At Paradise Cove

A story and a few photos.

I was driving down the California coast, looking for a place to stop for breakfast — preferably with a view of the ocean — when I saw a sign for Paradise Cove. I followed the arrow down a narrow road that wound down to the ocean. There was a right turn into a trailer park, but if I went straight, I’d end up in a parking lot on the ocean. A sign warned that parking was $20, but only $3 if you got your parking ticket validated in the restaurant and stayed for less than 4 hours. Ahead of me was a funky little oceanfront restaurant with a handful of cars parked in front of it. I drove through the gate and parked.

The Paradise Cove Beach CafeAnd went inside the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe.

It was a typical seaside restaurant — the kind you can imagine filled with people in bathing suits, eating fried clams, with sand and flip-flops on their feet. (That’s my east coast seaside experience talking.) But that Saturday morning was partly cloudy and unseasonably cool for southern California. The main dining room was empty. I was escorted into a kind of sundeck room with big windows facing the ocean. Although all the window tables were full, the waiter kindly sat me at a huge table nearby, where I could enjoy the view as well as the activity going on around me.

I checked out the menu, eager for a big, hot breakfast. I didn’t plan to eat again until after my flight arrived in Phoenix later that evening. Some items on the menu interested me, but it was the eggs benedict I asked the waiter about.

“Are they good?” There’s nothing worse than bad eggs benedict when you’re expecting decent eggs benedict.

“Very good,” he assured me.

I settled down to wait for my breakfast. There was nothing much going on outside the window. Gulls flying around, a few people walking out on the obligatory but short pier. It was mostly dark and cloudy over the ocean, but the sun was breaking through here and there. I watched my fellow diners get their breakfasts delivered. Everything looked outrageously good.

When my breakfast arrived, it looked good. On the plate were two eggs benedict, a good sized portion of roasted potatoes, and some melon slices. I nibbled a potato. It was cooked to perfection. And then I tasted the eggs benedict.

I’ve had eggs benedict in a lot of places — including a lot of fancy and expensive hotel restaurants. But these eggs benedict were the best I’d ever had in my life. It may have been the fact that the eggs were cooked perfectly — whites cooked, yolks still runny. Or the fact that the english muffins beneath them were fresh and not over-toasted. But it was probably because the hollandaise sauce was light and airy and obviously freshly prepared from scratch — not some thick yellow crap from a mix.

You like eggs benedict? Go on out to the Paradise Cove Cafe in Malibu and get some.

I was just finishing up my breakfast when a man about my age came in with two elderly ladies. They got a table by the window near where I was sitting. I watched them, trying not to look obvious about it, recognizing something about them. It came to me slowly. He was the grandson taking his grandmother and her friend out to breakfast.

They reminded me so much of all the times I’d taken my grandmother out to breakfast. This may have been because the woman had the same New York accent my grandmother had. She also spoke rather loudly, had trouble hearing her grandson, and asked the waiter all kinds of questions. She was concerned about whether she’d have to pay for a refill of her “mocha” — a simple mix of coffee and hot chocolate prepared by the waiter. She praised the waiter extensively about how well he’d prepared that mocha for her. The other woman was quieter but seemed to have the same accent. The grandson was attentive but, on more than one occasion, obviously embarrassed.

I knew exactly how he felt.

Before I left, I got up to say hello to them. I discovered that the women were from the Bronx — the same area as my grandmother. The quiet woman was the grandmother’s sister. She complemented me on the way my blue earrings made my eyes look bluer. I could easily have chatted with them all day.

Up the CoastAfterwards, I went outside and took a walk on the pier. I took a photo looking up the coast (shown here) and another looking down the coast (shown below). Amazing that these two photos were taken only moments apart, isn’t it? But the weather was variable and moving quickly. A huge storm front was moving into southern California that would dump rain on the low elevations and snow on the higher ones.

Paradise Cove and places like it are part of the reason I like to travel alone. When you’re traveling with companions, every stop has to be debated and measured. No one ever wants to say, “Let’s stop here and check it out,” because no one wants to be responsible if the place turns out to be rat hole. As a result, opportunities to visit interesting places are missed. Instead, a trip is a long string of predetermined “must see” places, visited one after another with few spontaneous stops along the way.

Down the CoastThere was magic at the Paradise Cove Cafe — at least for me that morning. If I’d been with someone else — someone anxious to eat breakfast before starting the drive or satisfied with a chain restaurant for a meal — I would have missed that magic.

I also would have missed out on photo opportunities. When I’m on the road by myself, I stop more often to look at what’s around me and, if I can, take pictures. On this particular Saturday, all I had with me was my little Nikon CoolPix point-and-shoot, but I put it to good use. The weather was a mixture of thick clouds and blue sky. It was the kind of place and day that calls out to photographers. The photos I’m able to include with this blog entry will help me remember this day. (I even took a stealth photo of the grandson/grandmother/aunt outing with my Treo, although I won’t publish it here.)

