Have Fork, Will Travel
Far from home, food truly comforts
I travel a lot for work. It usually involves trekking back and forth between Albuquerque and Las Cruces in search of good eats. Recently I headed to Taos and Arroyo Seco to work on a story that had nothing to do with food (see this week's feature, "A Road Less Traveled"). But, as with everything else I do, food came to play a significant role in my trip.
I stayed at a hostel called The Abominable SnowMansion in Arroyo Seco. The hostel provides two fully stocked kitchens for guests to use as well as a substantial garden. The property also sports several fruit trees bearing apples, pears, apricots, plums and cherries. Though the rates suggested basic accommodations (nothing is more than $40), I soon realized the SnowMansion had more to offer than most hotels.
On the first night, my sister-in-law and I drove into Taos to scrounge up some dinner. We spied a sign that read "Taos Pizza Out Back" from the main road that runs through town. And out back, behind several other businesses, we found a lively patio decked with old gasoline pumps and other remembrances of yesteryear.
The pizza was fantastic. We both ordered by the slice, and when the wedges arrived we were overwhelmed by their enormity. We could barely see the plates beneath the monstrous pieces of pie. I ordered "The Shredder," topped with mushrooms, green chile, tomatoes, the meat of my choosing, smoked mozzarella—and house dressing. I was unsure of pizza drizzled with salad dressing, but the basil-Parmesan vinaigrette paired perfectly with all the ingredients.
As we drove back to the hostel, we couldn’t help but laugh at another sign in front of a restaurant called Sabroso, situated next to the SnowMansion. It boasted a special of “halibut cheeks.”
The next morning, I made my way to the hostel’s kitchen to make toast for breakfast. I was greeted by a tall Russian named Alex who offered me a plate of bear omelet. Certain I had misheard him, I asked him what was in it. He smiled, obviously amused, and said, “Bear.”
It was delicious. The bear meat had been slow-roasted, and I couldn’t discern any gaminess—just richness and a sweet oiliness unlike any other meat I’ve ever tried.
We spent the morning at Manby Hot Springs with fellow guest Ron. He turned out to be the best tour guide we could have hoped for. While the springs are relaxing, getting to and from them is a lot of work. First you hike down the gorge. Once you’re relaxed and sleepy, you have to hike back up the gorge. Returning to Seco, we were famished.
We dropped in on The Maverick County Food Co., a small café tucked behind the plaza, next to the SnowMansion. I tried a Cubano, a manly sandwich stuffed with ham, fried pork and melted cheese. Served with a side of zippy guacamole that I slathered all over the sandwich, it totally hit the spot. Maverick’s sweet potato fries also impressed. They were golden and sweet, studded with crystals of sea salt. Paired with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc sipped as I basked in the warm sun, some of the anxiety that had accompanied me throughout my trip began to melt away.
After a photo-taking excursion to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, which proved unnerving due to the strong winds and rains that tried to blow us off, I stumbled into the hostel's summer kitchen. Once again, my Russian had a treat for me: roasted baby goat. I brushed aside a fork and knife setting, opting to hold the tender hunk of meat by the bone and gnaw like the lady I am. I spent the rest of the evening inhaling the deep perfume of cabrito that just wouldn’t wash off my face.
Sunday morning I awoke with a vicious hangover, evidence of my activities the night before. Before I headed out to get some work done—after all, that’s why I was there—I seasoned two beautiful lamb heads with salt and pepper, then tossed them in the oven to cook low and slow all day.
I was hungry long before the lamb heads were done. Just down the street from the SnowMansion is the Taos Cow, a small café that serves sandwiches and ice cream. My stomach wasn’t quite ready for solid food; I could still feel cheap beer sloshing around. I went with a seasonal vegetable soup. The fragrant broth was slightly salty, warm and powerfully flavored with a bouquet of herbs. Carrots, squash, corn and other fresh-
The rest of the day, as it turns out, was a total bust. Most of it involved getting my sister-in-law’s car hopelessly stuck in the mud—a syrupy brown quicksand that several people warned us about. Returning to the mansion, we were beat and beat up. I showered and my sister-in-law tracked down a three-legged cat that would be returning to Albuquerque with her.
While sipping a cup of tea, I got to work on those lamb heads. The only thing left to make was the sauce, a simple wine reduction scented with rosemary from the SnowMansion’s garden.
Once deposited on a dining room table, SnowMansion proprietress Mouna—normally a vegan—pried open the skulls with her bare hands. We followed her lead and began scooping out pieces of brain, digging out creamy bits and pieces, and playfully crossing forks as we each vied for one of the four eyeballs. To drink, PBR from coffee mugs did the trick.
I spent the next morning pulling ripe plums from drooping tree branches, enjoying a fresh breakfast while strolling the grounds. The better portion of the day was dedicated to doing field work for my story, but I hurried back to the hostel to cook dinner for everyone.
The menu consisted of one pot of mushroom risotto: a creamy, rich rice dish flavored with wine and stock and studded with wild morels and porcini. As I stirred and stirred, Hilda came in from the garden, hefting a large winter squash. Not sure what to do with it she asked me, “Can you cook this?”
We cut it open and sprinkled it with brown sugar and butter then baked it until it was soft and gave way easily to a fork. Every guest and staffer gathered in the kitchen and outdoor seating area to eat together. Somehow the pot of risotto fed us all, though it looked meager in comparison to the size of the crowd. The sounds of spoons scraping bowls soon gave way to lively conversation and laughter as people from all sorts of backgrounds and geography got to know each other. Guitars were brought out and several voices joined in to accompany the impromptu performance. While everyone finished feeding themselves, I slipped off to visit Mouna in her clinic, where she treated me to an astrological reading, acupuncture and a massage.
Each meal I was a part of in Taos and Arroyo Seco bolstered me and brought me together with friends, new and old. In a place where I arrived knowing no one, I left having made more friends than I can count. Shared meals do more than fill empty bellies. No matter who you are, where you’re from, or what drives your travels, in the end, we all have to eat.