7/15/2010

Travels : Four Corners Area Pt II

La Placita, Old Town Albuquerque
Half the fun of any road trip is sampling a wide variety of cuisines and restaurants. I confess to being a strange mixture of both high-brow and low-brow tastes, in most aspects (cinema, literature, fashion, hobbies, husbands, and food !) and will happily dine at a 5 star restaurant or a roadside diner, enjoying each equally the same. Either end of the spectrum offers something unique and valuable that I want to experience. A trip to the Colorado - New Mexico region allows me to visit some old faves, and try some exciting new experiences as well. Sure, now and then one has to eat at a Denny's or a Waffle House, simply because nothing else is available. (It must be noted that I consider breakfast to be the only "safe" meal to eat at Denny's any or time any where, and as there are no Denny's at all along I-40 running through the entire state of Tennessee, and as hubster and I make that trek every summer, we endure what we know will be a long day of arguing as we cannot agree on where to eat, otherwise. Denny's is a "safe" choice in oh-so-many ways for us!) But it is a shame to waste a perfectly good road trip, with all the exciting food options that exist out there, on the familiar blandness of a chain restaurant.
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Hubster's family has long argued over which restaurant in old town Albuquerque is THE restaurant where they always dine. (One of the many things we share in common is childhoods spent out here, and a love of the cuisine.) Each time we go there, no one can never quite remember where it was that we ate last time we were there. Hubster's mom refers to a place she calls "El Ranchero", which she claims make the best chiles rellenos in all the world, yet there is actually no restaurant that has ever existed by that name (or similar) in that location. I know, I know, most in-the-know locals and well read tourists shun the Old Town area as tres passe, but I was traveling w my mom this summer, and she needed to hit some of the "old lady" spots she likes, too, so I indulged her. We found ourselves in Old Town, strolling around "power shopping" (you really have to see how fast and furious my mother does this, to believe it) one fine Saturday evening, and decided to stroll in to La Placita for dinner. This place hit the spot perfectly, serving us large sampler plates of the New Mexico cuisine we love so much, reasonably priced and perfectly rendered. My plate included chile rellenos as one of the items, and while this is not my fave dish, it was cooked and tasted just as it should be. I was pleased to note several Hispanic families with kids, and a young couple next to us who smooched the entire meal, who appeared to be locals, so I figured it couldn't be all that bad. It was a delightful meal, and about halfway through it, my mom sort of straightened up and said, "I have been here before ! A long time ago, when you girls were babies ! I remember it now!"
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Another family fave in Albuquerque is the Frontier Cafe, across from the University of New Mexico. Hubster reminisces fondly about eating green chile stew and I, the burritos, from that wonderful hole-in-the-wall cafe. A special note of interest : the tables, chairs, signs, menus, dishes, and all accouterments are EXACTLY the same as my long time Houston fave diner dive, House of Pies. It's as though each diner bought their initial set-up from the same restaurant supply store, the same year. Truly amazing.
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Plenty of hotel choices in ABQ, take your pick.

The Alley Cafe, Taos
It has long been a personal tradition of mine to hit Taos in time for lunch, or at least, cocktails, so I could sit on the balcony patio at Olgelvies Bar and Grill, on the plaza, and sip a margarita while enjoying the scenery (foreground: tourists, mid-ground: plaza, background: mountains). Never fazed me that the food was only so-so; the ambiance was worth it. I've been enjoying that place since the late 1970's. Sadly, it was closed this summer, so I had to find a new spot to dine in Taos. Conversation with a local shop-keeper (more power shopping w mom!) revealed that the economic downturn has hit Olgelvie's badly, they are trying to remodel, refinance, and keep it going, but it's all very up in the air at the moment. We manged to find a charming little spot called The Alley Cafe, literally in the alley behind the plaza, and ducked in out of a rain storm for green chile cheese burgers and margaritas, which were tres magnifique ! Fires burning in the fireplace were the prefect touch, as it was about 40 degrees and threatening sleet that day.
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One of the many fun things to do in the Taos area is to visit the wineries just outside of town, which are located along a back road, aka "the road to Dixon". Beautiful mountain scenery and charming little boutique wineries dot this highway. Family fave is La Chiripada, but I've been told others are wonderful, too. While my mom and I often order cases from off the LC website, it is a lot more fun and educational to attend a tasting session, and sample a wide variety of their many award-winning vintages. We did so this trip, and had a lot of fun - and came away with another case of wine ! The vintner recommended a lunch spot for us, named like Razzy's or something like that, (so new it does not have a website yet for me to check spelling) but it was closed the day we were there, so we had to press on.
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When staying in Toas looking for a romantic weekend, I've stayed at both of the very charming, historic, and luxurious old hotels : La Fonda, and Doc Martin's Historic Taos Inn. (I've been told there are great ski lodges in the area, which I'm sure have some mighty fine restaurants, but I tend to prefer to be in town, as I don't ski, and would rather shop, look at art, drink, eat, stroll about, etc. Bad knees......) The restaurants in each of these sentimental faves are lovely; never had a bad meal. It is a particularly pleasant thing to do in the fall or winter, and curl up by the fire.....
original photo of Bake's Lotta Burger....the current ones look about the same
While wending our way from Durango to Gallup (where the real shopping takes place; it must be noted that everything else is just a feeble warm up!), we often pass through Shiprock. Now, the road from Durango to Gallup, through Shiprock, is long, straight, flat, isolated and runs through the Navajo reservation for several hours/hundreds of miles (depending on how fast you drive !). I find the land beautiful, but many, not used to the serenity and undeveloped quality of the dessert southwest, might find it stark and lonely. It used to be that there was nothing, literally and figuratively NOTHING at all save sheep and hogans, the entire distance from Shiprock to Gallup. I did notice this year that someone has brightly built a gas station about halfway down this highway, around Teec Nos Pas. How many tourists, I wonder, ran out of gas on that road, over the years? Or get lost looking for the road to Chaco Canyon? Those in the know will fill up on food and gas, in Shiprock. Our family knows the area well, from the days when my brother-in-law worked at the hospital in Shiprock, and we visited him several times. Shiprock is not known for upscale cuisine, mostly just fast food choices, so this is when I eat at Blake's Lotta Burger, one of the few local fast food chains still extant. Yes, there are McD's and the other mainstays available, but why eat there when this one is so much better ? Cheese burgers are the thing to eat here, with green chile, and also pretty good shakes. (About halfway through this trip, my mom said to me, "Why is it that everything we are eating is Mexican food ?" When in Rome, ma, when in Rome.........)


