I chose Gary Paul Nabhan’s book, Coming Home to Eat for reading for our Arizona trip. Nabhan had decided to attempt to eat four out of five meals from within 250 miles of his home near Tucson for a year. It seemed like a good choice for a trip when we planned to wander around the Sonoran Desert. That said, our trip did not get off to the most auspicious start with regard to food. After flying from Madison to Phoenix by way of Dallas-Ft. Worth, we were famished by the time we picked up the rental car and were on our way out of town. Still, our primary goal was to arrive at Organ Pipe Cactus Monument near the Mexican border so that we could spend two days exploring the desert. Unfortunately the first food we ate was fast food at an exit of I-10 on the way. We arrived in Ajo in time to check in to a tiny and adequate cabin at La Fiesta Motel. That evening we ate dinner at Marcela’s Café and Bakery, which I’d read was good. I do not know why. Their salsa was flavorful and appeared to be house made since it was stored in large pitchers in the refrigerator case. The Spanish rice was also not bad. My enchilada was bland, D’s chimichanga was greasy and service was unbelievably slow. We didn’t try any of the bakery items, but the cakes in the refrigerator case were in clamshell domes with bar codes on them and it appeared that they might have come from the IGA grocery down the street. They did have individually wrapped empanadas near the cash register, which looked like they might have been house made, and which we probably should have tried. Ajo is a small town and we did return for breakfast the next day. Breakfast was a bit better than dinner and at least we knew that we needed to ask for our receipt if we hoped to get out of there. We found better food at 100 Estrella Restaurant and Lounge the following night. Estrella Restaurant and Lounge serves sandwiches and they have about half a dozen entrées as well as a full bar, a large selection of beers including many Arizona microbrews on tap and in bottles as well as a wine list that we really didn’t evaluate.
We wandered around Organ Pipe for the next two days looking at least four kinds of chollas, agave, mesquite, and prickly pear, all of which Nabhan had mentioned in his book. He’d learned many of the traditional preparations for these foods by participating in harvesting and preparation with his O’Odaham friends and neighbors over the course of the last 20 years. It was very exciting for me to wander amongst these plants at the same time that I was reading about them even though as far as I could tell it wasn’t exactly harvest season for any of them.
We returned to the Phoenix area for the weekend where we’d meet up with friends on Saturday, but had dinner on our own at Rancho de Tia Rosa. Tia Rosa has lovely outdoor seating, an extensive menu and good margaritas. It was a bit chilly the Friday night when we sat in one of their enclosed areas, but still pleasant with a fire in the corner fireplace and another outdoor heater. We were back the following week the night before we left for home and it was a bit warmer, but still nice to have a fire in the fireplace.
Saturday at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, they were hosting a world food day with samples of food from various parts of the world. Some of the food was predictable and packaged like Vegemite at the Australian display and quite frankly I can think of no reason to eat Vegemite. Ever. The flat bread, hummus, tabouleh and a selection of olives were good at the Mediterranean table as was a fruit salad and a legume-based soup at the African table. The table that intrigued me the most though was the Sonoran desert table. They had prickly pear jelly, which I’ve had before, but I couldn’t pass up the pomegranate syrup or the mesquite flour both of which were available for purchase. To demo the mesquite flour, they’d baked ginger snaps, which our young friend located first. He returned to the table to get one for me and the lady tried to stop him, assuming that he was just a boy hogging cookies until she realized what was really happening. I shared my cookie with D. and though the flour that I bought included the recipe for the cookies, I’m still not sure what I am going to do with it.
In Payson we found decent pizza at Gerardo’s Firewood Café and good steak and sides at Fargo’s Steakhouse.
The absolute culinary highlight of our trip was the Turquoise Room at La Posada in Winslow. We arrived sort of late in the afternoon and after we checked in to our beautiful room, we changed clothes and wandered around looking at the art and then down to the martini lounge where we actually had margaritas instead. Mine was a pomegranate margarita earning nods from the bartender both when I said I would like it on the rocks and when I agreed that I’d like salt on the rim of the glass. The drink was both beautiful and delicious.
