There is one less bird in Texas because of me. Technically, I wasn’t driving but I feel guilty just the same. While zooming our Mazda rental through the midst of nowhere Texas, there was a sudden flash of yellow and a thud. We wrote it off as a close call until we went to return the car and noticed the looks on the employees’ faces. Turns out a yellow-breasted bird was lodged firmly into the grill of our car and we unwittingly traveled a few days with it there– suffice it to say I was horrified at our new hood ornament.
My hunter friend, Hank, postulated it was a goldfinch or a Western Kingbird and I just nodded in agreement because he would know way better than me. After our incident I was deterred from hunting, but I stuck to my guns when it came to eating. Which brings me back to the reason I was on the road in the first place. This year’s IACP conference was in Austin and thus the perfect chance to explore local flavors across the Southwest. Traveling with my food friends, Gaby and Lillian and, we clocked nearly 31 hours and 1900 miles as we road tripped from Los Angeles to Austin. These are our stories:
Our first stop was Palm Springs because we wanted to eat, of course. Cheeky’s was our choice not only for it’s healthy, fresh, local food, but also because they have those refreshing misters on their patio, which is quite a selling point when it’s 90°. Any good eating intentions we had at lunch – we ate salad since the road ahead was paved with TexMex – were canceled out when we realized the fudge shop across the street specialized in date shakes. I’m not one for milkshakes because they’re usually too sweet, but this one with fresh, local dates and creamy vanilla bean ice cream hit the spot.
After a wrong turn, lots of old-school r&b sing-a-longs, and a few gossip magazines, we arrived in Phoenix. Dinner was decided upon by Gaby because she is a native Arizonan and that was enough for us to coin her queen of all Arizona eating choices. We met her friend at the swanky Scottsdale hot-spot The Mission that’s outfitted with back-lit Himalayan salt walls and a wall of tequila. It was a good time overall and the eating highlight of the was a tossup between the tableside guacamole and the squash soffrito tacos.
Our trip was very loosely planned with our only real goal being to eventually arrive in Austin. So, as soon as we began to contemplate a detour to Sedona, we started to drive in that direction. What we didn’t account for was bumper-to-bumper traffic and the fact that every restaurant was either packed or closed because of the holiday. After much wrist-wringing and Yelp researching we settled on a local bakery that was so underwhelming it’s not worth mentioning, but it was a small price to pay for this front-seat view of the valley.
The next leg of the trip was nerve-racking with winds whipping so high we thought we’d be carried off to Oz. To ease our anxiety we pulled off at the nearest truck stop for some top-quality road trip snacks like sourdough pretzels and M&Ms. The truck stop’s diner-cum-convenience store was straight out of a Happy Days set with a bouffant-clad cashier and amazing throwback candy like Idaho Spuds, Clark bars, and Charleston Chews — all of which I’d bet were on that shelf well before I was born. It took way longer than we would’ve liked to make it to Santa Fe so everything was shuttered when we pulled up. After scarfing down some so-so rellenos and enchiladas, we celebrated our friend’s birthday with one of my favorite New Mexico food finds, Gruet sparkling wine.
Before hitting the road the next morning, we decided to fuel up at the renowned Café Pasquals — as recommended to us by Penny De Los Santos. It was a long wait in unseasonably cold weather but it gave us a chance to wander old town Santa Fe in nearly empty streets. The décor in Pasqual’s was thoroughly New Mexican with everything from papier-mâché trucks and dried chiles hanging around.
The Café Pasqual’s menu is a rather extensive and eclectic mix of New Mexican-influenced food so we had the waiter bring us the three most popular dishes: papas fritas, chile relleno, and huevos motuleños. Everything was well prepared but the most intriguing was the huevos motuleños which was like a UN meeting in a dish with everything from eggs, peas, black beans to plantains and feta.
We drove on. And on. And on. Until, like a mirage on the horizon, we made out Roswell. Ok, Roswell isn’t so much an idyllic mirage as a one horse town, but seeing as it’s world-famous for the purported alien encounters, it was a mandatory stop. To educate ourselves on the matter, we pulled into the UFO museum where we found gems like this “Basic Alien Type” diagram and a UFO replica that looked suspiciously similar to one of my 5th grade science fair models. I’m still skeptical on the Roswell events but it was pretty amusing to see a town that is all aliens all the time -– I mean, even the streetlights have “alien eyes.”
Unbeknownst to us the town of Carlsbad shuttered on Memorial Day so our dreams of hatch chile cheeseburgers and New Mexican food were shot down. Ironically, we ended up spending the evening at Chili’s and though the food was forgettable we enjoyed some quality time with the locals. By the end of the night we had sung happy birthday to a 15-year old cowboy, taught the bartender how to make our take on the skinny margarita, and drank more tequila than I’d like to admit. It was the last place I wanted to end up from a food standpoint, but it turned out to be more fun than I could’ve ever imagined.
The Carlsbad Caverns where the whole reason we set off on such a nutty route so we spent the next morning there. With miles of caves, countless stalactites and stalagmites, and thousands of bats, it was quite a sight to see. Because we had so much ground to cover we speed walked our way through the park but even in that short amount of time the inherent awesomeness was apparent.
At the Texas border, we stopped at a mom-and-pop general store that sold local food treasures like cherry cider, green chile jerky, and homemade fudge. They also had all kinds of carnival games like the curiously named Ninja Gun and this arm wrestling game that I failed miserably at. Sadly, the cider was overly sweet and the jerky so petrified it crumbled when touched, but those games and the campy décor — replete with moose heads and rhino busts –- made up for it in spades.
A few hundreds of miles into the Texas border we found ourselves in Marfa. It’s a small town in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert that became a minimalist and modern art mecca thanks to the longtime presence of Donald Judd and his foundation. It is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, but the minute we arrived, it felt like I fell into a cleaned-up, miniature, warm-weather take on San Francisco. The main street is so pristine it looks like a movie set take on a western town and everyone bikes about like the conscientious citizens that they are.
And everyone’s uber friendly. We weren’t even there for two hours but we made fast friends with everyone from the hospitable and informative juice bar owners to the folks at Food Shark who served us some of the best food we had the whole drive and arguably the best falafel I’ve had this side of Lebanon.
The rest of the trip had its fair share of dramas –- see: road kill in our car grill, two speeding tickets for yours truly, and a ton more margaritas (blended, Texas-style, of course), but those stories are for another time. For now, check this map of everywhere we ate or tried to eat while we were on the road and do your best to stay clear of innocent yellow-breasted birds.
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