Road Trip Part 10: The long drive out of the West

After an excellent and productive month in San Diego we loaded up the car and strapped in for two long days of driving through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Western Texas.

Before we could leave our temporary home city though, we had to break the diet and get the food I most strongly associate with San Diego: the breakfast burrito. When I visited a friend here in college, the culture of breakfast burritos here changed me. They were so good but so simple, why didn't we have these in New York? Sure you could get an expensive yet mediocre version from New York's (then struggling) Mexican restaurants, but in San Diego this was quality, every day food, akin to pizza by the slice.

We took advice from a local friend and went to a quality place just two blocks from our apartment the morning we left. It did not disappoint, although with our newly shrunken stomachs we ended up splitting a single burrito between us and were more than satisfied.

Our first and last breakfast burrito from Lucky's Lunch Counter, right across from Petco in downtown SD

These southwestern states can be brutal to drive through. The roads are fine and some of the sights are pretty but there just isn't much for hundreds of miles. I'm glad we were able to see the mountains and land just east of San Diego, but after that we only encountered some shockingly green farmland and miles of the most stereotypical desert that we've ever seen.

Desert

Without many destinations along the way we headed straight for Las Cruces, New Mexico for the first night, just before the Texan border. The food on our list for Arizona was the red chile chimichanga: a fried burrito smothered in a red chile sauce. We didn't venture into Phoenix given our aggressive driving schedule, but did find a place in Casa Grande, AZ that seemed likely to have it.

Beef filled red chile chimichanga from Mi Amigo Ricardo in AZ. Melissa's tamale & tostada in the background.

This wasn't a destination restaurant, but the food was great. This is the everyday, family restaurant that makes up much of America, so we were thrilled to find a winner like this amidst our never-ending search for the best, highest ranked food places in every city.

Other than the great food, our big excitement for this day of driving popped up in southeastern AZ when we stopped for gas. For at least 20 miles on I-10 we'd seen provocative signs for "The Thing" in a cryptic font. We didn't try to stop for it, but The Thing happened to be at the gas station we turned off the highway for.

The storefront gave no clues as to what was inside. We pumped gas and headed into the huge gas station and curiosity shop. They actually had an interesting hot sauce collection up front, along with tons of jewelry, kids toys, southwestern art and souvenirs, plus the usual gas station snacks and drinks. It actually took me a while to find The Thing in this huge place, but I'm glad I did.

The Thing

Is this authentic? What it appears to be? Should we be scared? From what I could tell the thing is some kind of southwest indigenous mummy. A worthwhile amusement for this part of a cross country trip.

Both of us had visited Arizona before, but this was our first stop in New Mexico each, aside from a Four Corners visit for me which barely counts. New Mexico is rural. It's desert, it's empty, and it is one of the least populated states in the union. I can't remember a thing about our drive through there until Las Cruces (editor's note: It was DARK.  We had a stop at a rest area so I could use the restroom, and it was just so dark with so many stars, and this was at 6:00pm).

The shocking thing about the Las Cruces area is how strong the Mexican influence is here. Most of the Southwest used to be part of Mexico a hundred years ago. Many place names in California, Texas and Colorado are clearly Spanish. New Mexico takes it a step further; the streets are not called "streets," but calles or avenidas which are the Spanish words for street or avenue.

And the Mexican food here is legit. We haven't encountered food like this since Mexico. Many Western cities pride themselves on their Mexican Cuisine but what we saw in New Mexico blows them all away in breadth and similarity to Mexican Cities.

The state food for New Mexico from our list is "Christmas style enchiladas," which is just a mix of red and green chile sauce topped enchiladas. We arrived in Las Cruces after dark, and navigated the calles to a well-regarded Mexican restaurant not far from our hotel that looked promising.

We couldn't find anything online that actually promised "Christmas-style," but quickly learned that this is simply something everyone here knows. Our waiter brought us hot, just-fried tortilla chips with honestly spicy salsas and assured us that we could order our chicken enchiladas Christmas style. This place was great, but the chicken enchiladas were just fine and while colorful, Christmas style doesn't really mean much for flavor. The sauces didn't taste distinct but we still really enjoyed the meal.

It's hard to see but these are Christmas-style, red and green sauce. The chips and salsa here were incredible

Halfway through our dinner, I saw the gentleman at the next table stand up in front of his date and drop down to one knee. I looked at Melissa to see if I was reading this correctly; the two of us could only try not to stare as we witnessed a wedding proposal in the middle of the restaurant. I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with those moments but she said yes. Melissa sneaked a few pictures that she sent to them and we got something to talk about after dinner.

For those keeping count, that brings us up to three Mexican meals on the first day, each a distinct, regional dish. My preference goes in the order we had them but we didn't eat a bad bite all day.

Day 2


West Texas is endless. Our only excitement came right at as we crossed the border into Texas at El Paso. There, the interstate goes so close to Mexico that we could clearly see houses on the other side of the border. El Paso looked like a modern southwest citym but since we passed it first thing in the morning we had no time to stop.

We're on I-10, those houses are in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
One thing that you may only see in Texas is green road signs showing distances to in-state cities, over 500 miles away. Alaska may have higher numbers on their signs, but for this trip Texas stood out.

As we drew close to Austin after hours of straight driving, we passed through a town called Fredericksburg. Just driving through town we could see that it had a lot of Old World charm -- it's practically a German city in Texas. They had a huge Christmas display set up in the park (this was before Thanksgiving) with the ornate stars and their Christmas pyramid.

The Fredericksburg German Christmas Pyramid, from the city website
We arrived in East Austin after dark and keyed into our Airbnb. So many US cities have old areas that are up-and-coming after being forgotten warehouse, industrial and low-income neighborhoods for decades. It's clich├ęd to call them "the Brooklyns" of those cities but it does get the point across. East Austin is (one of) the Brooklyns of Austin: close to the city center, less expensive housing and many exciting new restaurants, bars and cafes for us to explore.

After settling in we decided on a sushi + more restaurant within walking distance that would take us through a bit of the Eastern part of 6th St, Austin's most famous commercial and social district. We enjoyed a great, pricey dinner as both of us tried not to eat too much and ruin our good streak coming out of San Diego.

Crispy river crabs from the sushi place, eaten whole
Tired from back-to-back long driving days we turned in after dinner and one bar and got ready for a busy two days of exploring Austin and phone interviews.

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