We had planned a trip to Pinche Tacos (apologies if you are a Spanish speaker. It’s their name) in Denver with our colleagues and friends Chad and Danielle but Chad had already been to Pinche Tacos. Since they are Denver locals and since I had not eaten since Winslow, Az 30 something hours ago, I was persuaded to change the venue. I did insist that Chad pick someplace noteworthy and off-beat. He did not disappoint with Root Down. As he discussed it, early on a Sunday morning, Danielle opened her eyes and exclaimed “I’m up!, I’m up.” She wanted in too.
Even the name is off-beat. With a name like “Root Down” I imagined some kind of eclectic, skater-face-feed where the dudes munch down or root down on great food. It wasn’t that at all. In fact, it was kind of “Duh.”
With an Image the Meaning of Root Down is Obvious
Apparently Root Down is the kind of place where local ingredients like Radishes from the Pecos Street Community Garden are put to good, creative use.
Root Down Aims to Connect the Neighborhood to the Dining Experience
Even the architecture of the building screams creativity.
Comfy & Quirky; and Perfect in Denver
We had a 40 minute wait but were not disappointed with our meals. After a bit of the bottom-less Blood Orange Mimosas (virgin for me), we decided to use a modified Chinese – Family Style dining system and all have a bit of everything.
The Darker Virgin Blood Orange Juice and the Bottomless Blood Orange Mimosa Catch the Sunlight and Shout "Drink Me!"
The first dish out was a unique take on Egg’s Benedict: A Hollandaise & Balsamic Drizzle over Smoked Duck and Caramelized Onion all resting on a cherry waffle.
Smoked Duck Benedict with a Balsamic Hollandaise
It was delicious and a good conversation piece. The next item was another riff on the Eggs Benedict theme: The Root Down. I had never seen a Quinoa English Muffin, and with Mrs. P Chef and Little P Chef being Gluten-Free, I was in on that one dimension alone; but then there was also Iberico Cheese and a Sun-Dried Tomato Hollandaise Sauce. Taking a Mother Sauce to the next level is almost always an interesting idea.
Quinoa English Muffins in The Root Down
Next up was Chad’s Choice: a Pulled Pork Omelette with Smoke Mozzarella, Charred Scallion Sauce, Lime Crème Fraîche and pickled Habaneros. I was very glad we were sharing.
The Pulled Pork Omelette with Greens and Some Savory Potatoes
On the fork, the dish that played well in the mind, suffered slightly. For me, the pulled pork was a bit too sweet and sharp to perfectly compliment the eggs. It was as though it was trying a little too hard to be different and not trying hard enough to be fabulous. Finally, came Danielle’s favorite: The Veggie Burger Sliders.
The Veggie Sliders Did Not Perform as Danielle Remembered Them
At the first bite, Danielle’s look of anticipation turned to disappointment. They had CHANGED the slider of her dreams. And she wasn’t wrong. Apparently, the topping was switched out from a Tomato Jam on her last visit to a jalapeno spread this time. She was very unhappy about it. As for us, the veggie slider was just run-of-the-mill, not day-wrecking. Vegetarian Slider aside, the experience was a good one, as much for the vibe and hip crowd, as for the distinctive food. Thanks Chad and Danielle for the suggestion, the friendship, the visit and the business.
I love a story that begins with an obscure, colorful lead-in such as ”They have been making whiskey here since a buffalo charged the old still” or “It was on fire when I stopped by,” and now I have one of those lead-ins of my own.
A Navajo-Churro sheep herder over in Cortez, Colorado mentioned The Turquoise Room back in 2010. On the Summer Food Drive that year, we visited Cindy Dvergsten of Arriola Sunshine Farm near Cortez to learn more about her breeding and raising the Heritage Breed of Navajo-Churro Sheep.
Cindy Feeds her flock of spring sheared Navajo Churro Sheep
Un-Sheared and Un-Polled, the 400 Year Old Breed Looks Much More “Heritage!”
A Heritage Navajo Churro Ram. Thanks to the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association for the photo.
Cindy was really informative and we had a great time. On the visit she mentioned that a place down in Winslow, Az, The Turquoise Room, occasionally served Navajo Churro Sheep on their menu. The idea struck me as incongruous at the time because all I could recall of Winslow was a small sun-blasted town, where the “Girl My Lord in the flat bed Ford” slowed down and then they all took “It easy.” Because of that iconic musical imagery and some of my own drive-bys, I couldn’t imagine a fine dining restaurant in Winslow, but nevertheless I filed The Turquoise Room away for further exploration.