Anyway, I walked back to my rental car, fired it up, and paid my $3 parking fee on the way out. It had been well worth the money.

The Wayside Inn is Open

Stop in for a hamburger in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve written about the Wayside Inn before in this blog. In my post, creatively titled “The Wayside Inn,” I go into a lot of detail about the place and a visit there by helicopter back in 2003. You might find that piece interesting reading if you enjoy long, rambling stories about my helicopter travels. (Some people do.)

The short version is that the Wayside Inn is a small trailer park with a restaurant in the desert about 5 miles south of Alamo Lake. It’s accessible from Wickenburg and the rest of the world by two routes: the 40+ mile long dirt road that starts near Date Creek off Highway 93 or the combination of paved and dirt roads starting in Wendon (on Highway 60) and stretching to Alamo Lake. There’s another road from the north and I have no idea where it starts, but I do know that when the lake is full, the road is under water.

You can get an idea of its remoteness by this Google satellite image, which also includes Wickenburg. The red X is the Wayside:

The Wayside Inn on a Satellite Image

The Wayside Inn has been a destination for pilots for quite a while. It has a landing strip, but the strip has been left to get overgrown with bushes and weeds and is not maintained. So instead, pilots just land on the dirt road in front of the place. I’ll admit that there aren’t many pilots who do this. It’s mostly the folks who fly taildraggers and aren’t afraid of landing on something that isn’t a real runway. And helicopter pilots, of course.

About a year ago, the Wayside Inn burned down. I didn’t know the details, but had noticed that the building was missing when I flew from Wickenburg to Las Vegas last November. The building was simply gone.

But a few weeks ago, I saw a flyer up in Ed’s hangar. Ed is the local aircraft mechanic and he does some of my engine work, including oil changes. The flyer announced that the Wayside had reopened. I put it back on my mental list of places to go for a quick bite to eat in the middle of nowhere.

On Sunday, October 19, I had an opportunity to check the place out. I was taking a video guy and a journalist along on my Southwest Circle Helicopter Adventure. Another video guy would be meeting us in Sedona. We had a few hours to kill before we were due to arrive at Sedona Airport. I figured that a stop a the Wayside would kill some time without taking us too far from our course.

So I flew us out there. The journalist took this photo as I made my approach to landing. I set down on the big triangular area at the crossroads, across the main road from the trailer park.

Landing at the Wayside Inn

The old building had been replaced with a double-wide manufactured building. Inside, the layout was much the same as the old building had been: bar, tables, pool tables, and a limited amount of groceries and fishing supplies for sale. All of the Polaroids of fishermen and their fish were gone. The drop ceiling panels were decorated with good-luck dollar bills signed by patrons. Before we left, we added one to the collection.

The video guy interviewed the owner of the place. Turns out, he’d bought the place right before the fire had burned it to the ground. After the interview, he made us breakfast. When it was time to leave, he rode his ATV out to the helicopter with us while his dog rode on the back and asked my journalist friend why she hadn’t eaten her bacon. (She’s a recovering vegetarian.)

We’d stopped in for just about an hour. The meal was good, the price was reasonable. The atmosphere was pure Arizona “remote.”

If you’re ever out by Alamo Lake and want to stop for a bite to eat, I hope you’ll look for the Wayside Inn. If you stop in, tell them that Maria in the red helicopter sent you.

Christmas Off-the-Grid, Part II

Photography, dinner, and more photography at the Grand Canyon.

We closed up the shed and headed out to the Grand Canyon at around 4 PM. We’d wanted to get an earlier start to do some hiking along the rim, but it had taken too long to troubleshoot and fix our water problem.

I should mention here that last year when we came to Howard Mesa for Christmas, the water pipes were broken. Mike spent the entire first day and half of the second day finding and repairing broken pipes. Since then, we’ve replaced the PVC with copper. But it seems like there’s always something to fix up here. It’s part of the place’s charm, I guess. Mike doesn’t seem to mind. And in my mind, nothing could be as bad as the mouse problem we’d had, which forced me to start every visit here with a 2-hour cleaning job.

The Grand Canyon is a 40-minute drive from our place. About 1/3 of that time is spent just driving the five miles from our place to pavement. (Not an easy task, as there was more mud and the pickup did a lot of fishtailing on certain parts of the road.) The rest is on SR 64, a two-lane road that stretches from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon. The speed limit on the road is 65 MPH for most of its distance, but because there’s only one lane in each direction for most of the way, it’s pretty common to get caught behind slower vehicles. They added some passing lanes clearly marked with signs that say, “Keep right except to pass,” but since everyone is more important than everyone else, no one moves over to the right. So you basically have to pass on the right.

