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This post originally appeared as José R. Ralat’s inaugural “Taste of the West,” a monthly newsletter covering all things food and drink across the West. Subscribe below.
The idea for this monthly newsletter grew, partly, from days and nights on assignment throughout the West. You see, whether I’m sitting around a campfire absorbing every move of a cowboy cook in his/her element, touring a restaurant garden and aviary with the executive chef, or tasting my way through a brewery or distillery’s handcrafted libations, there is so much to see and do and eat. And so many stories to tell—more stories that I can feasibly fit into each issue of C&I or on our website without sacrificing sleep.
On a recent trip, I found myself walking through Tucson, marveling at the WPA sidewalks and dreaming of what Old Pueblo magic waits around the corner. Could it be the sunrise power combo of red chile breakfast burritos from Anita Street Market — a little shop that makes and sells the best flour tortillas I’ve had this side of the border — and a quick peek of the sensory-distorting passion project nativity El Nacimiento at the Tucson Museum of Art’s Casa Cordova? Created over 30 years by Maria Luisa Teña, the 800-piece tableau features various turns on the classic nativity scene, from a traditional Holy Land setting to one that dresses up figures in Mexican folkloric outfits. Interspersed throughout the towering display are vignettes representing Mexican folklife, such as a scene depicting the appearance of the Virgen de Guadalupe to Juan Diego, alongside scenes from the Bible. Angels hold a banner announcing the birth of Jesus, while a demon plays the fiddle in a subterranean inferno. There’s a lone Dalmatian. Flowers and vines and wells and farm animals add the beautiful mundanity of life. A river cascading into a pool where a woman is doing laundry among swans divides the setting. Christmas lights string the whole thing together.
For me, traveling is as much about things to eat as much as places to see. Eating — whether in a city, on a ranch, at a historic hotel, in a national park, or at a boundary-pushing restaurant — is another way of understanding that place. Food is an expression of the West. Take Texas. What’s the Lone Star State without its chili?
Better yet, take Tucson. Established in 1775 as a military fort, Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón, gastronomically speaking, the city is founded on excellent carbs — from the as-big-as-a-steering-wheel chumuth, coarse, buttery flour tortillas of the Tohono O’odham Nation, to Barrio Bread, an artisanal bakery led by Don Guerra, from whose shop shelves fly crusty pan rustico and sweet-and-sour walnut loafs, as well as heritage grain tortillas that impart a grounded taste of the region’s colonial era.
While in the Old Pueblo, I ended a meal at El Charro Café, the city’s oldest continuously operating restaurant. I couldn’t help myself but end my dinner there with fried ice cream. The Southwestern culinary marvel with a dome of crispy tortilla, this one seasoned with cinnamon, over vanilla ice cream. Once, the dessert flourished on restaurant menus. Now, fried ice cream is seemingly frozen in time-capsule kitchens. Don’t think for one minute that I didn’t finish it.
The neon cowgirl in the Hotel Congress’ back patio shines in contrast to what is perhaps the historic building’s darkest day: January 22, 1934, when a hotel fire gave away John Dillinger and his gang, attempting to lay low after a slew of bank robberies. Pueblo Vida Brewing Company is where I go for a taste of the West’s favorite beer style, the India Pale Ale. Aside from hazy, hoppy suds, the craft brewery is lauded for the label designs of its 16-ounce can. Each release commands a line of connoisseurs eager for the likes of the serape design wrapping the Embers IPA. I have one can left and am struggling to resist the urge to crack it open.
The week before my time in Tucson, I was in Denver conducting on-the-ground research for C&I’s Taste of the West issue, on newsstands now. Denver is a city I adore, from its plethora of breweries and food halls to its vibrant art scene and its knockout dining. But what struck me this time around was the Laws Whiskey Old Fashioned cocktail components I found waiting for me in my Le Méridian Denver Downtown hotel room. The directions were explicit, right down to the final words: Enjoy on rooftop. That rooftop is 54Thirty, the highest open-air rooftop bar in The Mile High City, where I sipped away the sunset behind the snowy summits of the Front Range. Then it was off to dinner at Corinne.
