The Turquoise Room – Winslow, Arizona

The fabulous La Posada

The fabulous La Posada

The concept of “fast food” had a far different connotation during the Southwest’s Frontier days than it does today. This is especially true if one traveled via railroad through hundreds of miles of desolate, open country. In the more densely populated and genteel east there were often several cities between most destinations. This allowed for frequent rest and refreshment stops. Passengers rode in relative comfort in Pullman cars with dining cars.

In the wide open west, only twenty minutes were allowed during each of the infrequent stops. Further, the food was as miserable as the travel conditions. According to Keith L. Bryant’s History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, “meat was greasy and usually fried, beans were canned, bacon rancid and coffee was fresh once a week.” No doubt it was gastronomic distress that prompted the following ditty documented on the book Hear the Lonesome Whistle Blow by Dee Brown: “The tea tasted as though it was made from the leaves of sagebrush. The biscuit was made without soda, but with plenty of alkali, harmonizing with the great quantity of alkali dust we had already swallowed.”

The welcoming interior of the Turquoise Room

One man, an English emigrant named Fred Harvey was determined to change the deplorable railroad travel conditions in the west. With a background as a restaurateur and later as a railroad employee, he brought good food at reasonable places served in clean, elegant restaurants to the traveling public throughout the Wild West. Historians agree that he also introduced civility and dignity. The Fred Harvey Company’s expansion included hotels, restaurants and lunchrooms throughout the Southwest (Arizona, California and New Mexico) as well as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and eventually anywhere the Santa Fe railroad system had major terminals including Chicago and Saint Louis.  By the late 1880s a Fred Harvey dining facility existed every 100 miles along the Santa Fe line. Meals at a Harvey establishment epitomized the highest standards for cleanliness and fastidiousness. Fine China, crystal, Irish linens, sumptuous portions and great value were hallmarks of a meal at a Harvey facility.

In the 1920s, the Harvey Company decided to build a major hotel in Winslow, the Arizona headquarters for the Santa Fe Railway. Being centrally located, Winslow was thought to be ideally situated for a resort hotel. No expense was spared. Construction costs for grounds and furnishings have been estimated at $2 million or about $40 million in today’s dollars. La Posada, the resting place, was the finest hotel in the Southwest during the railroad era. Today it remains not so much a re-creation of the great railway era, but an accumulation of memories and treasures in the form of exquisite art, history and beauty. Its opulent flow includes arched doorways, hand-painted glass windows, glittering tin chandeliers, Southwestern hand-hewn furniture and whimsical art. It is a magnificent complex, one of the finest hotels in the entire West.

Heirloom Squash Blossoms

Heirloom Squash Blossoms

It is only fitting that a hotel with the grandeur and splendor of La Posada have an elegant area set aside for the finest in dining. That would be the Turquoise room which has been recreated to reflect the ultimate in stylish railroad dining. The Turquoise Room is indeed a fabulous restaurant, viewed by experts as one of the very best in the Four Corners region. The braintrust behind the restaurant is chef and owner John Sharpe, an Englishman like Fred Harvey with a similar commitment to outstanding food and impeccable service.  That commitment was  recognized in 2011 when Sharpe was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as the best chef in the southwest.

Sharpe is committed to using only the finest and freshest ingredients possible, many of them grown locally. An avid gardener, he also grows heirloom vegetables and herbs for the restaurant, including the giant squash blossoms that appear on his menu on occasion. Every once in a while Sharpe also pays tribute to the great days of the Fred Harvey Company with retro dishes from the great railway era, but for the most part his cuisine might best be labeled as regional contemporary Southwestern. An even better label would be fabulous!  Several items are menu mainstays: roast prime rib, grilled steaks, fresh fish, pasta, elk, quail, pork, chicken, lamb and a vegetable platter. Desserts are made in-house on a daily basis.

Porterhouse Steak

The Engineer’s Porterhouse Steak

24 August 2008: Sharpe’s giant squash blossoms are things of beauty! Piped into each beer battered squash flower is a tamale-like concoction of corn meal and two types of cheeses topped with a corn salsa and drizzled with fresh cream. You will savor each bite and mourn the last one. It is one of the best appetizers we’ve had in any Arizona restaurant. An excellent pairing with many Turquoise Room entrees is the Don Juan Sangria cocktail made with red wine, port, sherry, brandy, triple sec and citrus juices served over ice. Sliced oranges, lemons and limes float on the sangria and add to its full-bodied, hearty flavor.

If you’ve ever lamented the lack of game gracing menus at restaurants throughout the Southwest, you’ll be thrilled to see several game favorites featured at the Turquoise Room. Better still, some entrees include more than one game favorite. One sure to please entree for the gaming gastronome is the Native Cassoulet with Churro Lamb, Duck Leg and Elk Sausage. Cassoulets are generally rich, slow-cooked bean casseroles containing meats (typically pork, sausage, mutton or goose), but Sharpe takes some liberties with that definition.

Prime Rib au jus

Prime Rib au jus

8 September 2007: Sharpe’s version starts with Tohono O’odham (a Native American tribe formerly known as the Papago who reside primarily in the Sonoran Desert of the Southwest United States and Northwest Mexico) grown tepary (a drought-resistant bean grown in the Southwest) beans cooked with locally raised Churro lamb, chilies and spices. The Turquoise Room’s Churro lamb chop is fork tender and absolutely delicious with nary a hint of gaminess or fat. In fact, the meat is very distinctive for lamb with a subtle wild flavor likely resultant from the Churro breed’s diet of shrubs and herbs in the sparse deserts of the Southwest. This is some of the best lamb I’ve had anywhere!  The duck leg confit is similarly wonderful–a duck leg seasoned and slowly cooked in duck fat. The Turquoise Room’s rendition is sinfully tender and moist with a crispy and golden brown skin.  The spicy smoked elk sausage may surprise you because it actually lives up to its billing. The sausage’s pronounced smokiness quickly gives way to a spiciness that will play a concordant tune on your taste buds. It is slightly coarse as sausage goes, but is tender, moist and delicious.

8 September 2007: Another dinner entree featuring game is aptly named the Wild-Wild-Wild-West Sampler Platter. This entree features grilled quail with prickly pear jalapeno glaze, seared elk medallion with blackcurrant sauce and a cup of chunky venison, buffalo, wild boar and scarlet runner bean chili served with sweet corn tamale and fresh vegetables. Every item on this entree is stellar in its own right, but together they put to shame just about every combination meat platter you can think of.  The seared elk with blackcurrant sauce edges out the grilled quail with prickly pear jalapeno glaze as the best of the lot, but not by much. Both are absolutely delicious, prepared to absolute perfection.

