Continuing our breakdown on the best of our Southwest, I'll cover here our top 5 finds in restaurants.
As readers are well aware, eating out is a big part of the FrerxAdventure. We go out of our way to try to find local favorites and to try restaurant specialties. We only do chain restaurants when there something we haven’t tried before such as ‘Beer and Burgers’ in El Centro, or when nothing else is open like when we hit the Pizza Hut in Meade, KS.
Looking back over my records, we ate ate out at restaurants 63 times during our 71 day Southwest trip, usually based on local recommendations or searching online reviews. There were only a very few restaurants we really didn’t like. I attribute our good luck to Ken’s penchant for talking and finding out from folks what restaurants to go to and then getting friendly with waitresses to find out what’s best to order once we got there. Ken’s standard line is usually “So what’s your favorite item on the menu”. I also attribute it to my love for tracking down the unique hometown favorites based on online reviews. I think we can all really help others improve their adventures by taking the time to do honest online reviews—of course, I’m still working to get caught up on all of mine!
I did find that restaurant owners are beginning to catch on to the importance of online reviews. In fact, the top rated restaurant in the Sedona area, the Red Rock Café, hands out little business cards with instructions on how to review them on TripAdvisor.
With restaurants, once again, Ken and I had a really tough time trimming down our list to a favorite 5. Actually the list could easily have been at 15 top picks, but in sticking to our format here you go…
#5 Bisbee Breakfast Club, Bisbee, AZ
The Bisbee Breakfast Club is a favorite meeting spot and destination restaurant for full-time RVers so that is how we found out about it.
I’m sure part of the appeal of this restaurant for us was sharing the experience with 8 other RV friends. You can find that original block here.
The menu has wonderful variety with a blend of the old breakfast and lunch standards such as pancakes and burgers along with special Southwestern touches such as the Sonoran burger with Santa Fe seasoning, guacamole and chilies. While you can find plenty of upscale touches in the menu such as stuffed avocados and unique omelet combos, their prices are very reasonable. Despite having to deal with a group of ten, the service was good and, most important of all, everyone’s food was VERY good.
Beware, while Bisbee Breakfast Club is open 7 days a week, they are only open until 2pm.
This is one of the few restaurants that we actually drove to in our RV and were thrilled to find a place to park within a block of the restaurant. The quaint little town of Bisbee was not a planned stop for us but we intend to plan a longer visit there in the future and will return to the BBC for sure!
#4 OPA!, Tucson, AZ
OPA! was found via a last minute check of the TripAdvisor and Urbanspoon apps I have on my phone. We had planned some shopping in Tucson at lunchtime so I used both apps to find choices close to Trader Joe’s which was our next stop.
We were so not expecting to have a ‘top 5’ meal that we hadn’t even brought our camera. That said, I used the phone to get a few shots! You can find our blog for that day here.
So what was special about OPA! Well first, Ken and I really like authentic Greek food and there were over 80 different items to select from on the menu so we could try something new which is always a way to catch our interest. The meats were absolutely cooked to perfection and the vegetables were so fresh and wonderfully seasoned. There service was perfect, the ambiance was a perfect lunchtime retreat from shopping with linen table clothes and tasteful décor with an open kitchen area. While it was slightly more than we usually spend for lunch, the $10-$13 an entrée was definitely a good value.
Access to this kind of restaurant in a very nice easily accessible area of Tucson is part of what will bring us back to this city.
#3 Courtney’s Place, Toronto, KS
We might list Courtney’s Place as one of our most pleasant surprises on the trip.
It was a driving day and we had a terrible time getting set up because of electrical problems at multiple sites in the state park. Based on the way the day had been going I did not have high hopes of finding a place to eat in the tiny little town of Toronto, KS, but Ken and I were both just too tired to cook. You can get back to that day’s blog here.
Driving through Toronto you could easily miss the little sign over the door marking Courtney’s Place, and it certainly does not look like anything special from the outside.
When we walked in we were greeted by a friendly lady who asked if we were there for pizza or wanted to be seated in the more formal Italian restaurant. We looked at each other, and after the day we had, quickly agreed we deserved the nicer dining experience. It was Thursday night and the restaurant was deserted except for one of table of diners. The lady who had seated us turned out to be Courtney who, in fact, was also our cook and waitress that evening since she had given her chef the evening off to handle some personal affairs.
The menu was very limited but changes nightly so that Courtney can offer different Italian favorites on different nights of the week each recipe tuned to her specifications. Every course served was absolutely outstanding. It was then that we questioned Courtney about being able to run this kind of restaurant in such a small town. (Toronto has a population of 269!). She told us that, in fact, her restaurant is so popular as a ‘destination’ restaurant on Friday and Saturday night’s that she has had to start taking reservations charging for cancellations and no-shows because she regularly has all tables reserved. She has been written up in several Kansas magazines and newspapers. There are links on her website to some of those articles as well as the interesting story of how she ended up owning an upscale restaurant in such an unlikely place.
