Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

The (New) Ghost Towns of the West

Posted By on February 14, 2009

Where there's a boom there's a bust.

Where there's a boom there's a bust.

Friday the 13th, Las Cruces
I’ll get to last night’s dinner shortly, but first there’s something more important to cover: I set out on a 3-mile hike this morning, up Bar Canyon and Soledad Canyon, directly east of Las Cruces via University and then Dripping Springs Road. As I approached the trailhead and the dramatic, craggy promontories of the encircling rock-mountains, I came upon a veritable ghost community made up of ludicrously large and fancy homes. Virtually all of them were empty, not just like vacation homes, but empty like never-ever lived in. Hundreds of towering, glowering Moorish-castle, Santa-Fe-adobe, and Spanish-rancho homes have been constructed—too close together for their size—on the virgin scrub of the desert and they are scattered, landscape-less, mailbox-free, across the gently rising eastern edge of the huge basin that contains, at its center, the old cross-roads town of Las Cruces. Who built these homes, and who did they imagine they were building them for? The cost of materials
No voices, no dogs, no mailbox.

No voices, no dogs, no mailbox.

alone in these mini-mansions must be far more than anyone could dream of paying for them. Later, I find out that it truly is a ghost town: midnight ramblers have been ripping open the walls and stealing valuable copper wiring, leaving the houses raped and incapable of even fulfilling their destiny as homes for happy families. (Many formerly happy families, I feel compelled to note, are homeless—or about to be—in other, less climate-friendly parts of our ailing country.)

When I rolled into the La Quinta last night, it was already dark. The concept of striking out to one of my potential dining destinations after spending the day in the car was not appealing. Immediately visible food-ortunies as I unloaded the ninety small parcels from the car: McDonalds and Applebees. Never happened, and never gonna happen.

Looking down to the ocean-less sea, a ghost-basin.

Looking down toward the ocean-less sea, a ghost-basin.

But across the wide boulevard, in the parking lot of another chain hotel, a squared-off stucco building in mid-sixties bland sports a small sign: “Eddie’s Bar and Grill.” I didn’t think it could be a chain.
I play fetch with Stella, serve her dinner, and walk across the street to Eddie’s. First impression: there’s a U-shaped bar with silent CNN (subtitled), tables here and there sparsely populated with fairly regular-looking people (ie not bikers or blue-hairs, and yes, I am something of a snob, sorry). And there’s a thirty-something bartender with a goatee and a great big smile.
“Sure you can eat at the bar,” he says.
So I belly up, order a glass of wine, and pull out my reading glasses so I can establish how bad the news is going to be. (Chowhound’s message boards pretty much proclaim Las Cruces to be a black hole, culinarily.)
The rocks don't change in the bad times.

The sheltering rocks don't change in the bad times.

No, it’s definitely not a chain, and in fact the restaurant has been around since 1977 (bar-boy shows me a picture: the surrounding fields are blissfully empty), but it used to be called Fat Eddie’s. Then, the proprietor lost a bunch of weight and changed the name. In a small town, I guess you can do this without detriment to the business. At the corner of the bar, three bearded, baseball-hatted old boys are discussing how many years they’ve been coming here. The menu is all over the place in a sort of charming, slightly naïve way. Chicken-fried steak jostles with liver and onions, surf and turf, and bibimbap salad. (Huh? Leftover of a two-year period when the restaurant was managed by a Korean couple; no one has ever ordered this dish, bar-boy confides.) I skip over the requisite Italian section, the multitudinous burgers and pasta, and light on the salad category. Eddie’s Special salad looks promising, mostly because it contains artichoke hearts. To my slight embarrassment, the salad arrives mounded in one of those tall, tastelessly tacky margarita glasses, six huge, long rapier-thin wedges of deep-fried tortilla are sticking up around the circumference of the glass like carnivorous crenellations on a castle-top.
Hey - it's not a chain....

Hey - it's not a chain....

I’m picking at this happily (the tortilla spears are still warm, and have clearly just left a fryer stocked with nice, fresh oil!), when a mid-thirtyish woman installs herself on the other side of my bar corner. I recommend the salad. She shares that she’s a human resources manager, here to orchestrate some kind of conference for construction workers, and orders two Bacardi-and-cokes in quick succession, plus my salad (with added chicken) to go, with a third drink for the road (upstairs). She’s concerned about a rumor that Obama is going to cover $300 out of the mortgage payments of distressed homeowners. I review the possibility that I May Be Conversing with a Republican, and decide to open my mind. Evidently, she and her husband have only five years left on the fifteen-year mortgage they have struggled to pay off as soon as possible; she thinks irresponsible homeowners should take care of themselves, not rely on the taxpayer’s largesse. We chat about food, of course. She grew up in New Mexico but once spent two years in San Diego (my home state!), and the one thing that stood out in her memory was an overuse of cilantro.
A woman's best friends: On the left, 3 years old; on the right, 15 years old.

A woman's best friends: On the left, 3 years old; on the right, 15 years old.

“In New Mexico, we understand that cilantro functions best in really tiny amounts, as more of a perfume; in California, people drown their food in it,” she says. Cilantro is a contentious substance, I know.
I have loved my spiky salad, enjoyed chatting to the bartender and the human resources chick, and gotten to see, if not hear, Bill Maher being incorrect on Larry King. Back at the room, I join Stella for a little spooning. Another road-day down.


Leave a Reply