The trip started off shaky - a brutal hangover, terrible tunnel traffic and two bathroom breaks pre-New Jersey thanks to a gigantic iced coffee (I'm nicknamed Tiny Tank for good reason). It took us over two hours just to get off the island of Manhattan and I wondered aloud if we should turn back and try again another day. Maybe I was just melancholy about leaving NYC - or apprehensive about moving to a city I have never even been to. Perhaps I was just sad to be leaving my friends and family. Whatever it was, once we hit New Jersey I handed over the wheel, crawled into the backseat with my trusty canine, and was lulled to sleep by the sounds of tropical storm-like gusts and torrential downpours. I repeat - it was a shaky start. At that point there was nowhere to go, but up. Here's what was tops from East to West:
My goal was to eat my way cross country, focusing on local, authentic fare rather than fast food or chains (with the occasional slip-up expected - I heart snack-wraps). What I didn't fully realize was that I had voluntarily started down a dangerous path of nothing, but barbecue, wild game, and Tex-Mex for the next two weeks. In retrospect, suffice it to say I am not shocked we have obesity epidemic in this country. Warning: if you are on a diet, this post will not help matters.
Our first culinary destination was Columbus, Ohio where a tribe of my family resides. While their hometown of Powell, Ohio houses Oprah's favorite ice cream, Graeter's, my savory taste buds have always ruled my roost. I headed downtown for lunch at The North Market, Columbus' only public market, which holds roughly 35 vendors of all shapes and sizes. After approximately four laps and excessive taste testing, I settled on a light lunch of ribs, brisket baked beans and coleslaw from Holy Smoke BBQ. I washed it down with freshly made lemonade from Bubbles: The Tea and Juice Company and promptly needed a nap by the pool.
For those that have not driven it border to border, Kansas is an enormously large, tirelessly flat state. There was little reason to stop other than my baby sized bladder, until we stumbled upon the Blues and BBQ Festival in Hays, Kansas. I was a tad nervous about crashing a small town festival. I knew we wouldn't blend in, New York plates notwithstanding. When a man approached us as we picked our way tentatively through the grills, smokers, coolers and tents, I thought for sure we were going to be asked to leave. "Uh, we're looking for some barbecue, sir..." I started meekly, feeling rightfully so, like a lame, out of place tourist. "Well, why didn't you say so"?! I was guided by hand towards a mound of aluminum foil trays piled high with pulled pork, beef brisket, bbq chicken, beans, coleslaw, buns, and a cooler of ice-cold beers. "Everyone is inside watching the awards ceremony, but help yourself to anything." And off he went. Stupefied and stupidly grinning ear to ear, we built ourselves a plate and ventured inside to watch the remainder of the awards. Our new friend and his team - "Rubbin' Tail n' Chuggin' Ale" - won 5th overall in the Kansas State BBQ Championship and 2nd in barbecue chicken. I thought their beef brisket was tops, with it's sweet and spicy rub and wonderfully moist meat. But I wasn't a barbecue expert - yet.
After not much great in the Great Plains, we finally caught sight of the Rocky Mountains - I've never been so relieved and excited for a change in terrain. We rolled in to Denver late and ravenous; so we headed straight to City Grille for a mountainous burger (pun intended) and some ice cold Coors (when in Rome). Though it wasn't the best burger I've ever had, it was generous in size, piled high with grilled onions and served with a pile of their 'famous' coleslaw. The atmosphere alone was worth the visit - a no fuss dive-bar with a rock-n-roll sound track, salty bartenders and hoards of hungry hipsters, some in denim tuxedos - an unexpected, yet kind of expected surprise.
After a hike around Red Rock Amphitheater and an art show in Boulder, we started our next leg of the trip through the plateau of Wyoming. Our lone stop, besides the biggest Walmart I have ever witnessed (it had it's own hair salon, optometry center and food court!), was Bernie's Burrito's in Laramie, Wyoming. We discovered Bernie's thanks to a pile of his piping hot burritos stacked at the check out register of a local gas station. Hungry and curious, we took our chances and splurged on a black bean and beef burrito, which the cashier claimed he sold hundreds of each month. With our appetite whet for more, we found our way to the storefront and filled out our order with a chicken burrito and order of tacos. Fast food this was not - fresh, vibrant Tex-Mex it was. We were happy campers:
We started eating BBQ in Powell, Ohio and didn't stop until we got to California. Don't for one second think I'm complaining. By the time I got to Wyoming, I had become quite astute in my barbecue knowledge. And the BEST we came across was at Bubba's Bar-B-Que in Jackson, Wyoming. A friend and local had recommended Bubba's, thankfully, as I would have driven right past this diner look-a-like without a second glance. What the ambiance was missing, the food more than made up for. In my professional opinion, it was their barbecue sauce that was the secret to their amazing meats: ribs, chicken, brisket. It was also the secret ingredient to their unbelievable baked beans - which I lapped up with a slice of their two-inch thick Texas toast - heavenly. It was real deal, lip smackin', rib stickin', thigh slappin' barbecue and I imagine it'll taste even better after a day on the slopes this winter.
