A road trip in the US was a thought that, since my teens, quietly lingered at the back of my mind. It’s a bit of a cliché, but driving Route 66 is something I’d still like to do before I lose my mind and have to rely on looking back at this blog to remember what I used to get up to. It wasn’t quite Route 66, but the road trip we embarked on after saying adiós to Vegas was a micro adventure in itself. Go make yourself a beverage as this looks like it may be an epic tour around the Nevadan and Californian countryside.
Red Rock Canyon can be found about 20 miles west of Vegas and once you pass the conservation area boom-gates it’s a simple one-way 13-mile circuit road that winds around the park, offering spots to pull over and check out the sights. Not only can you drive but it looks like cycling and hiking is a popular way to see the site.
Being there in early October meant we could experience the desert in full colour with many wildflowers like the bright yellow cryptantha, carpeting the dry gravel alongside cacti and other native flora. Just watch out for those tarantula’s if you squat
down to smell the blooms. The hairy little buggers will give you a coronary. No, I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting one of them but I’m sure they’re sitting next to a rock, waiting to pounce at any unsuspecting foreigner.
Just in time for lunch, and the first place of civilisation, was the small town of Beatty. Its main street, creatively named Main Street, feels much like a themed desert town with saloons constructed of wood and tin, dogs asleep on sunny porches, locals swigging a cold one at the bar and tumbleweeds blowing down the main drag.
Ok, I’m kidding about the tumbleweeds but it felt like there should have been a few of them billowing down Main Street. It’s the first place I’ve been to in this big world of ours where a petrol station has slot machines inside its store. A bit of Vegas class spilling out to its neighbouring townships.
According to Urbanspoon there are six places to grab a meal in this town of 1000 people and top of the list is KC’s Outpost. The menu is as humble as its surroundings, offering sandwiches in homemade bread, pizza’s and cakes lovingly made inhouse. The KC’s special combo ($8.25) can be served hot or cold and comes laden with ham, beef and turkey that will “melt in your mouth”, as the menu declares. Cheese, tomato, red onion and lettuce add some crunch and a packet of Lays chips are thrown in for good measure.
The specials board sold us on its ½ sandwich, served cold, on freshly baked French bread ($8.25). It was just a ham and salad sandwich, so nothing overly creative, with a pretty damn fine mug of homemade chunky beef soup. We even had a slice of cake as part of the deal. It was the “French bread” that initially drew us in but the soft and spongy bread we got was far from anything I’ve had in France. I guess you can’t expect artisan bread in a town like this. Granted, it was a good lunch.
Fuelled up on our KC’s sandwiches we jumped back into the rental car and headed for Death Valley, not all that far from Beatty. Anyone that loves schlepping about deserts, checking out sand dunes and salt flats would revel in the dust and blistering heat at Death Valley.
It’s definitely impressive to drive through despite the fact we wasted time trying to find the ghost town of Skidoo and discovering that nothing actually remains there other than an empty field and a photograph on a plaque. Oh well. Bishop, here we come.
The first night of the road trip was spent in Bishop, a nice little city in the shadow of the stunning Sierra Nevada. Arriving at dusk meant we just checked into our hotel and headed up the main drag for dinner, stopping off at Yamatani for a good dose of Japanese. A bottle of vino assisted in unwinding from a days driving and a very welcoming waitress made us feel right at home.
My tongue was doing backflips when I started eating the insanely delicious baked mussels ($4), rocking with garlic, cheese and other “secret” tidbits. The fried gyoza ($5.5) were just like any I’ve had before, as was the kaiso (seaweed salad $4.5). Another stand-out dish was the caterpillar ($9) – unagi, cucumber, avocado and tori sauce. I could have eaten this with the wine all night but there was more food on it’s way.
