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.
Un-Sheared and Un-Polled, the 400 Year Old Breed Looks Much More “Heritage!”
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.
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.
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 was one of the last great railroad hotels built along the route of the Chicago to Los Angeles limited: The Super Chief.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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