A good many of us travel on our stomachs. And what’s more fun, really, than discovering a dining destination on the road? Here are five excellent, diverse places to dine, each one reflective of its location, all magically, totally different from one another.
Los Angeles: Rivera
Rivera is John Rivera Sedlar, whom I met in the mid-’80s at his Manhattan Beach restaurant, St. Estephe. He was the first American chef to fuse Southwestern flavors with French cooking techniques, and today he’s doing progressive Latin food just next door to the Staples Center in downtown L.A. If chefs can be geniuses, this is the man.
There are three dining rooms dedicated to dishes from Spain, Portugal, Mexico and South America, each filtered through Sedlar’s highly original interpretations. From Mexico, try bacalao negro frito, black cod lacquered with tamarind and agave, or Spain’s caracoles, snail with jamón Ibérico and the Portuguese white wine vinho verde. Traditional Brazilian feijoada, a meaty black bean stew, is one of my personal favorites from one of America’s most diverse menus. 1050 S. Flower St., 213-749-1460.
Costa Mesa, Calif.: Marché Moderne
South Coast Plaza is like the Forum Shops, Miracle Mile Shops and Fashion Show rolled into one. It’s where the most well-heeled Orange County residents shop and dine, and is second in size only to Minnesota’s Mall of America among U.S. shopping malls.
Marché Moderne is a classic French bistro with few surprises, other than the authentic, generally infallible hand of chef Florent Marneau. It’s almost completely French in here, in spite of the fact that there is a Nordstrom’s just beyond the wood paneling, smoked-glass doors and abundant flowers. Everyone eats the steak frites, but consider, perhaps, stepping out of that comfort zone. Marneau makes his own charcuterie, such as rabbit rillettes and country paté, and his wood-burning oven turns out dishes like an Alsatian tarte flambee and Moroccan tajines. 3333 Bristol St., CA, 714-434-7900.
Buellton, Calif.: The Hitching Post II
Buellton is a sleepy tourist town in the heart of Santa Barbara wine country, and this restaurant, made famous in the film Sideways, has an ace-in-the-hole in chef/owner Frank Ostini.
The cheerful Ostini, who often grills wearing a safari helmet and who sports a thick, cartoonish mustache, was born at the stoves; his family still owns the original Hitching Post in nearby Casmalia, a cow town in the countryside. Food is simple and satisfying—prime steaks barbecued over red-oak coals, quail, lamb chops and an amazing smoked artichoke. What’s more, Ostini makes a delicious pinot noir with the sobriquet Harley-Ostini, which won’t put a dent in your wallet. But please, no merlot. 406 E. Highway, 246, 805-688-0676.
Winslow, Ariz.: The Turquoise Room
Yes, there really is a statue of the Eagles on a downtown corner in this onetime railroad stop, but it is the cooking of John Sharpe at the Turquoise Room in the La Posada Hotel that has become the big draw.
Sharpe, who is from Hartlepool, near Newcastle, England, is an apt pupil when it comes to modern Native American cooking. For instance, he does a Native American cassoulet using Churro lamb and tepary beans that he sources from the nearby Navaho tribe, and makes wispy blue-corn piki bread using a recipe from the Hopi. Stay for breakfast and you get to enjoy Sharpe’s The Corn Maiden’s Delight, warm polenta with fire-roasted tomato and spinach topped with two poached eggs. 303 E. Second St. (Route 66), 928-289-2888.
Santa Fe, N.M.: Horseman’s Haven Café
Would you drive 580 miles for a bowl of red? I would, and that goes double for green. Most tourists who come to Santa Fe end up on the Plaza, at tony addresses such as Santacafé or the well-known Coyote Café. This, however, is a locals place several miles down the road on the way to Albuquerque, and both the red and green chilies are the best I’ve ever tasted, the pinnacle of New Mexico cooking.
The red chili is dusky, thick with smoky, tender chunks of pork, and has a vicious kick. Have the wicked hot tomatillo-based green chili on an enchilada. Posole is awesome here as well. Plan on spending considerably less than $10 a person. 4354 Cerrillos Road, 505-471-5420.