Road Trip! Suggested eats and roadside attractions?
December 16, 2013 3:26 PM   Subscribe

It appears as though my wife and I will be driving from Toronto, Canada to San Diego between Christmas and New Year's because that's what life presents you with sometimes. We're on a timetable so we can't stop at every cool thing, but it would be nice to find some scenic spots and local chow that isn't Denny's. Route and other details inside.

We'll probably be taking a pretty southerly route to try to steer clear of winter weather. Right now, looking at Google Maps, that looks like crossing the border at Detroit, taking I-69 and I-70 through Indiana and Illinois, I-44 from the Mississippi to Oklahoma City, I-40 across to Arizona to I-8 on into San Diego. So the bigger cities we would pass include:

-St. Louis
-Springfield, MI

We could use tips on the following, in order of priority:
1) Locally-owned and awesome restaurants, not so corporate (though we're open to Regional chains that are worth checking out)
2) Pieces of local scenery or culture that aren't too far off the beaten path but that our GPS won't point us to. Places to stretch our legs. Nothing that would take more than an hour to appreciate. Already looking at Roadside America.
3) Roads to avoid in December (we're open to course corrections)
4) Other road trip survival strategies. We've done several, but not for a couple of years, and only a couple of multi-day trips. We usually load up on podcasts. So we may not be up on the latest hacks.

Any and all advice appreciated!!
posted by dry white toast to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Road Food!

Always the first place I search. Also, searching various cities en route along with "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" can often produce a fun pig-out spot or watering hole.

Looks like you're going to be on Route 66, so there should be plenty of sites that have a top-10 stops lists, and such.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:30 PM on December 16, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry, that should be Springfied, MO. You Americans with your similar abbreviations and many towns named Springfield.
posted by dry white toast at 3:34 PM on December 16, 2013

In St. Louis, you will want to stop at Ted Drewes for frozen custard. Yes, even in the middle of winter. Trust me. (Go to the location on Chippewa; the Grand Ave. location is only open in the summer.)
posted by scody at 3:37 PM on December 16, 2013

Any particular reason you're taking the 40 from Albuquerque to Flagstaff and then to Phoenix instead of heading down to the 10 and switching to the 8 in AZ? You only save a half hour going 40 to the 15, and then you're really not touching the 8 at all. I think the 8/10 route may be a bit more reliably snow-free, although I've driven the 40 a couple days after a big snowstorm and it was *mostly* clear. There were some areas of sketchiness around the continental divide, and getting off the freeway in Gallup and Flagstaff was dicey (for someone from SoCal).
posted by LionIndex at 3:41 PM on December 16, 2013

The only one of those I'm at all familiar with is Albuquerque, and I am going to very strongly recommend you stop and get some green chili somewhere. It's ridiculously difficult to find it outside of a few southwestern states, and I have no earthly idea why it hasn't caught on elsewhere.

My personal favorite place there is Frontier, but be forewarned that this is a huge, cafeteria style restaurant near the campus, so it's not exactly a fine dining experience. Especially if you go in the evenings, expect some drunks, college students, and drunk college students.

If you prefer a slightly more genteel experience, Roper's is a little nicer, and has regular table service.

And if you pass a panaderia, stop in and stock up on some baked goods for the drive. I can't remember the names of any of the ones I've gone to, but I've been to a lot of them, and none have been bad.

Just to note, Albuquerque does have regular nice restaurants (and if it's American or Mexican cuisine, they'll almost always have green chili). I just don't know them well, because when I go there, I'm always busy trying to fit in as many dives as possible.
posted by ernielundquist at 4:00 PM on December 16, 2013

Also in St. Louis: Pappy's is a must if you enjoy BBQ.
posted by TwoStride at 5:33 PM on December 16, 2013

The I-40 corridor from eastern New Mexico to about 60 miles west of Flagstaff is all at a higher altitude; you'll be ranging from 4500 to 7000 feet. This can mean some pretty cold weather, but if there's no storm going through, the roads will be fine. However, if a storm does go through, it could mean the highways shut down. Be cognizant of that, and have a plan to go further south if there's any significant storm that's going to be coming through (and of course keep tabs on the weather along the route.) Fair warning - if you re-route through Dallas to I-20 and I-10, you're going to go through a very, very long very desolate stretch; west Texas is not a fun drive.

