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We recently did a trip through Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and back into Utah. We made our own breakfasts and lunches but were to eat in local restaurants for dinner. We weren't in big towns anywhere. Our budget was quite modest but there are enjoyable diners and restaurants in most every place.

The first night in Cortez Colorado we were talking to our motel operator (I told you we were on a modest budget) for non-chain local proprietor places to eat. A family run Italian joint was highly recommened nearby but my family wasn't in that mood. There's an interesting German restaurant making their own sausages and so on. I'm tempted but get voted down. Some others were run past us and we decided to check out what appeared to be the lone supplier of Chinese food in the area. Hunan Garden. As we approached it, the exterior was run down a bit and the entry was in the rear. The backside was modest but a little better. There were some cars in the lot which reassured me a bit. Upon entering the inside was bright and cheery with many private spots for us to eat. The Asian family seats us and presents the menu.

It's surprisingly diverse and includes ingredients I wouldn't have thought to be readily available. While we dither over the menu, a fairly brisk business in take-out is underway which raises our hopes a bit further.

The plates are actually vitreous and not plastic. Not china nor stoneware, probably an industrial type of opaque glass. A nice touch particularly at the price point of the establishment. I was expecting plastic.

We choose a double sized fried dumpling appetizer, some "Happy Family" to appease my boys and a doubled vegetable mu-shu to appease the parental desire to get some nutrients in the kids. They're good vegie eaters normally, but our vegetable intake has been a bit low for the day.

Egg flower soup arrives and the kids discover they like it a lot. I've had some difficulty in the past with Asian soups and the kids. A long day of travel and walking around Arches National Park has stirred their appetites. And it is a pretty respectable rendition. Low on peas which pleases me as I'm not fond of peas and avoiding the gelatinous thickness too common in many Chinese dives.

The appetizer arrives in miniature row-boats. The bow is sectioned and contains the dipping sauce. The dumplings are arrayed over cabbage in the back. A nice presentation in the boat. The sauce is milder than I would make it but with a different nuance than I've had before. It plays nicely with fried dumpling and they are quickly devoured. My daughter is particularly impressed. She could probably live happily on a diet of potstickers, rice and broccoli with the occasional cucumber.

I don't think she's ever had anything Asian she doesn't like besides wasabi. Still a bit young for that experience I guess.

The dumplings are cleared and the table is readied for the mu-shu. Sauce and pancakes arrive. But the mu-shu is delayed a bit. The Happy Family comes and we dish it out. Fairly straight forward for this dish but with a darker sauce and less sweet than I've seen before. I'm seeing some signs of this distant location in this dish as the shrimp and fish aren't of the best quality but pleasant and the beef is tougher. However, I'm enjoying the flavor. A little more pungent and earthy than usual--a theme I'd see repeated in the mu-shu. The boys put a respectable dent in this.

The mu-shu soon arrives and my daughter is ecstatic to use the pancake. The girl is a starch fanatic and would have eaten the whole stack of pancakes plain if we let her. While I was expecting a hoisin sauce for spreading the pancakes, it's not. Again, it's got a darker, less sweet flavor with more earthiness. Perhaps more of a brown bean paste base. And yes, Hoisin is based in that too, but this was different than any hoisin I've had before.

Fortune cookie and an almond cookie (dry, dusty and bland) finish it off.

The next night after playing in Mesa Verde and Four Corners, we're in Farmington New Mexico, a bigger place than I thought it would be. We end up eating at a budget steakhouse, Zebediahs. The menu has many things I often like in these sorts of restaurants such as Country Fried Steak. I'm a sucker for Country Fried steak and have the biggest of my cooking scars to prove it. Their fried chicken was also spoken of highly. As another vegie bonus, they have a pretty good salad bar. The wife and I end up ordering ribeye steaks anyway. The kids work through the kids menu standards except for the steak fingers one of my boys orders. That was a nice touch on a kids menu. And add in a salad bar under parental pressure, which they eat well.

My wife is trying to figure out the available sides which were actually explained on the following pages. Kind of confusing menu. But she lit up when I mentioned fried okra was one of the options. She hadn't had that in a while.

The steaks are surprisingly good. They're accurately cooked unlike those chain places (Sizzler/Black Angus/Texas whatevers... ) My wife declares the okra delicious and the steak good. The kids work mostly on the salad bar options. Good for them.

The next day is Chaco canyon. An awesome place though not as visually stunning in landscape as some of the other places on this trip, the ruins make up for it.

Our motel is over in Chinle AZ though and that's a bit of a drive. Where Farmington was bigger than expected Chinle is smaller. Only fast food chains and restaurants attached to the motels/hotels. We try one of the attached restaurants at Garcia Trading Post. I ordered the chicken enchiladas and it was nothing special, weak even. Had a surprisingly hot salsa on the side. My wife had the fried chicken-- I thought it too salty--and the kids ate free off the kids menu. A downer of a meal but options were surprisingly limited.

