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Desert Companion

A Taste for Adventure

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A Taste for Adventure

Sure, Las Vegas is a global dining destination and dynamic culinary yadda yadda etc. etc., but sometimes you want your entree with a side of rooooaaad trip! These five Southwest destinations don't just boast great eats, but also heaping helpings of history, personality, and soul. If you are hungry for adventure, consider these spots the next time you hear the call of the road.

Hit the road to find great food in unexpected places (and plenty of fun stops along the way)

 

Tecopa (CA)

Steaks & Beer

Strip-quality gourmet dining at a desert crossroads

78 miles, 1.5 hours

Eric Scott preps in the kitchen

Eric Scott preps in the kitchen.  Tecopa photographs by Mikayla Whitmore

Tecopa Hot SpringsTecopa is best-known for its natural, mineral-rich hot springs, many of which have been corralled into bathhouses anchoring a mile-long strip of motels, campgrounds, art galleries, and eateries. But a stone’s throw south, where Tecopa Hot Springs Road runs into the Old Spanish Trail Highway, another attraction is luring visitors from Death Valley to the northwest and Las Vegas to the northeast. Here, at the intersection dubbed “downtown Tecopa” (it consists of around a dozen buildings), travelers can enjoy a Strip-quality dinner at Steaks & Beer.

Native Las Vegan Eric Scott opened Steaks & Beer two years ago. Scott learned to use a knife at 16 from California Noodle House’s Peter Woo and has been cooking ever since. His numerous Strip gigs include a two-year stint with Jean-Louis Palladin at Napa in the Rio.

“French (cuisine) is probably my favorite, and I have a lot of experience with it, but I don’t like to have boundaries,” he says. Asked to describe his ideal diner, he replies, “A hungry one.”

Steaks n bearThe name of Steaks & Beer reflects Scott’s simple vision, which also comes across in the ambience and menu. There are only two small tables inside, along with some outdoor seating in a gazebo-like structure that sits above a fishpond. Contemporary rock music plays — not too loud — as Scott simultaneously hustles appetizers, salads, steaks, and desserts through various stages of preparation with seemingly effortless timing. Despite this pressure, on an unusually busy March evening, Scott took the time to chat with patrons at the bar about which steak he recommended and why. He opened a bottle of Merlot — one of the only four wines served — while explaining that he preferred the T-bone, but American diners mostly go for the fat-marbled rib eye. (They went for the rib eye.)

“I love it here,” Scott says. “I love this little kitchen, and I love the sense of community.”

Steaks & Beer is his second venture in Tecopa. In the late 2000s, on a weekend trip to the hot springs, he came across John Muccio, whom he’d cooked with at Ferraro’s when it was on Flamingo. Muccio had opened Pastel’s Bistro (now Tecopa Bistro) on the grounds of the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort in 2006. A couple years later, Scott followed, opening his own place, the Death Valley Internet Café, on the grounds of Delight’s Hot Springs Resort. A gastronomical renaissance was underway in the former mining town.

Labyrinth

Tecopa has much to offer than hot springs.

“Tecopa is becoming a great place for food,” says Jon Zellhoefer, who runs the Death Valley Brewing Company next door to Steaks & Beer. Downtown Tecopa property has been in Zellhoefer family hands since the late ’60s, and when Jon retired in 2003, he decided to move there and, among other pastimes, start brewing beer. When one of the buildings he owns became available two years ago, he was thrilled to see Scott move into it.

 “Before, it was like people were coming through here, and they’d have a beer,” Zellhoefer says. “Now, they’re coming here for the steaks and the beer.” HK

79 Old Spanish Trail, 442-261-1414

 

Stay

While there are other, quirkier, lodging options in the area, the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort is the place most likely to satisfy the broadest range of tastes. The motel has the most recently renovated rooms in town, and the resort also has both cabins and a campground for those who prefer more rustic accommodations. All include access to bathhouses. Tecopahotsprings.org, 760-852-4420

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Art walk: Tiny Tecopa is packed to the gills with art. Between hot springs soaks and delicious meals, you can wile away an hour or two popping in and out of the galleries, rock art shacks, and other hidden treasures strung along the town’s main road.