Cream of corn and smooth black bean soup

Cream of corn and smooth black bean soup

24 August 2008: If you’re of a carnivorous bent but don’t necessarily desire an entree with multiple meats, the purist in you might prefer The Engineer’s Porterhouse Steak. This is a one-pound Sterling Silver center-cut Porterhouse you can cut with a dinner knife. That’s how tender it is. It is served with a spicy (perhaps chipotle infused) steak sauce that is actually worth using on this slab of meat.  Prepared to your exacting specifications (medium is my recommendation), it is juicy and delicious on both the larger short loin side and the more tender and flavorful tenderloin side. Some restaurants call this cut of meat the T-Bone, but by any name, it is often a challenge to prepare correctly because of the uneven temperature distribution in preparation. The Turquoise Room obviously has mastered the art of preparing this delicious cut.

24 August 2008: Another fine meat option is the Premium Angus Prime Rib Roast Au Jus served with horseradish cream, a medley of fresh vegetables and a choice of baked potato or red caboose mashed potatoes. This cut is available in an eight-ounce or fourteen-ounce cut. Prime rib is not for the faint of heart. For optimum flavor, it’s best served at about medium rare, a degree of “doneness” which may give the appearance of bloodiness that turns off the queasy diner. Preparing prime rib at anything above medium is sacrilege and detracts from this flavorful slab of meat.  Needless to say, the Turquoise Room knows how to prepare prime rib. Cut into it and the succulent juices (albeit a bit red) flow onto your plate. Bite into it and you’re in heaven. A little bit of marbling goes a long way on this cut of beef and that’s what you’ll get–that and a whole lot of flavor. If you’re an aficionado of prime rib, this one will please you.  You might not be as pleased with the baked potatoes which are on the small side and may not be completely heated all the way through. While most of the potato is tender, some is just a bit tough, an indication of inconsistent baking. Still, you add a little butter and a little sour cream and you’ve got a nice dinner accompaniment.

Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Souffle for Two

Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Souffle for Two

24 August 2008: All dinners include your choice of Caesar salad or the restaurant’s signature soup, a cream of corn and smooth black bean soup served side-by-side in one bowl and topped with a red chile signature. As impossible as it may sound, the chef actually managed to keep separate on a bowl two very distinct yet very complementary soups as warming and comforting as the definition “comfort” soup itself. The Caesar salad is magnificent! It includes roasted red peppers, pumpkin seeds and Parmesan crusted tepee of the restaurant’s red chile cracker bread.

24 August 2008: The restaurant’s desserts are decadent and delightful, none quite as much as the Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Soufflé for Two. It takes 25 minutes to bake this extravagant treat, but it’s worth the wait. A rich dark chocolate soufflé is baked to order and served with whipped cream, dark chocolate Grand Marnier sauce (poured into a cavity atop the soufflé) and whipped cream. It’s a nice way to finish a meal.

Arizona Green Chile Eggs

Arizona Green Chile Eggs

Portion sizes at the Turquoise Room are generous but you’ll still be tempted to lick your plate so as not to waste a morsel or dribble of your entree or dessert. Fortunately dinner is followed by breakfast only a few hours away and breakfast, though not quite the equal of dinner, is an extraordinary event at this terrific restaurant.

9 September 2007: One of the breakfast entrees that makes it so are the Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles–shredded beef machaca with tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices, scrambled with two eggs, smoky red chile tomato sauce, crispy red and blue corn tortilla chips and jalapeno jack cheese. This entree is topped with crema fresca and roasted corn salsa and served with black beans. What a wonderful wake-up call. For most New Mexicans the smoky red chile tomato sauce would barely register on the piquant scale, but that’s okay because this breakfast entree is so replete with flavors competing for the rapt attention of your taste buds. Every ingredient plays on its partner ingredient and the resultant tune is a masterpiece.

Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles

Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles

9 September 2007: The best part of waking up, however, just might be Arizona Green Chile Eggs— creamy polenta in a pool of green chile, tomatillo sauce topped with two eggs, covered in melted jalapeno jack cheese and garnished with roasted corn salsa and diced fresh tomatoes, black beans and served with warm corn tortillas.  I’m somewhat loathe to credit anything in Arizona that includes salsa or chile, but the Arizona Green Chile Eggs have me issuing an apology to the Grand Canyon State’s use of ingredients New Mexico restaurants do best. This is an outstanding breakfast entree! 

22 June 2014:  Perhaps only in Italy is polenta used on breakfast entrees more than at the Turquoise Room.  Chef Sharpe’s rendition of polenta will remind you it’s so much more than “Italian grits” and can be made more sophisticated and interesting than simple coarse yellow cornmeal.  In addition to the aforementioned Arizona Green Chile Eggs entree, polenta also graces a breakfast entree called The Corn Maiden’s Delight, a bowl of warm yellow corn polenta topped with fire-roasted tomatoes, fresh spinach, two poached eggs, jalapeño jack cheese and fresh roasted corn salsa.  The very best qualities of this dish are showcased in the combination of its individual components, the more the merrier.  Alas, there is so little of the roasted corn salsa (onions, green peppers) that you’ll have to use it sparingly.  My preference would have been to cover the entire dish with this salsa.  All breakfasts save for waffles and pancakes are served your choice of La Posada’s blueberry muffin, bran muffin, cinnamon roll, English muffin or white, wheat or sourdough toast.

The Corn Maiden’s Delight

9 September 2007: Traditionalists might instead order something like the Silver Dollar pancake entree which includes two eggs, three pancakes and your choice of bacon, sausage or ham with spicy green chile breakfast potatoes. Rather than have your pancakes with maple or blueberry syrup, douse them liberally with prickly pear syrup. Prickly pear syrup has a higher fruit to sugar ratio than most syrups which is something you’ve got to appreciate if you don’t want a major sugar rush first thing in the morning.

22 July 2012: The lunch menu includes one of the most unique dishes I’ve seen on a restaurant menu anywhere, piki bread with hopi hummus. It’s a dish you might order for the experience of eating something so authentically Native American and uniquely different, but probaly not because someone has told you it’s a great tasting dish. The most unique aspect of this entree is the piki bread, finely ground blue corn blended with burnt juniper berry ash. Ash, in fact, is texturally what the bread resembles. This bread is crumbly (as in blow away light) and won’t stand up to the lightest portion of the bad-dap-suki, the “Hopi hummus” with which it is served. Hopi hummus is also unique, but its greatest resemblance to hummus is textural.

Piki Bread with Hopi Hummus:

22 July 2012: Much more traditional is the crispy pork carnitas platter, large pieces of crispy pork with red and green salsas, white tortillas, black beans and sweet corn tamale.  The carnitas are tender tendrils of pork perfectly made for the smallish corn tortillas.  Add a bit of the red or green salsa and you’ve got very good tacos.  The sweet corn tamale is essentially two scoops of a sweetened corn masa without any of the pork.

Breakfast, lunch or dinner, one of my favorite items at the Turquoise Room is the Late for the Train Coffee, an organic Turquoise Room blend.  It’s a mellow, rich coffee with a delicate roasted flavor.  Since our first visit to the Turquoise Room in 1997, it’s the only coffee we’ve had at home.

