1. Southern Utah is an area of more rock formations than people, where the microwaved cinnamon roll at the Holiday Inn Express may be as good as it’s going to get all day. So it is not extravagant to suggest that Mom’s Café may have the best food within a 150-mile drive of Salina, Utah — the only competition, at least going east on I-40, is gas-pump beef jerky, and there must be a law somewhere banning spices even on that. So you will sit facing the signed photograph of Ashley Judd, and you will eat hamburgers and blackberry pie, because, as everybody knows, it is easier to find the cooking of Mongolian nomads in Los Angeles than it is to find an honest slice. If you’re slightly more ambitious, you can try the overtenderized chicken-fried steak or the chicken-and-dumpling soup, both of which are more or less up to the standards of Midwestern cafeterias. But the real draw at Mom’s is the fresh, hot scones, which in Utah are not the genteel British pastries but hot pucks of slightly sweetened fried dough, similar to New Mexican sopapillas and as big around as 45s. With your scone, you will be given a bottle of honey butter whose long list of ingredients contains neither honey nor butter. Sconetastic!
2. Denver would seem to have all the essentials to be a wonderful restaurant town. Rents are lowish, at least outside downtown. A lot of the locally grown meat and produce are organic and spectacular — the Boulder Farmers Market is amazing the few months of the year that it bothers to open. And the urban residents are affluent and open-minded — the same confluence of overeducated misfits and hippie agriculture is what jump-started the Berkeley scene in the 1970s. But the chefly creativity must all flow toward microbrew and granola, because aside from Frasca out in Boulder, which, weirdly enough, may be the best Italian restaurant in America, Denver restaurants tend toward the formula of big meat and precious vegetables, beer on tap and cheap liquor. But neither New York nor Los Angeles has a restaurant like Z Cuisine, in the Lower Highlands neighborhood across the Platte from downtown. It’s not going to make it onto anybody’s list of life-changing cuisine — it is long on personality and feels like a backwater place in an obscure Parisian neighborhood where the irascible chef has been treading the same ground since the late 1940s — yet the menu changes with the morning’s market, and the foie gras, cassoulet, braised lamb shoulder and rustic plum tart taste as if they come not from cookbooks but from lived experience. There’s a killer list of bistro wines, too. I know nothing about chef Patrick Du Pays — if it turns out he’s a 23-year-old CIA grad with a nose ring, I don’t want to hear about it.
3. It’s not strictly true that I drove 250 miles out of the way just for a shot at the green-chile cheeseburger at Bobcat Bite: I also wanted to hang out for a bit at the Focus on the Family citadel in Colorado Springs to see what the Dobsonites might be saying about Palin family values. (Not much, as it turns out.) But I’d been hearing about the roadhouse outside Santa Fe for what seems like half my life — friends of mine actually had their wedding reception there, which is saying a lot for a burger joint — and as delightful as defrosted Hatch chiles can be on a hamburger in the spring, they are even better fresh at the height of season in a part of the country that understands how to cook them. Most of the green-chile cheeseburgers I have inhaled in New Mexico were of a type — chopped chiles and cheese and condiments pressed into an unholy goop, blanketing the patty with ooze — but the ones at Bobcat Bite were almost of a different, superior species: Ten ounces of beefy ground chuck, grilled black yet a perfect medium rare, cloaked with semiliquid cheese and topped with a solid quarter-inch of diced roasted chiles whose sharply vegetal semicrispness cut right through the richness of the meat. Is there pie for dessert? There is not. The line is long and the restaurant closes at 7:50 sharp.
