Peace & Quiet at Hell's Backbone Grill
My apologies for leaving balls on the page for so long. It wasn't meant to be a semi-permanent fixutre on this blog. But since I've been such a fixture in front of my computer for various other projects, I decided to up and leave before I grounded roots into my non-ergonomically correct chair and that humdrum shoebox I call an office. So I ran away. With a few girlfriends who also needed to run away, too. The destination: Boulder, Utah. Home of stunning landscapes, all the stars in the universe, and one Hell's Backbone Grill (the friendliest restaurant on Earth).
I took a whole day off!!! Twenty-four hours of non-work designated weekday fun. I started doing my happy dance as soon as I got up on Friday morning. Plans to sleep in were dashed when I woke up too excited to lie still. When I picked up Romina, I greeted her with the happy dance. I didn't ring Amber's doorbell when my legs started going and I was doing the happy dance. Luckily, she opened the door doing her happy dance that I didn't look like the lone fool.
First things first. Road food. After swinging around Park City to pick up our friend Aimee, we stopped in blessed Utah county (home of Brigham Young University) to pick up a stash of junk food. Before you say anything—shut up. We were on vacation. So everything was game. Beef jerky. Doritos. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. We were even stoked to find Funyuns in the oh-so 21st century flavor of wasabi. None of us were compelled to actually pick them up, though.
Stereo blaring (thank you iTrip), we trekked through central Utah. To other folks planning a road trip, don't rely on GoogleMaps for back-country routes. Because you will end up lost in a town called Gunnison where there's a nudie bar called the Tip Top Club and only one road. But we weren't in a hurry and the drive is honestly one of the most gorgeous I've ever experience. So we saluted this small town nudie joint (and all others across America's heartland) and stormed through in the Subaru. Once we got into Loa and Lyman, we getting hungry. Luckily, Bicknell was just a few miles away. In no time we would be at the Sunglow Family Restaurant.
Okay, so our dinner reservation at Hell's Backbone Grill was only three hours away. But once we were seated at one of the Sunglow booths, our original plan of ordering the house signature pies—buttermilk, pickle, and pinto—we ended up with some real beef burgers (we are in cattle country after all) on some soft locally made buns (I love saying that out loud in a small town restaurant, especially when there are old people in the booth next to me). What you see here is a slice of the creamy buttermilk. It's spiked with lemon and isn't so unusual. I've had my fair share of buttermilk slices around the South.
What really surprised us road-she-warriors were the other two flavors. The pickle was tangy and the consistency was alot like chopped apple. Crunchy. Kinda astringent with plenty of brown sugar to balance it out. But the incontrovertible winner in this imprompty pie-tasting contest was the pinto bean. It's hard to imagine, I know. But somehow, these folks have managed to take pureed pinto beans, whip them into an airy consistency, top it with a coconut mixture, throw it into the oven to have it all caramelize in a lard crust (oh yes, lard), and top it with a bouffant of whipped cream just for show.
We left completely stuffed and only about an hour away. But again, I make the case that we were on vacation and I could eat as much I want, thank you. The drive from the town of Torrey to Boulder takes you through Dixie National Forest, which means it's an endless horizon of mesas and peaks studded with pinon pines, aspen groves, and lots of red rock. Scenic Byway 12 is often listed in national magazines as the drive to do out west. I suggest if you do it to stop frequently and have The Postal Service on your playlist. "A Brand New Colony" was written for trips like these.
Boulder is literally in the middle of nowhere. You roll in from the downhill mountain road and if you're lucky to catch it at sunset you'd swear you had made your way into a painting. Canyons dip down into the center of the earth and at their edge are houses, ranches, and Boulder Mountain Lodge. When we finally make it there, we eat ourselves silly at dinner. We drank ourselves silly, too. Again. We were on vacation, so there was nothing wrong with starting the meal with a bottle of Sofia Champagne and polish off two bottles of Cline Ancient Vines Mouvedre to take us from goat cheese-chile puff pastries to chocolate chile pot de creme. You'll notice there are no photos. In a giggly stupor and smoking in front of the hotel room (that's right, cancer sticks), I realized that we were too drunk and hungry to properly document the feast. It would be saved only for memory and that was just fine with me.