Crispy Pork Carnitas Platter: Large pieces of crispy pork Carnitas, with red and green salsas, white tortillas, black beans and sweet corn tamale

Fred Harvey would undoubtedly be very proud of the La Posada Hotel and the Turquoise Room, its fine, fine-dining restaurant.

The Turqouise Room
303 East 2nd Street (Rte 66)
Winslow, Arizona
(928) 289-4366
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 June 2014
1st VISIT: 8 September 2007
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Silver Dollar Pancakes, Baked Beef Machaca Chilaquiles, Arizona Green Chile Eggs, Native Cassoulet with Churro Lamb, Duck Leg and Elk Sausage, Double Chocolate Grand Marnier Soufflé for Two, Crispy Pork Carnitas Platter, The Corn Maiden’s Delight

Turquoise Room (La Posada Hotel) on Urbanspoon

El Guero Canelo – Tucson, Arizona

El Guero Canelo for the quintessential Tucson food, the Sonoran hot dog

El Guero Canelo for the best in the quintessential Tucson food, the Sonoran hot dog

If asked to participate in a word association exercise, any well-traveled foodie undergoing psychoanalysis would find it easy to name the first food that comes to mind when a city is mentioned: Philadelphia – the Philly cheesesteak sandwich; Boston – baked beans; Chicago – Italian beef sandwiches; San Francisco – sourdough bread; Milwaukee – butter burgers; San Antonio, New Mexico – green chile cheeseburgers.  You get the point.  Some foodies might not know that Philadelphia is the birthplace of liberty, but they know about Geno’s and Pat’s King of Steaks and their decades-long battle for Philly cheesesteak supremacy.

You might find it strange that seemingly pedestrian foods would be the defining cuisine of burgeoning cosmopolitan cities, historically significant metropolises and tiny hamlets in the desert, but it’s not solely foodies who associate foods with places. Anthropologist Maribel Alvarez of the University of Arizona says the “quintessential food of Tucson” is the Sonoran hot dog, explaining that instead of taking guests to high-end restaurants, locals will bring their out-of-towners to one of the city’s purveyors of Sonoran hot dogs.

Hot dogs, like baseball and barbecue, aren’t exclusively the domain of Americans any more.  In fact, they never were. Before you call that statement unpatriotic heresy, consider the evolution of the hot dog.  Two words synonymous with that American term–frankfurter and wiener–come from Frankfurt, Germany and Vienna, Austria respectively.  In Germany, pork sausages were served in buns similar to those used in hot dogs while Austrians preferred a sausage made of a pork and beef amalgam.

The colorful menu at El Guero Canelo has something for everyone

The colorful menu at El Guero Canelo has something for everyone

In her fabulous tome The Great American Hot Dog Book, my friend Becky Mercuri writes that many popular foods in Arizona reflect the cuisine of the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora.  Those influences go far and deep in Tucson where the Mexican food is quite dissimilar to the foods with which New Mexicans are intimately familiar.  Not even the humble hot dog escapes those far-reaching Sonoran influences.

The Hot Dog Book celebrates the tremendous diversity of hot dogs across the fruited plain, examining in loving tributes the many ways in which hot dogs are prepared across America.  Becky showcases the best and most popular hot dogs in every state, even including recipes you’ll want to replicate in your own kitchen.  It was only natural that she include as the Arizona selection, the Sonoran-style hot dogs served in such paragons of hot dog deliciousness as El Guero Canelo and BK Carne Asada and Hot Dogs.

Though true hot dog aficionados are well-acquainted with Sonoran-style hot dogs and the aforementioned purveyors non-pariel, in April, 2010, both attained a heretofore unparalleled national profile.  The April 6th episode of the Travel Channel’s Food Wars show pitted El Guero Canelo against BK Carne Asada and Hot Dogs in a delicious duel to determine the best Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson.  Later in the month, Saveur magazine profiled “Eat Street,” the nickname of Tucson’s 12th Avenue in which both are denizens.

Throngs of patrons frequent El Guero Canelo, more since a Food Wars episode aired in 2010

Throngs of patrons frequent El Guero Canelo, more since a Food Wars episode aired in 2010

More than one-hundred vendors ply the Sonoran-style hot dog trade in Tucson.  Known as “hotdogueros,” they offer a surprising number of inventive variations on the Sonoran hot dog.  Where none deviate is in wrapping bacon barbershop pole style around a wiener then griddling or grilling it until the bacon has practically caramelized into the wiener.  A phalanx of garnishes and toppings are then stuffed into a bolillo style Mexican bread that resembles a hot dog bun that hasn’t been completely split length-wise.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate that El Guero Canelo, a claimant to being the original purveyor of the Sonoran hot dog in Tucson, champions authenticity and tradition more than any competitor in town.  El Guero Canelo, which translates to “the cinnamon blonde” is the nickname of its founder and owner Daniel Conteras.  The Contreras family has about a century and a quarter’s worth of cumulative restaurant experience, starting their Tucson operation in a humble 6X8 taco stand.  Today the family operates two full-sized restaurants.

El Guero Canelo, the original Sonoran hot dog restaurant on the celebrated “Eat Street” is the most famous and popular.  Save for the indoor kitchen, the entire complex is situated in a well-shielded outdoor pavilion.  In the summer, cooling misters dispense a fine drizzle to provide respite from the scalding heat.  In the center of the pavilion is a condiment bar that, save for the sneeze guard and metalwork, features the three colors of the Mexican flag: green, white and red.   Seating is more functional than comfortable.

Two Sonoran Hot Dogs, one with beans and one without.

Two Sonoran Hot Dogs, one with beans and one without.

Hungry customers queue up in one of two lines to place their orders, a vast proportion of which are for Sonoran hot dogs.  Order numbers are called out both in English and Spanish  You probably have time to visit the condiment bar for sliced cucumbers, radishes, pico de gallo, grilled onions and more before your order is ready.  Dally too long at the condiment bar and you’re likely to hear a rather animated reminder that customers need to pay attention to the numbers on their order stubs.

There’s a reason El Guero Canelo serves more than 10,000 Sonoran hot dogs a week.  These hot dogs are mouth-watering–a thin dog gift-wrapped in bacon and nestled in a pillowy soft, slightly sweet bun where it shares room with pinto beans, grilled onions, chopped tomatoes, mayo and mustard then topped with a hint of jalapeño sauce.  The buns are imported from a bakery in Mexico which prepares them to the exacting specifications of the Contreras family.  You’ll be besotted at first bite–to the tune of at least two hot dogs per visit.

This hot dog is a wonderful study in contrasts: the sweetness of the bun and the smoky savoriness of the hot dog and bacon; the heat of the hot dog and the cool of the chopped tomato; the piquancy of the jalapeño sauce and the creaminess of the mayo.  Moreover, it’s a study in the appreciation of complex simplicity.  Being in close proximity to other diners, you’ll be privy to your neighbor’s swooning lustily at every bite.  This is truly an amazing hot dog!  During a week’s stay in Tucson, we visited El Guero Canelo three times and readers know I’m the least monogamous person in the world when it comes to repeat visits to restaurants.