Day hike: There are several hikes that start at China Ranch Date Farm and Bakery (chinaranch.com), about 15 minutes south of Tecopa. Ranging from easy to moderate, they offer a variety of experiences, from observing wildlife in its natural Amargosa River habitat, to viewing ruins of the defunct Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. And every route ends with an obligatory date shake at the ranch’s thrift shop and bakery.

More (surprisingly great!) food: Steaks & Beer hasn’t cornered the market on good eats in Tecopa. Breakfast at Tecopa Bistro (tecopabistro.com) is top-notch, as is the barbecue at Tecopa Brewing Company on the grounds of Delight’s Hot Springs Resort (delighthotspringsresort.com).

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Shoshone(CA)

Crowbar Café & Saloon

Simple, wholesome food is giving this post-mining town a second act

85 miles, 1.75 hours

Shoshone

The veggie cheeseburger at Crowbar. Shoshone photos by Brent Holmes.

Susan Sorrells is careful to stress that her husband Robert Haines co-manages, with her, the corporation that owns Shoshone Village. Nevertheless, the town has passed down through three generations of Ralph “Dad” Fairbanks’ female descendants to Sorrells, and a distinctly feminine touch permeates the burg of 30 permanent residents with its well-kept lots and brightly painted storefronts. It’s a refreshing, if diminutive, oasis on an out-of-the-way desert road between Las Vegas and Death Valley. At its heart is the Crowbar Café & Saloon.

Sorrells went to college in Northampton, Massachusetts, did an internship in Washington, D.C., went to Africa with the Peace Corps, was an exchange student to what was then the Soviet Union, and worked for six years in Sweden before returning to Shoshone to take care of her ailing mother in the late ’70s. She still spends a lot of time in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and on the East Coast.

Pupfish preservation pond

Pupfish preservation pond.

After her mother died of colon cancer in 1979, Sorrells and her brother made a deal that allowed her to acquire the town. When Shoshone’s mining industry went belly up in the ’80s, she drew on her international experience to create a place where cultivated travelers would feel at home.

 “Our economy was completely devastated after mining cratered,” she says. “I changed the Crowbar fairly dramatically. It had been a crazy miner hangout, a boomtown saloon.”

She tapped the culinary expertise of West Coast friends to develop spec books that would allow the Crowbar’s three rotating chefs to create a consistent taste. The focus is on simple food — omelets, burgers, sandwiches, pasta — but made from scratch with fresh ingredients every day.

Sorrells says, “I wanted food that would appeal to film industry folks from L.A., students on a budget who wanted beer and nachos, vegetarians. We use only butter, safflower oil, and olive oil, no trans fats. Our potatoes are made from real potatoes. It’s not gourmet, but we try really hard to make good, wholesome food.”

Shoshone Museum

Shoshone museum.

The philosophy fits in with her larger worldview, which is reflected in the numerous conservation efforts that Sorrells and her husband have contributed to in the area. The one she’s most proud of is the restoration of the Shoshone pupfish, which had been previously declared extinct.

 “Not everything we do is historically perfect,” she says, “but our motto is to restore a damaged spring ecosystem in a way that will support biodiverse life, including people.” HK

112 N. State Highway 127, 760-852-4123

 

Stay

Shoshone Inn is the most impressively upscale element of little Shoshone, with its sleek, contemporary interior design, including custom-built furniture, location-wide WiFi, and a fire pit guests can gather around in the evening. Shoshonevillage.com, 760-852-4335

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Tiny history tour: The brainchild of Susan Sorrells and her cousin Brian Brown, who own China Date Ranch, the Shoshone Museum (shoshonemuseum.com) is a nonprofit run by a board of anthropologists, geologists, and historians from institutions around the Southwest. The museum owns 7,000 painstakingly catalogued specimens and features an exhibit of prehistoric mammoth bones from a nearby excavation, which it manages on behalf of the BLM.

