Our Arizona Adventure, Part 5: Recap and Reviews

So here is a list of where we went/ stopped at with a brief heads-up:

Restaurants

  • Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q 24152 West Interstate 10, San Antonio, TX 78257 – One of our favorites back home.  We thought we were just going to go to an HEB to get gas and some deli sandwiches as we had an 11 hour drive to get through this day.  But when we saw Rudy’s at the same exit, plans changed.  Then we found out this was the ORIGINAL Rudy’s, and we got super excited.  And then we ate the food.  Yeah, this is one time when the franchise is actually better than the mom and pop original.  The ribs and turkey were both dry – not good.

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  • Sutton County Steakhouse 1306 N Service Rd, Sonora, TX 76950 – Google Reviews We stopped here on our way home after making it through the ice storms.  There’s not really a lot open in Sonora, TX, and we were trying to avoid chains as much as possible.  This was a good choice.  None of us had the steak, so I can’t comment on it.  But my dad had the little chicken fried steak, and the bite I had was delicious.  It only took up half the plate (which is little by Texas standards), wasn’t covered in a layer in breading thicker than the steak itself, and was super tender and well seasoned.  The salad bar gets some flack in the reviews, which is understandable if you don’t take location into account.  $3.25 for a very small variety and thick bottled sauces is not great for a big city, but having non-buttered, non-fried vegetables was worth the price, especially because the waitress let us have one salad bar as a substitute for the potato that normally came with the grilled chicken fingers my husband and I ordered, and charged us for the second.  We were surprised to get french fries on our plate anyway, but we were both good and passed most of them to a child, and left the others on the plate.  My daughter order a Chicken Caesar Salad Wrap, which was huge and pretty, as you can see.  If you go in with the right expectations, it was quite good.
  • Papa’s Pantry 515 Van Horn Street, Van Horn, TX 79855 – Google Reviews I already reviewed this place last time, so I will just say again, if you have to stop in Van Horn, TX, this is a pretty good place to stop.
  • Moonrise Spirit & Sushi 1320 North Zaragoza Road, El Paso, TX 79936 – Since my dad was not feeling well while we stayed in El Paso, we took the opportunity to go for sushi near our hotel (my dad hates fish).  This was a mistake.  The rice was cold in the rolls.  Like the roll had been made, then refrigerated, not made fresh when we ordered it.  The sauces were nice, except the dragon sauce – which was very mayonnaise-y, and American style mayo at that (not Kewpie), and not spicy at all.  I ordered one of my standard rolls, a spicy salmon roll, and it wasn’t spicy, and I had a hard time finding the salmon.  For what we got, the prices were far too high, and the free alcoholic drink at the end of our meal could not quite make up for that fact.  I don’t recommend this place.
  • Si Senor 1551 East Amador Avenue, Las Cruces, NM 88001 – Google Reviews My husband and I ordered a Cambray Burrito Plate with shredded chicken and green chili, which came with two burritos, beans and rice.  The burritos were HUGE.  The shredded chicken was dry.  The chili was good.  The chips came with four different sauces: red, green, a chile/sour cream sauce, and a chorizo/bean sauce.  And each dinner came with a sopapilla.  I liked the green sauce, but I wish the had put some inside the burrito, too.
  • El Charro Cafe 311 North Court Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85701 – Google Reviews Traditional Sonoran style Mexican restaurant that has been in business for 92 years?  Featured on food Network’s Food Paradise?  We’re in.  The carne seca was delicious, but dry.  The red chili was spot on.  The chips and salsa alone had us deciding we would come back on our return trip.  The lunch portions (which may be the same as their dinner portions) did not seem to be as hugs as they seem in the video I linked to.  Highly recommended.
  • Rania’s Kabob Grill 1674 North Higley Road, Gilbert, AZ 85234 – Google Reviews My husband and I shared the Butternut Borani, which was thick slices of butternut squash stewed in a tasty tomato sauce with a side of AMAZING Kabuli style rice (cinnamon with raisins, like I make sometimes at home, actually) and naan.  My vegetarian cousin had the same thing.  We all thought it was excellent.  Hubby and I also had a skewer of chicken for some protein, and it was perfectly cooked.  The sauces were all delicious, the naan was fantastic.  My daughter got the spinach rice, which was very tasty.  Highly recommended, and not expected at all!
  • Sushi Q 8841 North 19th Avenue #4, Phoenix, AZ 85021 – Google Reviews This was a hard place to find, around the corner from where we thought it would be in the middle of a construction zone, but I’m glad we did!  We ended up coming here after going to Castles and Coasters, and got there 40 minutes before the break between lunch and dinner ended, but they opened the doors for us and welcomed us in.  Quite a difference from the place in El Paso.  The rolls were all fresh made, questions were all answered, the fish was delicious, the rice was the right temperature, and since we were dining with my vegetarian family members, my kids decided to try the inarizushi and loved it!  The pricing was also very reasonable.
  • Rancho De Tia Rosa 891 North Higley Road, Gilbert, AZ 85234 – Google Reviews And of course, we had to have Mexican food while in the Phoenix area, not just Asian and Afghani!  We found this place as one of the few places near our hotel that could accommodate a party of 12.  I found the red and green salsas served with the chips WAY too sweet, and not spicy.  My uncle even requested the spicy sauce, and it wasn’t that spicy, but it was better.  It had a nice flavor, but there was still that cloying sweetness in the back.  My husband and I shared the Nuevo Chile Relleno (he loves chile rellenos).  This was delicious.  I loved the fact that it was stuffed with pork instead of cheese.  It was flavorful.  And it was small enough to offset the fact that I was trying to chip myself to death.🙂  I wouldn’t say this was my favorite Mexican food of the trip, but I would certainly go again – I just wouldn’t request it.
  • We also ate at a local Subway and Sweet Tomatoes, but those are chains.  They were both good examples, but they’re chains.

