Benefiting from increased abuse of my in-law’s mountain refuge in Show Low, Ariz., an alpine escape is never more than a two and a half hour drive from Phoenix. During the summer months especially, this translates to a welcomed contrast of 80 degrees, woodsy breezes and afternoon thunder showers, to 115 and melting.
The idea of dining out in the Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside and general White Mountain area(s) of eastern Arizona can be painful. However, after sustained homework of the region’s buffet over the years, I can now vouch for a growing selection of spots I’d declare worth a venture out for.
First, let’s be frank with what’s in abundance here. There is zero shortage of so-so BBQ in the area – meats absent of their tender intentions, under seasoned sides that taste like warming lamp leftovers, and neon-hued sauces that could incite shock. There is also no loss for hyper-Americanized Mexican restaurants, sub-par bar food (burgers, sandwiches, fried everything) and Italian restaurants that make the label “red-sauce” read endearing.
Non-comprehensive and non-exhaustive (my eyes are always open), below are eight food and drink related highlights in the area worth visiting, listed in no intentional order:
Grumpy Jake’s BBQ is a definite light in the field. In fact, this is some of the better pulled pork and beef brisket in Arizona outside of the major cities. The meats are smoked and tender, the sauce is rightfully tangy, and a range of above-average sides also help bolster this barbecue experience. Update: Grumpy Jake’s has recently come under new ownership since my last visit; menu changes reported.
2. Cafe Bocado:
In an area so defined by similarities, anything that breaks the mold deserves praise. Fresh, almost entirely homemade fare highlights a decisively upmarket eatery buzzing with local creativity. Open for breakfast, lunch and now dinner, Cafe Bocado is a well-loved neighborhood outpost for those looking for something a little more satisfying, with a little more care and personality. Hearty sandwiches and substantial salads absorb the menu’s majority, however, a rotating selection of house-made baked goods, and an upstanding selection of quiches (think airy, pillowy pies of egg and varied savories, inches thick), make for an eating experience that emerges from the local fray. The recent addition of a dinner menu continues to wow in a local climate that tends to lack. From daily pastas, fresh smoothies and vegetarian options, to fish and other meaty specials, Cafe Bocado is hands-down the best food in a radius of about 50-plus miles. Local growers Linden Market also regularly sells their organic produce at Cafe Bocado on select days of the week. Stay tuned: Full feature on Cafe Bocado coming soon.
3. Sal & Teresa’s:
For what it lacks in curb appeal and atmosphere (fluorescent illumination that makes Wal-Mart feel sultry), Sal and Teresa’s is one of the original workhorses in the vicinity serving that saucy, old-school, Sonoran-style Mexican food we native Arizonan’s grew up indoctrinated with. With small cues to New Mexican and Tex-Mex staples, Sal and Teresa’s elevates what Mexican can be locally. The chile is hotter, the flavors a bit rounder, and, despite the frothing neon-cheese, molten by salamander or microwave (hear no evil, see no evil), Sal and Teresa’s is easily the local gold-standard in south-of-the-border eating.
4: Darbi’s Cafe:
Darbi’s Cafe is tight, cozy, and, as it should be: straightforward and humble. This small cabin restaurant packs crowds for their soul-warming breakfasts, homemade baked goods and above-average casual eating. Open for lunch and dinner, it’s their sunrise menu that still earns Darbi’s its bounty of praise. Their decadent Monte Cristo sandwich will also satisfy.
5. Red Devil:
An acceptable standby for pizza in Phoenix, in Pinetop-Lakside Red Devil seems downright indulgent. A classic Americanized pizzeria – thick, doughy crust; generous helpings of strangely sweet tomato sauce; common topping combos like “the works,” and “Hawaiian,” there’s no masquerading what’s happening here. It’s pizza that middle-America loves, but done well. Red Devil is easily one of the better places to eat in the area, and the unending daily crowds help prove this sentiment.
6. Coffee Mania:
A tiny bookend at the tail of an old motor inn in downtown Show Low presents Coffee Mania, probably one of the better java spots in the area. Independently owned and operated, and full of personality, Coffee Mania imports a worthy catalog of fine coffees and teas, as well as serves a respectable range of house-made baked goods.
The acclaimed in-house restaurant at the historic La Posada Inn, in dusty Winslow, Ariz., might be an afternoon jog from Show Low, but it’s effort appropriately made. The small hotel itself, charming and pitch-perfect with airs of old Arizona, is full of surprising artwork and the regional character. The Turquoise Room, led by James Beard-nominated chef John Sharpe, does an impressive job showcasing its inherent geography, sourcing almost exclusively from independent purveyors located within the state. Though its dinner menu absorbs the majority of the restaurant’s press, breakfast and lunch are no hotel afterthoughts here. With hyper-local and intentionally seasonal offerings, from sandwiches to entrees, daily soups to desserts, The Turquoise Room presents genuinely fantastic Arizona eating. I’m always excited to return.
Located in Concho, Ariz., about a 20-minute drive north of Show Low, Red Rock Lavender Farms feels like an anomaly. After a brief guided tour, however, you once again realize how the state’s diverse topography can allow for yet another myth-buster in a procession of many – incredible Arizona wines, some of the best olive oil anywhere is made in Arizona, the bounty of fresh, organic produce grown right outside the deserts of Phoenix is astonishing, just to spout a meager few. Now, throw thriving lavender fields onto that stately pile of edible accolades. In fact, Red Rock Farms is one of the largest lavender farms in North America, benefiting from an immediate soil makeup that is apparently as nutrient spoiled as sacrosanct Provence itself. A small gift shop also exists, carrying everything from potted lavender plants to take home, essential oils and sprays to assist in sleep and relaxation, lavender-heavy items for the sole purpose of insect repellent, to yes, varied mixes for use in cooking and drinking.
As always, roundups like these are brief and never complete. More White Mountain eating on the horizon.