When we hit Needles the other day, the temperature had just begun to slacken from its 125-degree high, but an hour after dusk the thermometer outside the motel lobby still read a balmy 122, and the cold water out of the tap in the bathroom was hot enough to leave a red mark on your wrist. You can technically roast meat at 125 degrees (some of those technologically inclined Spanish guys do), and a prime rib or a pork belly roasted at that temperature would come out juicy and delicious. Still, 125 degrees is not a good temperature for human beings. Midsummer may not be the most intelligent season to tour old Route 66.
But by the time we reached the Flagstaff plateau, away from the melting snowbirds and into the cheerful world of Grand Canyon tourism, the temperature on the bank time/temperature signs read a more reasonable 102 and the faded pre-franchise diners gave way to Indian trinket stands. We had entered the highways Enchilada Belt, a distinct contrast with the Bad Cheeseburger Belt behind us and the Brown Gravy Belt to come.
In enchilada country, which reaches from eastern Arizona roughly to where the Texas Panhandle begins to ease into Oklahoma, hamburgers come topped with green chile, you can usually get the fry-bread called sopapillas with your meal instead of tortillas, and the town café is likely to have chiles rellenos and tamales on its menu alongside the pot roast and chicken-fried steak. You will often run into the Enchilada Belt wonder known as the cheese crisp, basically a deep-fried flour tortilla sprinkled with cheese and chiles, then broiled until the disk attains a bubbly consistency that the devil would be proud to claim as his own. Beans are the grainy, well-fried kind that could double as mortar. The basic unit of consumption is the combination plate, usually including some arrangement of enchiladas, tacos and the egg-cup-size tostadas called chalupas loosely bound together with a slurry of chile and melted cheese. In and around the Albuquerque buckle of the Enchilada Belt, there is of course a choice of dusky red or sneaky-hot green chile on your combination plate (or on your cheese crisp for that matter), and even red or green chile in bowls, but even there, the chiles are likely to be subservient to the cheese. It is a great swatch of the country devoted to something like the Number Two Dinner at El Coyote. I can attest that when traveling this section of Route 66, it is possible, maybe even probable, that a reasonably hungry person may eat enchiladas six or seven days in a row.
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As brilliant as Route 66 may have been as a highway before it was replaced by the boring I-40, it is even more magnificent as a marketing concept. Route 66 is commercialism turned back on itself, self-feeding nostalgia for an era when self-promotion meant plastering your logo on 83 roadside signs, building your curio shop in the shape of a tepee or erecting plaster dinosaurs in front of your establishment; for a time when travel meant talking to the local eccentric who owned the towns diner rather than barking takeout orders in a drive-thru line. (I must confess, though: After gallons of weak diner coffee, I was awfully happy to run across the Starbucks in Flagstaff.) The only thing easier to buy on Route 66 than a Navajo blanket or a chunk of petrified wood is a T-shirt or a postcard branded with the logo of Route 66 itself.
We ate Lotaburgers at the New Mexico chain Blakes Lotaburger oversize, meaty things that tasted a lot like In-n-Out burgers laced with hot green chiles. We had something called a Hot Hamburger in the architecture-geek mecca Bartlesville, Oklahoma (a longish detour from Route 66), and the massive, gravy-drenched pile of toast, hamburger meat, grilled onions and hand-cut French fries couldnt have contrasted more strongly with Frank Lloyd Wrights slender, elegant Price Tower downtown. We had chicken-fried steak, chicken-fried chicken, and something that I think was supposed to be a chicken-fried pork chop, although it was hard to tell if there was actually any meat under all that breading at all. But mostly we ate enchilada dinners, and the best of all, at Joe and Aggies Café, a splendid third-generation restaurant in what passes for downtown Holbrook, were so good that we ended up eating their enchiladas again for breakfast the next morning after we spent the night sleeping in a plaster wigwam in a motel court just down the road.
You want me to smile? the waitress asked the old guy at the booth behind ours at Joe and Aggies. Honey, I smile once a day, when I look at myself in the mirror in the morning. Youre just out of luck.
Joe and Aggies Café, 120 W. Hopi Drive, Holbrook, Arizona; (928) 524-6540. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$16. Recommended dishes: cheese crisps with green chile, enchiladas.