Nature preserve: To the north of town on Old State Highway 127, past the school and RV Park, is a charming boardwalk leading to a spring-fed pond full of Shoshone pupfish, which were at one time declared extinct.

Day hikes: Sorrells was a founding member of the Amargosa Conservancy, and she and various members of her family have devoted considerable resources to transforming the Shoshone-Tecopa tourism economy into an eco-tourism economy. Evidence of their work can be found in the birding hikes around Shoshone.

 

Pioche (NV)

Ghost Town Art and Coffee Co.

An ex-rocker runs a happening hangout in a sleepy old town

180 miles, 3 hours

Ghost town art

Pioche photography by Brent Holmes.

Driving to Pioche is a little like traveling through a time warp. There’s the is: the lights of Las Vegas, the twin prisons as you turn off the Interstate, and the eerie industrial structures that could only be more startling if they were submerged in water. There’s the might’ve been: the triumphant Coyote Springs master-planned community sign, announcing nothing in the middle of nowhere. And then there’s the was: Pioche, a once-lawless mining camp, known for its brothels, gunfights, and being one of the toughest towns in the West.

Pioche

Cathedral Gorge State Park.

Today, Pioche is a quiet desert community,  with a half-vacant main drag and a population of about 1,000. Among the shuttered buildings lives Ghost Town Coffee, a bustling sandwich shop owned by an unlikely character — Kelly Garni, the original bassist for Quiet Riot in the 1970s. Garni ran photo studios in Las Vegas for 20 years before the shift to digital put him out of business. So he closed up shop and moved 175 miles north to make art. He repurposes metal he finds in the desert, some of it dating back to the 1800s and the area’s early settlers.

“I sold 10 times more up here than I ever did in Vegas and Boulder City,” Garni says. “And so, it made me think, ‘What else can I sell?’”

He asked around, and the answer was clear: Pioche lacked a coffee shop, and the closest Starbucks was 100 miles away.

“I wasn’t a coffee drinker, but I learned everything I could about coffee,” he says. “When I first started, I didn’t know the difference between a cappuccino and a frappuccino.” He studied intensively for two months, learned about beans from all over the world, and renovated one of the town’s oldest surviving buildings, a 150-year-old former blacksmithing shop that doubles as his studio. Now he serves 18 frappuccino flavors and a dozen or so sandwiches with Lay’s chips, all in view of his workbench. The Pioche burger with cheddar, bacon and pepperoncinis is a favorite, as is the Rockin’ Reuben, a half-pound of light pastrami topped with swiss, sauerkraut and honey dijon.

Reuben(Once a rough-and-tumble mining camp, Pioche now serves crazy good sandwiches, like the Rockin’ Reuben, right)

The cafe draws locals and a steady stream of visitors from nearby states and faraway places in Europe, Asia, and Australia. Garni even says he has regulars from England and Norway. The food is good — it has 32 mostly five-star reviews on Yelp — but its true appeal is the unexpected intersection of art, history, and people in this “living ghost town.” KT

597 Main St., Pioche, 775-962-5229, ghosttownart.com

 

Stay

If you’re brave, try the Overland Hotel & Saloon, which is said to be haunted. The Travel Channel filmed a Ghost Hunters episode there, and employees and guests have reported misty apparitions, dark figures, and a poltergeist who likes to hang around Room 10 and once tried to smother a guy in his sleep. Like your rooms ghost-free? Check out Hutchings Motel for a small, clean cabin. Overlandhotelnv.com, 775-962-5895; hutchingsmotel.com, 775-962-2853

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Learn: The Lincoln County Museum (775-962-5207) is free, and is one of the only Pioche businesses besides the town’s three bars that’s open during the week. The extensive collection includes state historical documents, vintage household items, minerals, and a life-size diorama that shows how early homes in the area were furnished.

