Breakfast at the Casa de San Pedro, Highlight of a Southeast Arizona Journey!

May 4, 2012

Patrick Dome in Casa’s Kitchen

We begin this year’s Naturalist Journey’s Southeast Arizona Tour this Saturday, May 5th, timed well for Cinco de Mayo celebrations and for Migratory Bird Day.  Highlights of this popular tour include scenery of Arizona’s  Sky Island mountain ranges, a host of birds and mammals more aligned with Mexico and living here at the north of their range, and…  breakfast at the Casa!

Waking up at the Casa de San Pedro is a delight, with smells of fresh coffee brewing and brilliant jewels of birds like their mascot, the Vermilion Flycatcher, right outside the door.  With coffee in hand, we watch hummingbirds at the feeders, or stroll over to the San Pedro River, a vital corridor for migratory songbirds.  Never are we too far from smells waifting out from the kitchen. When birders ask their guides “can we go back now” at the peak of migration, you know that good food is calling.  Served in their southwestern-style dining room at two hand-carved tables where conversation flows freely, we relish hearty fare prepared with care from scratch.

They always start with fresh seasonal fruit cup, some wonderful tempting hot, homemade muffin,  scone or buttermilk biscuit, and juice, tea (lots of choices), and coffee.

From here, one would need a week to sample their secrets. As this is one of Naturalist Journey’s all-time favorite lodges, blogger and company owner Peg Abbott has eaten breakfast at the Casa dozens of times, yet she says it would be hard to pick her favorite entrée.  Here is a sample of some of what a fine Casa morning may hold:

  • Eggs Casa with a side of Ham and Salsa:  Eggs Casa is their signature dish – a crustless egg and      cheese pie with mild green chilies, corn – a very satisfying dish.
  • Oatmeal Buttermilk Pancakes  with link sausage:  Their most requested recipe – the Oatmeal gives      the pancakes a slightly toothy texture, light and fluffy too.  And,      they serve it with real pure maple syrup (warm).
  • Lavash Eggs – the Casa’s version of eggs benedict – lavash flat bread with sour cream, cheese,      bacon strips topped with poached eggs and hollandaise. Decadent!
  • Baked Oatmeal – oven baked oatmeal baked with shredded apples, walnuts, craisins and cinnamon.       Served with link sausage and scrambled eggs.
  • Spinach Quiche: A traditional quiche with flaky crust, spinach and a touch of nutmeg, which they serve      with bacon.
  • Mexican Eggs:  They start with a freshly made tortilla, top with a stripe of non-fat refried      black beans, bacon strips, cheese (melted), topped with scrambled eggs,      green enchilada sauce, and diced tomatoes, chopped olives and sour cream.

Proprietors Karl Schmitt and Patrick Dome have hospitality down to a science. Their Inn gets a LOT of repeat business, and to no surprise, many of the guests (including Naturalist Journey’s owner Peg Abbott) put in their requests for favorite breakfasts.

While fabulous birding brings us to the Casa next week, we can highly recommend the Casa de San Pedro year-round. In the non-birding season, we linger longer at breakfast!

By the way, plan ahead and come enjoy this – next year’s Naturalist Journey’s tour is open for booking, May 4-11, 2013.


HUB DINING (Part 1) by Greg Smith, guest blogger

February 23, 2012

The major airlines in the U.S. and Canada usually have two or three hubs scattered across the continent. Invariably during our Naturalist Journeys we pass through at least one airline hub. Today I am going to write about one of my favorite restaurants in George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) – Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen –

IAH is a jumping off point for many Naturalist Journeys trips to South & Central America and the Caribbean. Usually I have a little extra time between flights, so I head to Gate E3 in Terminal E where a truly unassuming set of stairs leads up to Pappadeaux’s.

I have always been greeted with a smile, even when there is a full house. Service has always been great and I am pretty sure that whomever wait staff is closest to the kitchen will pick up your order and serve you. So I like the service a lot!

And they do have a full bar! They certainly have a robust wine list (~25 reds and 25 whites) and some very good wines (try the Seghesio Sonoma Zin, especially the 2009, one of my currents faves!) Markup on their wines is reasonable with a max of 50% from the wines I know.

