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Roadside Restaurants: NYC to Boulder

Roadside restaurant in Waukee, Iowa, by Andrew Lipton

Roadside restaurant in Waukee, Iowa

This year I celebrated spring across the country. First in New York City, where in April the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, magnolias, lilacs, cherry blossoms and peonies in Central Park heralded an early spectacular show of color and smell. The Union Square Green Market was stocked with asparagus, ramps, strawberries, rhubarb, early lettuces, baby potatoes and carrots. I made a frittata of baby spinach, mizuna, kale and ramps as a salute to spring.

At Mary Cleaver’s restaurant, Green Table in the Chelsea Market, the spring spread included Deviled Farm Eggs 4 Ways, the eggs accented with wasabi, bacon relish and pimento-cheese. She also served outstanding crab cakes with a butternut squash relish and a huge Harvest Salad with a divine preserved lemon and olive oil dressing.

The thing about Mary: Her food is sublime, delicate yet complex. She was working with local and sustainable ingredients long before it was fashionable. “It’s my belief that how you spend your money changes the world,” she says. Just after 9/11, while at the farmers market looking for food to serve the World Trade Center rescue workers, she met Jen Small and Mike Yezzi, the owners of Flying Pigs Farm. The couple were selling a handful of cuts from their 14 pigs. Mary wanted 500 spare ribs, but this was a start. She told Small and Yezzi she’d take all they had, and thus began a relationship that represents Mary’s commitment to her suppliers.

Signs of spring on I-80

At the end of April, my partner, Andrew Lipton, our dog Sophie and I started our annual road trip to Colorado where we live part time. Sometimes we do the drive leisurely, taking a week or two, but this trip had to be fast; we had a birthday party at the other end. Despite the traffic and roadwork on I-80, spring was evident state after state, field after field. Cows nuzzled their calves and grazed on large expanses of land, and the smell of sweet grass and clover wafted through our windows.

During the three-and-a-half day trip, we returned to some of our favorite restaurants and found new ones to add to our repertoire. At the Tree Hugger Café in Berea, Ohio, the fare was vegetarian and gluten-free. Elia’s in South Bend, Ind., served Lebanese cuisine with local ingredients.  North Pond Restaurant in Chicago was a bit swankier and mind-blowing: grass-fed beef and lamb, pasture-fed chickens, asparagus, rhubarb and ramps. The path from earth to plate was clear.

Roadside restaurants: Organic food cooks in Waukee, Iowa

Cooks at the LT Organic Restaurant in Waukee, Iowa

In Waukee, Iowa, we pulled over, tires screeching, in response to a sign saying simply “Exit 117, Organic Food.” It felt magical when three young brothers appeared out of a side door of the barn and handed us a menu. We sat at a picnic table and within moments we were digging into a divine lunch that included a chicken stew that had been on the stove for 24 hours. The soft bones were the best part. The setup at the LT Organic Restaurant has a wonderful kitschy shop, too.

In Nebraska the smell of chemical fertilizer reigned and the sight of cows crowded into pens was heartbreaking. I closed my window and turned on the air conditioner until we were through the state.

Family and an old favorite in Boulder

I always wait anxiously for Boulder, Colo., where we see family and get a great meal at The Kitchen, a community restaurant owned by Kimbal Musk, Jen Lewin and Hugo Matheson. The Kitchen’s spirit is much like that of the Green Table. The owners believe that sharing good food and drink connects  family, friends and community. Every afternoon and evening their staff gets together to share a meal.

The Kitchen’s tasting menu reflects what is local and in season. House-cured salmon blini with dill crème fraiche, capers, chopped egg and scallion; local grilled asparagus and handmade nettle pasta with local spicy greens. I had a delicious fresh roasted chicken breast with Meyer lemons over ramp mash and pea shoots that about sent me through the roof with delight.

When chefs are able to create a perfect dining experience that enlivens my taste buds, while also giving me hope for a deeper community experience and more information with regard to local and organic, I find ways to frequent their restaurants — even if it means driving across country.

Top photo: The LT Organic Farm Clinic and Restaurant in Waukee, Iowa. Credit: Andrew Lipton

Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, "Digging Out" (Penguin). Her most recent book, "Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists," won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Leiner's next novel is due out this year.

  • Haz 6·17·12

    I’d like to take the same taste tour in reverse. Thank you, Katherine.

  • Bill 6·17·12

    Cross country travel used to be more about a gassing up along with a bathroom break and an occasional big mac. All necessary but they don’t add much to the fun quotient of getting from here to there. It’s a sign of how the food world has changed that topping off with delicious food along the way is now not only possible but has brought back a spark of excitement and discovery to the black top highways stretching to the horizon in front of us. Katherine points the way for all us, although her trips are probably not quite what Horace Greely had in mind when he remarked, “Go West young man, go West”, or something to that effect as I recall.

  • janie 6·17·12

    You mean there’s something more than Howard Johnson’s on the road from NYC to Boulder? Who knew!? (But I do love those fake fried clams).

    Thanks so much for making me hungry for ramps, for reminding me I have to get to Mary Cleaver’s restaurant, and assuring me I won’t go too far off a heathy course on the roads from NY to Colorado.

  • nancy 6·17·12

    Your travel log is bursting with sensory stimulation, wit and hope. Your voice is a boost to eaters and farmers dedicated to growing and eating real food.

  • Beverly 6·17·12

    Every time I follow a piece of Leiner’s writing I am infused with her passion for the people who courageously manifest the joys of healthy, interesting food. I love how she ALWAYS connects with people who have the zest and drive to get out there and be creative, combine those home grown foods and create something new, delightful and just darn tasty.

    Taking the bull by the horns, she goes and finds these marvelous folks, she engages in the lives of these silent heroes. But she is no fool…. she has the real joy de vivre, the real icing on the cake: she gets to eat fresh local food delivered to the palette with ingenuity and delight.

    She makes me want to expand my garden and come up with a new and never ever heard of taste treat I have grown that would rock southwest Colorado!!

  • Annie 6·18·12

    Makes me think it’s time to toss a suitcase in the back seat a good friend in the front and head out and eat my way across America. Nebraska is worrisome but oh my you managed to find the best of what devoted people working in gorgeous symbiosis with the earth can produce. And you have the kindness and the turns of phrase to bring it to the rest of us. Thank you.

  • Gretta 6·18·12

    Hope Bill and I can take the trek to you some day stopping all all those places!

  • makenna 6·18·12

    Oh, yum, I wish I was driving cross country tasting delicious food. Thank you for another inspiring post!