26 January 2010
While Ricky and I were gearing up for our trip across the country we encountered many a weary friend who warned us of the barren food-scape along I-80. So in preparation we researched all the cities we would likely stop in and developed a list of potential restaurants to visit. One site was particularly helpful, www.happycow.net, which provides a list of vegetarian restaurant options for locations around the world. Upon our departure, we had pages of dining options.
Our trip turned out to be the exact opposite of what we had been warned about. We didn't have a bad meal the entire way. We were privy to local brews, vibrant ethnic cuisine, local traditional, homemade dishes, and friendly, well-informed service at every stop- our first being Lincoln, Nebraska, a college town with a respectable city center. It had a small-town feel yet there were large buildings and young people scattered about. We dined at a Thai restaurant called the Blue Orchid where the food and ambiance were sophisticated and delicious. We ordered an exotic cocktail made with a hot red pepper infused vodka, grapefruit juice and lemon grass. Each sip evolved from an ice cold, citrus fresh, thirst-quenching spirit into a spicy, fire-breathing swell of the mouth with a picante finish. It was the kind of drink that snuck up to you from behind and made your tonsils do back flips. What’s more, the somewhat intimidating drink became more delicious and inviting when drank in combination with our spicy entrees. Though we went through many glasses of ice-cold water during the meal, we were enlightened and pleased by the experience. We then stopped at Lazlo’s Brewery and Grill where we were greeted by a friendly bartender who encouraged us to taste all the local beers and gave us a thorough explanation of each.
The next day we drove to Laramie Wyoming, a quaint town in the mountains. We had a mound of cheesy vegetarian nachos for lunch, piled high with tomatoes, olives, lettuce, avocado, salsa and sour cream at Sweet Melissa's Cafe. The restaurant itself was friendly and filled with vibrant vegetarian dishes; however we made it a light stop because we were saving our appetites for dinner in Rock Springs, Wyoming at the Coyote Creek Steakhouse- also a delight. The next day we ate lunch in Salt Lake City at The Red Iguana, known for its collection of specialty homemade moles. As first time guests we were treated to the mole sampler- a plate of all nine moles served with fresh baked corn chips. After this meal, on our second to last day driving, our appetites and palates were thoroughly satiated.
The irony of what we encountered last was so grand and blatant that I have to imagine the food gods watching down were having fun at our expense. We resolved that our final culinary destination before California would be a light dinner in Elko, Nevada. There was a highly rated Basque restaurant called, The Star Hotel, which we couldn't pass up. Since we weren’t particularly hungry we resolved to share an appetizer when we got there and keep it simple. Elko, Nevada is heavily populated by immigrants from the Basque region of Spain who created a thriving mining and cattle ranching empire starting in the mid 1800s. The city has an old western appeal and is filled with flashing signs advertising of the multitude of casinos and restaurants along its main strip. The Star Hotel is one of the city's cherished restaurants and oldest establishments. It is well known for its home-cooked food and family style service. Of course, when Ricky and I walked in, we had no concept of this. We rushed in from the cold, the locals gave us a glance from the wooden bar and then went back to drinking, and we proceeded to the reception area where our names were added to the waiting list. At 5pm the place was packed to full capacity so we elected to browse the menu, which included a detailed history of the establishment on the back, while we waited to be seated. It made no reference to appetizers; instead, there was a caption at the top that read, "All meals are served with french bread, soup, salad, french fries, green beans, red beans, and coffee or tea." Then below was a list of entrees from which to choose. Basically, we had no other choice but to order an entree, or pay a slightly lower price for the sides that were automatically brought to the table. Ricky and I knew, despite our plan to eat light, that we had to go all out.
We were eventually seated at a long picnic style table with other folks who had been waiting with us. A waitress promptly came around with a basket of fresh bread and a big plastic bowl of soup with a ladle in it. The place setting in front of us was a pile of three plates upon which a bowl rested, so Ricky and I took turns ladling the homemade vegetable noodle soup into our bowls. There was enough for both of us to have seconds. Then the salad, iceberg lettuce coated in creamy garlic dressing, came in a big bowl and the soup bowls disappeared. As we polished that off our sides of beans and french fries arrived and were shortly followed by our entrees- paella and a half-baked chicken. Both entrees were incredible. The restaurant was 100% authentic, down home, rugged western cooking. It was as if the food and service were designed specifically for a cowboy who had just arrived in after riding out on the open plains for weeks at a time, alone, eating jerky and re-fried beans, longing for the comfort of home.
I can't help but revel in the rich, eclectic flavors we encountered on our trip. They were a beautiful reflection of the robust cultures nestled within the communities of our far-reaching country. My breath was taken away by the spirit and hospitality we encountered and the contrast between our friends' warnings of the food desert that lie ahead and our thoroughly mouth-watering experience. I have never enjoyed such a diverse and delectable string of meals ever before, nor had I anticipated the cultural lessons that would accompany them. Moral of the story: Despite what the metropolitan masses may say, our country is chock full of people who know how to cook and are striving to eat well.
Posted by Julia