Southwest Excursion: Some Notes on What We Ate

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My husband and I, along with our three-year-old daughter, just returned from an almost-two-week trip through the Southwest. We wound our way through Arizona’s Navajo country, northern New Mexico, and a corner of Utah, seeking out petroglyphs and ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruins, soaking in the exceptional landscape and boundless sky, eating fry bread and chiles. Our soundtrack much of the time was 660 AM, the voice of the Navajo Nation, punctuated by our daughter’s occasional chants of her desire to go home. Here are some notes on some of the more notable things we ate.

NOTE: What I won’t be writing about in much detail is the amazing things we saw on this trip that had no ties to food, like the really truly blow-your-mind phenomenal Chaco Culture National Historical Park; the varied other-worldly landscapes of Petrified Forest National Park; the artistic expression of human culture, history, and experience etched into rock in Petroglyph National Monument in the hills above Albuquerque, the sprawling metropolis set out before you; the stunning 13th-century architectural feats of Hovenweep; Acoma Pueblo with its rich artistic traditions and crushing history under the Spanish; the Abiquiu studio of Georgia O’Keefe and her museum in Santa Fe; and on and on. What an amazing area to explore. Every time I’m in the area, I can’t help but fantasize about living there, New Mexico especially. I highly recommend visiting.

Indian Gardens Cafe and Market, Sedona, AZ:

We didn’t intend to go to Sedona. As we arrived in Petrified Forest National Park, I realized I left my camera battery and charger in our hotel room in Gallup, NM, and driving back to Gallup was not an option. Many calls to many stores between there and Flagstaff, our next stop, showed that a Nikon dSLR battery was simply not available. Rollie’s Camera Shop in Sedona, however, had the battery and a charger. We really didn’t want to rely on just smartphone cameras for this trip, which was only on day 2 at this point, so we changed course and headed south.

Route 89A from Flagstaff to Sedona curves through the Coconino National Forest, revealing exceptional views, especially as you hit the series of extreme switchbacks and ultimately make your way down through Oak Creek Canyon, where the road meanders alongside the river, through apple orchards, past campgrounds and cabins, vacation homes and fishing holes.

We stopped at the Indian Gardens Cafe and Market, which is a few miles north of the town of Sedona. It’s a charming place, and as the name suggests, it’s also a market with treats like apples grown in the local orchards. The cafe has options ranging from light and healthy to decadent comfort food. We ordered from the breakfast menu: avocado toast with heirloom watermelon radishes, cucumber, fresh dill, and a chili-infused oil on rustic sourdough bread; a hearty breakfast burrito with eggs, cheddar cheese, thick chunks of potato, roasted green chiles, avocado, and ground chorizo; and whole grain pancakes with a gang of healthy things atop them, like chia and berry compote and lemon crema. Pancakes like this aren’t usually up my alley, mostly because they tend to be so heavy, but these were amazing.

Avocado toast, breakfast burrito, and amazing pancakes:

Palatki Heritage Site in Sedona:

Hopi Cultural Center Restaurant, Second Mesa, AZ:

The Hopi Reservation consists of three mesas: First Mesa, Second Mesa, and Third Mesa. Second Mesa is home to the Hopi Cultural Center, which includes a museum and a restaurant. It was the place where we met our tour guide, Donald, who led us far off the paved roads to a treasure trove of petroglyphs spanning well over a thousand years. A Hopi elder, he has shared his knowledge of Hopi culture and religion and the meaning of the local petroglyphs to many interested outsiders. We are very grateful that we had him as our tour guide.

After several hours with Donald, we landed back at the Cultural Center and jumped at the opportunity to have some Hopi food. The fry bread was made with blue corn instead of the more usual white flour. White corn hominy and mutton were also well represented. The piki bread pictured below was sold in the museum, not at the restaurant. Piki bread was/is a Hopi staple. Here’s what we had…

Tsili’ongava (slow-cooked red chili beans with ground beef) with blue corn fry bread; noqkwivi (white corn hominy and lamb stew) and Hopi taco on blue corn fry bread; and piki bread, a traditional blue corn bread that’s crispy and light as air:

Hopi Reservation petroglyphs:

Amigo Cafe, Kayenta, AZ:

As we made our way over to Monument Valley, we passed through the town of Kayenta, AZ. According to the usual sources on the road (Yelp, TripAdvisor, RoadFood…), Amigo Cafe is the best place around. It was a cozy, warm space serving Navajo, Mexican, and American dishes.

