Saturday, March 7, 2009

Tex Mex, New Mex, and 3200 Miles of Pavement, a Finale

Don't. Want. To. Leave.

After not quite getting our fix of Texas, the schedule demands that we head in a westerly direction on Interstate 10 from Boerne. The 70 mph speed limit becomes the 80 mph speed limit after the final Hill Country outpost of Kerrville. It is somewhere west of this point we decide that we have entered west Texas. The empty country flies by fast as we motor along at the near-legal speed of 82 mph; not to mention the mpg's really begin to suffer at these speeds, given also the headwind we are facing.

At Pecos, Texas we leave the Autobahn-like Interstate 10 and head north on the two (sometimes four) lane US 285. By lunch time we are in Carlsbad, NM. In the 1990's I had the good fortune to travel for Yellowstone Park recruiting summer workers - and one such trip brought me through Carlsbad. On these trips I often sought out the local food and/or Mexican food, sometimes they were one and the same. I remembered a decent New Mex/Tex-Mex food at a place on the main drag in Carlsbad. Rolling into town, I recognize the place by sight, the sign says: Cortez Restaurant. It's packed with your Sunday-after-church crowd along with a few other travelers like ourselves. It is the first time on this trip that I have been asked "red or green?" - a question more seeking your chile preference more likely to come up New Mexico than Texas.

Other oddities on this travel day include a run through the heart of Roswell, New Mexico. While I would have loved to have tracked down another great conspiracy-shrouded area - the infamous and alleged UFO crash site, we had Santa Fe, enchantment -and red chile- on the brain.

After 13 hours of seat time, we land at the simple and pleasant Old Santa Fe Inn. One of the main attractions for this inn was the breakfast burrito bar with fresh and local salsas and tortillas. I've often wondered out loud if burritos are nature's most perfect food. I don't know about that, but the salsas at the burrito bar were good and the rooms very pleasant, and the staff, friendly.

If we prayed at the alter of Tex-Mex food earlier on this trip in Dallas and San Antonio, today we travel to the spiritual home of New Mexican food: Santa Fe's The Shed and their legendary red sauce (or green, really) and all of the earthy-slow-burn-heat it provides. I submit the classic Shed lunch for your viewing pleasure:


There is something about the 7,000' elevation light, the terra-cotta structures, the tiny doorways of The Shed, the earthy aroma of New Mexico chiles, the warm plate of fresh blue-corn enchiladas, and the aforementioned red sauce accompanying pinto beans and posole that make this a magical experience. By the end of the meal, the heat finally starts to sink in, kind of like after sitting in a sauna for 45 minutes...the garlicy-toasted french bread is a perfect delivery vehicle for sauce-mopping the plate. Before the meal began I was already counting the minutes until I would have such a meal again. Some people make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, some go to Sedona and have herbal colonics, I go to New Mexico and The Shed and have enchiladas with red chile. I am full, I am happy and the little places under my eyes are sweaty. Amen, my brother.
Wandering the empty (off season) streets of Santa Fe, we are surrounded by art. Galleries, coffee shops, city parks, everywhere you look seems to showcase another artist, another sculptor, another photographer. Art is everywhere and we love it. On Canyon road, we spend way too much time torturing the host at the Carole LaRoche gallery and her slightly abstract, stare-right-through-you paintings of wolves; we enjoy another conversation with NinaTichava about her organic-and-yet-structured paintings of leaves. In fact, just about every gallery we entered we enjoyed the near undivided attention of artists or their reps hoping to move a little product. Fun for sure, but telling of the current economic situation. I suppose the art budget is more likely to get cut than the mortgage?

For dinners, we seek out something other than red chile. After gathering intel, on the first night we settle on Mauka and its eclectic menu, loosely fitting the Asian-fusion description. To start we had a poke spring roll with pineapple chutney and black tobiko and a opah sashimi with chicklet-sized squares of ginger/mango gelee. Dude, where am I? Having tiptoed into dinner with sashimi, I ramp up the flav-o-meter with the duck vindaloo for my main course. The perfectly-pink duck breast was sliced and presented on top of a aromatic bed of basmati rice and a delightfully spicy vindaloo sauce. Yum.

On another evening, we hit La Boca a newer (to us, at least) tapas-style restaurant - with the former chef of another Santa Fe (and tapas) institution, El Farol now doing the cooking here. The traditional tapas are great, the not so traditional Niman Ranch flank steak with a salt-caramel sauce was even better. After enjoying a late afternoon margarita at the Pink Adobe's Dragon Room lounge we step outside into the terra-cotta and blue goodness of early evening in Santa Fe and burn some up some serious memory card taking pictures of the intensifying, then fading southwestern light:

Again not having quite enough time in Santa Fe, we turn North and head for home, but not before one more stop in the quirky Northern New Mexico Town of Las Vegas and a brief stop by the Saxon Cabin. Driving by memory on the forest roads that lead to the cabin, I am struck by how familiar I am with the whole area. I was lucky enough to make several trips during my teenage years to the cabin with my sister Mary Lou and brother-in-law John and these trips likely spawned my desire to live in the mountains surrounded by pine trees and rocks.

The cabin, having had no visitors in the last nine years looked pretty good considering it's isolation; the semi-arid climate of New Mexico doing its part to preserve the structure. The cabin and the land around bring back a torrent of memories. I recognize instantly the subtle whoosh and hiss of the wind through the long-needled pine trees on the land. I seek out some of the large rocks below the cabin which produce a bit of view of the land beyond. I wish I could stay here a few days and just chill out. Maybe this fall...

Before we get back on the interstate, we make a pit stop in Las Vegas at the Spic and Span Cafe which makes great New Mexican food - and offers a full service bakery. A little too early for lunch and a little too late for breakfast, we opt for a meat empanada and a couple baseball-mitt-sized glazed doughnuts.The empanda had a bit of subtle spice to it along with a few pine nuts all wrapped up in a flaky little crust. The doughnuts - ohhh, the doughnuts - sizable and fresh were the perfect honey-brown color and when I went to retrieve one of them from the bag - yielded slightly to my grip...suggesting a seriously pillowy product. They tasted as good, if not way better, than I remember. Why I didn't get a dozen, I'll never know. Trivial diversion: Much of the 1984 film Red Dawn was filmed in and around Las Vegas - with Hermit's Peak (pictured above) visible in many scenes throughout the movie. WOLVERINES!

From here on out, it's a quick stop over in Denver with a visit to friends of the family, Wayne and Patsy Salge. After a quick tour of Wayne's studio where he creates beautiful and striking bronzes of human and animal figures, we sit down to a hearty dinner consisting of creole-style red beans and rice along with a salad with a home-made olive tapenade dressing.

Do we have to go home? Really?

Yes, but that's okay. This trip -or walkabout- as Jen put it, certainly served its purpose, not that it needed one. We escaped the six-week dry spell of Bozeman's mid-winter thaw. We saw that there is a world outside of Bozeman and outside of our usual routines. We ate very well. From Elvis impersonations to the grave of a presidential assassin and his eternal neighbor, Nick Beef, to countless aging functional and dilapidated neon signs offering everything from "cold beer" to "gas" to "Color T.V." the odd sights along the way didn't disappoint either.

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