Friday, August 22, 2008

Road Food

NB: I actually began this post at the beginning of July and got distracted; so here it is in full.

Dining on the road is always an adventure, and a risk. When we're on the road, we always get too much salt, and usually too much fat, compared to what we cook at home. Neither of us can stand the chain restaurants any more, so our solution while traveling is to ask the B&B host, or the desk girl at the motel, for a local restaurant they like. This produces mixed results, although on this trip we never had to resort to a chain.

The awful meals, at least for my husband, began in Elko, Nevada. I've concluded that Elko is just not a good place for Jim to eat; on an earlier occasion he got actual food poisoning, on this pass he merely got a tough, fatty steak full of gristle. The desk girl at the motel had referred us to the restaurant in the casino down the road, saying it was, "Pretty good." I guess it depends on what else there is. I've learned that I do better, eating on the road, if I order some kind of salad with chicken in it, and dressing on the side; I did that, and it wasn't bad.

Our next memorable meal was in Wendover, where we stopped for lunch before crossing the salt flats. We had a choice of casinos to eat in and not much else; so we picked the Peppermill.

It was like eating inside a pinball machine. Because of the slots, it sounded like a pinball machine; and of course, in standard casino mode it had no windows. What it did have were mirrored black glass interior walls, accented at unpredictable spots by neon tube lighting, reflecting off all the other black mirrors. You literally could not tell where the walls were, or the ceiling. And on the walls, where you'd expect paintings or posters, they had frames with live action video loops of various scenes. The food wasn't bad as the joint in Elko, but the ambience was surreal. I went to U.C. Berkeley in the '60s with some people who would have paid serious money to get stoned inside that place.

We fought our way through Salt Lake City commute traffic to Brigham City, where we gave up and found a motel. The desk girl referred us to Maddox's Fine Food, down the road in Perry, and we ended up getting probably the best "American home cooking" I've ever had in a restaurant. My diary reads: "Bison and local open range beef, Idaho trout (Yum!), fresh homebaked everything (rolls, cornbread fingers, pie), two kinds of homebrewed root beer, birch and sarsparilla" (this is Utah - coffee and tea were not offered). It was a family owned place, and full of families, we were almost the only table that didn't have at least 3 generations and 3 children. "Local open range beef" means the slaughterhouse was at the bottom of the hill. Honest, it's almost worth driving to Utah to eat there; and if you're in the vicinity, it's absolutely worth a detour.

In Paris, Idaho, the next day, we stopped at "the local place." Paris is a few blocks strewn along the main highway toward the Tetons, and this little joint was right across the street from the (really impressive) Mormon Tabernacle, which we toured. I'm always interested to try the local place, but it's a crapshoot, and Jim rolled snake eyes. I had a hamburger, which was edible, but he decided to try the specialty of the house, which was chicken with something they called "Huckleberry fire surprise." I didn't try it; but he reported that it was simply awful, and didn't finish it.

Once we got into Yellowstone, our dining options became severely limited. You can't just drop in and eat at the restaurant in any of the hotels because they book 24 hours in advance; and you're at least 2 hours (on relatively bad roads) from anywhere else. So the first thing you do after checking in is book all the nights you want to eat there. We stayed 5 nights, and we ate at Yellowstone Lake twice and Old Faithful twice, and the first night we walked over to the gift shop and ate fast food at the lunch counter because it was the only thing that didn't require reservations.

I'd say we batted 500 in Yellowstone. Our first formal meal was at the Old Faithful Inn, and I've described the snowstorm that enlivened that evening in another post. The food at Old Faithful was good, but I couldn't focus on it because I was wondering how we'd get back to sleep. It didn't help that we'd gotten lost in the Old Faithful grounds and spent most of 45 minutes walking around in a snowstorm. But the food was OK. The next night, though, we had reservations at Yellowstone Lake Hotel, and we returned in late afternoon to find that the power was out. The story at the desk was that they had blown a transformer. I've described that meal elsewhere also; it really was one of the worst meals I've ever had.

Apart from those harrowing incidents, the food in Yellowstone was quite good, and the breakfast buffet was reliable if a little heavy on the fat. Eventually we set out for Bozeman and then Missoula, and on to Glacier. One of the things we no longer do when we're traveling is eat lunch in restaurants; Paris, Idaho was an aberration (and the exception that proves the rule!). We get bread, and almonds or cheese, and fruit, and we just eat that by the road somewhere.

From Bozeman onward I found myself eating cayenne pepper in various dishes that hadn't said they contained it. In fact, in Bozeman, Jim and I actually switched dinners. I really can't eat a dish with too much pepper. In Missoula we had a dubious deli meal in a little semi-vegetarian grocery, mostly fascinating for the meeting of a local non-profit board at the next table, discussing where they were going to get volunteers and how they could meet the city council's funding deadline. The next night we went to a restaurant at a golf course, notable for a fabulous view of the valley and a clientele whose average age we lowered by at least a decade. Food was OK.