We were heading toward the canyon at about the same time someone who had left Phoenix earlier in the day for a leisurely drive up there would be arriving, so there was a surprising number of people on the road.

Grand Canyon Wide AngleInside the park, we got a parking spot in the small lot right near El Tovar, where we’d be eating dinner with friends. The hotel is right on the Rim, so we spent some time out on the pathway there, looking into the canyon as the sun was dipping ever lower into the southwestern sky. I played around with my fisheye lens — this was the first time I’d had a chance to use it at the Canyon — and got an interesting shot that includes the snow all around on the Rim.

It was cold. There wasn’t much wind, but the breeze contributed some wind chill to the situation. I don’t own a good winter coat anymore — I’d rather avoid the cold than buy special clothing for it — so I didn’t want to spend much time outdoors.

We went into Hopi House for a short while. This used to be one of the nicer gift shops at the Canyon, a place where everything was high quality. Somewhere along the line, Xanterra (which runs the park concession) had decided to add the kind of tourist crap you can find in most other gift shops there, especially t-shirts, hats, and sweatshirts that say “Grand Canyon” on them and a lot of fake Indian-style dolls, statues, rugs, etc. The good stuff — including a wonderful selection of Native American handmade jewelry — is still in the gallery upstairs, and we made the climb to see it all.

Grand Canyon MoonriseAfterwards, we came out for another peek into the canyon and were rewarded with a view of the newly risen full moon inching into the sky over the north rim. I snapped a few photos of it, but was too cold (or lazy?) to set up my tripod and do it properly, so the shots I took with my 200mm lens aren’t as clear as they could be.

We met our friends inside the hotel. We were booked for the private dining room just to the left of the hostess desk at the restaurant entrance. We’d eaten there the previous year for Christmas Eve. It had been just six of us last year: Mike, me, our two friends, and his parents. A quiet dinner. This year there were ten of us; our friends had invited six of their friends. The rectangular table in the small room was filled to capacity.

Our waiter was excellent. Extremely professional, full of advice, attentive to most details. The food was very good, too — although not as good as I remember from our early days visiting El Tovar 20 or so years ago. (I know: things change.) Conversation was relatively interesting, too. It was a nice meal. The only thing that marred it was when it was time to pay the bill; certain members of the party didn’t chip in their fair share and Mike and I and our friends wound up making up the difference, paying about three times as much as some other members of our party. I know we drank, but we didn’t drink that much.

Christmas TreeAfter stopping for some photos inside the hotel lobby where a tall Christmas tree stretched up to the second floor, we stepped outside and walked back to the Rim. The moonlight was shining brightly down into the canyon, casting shadows that defined the rock walls. It was a beautiful scene, but one my camera couldn’t seem to capture properly. (I really need to play around a bit more with the bracketing feature.)

I’ve been at the Grand Canyon many times at night. If there’s no moon, you can look down into the canyon from the Rim and not see a single detail at all. It’s like a black abyss that could be a hundred miles deep. But add some moonlight and you get a completely different picture. This is part of what makes the Canyon such a special place. Different lighting conditions can completely change the experience.

Hopi House at NightSince I was out there with my tripod, I took a few moments to photograph Hopi House and El Tovar. Hopi House was especially festive with its [electric] luminarias.

El Tovar at NightIt was after 9:30 PM and it wasn’t very cold at all. The wind had died down and the air was crisp and dry. There wasn’t anyone around except us. That made good conditions for taking these photos. They create the illusion that the historic buildings along the Rim are private, special places. In reality, during the day, these places are mobbed with tourists and it would be nearly impossible to photograph them without including a few people in each shot.

We drove back to Howard Mesa in the full moonlight. There were few cars on the road.

As I opened the gate on our driveway, I noted that all the mud was frozen solid.

It was warm and cosy inside the camping shed and even more so under the covers in bed.

A Tale of Three Meals — Not!

My software ate my blog entry.

Yesterday morning, I spent about an hour writing a blog post about three very different meals I had while down in the Casa Grande, AZ area for the Copperstate Fly-In. The entry was finished and about to be posted when the software I use to compose my blog entires — ecto — started acting weird. I saved the blog entry — I know I did — and quit the software to clear out memory. When I restarted the software, the blog entry was gone.

I really hate when that happens.

Although the entry included my usual long and rambling stories and descriptions, I can summarize it in three bullet points:

  • Kai, the restaurant at the Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa, offers possibly the best service I’ve ever received in a restaurant. And the food is good, too. It was an incredible and very memorable dining experience. But the cost? Well, let’s just say we won’t be eating there too often.
  • Mr. K’s Food & Spirits at the Casa Grande Holiday Inn had absolutely terrible service and inedible food. I wouldn’t eat there if I was paid to eat there — primarily because I couldn’t eat what they put in front of me. It’s also difficult to eat without silverware, which is apparently only provided on request.
  • Chili’s, a nationwide chain restaurant, reminded me why people go to chain restaurants: because they know exactly what they’re going to get. No surprises or ruined meals a la Mr. K’s. Although I generally don’t like to eat in chain restaurants — I like to support the independents — it’s good to have some level of confidence when you go to a restaurant, especially when the previous night’s experience was such a disaster.

