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Posts Tagged ‘tex-mex’


For years we had avoided San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

On our second trip we had walked from 17th Street along Mission to 5th where, leg weary, deafened by traffic noise and not a little relieved that we’d survived the ordeal, we slumped into Lori’s Diner on Powell and Geary. All I can really recall from that morning was a wary wander down Balmy Alley, home to the largest collection of murals in the city.

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And for several trips after that, we kept away from the area, spending our time in the northern and western parts of the city, with only occasional forays into the adjoining Castro district and Dolores Park.

Why?

It was not as if we did not like the culture or food of the area – indeed, burritos, enchiladas and margaritas might just be our favourite culinary combination.

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No, our reluctance to set foot east / south of Market stemmed from an anxiety that we might not be as safe, especially after dark, as in other parts of the city. Violent gangs and gun crime were – and remain (a man was killed near 16th and Guerrero only three days ago) – a constant feature of life in the Mission.

So we stayed away.

We actually considered renting an apartment on Valencia three years ago, because apart from being edgy, the neighborhood was also meant to be “hip”, San Francisco’s party capital. But, once again, we were deterred by its negative reputation.

So we stayed away.

But this continuing omission on our San Francisco CV was no longer tenable, especially as we have rented apartments in the adjacent neighborhoods of Noe Valley and Bernal Heights in recent years.

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How could we convince ourselves, and others, that we were locals in spirit if we did not embrace the Latino and Hispanic heart of the city on our doorstep?

So, finally a year ago, we ventured tentatively into the area again by taking a delightful sunny Sunday afternoon stroll down Valencia from 24th Street, crossing to Mission at 16th and walking back up to 28th Street and our apartment.

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A political demonstration outside the BART station on 24th Street was winning the battle for the attention of passers by with a handful of religious preachers on the opposite corner, but the atmosphere was restrained rather than confrontational. Cafes and restaurants were overflowing and Latin rhythms abounded. Coffee at the Borderlands bookstore was followed by a margarita at West of Pecos, where we were tempted to reconsider our plans for dinner that evening. A mariachi band serenaded the sidewalk diners.

We marveled at the murals on Clarion Alley, many of which reflected the current tensions in the city over gentrification (not least in the Mission), sky-rocketing housing prices and the closure of public parks at night.

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We repeated the expedition again this year, starting with a hike over Bernal Heights Hill, descending Alabama Street to the vibrant Precita Park Café for a Mitchell’s ice cream before crossing Cesar Chavez Street and into the neighborhood.

Next year, we will be staying in the same Bernal Heights cottage for a total of six weeks, and look forward to renewing acquaintance with the Mission district regularly. Several restaurants, including Taqueria La Cuembre and Cha Cha Cha, have taken our fancy. 

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We might even eat there after dark too.

And it is time we met the Tamale Lady.

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Santa Fe, or indeed any part of New Mexico, had not been in our original itinerary for this trip. But once we had decided to substitute yet more canyons for a spell of sophisticated southwestern slumming, we had looked forward to our visit to the former Spanish and Mexican outpost with particular excitement.

It was also the one day between leaving and returning to Las Vegas two and a half weeks later that did not involve any driving.

After breakfast in the hotel we walked to the adjacent trolley stop as it was too far even for us, toned and shaped though we were from our hiking exploits in Zion, Bryce and the Arches, to walk to downtown along a busy, noisy ring road. Unfortunately, we saw the vehicle roaring past our stop, and on scrutiny of the timetable, the next bus was not due, this being Sunday, for another 45 minutes. Though it was another clear, bright morning, there was a nip to the air, so standing at the stop for that length of time was out of the question.

So we started walking with half an eye over our shoulders for the next trolley, which duly arrived on time. Alighting just off the Plaza in Palace Avenue we collected maps and entered a French patisserie for coffee and a discussion on our itinerary for the day.

One of the most popular and beautiful cities in the U.S., Santa Fe is renowned for its stunning adobe architecture. Originally made by the ancient Puebloans, such buildings were constructed of blocks of mud, cut from the riverbeds and mixed with grass. Built into walls, the bricks were set with a mortar of a similar composition, and then plastered over with mud and straw. There are several fine examples of public buildings constructed in this way in downtown Santa Fe, including the New Mexico Museum of Modern Art.