A salmon skin roll ($7) simply had to join the dinner set; crunchy, a little oily and strong in salmon flavour. Loved it! Nothing overly exciting came from the chicken yakitori ($7.75), or the soft shell crab ($10), but when the sweets arrived things turned around a tad. Deep-fried cheesecake ($6). Yes, that’s right. It came wrapped in a flat pancake of sorts, fried, rolled in granulated sugar and splodged with strawberry syrup. It could have done without the syrup, even that cloud of aerated cream. Gosh, this was something else. The un-naturally coloured green tea ice cream ($1.25) wasn’t all that strong in the tea department and paled in comparison to the wacky fried cheese cake.
Waking up to a gorgeous morning in Bishop had me rearing to get out and explore the town a little. Crisp and fresh air, spots of snow up on the mountains; I just had to get out there. This is one beautiful part of California.
Breakfast at the Best Western was complimentary so we grazed lightly from the average spread of food, avoiding the tub of sausage gravy that looked like something I don’t care to mention and a jug of piss-weak drip coffee not even worth touching.
Five minutes walk down the road brought us to the Spellbinder Bookshop where I knew there was an espresso bar. I could just smell it. The book shop wasn’t open so we accessed the cafe via the rear car park. Jackpot. Real coffee made by a superstar. Black Sheep is one place in this town that knows how to work a machine. If I could split hairs the only fault is that the milk was over-aerated. On that particular morning and in that part of the US I couldn’t afford to be fussy. Espresso is what I needed and espresso is what I got. Well, a macchiato to be precise. Food-wise, they do bagels, focaccia and wheat toast, if you really need to know.
I knew there were a few coffee shops about town that I really wanted to try but cramming caffeine into my body over a couple of hours just doesn’t work like it used to. Gone are the days of me throwing back nine espresso’s in the space of a few hours. There was one other place on Main Street, yes Bishop also has a Main Street, and that would be Looney Bean Coffee.
Sadly the classic cappuccino didn’t quite cut it with its weakness and pouring but the macchiato I got was seriously stronger than the average macc. Ok, who was the tall Aussie bouncing off the walls in this looney house? Hand goes up. Loved the 3-nut apple strudel that helped dilute the bitchin’ macchiato.
My light breakfast was beginning to fade and seeing I was a little caffeinebriated, a visit to iconic Schat’s Bakkery, also on Main Street, was a much needed exercise. Strictly no photography inside Schat’s means you won’t be seeing any internal shots of the establishment so there’ll be no mention of what one can find inside this business other than the freaking beautiful Schat’s hot pastrami ($5.5) I simply couldn’t resist.
5-ounce hot navel pastrami, mayo, hot mustard, lettuce and tomato on caraway rye bread. There’s a small serve of sauerkraut on the side, a quarter of pickle, even a complimentary Swiss pecan kiss cookie. I had the half size but for $8.50 you can have the whole thing. Now I’m wondering why I didn’t go for the whole.
Moving on, the rental was filled with fuel, windscreen washed of splattered insects and Bishop was just a reflection in the rear-view mirror. Heading up picturesque Route 395 as it skirts the Sierra Nevada I thought it’d be nice to take a detour and see some of the countryside, the foothills and anything but the main highway.
Turning off at a blink-and-miss it settlement named Tom’s Place, we took Rock Creek Road as far as we could, gradually ascending the foothills of the mountain range through forests of golden aspen trees, pockets of snow and up to the shimmering Rock Creek Lake. This was one detour I’m glad we did. Beyond stunning. The air was cool and still, the sun blared down and the strong smell of pine trees filled the lungs.
Our gorgeous waitress at Yamatani, in Bishop, suggested we stop into a place at Rock Creek Lake for the pies. This was the reason for the detour. I admit it. Yes I really wanted to be part of the beautiful landscape but I also wanted to sniff out this pie joint she said we had to visit. Here we have it – Pie in the Sky Cafe at the Rock Creek Lakes Resort. Virtually unheard of and a place anyone and everyone simply must visit if they’re in the area.