Navajo taco and chicken chimichanga:

The View Restaurant, The View Hotel, Monument Valley, UT:

Monument Valley is spectacular. Truly. A sacred place for the Navajo, it was also a popular setting for old Westerns, and you’ll likely have the sense that you’ve seen this place, even if you’re not a John Ford enthusiast. The loop through the park is extremely rough road, making for a very slow drive, even with 4-wheel drive. We did see RVs and even a Prius making the trip, but it did not look fun.

The restaurant is part of the hotel and it is within the park limits. The restaurant has a breathtaking view of the rock formations that make up Monument Valley. The staff were kind and the menu spans Navajo specialties and American standards. There’s also a sizeable gift store with Native American items representing many area nations and a wide range of price points. Definitely take a closer look if you’re there.

Green chile stew with fry bread, Navajo tacos, and Navajo tea:

Monument Valley:

Chinle Flea Market, Chinle, AZ:

Canyon de Chelly, called Tseyi by the Navajo, is a spectacular canyon that bears evidence of the native people who have lived here for millenia, from petroglyphs and cliff dwellings to working Navajo farms. It is also the home of Spider Rock, a sandstone spire sacred to the Navajo that rises about 750 feet up from the canyon floor. The park has a welcoming visitor center with cultural programs that are definitely worth attending. The options for traveling inside the canyon are limited unless you are with a Navajo tour guide. Note that driving along the canyon rims is open to all and really spectacular, with decent views of some cliff dwellings. We had a Navajo guide named Lee who drove us along the canyon floor, where his family has farmed and lived for many generations (except for the four-year period from 1864 to 1868 when the Navajo were removed from the land after surrendering to Kit Carson, and forced to walk to Bosque Redondo Reservation in Fort Sumner, now New Mexico).

Lee taught us a lot about the canyon and shared his thoughts on contemporary Navajo culture. We got to talking with him about food and our shared love of Korean food, among other things. He told us a bit about Navajo food, and suggested we try a roast mutton sandwich. As luck would have it, we were in Chinle on a Friday and the local flea market took place from 12-2 pm. Lee told us about his favorite vendor. As he described it, go to the specified parking lot, pass some guys selling and repairing tires, go about 100 yards, turn left, go another hundred yards and look for the white trailer selling mutton sandwiches. And, he told us, be sure to use salt because Navajo food can be, well, a little bland.

It was a very windy day, which caused what I can best describe as a sand storm. We had to shield our faces when the wind picked up, but we spotted a white trailer with a roast mutton sandwich on the menu. It was called C&H. The trailer had a couple of long tables set up out front, covered by a tarp that also blocked the wind and sand. We also got an extra fry bread for our daughter and a cup of Navajo tea. The smell of grilled meat coming from the trailer was enticing, and the fry bread was made to order. A grilled hot green chile and the thinly sliced, grilled mutton were placed in the bread and a couple of salt packets were tucked on the tray. It was a straightforward sandwich, with the strong flavors of mutton and green chile, the earthy, chewy meat working in concert with the crispy fry bread. The addition of salt brought the sandwich to life.

When we were finished, we walked a bit farther and realized that there was another white trailer selling mutton sandwiches just beyond C&H! Since Lee hadn’t specified the name of his favorite place (and we hadn’t thought to ask!), we just went to the first one we saw that matched his description. So, we ordered one at the other stand as well. It’s menu board revealed it’s name: That One Stand. We ordered this one to go, so we could eat it in the car. This stand also made the fry bread to order, topped it with mutton and a green chile straight off the small grill in the trailer, again with a couple of salt packets. Similar to the sandwich from C&H, with the strong flavors of mutton, chile, and salt wrapped up in crispy fry bread, this iteration had somewhat thicker pieces of mutton.

We were so glad that Lee told about the food stalls at the flea market. In fact, walking through the flea market, even though there was a sand storm, and getting to try two versions of a favorite Navajo food was one of my very favorite moments from the trip.