Hotels

  • Hampton Inn – My mom and I decided we really enjoy staying at Hampton Inns on our last cross country trip.  The quality and cleanliness is fairly consistent across the chain, and though it is usually more expensive than some other nearby hotels, that price includes a full hot breakfast that usually has fairly healthy options.  Generally there are an assortment of cold cereals, oatmeal with toppings, juices, milk, yogurt cups, fresh fruit, a waffle maker and batter, hard boiled eggs, an assortment of breads and pastries, and two urns of coffee (mild and robust), decaf, and hot water with a dozen different types of tea.  There is also two hot dishes which get changed up each morning, so you don’t get bored with the same thing every morning.  The three times we stayed at a Hampton Inn this trip, we saw biscuits with Canadian bacon and cheese, biscuits and gravy, Western omelettes, scrambled eggs, and sausage patties.  We stayed at the El Paso East, Las Cruces, and Kerrville Hampton Inns.
  • Arizona Golf Resort 425 South Power Road, Mesa, AZ 85206 – Google Reviews This place is clearly in the middle of a transition period.There is a lot of structural work that needs to be done overall.  The fitness room is kind of a joke.  The golf course looked well maintained (to my unknowledgeable eye).  The breakfast buffet was almost literally the exact same thing every morning, with only variations on the fruit offering.  We stayed here because we got a discount since my grandmother’s memorial party was also here.  The meal we were served at the memorial (chicken in a mushroom sauce, pasta in marinara, sautéed squash, caesar salad, and antipasto plate) was delicious, but I could feel the butter going straight to my hips.  The rooms were clean, the towels bright white, and everything worked in our room.  From the constant glimpses I got of the maintenance guys, I know that this was not always the case in other rooms.  It’s not really a resort in the way I normally think of resorts.  It is clearly a hotel devoted to golf and the golfers.  For what we needed, it was adequate and budget conscious.  If you only need a place to stay in Mesa, this may not be your best option.  If you are looking for a luxurious resort, then you might need to wait a few more years for the 80’s decorating to get updated and the repairs to be completed.  Staff was all pleasant.