As I mentioned earlier, part of the goal of this trip was to engage in retail shopping therapy, as we morned the passing of my father, who especially loved the American Southwest, used to paint there frequently when I was a child, and instilled a love of the area and culture in me at an early age.

If you enjoy shopping for Southwesetern items, whether it be rugs, pottery, jewelry, or other bric a brac, know this : prices in Sante Fe are twice that of prices in Albuquerque, and prices in Albuquerque are twice that of Gallup. Yes, Gallup is 2 hours west of Albuquerque - but worth the drive if you are a serious shopper.

Garcia's in Gallup
Gallup is a town that is strangely frozen in time : so much of its growth era was dominated by the magical "Route 66" that guided folk from Chicago to Los Angeles back in the earlier part of the 20th century. If you are searching for a modern upscale hotel or restaurant here, forget it. El Rancho claims to be "where the movie stars slept" back in the day, but I've been in there and it reminds me of Norma Desmond's nightmarish house in the movie "Sunset Boulevard." Too many dusty old stuffed animals leering at you, their glassy eyes, their yawning jaws.....you know they all come awake at night, when you are not looking, don't you ? Your best bet is one of the clean new mid-range chains near the highway; the main street through town, which is the actual "Route 66", is filled with quirky looking motel-courts from the 1920's through 1950's, which while nostalgic and cute, promise you lumpy beds, damp shag carpeting and funky smelling rooms with not enough scratchy small towels. There are 1000's of small diners in this town, each serving pretty much the same local fare. For such a seemingly small town in the middle of nowhere, the entire town can book up quickly (it is a regional hub, home to several major rodeos and Indian inter tribal conventions) so plan and book ahead if you go there. August is the busiest month - I'd skip August, unless compelling personal business took me there - although, August is known for great sales, when everything is half off.
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I always say to people that Gallup is where I go to shop, seriously shop, and they seem unaware that it exists. Gallup is off the tourist beaten path, close to several reservations, and the prices for anything (I'm talking native American handicrafts here, of an upscale variety : jewelry, baskets, rugs, etc) worth having are roughly 1/3 that of prices for the same item in Santa Fe. If you collect items of this nature, you know what I'm talking about, and it is not "tourist grade" inexpensive (made in China) crap sold in some mega store on the highway next to a gas station. The quality and the prices make Gallup, only 2 hours west from ABQ, well worth the trip. There are also many places that sell what local hand-crafters use to make jewelry, so if you are "into" beading, it's like being a kid in a candy shop. I have more than once seen an individual stroll into a store, ask for the manger, and bring out a crumpled paper lunch sack full of incredible jewelry this individual person just made, themselves, to sell to the store, to sell to people like me.
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There aren't any especially wonderful places to eat in Gallup, but this year, just by chance, we wandered in to a 1950's looking diner along the far west side of "the strip" named Garcia's, looking for breakfast, and it was wonderful. Car had been making an ominous sound the previous day, which was stressful, but that morning a helpful young man in a parking lot rolled under and looked at it (a loose plastic flap, that is all - had it checked at a dealership in Santa Fe, later, which confirmed and fixed it ) . We then ate at the spot nearby, and all my tension were quickly soothed by an incredible green chile omelet, great coffee, fresh squeezed o.j., home-made tortillas and fry bread. My mouth waters even now, thinking of it. All presided over by a charming and ebullient proprietor, Garcia himself, who visited with us and talked about how his food was actually good for you b/c it was all home-made, from scratch, no preservatives, no additives, no trans fats, etc. I was sold; he had me at the first bite, anyways!




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