Although the steady stream of Sunday services prevented us from venturing venturing over the threshold, we took a stroll round the handsome French Romanesque-style St Francis Cathedral. Besides a fine statue of St Francis of Assissi himself, I was impressed with that of the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, a seventeenth century Iroquios-Mohawk woman who was scheduled to be canonised in October 2012.

It is not only Santa Fe’s architecture that brings visitors flocking to the city. Few locations in the U.S. can match it for its artistic and cultural scene. Indeed, we came across a number of outdoor art shows, galleries and exhibitions.

We bought some gorgeous western-themed pillowcases and cushion covers from one stall and had another of those extended conversations about our trip with fascinated Americans that were such a feature of it.

The Plaza itself, from which the streets packed with gift and home furnishings stores, cafes, restaurants and galleries spread out, is a lovely space and home to more stalls and public art. The exterior of the Palace of the Governors, the oldest public building in the U.S., which runs along one side, is occupied by native americans selling jewelery and other gift items.

Our only reservation about the attractive array of  shops, and one we should not have been altogether surprised about, was that prices were generally high.

After lunch, incongruously you might think in the light of my praise for the Santa Fe dining scene, in Starbuck’s, we took an open-air, single tier trolley tour, which enabled us not only to learn more about the city’s history and many of its most imposing landmarks, but to travel part of the legendary Santa Fe Trail, the nineteenth century transport route that connected Franklin, Missouri with the city, thus opening up the southwest for economic development and settlement.

The tour also included Canyon Road, an artists’ colony that abounded with both open-air and enclosed galleries and workshops as well as attractive restaurants.

The tour, which cost $30, promised “1 hour and 15 minutes of history, sights, stories, and good old-fashioned fun”, certainly delivered on all of those criteria bar the last one. The driver / guide was extremely knowledgeable and informative, but lacked charisma.

After a drink at the Marble Brewery overlooking the Plaza, we returned on foot to Canyon Road for a closer inspection, only to find that most of the galleries were closing. The walk did, however, whet our appetites.

After two successive nights of Tex-Mex food we both craved something different.   The Rooftop Pizzeria in the Santa Fe Arcade on San Francisco Street proved an ideal spot where we were able to watch the sun disappearing over the horizon. Having had the best enchiladas I had ever tasted only two night before, we felt spoilt to be served unequivocally the best pizzas we had ever had, a topping of lobster, shrimp and bacon. We even recommended it to the adjoining table of theatrical locals who were, thankfully, equally impressed.

Another $1 taxi fare back to the El Rey Inn completed a relaxing and enjoyable day. Whilst Santa Fe may not have quite lived up to both our expectations, it had come very close and is somewhere we would wish to explore further.

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Buoyed by two good night’s sleep in Moab we were refreshed for what would be one of the longest road journeys – around 290 miles – of the entire trip before we reached our next overnight stop of Durango, Colorado. Two conscious decisions led to this – firstly, to make a detour to visit the Four Corners Monument and secondly, to ignore our trusty route planner’s recommendation to travel as far south on US-191 to Bluff before heading east, and cut off earlier at Monticello to pick up the 491. We were to make yet another detour, of which more later.

Having filled up at the Maverik gas station (this chain was a regular source of cheap fuel throughout the trip), we set off in the company of the customary blue sky (the rain on our journey into Moab two days previously had been a momentary aberration) and soon found ourselves alone on the road.

After 53 miles we took US-491 at Monticello as the Eagles sang on the in-car CD player “put me on a highway, show me the sign”. Well, the next sign we saw was one welcoming us to “Colorful Colorado”.

We had left, at least for now, the dramatic sandstone formations that had dominated the landscape for much of the past week. The area was a blend of flat pastureland and forest, dotted with the occasional homestead and small ranch, outside which horses and cattle grazed.

The Eagles were soon usurped by Kiss Country Radio 97.9 FM (“Keeping Cortez, Farmington and Durango country)”, which was to be our companion for the remainder of the day.

Dove Creek was the first town of any substance in Colorado with its business park and small airport. Further evidence of the growing number of grazing livestock was an advertisement on the radio for feed grains.