The next morning, we continued on Scenic Byway 12 to the Hog's Back road. For folks who've never been above sea level, it can be a harrowing ride. A two-line curving stretch of road that straddles the ridge of a mesa with no guardrails to psychologically make you feel safe. It's just you in your metal machine and a whole bunch of rocks. It's the perfect space to linger and take in the view. The quiet is unimaginably foreign. But after about a day, you don't notice it. Our ultimate destination was the trailhead for Lower Calf Creek Falls. A good three mile journey at the bottom of a canyon, kind of following a creek, until you get to its source—a dramatic waterfall oasis tucked into a redrock armpit. After sweating through rock outcroppings and fine desert sand trail. We finally made it. Couldn't say the same for the other poor bastards we encountered on the trail who embarked with kids in Radio Flyer wagons, on-the-verge-of-death lap dogs, and of course, with no water for the journey. But in the end, others' follies bought us some peace and quiet and a picnic lunch at the waterfall. To this day, I try to re-create the afternoon I took a nap by this:
If you still don't believe me when I say this area is STUNNING, you need to head out to Burr Trail. You have to drive through Boulder and descend into a dramatic red rock canyon. You basically huge the bottom, driving in the cool shadows of the sandstone. NOTE: play Moby's Play while you're driving and you've just created your own car commercial! Erosion creates dramatic patterns and colors—huge rock slides expose ampitheathres in the making and many slot canyons that have incredible acoustics. One such place I first was introduced to about a year ago. The owners of Hell's Backbone Grill and some friends brought me here. These guys are a musically gifted bunch. And in addition to playing numerous restaurants they can SING. It isn't unusual to encounter impromptu concerts here. Or put on your own. Every year, the restaurant hosts visiting Tibetan monks (Blake and Jen, the owners, are practicing Tibetan Buddhists) and they come to this canyon to chant. 20 monks singing in unision.
The sun only hits this patch of earth for minutes a day. By the time we reached it, it was already cold save the hollowed out tree trunk at the canyon's mouth. Romina discovered this first. And I think is the only time we'll ever see her hugging a tree.
But we found some precious sunlight that made the whole place glow. And my girls were basking. They totally deserved to.
Aimee, as usual, looks like a goddess.
And I've decided that if she ever tires of being a pastry chef, Amber can be a desert nymph. And I will forever refer to her as "Amber of the Canyon."
Our very short trip featured all our meals at Hell's Backbone Grill. And by the time our last dinner rolled around we were starving. While we waited for each to get ready, Aimee caught up on Saveur. Come to think of it, Saveur is probably a good place where you'd reach about the restaurant. But then again, it's already been covered by the New York Times Travel section and O Magazine. The location itself makes it a magical place. There's simple no other way to put it. And there's the fact that despite its incredibly isolated location (higher operating costs, harder means of getting customers into the dining room), it's managed to stick to its credo of sustainability. And they do it with a lot of heart here.
I'm always surprised to find out how many out-of-staters know about the place. It's likely because Jen and Blake have become quasi-celebrities with their book tour (they have a cookbook With a Measure of Grace) or radio appearances on both coasts. What they do is pretty remarkable. They rely on alot of organic and regional products. The menu is pretty much a landscape of the region. Chiles, masa, vegetables from the garden, touches of Mexico, touches of other bits of the Southwest. Every dish is a composite of the region. Many of the items have quite a history behind them, whether they be stories about the restaurant's relationship with the farmer, producer, rancher, or the history of the dish like Gloria's tortillas and tamales or Jen's famous Blue Ribbon Black Pepper Biscuits.
Seriously, I did not add the God-light to this photo. It just happened. Jen won a blue ribbon at the county fair for this recipe. And everyone in the restaurant gets a warm basket to start off the meal.
Utah goat cheese forms a fondue decorated with edible flowers. Slices of apples from Blake's own tree, soft-dried cherries from Utah, and black pepper crackers are meant to dip in this tangy exlixir. Dinner can be anything from the meatloaf spiked with chipotle chiles with lemony mashed potatoes to the pecan crusted trout (other than the sustainably farmed trout, there is nothing "aquatic" on the menu, which makes sense, since there is no ocean anywhere nearby) with the pueblo rice (peptias, corn, and diced veg with brown rice).
A meal here is never a quickie. As efficient as your intentions are, your body just wants to slow down and linger. And that's exactly what everyone does. By the time dessert came 'round—lemon chiffon cake and a caramel apple crumble—the sun was long gone. And for the first time in a while, I thought I could see every nook and cranny of the Milky Way. Blake came out to join us. She chowed down on her dinner—she'd been working all night saying hello to people who came specifically to meet her and talk with strangers who stumbled by and left completely happy.
She was nervous because a busy week was ahead. We all sympathized. But it was a good busy for the restaurant—a huge catering gig, not to mention a dinner at the Governor's Mansion to celebrate their Artist Medal award for the culinary field. As tired as she was, she talked, laughed, and drank with us. She gave Romina words of encouragement through a tough week at the patisserie. And though she addressed her specifically, we all took the words to heart. The place makes you think. Your head finally clears up and thoughts are kind of in order. For once, it seems like you can look head-on everything you need to deal with, with as much as it takes. For once, everything just may be all right.
But then, it's time to go. You pack up. Check out. Snarf down one last breakfast at the grill (migas with Gloria's tortillas and incredible stewed pinto beans). Then you hit the highway. As you get closer and closer home, that feeling leaves. And it's harder to remember the flavors of the steak you had two nights ago. And you want to have another glass of the Cline Mouvedre just to taste that soft pillow-like tannin. Finally, you're back just where you left off. If I'm lucky and I take a breath and think really intently I can smell the air in Boulder again. And when I stare down at my shoes in the office, wondering why on earth I can't get this sentence out of my head, I imagine the heels are gone. My Tevas are in place and my feet are wonderfully tired and dirty from hiking into a waterfall.
Suddenly, a nap sounds divine.