You’re not likely to read the whole story of our experiences here. It’s difficult for me to rewrite something from scratch. And once I’ve written something, it’s filed away as far as my brain is concerned.

But let’s face it: do you need to read yet another blog post with one of my long and rambling tales?

Maybe you should just consider yourself lucky that ecto sent the post to digital heaven before it got online.

A Helicopter Ferry Flight with a Special Guest

I learn a little about the world from a pilot friend.

I flew my helicopter down to Williams Gateway airport in Chandler yesterday. I need to have some work done on it and that’s where my Robinson mechanic, Kelly, is based. It’s about a 45-minute flight from Wickenburg. Although it’s a lot more pleasant to fly in the morning this time of year, the plan was to work until 3 PM on my Leopard book, fly down there, get picked up by Mike, have dinner in an interesting restaurant, and drive back together.

Company for the Flight

Sometime earlier in the day (just as my office was really heating up with the air conditioning broken), I got the bright idea to see if Alta was home and wanted to come with me for the flight.

Alta had flown with me once before from Chandler Airport, back in the days when I was working on my commercial ticket and was leasing my little R22 back to the flight school. I’d drive down on a Friday and fly for an hour or two with my instructor, then leave my car at the airport and fly the helicopter home. On Monday, I’d fly the helicopter back to Chandler, fly with an instructor for an hour or two, and drive home. Alta accompanied me on one of my flights — I think it was a drive to Chandler/fly to Wickenburg day.

Alta is a flight engineer on 747s. She’s in her early 60s now and works for a charter operation that does mostly freight. Her schedule keeps her out of Wickenburg a lot of the time, which she doesn’t mind very much because, like me, she sees its limitations and needs more out of life. She travels frequently to China and countries that used to be part of the USSR. She occasionally sends postcards of these weird places and I post them on my refrigerator for months on end, wondering what it would be like to actually visit them myself. She’s good company because she’s not only a good listener — which everyone appreciates — but once you get her talking, she’s full of interesting stories.

But because she’s out of town so much, I was very surprised when I called her at home and she answered. I told her what I had in mind and she said she’d be happy to come along.

Delays at Home

The air conditioning guy was supposed to show up at 11:30 AM. He actually showed up at 2:30 PM. In Wickenburg, being 3 hours late is not even considered late. In fact, I considered myself lucky that he came the same day I called. I’m still waiting for the screen guys and I’ve already crossed two landscapers, a builder, a carpet guy, and two painters off my list. (If these can’t return repeated phone calls, they certainly won’t get my business.)

But what was really lucky about the whole thing is that the problem was just a blown capacitor on our 10-year-old heat pump unit. So the entire repair, with service call and diagnostics, was only $150. That compares favorably with the $1,400 we expected to pay for a new unit plus installation.

And today I’ll be comfortable in my office while I work.

Of course the late arrival of the repair guy made me late. I was supposed to stop at a neighbor’s house to try to fix her printer (don’t ask) on my way to the airport. But I didn’t get out of the house until 3:15. So I had to blow that off and expect to apologize profusely about it today. When I got to the airport, Alta was there, waiting for me. I don’t have her cell phone number — I’m not even sure if she has one — so I couldn’t call to tell her I’d be late. (When I called her house, she was already gone.)

The Flight Down

Alta accompanied me to the hanger and kept me company while I preflighted, threw my door in the back, and pulled the helicopter out to the fuel pumps. Alta used to work for me when I had the FBO at Wickenburg Airport. She was one of my best people because she understood what I was trying to do there and had the right attitude about the work. I filled her in on airport gossip as I fueled the helicopter. Then we unhitched it from the towbar, put the cart in the hangar on its charger, and walked back out to the helicopter. It was 3:45 when I finally started the engine.

It was hot. 106°F on the ramp. My door was off, but that didn’t do enough to cool us down. By the time the engine was warmed up — very quickly, I might add — we were both dripping. I made a radio call, picked up, and made a textbook departure down the taxiway parallel to runway 5 with a turnout over the golf course to the southeast

It was a typical late summer afternoon: hazy, hot, and humid. Back in New York, they call that a 3-H day. But in New York, the big H is for humid; in Arizona, it’s for hot. The humidity was only 20-30%, but with surface temperatures in the sun approaching 140°F, it really doesn’t matter how humid it is. Anyone outside will suffer.