They have a good selection of beers and one of the things I like is that they are always featuring at least one, and sometimes two different seasonal beers. I have not been disappointed…

Remember, this restaurant serves fresh seafood and creole or Cajun cooking style. So expect etouffee, dirty rice, po boys and crawfish. But it is their “Chef Selections” that gets my attention.

It is all about fish, fresh fish. They are at an airport, so they do get their fish flown in daily! All of the “Selections” are served with a light sauce, not a heavy cream among them (is that good or bad…). There a variety of fresh veggies and each plate has a different combination. Some are served with dirty rice (and they have very tasty dirty rice), while others with different potato styles.

I do have a favorite dish – Costa Rican Mahi Quepos. It is a fair-sized blackened mahi filet that is topped with a light citrus herb sauce, lump crab meat, shrimp and basil. It is so tasty that I am trying to recreate the recipe at home for family and friends!!!

There is steak, lobster, gumbo and chicken, but if you are in the mood for pasta, you will have to find another restaurant. It is a chain restaurant, but I don’t use that word in a derisive manner. I think Pappadeaux’ success is partly based on growing the business and keeping to two tenets: Hiring friendly, efficient staff and having very fresh seafood that allows their chefs to create unique flavors and dishes.

I would allow about forty minutes for a meal (although I have taken less time…) and then enough time to get to your gate. The portions are generous so you might walk to your gate just a little more slowly than you usually would…

Travel safe and travel well,

Greg Smith

The Epicurean Birder is produced by the world-traveling guides of Naturalist Journeys, LLC. Join us on an adventure in Texas with Ultimate Big Bend/Davis Mountains (TX): Birding & Nature, April 20-28, 2012. For more information, go to

Pappadeux Restaurant in Bush Intercontinental Airport

Jamaica: One of the Best Restaurants – Not a Restaurant at All!

January 26, 2012

Birdwatchers are a conservation minded-bunch, so taking alternate transportation to lunch seemed like a good selling point on our Naturalist Journey’s tour in quest to sample authentic Jamaican food. For many of us, the culinary highlight of a week-long tour, one featuring some great restaurants, turned out not to be a restaurant at all! Thsi is one of our picks for our new culinary endorsement series –  “Five Places to Get Fat While Birding.”

Welcome to Miss Betty’s, now called Miss Wissy’s, where you’ll find a few tables and chairs on a stony riverside beach.  Officially known as Belinda’s Riverside Canteen, family recipes for Jamaican Jerked Chicken have passed from mother (Betty) to daughter (Belinda, or “Wissy”) and rafters on the scenic Rio Grande River are in for a treat.  Like an apparition, one rounds the bend and there on the beach is a happy cluster of friends, ready to serve you a cold Red Stripe beer, and urge you to fill your bowl with hot pepperpot soup.  Both mother and daughter have walked the mile-long path from their hilltop home, with greens from the garden, sweet potatos, perhaps fresh crayfish caught that day. Maybe its happy chickens, but their jerk spice is beyond compare,  the tender meat as sweet as the smile on Miss Wissy’s face when she knows you feel well fed.  Well at ease, athletic from her walks, she seems at one with the simplicity of her endeavors.  This is truely a movable feast, as the river changes level with the rains no structure will stand the test of time. This is Jamaica, go with the flow!

The alternate transport we elected defines a new style of  “relaxed birding.”   The bamboo pole rafts we we ferried on date to the days when Jamaica shipped loads of banana’s and other produce from the Interior down the Rio Grande River. Raft guides say that Errol Flynn, the legendary seeker of fun who made Port Antonio his home, took friends for a float and a business was born.  Rains from the Blue Mountains of coffee fame feed the river’s flow.  Birdwatching from a bamboo raft built for two, as you glide through forested gorges rimmed by an unbroken expanse of GREEN feels exotic, a two to three hours immersion in Jamaica’s natural beauty. Spotted Sandpipers, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Tricolored Herons, Snowy Egrets, Jamaican Woodpeckers and Belted Kingfishers are often seen, some of them migrants here getting a break from northern winters as we are. Twenty feet or more in length, the bamboo pole rafts feel more like lounge chairs than boats. Many are decorated in flowers. No one is in a hurry.  All this beauty, novel transport and jerk chicken at Miss Betty’s – this is a birding vacation!