That evening I employed my usual dining strategy of ordering something I can’t resist (creamy, chilled BLT deviled eggs punctuated with intermittent crunch), something I detest (a kale and apple salad that balanced the kale’s bitterness with crisp, sweet julienne apples and whirls of parmesan), something I’ve never tried (pecan-studded banana cream pie laced with rum caramel that was a sturdy velvet in texture), and something to surprise (bacon-wrapped filet). Although not my preferred choice of steak entrée, the filet is a popular selection from Corinne’s dinner menu. And it’s easy to see why. A perfectly medium-rare portion of beef, the plump filet was capped with a patch of crusty blue cheese. The exterior was seared a perfect tan but the potent cheese inside kept its zippy flavor. The combo was nestled in smooth but not silky — that’s a good thing — mashed potatoes. A forkful of the cheese crust, the steak, and the potatoes were successively bold, suave, and gentle in flavor. For this trinity alone was my dinner at Corinne the best meal of my time in Denver.
A couple of days later I got a hard-hat sneak peek at The Source Hotel, a 100-room boutique hotel attached to The Source food hall in Denver’s RiNo district. When The Source opened in a renovated foundry in 2013, RiNo was a neglected industrial zone squeezed by rail lines and sliced by the South Platte River. The Source Hotel, slated to open this summer, was still under construction during my visit, but based on press materials, it’s clear the building will continue the food hall’s pioneering status. First, there’s the hotel’s anchor restaurant, Smök, a Kansas City- and Texas-style barbecue spot from chef Bill Espiricueta. Then there’s New Belgium Brewing’s deep commitment to The Source Hotel, the craft brewery’s first Denver outpost. As a longtime fan of the beer I’m excited about reserving a room at The Source on my next trip and enjoying a New Belgium brew upon check-in, finding it stocked in my room, and then adjourning to the rooftop restaurant-bar, Woods, where the 10-barrel brewing system will flow with pucker-worthy sour ales, excitable wild ales, and other flights of fancy.
If you should find yourself on this rooftop in Denver, don’t forget to look up from your glass to witness yet another Rocky Mountain vista. Your beer may be sour, but — as I learned during my latest visit — your mood won’t be.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the first installment of the Taste of the West newsletter. My mission is to enliven your mood and appetite with future monthly newsletters. I welcome any suggestions you might have for topics. So drop me a line at José R. Ralat, Food & Drink Editor: [email protected].
- Anita Street Market, 849 N. Anita Ave., Tucson, Arizona 85705
- Casa Cordova at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave., Tucson, Arizona 85701
- Café Santa Cruz at Tohono O’odham Nation, 1950 W. San Xavier Rd., Tucson, Arizona 85746
- Barrio Bread, 18 S. Eastbourne Ave., Tucson, Arizona 85716
- El Charro Café, 311 N. Court Ave., Tucson, Arizona 85705
- Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St., Tucson, Arizona 85701
- Pueblo Vida Brewing Company, 115 E. Broadway Blvd., Tucson, Arizona 85701
- Le Méridian Denver Downtown, 1475 California St., Denver, Colorado 80202
- Corinne, 1455 California St, Denver, Colorado 80202
- The Source Hotel + Market Hall, 3350 Brighton Blvd., Denver, Colorado 80216
What’s Cooking: Camping season is upon us! And Feast by Firelight: Simple Recipes for Camping, Cabins, and the Great Outdoors by Emma Frisch (Ten Speed Press, 2018) is here to up your fireside cooking game. We’re hankering for a chocolate, bacon, and burrata breakfast sandwich, for foil-packet salmon with lemon, thyme, and blueberries, and for molten lava campfire brownies in orange cups. Click here for a recipe from Feast by Firelight and for a chance to win a free copy of the book.
Potluck: We want to see what whets your appetites at home. Send us your favorite recipes and the stories behind them, and we might just post one on the C&I website.
Photography: Courtesy Barrio Bread/Facebook, Courtesy José R. Ralat, (MidPhoto) Courtesy Visit Tucson, Courtesy Corinne/Facebook, Courtesy José R. Ralat, Courtesy Ten Speed Press
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