We were amused by a sign that announced that the Colorado Welcome Center was another 34 miles, an indication of the vast scale of this nation that you had to drive 50 miles before you could be officially welcomed to the state!

The San Juan National Forest which was to follow us all the way to Durango began to assume greater prominence as we passed the settlements of Cahone, Pleasant View, Yellow Jacket, Lewis and Arriola.

At Cortez, the largest town on today’s journey but one beset by roadworks, we eschewed the signs for Durango and branched south towards the Four Corners Monument.

Shortly afterwards, a low mountains range denoted that we were entering the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation. Once notable hunters, the Utes had been split up and relocated to poorer land by the white settlers’ westward expansion.

However, mineral leases and tourism had enabled them to build an impressive casino, hotel and resort (pictured above) where we halted briefly for free if indigestible coffee, restrooms and a futile flutter on the penny slots.

We managed to miss the turning for the Four Corners initially, but recovered the route within three miles. Had we taken the right road we would have avoided almost getting crushed by an immense truck turning left into the road at which junction we were sitting. The driver, equipped with almost obligatory drooping moustache and cowboy hat (not unlike the Dennis Hopper character in Easy Rider), did not seem amused, but his cargo of blindfolded horses appeared less concerned.

Crossing the San Juan River we arrived at the Four Corners Monument, the only spot in the U.S. where four states (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona) meet at a single point. Whilst that might sound glamorous, the reality is less so – it is a barren, hot (77 degrees) and dusty place, given over to the presence on all four sides of the ubiquitous Indian gift stalls (we were back in the Navajo Nation at this point).

That said, in addition to doing the tourist thing and having our photos taken spanning all four states (I was surprised we were not charged for the privilege), we picked up some lovely t-shirts.

So pleased with our purchases were we that we then contrived to leave them behind in our motel room in Durango the next morning. Happily, thanks to the kindness of the proprietor and a payment of £25 to UPS, I can now report we have just taken custody of them again at home.

We had to retrace our “steps” (around 30 miles) to traffic-ridden Cortez before continuing our journey to Durango on US-160 East. But lunch now beckoned. My vegetarian past cruelly cast aside, I had harboured a craving for a Wendy’s hamburger ever since our flight had touched down in Las Vegas eleven days before, and, as luck would have it, an outlet cuddled up to us just as we were pulling out of town.

I’m not sure this is what Jimmy Buffett had in mind when he sang Cheeseburger in Paradise but my double was scrumptious. Janet also enjoyed her crispy chicken sandwich. Our unfamiliarity with fast food burger joints was exposed, however, when we ordered two vanilla iced frosties, thinking they were coffees (a la frappuccinos), only to discover, not unpleasantly, that they were in fact milk shakes. And all for less than ten bucks.

With only 46 miles to Durango we decided to call in at Mesa Verde National Park en route. When we revamped our original itinerary to include the loop through New Mexico (Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Gallup), we had been required to drop Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde.

But it was not until now that we fully realised just how close it was to the road we were taking, and even though time would not allow us to explore it as fully as it deserved, it would be crazy not to spend a couple of hours there.

Mesa Verde (“green table” in Spanish), the only U.S. national park exclusively devoted to archaeological remains, was home to the Ancestral Puebloan people between 550 and 1300AD, at which stage they mysteriously abandoned the cliff dwellings that had been their home. Formerly nomadic, they had turned to hunting and lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops but sometimes in cliff recesses.

We can only speculate why they lived in these secluded alcoves. Perhaps it was for defence or it may have been because they provided better protection from the elements, or even for religious or psychological reasons.

Whatever the purpose, they are astonishing buildings, some of them remarkably well preserved.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t sufficient time to join one of the ranger-led tours into the best preserved cliff dwellings, but we did take the self-guided Mesa Top Loop Drive which afforded us some excellent views of both the internal layout of the pithouses and overlooks of some of the villages.

Leaving Mesa Verde we drove through the Mancos Valley with the San Juan Mountains overhead. Mancos proclaimed itself as “Where the West Still Lives”, a not unreasonable boast as the scenery was taking on a distinctly more cowboy country feel.  But this was clearly under some threat as a large picture of a cow was accompanied by the words “I’d rather be a cow than a condo”.

