7/15/2010

Travels : Four Corners Area Pt I


You know GFT loves New Mexico - as many Texans do - and tries to get there every other year or so. The desert in the Four Corners area is somehow more beautiful than the very same desert as it appears in Texas, and the shopping and food are much better. The elevation from sea level starts to climb as you drive through the panhandle area of Texas, and you can feel the air getting clearer and the clime becoming cooler. On this particular trip, a strange personal "Trip to Bountiful" sort of road trip - the sole purpose of which was to scatter my father's ashes along the way, accompanied by my mother who despised him (they divorced long ago) but was so senile that she had completely forgotten this fact - mom and I engaged in both  revisits to sentimental places from my childhood, and retail shopping therapy. Along the way, we ate some fantastic meals.

The Pantry, in Santa Fe
There are hundreds of wonderful restaurants in Santa Fe; it is truly one of those destination towns, like New Orleans or San Francisco, where you can go to simply to eat - and dining alone will provide all the entertainment you need. Roll outta one meal, walk it off, window shop, look at art galleries, see some sites, roll in to the next one. Everyone has their favorite spots in this town, and over the years I have tried many of them. This year, was wanting to get out of my rut, a bit , so approached my visit with open eyes and ears. Struck up a conversation at the Hagen -Das ice cream shop on the square (it is a long standing family joke, that every single day at 3 pm, no matter where she is or what she is doing, my mother says, "Now seems a pretty good time for some ice cream!" Imagine a little old lady, deep East Texas drawl.) with a woman who owns an upscale jewelry store on Canyon Road - she gave us two tickets for free comps at a tapas bar, La Boca, that was new in town. How fun ! Adventures happen everywhere, if you open your eyes.
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In spite of my mother's complaint that we were eating "too much Mexican food", however (that's like saying, "too much Cajun/Creole food" in New Orleans ! Sacrilege ! Tired of what you are eating ? Then select a different dish! So many choices, so little time......), I seldom veer too far off the beaten path of southwestern cuisine in NM. Have eaten at the Indian restaurant in SF and it was mighty fine, but when I'm there, I'm rarely in the mood. Can get Indian at home !
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Just to liven things up a bit, this year I decided to head the organic route, wherever possible. Started off our visit at the Farmers Market in Santa Fe, where I have often found not only wonderful produce but great arts and crafts, as well. Sampled local offerings there, bought ristras, gourds, baskets (still a few weeks too early to buy the famous Hatch green chiles, which arrive in late summer/early fall)......Picked up several local publications, and perused them for restaurant reviews. One thing led to another and.....
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One of the new places I tried this year, as a result of reading a review in the local organic newspaper, was The Pantry on Cerillos. This mom-and-pop diner has been around forever, yet somehow I'd never eaten there. I tried blue corn chicken enchiladas, one of my all time fave dishes, and it was fabulous. Melt-in-your-mouth tasty; I'll definitely go back. Mom had tacos and liked them, too. This place turns up with positive reviews on a lot of web sites. Don't miss it - another great little inexpensive spot with fresh wonderful food, I'm adding it to my list of places to hit each time I'm in town. They serve local wines with dinner, which we sampled - much needed after a hard day of shopping . A plus ! Kid and family friendly, I hear they are good for breakfast, too .

The Plaza Cafe in Santa Fe
A completely unexpected surprise for me was eating breakfast at the Plaza Cafe on the square. I must have passed this spot 100's of times, and never paid it any attention at all (assuming anything on the square had to be too touristy and therefore, bad). The exterior is unassuming; I almost missed it. Inside, it's sort of retro 50's diner-ish. Mom and I bellied up to the counter and ordered pancakes, thinking they would be little doily sized things, al la IHOP, but no! Mine were blueberry, hers were apple. When they arrived, they were the size of platters and simply to die for ! Possibly the world's best pancakes.... I'm still dreaming about how to replicate in my own kitchen. Will definitely add this spot to my list of place to hit each time I'm in town.

Often, when I travel with hubster, we sample the local brewpubs - beer is his chief hobby (sampling, collecting and consuming, mostly, although he does make home brew, once in a while). It just so happened at one meal this trip where my mom and I were pooped and ready to rest up and eat, I looked around , and there was Second Street Brew Pub right in front of us. We popped in and enjoyed the shade in the pleasant shady dining patio, and fortified ourselves with huge club sandwiches that were pretty tasty. Oh, yes, the beer wasn't bad, either .

Demo chef at Santa Fe School of Cooking
One of the most fun things to do in Santa Fe is attend a cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Part gourmet food/kitchen shop, part restaurant, part entertainment, if you are a casual or serious cook, you will get to see demonstrations, learn and practice many techniques for cooking southwestern food. A gf and I took a class here almost 20 years ago - that year I learned how to make enchiladas - from scratch. It included making and rolling my own tortillas.....it was a blast. This time, I enrolled my mom and me in a tacos class, but it covered such diverse things as: making red and green sauce, how to roast your own chiles, and several great recipes (including one for shrimp tacos which was to die for). We had a blast and I highly recommend it to anyone. Had thought about taking my surly teenage kids along for that one but chickened out at the last minute....should not have worried, there were several teens in the class, as well as a diverse assmt of geezers, gourmets, moms, and the usual hungry people this year.
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Hotel options in Santa Fe are plentiful, offering everything from spas and the truly luxurious to cheap cheezy motels, and everything in-between. A long-time vacation spot for the wealthy and those who love the art scene or skiing, there is something for everyone. I tend to favor brands in the Hilton family, only b/c I collect points there, but there is probably a branch here of every chain in America.

View from Far View Lodge Cafe, Mesa Verde
By far the most unusual dining and hotel experience we had this year was when we spent the night at Mesa Verde National Park. I've been visiting this place since I was a kid - never stayed in the park itself (always worried that it was too difficult to get a reservation, I guess, maybe with a waiting list years long). Growing up, we always stayed in Durango or Cortez. This year, perhaps due to the economy, I found plenty of rooms inside the park readily available on expedia or travelocity websites, at a discount. The only difficult thing about it was the fact that we arrived late at night - SOMETHING I ADVISE YOU NEVER TO DO, AT ALL COSTS. The front gate was open but no one was there, and we just rolled in (no one to sell us an entrance ticket). I then had to drive 15 miles deep into the park on twisty, turning mountain roads with no lights, no signs, no guard rails, only praying and hoping this adventure wasn't going to end like "The Shining" , "Thelma and Louis" or a slasher movie. After what seemed like an eternity and probably was - I am terrified of heights and was driving about 1 mph, as the roads were all torn up and "under construction"- we finally found Far View Lodge. In the dark, it seemed like nothing special. Checked in, went to our room, collapsed. But oh, how the light of day changes things ......... we woke up just as the sun was rising the next day. This hotel, turns out (couldn't tell night before, in the dark) is perched on a mountaintop in the park, with a view that spans the horizon. You can see canyons and ruins and into distant states. It is incredibly breathtaking; words alone don't do it justice. I was worried about getting some coffee as fast as possible (always my chief concern upon awakening), and discovered that inside the gift shops/ park buildings there are several restaurant choices, (some casual, some upscale) open to hotel residents hours before the park opens to the general public. Mom and I wandered over to the place that had a breakfast buffet and ate with scant few others, in front of giant windows that took in all the majesty of the sun coming up over the canyons. It was magnificent, a moment I will never forget.

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