By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1999 Gourmet Magazine
Route 66 never had an official name like the Ozark Trail or the Merritt Parkway. Mapped out in 1926 as a federal highway that would run diagonally, rather than the typical north-south or east-west, it connected Chicago to the California sea, and as history was made along its two thousand miles, it gained pop-culture status as America’s Main Street. It promised hinterland adventure to pioneering automobilists in the 1920s, then became the escape route for Dust Bowl refugees in the 1930s, whose story John Steinbeck told (in The Grapes of Wrath) as a trip down “the mother road, the road of flight.” It was a highway of hope for World War II veterans heading west to seek their futures—among them Bobby Troup, who wrote the song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66″—and it offered a rite-of-passage joyride during the hey-day of tail fins and drive-ins.
Much of historic Route 66 is gone now, superseded by Interstate 40. But there are still kicks galore to be had, particularly through the charged scenery of the Southwest, from the neon corridor of Central Avenue in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the knotty-pine dining room of the venerable Old Smoky’s Restaurant in Williams, Arizona, the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon.” We consider this stretch of highway to be the tenderloin of Route 66: the juiciest part for its awesome natural splendors juxtaposed with roadside ballyhoo and intriguing pop-cultural debris. Here you encounter garish trading posts of tribal kitsch nestled under stunning rock mesas, come-hither bill-boards looming up in turquoise skies, and crumbling sections of the old road-bed that lead nowhere but into the past. About the Albuquerque-to-Arizona trek, Jack D. Rittenhouse’s Guide Book to
Highway 66 (the first 66 handbook, published in 1946) exclaimed, “Now truly you are in a fabulous land.”
However, eating well along 66 can be a challenge. Mr. Rittenhouse’s guidebook lamented the preponderance of small-town dives serving “only chili, sandwiches, pie, coffee,” and it is still possible to have memorably inferior meals in the sort of rude cafés that once gave Roadfood a bad name. The culinary highlights that follow resonate with the full flavor of the historic highway. While some may be rough around the edges, each serves the kind of good food that makes us euphoric to be motorvating west of the Rio Grande Valley.
Breakfast at THE FRONTIER RESTAURANT in Albuquerque is a gas. Located on Old Route 66 across from the University of New Mexico, it is a twenty-eight year old mess hall, open round the clock. Wait in line until a green light flashes, indicating someone is ready to take your order. “Bingo!” the counter-man calls as our turn comes, and two minutes later the food is ready for us to carry to a table. The famous Frontier cinnamon sweet roll is warm and gooey with a margarine-sugar glaze; the breakfast burrito is a lovely tan flour tortilla encasing scrambled eggs, melted cheese, hash browns, and hot green chiles. Dine under a collection of John Wayne portraits, antique rifles, steer horns, and paintings of bold stallions.
Route 66 West winds past the front door of the estimable Man’s Hat Shop (haberdasher to those seeking the quintessential cowboy look) and LINDY’S COFFEE SHOP, a Central Avenue fixture since 1929. At Lindy’ s, travelers in a hurry can grab a ready-wrapped “hand-held breakfast burrito” (chile, cheese, bacon, eggs, and hash browns) from the crockpot near the cash register. It is said that Muhammad Ali once came here and devoured a bowl of red chili.
Albuquerque has two esteemed drug-stores that lunch-counter connoisseurs shouldn’t miss. THE MODEL PHARMACY, a few blocks north of the Mother Road, offers a ladylike chicken walnut salad and an exquisite green-chile stew that is vegetable-sweet and chile-hot. Three or four cobblers are made every day—chunky geological strata of flaky crust atop syrupy, tender pieces of apricot, peach, blackberry, or a mix thereof, served warm and, if you wish, a la mode. Model also has a fully equipped fountain and an expert staff that can blend all manner of soda, float, split, malt, rickey, ade, and egg cream. Combine the mixological talent with a modern espresso machine and you get an unforgettable espresso shake.
In the open kitchen of DURAN CENTRAL PHARMACY, a woman wielding a wooden dowel rolls out rounds of dough into broad flour tortillas. Cooked on the grill opposite the counter, the flatbreads puff up and blister golden brown. They come on the side of most lunches, including the impressive Thursday-only came adovada. Tortillas are also used to wrap hamburgers and as the base for quesadillas. We like them best as a dunk for Duran’s conclusive red or green chili, available either plain (nothing but chiles and spice) or ballasted with ground beef, beans, or potatoes. The green is hugely flavorful, spicy and satisfying with an earthy character; the red tastes like desert air and sunshine turned to manna in a bowl.
The best native New Mexican food in Albuquerque is made at M & J SANITARY TORTILLA FACTORY, across from the bus station. The aroma of corn perfumes the air of the big dining room, where stucco walls are decked with religious icons, garlic bulbs, and love notes sent by devoted customers. The tortilla chips (also sold by the bag) are served with fiery salsa. Parchment-thin taco shells are griddle-cooked to a toasty zest, and soft blue-corn tortillas are rolled around cheese, chile, and onions for blue-corn enchiladas. Service is nearly instantaneous (Ray the waiter apologizes for the ninety-second wait we endure after receiving menus), and capacious iced-tea and water pitchers are on every table so customers can help themselves to refills as soon as their tongues catch fire.
One customer, who hobbles in on crutches, then takes a long lunch hour to peacefully devour a blue-corn enchilada plate with a brace of tamales on the side, mops the last of his grease-free refritos with a shred of sopaipilla (the golden fry bread that accompanies meals) and announces to the world, “I sure did need that! I was running on empty.”