With my door off, there was just enough air circulating in the cabin to dry the sweat on our bodies, thus keeping us cool. I’d brought along two bottles of cold water and I sucked mine down. Dehydration is a real issue in Arizona, especially in the summer.

There was enough wind and thermal activity to keep the flight from being smooth. So we bumped along at 700 feet AGL, making a beeline for Camelback Mountain. My usual route is to pass just north of Camelback and east of the Loop 101 freeway, thus threading my way between controlled airspaces so I don’t have to talk to any towers until I get to Williams Gateway.

But as I approached the Metro Center mall on I-17 I thought I’d take Alta down Central Avenue through Phoenix. That meant talking to the tower at Sky Harbor. I dialed in the ATIS, listened to the recording, and then switched to the north tower frequency.

Good radio etiquette requires you to listen before you talk. This prevents you from interrupting an exchange between the tower and another aircraft or, in a UNICOM situation, between two aircraft. I listened. For a full minute. Of silence. I was just starting to think I had the wrong frequency when a Southwest Airlines pilot called the tower. When they were done talking, I identified myself and made my request. The tower cleared me to proceed as requested. I’d go down Central Avenue, then make a left at Baseline. Along the way, I’d cross the extended centerlines for Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, where the jets were taking off to the west, right over where I’d be flying. (You can read more about flying this route in “Phoenix Sky Harbor to Grand Canyon.”)

PhoenixAs we flew through Phoenix, Alta seemed very interested in landing opportunities. “You can land in just about any of those parks,” she pointed out.

I knew what she was thinking about. When you train to be a pilot, you’re trained to always think about where you could land in an emergency situation. Phoenix, unlike New York or other older cities, has lots of open space, including parks, vacant lots, and parking lots. There are actually more emergency landing areas in Phoenix than there are in Wickenburg — if you can imagine that.

I wondered briefly what kind of emergency landing zone you’d need to land a 747 in trouble.

All the time, of course, I was descending. I had to be at 1600 feet MSL or lower by the time I got to Thomas Road. By the time we got to the second bunch of tall buildings on Central, we were only about 100 feet off some of the rooftops. I was winding my way between them, about a block west of Central. Then another quick drop in altitude as we crossed the riverbed and I could start to climb a bit again.

I always have trouble remembering which road is Baseline, so I checked street signs as I flew. Phoenix has these very large street signs hanging from traffic signal poles, making it pretty easy to find a street’s name — even from 500 feet above it. I turned left at Baseline and we headed east. A while later, I passed out of the Phoenix surface space. I told the tower I was clear to the east and squawked VFR again.

The final challenge was landing at Williams Gateway. Although I’ve landed there at least a dozen times, I never seem able to manage my approach and landing just the way the tower wants it. They simply are not clear with instructions. To make matters worse, the taxi/ramp area is a bit complex, and doesn’t line up with the runways. So I always fly with an airport diagram handy.

Yesterday, when I called in, the tower asked me if I was familiar. Although admitting it always seems to get me in trouble, I admitted it again: “Zero Mike Lima is familiar.” Now I had to get it right or get yelled at by the tower. Again.

This time, I screwed it up again, but not as bad as usual. Check out the diagram below. The Orange line is what I did last time. Very wrong. I overflew some buildings that I wasn’t supposed to overfly. The Blue line is what I did yesterday. Closer, but not exactly right. After landing, the tower said, “Next time you come in, fly direct to that spot parallel to the runway.” So I think he means I should follow the Green line. I’ll try that next time.

Williams Gateway Airport

Fortunately, leaving is a lot easier. I just get into position between the runway and ramp on the northwest side of the airport and take off parallel to the runway.

Kelly and his assistant, Kim, came out with ground handling wheels as I shut down. I put the door on the helicopter. They insisted they didn’t need our help dragging it in, so I didn’t argue. I was glazed with sweat. When the helicopter was parked in the hangar, we discussed the work to be done, then left him. It was 5 PM.

Story Time

Mike was waiting in the main terminal, reading a magazine in air conditioned comfort. He told us we looked glazed and we went into the Ladies’ room to splash water on our faces. We then went to dinner. Our first choice, Duals, which was right near the airport, had gone out of business. (It’s a sad state of affairs when people would rather eat in some nationwide chain with the same old menu and factory-prepared food than in a nice, local place.) So we headed over to Ahwatukee and had dinner in an Italian place off I-10. I wish I could remember the name. It’s a nice little place with good food and good service at a reasonable price.

During dinner, Mike quizzed Alta about some of the places she’d flown. Although she’d told me some stories during our flight, she really opened up when questioned. She explained to us that in many places of China and former Soviet Union countries, people were poor to the point of living in ditches and starving. In China, she told me, it’s so bad that people have begun selling their children to brick factories since they can’t afford to feed them anyway. She said that the Chinese people could make do with all kinds of things we’d consider trash — for example, she said, they could make a cart out of two broken bicycle wheels. Sometimes a family of 5 would ride together on a single motorcycle. She said that many people had no knowledge of the things we take for granted.

