Can you liven up our 4180-mile I-40 road trip?
December 15, 2012 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Please suggest lunch and dinner places and maybe some shopping for a CA-AR road trip, with a detour through Texas. General advice welcome too.

We're avoiding airplanes this year and taking a road trip to see our families, friends, and the Grand Canyon (briefly). We're leaving soon.

This is mostly going to be a "gotta get there and back" trip, but I can't function on long trips without having a hot meal. I also have to stretch my legs every couple of hours and try to, uh, avoid any more trips to the lithotripsy table (if you know what I mean). Therefore, interesting places to eat and browse around are welcome. The fewer IHOPs and Wal-Marts we wind up in, the better.

All hotels are already booked, so we don't need help there.

Leg 1, Day 1: SF Bay Area -> Barstow, CA
Barstow -> Flagstaff, AZ
Flagstaff -> Albuquerque, NM
Albuquerque -> Elk City, OK
Elk City -> Fayetteville, AR (there are about 3 ways to get there, haven't picked one)

Visit family for a few days in Fayetteville.

Leg 2: Fayetteville -> El Dorado, AR.

Visit family for a few days in El Dorado.

Leg 3:
El Dorado -> Wichita Falls, TX

Visit a friend for a couple of days.

Leg 4:
WF -> Albuquerque (haven't decided which route to use to rejoin I-40)
ABQ ->Grand Canyon (I guess we'll take the eastern highway up if it's not bad weather)
Stay at the Grand Canyon (Bright Angel Lodge) a couple of nights
Grand Canyon -> Barstow, CA
Barstow, CA -> Bay Area

Phew! We haven't decided whether to buy chains yet. I've done most of this route twice before, including once in the winter, but I had an old Subaru then and now I have a new Honda Fit. I'm a little worried about the weather. As we get closer to departure time, the forecasts look less and less favorable.

We won't have much time or energy in each town that we arrive in at night, but we haven't had time to do holiday shopping and we want to squeeze some in. We are definitely planning on going to Bookman's in Flagstaff, for example. If you know of any geeky shops or good cooking supply stores along the way or in our overnight stops, please let me know! Anything else interesting would be good too. We don't have time to go far off the road, but anything right on the route could make a great brief stop.

Food recs? We like all kinds of food; we'll probably get more barbecue and Southern food and hamburgers than we can eat in Arkansas, but if you have an amazing recommendation for those, that's fine too.

Also, jewelry stops? A few years ago, somewhere in NM or AZ, we hit some random "trading post" (I know) that was in the middle of nowhere. All I remember is that it had a frybread taco stand in the driveway and they actually had clip earrings, and I got a pair of really pretty signed opal flower earrings. If you know of a place that seems better than others or you happen to know has clips, that would be great.
posted by wintersweet to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I made that trip 20 years ago. I remember the carne adovada, I know it was in New Mexico, but don't remember where. These guys have recommendations, though. The other best things we did were Canyon de Chelly and the Petrified Forest, way better than the Grand Canyon.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:36 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Albuquerque calling:

Dinner: Most people want to eat New Mexican when they come through here. Unfortunately, the best New Mexican restaurants usually have a wait at dinner time. If this is what you want anyway, Sadie’s and Los Cuates are both really good. If you’re in the mood for something else, Il Vicino has good thin crust pizza, Saggio’s has thick crust. My favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese is ABC (ask for the blue menu). Street Food Asia is good and fun. Ezra’s is in a bowling alley and has a chef who worked at Chez Panisse. If you want something upscale, Artichoke and Season’s are both good.

Breakfast: I like the Range, which has both good chile and good coffee (most places have one or the other). All of the Garcia’s locations have good New Mexican food (and weak coffee). The Frontier is famous and the food is pretty good (actually, the carne adovada is excellent), but also weak coffee. Gold Street Caffe is a more upscale place.

Jewelry: My spouse swears by Ooh Aah.

Also, check out for all your locations.
posted by gteffertz at 7:39 PM on December 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Flagstaff is a cool little town to walk around and stretch your legs. (Don't forget that there will likely be snow on the ground! Sometimes crazy blizzard conditions on I-40 too)

Check out the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, if just to check out the kitsch in the lobby. Their food is not so great; hit up a Blake's Lotaburger along the way for a snack (green chile burger of course).

Pay homage to the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo.

I found the TX-OK route particularly challenging for food and interesting things to see. I mostly fired up Tripadvisor or Yelp and searched for "bbq".
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:58 PM on December 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is a large Vietnamese community in Oklahoma City, which means *great* pho places, all not far from I-40. Take your pick.
posted by colin_l at 8:23 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had (and have) a Honda Fit and did a Denver winter in it without buying chains or winter tires because I'm from the south (and also an idiot) and didn't know there were such things. However, I wasn't going through the mountains or anything, just interstate/highway driving. It can handle up to a certain amount of snow just fine, generally speaking, but I'd seriously consider chains if you're making the run in January. I had snowstorms pop up on me in June along that route.