Get outside: Cathedral Gorge State Park gets its name from the beautifully eroded bentonite clay slopes that tower over the valley floor. Take a hike or walk to the bottom of Miller’s Point for the full effect on a shorter schedule.

Explore: Boot Hill Cemetery gets its name from the gunfighters who died in their shoes and were buried with their boots as their only grave marker. Later, the town added primitive wooden tombstones that tell who’s buried there and how they died. The site overlooks the valley below, and old mining trams crisscross the land, making for a great photo.

 

Kanab (UT)

Sego

Fine dining from the heart in a low-key getaway

204 miles, 3.25 hours

Kanab

Kanab is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets. Salmon at Sego. Photos of Kanab by Mikayla Whitmore

Fancy attire isn’t required at Chef Shon Foster’s globally inspired small-plates restaurant, Sego. In fact, hiking gear is welcome. Located off the lobby of the Canyons Boutique Hotel, the restaurant’s dining room doubles as a continental breakfast nook in the morning, and that sets the scene for a casual and completely unexpected upscale dining experience.

Foster’s rise to food fame is equally unlikely. He’s an audio engineer by training, and spent years touring with punk bands like Pennywise and NOFX before settling down in Utah and buying a deli on a whim. The shop’s success launched Foster into a career he never dreamed of, cooking at the hyper-luxe Amangiri resort in Canyon Point, Utah, before he decided to go back on his own. What Foster lacks in formal training he makes up for with heart, and a 1,000-percent-in work ethic. It also helps that his partner, Chef Harryson, went to catering school in Indonesia and worked in Dubai and the Middle East before coming to work with the Aman group, where the two met.

Kanab

Canyons Boutique Hotel.

“The things that I do tell stories — they come from somewhere,” Foster explains. “If you look at the menu, maybe it’s not the whole dish, but parts and pieces have real life and vibration and the emotion that created them. I’m not just doing a recipe I learned from somewhere else.”

Foster has cooked with Michelin-starred British chef Gordon Ramsay, and he’s catered to celebrities like Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel, whom he says he taught to make ramen. Luckily for diners, those experiences make it onto the menu. Ramen was a weeknight special in April, and world cuisines made with local ingredients are always in rotation.

The charsiu Chinese barbecue pork dish is made with meat and lettuce from Red Acre Farms in Cedar City, Utah; his signature Sego rice noodles are brought to life with Hawaiian red crab and house curry oil; and he uses his own herbs to make soft cheeses featured on the charcuterie plate, alongside cured meats, Utah cheeses, dried and fresh fruit, and a house baguette.

In liquid offerings, almost all of Sego’s whiskeys and gins are made in Utah. And the hot cookie sundae is not to be missed, a masterpiece of chocolate-chip cookie, ice cream, smoked almonds, caramel, and cream that Foster says took two years to develop.

Sego is an impressive destination, and rightfully deserves the “best fine dining concept” award the restaurant is soon to collect from the Utah Restaurant Association. Utah’s state motto is “Life elevated,” and Sego absolutely raises the bar. KT

190 North 300th West, 435-644-5680, segokanab.com

Kanab

A hiking trail in Kanab. 

Stay

The recently renovated Canyons Boutique Hotel is conveniently connected to Sego Restaurant, offering comfortable, classically decorated resort-style rooms in an intimate setting. Hop on a free beach cruiser to explore downtown Kanab, and return by sunset for wine on the patio and the occasional live band. Canyonshotel.com, 435-644-8660

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Pet: Best Friends Animal sanctuary is a five-minute drive from Kanab. Guests can tour the property, volunteer, or even stay on site for a more immersive animal-lover experience. Dogs, cats, birds, and barnyard animals are available for adoption, and the organization hosts kids camps and special events like Bunny Yoga and Paint Your Pet’s portrait workshops.

