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One Way to Salvage Road Trip Dining in the West

A taco cafe at Kramer Junction, at the intersection of Highway 395 and Highway 58.

Summer is the season when people get in their cars for vacation and when articles appear about what to eat while on the road. Some magazines detail routes to coincide with great eating experiences. Others are more about self-defense. There are individuals like Elissa Altman, who, encountering the ghastly offerings on a trip to Maine, wrote on her blog, “Poor Man’s Feast,” about how truly dismal it all was and how it really was time to change the entire food system.  (And she knew that already.) I’ve had more than a few requests to write about how to eat well when traveling; how to find food that won’t make you sick or put on pounds. I have road experiences of my own to draw on: For more than 20 years, I’ve been making at least one drive a year from Santa Fe, N.M., to Davis, Calif., plus I love more local road trips, too. I should have figured things out by now, but mostly I’ve come to conclusion that it’s really, really hard to eat well on the road.

When you’re traveling on highways through the empty West, those magazine articles pointing you to culinary treasures won’t help much.  The good family-owned cafes are largely gone. Espresso (and/or good coffee) is rare. Farmers markets are dicey to connect with. Because there’s not much chance for real food anywhere, the obvious solution, it would seem, is to bring your own.

Drink up and DIY on your road trip

I suggest starting with beverages. Pack a small espresso pot and a small camping burner and you can at least stave off the misery of bad coffee. (If you’re a tea drinker, do the same for tea.) You can make good, strong coffee at rest stops or in your motel room. Or you can exit the freeway,  and find a boulder to lean against and a cool spot to set up your machine. Having a satisfying hot beverage in a beautiful spot can be magical. You sip, gratefully, listen to birds you don’t normally hear, breathe in the creosote smells of the Mojave Desert or the big sage on the “Loneliest Highway in Basin and Range Country,” maybe watch the sun rise or a hawk circle. Your only obstacle to this sublime pause, aside from running out of matches, water or coffee, is wind. I’ve been forced to give up the coffee experience because of wind more than once.

Other beverages are easy to bring and refreshing. A bottle of kombucha or decent iced tea has saved me from a spate of brain fatigue more than once when the temperature is hovering around 100 degrees. Makings for a gin and tonic or a bottle of wine will vastly improve the ambience of your cheap hotel room. Add some good crackers and cheese, a cucumber, some fruit and you don’t even have to look for place to eat in Barstow.

The hope for breakfast

Finding food is the harder part for road trip dining in the West. Yes, you can pack your own, but the problem is that after hours in the car I want to get out and stretch and sit and eat somewhere else, preferably in an air-conditioned restaurant with soft banquettes. More than once I’ve had food with me and still chosen to breakfast in a restaurant, just for the change. Breakfast is often the better meal to have on the road. If you don’t eat it normally, it’s kind of fun to have fried eggs and hash browns or eggs scrambled with chorizo. The eggs won’t be organic and nothing will be local or homemade, but you won’t perish and you will get fed.

Lunch and dinner are more difficult. That’s when the food you’ve brought comes in handy. I have absolutely relished my Motel 6 room in Needles, Calif., (105 F outdoors) because it had a little table and chair, and I had a delicious menu to assemble from my cooler, plus a bottle of chilled wine. I even had a little tablecloth to spread over the plastic table — a great help for atmosphere — and was happy as can be.

The local eatery challenge

Because there aren’t great choices for routes between New Mexico and California, I have gotten to know towns, cities and crossroads over the years. I’ve learned that Flagstaff has some good places to eat and a really good coffeehouse (Macy’s); that you can get a good cappuccino at a little café in Williams; that Kingman, my least favorite place next to Barstow, has a Mexican restaurant (Oyster’s Mexican and Seafood) with creaky fans that aren’t too effective but very cold beer that is and the chance for an OK, albeit fairly predictable, meal. There’s a café in Ludlow that will do in a pinch, too.

If I have the time to take Highway 395 up the east side of the Sierra, there are all kinds of OK restaurants in Bishop, Bridgeport and in between. But that does require extra time. Route 99 North is fast, intense and daunting.  It doesn’t take much longer to cross over the valley to the more relaxed pace of Interstate 5. And that’s where I found Baja Fresh, a relatively large restaurant chain but a welcome find in a gas station near Coalinga. I’ve had fish tacos there (grilled to order) more than a few times and found them, with their rice, beans and salsas, a fine meal. When I was there last, in June, I noticed the following words scrawled over the wall in big, friendly cursive: No Microwave. No Can Opener. No MSG. No Freezer. No Lard.

No wonder the tacos were so good.

Normally, a travel center would not be my culinary destination, but if you don’t want a steak at the Harris Ranch, a bowl of Andersen’s pea soup or a boiled egg wrapped in plastic, it might be that a travel center harbors a treasure. I have it bookmarked in my brain along with all the other little places that offer something out of the ordinary. I still do rely on my cooler, though, even if its contents more often than not aren’t eaten until my destination is reached, or until I’ve returned home.

Top photo: A taco café at Kramer Junction, the intersection of California Highways 395 and 58. Credit: Deborah Madison

Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison is the author of many books on food and cooking, including "The Greens Cookbook" and "Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers Markets." Her latest book, "Vegetable Literacy," is a 2014 James Beard Award winner.

  • Sylvia Adams Rostron 7·24·12

    Loved this article. The writer gives a good look at just how eating “on the road” can be terrible, and how to remedy the situation!