Crossing Arizona – a culinary journey from Albuquerque to Sacramento (and back)

OVER the years, whether we have been travelling in Europe, America, the Middle East or Western Australia, we have found that the best advice to find unusual historic buildings, extraordinary landscapes, great places to eat, quirky shops or galleries or other hidden gems, has come from people we have met.

We use maps (not GPS) so we can often alternative routes, off the freeways or interstates, but most of all, we talk to people. The upshot of many years of travelling is that we have friends in many countries, with mutual open invitations to stay when we or they are in each other’s region.

You can do as much research as you like before you go, but nothing can replace the serendipitous delight of discovering something that isn’t in the guide books but is more than worth the detour. It is like the difference between an independent bookshop and ordering online – you find things you didn’t know exist.

So our latest trip, which took us back to the American South West, was enhanced and illuminated by local knowledge, both from people we met this time and from revisiting some favourite discoveries from previous years.

We decided that we wouldn’t go via San Francisco, because we are fed up with the lengthy queues in immigration (two hours or more at the worst), so we opted for Albuquerque, which is probably the nicest airport in the world. Outbound, we had to change planes at Dallas Fort Worth. The less said about DFW the better – endless security checks so that a three and a half hour stop-over came down to barely enough time to buy a sim-card to use my phone in the States.

On the flight down to New Mexico, we met a young woman. a refinery engineer, who was on her way home to Gallup for a few days, before heading to Wyoming for a job interview. We talked non-stop all the way to ABQ, through the airport and out into the cool evening, exchanging email addresses – we have already been in contact and will keep in touch, hoping we can visit when we are next in New Mexico, or she gets to England.

Our New Mexican journey was a rather eccentric criss-crossing affair, west to Acoma, the so-called “Sky city” pueblo west of Albuquerque, to see a local potter; east and north to Taos, for no other reason than we love this northern New Mexico town with its old adobe houses, galleries, amazing food and ancient Taos Pueblo; and south to Las Cruces and Mesilla, which was the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona. This was before New Mexico became a state – mind you, many Americans still don’t know it is part of the US and there is a local joke that “One of our 50 is missing.”

From there we crossed Arizona to the old mining town of Globe, via Phoenix to the Joshua Tree National Park, across to the Pacific coast to visit my cousins and 92 year old uncle in Carmel, up to Point Reyes in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and then to my daughter’s in Sacramento.

The return journey through torrential rain (much-needed, but causing mud-slides in fire-damaged southern California), took us through Arizona, to Flagstaff and the old railway town of Winslow, and back to Albuquerque and the long flight home, via Chicago this time.

The whole trip was punctuated by interesting people, memorable meals and unexpected treats. Deming, Arizona, is best known as the deadbeat desert town that was the setting for the film Gas, Food, Lodging (the words that appear on freeway signs notifying the services at the next town or truck-stop). But in its slightly run-down centre we found a bright and welcoming bakery run by a Mennonite family from Pennsylvania, who brought their baking traditions as well as their Protestant pacifist faith, which originated in Switzerland in the Reformation.

At Globe, still surrounded by quarries and mineral workings, where huge freight trains, drawn and pushed by multiple locomotives, chug up long hills, our B&B was a three-storey Victorian building, overlooking the town, built by the mine-owner for the children of his workers and other townsfolk. Over breakfast with a family from Tempe we heard about the husband’s school band which has been invited to play in the 2019-2020 New Year parade in London. We will look out for them!

The next stop was a B&B at the Joshua Tree National Park where we met a geophysicist and his wife from Tromso in northern Norway. You can have some wonderful conversations around the breakfast table.

Crossing the “food desert” of western Arizona and eastern California, we were told to look out for a German bakery at Tehachapi. Decorated with the German flag, beer-mugs and posters of Neuschwanstein, serving mouthwatering bread and pies, it was the community hub of this friendly town. We  stopped on the way back too.

Driving up the legendary Highway 1, west of San Francisco, we saw a sign for a farm shop and found a community farm, selling organic greens, squash and fruit and home-made pickles and preserves, where local school children come to learn about farm animal welfare and gain an insight into how food should be produced and the whole plot to plate cycle. The vegetables had that bright depth of taste that comes from freshly picked organic produce.