4. Los Angeles, it is well-known, fairly bursts with Thai restaurants of every sort, many of them pretty good. But the cooking at Lotus of Siam, the Las Vegas love child of former Renu Nakorn proprietors Bill and Saipin Chutima, is still a few ticks ahead of the northern and northeastern-style Thai restaurants in California: not just for the crying tiger beef, pork jerky and crispy rice salad that made Saipin famous when she cooked them in Norwalk, for the epochal grilled shrimp or the perfect plate of ripe mango with salted sticky rice — but for her improvisations totally within the context of Thai cooking, such as slippery, complexly spiced pad kee mao noodles with roasted sea bass; a crackly-skinned duck in panang curry touched with a few drops of cognac; or a bowl of Chiang Mai–style khao soi noodles focused on an extraordinary, meltingly tender slab of coconut-braised beef. A strip-mall Thai restaurant is an unusual place to find a great wine list, but the endless roster of German and Austrian vintages is one of the deepest and best in America.
5. During the week, American Flatbread bakes the organic, sustainable pizzas you might have seen in freezer cases at Whole Foods. On Fridays, the assembly line converts into a restaurant where almost everything passes into and out of the enormous, igloo-shaped wood oven, and the whisper-thin flatbread, the “Porkfolio” charcuterie plate and the soupe au pistou made with fresh shell beans are wonders to behold. As everybody around here will remind you, this is Sideways country, and the wine list is stuffed with ultra-allocated small-producer bottles from the surrounding hills.
6. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, you can spend most of a day grooving with the pulsating jellyfish or staring into the million-gallon tank that houses sharks, tuna and silvery schools of sardines. Then you can go downstairs to Portola, a white-tablecloth dining room, and plow through an impeccably prepared dinner of squid, sardines and abalone from the very bay that the dining room overlooks: not bad for a museum restaurant. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the source of those Seafood Watch wallet cards that rate fish as Best Choices, Good Alternatives or Avoid, depending on the strength and ecological soundness of the fishery, and this is probably the one restaurant in California where you don’t have to interrogate the waiters on the provenance of the cod. Unfortunately, the restaurant serves dinner only in the summer; sorry about that.
7. Strong organic coffee, omelets made with local Gorgonzola, eggs scrambled with smoked salmon, a blackberry compote that might tempt you to abandon California for Ashland, Oregon, without leaving a forwarding address — Morning Glory is one of the essential breakfast spots in the Pacific Northwest. It is usually sprinkled with enough cast members from the town’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival to let theatergoers eavesdrop on gossip about the production of Othello they may have seen the night before. The lemon-ricotta French toast is legendary; so are the oatmeal pancakes. But what draws me to Ashland whenever I find myself passing through the great State of Jefferson is the possibility of devouring a bacon waffle with a side of applewood-smoked bacon. If there were a way to get bacon into the coffee, I’d probably do that too.
8. Pok Pok is one of those fanatic’s restaurants, an old Portland house converted into a shrine to Thai street food, a temple of sticky fish-sauce glazes, grilled things on skewers and immoderate chile heat, roast game hens and fish-sauce chicken wings and grilled boar collar with iced mustard greens, mostly prepared with local organic meat and vegetables. The ice water is flavored with whole pandan leaves that curl around the inside of the pitcher, and the beverage list is in large part made up of whiskies and flavored fruit vinegars. Karen Brooks of the Oregonian named the place the restaurant of the year in 2007, but you get the feeling that Andy Ricker, the mastermind, would be just as happy cooking for himself — it’s what Zuni Café would be like if Judy Rodgers had spent her junior year of high school in Chiang Mai instead of Burgundy.
American Flatbread, 225 W. Bell St., Los Alamos, CA, (805) 344-4400.
Bobcat Bite, 420 Old Las Vegas Hwy., Santa Fe, NM, (505) 983-5319.
Lotus of Siam, 953 E. Sahara Rd., Las Vegas, NV, (702) 735-3033.
Mom’s Café, 10 E. Main St., Salina, UT, (435) 529-3921.
Morning Glory, 1149 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland, OR, (541) 488-8636.
Pok Pok, 3227 S.E. Division St., Portland, OR, (503) 232-1387.
Portola Restaurant at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA, (831) 648-4870.
Z Cuisine, 2239 W. 30th Ave., Denver, CO, (303) 477-1111.