So the first stop on the 2012 Summer Food Drive was The Turquoise Room, which is located inside the historic, 1930 La Posada Hotel. Driving into town in the Smart-Kitchen-Mobile, I was again struck by the.., the…, the “sleepiness” of the town. Whatever else it might be, Winslow is the kind of place where you can take a picture of the empty main drag (from the middle of said main drag) at 6.30 PM on a Friday night without worrying (too much) about frenetic traffic.
Winslow can be Slow, which is a Win in our book
After months in big cities, I loved it, but became even more skeptical about finding a beacon of fine dining nearby, one which showcased Native American and heritage ingredients. I was wrong to worry.
If you can’t tell from the image above, the Route 66 in Winslow has seen better days. In a form of visual history, The La Posada remains vibrant, close-by the Santa Fe Pacific’s railroad depot, long after the other thriving businesses have moved on.
It's a Good Sign
Similar to many a modern downtown, where most of the business activity has followed the consumer to the Interstate and the suburbs, the old part of Winslow, the 1904 to 1930 part is shuttered and sleepy, except for The La Posada. With its new-age, hacienda style, the La Posada would be at home in the ritziest Southwestern neighborhoods. Things were looking up.
The La Posada has a high-end, new-age vibe worthy of Santa Fe, Taos, or Sedona
The La Posada was one of the last great railroad hotels built along the route of the Chicago to Los Angeles limited: The Super Chief.
1937 Super Chief Provided Service from the Windy City to the Coast. Thanks to Trainweb.org for the photo.
The La Posada was a destination stop and winter vacation spot. The food operations were run by the legendary restaurateur Fred Harvey and his Fred Harvey Girls (the staff uniforms are still “Harvey-esque.”) It continued to thrive as Americans explored Route 66 but with the advent of the freeway system business fell off and the hotel was closed. The building was used for a time as offices for the railroad until it was completely shuttered and eventually sold off.
Luckily, it was purchased and the great old bones were lovingly restored. As the hostess, who advised me to skip the “light lunch” and wait for the full dinner put it, “It feels like your not in Winslow.” She was succinct and had good advice. I had an interesting amble around the 65,000 sq. ft. La Posada while waiting for The Turquoise Room to close from light lunch and re-open for the full dinner at 5 PM.
Newcastle chef, John Sharpe (and his wife Patricia) moved from Orange County, Ca. in 2000 and opened The Turquoise Room, named for the dining car on the 1936 Super Chief. John was intrigued by the history of the hotel and the possibilities of cooking Fred Harvey-style retro dishes with a modern twist using local Southwestern and Native American ingredients like the 3 Sisters: Corn, Squash & Beans. Some of those ingredients are sourced right on site because The Turquoise Room buys Corn, Diné Squash and Runner Beans (when they come in) from the hotel garden.
The Garden at the La Posada; Gourmet and Native American
He has done a great job with the concept and serves 2,000 meals a week. In 2011, he was nominated for a James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest and in 2009 Condé Nast Taveler Magazine gave The Turquoise Room a 96.9 (the 2nd highest score in the U.S.). I had a chance to speak with John briefly and part of his approach is a subtle marriage of the concepts of the Mediterranean Cooking of Southwestern France with the native cooking of the Southwest. Where the French would do a white Lingot Bean cassoulet, Native Americans would have made a Tepary Bean (white bean) chili stew. Since we only eat at our stops and it was 24 hours since my last meal, I was very curious to explore John’s take on the dishes.
Don't Look at these too Long or You Might Be Loading Up for a Long Ride to the Turquoise Room
My appetizer was a Fried Squash Blossom that bordered on being a Tamale. Sweet Corn pudding on the inside was a great contrast (texture and flavor) to the crispy, crunchy, flash-fried slightly-sweet, beer/corn battered, Squash Blossom. It was worth the 200 odd mile drive and almost worth the $40 price of John’s cookbook. A side note, if you are interested in buying The Turquoise Room cookbook buy it from John’s Turquoise Room’s Website. It is $94 on Amazon. I will be working on my own version, Gluten-Free (for Mrs. P Chef) this summer.