The cafe is tucked in the corner of the general store where you can stock up on anything from camping needs, fishing bait or food provisions. Need a bear (no, not beer) keg, to keep those pesky beasts out of your food? You can get one here. A list of available pies, all made in-house, is displayed overhead. I asked how long Mom’s apple pie ($5.25) was going to be and lucky for us it was just taken out of the oven.
Check out that beautiful wedge of goodness, steaming in the cool air. And yes, it was as good as it looks. The cranberry walnut pie ($7.95) wasn’t half bad either. Wet, sweet and a little sour with to-die-for pastry. After a short stroll beside the crystal clear lake we jump into the car and head down the valley, back to the highway and up to Mammoth Lakes.
The town of Mammoth Lakes, in October, is probably a sleepy little place compared to the cooler months when avid skiers and boarders flock to the mountains and shred their way down the slopes.
We were booked for two nights at the beautiful Westin Monache Resort right by the Mammoth Village and not too far from the main town centre. I imagined at that point how stunning the place must look under a blanket of snow, already thinking we must return in winter sometime for a ski trip.
Five minutes walk from the hotel is Burgers Restaurant so rather than ignore our rumbling guts and go searching for more eating options, it would have to do. Located in a smallish wooden house, the service is what was most memorable about our lunch. Our Kiwi waitress was just fantastic, friendly and attentive.
The food portions are typically large, especially with the fries and salads. My quarter pound buffalo burger ($10.95) was pretty decent, filled with crumbled blue cheese, 1000 island dressing and salad. The other half does the turkey dip sandwich ($10.95), loaded with thinly sliced meat and a small cup of jus on the side. No complaints, just nothing all that memorable.
Coffee houses are fairly lean in Mammmoth Lakes and you could probably count all of them on one hand. Hoping to dose up on some decent caffeine, Java Joint looked like an adequate contender from the outside but when we stepped inside I kind of knew it wasn’t going to be top notch. I thought somehow we walked into another business. DVD rentals? Balls of coloured yarn? Oh Jesus, we just entered a craft queens/couch potato’s paradise.
For a moment I thought this could be more hit than miss with its coffee so I felt positive, ordered a cappuccino from the friendly lady and took a seat at the odd concrete table with hoof imprints on the surface. What can I say. The coffee was a bit of a shocker. Hopelessly made on a machine I knew could churn out some serious espresso, providing the operator knew how to drive it. Maybe I should have grabbed one of the pretty beenies as the temperature was noticibly dropping.
Later that afternoon we just lounged about the hotel, spending a couple of hours down in the Whitebark bar sipping on local vino, appreciating where we were, what we were doing … just lapping up the experience. Feeling like we’d already settled in for the evening, it was looking very much like a hotel dinner. At least we only had a few metres to walk to a table.
The Whitebark menu has a few personalities, featuring sushi and sashimi beside more contemporary American fare, even a seasonal and nightly tagine. A Californian white kicks off dinner, of course, and starters of a simple salad of grilled white peach ($11) and some sashimi. Promising wild baby arugula, we ended up with English spinach leaves with the lovely grilled fruit plus shaved Manchego and very good vanilla vinaigrette. Loved the sashimi of Australian yellowtail with small batons of compressed melon, rosemary, olive oil and micro benitade but the I found the lemon in the dressing overpowered the delicate fish.
The pan seared salmon ($31) was an absolute winner, served with wilted arugula, maitake mushroom and tumble of crispy shallots. The shallow pool of roasted garlic and caperberry beurre blanc was a perfect match for the delicious and perfectly cooked fish. Braised beef short ribs ($34) were my protein kick. Served atop an incredible Manchego polenta with pan-roasted Brussels sprouts and heirloom carrots. Incredibly rich and freaking beautiful.