The Turquoise Room at La Posada is run by Chef John Sharpe and General Manager Kyle Johnson with the help of an apparently excellent kitchen staff and wait staff. Many of their ingredients are sourced locally from their Zuni, Hopi and Navajo neighbors including lamb purchased from the Navajo, and from the O’Odaham, tepary beans. In the winter many of their vegetables come from a farm in southern Arizona. Chef John notes in his cookbook, which is available at the restaurant and online, that people always try to categorize his food, but that “the flavors in [his] recipes are the result of the most unlikely of meetings: the indigenous flavors of the Southwest presented by a classically trained English chef whose father was a gardener.” D. ordered the Crispy Pork Carnitas and I had the Churro Lamb Sampler. Our waiter asked if we’d had the soup before and since we had not, he suggested that we try that, one bowl between us with two spoons. The soup was actually two soups, carefully poured side by side in one bowl, a spicy black bean soup and a cream of yellow corn soup, both garnished with red chili cream. The subtly spiced black bean soup was unquestionably delicious. We agreed that the cream of corn soup would have been a bit too sweet on its own, but the two soups complement each other perfectly without question. Our entrées were also exceptional and served with exceptional sides. The Churro Lamb Sampler included Green Lamb Chili, a corn tamale served in a fresh cornhusk and a Grilled Churro Lamb Chop. Before we were finished with our entrees, our waiter came by to see if we were interested in the chocolate soufflé for dessert. He said if we wanted to order it, he needed to know soon because it takes 25 minutes for it to bake. Then he said, “But it’s not my favorite.” Intrigued, we asked what he would recommend and he talked about several of the desserts and we agreed we were not going to order the soufflé. As it turns out, we both did order the bread pudding (which was his favorite.) Normally, bread pudding may not sound very exciting, but this bread pudding was studded with nuts and fruit and was very pleasantly spiced.
We returned for breakfast then next morning and D. had the breakfast burrito while I had the Arizona Green Chile Eggs (with corn tortillas!). I know tortillas aren’t the most exciting thing about that plate, but I love tortillas so much more than toast.
The food at both meals was excellent. I had read about Chef John Sharpe’s La Posada’s Turquoise Room Cookbook before we even left home. I figured that there was a pretty good chance that I wanted it. As it happened, our waiter at dinner also brought us each a copy of the cookbook to look at while we waited for our dinner. At that point, I was certain that I wanted it. The forward was written by Gary Paul Nabhan. The book is also far more than a cookbook, telling the story of La Posada and also of how the Turquoise Room came to be. They talk about their switch from linen table clothes to leather-covered tables and about how the place mats designed by John’s wife, Patricia, to celebrate the history of the old Fred Harvey Hotel, their Arizona surroundings as well as Winslow and Route 66. The book also includes a lot of wonderfully shot photographs which showcase not only the food, but the Turquoise Room, various scenes throughout La Posada as well as Tina Mion’s artwork which hangs in the dining room, in the hallways as well as several large, thought-provoking paintings in the ballroom. Several recipes in the book appear in multiple meals. The green chile sauce and the black beans are definitely worth mastering. I think that I will cook many of the dishes in the book besides these two. Some dishes will require adaptation to local ingredients since I’ll be more likely to use beans other than the tepary beans and while I don’t have access to Churro lamb, I do have access to Icelandic lamb from Jordandal Farms, which thrive in this part of the country.
I think it is fairly plain that I loved everything about La Posada and the Turquoise Room and will definitely plan on including a stop there, possibly for a couple of days when we return to northern Arizona.
Another book that I thought about on this trip as we drove through the Fort Apache Reservation and the San Carlos Apache Reservation as well as the mining town of Globe, AZ is The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. I read it a few years ago and found it to be just the right mix of appalling and hilarious. We stopped in Globe for breakfast sandwiches at a small independent coffee shop. Predictably, one of the little signs they have in the Vida E Café says “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks.” Given an alternative, I’m happy not to. They serve good coffee and lattés as well as simple but good breakfast sandwiches on your choice of bagel or croissant.
We had a lovely trip with some great food and more good food than bad food. That said, I’m glad to be home, cooking in my own kitchen and getting a start on planting the vegetables from radishes which we’ll first harvest in May to carrots, beets and squash which we’ll eat well into next winter.