She told us a story about landing in some former Soviet country — I can’t remember which — that had no security in the cargo area of the airport. When they parked the jet, there were young couples walking hand-in-hand along the ramp area — a cheap date looking at the big planes. She said there were a number of relatively well-dressed young women in the area, collecting planks of wood that had broken off shipping palettes. The flight mechanic told her that these people had nothing at home and were collecting the wood to make benches and other furniture. The mechanic called her down from the flight deck to meet one of these young women and Alta brought her up to the cockpit to see where she worked. Alta said the woman looked very nervous about being there, like she was afraid she’d get in trouble, so Alta cut the visit short and brought her back down to the ramp. She realized later that all of the woman’s friends and acquaintances had seen her go into the plane and that had given her a certain status among them. On their next trip through, she brought Alta a dress as a gift. Alta never got the dress — someone else apparently walked off with it — but she was amazed that this woman, who had nothing, would thank her with such a generous gift.

She also told us a few stories that illustrated the complete lack of quality control in China. She explained that the Chinese people think the point is to make something look good and polished. That’s why they put lead in toy paint — it makes the colors brighter. They sacrifice quality and safety for appearance because they simply don’t understand the importance of quality or safety. That’s not a part of their lives. “If they find a pair of shoes that they can walk in, they’re happy,” Alta explained. “It doesn’t matter if the shoes don’t fit right or fall apart in a month.”

This made me understand the whole Chinese quality problem. It isn’t because they’re trying to make cheap crap. It’s because that’s all they think they have to make. Their standards are so much lower than ours that they think they’re doing a fine job. And because the price is right and Americans have a “disposable good” mentality, we don’t mind buying the same cheap crap over and over. If it breaks, we think, we’ll just throw it away and get a new one. It’s cheap enough. We don’t see the effects on our landfills and in our own economy.

On the drive home, Alta told us about some of her more interesting experiences overseas. Being ignored by airport officials while she was trying to do her job in Dubai because she was a woman. Losing engine on takeoff in Kazakhstan when the aircraft was near max gross weight — 637,000 pounds! Overflying Baghdad, which she does quite often, and being given specially coded transponder codes. Seeing the border of Iraq and Kuwait from 30,000 feet, lit up in bright, white light. Walking down into the cargo hold to check on live cargo like horses and brahma bulls and thousands of baby chicks.

She lives in one world and works in many others. But he time as a world traveler is getting short as she grows older and the newer planes do away with the engineer position. She said it all at one point yesterday: “I’m an antique flying an antique. Does that make me a classic?”

I assured her that it did.

How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Margarita

It’s the salt.

Last night, Mike and I went out for dinner in Wickenburg. It’s summer here and our choices are limited. More limited than we thought. We’d been planning to eat at House Berlin, the German restaurant. House Berlin makes an excellent walleye and is the only restaurant in town where you can get veal. But a hand-printed sign on the window said “Closed August for Vacation.”

We left the car parked where it was and walked to my second choice that evening. I won’t say which of Wickenburg’s amazing dining choices it was because I need to be critical (again) and I know how sensitive my fellow Wickenburgers can be.

A Short History of the Best Margarita in Wickenburg

The restaurant we went to used to make the second best margarita in town. The first best was at the Santa Fe Cantina, which was also one of the town’s top five restaurants. Santa Fe made the best ribs, too. And the best artichoke dip, which I was fortunate enough to get the recipe for.

But the Santa Fe sold to new owners — who, to their credit, still made those excellent margaritas.

But then they handed it off to their foster son — or at least that’s what I heard — and he decided to change the menu. (Hey, that’s an idea! Take a formula that works in a restaurant that has great following and change it!) He soon drove the place out of business.

So now we had to settle for second best, which, without a real best, becomes the best.

In My Mind: A Nice Cadillac Margarita

I like Cadillac margaritas. That’s a margarita with a shot of Grand Mariner in it. A good Cadillac margarita is the best margarita. Okay, so that’s my opinion, but next time you’re in a place that makes good margaritas, try one and see for yourself.

So when the waitress came, we ordered two Cadillac margaritas. Then we opened the menu to start browsing selections. That’s when I discovered that we were going to pay $8.25 for each drink.

Now I’m accustomed to spending that kind of money for alcohol at resorts and fancy Scottsdale restaurants. In fact, it’s even common for us to blow $10 to $16 a piece on top shelf martinis. But I’ve never spent that kind of money in Wickenburg for any drink — even at the town’s nicest restaurant at its best guest ranch. And the price didn’t include Wickenburg’s exorbitant sales/BB&B tax, which is somewhere around 14% these days — second highest in the state (and proud of it)! The high tax is why quite a few people in WIckenburg are dining out in town a lot less often these days.