The Epicurean Birder is produced by the world-traveling guides of Naturalist Journeys, LLC. Lillian’s is one of five Jamaican restaurants endorsed in their “Five Places to Get Fat While Birding” series, piloted in January, 2012. Sample great food on Naturalist Journey’s Jamaica tour March 31-April 6, 2012.

Jamaica: Dickie’s Restaurant Perched by the Sea Offers Birdwatchers Distractions

January 25, 2012

Birders love to be distracted during meals if the distractions come on wings. In Port Antonio on Jamaica’s quiet northeast coast, one of our worldwide traveling Naturalist Journey’s tour groups spied the perfect place for a lunch with such distractions.

Literally perched above the sea, Dickie’s Best Kept Secret has Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns flying eye-level out the window. Perched is a good adjective; this is authentic Jamaican and NOT a property born of a mortgage. Dickie pieced it together as funds allowed, and his Rastafarian-Victorian creation has great charm.  You can’t miss it as you drive west along the coast from Port Antonio, decorated a cheery blue and yellow; three stories clinging to the oceanside of the hill. Its cozy interior nooks outline the various building episodes of his life, and if you can get Dickie to pause in the kitchen (he is owner and chef), he’ll tell you about them.

While you wait for dinner you can draw (several members of the family, young and old, create art), chat, and savor the smells of seafood caught that day in a recipe combined with finesse. Dickie learned to craft good meals while at work for Ritz-Carlton, Trident and Port Antonio’s Frenchman’s Cove. He had success in that world but he’s happiest here, at home surrounded by his favorite drawings and fresh air from the sea. We liked it too, relaxed, surrounded by walls the colors of tanagers – turquoise and jade green that descend to meet a bright red floor.

While the place is relaxed in a welcoming Rasta manner, reservations are required as you order your meal choice in advance. Dickie needs time to catch your fish, and to get to the market for everything fresh, from local goat to savory herbs (876-809-6276). We loved the place, and found it a perfect, totally absorbing dining experience, with surprising (superlative) service, irreplaceable ambiance and delicious food.

Best of all, satisfied with lunch, we walked down the stairs to a dock, where Dickie’s son Dennis picked us up to tour the bay on his boat.  How perfect to watch acrobatic Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans soar overhead as we digested lunch!

Ackee Fruit, one of Jamaica's cooking essentials...

As we write, we are distressed to hear that Jamaican authorities may decide to widen the highway, pushing Dickie’s from its tranquil perch. We hope NOT but for travelers considering seeing the quiet side of Jamaica – go soon!

The Epicurean Birder is produced by the world-traveling guides of Naturalist Journeys, LLC. Dickie’s is one of five Jamaican restaurants endorsed in their “Five Places to Get Fat While Birding” series, piloted in January, 2012. Sample great food on Naturalist Journey’s Jamaica tour March 31-April 6, 2012.

Mille Fleurs Offers Birdwatchers Great Epicurean Rewards

January 24, 2012

Birding tours can be exhausting. One would think finding bright red or yellow birds should be easy, but in Jamaica’s profusion of flowering trees, they become cryptic!  Birders love the challenge, but what better way to rise to the challenge than to have rewards?  Returning to Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, we often run upstairs before going to our rooms – yes before a shower – to read THE BOARD, posted daily in their Mille Fleurs restaurant.  To keep pace with their creative chefs, the hotel can’t keep a menu current, so daily dining options are posted on an old-fashioned chalkboard. We read; we study; we retire to our rooms to freshen up, and return to enjoy a fresh fruit or coconut water drink mixed with Appleton rum ahead of our night’s indulging.  Ah, sweet life of the Caribbean!