After gorging myself on piles of red meat, I felt it would be appropriate to continue the Western theme, so we headed to the well-known Million Dollar Cowboy Bar for some live country music and swing dancing cowboys. Dressed in my most Western attire (a laughable combination of turquoise jewelry, jeans and Frye boots), I found myself the largest saddle stool there was and drank it all in (literally). I became increasingly aware that I was the only patron with both feet in the stirrups, one hand on the pommel, one hand in the air with my beer, maybe every once in a while letting out 'whoop' of joy. Eventually I relinquished my seat for one closer to the dance floor. And further from embarrassing my boyfriend. Let me tell you - if there were room in the old CRV, I would have bought myself a saddle and brought back to San Fran. How much fun would your morning cereal be with one hand in the air? Yee haw!
To ease myself off the food coma from Bubba's, I treated myself to a sticky bun and eggs benedict from The Bunnery, a breakfast institution in Jackson. The line to be seated was down the block, so we took ours to go and ate overlooking the National Elk Refuge just outside town. Though we saw no actual live elk, we saw plenty of elk chops on the menus in Wyoming (ironic for a species that has a national refuge, no?). Equally as ironic is the arch of elk antlers that are presented in the town square. My dog thought she had died and gone to doggie bone heaven:
The Bunnery's famous Very Berry Pie: a combination of straw, blue and rasp - berries.
Our next destination was Yellowstone National Park to see some wild game. Unfortunately we ended up seeing very little wildlife, so we decided to go eat it instead (sorry, PETA). We spent the night in Big Sky, Montana after we struck out finding a hotel in or near the park. Exhausted and starving (a recurring theme) our expectations were low, settling for any kind of hot meal our Best Western provided and a decent night's sleep. We hit the unintentional jackpot. The restaurant attached to our hotel, Buck's T-4, is a high end, first rate Montana establishment and our meal there was tops. Chef Todd Christensen is famous for his adventurous take on local wild game. We dove right in and started with the Buck's Sampler: house cured duck bacon, smoked trout and Montana elk carpaccio, turmeric aioli, flathead cherry compote, huckleberry grain mustard and to be spread, dipped, and covered on a crisp baguette. I tend to get shy when faced with really gamey meat, but the flavors were smooth and fresh, never overpowering. Next we cleansed our palates with a crisp heirloom tomato salad, which was served in a golden balsamic with shaved fennel, crispy basil and flakes of sea salt. After perusing their list of entrees, which sounded like a guide to the petting zoo (camp fire elk, new Zealand red deer, pheasant, bison tenderloin, walleye), we settled on their famous red deer tenderloin and the king river salmon. Much to Bambi's detriment, the red deer stole the show. Pan seared and served in a port wine butter sauce (a lovely combination of two of my most favorite things), it came over a pile of reggiano and truffle risotto and a few spears of asparagus, just to make you breath easier. Needless to say I slept soundly that evening and Buck's T-4 will see me again. That, I promise.
I thought this was so artistic, but in retrospect, fairly lame: Old Faithful Ale with Old Faithful steaming in the background:
Mr Bison, you sure are ugly, but I sure do like your meat.
Our next destination was to visit a friend and her boyfriend in Park City, Utah where unfortunately we only spent one night. Park City in the summer is perfection. Sunny days with a constant, yet gentle cool mountain breeze. Evenings mild enough and virtually insect-free to leave open screen-less windows and doors. I haven't slept so well in months. That could also be in part due to the whiskey tasting our friends gave us at their kitchen table the night before. Maybe.
The next day we set off after a leisurely breakfast in town and headed into the heat of the Nevada desert. There is not much to report about Nevada, save Reno and Vegas. I did have my first taste of Taco Time, a Taco Bell competitor out West. My official review of both the chain and the state is 'eh'. I couldn't wait to get out of Nevada.
So finally, after 3200 miles of road (we made a few detours), we entered our new home state of California. Though we were antsy to get to San Francisco, we had been on the road for 12hrs, so we decided to spend a night in Lake Tahoe. Our evening consisted of takeout Italian served out of Styrofoam containers and eaten with our hands as they forgot to include cutlery - and red wine from our hotel mugs. But with our feet firmly planted in the California sand and beautiful views of palatial Lake Tahoe, we felt deep gratitude and a sleepy sense of excitement that we had finally made it.
A special thanks to our Driver, Nike. Surprisingly well-behaved and constantly on high alert for wildlife, she made sure her driving companions were as awake as she, with her consistent canine flatulence. A most effective method.