Many Glaciers Lodge is like the hotels in Yellowstone: if you're there, you eat there, because that's all there is. I suppose we could have driven in to Babb and eaten at the Cattle Baron Supper Club, just outside the park boundary; but we didn't. The food at Many Glaciers is just so-so; you go for the view, not the food. The Yellowstone hotels set a higher standard on food. As part of our bus tour, we had a very nice lunch at one of the commercial lodges on the Blackfoot reservation.

Coming home, we stopped for the night in Sandpoint, Idaho, and there we stumbled into a world-class meal at the Sand Creek Grill, right on the lake - a restaurant in the style of Alice Waters, with fresh local everything.

Our greatest disappointment was the Columbia Gorge Hotel, in Hood River. We stayed there a few years ago and had wonderful food (if the 7 course breakfast was a little much) and fabulous service, in a legacy luxury hotel. So we stayed there again and found that someone is building "Columbia Gorge" condos on the lot next door, the excellent service has disappeared, and there are huge flat-panel TVs in every room except the dining room, including the lounge, which last time had a talented singer/comedian doing live entertainment. Now they have ESPN. The room drains were stopped up and they couldn't unstop them. And the experienced serving staff in the restaurant had been replaced by beautiful boys who can't handle a complicated order, and can't tell skim milk from 1% (and don't realize that the customer can). Sic transit gloria mundi. They still have their views, but they won't have their reputation very long at this rate.

They were so bad that we chose to find another restaurant for our last dinner in town. That was my next unexpected encounter with cayenne pepper, which the restaurant, the Stonehedge Gardens, chose to put in the house salad dressing. I complained about it and they just said, "Oh, we always do that." They advertise as a high-end restaurant, but all I remember about them is that they put too much pepper in the salad dressing and didn't give me a choice.

Our last stop was at our old friend, the Wolf Creek Inn. It's a restored stage stop near Grants Pass, Oregon, run by the Oregon Parks Dept., with about 8 rooms; and the food was reliable and excellent as always. My only problem with the Wolf Creek Inn isn't food - when they built that enclosed staircase to the second floor, suitcases were smaller than they are now...


  1. It's a truism that once you get out of urban centers, the best meals are likely to be breakfast, lunch, and dinner--in that order. Rural folks are least likely to expect to go out in the evening and spend money on better fixin's. But breakfast there is an important meal, either because you have to be ready to do a day's work, or because it's a truly social occasion in which people can get together. People tend to think up other excuses for not indulging in what they can't afford, so gourmet fare is treated as if it were an effete indulgence, instead of one of life's delights. "Real men don't eat quiche" captures this spirit accurately.

    Road food--most of it--is now controlled by franchise corporations, which market international brands. You can get the same meals in almost any small town in America, because the model is uniform across the geographical spectrum. Small coffee-shops, lunch-counters, and swinging door taverns still survive, and thrive, in small towns, but they lack imagination. You can get a good breakfast, or a good lunch there, but don't expect fresh, or piquant, or healthy.

    Those of us who live in highly sophisticated urban or suburban centers such as the Bay Area, have to be willing to settle for less when we stray from our watering holes. When I'm driving, I know that an egg and cheese and bacon McMuffin, with a cup of bitter black coffee, is probably the best I'm going to find, usually. For lunch, a BLT and a Bud may be the best choice. For dinners, it's a wasteland. Upscale tourist venues charge way too much and have some peculiar notions of "fine food," as your cayenne pepper episode illustrates.

    If you want great food, go to where the food is the center attraction (like New Orleans, for instance). Hoping for gourmet meals in the Rockies is just plain wishful thinking. Lots of places have their own "specialties." There's a neat little B & B on an island between Minneapolis and St. Paul which serves the best Canadian bacon I've ever had, unlike any I've ever seen or tasted: Almost no fat, and as tender as stew-meat. The fishing lodge at Steamboat Springs on the Umpqua River in Oregon makes a "coffee-can" homemade 17 grain bread that is flat out world class, and they made it up themselves. Finding these exceptions is fun.

  2. Finding the exceptions is fun, and it's part of what we enjoy while traveling. We stopped for lunch one day in Maine, on the way to Blue Hill, in a little breakfast-and-lunch joint downtown in a medium sized city whose name I forget; and we had a wonderful homemade soup.

    We choose to find the local one-of-a-kind places and see what they can do, and I'd say we're pleasantly surprised more often than not. Paris, Idaho was the exception that proves the rule.

    The lunch place in Paris also had an amusing sight that I left out of the main post: while we were there a bunch of local boys came in, all tricked out in Stetson hats and spurs, and sat down for a round of soda pop. This being Mormon country, there was of course no Coca Cola - but they all scarfed down the Mountain Dew! So much for avoiding caffeine...