We love taking birders and naturalists to Jamaica. The daily rewards here of fresh, creative food are a big part of our tour experience.  At Mille Fleurs, the food is infused with goodness, not only in its skillfully crafted mix of flavors, but in its pathways to our tables. Hotel Mocking Bird Hill makes every effort to support the local economy and the various small producers & farmers that they buy from as they create their menus. If food can feel happy this does: organic, local, healthy, not pretentious, and yes, loved. If we feel pampered, so do the vegetables on our plate. A measure of the owner’s generosity is finding recipes for our favorite dishes on their website. As we write they have these currently featured:

Starters: Brie with Tamarind Sauce | Ackee Soufflé | Carpaccio of Paw-Paw, Otaheiti Apple & Cho Cho

Soups: Coconut and Garlic Soup | Peanut Soup | Tomato & Sweet Potato Soup

Mains: Chicken in June Plum Sauce | Mocking Bird Poached Fish | Ital Rundown

Dessert: Orange Custard with Wild Orange Liquer

The food can speak for itself.  Appetizers: plantain rolls stuffed with callaloo and tamarind, banana guacamole, spicy shrimps with gungo peas and red onion salsa; soups: coconut, lime and crayfish, pumpkin and lobster bisque, sweet potato and wild hook; main dishes: jerk-spiced pimento-crusted tofu, aubergine in Red Stripe beer batter on sweet pea puree, callaloo and feta stuffed chicken, coconut-fish baked in banana leaves; desserts: soursop sorbet, guava crème brulee, pimento coffee custards and otaheiti apple tarts – to mention a few of your choices!

Reservations: 876.993.7267.

The Epicurean Birder is a product of Naturalist Journeys, LLC, a birding and nature tour company based in Portal, Arizona, offering tours worldwide. A signature of the company is their pursuit, in addition to nature, of local foods and local eateries. Join them in Jamaica March 31-April 6 in 2012, beyond that contact them for current itineraries.

Photos: courtesy of Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, the header for the Mille Fleurs restaurant page.

Lillian’s Restaurant Jamaica – Healthy Food Served by Jamaica’s UTECH Students Brings Birdwatchers on Tour a Smile

January 23, 2012

To leave a northern winter behind, and find oneself dining on the wrap-around porch of Lillian’s Restaurant, the official training restaurant of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management in Kingston is – in food terms – just delicious. Warm sun, the garden atmosphere (the restaurant is just across from the Caribbean Sculpture Park) and this casual atmosphere restaurant’s flair for Jamaican food holds such allure!  You feel good just reading the menu for its ingredients are healthy – fruits, lots of vegetables, fresh foods, spices and lean meats.

In Jamaica the fusion of flavors parallels the fusion of cultures that over the centuries have brought crops that flourish here, many of them from Southeast Asia.  Mixed with native fruits, Scotch Bonnet peppers and a host of spices (including the famous Jerk which includes allspice), talented chefs keep cooking it up in different ways.

Lillian’s young Executive Chef, Karl Thomas, loves his work with students and it shows. He has placed in the prestigious Grace Kitchen/Culinary Institute of Jamaica’s Invitational Challenge, where dishes are judged on flavor, creative use of ingredients and presentation. In the summer of 2010, eight students brought back seventeen medals  (six gold, six silver and five bronze) for their innovative use of indigenous Jamaican foods at the Regional Festival of Foods, sponsored by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission. Gold medal dishes included: Scotch Bonnet Cheese Bread (photo, below), Jackfruit Scones with Rum Soaked Raisins, Jackfruit Jerk Chicken Pizza with Callaloo Sauce and sweet potato crust (Photo, above) , Sorrel Braised Chicken, Bacon Cheddar Loaf, and Cassava Carrot Nut Muffins.

The bungalow-style building is now a National Monument, dating from 1912 when it was part of Kingston’s extensive Hope Farm and Farm School.  It was renovated after Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 and opened as part of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management in 1992. We love its contemporary Caribbean, a la carte theme. Find it on the campus of Jamaica’s University of Technology (UTECH) and plan on lunch Mondays through Fridays, from 11:30am to 3:00pm with dinner provided typically on Monday evenings from 3:00 pm until 6:00 pm – best to call for reservations if dinner or with six or more in your party. You’ll find the campus clean and inviting and security is present so you can park and walk with ease of mind.876.927.1680, ext. 8.

Those seated inside, if they can tear themselves away from the porch, can watch students preparing meals through a viewing window. Without leaving home, watch Chef Karl Thomas at work in this video of the Chefs Invitational Challenge.