I've also done several chunks of that drive in my Fit and never had problems more-or-less, barring sudden weather (for example, it wasn't the car's fault that I got caught in a mountain pass just as a nasty blizzard spun up in the middle of summer or that a nasty sandstorm kicked up as we buzzed across the desert).

Since you're going in winter, it shouldn't get that hot, but just be warned a lot of the rolling hills of New Mexico and Arizona can make it rough on that little car with a lot of weight in it, don't push it too much.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:48 PM on December 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know, I'm kind of worried about snow! Last time we got lucky -- just enough to take photos and throw a little at each other at a rest stop, but not enough to cause any problems. I don't want to get stranded in AZ. We'll probably try to buy chains tomorrow. After all, we'll undoubtedly go to Yosemite again in the future, as well as other places where they might be needed.

I'm really hoping to avoid BBQ because all the best food in AR is BBQ and catfish. We'll see what we can do. I guess pho may be a welcome change after 3 days of road food :) I'm surrounded by pho places here in CA -- I wonder if it's different. (Come to think of it, I wonder if there are good pho places in Fort Smith if we ever actually went through, instead of around, it when going down to El Dorado.)

Elk City looks really dire in terms of dinner. I'm guessing we'll have to have dinner in Amarillo. (No, I do not want to go to the Big Texan Steak Ranch, Tony Bourdain or not!)

Thanks so far :)
posted by wintersweet at 9:43 PM on December 15, 2012

Blue Angel cabins are really cute. If you get up super early you might see huge elk walking around the place just before dawn. But the Arizona Room restaurant nearby is not so good. Long wait since it's one of the only places open for dinner. We enjoyed our camping food with a bottle of wine at one of the camp tables more so maybe plan to bring some picnic food you like into the Grand Canyon. If it's warm enough you really want to eat outside or enjoy a cup of instant hot chocolate if it's cold while you stare into the canyon.

I'll second that Flagstaff is really cool with lots of great options. We enjoyed Diablo Burger downtown.

I'll also second Frontier in Albuquerque for diner breakfast. We also had a great dinner at Lucia, in the hotel Andaluz where we stayed. It was a pretty cool historic hotel with an awesome lobby bar with free live music.

I know it's off your list but if for some reason you find yourself in Taos go to La Cueva a tiny hole in the wall that was by far the BEST food we had on our TX NM AZ road trip a few months ago. Cheap and out of this world yummy.

Also not on your list but sort of nearby depending on your route: Tulsa has lots of fun food. The Coney I-lander for hot dogs and old Route 66-ness and I remember fun stuff along Cherry Street. There's awesome art deco buildings there and some really fabulous road signs.

Also maybe out of the way but if you're driving by Caprock Canyons in Texas it's really awesome how the road going through there just DROPS off all the sudden and you're no longer on a prairie you're in a canyon. Palo Duro Canyon is also really cool.

Have fun! Such beautiful places along your route. Hard to not be blown away by how lovely the country is there.
posted by dog food sugar at 3:06 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ask your Wichita Falls friend to take you to Casa Mañana downtown for some really good Mexican food.
posted by tamitang at 1:11 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Albuquerque again: I forgot the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, right in my neighborhood. Even if you don't see the museum, they have good jewelry in the gift shop and great food in the restaurant (Pueblo food had many similarities to Mexican).
posted by gteffertz at 8:02 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone! We'll look into visiting a good grocery store before we go up to the Grand Canyon (and I've been to Petrified Forest before; really looking forward to visiting the GC once! We will be able to see other parts of the Southwest eventually since we live in CA). We won't have time for other detours like Caprock, but duly noted for the future.

And we did buy chains ("good ones," apparently). I hope we don't need them.
posted by wintersweet at 9:56 AM on December 17, 2012

One more thing: if you're heading East on 64 out of Grand Canyon National Park towards 89 there's a Navajo craft market just outside of the park on the North side of the road that's a good stop. I liked the jewelry and it was a cool place to stop because there are these like starter canyons that just cut into the land there and it's beautiful in it's own way. Not the GRAND Canyon but some pretty AWESOME canyons there. Striking landscape.
posted by dog food sugar at 3:27 PM on December 17, 2012

Overly Detailed, Belated Update for anyone else with a similar trip in mind: There was a ton of snow during the whole trip, but we were lucky and didn't have to drive on it. Arizona, you have your problems but I salute your armada of snowplows! (The highways were almost entirely ice-free despite our passing through the morning after a storm.) Because of the snow and extreme cold in most of the places we passed through, our eating choices wound up being restricted by a desire to not travel too far! We enjoyed eating at Pizza Furiosa in Flagstaff, for example, which was very close to our hotel.