California is famous for its food, whether fished from the sea, grown in the fertile central valley, raised on the lush pastures of Marin County – served in restaurants from trendy San Francisco and star-spangled Los Angeles to small country towns along old Highway 49 or around the wine-growing areas.

But it is also part of the story of the food of the South West, which is not to be confused with Mexican or TexMex – it’s not just about chile con carne or burritos smothered with sour cream and hot sauce.

Chefs across the region are exploring not only the dishes that come from Mexico – a spectacular and varied cuisine – but also endemic ingredients, including corn, beans, cactus and game. You will find Anasazi beans, prickly pear cactus, blue corn posole and main courses featuring elk or quail. Some chefs work with Native Americans to learn about their food traditions – at La Posada in Winslow, chef John Sharpe serves the unique Piki bread, made for the restaurant by a woman from the Hopi people who live on remote mesas near the Grand Canyon. The “bread” is like crisp tissue paper, thinner than filo pastry, and is served with a dip made of pit-roasted corn and Tepary beans (which are uniquely drought-resistant).

1 • Welcome to Sky City – the visitor centre for Acoma pueblo is an award-winning adobe building which tells the story of this centuries-old pueblo on a mesa that has no natural water source.

2 • Chile heaven – a selection of local ground, flaked and whole chiles in Romero’s, a fruit stand (farm shop) off the road between Santa Fe and Taos. The New Mexico “state question”, which you will be asked in traditional eateries, is “Red, green – or Christmas?” (a chile teaser).

3/4 • The Love Apple is a restaurant in a 150 year old church in Taos – still relatively new, it is renowned for the chefs’ creative use of fresh organic ingredients sourced as locally as possible. They don’t take credit cards and you can’t book online, so getting a table is a matter of luck (or a helpful B&B owner who will phone them for you). Our meal included tortillas with cilantro (coriander) lime relish and thyme-chile de arbol salsa, and farm-reared elk (pictured) which is as tender and delicious as the finest venison.

5 • Double Eagle (taking its name from an 1880s 20 dollar gold coin) is a traditional restaurant, with stunning paintings, antiques, stained glass and even a gold ceiling in one room. It is the oldest building in old Mesilla, where Billy the Kid was jailed by Sheriff Pat Garrett and “Judge” Roy Bean started his outlaw career by stealing the town’s money which was kept in the El Patio Bar.

6 • The Joshua Tree National Park is a desert wonderland of stones piled and tumbling across a landscape punctuated by the striking Joshua Trees (actually a type of yucca; it can live for hundreds of years, and is pollinated by the yucca moth).

7 • Since 2004, at Kohnen’s Country Bakery in Tehachapi, Thomas Kohnen has been using his traditional German baking skills to offer pies, cookies and up to 20 varieties of artisan bread, with a warm welcome, to visitors crossing this mountainous area of eastern California.

8 • Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong own Sir and Star at The Olema, close to the Point Reyes National Seashore, in West Marin north of San Francisco. The restaurant with rooms is famed for the chefs’ use of the bounty of Marin county and its seas – the menu changes constantly, reflecting what is in season and the latest catch or harvest brought in by local fishermen, farmers and growers. This dish is crisp quail from a neighbouring farm with escarole and buttermilk mashed potatoes.

9 • Joe’s Crab Shack in Old Sacramento is on the dock beside the Sacramento River – we looked out on the striking 1934 Tower Bridge from our window table, where my grandson was celebrating his 11th birthday with a pile of delicious fresh crab claws.

10/11 • Piki bread with a Tepary bean and pit-roasted corn dip at the Turquoise Room restaurant in La Posada, the last and greatest of the Harvey Hotels which served train travellers from the mid-19th century to the 1930s. The hotel, the only survivor from the golden era of US railway travel, is the masterpiece of the architect Mary Colter, who drew on the materials and history of the American South West.

12 • In the 1930s, New Mexico was a mecca for artists and writers – Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams and DH Lawrence all lived there. Another leading artist of the period was Joseph (known as JR) Willis who built a grand adobe house surrounded by gardens, courtyards and adobe casitas in the old centre of Albuquerque. Now the Casas de Suenos bed and breakfast inn, the various rooms are named after the artists who visited or worked there. This beautiful study of aspens by JR Willis, is painted onto an alcove in the casita named after the artist Fairfield Porter.