Top | Deborah Madison — Blog
(post, Deborah Madison)
I love car trips on back roads but they’re usually a disaster when it comes to food. While we never succumb to fast food or chains, we often eat more enchiladas than we want to. But our recent drive to, from and around Southern Arizona was different. For one, we made motel dinners of sliced apples, crackers and goat Cheddar instead of filling up on mediocre food. We paused for a 4-mile hike in a state park. When stuck in a town with nothing but a steakhouse we made a satisfying albeit unglamorous dinner of a glass of wine and a baked potato. But best, and most unlikely, was a restaurant that our friend Gary Nabhan took us too in Sonita, Arizona, called Canela, which means cinnamon. We had passed through Sonita earlier in our trip and noted Canela on the edge of the highway. Basically, Sonita is a crossroads. The grasslands that surround it are vast and empty even though Tucson is only about an hour away. The chef/owners of this Southwestern Bistro are a young couple, John Hall and Joy Vargo, who went to culinary school back east then ended in what could be considered an unlikely place for trained cooks to set up shop. It turns out its rich in resources for the chef who’s looking for local foods that are part of the desert Southwest landscape. Canela in small and charming, simple and without pretense, but comfortable. Its shady courtyard must be the most pleasant place to sit when it’s warm out, but in March the evenings were chilly. At the top of the menu it was written, “In addition to herbs & vegetables from our neighbor’s and our own gardens, we proudly feature locally grown food from an ever growing list of farmers & ranchers.” Nine ranches and farms are named. While early spring might not be the richest time for local foods, our menu featured a soup made with the heirloom Magdalena Big Cheese squash. Radishes and chives cropped up on the menu along with local turnips, sunchokes, grilled purple scallions, chiltepin peppers, and scarlet runner beans, the latter served with local Navajo-Churro lamb. The Arizona Tempranillo wine from the area was surprisingly fine. It really was. No doubt the local aspect of Canela’s menu ebbs and flows with the season, but we got the feeling they were using whatever they could and to good effect. And all the dishes were interesting, vegetable rich, prepared with care, and good to eat. It was especially gratifying to enjoy good food cooked by a serious chef in a setting that was friendly and relaxed and where many of the customers knew the staff as well as the other diners. Clearly locals as well as people getting out of Tucson for an evening enjoy Canela. Canela is the kind of restaurant I’ve long been hoping to see more of—and finally am. After all where were all these chefs going to end up after culinary school? Is it written that good cooks can work only in urban areas? Here’s another good shred of evidence that this isn’t so. Check out the web site. (www.canelabistro.com) You can learn more about Canela and other places to eat and stay that are not exactly on the beaten path and you won’t have to settle for a baked potato supper. Still, you might want to pack something to eat in case the spot you’re hoping to visit is closed, or in case you drive right past it as you cruise on down the road.