There was only room for one dessert so it was a given that I went with the signature elevated s’mores ($9). A short and squat tower of lightly toasted thick marshmallow that contains a little chocolate sauce and cinnamon Grayham Crackers. It’s a little tricky to cut but once the marshmallow makes contact with the hot pan it softens and melts. Loved the crunchy toffee scroll.
Waking up the next morning we were shocked at what we saw when the window blind went up. There was a bit of a blizzard outside. From the previous days gloriously blue skies to an outlook that was covered in about 40 cm of fresh snow. This was not good. You see we planned to spend another night in Mammoth Lakes before heading up the road and taking the Tioga Pass into Yosemite National Park. The latest news said the pass was closed due to heavy snow fall and if we stayed in Mammoth Lakes for too long we may be stranded as the blizzard was settling in. We didn’t even have snow chains for the car.
As much as I wanted to stay and frollick in the snow we had to act fast and pack our bags, cancel our second nights accommodation and get out of town. With the Tioga Pass closed the next closest road entry into Yosemite involved driving eight hours around the Sierra Nevada and accessing it from the west. An absolute pain in the glutes but at least I got to see Mammoth Lakes blanketed in snow.
Heading back down Route 395 into the Mojave Desert we did a quick lunch stop in Tehachapi, dropping into Kelcy’s Restaurant & Cafe. This old diner is like stepping back in time. Vinyl booths, laminate tables, chirpy and very friendly service and good old country music jigging in the background. Decor-wise there’s a lot going on – faded prints, photo’s of military and NASA craft taking up a good chunk of the main wall. Up-turned coffee mugs sprawl across the tables beside sugar dispensers, bottles of Tabasco and bowls of non-dairy creamer capsules.
As goods trains rattle past the window we check the menu that features all of the diner classics. “Try our famous chicken in a basket” – too big for a basket! – the menu declares. Yup, that’ll do for me. Mr K goes with a rather ordinary burger and chips ($5.5). Once again he gets a packet of Lay’s as he did back in Nevada.
The waitress brings out my famous chicken ($8.95), apologises, and explains that more is coming as the breast was rather large and needed longer cooking. The drumsticks are just what you’d expect from fried chicken but when I finally got the breast I was a little horrified at how severely over-cooked it was. Jesus! The meat didn’t actually resemble meat anymore. What I had was one very golden, very solid piece of scored chicken breast that should have come out of the fryer five minutes before the buzzer went off. Ten points to the cook for cocking this one up.
I gave my molars a rest from chewing on deep-fried chicken bark and went for a wedge of soft and incredibly sweet apple pie ($3). Hmm, I wonder what the coffee is like in this joint? No time to find out, and to be honest, no inclination. We needed to hit the road and get up to Oakhurst to find a hotel before nightfall.
We didn’t stop once between Tehachapi and Oakhurst other than when I was driving and we were headed straight for a massive storm cell, black sky and all, where the rain was so heavy I couldn’t see out of the windscreen. A little scary, actually, and as many people pulled over on the freeway to wait for the bucketing to ease – other drivers still sped past like idiots.
Arriving in Oakhurst at dusk meant we still had to find a hotel for the night, which we did, then went down the main drag in search of a dinner venue. Some Italian would be nice? Ignoring the themed interior of Di Cicco’s with its internal window shutters and lattice work, we were more focussed on the bottle of wine we desperately yearned for after a long days driving.
Food-wise I went for something I hadn’t eaten for quite some time. Eggplant parmigiana ($10.99). Sadly the one at Di Cicco’s isn’t the finest specimen I’ve tried. Crumbed eggplant, loads of cheese, tomato, mushroom, crumbled meatballs and even more cheese. It really was a sloppy mess but at least it filled the hole.
A pizza was also ordered, that being Papa’s Special Spicy pizza ($12.95) with chilli pods, fresh garlic, sausage and mushrooms. The base was so dry and rigid the slice didn’t even bend in the centre. Kind of like a big dry crouton. Dud dinner for us, methinks, but ok for those that like American Italian food.