According to the cheery student volunteer who gave a short lecture at Big Bend National Park the other day, the desert is delicious: Any resourceful visitor can make a meal of prickly pear pads and pigweed seeds.
While the ranger-in-training assured us the federal government wouldn't mind if we harvested our dinners -- so long as we didn't try to sell them -- I stuck to more conventional edible choices on my trip to Marfa and Big Bend this weekend. Here, a list of my five favorite West Texas food finds.
Since this was my first-ever trip down Big Bend way, I'm quite sure none of the items on this list qualify as actual "discoveries," along the lines of the dome-head dinosaur archaeologists found in the park last summer. But they were the best things I ate, excepting the daily specials that can't be ordered again -- such as the chili at a pizzeria in Sanderson -- and the convenience store Cheez-Its that passed for lunch when a back road that looked so charming on the map turned out to be a barren corridor of culinary nothingness.
1. KC steak, Lowake Steakhouse, Rowena My server tried to dissuade me from ordering the KC platter for one, saying the cut didn't measure up to the filet. But according to legend (and the eaters who bother to post their steak reflections on websites for discerning carnivores), it was the KC that inspired oilmen and Elvis Presley to make impromptu private jet trips to Rowena. The restaurant's since changed ownership, but I still liked the earthy steak and its garlicky, salty crust.
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2. Muscat Canelli, Val Verde Winery, Del Rio The third-oldest bonded winery in the United States, the 127-old year old Val Verde's built its contemporary reputation on its tawny port. I liked the port, but was very impressed by the winery's Muscat Canelli, a silky floral number with pineapple notes that would make a fine porch-sipper or a decent dessert.
3. Chorizo and egg breakfast taco, Stripes Convenience Stores, all over the place I got hooked on gas-station food as a reporter in Macon, Mississippi, where the Texaco across from City Hall served the county's best fried chicken. I'm not sure how Stripes' breakfast tacos compare to the tacos I might have found had it not been a holiday weekend, but I don't regret making the store's terrific chorizo and egg -- served on a freshly grilled tortilla -- my first bite of 2011.
4. Bread, Maiya's, Marfa Many restaurants have ditched bread service, deeming it a costly and unappreciated affectation in recessionary times. Not Maiya's, where every meal begins with warm, thick slices of crusty artisan bread. The homemade pistachio ice cream was pretty remarkable too.
5. Crazy Water, Mineral Wells Closer to home, I bought my first bottle of Crazy Water -- something I might have accomplished at any Dallas area Albertson's, according to the producer's website, but I liked the idea of drinking the cure-all near its source. I was taken with the funky flavors of Crazy Water No. 4, and haven't had a touch of rheumatism or liver disease all day.