Some of the fabulous complementary condiments at El Guero Canelo

Some of the fabulous complementary condiments at El Guero Canelo

You’ll want to wash down your meal with El Guero Canelo’s fabulous aguas frescas.  The jamaica (hibiscus), pina (pineapple) and tamarindo are refreshing and delicious though not homemade.

El Guero Canelo has been serving Tucson since 1993.  While that may not seem like a long time, it’s long enough for the restaurant to have established itself as a standard-setter for a cuisine that is beloved throughout the city.  It is a perennial winner of Tucson Weekly’s annual “best of” in the Sonoran hot dog category and now holder of Gil’s personal “best of” for any hot dog in America.

El Guero Canelo
5201 South 12th Avenue
Tucson, Arizona
(520) 295-9005
Web Site
1ST VISIT: 12 April 2010
LATEST VISIT: 28 June 2013
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Sonoran Hot Dogs, Aguas Frescas: Pina and Jamaica

El Guero Canelo on Urbanspoon

In-N-Out Burger – Chandler, Arizona

The In-N-Out Burger

The In-N-Out Burger

During a 2011 episode of Break the Chain, the enlightening and entertaining food-centric radio program hosted by the brilliant Ryan Scott, Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the pulchritudinous palate, made some rather unkind comments about Blake’s Lotaburger, an exclusively New Mexico institution.  I cautioned him that local listeners might show up at the radio station armed with pitchforks and torches. That’s how much New Mexicans love the burger franchise whose motto reminds them that “If you are what you eat, you are awesome.”

It’s not always easy to express your opinion about something as sacrosanct and beloved as Lotaburger, but inspired by Larry’s honesty, let me share my thoughts about In-N-Out Burger, a California institution that’s beloved beyond the Golden State, a burger restaurant National Geographic named the second best burger in the fruited plain in its “Top 10 Best of Everything” for 2012.  When it comes to In-N-Out, I’m most definitely in the minority.  I don’t get it at all…

Throngs of In-N-Out Burger fanatics line up for their favorite fix
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

I first found out about In-N-Out Burger in 1987 while developing psychometrics for the United States Air Force in San Antonio, Texas.  Two of my test-writing colleagues were native, In-N-Out Burger obsessed Californians who never seemed to take off their tee-shirts emblazoned with slogans for the popular California-based burger religion. They regaled me with tales that made the burgers almost too good to be true.

Our first close exposure of the third kind came in the millennium year during a visit to Las Vegas, Nevada. At first glance, the window sticker on the back of a low-rider was more advertising for In-N-Out Burger, but closer inspection revealed the logo had been modified. By removing the “B” and the “R” off the ends of “Burger,” clever innuendo resulted. It also prompted our first visit.  “Nice,” we thought, but “not nearly as good as Fatburger,” which had captured our taste buds with a fresh, made-to-order burger that seemed just too good to be made by a chain.  It was certainly not the transformative burger experience we expected, not even close.

The menu is limited but versatile

The menu is limited but versatile

We thought then and believe today that In-N-Out Burger’s product was inferior to Fatburger (and Tommy‘s, another Los Angeles favorite).  We questioned “is that all there is,” wondering what the hullabaloo was all about.  In-N-Out aficionados continue in their efforts to make a convert out of me, none more effusively than my sage  comadre Suzanne Devlin who’s got deep roots in New Mexico but now lives in Oregon.  Suzanne makes a great case:  “When an In-N-Out is served to you, the lettuce is crisp; the tomato covers the patty; the bun is grilled and toasted until it’s crisp in the fat of the cooked patty so the flavor is imbedded in the bun and the burgers in the photos and what little advertising they do is exactly what you get when you are served one at their restaurants not some smashed up burger that looks like Smokey the Bear sat on it.”

For me, it’s about flavor and that’s where In-N-Out Burger falls short of chains (Rally and Checkers, to name two) I have liked in the past…and even short of Lotaburger (green chile has a lot to do with that).  I don’t dislike In-N-Out and in fact, appreciate the freshness of its ingredients, its business model and ethical practices and much more.  There is much to like about In-N-Out, a family-owned enterprise since  1948 which is credited as the progenitor of the drive-through restaurant concept.

Double-Double (Monster Style) with Fries
Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Although carhop-based drive-ins were fairly commonplace in California, In-N-Out Burger featured a two-way speaker box where you would place your order then drive up to pick it up. You’re in, you’re out…a function, not just a name. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal commended In-N-Out Burger for using natural and fresh ingredients and for looking after the interests of employees regarding pay and benefits.  It’s the favorite chain for such hard-to-please chefs as Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsey and Mario Batali.  Nationally syndicated sports talk show icon Jim Rome says when he’s away from California for more than two days, the first restaurant he visits upon his return is In-N-Out.  Obviously, I’m the sane one; everyone else is nuts.

In-N-Out Burger’s menu is as simple as they come with three burgers, French fries, shakes, sodas, coffee and milk. There are no salads, sandwiches, breakfasts or chicken. Over the years, aficionados have also developed a unique lexicon for unpublished burger configurations. That lexicon is based on a numbering system that defines the number of beef patties and slices of cheese you want on your burger. A 3X3 is a three-patty burger with three slices of cheese. According to urban legend, a skyscraper-sized 20X20 has been created.

A double-double “animal” style. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Aside from cheese, all In-N-Out burgers officially on the menu come with a special sauce (similar to the sauce on the Big Mac but not quite as messy and profuse), onions, lettuce, and bun.  The burger patties are unfailingly hot and juicy which means the cheese becomes a gooey mess. Adkins dieters order their burgers “Protein-style” which means no bun and patties wrapped in a lettuce leaf.

What really stands out at In-N-Out are the French fries which are crispy on the outside and light on the inside. They’re well salted and delicious, a definite improvement to the flaccid, boring fries of other chain burger restaurants. Milk shakes are creamy and smooth, but taste-wise, nothing special.

In-N-Out Burger is special to Californians and has achieved significant popularity in Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas.  There’s no doubt this mega-popular chain would fare very well in chain-loving New Mexico even without green chile.

In-N-Out Burger
2790 W. Chandler
Chandler, Arizona
(800) 786-1000
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 21 July 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: French Fries, Double Double

Mint Thai – Gilbert, Arizona

The Mint Thai Cafe in Gilbert, Arizona may be the very best Thai restaurant in the Grand Canyon State

You might assume that because of my unabashed online promotion of culinary adventures, I would be the classic prostheletizer seeking to convert to the joys of more adventurous dining all lost and wayward souls who frequent chain restaurants. Alas, when traveling with colleagues who are either pedestrian about their dining preferences (they eat to live) or are wholly resistant to trying anything new or different, I tend to defer to their lifestyle choices. It beats listening to comments such as “yech, how can you possibly eat that?” and “that’s not in any of the food groups I know.”

