Friday, January 31, 2014

Dining off the beaten path presents challenges


      There are those of you that can size-up an unfamiliar place from the outside. You have a hunch and think nothing of going inside.
      If you’ve watched Guy Fieri on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” and follow his madcap adventures, the thrill of the quest pays off with an outstanding eating experience. Then again, it might be one to wipe out off your plate.
     Opening the front door to a small town restaurant puts you in uncharted territory. Its not one of those activities for the faint of heart, or the “picky” eater.
     My husband and I have noticed that eateries dotted along the highways and towns of America offer down home cooking, and in other cases, overwhelm you with gourmet meals rivaling any urban establishment. We pull over and take advantage of the invitation. You just never know.
    Those funky little joints have been etched in our minds forever with stories and pictures to share with the folks at home. Often others will pick up on our suggestions and return with their own versions.
     There are plenty of chains up and down the route for those who thrive on the comfort of the familiar in life. Sometimes it is the best choice, too, or the only one handy.
     We had been eating our way through southern New Mexico one winter following the travel guide’s recommendations. Normally we don’t tie ourselves to a guidebook and leave a length of rope for the twists of spontaneity to encircle us. However, we decided to play the tourist role up to the hilt.
     A late afternoon arrived and we went on a road trip south from Las Cruces to a Mexican restaurant that the travel guide recommended. “A place with tasty food in an authentic atmosphere,” the hefty book told us.
     We drove surrounded by beautiful vistas. It was a hike from the city, and we assumed that this must be quite the special place to warrant the guide’s three-star rating.
     Whoa! We pulled up to a dilapidated doublewide building on the edge of an unpaved parking lot that looked more like a roadside bar. A haphazard collection of beat up pick-ups was parked near the sole shade tree. The only sign of life was a couple stray dogs that came out to greet us. They quickly went on their way foraging for food.   
      I double –checked the guidebook to make sure that this was in fact the local haunt that the book claimed, “a must eat at before leaving New Mexico.” Yes, the tumbledown place was right in front of us.
    We did that “should we, or shouldn’t we routine” couples are so good at playing off each other. Somebody had to take the lead. My husband stepped up and made the final decision. We hesitantly went up to the doorway. There was a hum of conversation and a clinking of glasses from within.
      My husband walked through the swinging doorway gallantly and I was right behind him. Suddenly the place came to a standstill. What I feared the most was right in front of me. The look on my face was worth a thousand pictures he told me later.
     A dimly lit saloon right out of a vintage western movie was straight ahead. Half a dozen cowboys donned in their working garb and wide brimmed hats turned in unison to stare at us.
     All I saw was guns in their holsters and spurs on their boots before my head dropped to avert their eyes.
     Not knowing our surroundings and already committed, we couldn’t make a fast getaway…no matter how fast the horse. That didn’t seem like a very smart notion at all. We timidly tip toed over the rough- hewn boards and took corner seats. I felt my bodily heat rising by the second, and my trembling weak legs were grateful to hide behind a table.
     We’d been noticed. Word would get out. How soon before the sheriff would come riding up to escort us out of Dodge?
     Obviously, we had gotten the wrong place.
     Time stood still before the barmaid eventually sauntered over. A little liquid refreshment and a bowl of nachos hit the spot while we plotted our escape concerned about our safety. It was written all over our faces, and not from the hot sauce either. You can guess who would get blamed for this escapade back at the motel.
     The cowboys went back to their business, dismissing the city slickers as has been the habit of cowboys since they came to be. They left us alone.
     When the bartender came back to refill our glasses we asked if they served meals. That’s when we found out that the actual restaurant was a little room off to the side with its own private entrance. All our apprehensions could have been avoided.
     Soon the local crowd started filling the three or four other tables. They nodded. By then we were acclimated enough to have a delicious dinner in the bar.
      The guidebook was right on. It’s too bad they didn’t give a little forewarning about leaving your nerves at home.
     Since then on our journeys, we have opened the door to many mom and pop eating spots. None will ever compare to our initial entry into every day life in the Wild West.
     When we got up to leave, all the cowboys turned around together and smiled at us. Now that was wicked cool.
     Off we galloped into the New Mexico sunset leaving a cloud of dust behind us.