Roast Mutton sandwich with a roasted green chile on fry bread, one from C&H (along with an extra fry bread and a Navajo tea) and the other from That One Stand:

Shiprock Flea Market, Shiprock, NM:

Our next major stop was Hovenweep National Monument in Utah, where 13th-century multistory stone towers are perched on the rim of a canyon. On our way to Farmington, NM—our stop before venturing down to Chaco Culture National Historical Park—we passed through Shiprock, NM. We spied a flea market in a parking lot on Route 64, then caught sight of smoke rising from a drum grill, and after opening the window, caught the scent of roasting meat. We swiftly pulled in. An older Navajo couple were selling mutton sandwiches. Rather than fry bread, it used oven bread. It was delicious.

Roast Mutton sandwich with a roasted green chile on oven bread:

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La Cueva Cafe and Orlando’s, Taos, NM:

La Cueva is a tiny and very popular place at the edge of downtown Taos that serves Mexican and New Mexican food.

Cheese enchiladas and chicken tacos, La Cueva Cafe:

For dinner, we tried another wildly popular Taos spot for New Mexican and Mexican specialties. Quite a bit farther out from downtown, it’s an ultra cool place with vibrant Chicano art on the walls. A great pick for a fun night out. Sorry about the poor picture quality—it was a pretty dark place.

Los Colores (three enchiladas with green, red, and el caribe chile) and stuffed sopaipillas, both with beans and hominy:

Taos Pueblo, Taos, NM:

Taos Pueblo has been the continuous home of the Taos Pueblo people for over 1,000 years. A World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark, it is a truly beautiful place. Tribal volunteers give tours of the site (recommended), and there are many artisans selling their work along the areas of the pueblo that are open to the public. There are also many people selling Taos oven bread cooked in traditional ovens (both shown below)—and other oven-baked treats like cookies. There are a number of options for hot food. We had a fry bread sandwich.

I was in Taos many years ago and, unfortunately, it happened to be on a day when the Taos Pueblo was closed to the public. This time, I checked in advance to make sure we were there when it was open. I’m so glad I did. I will long remember wooden ladders perched against adobe walls reaching up to the vast blue sky (homes used to be accessed through entrances on the roof)…doors painted vibrant turquoise against the soft brown adobe walls…the pueblo buildings huddled close to each other, rising from the brown earth, with the river in front and the mountain behind…. It’s such a special place.

Outdoor oven, oven bread, and chicken fry bread sandwich from Ai-Thloo’s (Grandma’s) Kitchen:

 

Rancho de Chimayo Restaurant, Chimayo, NM:

We stopped in Chimayo on our way down to Santa Fe on the famed High Road to Taos (or, in our case, from Taos), winding through the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Chimayo, which isn’t far from Santa Fe, has a 300-plus-year history of weaving, notably by many generations of the Ortega and Trujillo families. Chimayo is home to El Santuario de Chimayo, a Catholic pilgrimage spot believed to have curative powers. I’ve read the church gets about 300,000 visitors per year. And Chimayo is also home to the Rancho de Chimayo Restaurant, winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award. I hadn’t heard of the restaurant—it was recommended by a seventh-generation weaver from the Trujillo family at their shop.

In 1965, Florence Jaramillo and her husband Arturo restored his family’s ranch and opened it as Rancho de Chimayo restaurant, serving New Mexico cuisine. Florence went on to become a New Mexico food legend. She still owns Rancho de Chimayo and can be seen working there even now. The restaurant is known for a few dishes, notably the sopaipillas, spicy guacamole, and carne adovada, and they are known as the first restaurant to serve stuffed sopaipillas. The place itself is beautiful, and the service is warm and attentive.

Prickly pear frozen lemonade, sopaipillas, carne adovada, and rolled flautas:

The Pantry, Santa Fe, NM:

We went to the Pantry a number of years ago and I honestly nearly wept with joy eating the carne adovada, bringing the richly flavored meat to my mouth wrapped in a flaky sopaipilla. With all of the things we went to the Southwest to do on this trip—including seeing Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Hovenweep, and so on—I was not going to miss the opportunity to tuck into another plate of this divine adovada! And you know what? It was as good as I remembered. With any luck, I’ll be able to go back again soon.

Carne adovada and Frito pie:

Santa Fe Bite and Luminaria, Santa Fe, NM:

Green chile cheeseburger from Santa Fe Bite and the Thanksgiving turkey special from Luminaria:


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