Attractions

  • Castles and Coasters 9445 North Metro Parkway East, Phoenix, AZ 85051 – Google Reviews We really liked this place.  We came here to let the kids have a few hours of not-serious time after the graveside service.  If you or your kids are coaster people, you could easily spend all day here, possibly a weekend.  I’m not sure it would stand up to a long weekend, though.  Two big coasters, lots of little coasters, and four putt putt courses.  Food was standard amusement park fare, and we only briefly glanced at the arcade on our way through to the ticket booth.
  • Amazing Jakes 1830 East Baseline Road, Mesa, AZ 85204 – Google Reviews Look, you know if you need to go to a place like this.  Bowling, later tag, go karts – something to burn off the kids’ energy.  We wanted something fun for the kids to do on New Year’s Eve, and this was the only option we found that didn’t involve copious amounts of alcohol.  The buffet, though – if you are worried about your food, I would skip it.  The pizza is barely better that at CiCi’s Pizza.
  • Lost Dutchman State Park 6109 North Apache Trail, Apache Junction, AZ 85119 –  Google Reviews Highly recommend!! This has great hiking trails for both walking and running, low elevation and high, easy trails and trails so hard they suggest 5-6 hours for a 1 mile stretch (2000 ft. elevation gain!).
  • Goldfield Ghost Town 4650 North Mammoth Mine Road, Apache Junction, AZ 85119 – Google Reviews Again, highly recommended!  We felt like we needed to something nice and touristy with the kids, so after hiking at LDSP, we stopped here for a couple of hours.  We got a nice lunch (my husband and I split a grilled chicken sandwich with a side salad, while the kids split a chili and cheese dog and fries).  We got a lot of great info from a friendly cowboy, who was doing jeep tours the day we were there but also participated in the gunfights on weekends.  We got the combination Mine Tour/ Mystery Shack/ Train Ride tickets which were very reasonable – $21 for adults and $13 for the kids (but you have to pay with CASH).  But the train ride was a good 40 minutes with a fabulous tour guide, and the other two tours were just plain fun!

Our Arizona Adventure, Part 4: the Unexpected

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On our way home, we got hit by something completely unexpected. Snow. Ice. Winter. In places where the temperatures in winter rarely dip below 50, we drove in a landscape of white. Now many of you will look at this and say, “Yeah? So what?” In Houston, we are used to getting a dusting of snow about once every 10 years. In Arizona, it is pretty much limited to the mountain areas and the northern part of the state. We were driving from Las Cruces, NM to Kerrville, TX the day the storm hit, and I became terrified. We were surrounded by drivers who had NO EXPERIENCE driving in these kinds of dangerous conditions. I was in a car with drivers who had NO EXPERIENCE driving in these kinds of dangerous conditions. I was not a pleasant passenger to say the least, and the dozens of semi trucks spun out along I-10 did not raise my confidence.
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We stopped in Van Horn, TX to change drivers and eat lunch at Papa’s Pantry. This sign greeted us in the entryway of the restaurant.  The place was packed with weary travelers, and the parking lot was filled with ice scrapings.  The coffee was hot, the food all needed a little more salt, and the servers were clearly stretched to their limits, but overall it was a pleasant place to stop in an unpleasant situation.  My son got a sandwich made with homemade bread, which was delicious, and I would highly recommend to anyone if they find they have to stop along that section of I-10.

This pretty much cemented a feeling I had already had of absolute loathing for West Texas.  On our last road trip west, we stopped in Fort Stockton, which is where EVERYONE stops halfway across West Texas, because there are barely any other sizable towns in West Texas.  My mother and I immediately took a dislike to Fort Stockton, which gives the impression of nothing more than a way station for guys coming and going from the oil fields.  Bars, buffets, and overpriced hotels.  We avoided it like the plague this time – which makes for a very long drive across the wasteland that it West Texas.  No towns, no roads, no cell towers, just mountains that Arizonans laugh at, oil derricks, and wind farms.

It’s depressing as hell for this child of the piney woods.

Our Arizona Adventure, Part 3: the Adventure

IMG_4032  One of the castles at Castles and Coasters.  We spent an hour and a half playing putt putt, and then walked around to let the kids ride rides.  Avoided the amusement park food like the plague.

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View of the Superstition Mountains from the parking lot at Lost Dutchman State Park.  This was where we went for a wonderful hike with my aunt, uncle, cousin and his girlfriend.  Having my aunt and uncle along was like having our own park rangers hiking with us explaining what all the different plants, animals, and land features were.  My husband went trail running while the rest of us took a more leisurely pace for 2.75 miles around the base of the mountain range.  Since we’re from 0 feet above sea level here in Houston, I wasn’t sure how well I would take to massive amounts of elevation gain, but the 200 feet we gained over the course of the hike was perfect.  My husband’s trail got him much higher, and his quads are still killing him for it.IMG_4112After hiking, we took a nice touristy stop at a nearby ghost town.  We did the mine tour, the Mystery Shack tour, and the train ride, as well as tasting prickly pear fudge – which is delicious, btw.  I highly recommend getting 1/4 pound and splitting it 6 ways, like we did.🙂

No pics, but we also went to an indoor amusement park type place, called Amazing Jakes.  The kids got to run around doing laser tag, bumper cars, mini coasters, and things like that.  Then the four of us played a round of bowling with a new friend.