If you're able to go through, then there's a few places to hit up. In New Mexico, someone mentioned green chile, and I would give that motion a second - but try the red too! There's a chain in NM called Blake's Lotaburger that makes fantastic and cheap green chile cheeseburgers. Once you hit Arizona, there's the Petrified Forest/Painted Desert, which you can make a pretty quick trip of and then get back to I-40. In Holbrook, just west of there, you can stop at Joe & Aggie's Cafe for some good Mexican food, and then drive down old 66 heading west out of town and see the Wigwam Motel as you go past. West of there, you can stop outside of Joseph City and find the giant jackrabbit (of the "Here It Is" yellow sign fame.) In Winslow, if you're so inclined, you can stop by and take a picture at the Standing on a Corner Park on old 66. If you're looking to stay the night you can check out the La Posada Hotel, a restored Fred Harvey railroad hotel. Flagstaff isn't really a destination so much as it is a hub so you won't find too much to do there.

Heading south out of Flagstaff, instead of taking I-17, you can take 89A south and go through Sedona. If you're looking for a place to stay, there's plenty there, including our old go-to Oak Creek Terrace (although we haven't been up there in 12 years.) Reasonable (for Sedona) rates with fireplaces and jacuzzis in some rooms. It's a quick hop back to I-17 from there.

South on I-17 can be kind of nuts, particularly when you're getting into the Phoenix area, so be careful there. There really isn't a lot outstanding along the way to Yuma. I'm assuming that you're going to go through Buckeye and take AZ-85 south, saving yourself an hour or more, and then catching I-8 at Gila Bend. Then it's two hours to Yuma, with not much happening. You can, however, stop in Dateland for a date shake. The drive from Yuma is not terribly exciting or scenic (save for the sand dunes) until you get about 45 minutes outside of San Diego.

A couple of important tips for driving out west - first, keep plenty of water on hand. Even if it's cold, it can be very, very dry, especially at altitude, and you can dehydrate quicker than you think. Plus, if you find yourself in the unfortunate predicament of being broke down, it can be a couple of hours or more before the tow truck shows up, and you don't want to be without something to drink during that time. 3 or 4 gallons is not too much, trust me.

Next, don't let your gas get too low. There are stretches out here where there's a long way between gas stations. If your gas tank is below a quarter you've let it go too far. This is especially true if you end up doing the west Texas run.

Last - pack sunscreen for any activities you do along the way. Even in the winter the sun can do a number on you.

If for whatever reason you end up in Tucson, which isn't that far away, well, our Mexican food can beat up other cities' Mexican food :) Be safe, have fun, and if you want any other alternate routes that won't eat up too much time, I can oblige.
posted by azpenguin at 5:35 PM on December 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not that long ago, I too drove from Indianapolis to San Diego, following the same route you will be. In general, we worked out of three or four different editions of Roadfood (the different editions include and omit different places -- sometimes a good place will be omitted just for variety even if it's still open and still good), with some help from Yelp!

A few thoughts, proceeding from northeast to southwest:

We had very good barbeque at Buckingham's in Springfield. You could probably do better in theory, but it was really very good -- much better than it looks from the outside.

Tulsa is surprisingly nice. We had good Mexican food for breakfast at Cancun.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial is really beautiful and moving, and was an utter surprise to us. If, like most of us, you do not have any other trips to Oklahoma City planned, this is one of the things that's worth one of your scarce 20-minute stops on your long drive.

In a little shack right off the interstate, you will find Jigg's Smokehouse, which has some of the best, most intense, smoked jerky I've ever had.

We had very bad luck in Amarillo, and the clerk at one bbq joint gave me my food while urging me to get out of town ("don't stay long, now!").

Garcia's Kitchen in Albuquerque was the best restaurant we ate in on the entire trip. All of the New Mexican diners I've been to have been at least decent, but this one was really delicious.

The one other sightseeing stop I'd consider is Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona -- it's not far from the I-40, which you'll be taking anyway, and you can drive through the park from end to end so you don't lose that much time. It probably adds about 40 minutes of driving to your trip, plus 20-40 minutes getting out of the car looking at things. I wouldn't put this in the same rank as the Oklahoma City Memorial, but it was still really cool -- even more so if you aren't that familiar with the southwestern national parks. If you do go, my favorite stops in the park were Newspaper Rock, The Teepes, and Crystal Forest.

Have fun!
posted by willbaude at 6:33 PM on December 16, 2013

If you pass any of the scenic parking areas while going through the desert, give 'em a few minutes of your time. They're not really off the beaten path, but they're beautiful.
posted by clango at 6:22 AM on December 17, 2013

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