro pasilla, raisins, walnuts, bananas and, of course, Mexican chocolate. During the scant minutes before the main event arrives, I scoop up the sampler vestiges with the complimentary tortilla chips. Who needs salsa?
The mole negro is a heaping plate of brown deliciousness over turkey, packing enough heat to start my lips a tingling and my brow perspiring. I scoop up the remaining sauce with warm corn tortillas, scarcely touching the accompanying rice and beans. Believe me, you won’t go hungry here.
The consistently fine food is one thing. The atmosphere is another: vibrant walls of orange and green in the rabbit’s warren of rooms, the outgoing, casually efficient staff, the families with wailing infants, just discernible above the happy din of people having a good time.
There’s a reason this place is usually humming. The Cardenas family has been doing it right for three decades, long before there was a Food Network.
736 West North Temple (two other Salt Lake City locations)
Opens 11 am weekdays, 10 am weekends
Finally, here’s a Salt Lake City place you won’t likely find on TV, or on the Internet for that matter. But local cognoscenti can steer you to this one-of-a-kind Mexican joint.
Tired of the typical taco stand or truck? Just drive on down to Victor’s for something truly unique: a tire shop (“no credit check”) that doubles as a Mexican restaurant.
I can’t say I’ve ever ordered tamales in a room rimmed (another bad pun) with gleaming hubcaps. If you’re waiting for wheel work, you can sit in the small, attached restaurant and enjoy some fine, inexpensive pork skin tacos, Milanesa tortas (a breaded steak sandwich), genuine horchata drinks or green salsa pork tamales, the latter at $1.50 a pop. But seeing as how this business is dedicated to tires, I think I’ll take my meal to go.
After eating a tofu scramble in Salt Lake City the day before, I’m ready for some real eggs and bacon, better yet piled between two pancakes. At *Penny Ann’s Cafe, they’re called “Heavenly Hotcakes”, with good reason. Yes, they’re platter big but fluffy and flavourful, thanks to the use of sour cream in the scratch-made batter. So good that even after I’m full and the remains have cooled, I can’t help nibbling. Though I must draw the line when I’m offered a slice of one of the many pies baked in the kitchen each day.
It might be time to correct some misconceptions about Salt Lake City. Yes, it’s still a Mormon stronghold, though that grip is weakening, given only half the residents are practitioners of the faith. The weekend I visit coincides with a massive pride festival, in part celebrating a landmark court ruling that allows same-sex marriage in Utah; the decision is being appealed. There’s also great coffee and beer being brewed here, and poured down non-Mormon throats, plus more good taco shops than you can throw a sombrero at. One sure sign Salt Lake City has come of culinary age is the presence, in the city’s south, of a funky vegetarian cafe. Vertical Diner is in a casual, slightly grungy space, with stucco walls, old cement floors and a pulsing, industrial soundtrack.
My plant-based breakfast is La Mesa, a bountiful, colourful plate of hash browns, black beans and rice, melted cheese, guacamole and, a first for me, a tofu scramble. The fact the food is on my table by the time I return from a bathroom freshening indicates the tofu isn’t quite “scrambled” to order, but it’s nonetheless a nicely spiced and textured dish. Good enough that I might forsake eggs and bacon, well at least for a couple of days.
If a vegan breakfast seems a step too far, you can always order pancakes, which start at a bargain $1.75 each (a buck more if fruit is included). Of course, they can also come gluten free.
2280 South West Temple, Salt Lake City
Weekdays 10 am-10 pm, weekends 9 am-10 pm
Continuing the vegan theme, the Barbacoa Burrito at Buds is highly recommended. Unfortunately, the little sandwich place is closed for renovations during my visit. Next time.
509 East 300 South, Salt Lake City
Monday to Saturday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Sunday