EL NORTE&O is more old Mexican than New, with a menu that includes cabrito al horno (oven-roasted young goat), classic barbacoa (spice-simmered beef), and a superb chicken mole poblano. Salsas are a specialty. For dipping chips or spooning over puerco al pastor (tender pork chunks seasoned with eleven herbs), there is chunky guacamole; pico de gallo; salsas of tomatillo, habanero, tomate fresco; and a fascinating “guacachile,” which is avocado-smooth and chile-hot. The restaurant is a charming retreat a few blocks from Route 66; it is run by the Nufiez family. Leopoldo and his daughter, Monica, who work the dining room, are terribly amused when we start asking questions about the salsas. “You are tourists?” they ask with a happy grin, delighted to host strangers. Monica brings us a jar of El Norteflo habanero mayonnaise to sample, but she is unable to twist off the sealed cap. With our help, it is opened—and it is divine.
Western New Mexico is American Indian land, and the towns along Route 66 have long been trading centers for native people (opportunities for travelers to buy authentic crafts abound). Veering off I-40 onto the old, two-lane Route 66 toward Laguna, we found PUEBLO KITCHEN, a minuscule café in the middle of nowhere that is open for breakfast and lunch. As we stood at the kitchen counter early one morning and ordered huevos rancheros and the Pueblo Special (eggs, bacon, and sausage in a folded-over puff of kettle-hot fry bread), we noticed three cooling pies: pumpkin, lattice-crusted cherry, and double-crusted apple. “Grandma makes those,” said a man who introduced himself as Armando. “She picks the apples from her tree.” It was a grand breakfast—with two slices of grandma’s pie for dessert.
In Gallup, the locals congregate at EARL’S, a something-for-everyone coffee shop with Mexican and American food, breakfast all day, and a renowned open-faced chili burger plate. On the walkway from the parking lot, Native Americans sell handmade jewelry. THE EAGLE CAFE, a serene spot adjacent to the venerable Richardson’s Trading Post, offers a more focused meal: lamb stew. There are lots of other things on the menu, but it’s the lamb you’ll remember. A stark dish with hominy and spuds on the side, it is little more than a bowlful of seasoned meat, much of it still on the bone, soft and tender and rich as cream. To work through it at the ancient porcelain counter in this long, rectangular café—with its pea-green walls and beveled mirrors that look like something from an Edward Hopper painting—while the Santa Fe train blares past is an unequivocal Route 66 experience.
A talk-radio station sets the tone at Gallup’s NAVAJO CHIEF CAFE. The talk is indecipherable Navajo, interspersed on occasion with the English avowal, “All Navajo, All the Time.” That pretty much goes for the menu, too, which lists slices of deliciously peppery roast mutton served on fry bread, an aboriginal mutton and posole stew that is shockingly bland but hearty, and servings of blue-corn mush reminiscent of lavender-tinted Cream of Wheat. For dessert, you can spoon into a serving of fig rice. Among the more accessible local specialties are chicharrones (deep-fried pork nuggets) and red chili con came. As we paid our tab, chef and proprietor Phil Padilla reminded us to write our name and address on the receipt and put it in the barrel to make ourselves eligible for the upcoming lottery, whose lucky winner will take home a whole sheep.
The pickin’s get slim on the original Route 66 in Arizona, but we love the cherry cider they make at the JACK RABBIT TRADING POST, an old-time tourist attraction in Joseph City, where you can also stock up on rubber tomahawks, lucky key chains, and candy rocks. For those of refined palate, Flagstaff is an oasis in the culinary desert, with French fare at CHEZ MARC and satisfying New American fare at MARC’S CAFE AMERICAIN, as well as outstanding coffee and pastries at the two branches of LATE FOR THE TRAIN. When headed west and appetites begin to rumble for a good and true Route 66 meal, we hold out until Williams, where the last remaining stretch of the old road was finally decertified in 1984 and where hungry travelers can choose between a flawless meat-and-potatoes dinner at ROD’S STEAK HOUSE (recommended by Duncan Hines over forty years ago) or a three-high stack of hotcakes at OLD SMOKY’S RESTAURANT.
Old Smoky’s is a blast from roadsides past: a cozy, wood-paneled pancake house where locals and travelers rub elbows at the counter or sip coffee and exchange news over the backs of well-worn booths. Open from 6 A.M. until 1:30 in the afternoon, it has a small lunch menu that includes chile cheeseburgers and bowls of homemade chili topped with biscuits, but it’s breakfast—served anytime—that we adore. Select your toast from five kinds of homemade yeast bread (including a seductively swirly Cheddar wheat) or have excellent French toast. There are fourteen flavors of sweet bread, honest buttermilk or buckwheat pancakes, and a Billy Hatcher red-chile, cheese, and bean omelet (named for the former major leaguer who came from Williams).
Beyond such exemplary short-order fare, what endears us to Old Smoky’s is its true family atmosphere. We were led to a booth by Ashley, the nine-year-old niece of one of the waitresses, who brought coffee and advised us that the chicken-fried steak was her personal favorite breakfast. Meanwhile, her grandmother sat at the counter discussing the current low price of cranberries with a waitress, and her aunt chatted about a major detour on Highway 40 with a couple of truckers who were regulars on this route. We were strangers, but we were drawn into conversations, and before we knew it we had put away about a dozen cups of coffee between us and the morning was mostly gone. It was just the sort of genial café experience that makes the Route 66 road trip a necessary course for any Roadfood scholar.
Chez Marc (permanently closed)
503 Humphreys Street
The Eagle Cafe
El Norteno (permanently closed)
6416 Zuni SE
Jack Rabbit Trading Post
Late for the Train
M&J Sanitary Tortilla Factory
801 South Milton
Navajo Chief Cafe (permanently closed)
815 East Route 66
Old Smoky’s Restaurant (permanently closed)
624 West Route 66
Pueblo Kitchen (permanently closed)
1-40, Exit 114 (Route 66)
New Laguna, NM
Rod’s Steak House