We were staying at the Arizona Golf Resort.  I can’t vouch for the place as a “resort”, it was nice enough but the amenities are clearly geared towards the golfers.  However, it was lovely watching the jackrabbits scatter as my daughter and I walked along the the edge of the golf course.  And since it is such a big property, between walking from the room to the main building and all of the walking around at activities, I got 10,000 steps in pretty easily without stepping foot on one of the treadmills in their fitness room – the ones that I was pretty sure wouldn’t be able to take my weight for more than 5 minutes.

I’d make a horrible birdwatcher.

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I have always been the type to keep my eyes on the path ahead of me, metaphorically and literally. My gaze naturally falls to the place where I am about to step, searching for unsure footings and obstacles. I try to force myself to look up every few steps so I don’t miss the big things that are oncoming, but I would easily be defeated by a tree climbing ninja.

Ninjas aside, I do tend to miss a lot of stuff the flies over my head if I don’t stop every now and then and look around. But at the same time, it means that I notice all of the tiny details along the path, like this sweet little snake I found yesterday while walking back from dropping off my kids at school. I’m not sure why he was curled up on the sidewalk away from his warm den, but I hope he found his way back.

Our Arizona Adventure, Part 2: the Planning

IMG_4122Okay, so as soon as we heard about the whole Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives plan of my dad’s, my husband and I had a confab.  My dad has few things he really enjoys, and eating is one of them.  My mom and my aunt and I were discussing which museums to visit and where the best hiking was, and my dad was trying to figure out where the best bowl of red chili is.  I wouldn’t want to take away his vacation fun, any more than I wanted him to tell me that hiking was out because he can’t walk that far.

So, we had to plan for this.

Exercise

The best way to offset all those calories is to burn them off with lots of activities.

In addition to trying to plan active fun things to do (like hiking), I also conferred with my trainer and yoga instructor for advice.  I packed my new yoga mat, resistance bands (much better for traveling that my free weights), water bottle, walking shoes and plenty of socks.  I also threw in my swimsuit and sport towel in case my mother and I decided to grab a water aerobics class at one of the gyms near our Mesa resort.

My trainer said I had permission to only do 5000 steps on traveling days, but that I needed to get my full 10,000 steps in the days we were not driving, and that I needed to do at least half of them outside.  Also, when the front desk receptionist said that one of the two rooms we had reserved was upstairs, my husband and I immediately said we would take it, saving my parents the climb and giving us an extra exercise several times each day.

My husband brought his brand new running shoes, and planned on doing as much running as he could – even some trail running in the mountains while the kids and I hiked.  We had planned on the kids being able to be watched by my folks, but the cold that they had prevented them from doing just about anything this trip.

Food

There was no way we were going to avoid Mexican food while we were in Arizona.  In fact, during the trip we went out to eat sushi (El Paso’s sucked with cold rice while Phoenix’s was surprisingly good); Afghani food, Mexican, Native American, even Sweet Tomatoes and crappy pizza buffet (this was for the kids’ sake).  We went out for Mexican food a lot.🙂

So how do you plan to avoid loading on the calories when you KNOW what you really want is a chimichanga smothered in green chili and a big bowl of chips with red salsa washed down with a bottle of Dos Equis (not really a margarita girl)?  Well, me and my husband hit on a plan for that.  We shared.  Every plate that wasn’t at a buffet, every restaurant.  We would decide what we wanted together, not worrying as much about how fried or soaked in sauce something was, because we knew we would be eating a reasonable portion of it.  That fry bread taco I mentioned last time with the chorizo?  I only ate half.  And it was more than enough, especially since I took a slice of the cheese crisp and dessert fry bread we ordered for the table.

I think this was a great idea, and I’m going to try to convince him that we should do this from now on.  I don’t think it will be a hard sell.

IMG_3993Small Packing Space

Like I said: 4 adults, 2 kids, one minivan, 10 days.  I figured that we should just pack like we were flying and do laundry halfway through the trip.