Wafer Thin and a Threat to Your Airway If You Are Not Careful
The Squash Blossoms were followed by a real traditional Native dish, Hopi Piki Bread, made from the ash of hand-ground Hopi Reservation Blue Corn. After several unsuccessful attempts (it is not easy to make the wafer thin bread from a milky batter comprised of water and ashes), John asked Joyce Saufkie of Second Mesa to make Piki Bread for him. Her Piki Bread has a texture like burnt paper, (or like single layers of Phyllo Dough) and a clean bland taste not unlike a rice cracker. I’d put the Piki Bread in the category of “lite” and “interesting.” They eat a bit like a tiramisu, in that, bits of them fly off and try to choke you like the espresso from the Italian dessert. If any experts want to correct my technique, I am game by the way. The Hopi-style, Bad-Dap-Suki Hummus is made with white Tepary Beans grown by the Tohono O’odham.
While I waited for the entrée, the Navajo Churro Sampler, I watched the well-dressed couples drinking and playing croquet on the track-side lawn. It wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine that it was 1936 and I was waiting for the Super Chief after a restful vacation. Today the Amtrak still comes in from the coast @ 8PM every evening, if it’s on time, noted the hostess. I was in a pre-digital mood as I waited for the sampler of locally-raised, heritage, Navajo Churro lamb.
Churro Posole, Churro Medallion and Churro Verde Tamale
I was expecting a gamier meat and was prepared for it but was pleasantly surprised to find that the Navajo Churro was less sharp than regular lamb. I expect this was, in large part, a function of its preparation in a Posole and a Tamale Verde. The 6 oz. unvarnished, well-cooked, (medium) medallion was my favorite. It gave an straightforward taste of the rolling, richer flavor of the Navajo Churro. There was also some elk sausage thrown in for good measure.
Prickly Pear Bread Pudding
Around this time, I was glad I hadn’t eaten in a day and still had room for a taste of the Prickly Pear Bread Pudding. At Smart Kitchen we do a Prickly Pear Picking Party (P4) in the fall because the Prickly Pear Cactus is one of our only truly “local” ingredients in the desert. We are always looking for new ways to experiment with the red “Tuna” fruit or the green “Nopales” paddles. If you have a psychology degree you may be able to see through the preceding as a “rationalization.”
After a 2 year wait, the visit to The Turquoise Room fed the body, mind and soul. If you are interested in award-winning food, history, Native American Culture or all three, I’d stop by when you are playing “King of the Road” on old Route 66.
Locals Brave the 112° Heat for One Thing: Produce!
You go away for a little bit and things change. Luckily, in this instance, they changed for the better. SK Chef & I did a drop by at the nine week old North Scottsdale Farmers Market and were impressed by the turnout, the hospitality and the desert produce.
N. Scottsdale's Air Conditioned Produce Mart
Air conditioning the Produce Mart at a desert farmer’s market doesn’t hurt either. For the AC and in other ways this new Farmers Market is really emblematic of the current times in the Southwest. Vacant real estate, sweltering heat, and novel uses of both to get something growing that serves locriculture, health and foodies can only be a plus. Le Bon Temps Roulet!
We found it interesting to learn how many local farmers existed in, what to all appearances at least, is a suburban desert environment. We were also impressed at the fruits (literally) of their labors. Peaches, Egg Plants, Lettuce, all were looking good.We also had the chance there to reconnect with Cedar Mulligan of Alaskan Pride Seafoods and met a new local farmer: Lila of Simple Farms off of Cactus.
We also got to speak with Merissa Vazquez, the Director of Marketing for the North Scottsdale Farmers Market and one of its founders. She says response has been terrific and that they have a great relationship with the landlord so we don’t need to worry about the market’s longevity. Look for some future posts from the Farmer’s Market, maybe even some ideas from our pending share in a local CSA.
If you want to check out the North Scottsdale Farmers Market it is held Saturday mornings at 9400 E. Shea Blvd. It might look like a rave but its really just a foodie’s party.
The Locavore or Locriculture movement may be on the ropes, if large food producers and the Federal Government succeed in imposing new, stringent reporting requirements on the little guy. Small Farmers fear that costly regulation and enforcement will erode their meager profits and drive them from the business they are so passionate about. It would be a shame to force family farms from the market place just as the public is coming to appreciate the health and taste benefits of eating local. There is some hope in that the bill may be tailored to allow the amount of regulations to match the volume of crops produced. As of this writing, it is believed that the final bill will exempt farms selling produce directly to consumers from their own farm stands, which while beneficial won’t cover farmers delivering, in small quantities, to your favorite, sustainable and locally conscience restaurants. P Chef