But this was a night out after a long week sitting in front of a computer, working on a book. It would be worth the money for a good margarita, no matter where I bought it. At least that’s what I thought.

Reality Strikes — Again

Margarita GlassThen she brought the margaritas. They were in small cocktail glasses, the kind you’d get a scotch on the rocks in. (Most restaurants in Arizona have special margarita glasses. Some of them even have saguaro-shaped stems.) The color was right for the drink, but not for the salt. It was green.

Let me back up a bit. Margaritas are normally served two ways: frozen (as in blended with ice) and on the rocks. Either way, you can have salt around the rim of the glass. They usually use Kosher salt or something similar to it. You can even buy special salt around here in a glass dipping container (shaped like a sombrero — how cute!) to make it easy to salt the rim of your margarita glasses at home. The point is, it’s salt. Plain salt. It isn’t flavored and it certainly isn’t colored.

The salt on our $8.25 margaritas was green.

It was the kind of green you might use on St. Patrick’s day: a bright Kelly green. Not lime colored like you might think reasonable for a margarita.

But I try to have an open mind. (I swear I do.) So I brought the glass up to my lips and sipped my margarita.

At first the taste of something moldy and salty hit my tongue. Then the taste of cheap margarita mix. The tequila may have been in there somewhere, but it couldn’t overpower the moldy salt. And the Grand Mariner was hiding under the ice cubes or somewhere where my tongue couldn’t get it.

I immediately began wiping the salt off my glass. My napkin and fingertips turned bright green. Some of the salt fell into the glass, leaving green streaks as it sank to the bottom. I stopped wiping.

Later, I tried to use the cocktail straw to sip some margarita that hadn’t been tainted by the salt. All I got was a mouth full of warm margarita mix. I guess the bartender didn’t have a shaker. Or maybe he/she was too busy dying salt to mix the drink properly in the first place.

I think — but I’m not sure — that the salt was leftover from St. Patrick’s Day five months before. I also think that the moisture of five months of dipped wet bar glasses got a little mold growing in the container. (Can mold grow on salt?) And I think this mold — or its essence — has become an integral part of the margarita making process at this particular restaurant.

I have to stop writing about this because I’m grossing myself out.

The Rest of the Meal

Mike’s ceviche was spoiled. We sent that back. It should have tipped us off that it wasn’t a particularly popular item when we saw it spelled “saveche” on the menu.

My mole was good. But then again, it tasted just like the mole I can make with a jar of the concentrate from the supermarket. (Because of our Mexican population, the local supermarkets have an excellent selection of Mexican foods.) That means that either the jarred mole is very much like this restaurant’s recipe or they use the same stuff. It didn’t matter much to me. It tasted good.

Mike’s quesadilla looked okay to me, but disappointed him. I think he was expecting a lot of stuff on top, like one of the other local restaurants — the one he wanted to go to last night, I should mention — makes it.

The chips were good, but Mike said the salsa tasted bad. It tasted okay to me and it was nice and chunky, the way I like it. But he got me worried that I was missing something bad, so I didn’t eat much of it.

The Search for the Best Margarita in Wickenburg Begins Again

Anyway, at this point it’s safe to say that if this is now the best margarita in Wickenburg, we’re in a sad state. It’s time to start looking for a new best. I hope I find it — at any price.

And I think Mike will remind me of this meal the next time I suggest dining in that particular restaurant again.

Eating Habits

I think we eat well. Probably too well.

The other day, I had to journey down to Phoenix to meet with a compounding pharmacist about women’s health issues. Sheesh. Now that’s not something that’s normally part of my life.

As I’m aging, my body is changing. (Duh.) My metabolism has slowed down and it’s difficult to keep the pounds and inches off. But that’s only a small part of what I went to see the pharmacist for. The rest was that women’s stuff that starts becoming an issue once a woman gets into her 40s.

VeggiesThe subject of diet and eating habits came up in our conversation. I told her that we eat pretty well — perhaps too well. Our diet consists primarily of fresh food prepared at home. We don’t eat a lot of prepared foods at all. While we haven’t bought into the organic thing yet — mostly because it defeats part of the purpose when those organic foods are shipped 2,000 miles to get to our store — we do eat a lot of fresh vegetables. And since I’m one of those people who won’t eat fresh food after it’s been sitting in the fridge for a few days, we hit the local supermarket once every day or so to get a few things for our next few meals.

Variety is the Spice of Life. Or it Should be.