This is what I packed for me, along with my pillow.  I had packed a change of clothes and my pajamas into my backpack so that at our stop in El Paso, I could just bring in the backpack and leave the suitcase in the car.  The kids were limited to one big bag for clothes, toiletries, and the quilt my son insisted on bringing.  Then they each got one backpack to fill with stuff to occupy them on the drives.

Everyone was also required to bring clothes suitable for the memorial (nice but not formal) and clothes suitable for hiking.

As far as clothes go, I brought:

  • new grey yoga pants (size 2X, because the 3X are now falling off my butt!)
  • navy slacks
  • jeans
  • brown skirt (which I never wore because it ended up being too cold, and I forgot to bring shorts to wear underneath)
  • grey workout shirt, suitable for wearing in public, too
  • white button down shirt
  • navy shell
  • ivory/brown dressy linen shirt
  • brown dressy t-shirt
  • appropriate undergarments (except the shorts)
  • brown dress flats
  • navy fake Toms style flats
  • walking shoes
  • a few pieces of jewelry
  • pajamas
  • big fleece pullover that I usually use for camping

I didn’t want to bring my BIG fleece coat, because it is big.  I got it before I started losing weight, so now it swallows me up.  So I brought the fleece pullover I have worn to every cold campout for a couple of years.  It’s warm enough for weather in the 50’s, which is what I expected to see based on weather reports.  I also like the fact that it now fits me correctly; before, I couldn’t pull it over my hips, now it hangs over them.🙂 But I should have brought the big one, because I would have been better prepared for the weather we encountered later in the trip.

Our Arizona Adventure, Part 1: the Bad

IMG_4101 My next big adventure (as I mentioned) was another cross-half-the-country road trip to Arizona.  Only this time, we were going to be going in winter instead of summer, and we were aiming for Phoenix instead of Yuma.  Oh, and instead of just me, my mom, and my kids, we were adding both our husbands to the mix.  In a minivan.  But that is just the beginning of the list of not nice aspects to this trip.

The occasion was not a happy one this time, unfortunately.  The clan on my mother’s side was gathering for a memorial for my grandmother who had passed away this time last year.  It took so long for us to get together because we have become quite far flung these days.  And actually, we are not the family members which traveled the furthest – my cousin who is doing graduate work in Germany gets that badge – but I think we are definitely the ones who drove the furthest (about 2700 miles total, including driving around Mesa/Phoenix for 5 days).  But we had to coordinate schedules for people coming from Germany, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Washington State, ranging through 4 generations.

And my father’s idea of a good time involves eating.  Good eating.  Greasy eating.  Both of my parents are from Arizona, umpteenth generation desert rat, and they were both raised on good Sonoran style Mexican food.  Then they moved here to Texas, and my father has been disappointed ever since.  To put this in context, Taco Bell is a very good representative of Tex-Mex – not too spicy, meats tend to be ground and sautéed rather than stewed and shredded, heavy reliance on flour tortillas, limited assortment of vegetables (lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeños), and a very tomatoey flavor to all the sauces and salsas.  My father would add that it has no flavor.  I’m not sure I would agree with that, but I will say Sonoran style takes way more time, Tex Mex is much faster to cook.

IMG_4127 All that being said, we went to Arizona, not California.  If you are trying to watch your calories, Baja (Southern California) style Mexican food is MUCH better, filled with fresh vegetables, corn tortillas, seafood, and light methods of cooking.  And on top of that, my father had intended on having our dinners dictated by restaurants given the Triple D Seal of Approval.  Luckily for my husband (who is in training for his next marathon) and I, Guy Fieri did the unthinkable and never visited a Mexican restaurant while in Arizona.  I will agree with my dad on this one – that’s like going to Texas and avoiding the BBQ, brisket, or Chicken Fried Steak, the foods that, in a way, define Texas cuisine.

Oh, and did I mention the fry bread?  And the Navajo tacos made by topping that beautiful fry bread with authentic chorizo, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese?  Made by Tohono O’odham natives?  So. Good.  So.  Many. Calories.

IMG_4035This was about to be a test of my (extremely weak) willpower, whether I could avoid eating back all of the 75 pounds I have lost so far.

More good news: My son brought home a cold from somewhere, and my father got one at about the same time – we are pretty sure they were different colds, though.  But it meant that just in time for our 11 hour drive to El Paso (stop one), four out of the six of us were dripping and sniffling and coughing and miserable.

So just how did I end up smiling?  Next up, the planning.