eating my way west, part II

In my last post, I managed to sneak a bit of food-talk between paragraphs of moving-onset nostalgia. I shared my last D.C. supper, as well as a random sample of the meals that welcomed me to California. I shared the wild fun of cleaning out a freezer you’ve occupied for three years, and my worries of falling back into road trip temptations.

And I promised there would be more. Traveling across this vast country is a food-lover’s joy ride: as with souvenirs and roadside stops, everything is tinted with kitsch. Food is no exception. Along our NY-PA-OH-IN-IL-MO-OK-TX-NM-AZ-CA trail we’ve found Cheese Barns to rival Wisconsin’s and all manner of fried eggs, flattened burgers, and iceberg lettuce salads. Thank goodness we haven’t bought, stopped at, or eaten any of it.

Our first real respite from McDonald’s (yes, we gave in to the Egg McMuffin’s seductive power, but it was so early and our bellies so empty!) came at the hands of our friends Bill and Emily. Everything at what they called their “Love Fest” was fresh, local, and organic: There were curried empanadas, sun-dried tomato polenta triangles, and cheese to snack on after the ceremony. For dinner, fresh salad, cold-smoked pork, and wood-fired chicken were served.

The best part of sitting down to witness my friends’ vows in the 30-degree-and-humid heat, however, was the “Sapphire in Bloom” cocktail I got to nurse in my adorable Ball jar glass:  a blend of Bombay Sapphire gin, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur, honey, soda, and fresh herbs over ice.

Back on the road. I wouldn’t think about food so much if driving weren’t so mind-numbing. Of course we embarked well-equipped: a recording of my Grandpa reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and enough RadioLab podcasts to earn a BSc with.  But after a while, the hum of the road sort of lulls you into a trance. And we all know what goes well with that state of being: food, in all it’s munchy, boredom-reducing glory.

I’m just glad I packed good chocolate (for sweet cravings) and carrots (for crunch). One thing this adventure has made me more appreciate of is my mother’s ability, rest stop after rest stop, to provide ample sustenance to a family of five on our long summer trips. It’s a little easier to bulk buy for a family of five than two, but the memory of a cooler full of her lovingly packed sandwiches has made my mouth water more than a few times on this trek.

In place of towing our mothers along (and mine’s so small she might just have fit!), we moderns have Yelp, the wonderful on-the-road food finder. Between the wedding victuals and what I know awaits in California, Yelp helped us lasso down dinner in Oklahoma and New Mexico. On our way from Springfield, IL to Amarillo, TX (where we’d be greeted in the morning by locally-roasted coffee, fresh bagels, berries, granola, and yogurt at the home of one of Mark’s former babysitters), we found this little Pho shop just outside of Oklahoma City. It didn’t hold a candle to Pho 14 in D.C., but its house-made broths of noodles, shrimp, bean sprouts, basil, and thin cuts of beef truly satisfied.

Part of the fun was getting pho in Oklahoma, of all places, where they apparently have to explain what pho is on the sig—so much different than living in a city where whole suburban complexes are devoted to the cuisine. You’ve got to hand it to them for at least trying to expand beyond Outback Steakhouse!

Yelp also delivered us into the hands of this wonderfully kitschy (this time in a good way) Tacqueria at 415 Lomas Blvd NE in Albuquerque, NM. Reviewers raved about their “old Mexican” cuisine, service, portions, and prices. We pulled up in a small gravel parking lot next to a mechanic shop, and unfurled our crunched-up, Jetta-ed bodies into the 34-degree New Mexico afternoon.

We plunked ourselves down in the tiny dining room, which looked like it once catered to fried-egg eating, coffee-sipping morning laborers. The stools were topped in faded blue pleather, and behind the open counter at least four each of cooks and waitstaff moved. I don’t even remember if the place was air-conditioned (which it probably wasn’t) due to the agua fresca that was soon placed before me. I chose the tart tamarindo (you guessed it, tamarind), while Mark sipped on a sweeter horchata made from ground almonds, barley, spices, and sugar.