The offshoot is that I eat in more chain restaurants than you’ll ever hear me admit to (I don’t write about them for risk of being called a nattering nabob of negativism). By being able to compare and contrast restaurant chains with my beloved independently owned eateries, I’m able to derive a sense of perspective that hopefully makes any disparaging comments I may make about those chains more credible. At the very least, visiting chains heightens my appreciation for mom and pops all the more.

Tod Mun Plar: deep fried fish-cake mixed with curry paste, served with cucumber salad with chopped peanuts.

Traveling with colleagues to the Phoenix area has meant choking down chow at a lamentable litany of local losers such as Macayo’s (Mexican), Oregano’s (Italian) and Paradise Bakery (soups, salads and sandwiches) and national chains such as California Pizza Kitchen, Claim Jumper’s and Buca de Beppo. Now, my “open-mindedness” only goes so far and eventually my cravings for non-carbon copy food borders on rapacious. Fortunately I’m sometimes able to convince other like-minded weary travelers to try the local, non-chain fare. For more than ten years, that has often meant a visit to the Mint Thai Café in Gilbert, Arizona.

The Mint Thai Café is a proverbial parole from the mundanity of chains. Despite several ownership changes over the years, it has remained consistently good, the type of restaurant “Murphy” doesn’t visit when you’re trying to impress others. Among the reasons for its success is its authenticity.  The Mint doesn’t take the type of liberties some so-called Thai restaurants take in creating a fusion of flavors from various Asian cultures.  You can always count on authentic, home-style Thai food prepared to your exacting specifications for spiciness.  It’s no wonder the Mint was named one of Arizona’s 101 best restaurants in 2007 and was named Arizona’s Best by the Arizona Republic.

Pumpkin Curry

The Mint Thai Cafe is the crown jewel of a nondescript strip mall just north of Gilbert’s Old Town district.  Its timeworn pastel and evergreen interior might not be dressed to impress, but it will envelope you in the aroma of wonderful spices.  Those aromas may render you weak in the knees with involuntary salivation almost assured.  These sensations are heightened as you peruse the nearly 100-item menu with Thai treasures sure to please. Appetizers will confirm what your nostrils discern–that the Mint Thai Cafe can deliver on the promise of outstanding food.

The Sah-Tay, marinated chicken breasts barbecued on bamboo skewers served with toast and two sauces (peanut and cucumber) is a must have.  This traditional Thai street food favorite features five skewers of grilled chicken breasts which have been marinated in a sauce of curry and spices.  The chicken is moist and perfectly grilled.  The cucumber sauce is fresh, tangy and sweet with a peanut influence that provides a nice contrast.   The peanut sauce is thick and rich with a flavor profile that is savory, sweet and just slightly piquant.  Both sauces complement the sah-tay very well. Another appetizer favorite is the Tod Mun Plar, deep fried fish-cakes mixed with curry paste and served with a cucumber salad tossed with chopped peanuts. Each of the six fish cakes per order is fork-tender and redolent with the flavor combination of curry and fish (not fishy).

Mint Thai Coconut Ice Cream Pie

The Mint’s nine curry dishes tend to have a siren’s call effect on me.  Whether it be the alluring green curry (coconut milk, green peas, bamboo shoots and sweet basil), the mussaman curry (mildly spiced brown curry paste, coconut milk, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and peanuts) or a nightly special, they are pleasingly pungent and absolutely delicious without being cloying.  One such special, a pumpkin curry is unique to the Mint Thai Cafe.  Its base is the restaurant’s red curry, redolent with herbaceous and spicy qualities made rich and creamy with coconut milk.  Marry the curry with pumpkin and you’ve got a wonderfully unique flavor combination you’ll dream about.

No Mint Thai Cafe specialty has infiltrated my dreams as much as the Mint Thai Coconut Ice Cream Pie, a homemade treasure so good it’s advisable to reserve a slice (or six) the minute you walk into the restaurant.  Seriously, this is one outstanding pie, one of the very best you’ll find anywhere. It’s a relatively simple pie: a chocolate crust topped with a thick ice cream and toasted almond slivers.  The coconut ice cream is sheer bliss, a coconut-infused slab of frozen goodness.  The chocolate crust has hints of ginger, a favorite Thai spice. 

The Mint Thai Cafe is one of my “go to” restaurants in the Phoenix area.  It’s a restaurant which gives me hope that it’s possible to convert even the most staunch and stubborn of the chain gang.  Every person to whom I’ve introduced this terrific restaurant has fallen in love with its outstanding culinary offerings.

Mint Thai Cafe
1111 N Gilbert Rd Map.1d0517a
Gilbert, Arizona
(480) 497-5366
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 May 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pumpkin Curry, Tod Mun, Mint Thai Coconut Ice Cream Pie, Satay, Mussaman Curry, Mangoes with Sticky Rice

Mint Thai Cafe on Urbanspoon

Roadkill Cafe – Seligman, Arizona

The famous Roadkill Cafe on Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona (Elevation 5,280)

 I had my dinner yesterday
In a place they call the Roadkill Cafe
They serve their dishes full of tricks
Scraped off Highway 66.
From the Roadkill Cafe menu

The legality of gathering and consuming roadkill varies from state to state.  In Tennessee, gathering and consuming flattened fauna (save for domestic pets) is not only perfectly legal, it made for great comedic fodder when Volunteer State native Al Gore ran for the Presidency.  In Maine, the police have to tag the furry Frisbees before you can take them home to cook it, while in Wyoming, the tagging is done by a game warden.  Only if you have a scientific collecting permit and plan to study it can you pick up roadkill in California.   Arizona state laws not only prohibit gathering and consuming roadkill, jurisprudence specifically prohibits the hunting of camels. 

States in which roadkill is legal would envy the menu at Seligman, Arizona’s famous Roadkill Cafe on Route 66.  The menu includes such flattened food and car-crashed carrion as “Rack of Raccoon,” “Long Gone Fawn,” “Rigor Mortis Tortoise,” and “The Chicken That Almost Crossed the Road.”  Political correctness doesn’t spare the child either.  The children’s menu includes “Donald Forgot to Duck,” “Poached Bambi Burger,” “Barney Con Carne” and “Rocky the Low Flying Squirrel.”  The restaurant’s motto is “You Kill It, We Grill It.”

The interior of the Roadkill Cafe

The many species of wildlife–among them mule deer, elk, antelope, javalina, turkey, rabbit, mountain lion, coyote, fox, prairie dog, bobcat and black-footed ferret–which call the Seligman area home obviously can’t read the Roadkill Cafe’s menu or they might have relocated.  Many of the illiterate among them hang on the walls of the OK Saloon on the back of the restaurant, the handiwork of a taxidermist.  Still, it’s precisely because of the presence of wildlife in its natural habitat that Seligman is a very popular destination for hunters and photographers. 