The Epicurean Birder is produced by the world-traveling guides of Naturalist Journeys, LLC. Lillian’s is one of five Jamaican restaurants endorsed in their “Five Places to Get Fat While Birding” series, piloted in January, 2012.  Sample great food on Naturalist Journey’s Jamaica tour March 31-April 6, 2012. 

Photos: Courtesy UTECH 

West Texas: The Epicurean Birder Puts Reata at the Top of Our List!

January 18, 2012

Naturalist Journey’s Big Bend journey includes the Davis Mountains, prized in West Texas for their scenic beauty, bounty of birds (including some species not readily found in Big Bend, like Montezuma’s Quail), and fascinating biogeography. But our guides will confess, without time in the Davis Mountains, there’d be no opportunity to have lunch at Alpine’s REATA Restaurant, a driving factor for them as they suggest they lead this tour. Owner Peg Abbott found the Reata in its opening year, 1995, on a tip from Grady Spears (now the famous Chef Grady Spears), who worked then at the Gage Hotel.  Up late and cooking, he made some wickedly good margaritas for our staff as we all poured over Big Bend maps between stirrings. We learned of some great hikes in the park, and none of us have ever matched those margaritas.

Every year since we’ve been taking birders to this restaurant, one we savor for its really well-crafted cowboy cuisine. On arrival, our clients ask “What’s a reata?” as they slide into the heavy wooden and leather chairs. We recite our favorites from the menu – cajoling them to try Jalapeno and Cilantro Soup (with heavy cream, smooth and delightful!), Tenderloin Tamales with Pecan Mash, Field Greens with Texas Goat Cheese, San Saba Pecans and Sherry Wine Vinaigrette, or Carne Asada with Reata’s Cheese Enchiladas. We plan ahead (signature quality of a guide) – just how much can we eat and still drive 110 miles to Big Bend… As we’ve aged, we choose the Saddleback Combination (cup of soup, and half of one of their wondrous creations…).

No trip to Big Bend country is complete without a meal at the Reata. You can find them at 203 N. Fifth Street, Alpine, Texas 79890, and if it’s a nice day, try the back porch, decorated with western murals. Reservations are a good idea: 432-837-9232. Or do some armchair savoring at If you go at dinner, try one of their “refrescos”, such as a Texas Margarita Azul with Cointreau and Tarantula. Grady Spears has moved on to other things (a new restaurant outside of Fort Worth at Tolar) but the Reata still carries his margaritas… When’s our next trip? April 20-28, 2012. And by the way, if you want to go in-the-know, a reata is a “long noosed rope to catch animals (i.e. cattle),” another word for lasso…

Photo: A great header on the web at

Naturalist Journeys, LLC is a nature and birding company offering fine experiences – with great eats! around the Planet. They are based in Portal, Arizona. Guide Woody Wheeler gets to eat at Reata this year!


Honduras – Memorable Dining at Copan Ruinas

February 26, 2010

Dinner at Hacienda San Lucas, Honduras

One of the most memorable dining events of my 30-year guiding career for Naturalist Journeys has to be a dinner at Hacienda San Lucas near the world-renowned Mayan Ruins of Copan. We were here in the Honduran mountains with a birding group, guided by competent Robert Gallardo, one of the most recognized experts in Honduras. Luckily he knows FOOD too!

Robert settled in the town of Copan Ruinas in 1998, the same year the owner of the Hacienda San Lucas, Flavia Cueva, decided to come back home. Tired after years of a fast-paced catering career in Kentucky, she longed to be back in the sweet-smelling mountains and forests of her childhood days near Copan. The effort it took to restore the hacienda, largely then claimed by nature is unimaginable.

As we sat savoring the second of our five courses, Flavia smiled and gave us a history of her travails. Now peace and serenity veil the years of effort. I wanted to lick my plate after the main dish of grilled chicken with Mayan Adobo sauce. Similar in texture to an Oaxacan Mole, this sauce linger in my mind now years later.

Through this meal, I learned that this region of Honduras, tucked up against the Guatemalan border has its own cuisine. Flavia researched her recipes in detail, working with women from the local Maya Chortí village. Maybe the distinction of her food is in the preparation. Every dish is hand-crafted using tools of which many date to a century or more ago.