Bright Angel had its pluses and minuses, and we missed out on most of the wildlife, but the Grand Canyon was a good experience. I definitely wouldn't want to go there in the summer when it's even more crowded. The food at the GC wasn't too bad given what I'd been given to expect. We got to see a lot of the Canyon because things melted a little on the second day, though we hardly went below the rim due to a distinct lack of interest in slipping on ice and snow. Hopi House had some of the nicest art and jewelry we saw on the trip, oddly enough. I realized that I really like Zuni jewelry. (We had to take 64 up and back to the GC, no 89/Desert View. Next time -- there are a couple of places I want to stop, including a scenic overlook that my dad remembers from decades ago and I was able to find via Google.) Anyway, staying in a cabin is a good choice, and breakfast or lunch at the El Tovar shouldn't be missed.

In ABQ, we ate at the Frontier, Flying Star (twice), and Garcia's. I'd recommend the latter two more, though the Frontier was definitely an interesting local experience and the prices were good (plus the carne adovada was pretty good, too). We didn't make it to the Cultural Center although it was near where we were staying. Next time.

We stopped in Tucumcari due to intense curiosity about Mesalands Community College Dinosaur Museum. This thing is AWESOME and you need to see it. They have fossils I've never seen before in my life, plus they own their own bronze foundry so they have more life-size bronze replicas than any dozen other museums! (We didn't have time to drive past The World's Tallest Classroom Museum nearby.) This didn't leave us enough time for our planned lunch stop, so we hit a Blake's Lottaburger in the town. It took forever (oops) but it was pretty good. Later, we tried a Whattaburger in Arkansas (due to the huge storm there, we weren't able to hit our usual stop of Boulevard Bread Co. in Little Rock.). It was also pretty good, despite the random religious propaganda. I almost never eat burgers or fast food, but anything goes in a pinch on road trips.

We stopped for a late lunch one day at El Metate Tamale Factory in Gallup, which is in a residential neighborhood. The guy was like "You found us on Yelp, huh?" and I was like "..." Hahaha. Clearly, pre-Yelp it didn't have a lot of random, casual visitors. Nice guy though. Good regular tamales. I don't recommend the fruit ones despite Yelp's inexplicable enthusiasm for them. They tasted ... peculiar.

We found the jewelry stop we were remembering. It's Chee's in Arizona.

We went to the Hickory House in Sapulpa, OK, for a BBQ buffet lunch on a long day of driving (I know, we said no BBQ). There we experienced smoked bologna, supposedly invented in OK (look, I wouldn't be surprised). It was tastier than it should have been.

My Wichita Falls friend was adamantly opposed to Casa Mañana, sorry! We cooked together and went to Hibiscus Cafe, a surprisingly good Greek place. We went shopping at Alley Cat Collective and Three Dog Book, a combined vintage/secondhand/novelty/used book shop which is pretty cool, and saw the Littlest Skyscraper and the Falls (ha).

On the way to from WF we passed through Muenster, which is apparently a town that was founded by Germans. Since it was New Year's Day, I wasn't expecting any bakeries to be open, but Bayer's Kolonialwaren (attached to a gas station) was! I got an apple-cheese strudel the size of my thigh. I would have bought more but I knew a chocolate birthday cake was waiting for me at my friend's house. Man, that strudel was delicious. I regret/am relieved that this town isn't closer to me. I think we drove past a brewery, too.

We missed Cadillac Ranch because it was a late night, but I've seen it before.

So many people told me (in person) "oh, what a boring drive" but a) I don't think so; for the most part I enjoy the landscape and b) boring is fine; it's better than exciting for things like plane flights and long drives! We had some excitement in the form of a pebble assaulting our windshield, and trying to find help wasn't very much fun. (Verdict: Watchful waiting.)

We took 99 rather than 5 back into the Bay Area and stopped at Kingsburg, where I learned that I like brunost ("gjetost"). Other decent California eating included Moo Creamery in Bakersfield (creative menu, quality ingredients, very recommended for a quick stop or a full meal even if you're not into bacon sundaes and Asian tacos), Juicy's in Needles (desperation stop--like all Needles stops, really--which turned out to be a pretty good diner, very friendly; just don't buy gas at this exit), and Lola's in Barstow (right across from our cheap and friendly motel).

At some other random-as-heck place in AZ, I think called Aliberto's, I ordered a taco plate only to find it was crispy tacos, which I didn't expect as a default from a place selling Mexican CDs next to the register. Oh well, it's not like they're not tasty too. I just didn't need more fried food in my diet at that point.

At any rate, good trip and thanks for the advice--I have some ideas for next time! Pics forthcoming on my Flickr account...
posted by wintersweet at 11:42 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

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