After checking in at the Econolodge motel in Durango we took the free trolley to the historic downtown for dinner at Tequila’s Family Restaurant, a beautiful tex-mex establishment with dazzling, colorful furnishings. My seafood enchiladas were the best I had ever tasted and the margaritas were delicious. And it was also inexpensive. The experience was topped off by our server, Hector, dashing back to our table before we left to thank us for his tip.

As the next day’s journey would be much shorter, we resolved to spend the next morning exploring downtown Durango before setting off for our next stop in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Well, by train from San Francisco we do.

Today we attended our first National Hockey League game, the pinnacle of the sport.  In the early nineties we had followed the Medway Bears, a team in the second/third tier of UK ice hockey who played in front of around 1,000 admittedly passionate fans in a small, tired ice rink.  This was a very different experience.

After yet another lazy morning we caught the no. 5 MUNI bus to Market and walked to the 4th and King Caltrain station for the 2.07pm train to San Jose.  We disembarked the double decker tin can at 3.38 on another hot afternoon and collected our tickets from the box office before wandering into what we thought was downtown to find something to eat.  I’m not sure that we found the real city centre, but we did stumble on what was a decent Mexican chain restaurant, La Pinata, where I had the biggest (shrimp) burrito I have ever seen in my life whilst Janet had shrimp fajitas.  This was washed down with a pitcher ($30) of Top Shelf Margarita.

The area in which we ate, though only a few minutes walk from the arena, struck us as a little seedy, not least because of the shady characters dotted around the streets aiming to buy and sell tickets.  There were also a surprising number of Los Angeles Kings fans around, not I hasten to add that they added to the seedy atmosphere (sic).

We entered the impressive HP Pavilion, which is reminiscent of the O2 Arena in London, around an hour before face off and explored the wonders of the Sharks Store.  Janet confined herself to a t-shirt and an SJ Sharkie (the mascot) soft toy.  We took our fabulous seats in the fifteenth row of the lower tier of the arena to the right of the goal.

 At 7pm the San Jose Sharks emerged from the giant, smoking shark’s mouth to tumultuous applause.  A win tonight would clinch their place in the end of season play offs, so expectation was high.  The LA Kings. who were also in play off contention, were roundly booed as they entered the ice around thirty seconds later.  Any tension was dispelled when the Sharks took a 2-0 lead in the first few minutes, a lead they held until the end of the first period, despite the Kings having the most shots.

The Kings pulled a goal back at the very end of a powerplay at the beginning of the second period, but this only inspired the Sharks to a four goal blast, several of them spectacular, in the remainder of the 20 minute spell.  Aside from a fight or two the final period was an anticlimax as Sharks consolidated their position without much trouble.  It was a very impressive performance by the Sharks, both offensively and defensively, although it should be noted that LA were missing two star players.

A number of things struck, but didn’t necessarily surprise, me about the experience:

1. Aside from the obligatory fights, the discipline of the players was so impressive, with far fewer offisdes, icings and penalties called than we have been used to in the UK. 

2. The number of fans who were wearing either replica shirts or t-shirts, sweatshirts or jackets with Sharks colours, at least three quarters and far more than you would see even at an English football game.

3.  The noise and fanaticism was intense.

4.  The regular interruptions to hold competitions and provide prizes for the fans is something that UK sport could do well to follow, though the latter’s historic antipathy to stoppages in play will probably prevent that happening – either way we could learn a lot about looking after the fans from US sport.          

All in all, a great experience – but I still prefer baseball!  A 45 wait for the return tin can to San Francisco at 10.30pm was made bearable by the balmy conditions and high spirits of other passengers.  I should add that although the train was basic and the journey not particularly comfortable, both outbound and inbound services were on time leaving and arriving at their destination.

In view of the fact that it was midnight when we came out of the Caltrain station we hailed a cab back to the apartment.  The driver spent the majority of the journey on the phone to Nigeria in his native language, but turned at one point to apologise in perfectly modulated English for his rudeness!  Despite his distraction he did return us to the apartment in very quick time.

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