Situated about halfway between Flagstaff and Kingman, Seligman calls itself the “birthplace of historic Route 66” (though Springfield, Missouri would dispute that claim).  At 5,250 feet in elevation, it has one of the few remaining Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad stations as well as a Harvey House.  Aside from mounted wildlife, the OK Saloon is a veritable museum with antiques from the area’s Old West heritage.  Located immediately outside the saloon is the old Arizona Territorial jail which once confined several unscrupulous scofflaws.  Adjacent to the jail are Old West storefronts which have had several cameos in commercials and documentaries.

Charbroiled Cheeseburger with Fries

The Roadkill Cafe is replete with roadside kitsch–and not of the dead animal variety (though there are several mounted animal heads on the walls).  The walls and ceiling are paneled in rustic woods resonating a pronounced Western or Old West theme.  Farm implements, animal traps, frying pans, pots, tools and sundry bric-a-brac serve as decorative touches.  There’s something to see everywhere you turn, but perhaps the most catchy kitsch is the menu which will bring a snicker to all but vegetarians and animal rights activists. 

The simple thing to do would be to order the all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar which will set you back a pittance and enthrall you with a nice variety of ingredients, toppings and dressings.  Beverages are served on quart-sized Mason jars and are refreshed faithfully.  The coffee is served on thick ceramic mugs and is hot and delicious.  You can easily tell the tourists from the locals.  The tourists are the ones with the cameras flashing and the locals are the ones who walk in and sit down without waiting to be escorted to their tables.  Both tourists and locals are welcomed as guests.

"The Chicken that almost crossed the road" - Fried Chicken with Seasoned Texas Fries and Cottage Cheese

The charbroiled cheeseburger (whose roadkill sobriquet escapes me) is one of the more popular items on the menu, perhaps because no matter what it’s called on the menu, it’s bound to be good.  That’s the magic of charbroiling.  Not only does it make the entire restaurant smell as if you’re cooking out-of-doors, it leaves a nice crusty bark on the outer edges of the burger no matter the degree of doneness.  The Cafe’s burger features a thick beef patty of about eight ounces topped with a slice of melted American cheese.  Pickles, tomatoes, onions and lettuce are plated on the side and there’s mustard and ketchup on the table.   A charbroiled buffalo burger is also available. 

Lame jokes about the chicken that crossed the road have been told for years.  We now know about the chicken that didn’t make it across that road.  It’s on the Roadkill Cafe’s menu where it’s listed as the “chicken that almost crossed the road.”   It’s a good thing it didn’t make it all the way across.  The Cafe’s fried chicken is delicious with a crispy golden crust that sheathes a juicy leg, thigh and wing.  The crust isn’t greasy as chain restaurant chicken tends to be.  Served with two sides of your choice, you’ll be well advised to order the seasoned Texas fries which are cut from baking potatoes.

Pecan pie and Pumpkin pie

The menu features a number of pies, not made on the premises but quite good.  The pecan pie and pumpkin pie are fresh and tasty with a thick, buttery and flaky crust.  Both go very well with the restaurant’s coffee. 

Seligman is the quintessential Old West frontier town which has parlayed its Route 66 heritage into a popular travel–and perhaps dining–destination.  The Roadkill Cafe is one of several reputedly excellent restaurants in the town.  It’s become our preference for a meal on the way to or from Las Vegas.

Roadkill Cafe
502 West Highway 66
Seligman, Arizona
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 12 November 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fried Chicken, Cheeseburger, Pecan Pie, Pumpkin Pie

Roadkill Cafe & OK Saloon on Urbanspoon

Malee’s Thai Bistro – Scottsdale, Arizona

Malee's Thai Bistro in Scottsdale, Arizona

Many a time have I luxuriated in the pleasures of a memorable repast at a restaurant outside of New Mexico and found myself thinking “if only these tastes were available back home.”  I typically then fantasize about bringing those tastes to the Land of Enchantment myself.  Alas, lofty intentions, a profuse lack of culinary talents and the absence of the capital necessary to realize my fantasies subsume those dreams and I instead yen for future visits to restaurants whose incomparable tastes have captured my reality.

In Deirdre Pain, I found someone through whom I can live vicariously.  An aficionado of Thai food, she became disillusioned with most Thai restaurants, many of which lacked wine lists and whose wait staff struggled mightily with English.  In 1987 with the launch of Malee’s Thai Bistro (affectionately known as Malee’s on Main), she created an upscale venue for the exceptional cuisine of a favorite chef.

Crab Rangoon Crispy, golden wontons filled with fresh lump crab and cream cheese, paired with sweet raspberry sake sauce

Today Malee’s on Main is one of the most popular and highly regarded (earning a “24” rating on Zagat’s) Thai restaurants in the Phoenix area.  Housed in a circa 1921 building with a colorful history, Malee’s is only one of few restaurants on Main Street, denizen for a veritable pantheon of art galleries (similar to Santa Fe’s own Canyon Road).

Like many upscale Thai restaurants, one of the things that sets Malee’s apart is its commitment to preparing and serving edible art.  Each dish is shaped into expressive works that reflect the lifelong training of chefs who have honed their culinary craft to an appealing visual medium.  Ever conscious of esthetics, chefs’ plating emphasizes a balance of color and texture with unfailingly fresh ingredients.

Basil Curry Clams

Basil Curry Clams

Malee’s is also very accommodating to strict vegetarian preferences with a menu replete with healthy choices.  Most entrees can be prepared “mild,” but the menu includes a disclaimer indicating curries are spicy by nature.  Adventurous sorts might opt for Thai hot, an incendiary level high on the Scoville unit level.

An entire page on the menu is dedicated to appetizers, lettuce wraps and rolls, soups and salads and you’ll want to dedicate several visits so you can sample them all.  At the very least, your meal should include a precursor of two appetizers.  My carnivorous friends might find it blasphemous that I would recommend two vegetarian appetizers, one of them being fried tofu, the banal bane of meat-loving men everywhere.  Served on a bed of fresh lettuce and sweet miso are several cubes of spongy tofu offered with a wonderful peanut sauce.

Massaman Curry with Short Ribs

Another excellent antecedent to your entrees are Malee’s fresh veggie rolls in which rice paper houses smoked tofu, carrot, cucumber and mint.  The veggie rolls are served with a peanut-hoisin sauce that balances sweet, savory and piquant tastes.  Step into any of the neighboring art galleries and you might not find such a work of art–both in presentation and in taste.

If there’s only one element of a meal at a Thai restaurant that may be lacking, it’s in the absence of some sort of bread to use for sopping up some of the fabulous broths left over after you finish an appetizer.  Sure, you can imbibe the broth like a soup, but bread would make it even better. Take for example, the broth served with Malee’s steamed mussels.  It’s concocted from lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and other complementary ingredients.  A nice loaf of bread to dredge up all remnants of that ambrosiatic broth would have been heavenly.