Sights of the next day included Canyon De Chelly (pronounced shay) which was a fabulous sight. A HOT hike to the canyon bottom to see the White House Ruin and arrays of Navajo wares for sale. We're in the heart of the Navajo Nation and even National Monuments are run a bit differently here. Many other neat vistas and ruins to see from the rim. The floor of the canyon is still home to many Navajos and is closed to the public except when you have hired a native guide. Excepting the White House ruin.

Following that is the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert NP or NM? Much more than I expected. Huge petrified trees, colorful clays, bentonite, chinle formation and sand. Quite stunning. And some indian ruins as well. And way too much theft. Lots of the grandeur of the park has been illegally pocketed by the tourists. Even on private land, there is lots of petrified wood available for sale if you must have some.

So much so that when we drive in to Holbrook (behind schedule so we decide to eat there instead of where we're staying in Winslow) there is a huge parking lot filled with petrified logs for sale. Every establishment in town is flanked by huge hunks of petrified wood. Holbrook seems to be where the movie Cars was inspired. It's on Historic route 66 and a bit off of Highway 40 that bypasses route 66. Even the orange cone motel of the movie seems modeled after the teepee motel where you can stay in your own concrete and fiberglass teepee for the night. It's a dying town. Lots of empty business fronts.

Driving around we come up on the Wayside Cafe. It had a fair number of cars in the lot and that made our decision for us. In we go.

Their menu is Mexican and American food. I have a Mexican combo plate. My wife has fried chicken. I suppose we're trying to make up for the poor meal the night before by basically ordering the same thing. The kids, well I don't really remember at the moment. I know they liked it and you could tell it was all hand crafted but it slips my mind.

We started with fried zucchini with a home made ranch type sauce--not from a mix. I'd even guess a home made mayo as it was eggy in that way. Very tasty.

Quickly, a small serving of freshly made tortilla chips arrive with a thin hot salsa, part of my combo. Some of the best tortilla chips I've had. The kids all helped me eat my chips and touched a bit in the salsa to try it out.

The fried chicken my wife had is some of the best fried chicken I've tasted. She agrees.. Hand mashed potatoes and a good gravy. She had more of that ranch dressing on her salad, though the salad was mostly iceberg. The waitress reassured my wife about the tomatoes as that was at the time of the salmonella outbreak.

My combo plate came with a chile verde covered enchilada, a nice beef taco, a tostada and rice and beans. The chile verde was more a green chile gravy. Not what I would call authentic mexcan but it was a tasty southwestern hybrid with a good balance of heat and flavor. All was well executed though not innovative. A sopa arrived with some clover honey to finish off the combo. I was quite sated at that point so my kids ate most of the sopa and loved it.

Besides the tomato discussion, our waitress was pleasantly chatty and recommended we sidetrack back to the town hall for some local Navajo dancing that was taking place that evening. We stayed an extra while for some off that then it was off to find out hotel in the dark. I think there was only one other guest at the hotel that night.

The next day would see us arrive in Phoenix for a number of days as my extended family gathered for a wedding. On the way to Phoenix we visited Meteor Crater and Montezuma's Castle, another National Monument. The eating in Phoenix was each family taking a turn cooking for the rest. I made a roll your vietnamese spring roll bar with lots of vegie options, fresh herbs, rice noodles, chicken, shrimp and so o with a few different sauce options.

My sister made a good wilted fajita salad. My sister in law did some mildly innovative wraps. I'm not a big fan of wraps, but these were above the norm. Had a few different meals involved with the wedding but nothing noteworthy. Played in pools, tubed the salt river towing a raft with beverage loaded coolers and a sound system.

On the way home, via some more National monuments (Sunset Crater and Wupatki) we stopped for the night in Page AZ. After surveying the restaurant choices I played the trump card and dragged the rest of the family to a Navajo restaurant attached to one of the hotels, Blue Corn Restaurant at the Quality Inn. One of the cheapest meals we ate and a very pleasant one though also very different.

Both my wife and youngest son ordered the Mutton Stew with fry bread. My middle son ordered a personal pepperoni pizza. His second favorite food after steak. My daughter ordered some chicken. I had the Navajo Taco. The stew and taco came with a blue corn mush in a small bowl.

My wife loved the stew. My son ate it well. There wasn't a lot of mutton, mostly vegetables and a thin broth with practically no seasoning. The idea was that you ate it with the fry bread using the fat of the fry bread to enrichen and flavor the stew It worked, though it would still be bland by many people's standards. A very simple food and I think honest. The mush should be handled the same way offering a texture variation.

I found the mush inedible. But I also have a hard time with grits and polenta when still soft. I'm fine with it once cooled, solidified and toasted, but not gooey. As a teen, I went on a pioneer re-enactment. They served corn mush for breakfast and I couldn't stand it then either. Maybe that ruined me for life.

As to my Taco it was pretty good. The fry bread was some of the best. The beans weren't seasoned much, but that seems to be the trend in this navajo food. The meat was well seasoned and it had a good mix of vegetable toppings. I'd have liked a little sour cream, but that wouldn't have been authentic to this particular branch of Navajo cooking it seems.

We had a great time.
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair