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On the Road to Colorado

Dining options between San Francisco and Aspen are much better than they used to be
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 6, 2011 10:59am ET

Finding a good place to eat on our annual drives to and from our summer apartment in Aspen, 1,200 miles from San Francisco, used to be a challenge. Our original route, once past the beautiful Sierra Nevada range, took us across the bleak northern half of Nevada, past the Salt Flats of Utah, through the Wasatch Range and across I-70 to Colorado. It pretty much left good food behind at Reno.

Night 1 was either at Winnemucca, Elko or Wendover, night 2 at Grand Junction, Colo., leaving a 2 1/2-hour run to Aspen on day 3 in time for the first good lunch. There may have been some secret hidden restaurants along that route, but we didn't find them 10 to 12 years ago. So my wife and I took to loading up sandwich fixings in a plug-in cooler that occupied half the back seat so we could stop at wooded rest areas to eat. We still take the Igloo, because we use it as an extra refrigerator in our compact Colorado apartment, but en route now it basically keeps our drinking water cold and holds some fruit for snacks.

That's because we figured out, several years ago, that driving through Las Vegas, which adds only about 50 extra miles to our route, represents a vast improvement in food and scenery. Now night 1 is in Las Vegas, where the dining options are legion. Night 2 is still in Grand Junction, but three years ago we discovered a friendly wine bar where we look forward to a glass of good wine and creative food at the end of the day's drive.

This year we decided to spend an extra day in Las Vegas so my wife could experience é, José Andrés' avant-garde take on Spanish cuisine tucked away behind his highly popular Jaleo restaurant at the Cosmopolitan Hotel (itself a refreshing destination at the end of the day's drive). We left é to the second night, so we would be rested for its 20 small courses, and it more than lived up to our expectations. For our arrival dinner we grazed on Jaleo's tapas menu, including a memorably light, silky almond soup with crabmeat.

Lunch in Las Vegas narrows the options considerably, as most of the better restaurants serve dinner only. We took a friend's recommendation and tried the $20.11 three-course Greek lunch at Milos. This is an astounding deal. Where else can you get a gorgeous whole Mediterranean bass (lavraki in Greek, spigola in Italian), split and grilled with olive oil, preceded by a shrimp saganaki (the shrimp about 2 ounces each), and a creamy dessert of thick Greek yogurt and candied orange peel, for that price? Add a glass of Biblia Chora Areti White Pangeon 2008 for $13, and it's darn close to perfect.

The southern route takes us across the Tehachapis and portions of the Mojave Desert on the way to Las Vegas on the first day, but the best part of the drive is day 2. About 45 minutes north of Las Vegas, I-15 passes through the dramatic Virgin River Canyon, the farm-studded valleys of southern Utah and eventually onto I-70 and past Capitol Reef, with spectacular rock formations next to the highway. One looks like a gigantic steamship.

Lunch on that route has been tricky. At the halfway point we're about at the junction of I-15 and I-70, way past Cedar City, where there are some decent delis. But this time we stumbled onto Arshel's, a small diner in Beaver, Utah, for a fresh-tasting sandwich and salad.

In Grand Junction for the evening, we tooled over to the wine bar, 626 on Rood, where chef Theo Otto served us a cold soup that took advantage of the flavorful Colorado cherries in season now and flavored them with hibiscus and basil. We also had some of his signature smoked scallops with squid ink pasta, and drank Chehalem Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 3 Vineyard 2008 with it. To finish, co-owner Brenda Wray brought over a sip of a sweet, satiny passito from the Veneto. You don't get that in any roadside chain restaurants.

Jaleo Las Vegas
The Cosmopolitan, 3708 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, 89109
Telephone: (702) 698-7950
Website: www.jaleo.com

Estiatorio Milos Las Vegas
The Cosmopolitan, 3708 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, 89109
Telephone: (702) 698-7930
Website: www.milos.ca

626 on Rood
626 Rood Ave., Grand Junction, Colo. 81501
Telephone: (970) 257-7663
Website: www.626onrood.com

Follow Harvey Steiman on twitter at www.twitter.com/harveywine.

Brian Carlson
Chicago, IL —  July 7, 2011 2:38pm ET
Great post, I would have never thought about going through Vegas to get to Aspen. I did however plan my move from Chicago to Portland a few years ago to facilitate stops in Vail and Grand Junction - and I am also a huge fan of 626 on Rood, who knew? There are also some great and underrated dining options in Cedar City, UT but you're correct that the timing isn't right for lunch when driving out of Vegas. At any rate, glad to hear that I'm not the only person who plans road trips around food & wine - I'm actually driving from Portland to SFO in a couple weeks and looking forward to dinner at New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro in Talent, OR which I'm sure you know not only from the amazing food and wine list but also from the proprietors' previous restaurant in Anderson Valley and their unique departure (as I'm told). Regardless, it's also one of the hidden gems for oenophiles when traveling the country.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  July 7, 2011 5:39pm ET
Ah yes. I wrote a blog about New Sammy's a couple of years ago, and mentioned it in my 2009 story on visiting the Northwest. Good rule to follow is to let Vernon pick a wine to your specifications. He knows his cellar, and it's a great one. Charlene, his wife, is a great cook too.

Another great stop en route to SF from Portland is a 20-mile detour through Chico for lunch at the Sierra Nevada brewery. They have a nice brewpub, and the pale ale is one of my favorite beers.
Neil Barham
Vail, co —  July 8, 2011 12:47pm ET
Great trip Harvey, I do agree with you, I always stop at 626 when traveling I-70 through Grand Junction, and never refuse a glass of any Chehalem wine!
Brenda Wray
Grand Junction, Colorado —  July 9, 2011 12:57pm ET
Harvey...it was great seeing you again! Guests have been questioning the wall since you left.
Thanks so much for appreciating what we do at 626!
Jacob Fetzer
Mendocino CA —  July 9, 2011 4:04pm ET
What about Durango? You took the wrong route.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  July 9, 2011 4:41pm ET
Grand Junction has the advantage of being on I-70. No major roads run through Durango. It would have to be separate trip.
Peter Feibleman
Newport Beach, Ca —  July 12, 2011 2:11pm ET
Harvey : Have you tasted Figgin's new Red Wine of Walla Walla ?

What kind of rating or do you know of anyone that has ?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  July 12, 2011 3:59pm ET
I have tasted it, and it's in process of publication. Without giving too much away, let's say it's a worthy addition to the Figgins family's lineup.

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