Slow roasted duck curry

Slow roasted duck curry

What is especially beguiling about this particular broth is how it allows the mussels to speak for themselves.  It does not detract in the least from the mussels inherently slightly sweet, slightly briny taste. Perhaps even better is the broth served with the basil curry clams, another terrific appetizer.  It’s a broth constructed of garlic, chili peppers, curry powder and fresh basil and it’s pure, unadulterated pleasure.  Similar to many Thai dishes, it excites your taste buds with sweet, savory, tangy and piquant flavors.

Another vegetarian appetizer, albeit one that originated in America and not Thailand, is Crab Rangoon, eight deep-fried dumplings engorged with cream cheese, crab meat and scallions wrapped in wonton wrappers then deep-fried.  Though more often served in Chinese restaurants than in Thai restaurants, a commonality among many of these deep-fried gems is a cream cheese sweet enough for cheesecake.  That’s not the case with the Crab Rangoon at Malee.  The cream cheese is most assuredly savory and there’s plenty of it in each square-shaped dumpling.  As good as the Crab Rangoon is, the sake tinged raspberry sauce is cloying, almost candy sweet.

Malee’s rendition of duck curry is the second best I’ve ever had behind America’s most celebrated Thai restaurant, Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, Nevada.  It features tender slices of marinated duck simmered with fresh tomatoes (at Lotus, plum tomatoes are used) and pineapple in a creamy red curry.  At level 3 on a scale of 1-5, the curry will get your attention without being so fiery you can’t taste anything.  It’s a beautiful red-orange curry with an excellent balance of sweet, savory and piquant flavors.  It’s also of perfect consistency–not too thick and not too thin.  The duck is fatty enough for flavor, but not so fatty that it turns off your taste buds.  In all, this is an outstanding entree.

Candied ginger and raspberry creme brulee.

Candied ginger and raspberry creme brulee.

Another fabulous entree and relatively rare in Thai restaurants throughout the southwest is peanut curry with pork, a creamy rich peanut curry served over freshly steamed julienne green beans.  Wow!  Thai chefs have long combined the complementary flavors of curries and peanuts, but this dish is like the first joining of chocolate and peanut butter–an epiphany for your taste buds.  The secret to the deliciousness in this dish is balance.  The peanuty taste isn’t nearly as intense as the peanut sauce typically served with satay.  The curry isn’t nearly as intense and pungent as say, Indian curry.  Malee’s has managed to strike the perfect balance of flavors to craft an entree that brings out the best in its component ingredients.  The julienne green beans provide even further taste and texture contrast while adding an element of freshness and snap to each bite of each green bean.

During a visit in June, 2011, I hit Malee on an uncharacteristic off-night if the massaman curry with short ribs is any indication.  Massaman curry, an Islamic influenced mild curry from Southern Thailand is usually sweet (sometimes almost dessert sweet) with a pronounced coconut milk influence.  It’s traditionally cooked with beef, potatoes, onions, carrots and peanuts (usually minced).  Malee’s rendition was very savory with very little sweetness, altogether a very good curry but it just didn’t taste like massaman curry.  The addition of short ribs made this dish even more appealing…at least when reviewing the menu.  Alas, the short ribs were tough, sinewy and very tough to cut into.  It’s the only dish I’ve had at Malee which should be considered pedestrian.  Worse, at a level 4 piquancy, any heat barely registered on my taste buds.

Mangoes with sticky rice

The dessert menu is limited, but any of the sweet offerings would tempt you off a diet.  If the Candied Ginger & Raspberry Crème Brûlée is any indication, dessert is not to be missed.  As with the main entrees, there are a lot of taste and texture sensations going on with this dish.  Break through the top layer of caramelized sugar to the sweet, custard-like filling then to the bottom layer of raspberries and scoop up layers of deliciousness that will have you closing your eyes like Ratatouille enjoying a fine cheese.  The flavor of ginger punctuates the entire offering, imbuing the sweetness with the delicate, refreshing quality only ginger can provide.

Although I may never own a cutting-edge restaurant and bring innovative cuisine to my native state, it’s refreshing to know such cuisine is available only a few hundred miles away.  My fondest wish is that my last visit was an anomaly and Malee’s will recapture my taste buds.

Malee’s Thai Bistro
7131 East Main Street
Scottsdale, AZ
(480) 947-6042
LATEST VISIT: 1 June 2011
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Fresh Veggie Rolls, Fried Tofu, Crispy Basil Chicken, Bombay Curry, Slow Roasted Duck Curry, Peanut Curry with Pork, Steamed Mussels, Basil Curry Clams, Candied Ginger & Raspberry Crème Brûlée, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Crab Rangoon

Cafe Cornucopia – Bisbee, Arizona

Cafe Cornucopia, named one of the 25 best restaurants in Arizona by Arizona Highways magazine

Cafe Cornucopia, named one of the 25 best restaurants in Arizona by Arizona Highways magazine

The Hollywood stereotype of restaurant critics paints them rather unflatteringly as condescending misanthropes to be feared. Those stereotypes would have you believe restaurant critics are eager to pounce on and expose the slightest imperfection.  Armed with pedantic palates and polysyllabic vocabularies overflowing with unfavorable adjectives, critics are painted as joyless beings whose quest it is to impart their misery on the restaurants they evaluate.  To the critic, the exemplar is French cuisine and everything else is so much schlock to be disdained.

Consider the 1988 movie Mystic Pizza in which a snobbish restaurant critic renown for his “make or break” reviews deigned to visit a pizza parlor of all places.  With a stern countenance and belittling attitude, he based his entire review on having sampled little more than one bite.  Ostensibly his palate was sophisticated enough to render a verdict on the pizza after a minuscule sample.

Even the restaurant critics on animated features tend to be snotty. The aptly named Anton Ego from the delightful 2007 Pixar movie Ratatouille may have summed it up best: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.  We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment.  We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and read.”

The very inviting ambience at Cornucopia

The very inviting ambience at Cornucopia

Sometimes stereotypes aren’t far from the truth.  There are some restaurant critics, particularly in largely populated metropolises, who wear those dour stereotypes like badges of honor.  That’s especially true when expressing their learned preference for “cuisine” as opposed to “food.”  All of their anointed restaurants tend to be of the haughty high-brow variety and readers are treated to a cavalcade of reviews heralding the critics’ haute cuisine favorites.  Some of these critics won’t deign to visit “real people” restaurants, much less recommend them.

That’s certainly not the case with one of my very favorite food critics, Phoenix-based Nikki Buchanan.  She defies Hollywood stereotypes, not only reviewing and recommending the off-the-well-eaten path treasures and humble havens of real food, but listing them as among her favorites.  Moreover, she writes in a light-hearted, personable manner and unlike “restaurant” critics, writes about bakeries, cafes, cocinas, pizzerias, sushi bars and even taco trucks.

In the April 2010 edition of Arizona Highways magazine, Nikki named Arizona’s best restaurants for 2010.  It’s a great list, a true “best of” and not an enumeration of the elite and elegant.  The list includes some of the most highly regarded restaurants in Phoenix, Sedona and Tucson, but it also includes far lesser-known and much more modest diners and cafes in rural enclaves such as Lake Havasu City, Page, Snowflake, Cornville, Yuma and Bisbee, none of which is a budding hub of population.