Bestfriends.org
 

Tour: Experience Kanab from the comfort of your car on Johnson Canyon Road. The 18-mile stretch is packed with sights, including the dilapidated Western-themed Gunsmoke set, Native American pictographs and petroglyphs, and colorful cliffsides belonging to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Browse: Downtown Kanab is home to a handful of art galleries, perhaps most notably the Raven’s Heart Gallery, which showcases skillful animal and landscape-based artworks.

 

Seligman (AZ)

Roadkill Cafe & O.K. Saloon

Comfort food on a kitschy strip of pure Americana

180 miles, 3 hours

Roadkill Grill Cafe

Roadkill Grill.  Seligman photography by Mikayla Whitmore

Like many small towns in the middle of the desert, Seligman started out as a train station. Before that, it was a Havasupai Native American settlement, and today it’s a trove of mind-boggling kitsch, and a must-see stop on the way to the Grand Canyon.

SeligmanDubbed “the birthplace of Route 66,” Seligman isn’t where the highway actually began, but its residents fought for the road’s historical designation, which put their town back on the map, so to speak, after Interstate 40 bypassed it.

Decades later, it’s still hanging on, slinging mugs, magnets, and free cups of coffee from almost every shop. Gas stations and nostalgic fast food are idolized here, along with 1950s celebrities and anything with an American flag motif. The town is heavy on hand-painted murals and makes a point to share its history wherever possible; more is simply more in Seligman.

Take, for example the Snow Cap burger joint with its inexplicable backyard toilet garden. Or the World Famous Black Cat Bar, reportedly loved by bikers, truckers, and at least one cowboy who will let you ride his horse, Elvis, for a tip.

But for food, the Roadkill Cafe & O.K. Saloon can’t be beat. Its slogan is “You kill it, we grill it,” and the menu consists of comically named entrees like the “Caddie Grilled Patty” hamburger, the “Long Gone Fawn” ribeye steak, “Fender Tender” chicken strips and “Tire Track Snack” shrimp, though seafood is on its way out.

“I’m in the process of creating a new menu,” says Aaron Ryan, who started as a dishwasher and is now running the business. In place of seafood, he’ll offer 16 gourmet burgers made from Black Angus beef.

Ryan recommends the Roadkill Platter appetizer, with wings, zucchini, poppers and onion rings, or any of their steakhouse offerings, which includes ribeyes, sirloins, a giant rack of ribs and fried chicken.

Roadkill Grill

The food is solid, but the restaurant’s crown jewel is its over-the-top taxidermy display in the adjacent saloon, a detailed nature scene with a wolf, bear, mountain lion, elk, badger, and other animals, most of them caught by the owners, the Pope family, who moved to Seligman in the ’80s and bought several businesses.

Outside the restaurant is a faux Wild West town, complete with a bogus but believable jailhouse and a number of “shops.” Between the menu and the photo-ops, it turns out eating is more fun when you know it was hit on the run. KT

22830 West Route 66, 928-422-3554, route66seligmanarizona.com

 

Stay

If you plan to explore the Grand Canyon area, Flagstaff and Tusayan have plenty of chain hotels. If you want something different, check Airbnb for quirky accommodations, like the Red Garter Inn, a turn-of-the-century brothel in Williams, or Airstream Dreaming, an adorably renovated 1960s travel trailer complete with an outdoor fire pit, stringed lights, and three goats you’ll want to take home with you.

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Drive: Sedona is worth a day trip, or even a short stay, with its stunning red rock formations and its mystical “vortex” areas. Drive down Highway 89 through Oak Creek, stopping at Slide Rock State Park for a picnic or one of the quaint cottage cafés for lunch. In Sedona, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is worth a visit, as is Bell Rock for a short but challenging hike with phenomenal views from the top.

Walk: The Grand Canyon is a scenic hour-long drive from Seligman, where you can stroll along the rim from the Visitor’s Center to the Yavapai Geology Museum for a stunning view of the canyon.

Shop: Clothing boutiques, art galleries, and outdoor outfitters make up the bulk of Flagstaff’s downtown, which make for a relaxing afternoon of retail therapy.

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