Friend and client Regina Anavy and I rode lovely, light-stepping gaited horses up to the restaurant from town. We joined our birding group which was having trouble focusing on finding Common Paraques (luckily a mission quickly accomplished) with so many delicious smells wafting up the hill. We drifted to our beautifully set tables on the lawn to find local tamales, and then a creamy corn soup waiting for us. It had just a hint of chilies, and was accompanied by a salad that was perfected by local citrus dressing. Dinner was timed so that we could savor sunset as well as the food. Desert was a local fruit creation with just the right spices – not too sweet. This meal is worth signing on to the tour alone! Join us this year for Easter in Copan, April 3-10, 2010 or check back for our 2011 dates. We promise a visit to dine at Hacienda San Lucas for sure!

An Epicurean in Nome

September 9, 2009
Airport Pizza, Nome AK

Airport Pizza, Nome AK

I’ve always rated Nome, Alaska as one of my five favorite North American birding locations. It’s remote, rarities come often and who can knock standing on the finish line of the Iditarod?  I never thought, however, that a restaurant in Nome would make an appearance on the Epicurean Birder Blog.  My food-associated memories of Nome include walking into the blue smoke haze to dine at Fat Freddies.  I’ve held on to a sense of distrust (dismay?) over local restaurants that specialize in Italian and Chinese under one roof.  I am delighted to report that Nome’s Airport Pizza now offers a sunlit, welcoming venue complete with coffee bar, starters, Glacier Brewhouse (Anchorage) and other microbrews brews on tap, fresh salads and fun. Tired after a long day of birding? Try their Menu To Go. We took salads with dried cranberries and pecans to the shores of Salmon Lake, where we added fresh blueberries on the spot. We returned several times in our five day stay.

I enjoyed the news articles, framed on their walls, that describe adventures incurred by honoring their motto “you buy, we fly”.  Those that want to bird the bush, take note!  If you need a pizza fix in Gambell or Shismaref, they will deliver on the next regular run of the local Frontier Flying Service, or – if you are really keen – you can charter the plane!  Imagine the fun at the bush community of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island when the mayor had pizzas delivered as Christmas gifts one year ( )!  

Happy Diners at Airport Pizza

Happy Diners at Airport Pizza

We had a grand time sampling an unexpected array of ingredients such as artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and reindeer sausage in pastas, pizzas and sandwiches to go.  Salads had a mix of fresh leafy greens, amazing considering that there are no roads to Nome – everything comes in by barge or plane.  At dinner our group enjoyed fresh fish, good steaks and gyros. We loved going there for breakfast when we could order Eggs Benedict with our espressos and lattes – yes, you can do this now in Nome!  I loved finding fresh cilantro and jalapeños in my Mexican Skillet.  Later I returned for a glass of wine (great selection) and got on WIFI.  I just had to email other long-time Nome faithful birders, feeling nostalgic and wondering if, perhaps, I should not be quite so joyful to find such amenities just shy of the Arctic Circle….   Find them at 406 Bering Street, close to Hanson’s Market and the Anvil City Square marked by the historic church.  907.443.7992.

Best Restaurants While Birding: Torrey and Boulder, Utah

June 1, 2009
Cafe Diablo Salad, photo by participant Pat Owens Cafe Diablo Salad, photo by participant Pat Owens



Signature birds of the Great Basin / Colorado Plateau were treats to observe while hiking recently in Capitol Reef National Park and Escalante – Grand Staircase National Monument in Utah. We enjoyed seeing Juniper Titmice, Gray Flycatchers, Cassin’s and Plumbeous Vireos, Black-billed Magpies, Black-throated Gray Warblers, Pinyon Jays and a grand array of other species. On one of our favorite days of exploring, Canyon Wrens called from ledges that framed ancient rock art and just-feathered baby Common Ravens begged loudly under alcoves that once housed people of the Fremont culture. We put on a lot of miles – about 5-9 per day – so we particularly treasured times to refuel. Amid a maze of red rock canyons we found some truly great restaurants that we encourage you to go and enjoy! Here are our picks for Torrey and Boulder, Utah.