Now I’m no expert in Mexican cuisine (CA, here I come!), and I don’t know what the heck “old Mexican” is supposed to mean, but I was impressed with my choices: a ceviche tostada, a crispy corn tortilla topped with ceviche-style shrimp, fresh lime juice, cilantro, and tomatoes, and two tacos, one langue (beef tongue), and the other adobada (pork). These two came with ample toppings and loads of fresh cilantro. Mark had a platter brimming with all kinds of goodies I can’t now remember.

My guess is that this more traditional style of Mexican is just simpler than a lot of the food I’ve been introduced to so far here in the U.S: tofu burritos a la Syracuse’s Alto Cinco, for example. I’ve had some pretty bad Mexican here (a soggy, greasy, and warm taco salad in Nixa, MO comes to mind), but it’s the kind of food I’m always hunting for. This tacqueria provided a hearty and fresh, cheery and prompt meal to two weary travelers. Whatever kind of food it is that they serve, I’m a fan.

One state away from our destination and with help like this, the report looks good: I’ve managed to stave off cravings for kettle-cooked chips, Nibs, and Twix bars at bay with ease. Sure there have been more sodas than usual, but for me as long as it’s got “diet” (or even better, “zero”) in the title, it passes the test. Sure there have been indulgences (wedding cupcakes, post-Grand Canyon soft serve), but what’s not to celebrate when love and breathtaking views show up?

Lastly, I come to the brewpub responsible for two out of three of our dinners in this wild and colorful town. It’s our last night in Arizona, and in Flagstaff, home base for our daily hikes in the Canyon and Sedona’s red rocks. I sit typing at one of the Grand Canyon International Hostel’s open windows, where the noise of mid-week revelers is broken only by the sound of trains rumbling by every hour.

Usually Mark and I like to try new things, whether it’s a new restaurant or recipe. Besides a few signature dishes and favorite restaurants, when it comes to food, we generally don’t like to repeat ourselves. That is, unless we find something that just works, like post-hike dinners on Flagstaff Brewing Company‘s patio. Beer seems to be on our minds more than usual here in Arizona: our first night in town we ate and watered ourselves at the Lumberyard Brewing Company just down the street from the hostel, where we had their decent IPA, nachos, and a surprisingly good Black Bean Hummus Reuben.

After logging about seven miles in the hot sun on the Grand Canyon’s south rim (and the previously mentioned soft-serve!) we happened upon FBC. We were ravenous, and so after briefly glancing over the menu, found ourselves a seat on their courtyard patio. I had a Greek Salad with some of the most garlicky dressing I’ve ever tasted (which again greeted me this morning!), but Mark’s Black and Blue Burger was the to die for meal of the evening — if it doesn’t clog the arteries, first! A black peppercorn-crusted patty topped with blue cheese, two onion rings, and chipotle mayo? I’m just thankful he let me have two good-sized bites. That’s love.

After our hike today along Oak Creek (near Sedona), and upon agreeing that the Flagstaff evening scene was considerably cooler than Sedona’s, we came back for more. You can’t say we didn’t try: we scoped out two other restaurants, but none of them appealed to the patio-happy delirium we’d experienced the night prior. Back we went. This time, as you’ll see pictured above, one of us decided to try the Pear Burger (a roasted pear and blue cheese burger drizzled with balsamic glaze), while the other went for the house-made Black Bean Burger with avocado, tomato, and roasted green chiles. I’ll let you figure out who ordered what.

Arizona surprised me, I must say. It really has so much more going for it than sketchy immigration policies, and the white hair and golf courses I expected. A real wilderness culture, not to mention some darn good beer and burger action, lives among its red canyons and hot pine forests.

Maybe, when California rests from courting me, I’ll come back for a little bit more.

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3 responses to “eating my way west, part II

  1. Holy Mackeral Jen..I sure enjoy this blog…you almost inspire me to like cooking and food prep..not!!!! But I will live it vicariouly through your blogging..thank you.

  2. WOW!! I am your number one fan, always, and even more so after reading this and seeing your great pictures…. and of course your praise for all those many coolers full of yummy food I packed for you over the years and miles!

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