The hand-written menu and some of the pastries of the day

The hand-written menu and some of the pastries of the day

Far from being a burgeoning boom town, Bisbee has seen its population decline since the exodus of the little city’s copper-mining operations.  It remains, however, a town that’s too beautiful not to survive.  It is now an idyllic artists colony capitalizing on a climate the Chamber of Commerce claims has “the best climate on Earth.”  The southernmost mile-high city in America, its average year-round temperature is about 74-degrees.  Attitudinally and in the way multi-hued homes are splayed on steep hillsides accessible only on foot, it might remind you of San Francisco–only friendly.

Bisbee’s best lunch spot, according to Nikki Buchanan, is Cafe Cornucopia in the heart of a Main Street which could pass for a 1930s movie set.  Occupying the first floor of a historical building, its exterior stone facade reminiscent of days of yore, Cafe Cornucopia has none of the flash and panache of modern restaurants.  Its signage is plainly lettered with a monochromatic horn of plenty image.  A large picture window, though tinted, doesn’t entirely obfuscate views of the restaurant’s interior.  It is a bright and cheery ambience, floors clean enough to eat from.

Cafe Cornucopia is much longer than it is wide with tables for two lined up against the east wall and picture window.  A small bar counter sits three more patrons in close proximity to one of the most enticing displays of pastry perfection you’ll ever find.  At the rear of the restaurant are beautiful stained glass windows and a small balcony, remnants of the days in which a saloon occupied the venue.  Scrawled on two slate boards is the restaurant’s menu.  It’s hardly a compendium of lunch favorites, but rather a showcase of a select number of sumptuous sandwiches, soups and pastries.

Made to order strawberry lemonade and a raspberry razzmatazz

Made to order strawberry lemonade and a raspberry razzmatazz

The menu features two comforting soups de jour accompanied by a buttered slab of freshly baked rolled-oats-and honey bread delivered warm, towering sandwiches crafted on artisan bread, an inventive specialty quiche and soup and sandwich combinations.  Fresh-squeezed lemonade (or an alternate ade such as strawberry-lemonade) as well as superb smoothies are available to wash your meal down.  Baked goods of the day might include cookies, brownies and scones.

Cafe Cornucopia is bustling with activity, but the amicable staff is capable and upbeat, treating all guests to welcoming smiles.  We got there at precisely eleven o’clock and fifteen minutes later not a seat could be found.  Some, like us, came because of Nikki Buchanan’s enticing invitation to one of Arizona’s 25 best restaurants.  Others are frequent visitors, locals who recognize they’re in the presence of gastronomic greatness.

The made-to-order strawberry lemonade is the epitome of freshness–freshly squeezed lemons and ripe, red strawberries all naturally sweetened and wholly unlike the cloying, kids’ Kool-Aid-like strawberry lemonade some chains offer.  Cafe Cornucopia’s rendition is several orders of magnitude better than any other strawberry lemonade we’ve ever had.  The raspberry razzmatazz, a frothy pink smoothie served ice cold might be even better, a refreshing elixir for what ails you.  You might even long for a thirst-inspiring hundred-degree day so you could have two or three.

Hatch green chile and Cheddar sandwich on housemade ten grain bread with a cup of butternut squash soup

Hatch green chile and Cheddar sandwich on housemade ten grain bread with a cup of butternut squash soup

Having been away from the Land of Enchantment for five days, we needed a green chile fix and Nikki assured us we would find it at Cafe Cornucopia in the form of “much-loved Hatch green chile and cheddar.”  This sandwich is crafted on a canvas of homemade ten grain bread.  The first thing you’ll notice about this bread is just how moist it is. It’s wholly unlike the desiccated,desert dry bread you might buy at a grocery store.  It’s also slicked thickly and has the memorable aroma of bread just out of the oven.  It brought back memories of the ten-grain bread we enjoyed at the Mermaid in Burford, England.

The next thing you’ll notice on the sandwich is just how simple it is–strips of Hatch green chile and melted Cheddar cheese.  The green chile is only mild on the piquancy scale, emphasizing instead the fruitiness of the chile and not its heat.  The Cheddar provides a sharp and complementary contrast while fresh tomato slices add a bit of acidity.  You probably won’t call this a designer sandwich, but it is fabulous in its delicious simplicity.

Few things are as simple and comforting as the combination of soup and salad.  Cafe Cornucopia’s soup du jour offerings will wrap you in a cocoon of warmth and comfort.  The butternut squash soup is absolutely wonderful and it actually tastes like butternut squash and not artificial seasonings.  It’s not as thick as some of its genre, but it’s rich and creamy and it doesn’t have any unnecessary “attention grabbers” that are sometimes included in inferior soups.  The soup is served with a thick, buttered slice of heavenly freshly baked rolled-oats-and honey bread delivered warm.

Green chile and Cheddar Quiche with a slice of honey rolled oats bread and a cup of split pea soup

Green chile and Cheddar Quiche with a slice of honey rolled oats bread and a cup of split pea soup

We lucked upon another green chile enlivened special of the day in the green chile and Cheddar quiche.  Cafe Cornucopia’s version is simply the very best quiche we’ve ever had–the quintessential quiche!  A feather-light crust is the canvas for velvet-smooth eggs punctuated by fresh, fruity green chile.  Fragility and delicate yet robust in flavor, it is the essence of egg-based satisfaction.

Worthy accompaniment to the quiche is yet another warm, comforting bowl of soup with a thick slice of that “to dream about” honey rolled oats bread.  Try the split pea soup and you’ll realize what you’ve been missing all those years you’ve thought all split pea soup was like Campbell’s Soup aberration.  Though it’s not rib-stickingly thick, it’s rich, creamy and extremely satisfying.  On top of that it’s high in fibre and good for you being a source of low in fat plant protein.

Cafe Cornucopia’s baked goods are as delicious as they are pleasing to the eye.  They provide the climatic finish all meals should have.  The chocolate brownies are light, delicious and chocolatey.  Moist and tender on the inside, they need no embellishment or additives.  The lemon bars are similarly terrific with the definite and pronounced tanginess of lemon.

Chocolate brownie and lemon bar for dessert

Chocolate brownie and lemon bar for dessert

I’ve dined at about a hundred restaurants in Arizona and Cafe Cornucopia ranks with the very best of them.  In fact, given a choice as to one restaurant to return to next, it would be Cafe Cornucopia where the horn of plenty symbolizes a plethora of flavors and deliciousness.

Cafe Cornucopia
14 Main Street
Bisbee, Arizona
(520) 432-4820
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hatch Green Chile & Cheddar Sandwich on Ten Grain Bread, Hatch Green Chile and Cheddar Quiche,  Chocolate Brownie, Lemon Bar, Strawberry Lemonade, Raspberry Razzmatazz, Split Pea Soup, Butternut Squash Soup

Cafe Cornucopia on Urbanspoon

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