One of the disappointments we’re constantly struggling with is the lack of diversity in food available here at the edge of nowhere. Fresh fish is simply not an option — it all comes to Wickenburg previously frozen, no matter how “fresh” it looks in the butcher case. Veal is seldom available and, when it is, we can expect to pay $14.99/pound or more for it. Special cuts of meat — for example, veal shank (for osso bucco) or ground lamb (for one of Mike’s Armenian dishes) — must be ordered at least a few days before you want to eat it. Italian greens like the ones I grew up with — including escarole, chicory, and broccoli rabe — simply don’t make it to Wickenburg. I remember the first time I bought an eggplant in Wickenburg — the first time I’d ever seen one in the store. I had to tell the girl at the checkout counter what it was. She’d never seen one before. The supermarket recently stopped carrying the frozen edamame (soy bean pods) because they simply weren’t selling enough. Alex the Bird is very disappointed, since that’s one of his favorite foods.

What really kills me, however, is that they have these Safeway magazines in the store, filled with recipes. Lots of mouth-watering photos to really motivate me to cook. Yet in half the recipes on the magazine’s pages, there’s at least one ingredient that can’t be found in our local Safeway store.

Yet you can buy all kinds of beer in 12-packs and the “snack” aisle is completely full of every kind of chip you can imagine.

So although we eat well in general, our diet lacks the diversity we’ve had in the past.

And don’t talk to me about local restaurants. I’ll whine about that again in another post one day soon.

Why I’m Overweight

Of course, my problem keeping the pounds off is threefold:

  • As my metabolism has decreased, my food portions have not. Simply stated: I eat too much. This is unfortunate because I really do like to eat.
  • Since I spend the majority of my day sitting on my butt (currently working on two book revisions) and I don’t participate in outdoor activities this time of year — would you, with temperatures exceeding 100°F every day? — I don’t get enough physical activity (AKA, exercise) to get my metabolism back up, even a little.
  • The whole mid-life hormonal thing is further throwing my body out of whack, thus making it impossible to get a grip on what I need to do to fight back and start losing some of this weight.

Don’t Talk to Me about Dieting

Now I don’t want to hear the word diet as applied to that kind of activity where you starve yourself of one or more kinds of food (or all kinds of food) to drop pounds. I don’t weigh or measure my portions. I don’t count calories.

Recent studies have shown that dieting is not successful in the long term. You lose weight, you gain it back. It becomes a roller coaster lifestyle, with multiple sets of clothes so you don’t need to shop when your weight is back up or down.

I can vouch for this. Sure, I lost 20 pounds in 3 months on Atkins back in 2004. But since then, I’ve gained back 30 pounds. And let’s face it: not all diets are pleasant or healthy. What I need is to get my hormones stabilized and to change my lifestyle to eat less and exercise more.

The Silver Lining: Dining in Phoenix

One of the good things about going down to Phoenix for errands — like seeing this compounding pharmacist the other day — is the opportunity to eat out and enjoy something different. (Yes, it always comes back to food with me.) The other day, after finishing up my business, I drove through a dust storm to meet Mike down at the Biltmore Fashion Center. After a quick visit to the Apple Store to finally see an iPhone first hand (I wasn’t terribly impressed and I’m sorry about that) and a stop in the Williams Sonoma shop for a new martini shaker, we headed over to Tarbell’s on 32nd Avenue and Camelback.

Tarbell’s is a great little restaurant that specializes in fresh, local (whenever possible), organic foods. (They also have a great bar; when you ask for a Grey Goose martini, that’s what you’re going to get.) Mike and I shared a tuna tartar appetizer, which we’d had there before. The tiny bits of tuna were arranged on the plate with taro chips and ginger cucumber relish. Yum. For my main course, I hadpan-Seared Sea Scallops with organic butternut squash risotto, crispy sage, and roasted chestnuts. Mike had pan-Seared Alaskan Halibut and organic peach, spinach, and pancetta hash with smoked tomato sauce. These tastes were well matched and quite a treat from what’s available at home and in Wickenburg’s restaurants. For desert, we shared a warm, soft chocolate cake with pistachio ice cream. Very rich.

We finished dinner just before 6 PM — which is when the organic bakery in the same shopping center closes. We popped in and bought a loaf of fresh multigrain bread. One look at the ingredients told me we’d made a good purchase decision — I actually knew (and could pronounce) every ingredient! Imagine that! (I only wish I could remember the name of the place. But if you go to Tarbell’s you’ll see it in the same shopping center.) Oh, and did I mention that it was delicious?

Now don’t get the idea that I’m all hot for organic foods. I’m not. But I do like to know what I’m eating. And I also think that Americans buy too much food that’s shipped from somewhere far away when local alternatives are better for so many reasons. That’s one of the reasons I prefer shopping at small specialized stores — like bakeries and produce shops — than in huge name-brand supermarkets that truck in their food from who knows where.

Where Do You Eat?

Any suggestions for good restaurants with interesting food down in the Phoenix area? Don’t keep them to yourself. Use the Comments link or form to share them. I’m especially interested in learning about places on the west side of Phoenix, since that’s closer to home.