Everything was homemade, the dining room décor was very tasteful, and Courtney did an amazing job as hostess, waitress and cook!
While we only paid a higher tab at one other restaurant on our trip, this restaurant was definitely worth the $70 we laid out for the two of us with appetizers, drinks and dessert.
We were very pleased with our decision to take Highway 54 across Kansas versus staying on Interstates and will definitely give this route preference when in that part of the country again to insure we get to stop by again to visit Courtney!
#2 Los Nopales, Tucson, AZ
Cindy: Wow, did you realize I didn’t take any pictures of our two favorite restaurants from the trip, even though we ate at both multiple times??
Ken: Understandable…you were too busy eating.
This photo courtesy of Dani R. on the Yelp website.
Stuck in the corner of a strip mall behind the laundromat, you could drive by Los Nopales many times and not realize there was a restaurant there. In fact, we had a little bit of trouble figuring out where the door was. I guess that would definitely qualify this place as what we tend to call a ‘hole in the wall’! Unlike our other selections, they don’t even have their own website I can use as a link here, although there are no shortage of rave reviews on Tripadvisor.
The internet is, in fact, once again, how I found this restaurant. I had heard mention there was something served in some Mexican restaurants called a ‘cheese crisp’ that was quite unique to the Tucson area. After doing a fair amount of googling, I determined that these cheese crisps were the signature item at Los Nopales which was only a few miles from our RV site in Tucson Mountain Park.
Both times we visited this restaurant, the place was packed, mostly the patrons appear to be snowbirds who had crossed from the large RV park across the street. The location is also very convenient for Tucson visitors as its not far from the Desert Museum, a definite ‘must see’ in the area.
They serve very good Mexican food, cheap, and the Dos Equis Amber beer nice and cold. What more can I say! This is a real ‘diamond in the rough’ with no curb appeal, no atmosphere and truly good authentic Mexican.
If you’ve never had a Mexican crisp, give it a try, but be forewarned they are huge!
This photo of a chicken cheese crisp courtesy of April G. on the Yelp website.
It’s a homemade fried tortilla the size of a large pizza topped with melted cheese and optionally, carne asada, chilies, etc., and is only about $4.50 depending on toppings. Although the tortilla is homemade and fried, it is not greasy at all but very crisp and tasty. Our first trip, we ordered the crisp as an appetizer. I liked the crisp so much I ordered it again on our return visit, trying a different combination of toppings, but knew not to order anything else with it that time!
We’d also recommend the fish tacos, and the steak fajitas and the 3 cheese burro. We didn’t have anything at Los Nopales that we wouldn’t recommend!
Be forewarned, though, while this restaurant did not have an open table either evening we visited, they are not open very late in to the evening, so don’t try to beat the crowd by going 7:30 or later.
If Ken and I lived in Tucson, I’m sure we would be Los Nopales regulars!
#1 Cicinelli’s, El Centro, CA
What was it about Cicinelli’s that put it at the top of our list?
I can best describe it as ‘the whole package’. This is not a fancy dining experience but a small 3rd generation restaurant, with red and white checker tableclothes, and pictures of local teams they support on the wall. Like Courtney’s, the owner was our waiter and cook both times we dined there. He said most of the recipes were handed down from his grandmother. In fact, some of her recipes from during the Depression are displayed on the wall. Although they serve some great looking pizzas, Ken and I could never get past the awesome salads, soups and pasta dishes. They have a decent beer and wine selection and some luscious looking homemade desserts, although we could never get that far.
This is casual dining, in a comfortable, unrushed environment, with great authentic Italian dishes. The prices are a bit high for just a ‘pizza joint’ but then that’s not how we viewed it or the way the food tasted. And, hey, want to save money? Go Friday night’s when the beer is half price!
If we lived in this area, we would definitely be regulars at Cicinelli’s. In fact, we actually visited El Centro twice on this trip and one of the first places Ken wanted to visit on our return trip was this restaurant.
We had gotten the recommendation for this restaurant from one of the ‘winter resident’s at the RV park who had spent many prior winters sampling the various dining opportunities around the city. I’m really amazed I can find so few online reviews (and no pictures!!) for this little gem, so I’ll have to make a special effort to get something out on Tripadvisor and Urbanspoon.
Ok, well, now I’ve made myself hungry….and it’s half-price pizza night at one of our hometown regular haunts, Tower of Pizza!!