#1    Café Diablo Torrey, Utah
This vote for our favorite restaurant in Torrey was easy. One of our group members is a Naturalist Journeys and freelance guide that travels the world. So when Carol Simon said ‘this was one of the best meals I’ve ever had!’ we all listened! Carol is a regular traveler to Chile’s Patagonia region and thus ate Café Diablo’s authentic empanadas with relish. They describe them as “cornflower pillows filled with Cojita cheese and sweet potatoes.” We returned for a second night to repeat raves about our meals. That they have fun with food is obvious. Many entrees were presented with a vertical theme and we delighted at seeing each presentation. The dishes were beautiful, fun but more importantly, delicious. The Painted Salmon first course comes out as a “glazed fillet on sizzled onion chutney and asparagus sambal with toasted pinion nuts and sweet dried cranberries.” The pecan-encrusted chicken was one of our group’s top picks for a main course as was the “small plate” choice of wild mushroom and spinach salad. We appreciated the use of local foods in combination with the exotic. How does one choose sage-and rosemary infused loin of Utah lamb over Mayan tamales rimmed by grilled vegetables and accompanied by brandied corn custard? Or, Pumpkin Seed Trout with cilantro lime sauce over Fire Roasted Pork Tenderloin with sweet potato sauce – wow. Located on the west side of town, this popular restaurant is one to book ahead with a choice of inside or outside patio seating.   435.425.3070.

#2    The Cliffstone Restaurant at the Lodge at Red River Ranch      Torrey, Utah
We spent four nights at the fabulous Lodge at Red River Ranch and felt so welcomed and so well cared for. Breakfasts were lovely and our two dinners we also much appreciated, due in large part to the beauty of the building we ate in. The lodge has an A+ rated location on the Fremont River. Fluted layers of Moenkopi red rocks line a leisurely flowing stream and large Fremont Cottonwood trees line the drive. It is worth dining here just to see the care and art collections of the lodge – Navajo rugs, Remington sculptures and a fine array of paintings. The chef and his kitchen staff were casual and fun and they put out some lovely food. We enjoyed trying local trout and bison steaks. The barbecue baby back short ribs were the top pick for the dinner meal and quickly made the rounds as we compared tastes amid our most companionable group.   800.205.6343

Boulder, Utah    This small town of about 300 people springs up as an oasis among a spectacular but inhospitable maze of sandstone bluffs, canyons, mesas and monoliths. To find two restaurants that we enjoyed seemed nothing shy of a miracle and we will eagerly return to sample them once again.

#1    Hell’s Backbone Grille      Boulder, Utah
I have this restaurant’s cookbook, With a Measure of Grace, within easy to reach at home and I thoroughly enjoy returning to this lovely small restaurant in Boulder, Utah. Chef-owners Jen Castle and Blake Spalding share food that in their words is simple, honest and sustainably grown. Against the challenges of a short-growing season in this mountain town, they nurture a thriving organic farm and keep smiles on their faces throughout a busy summer season. Local lamb and beef appear as specials with sauces crafted from Boulder’s heirloom orchards. We tried the Warm Utah Goat Cheese Fondue and the smoked Idaho Red Trout and Pecan Pate for starters. Our entrees were varied, ranging from Traditional Red Chile Pork Posole to chicken served with local grapes and a light wine sauce. The awards and accolades for this restaurant are impressive but even more so is the dedication to local foods, local people and the way that Jen and Blake encourage serenity throughout their operation. It’s simply a delight to dine here. Try the luscious Chocolate-Chile Crème Pot for dessert!   435.335.7464

#2    Burr Trail Outpost and Grille     Boulder, Utah
As we had three nights in Boulder, with fabulous hikes in between, several of our group ventured a short ways to do a bit of damage buying jewelry, art and T-shirts at the Outpost followed by dinner inside at this corner location that marks the turn to the historic Burr Trail. The restaurant website boasts of serving an “eclectic mix of burgers, sandwiches, salads and house-made specialties” and this made choosing the evening’s food fun. Trout from farms in the nearby community of Loa was featured and got rave reviews.   435.335.7503