Call it locavore culinary tourism at its finest.
The Salsa Trail is a route that meanders through parts of Cochise, Greenlee and (primarily) Graham counties. Along that route, food-lovers will find friendly folks, a beautiful countryside, a wealth of Arizona history and Mexican food that rivals any found in the Old Pueblo.
The route is the brainchild of Bill Civish, the chairman of the Graham County Visitor and Tourism Council. Civish always believed that the area had some of the best Mexican food, well, anywhere. While attending a conference on how to promote local tourism, he heard the term "culinary tourism" and realized that Graham County was a culinary gold mine waiting to be discovered.
"We have all of these wonderful restaurants; we have to find a way to market them," he remembers saying.
And marketing them, they are. People now come from all over the United States to travel the trail. Articles have been written in everything from AZ Tourist News to The New York Times. The trail even has a mascot, "Señor Salsa," who sports a moustache, a sombrero, a serape and an ever-present bowl of salsa.
In September, which Gov. Jan Brewer proclaimed Arizona Salsa Trail Month, the area celebrated Salsa Fest 2009, a gathering complete with salsa contests, live music, jalapeño-eating contests, salsa-eating contests and chile roasting.
There was some initial reluctance to the Salsa Trail idea by several participants, Civish notes; after all, businesses can be wary of joining forces with competitors. However, that concern has been erased by the success of the Salsa Trail.
Today, there are 15 members that include a tortilla factory, a chile-growing company, six restaurants in Safford and one each in Thatcher, Pima, Solomon, York, Duncan, Clifton and Willcox.
The salsa in these parts tends to differ from much of the salsa found in Tucson; it somehow seems fresher, and thicker and creamier in texture. Apparently, it has something to do with the water resulting in a thicker skin on the locally grown chiles. (Of course, since the skins are usually removed during roasting, this could be merely a good story to tell visitors.)
Each restaurant has its own "secret" recipe for salsa. In fact, several of the places have more than one.
Salsa Fiesta, the only trail stop in Cochise County, has seven or so different versions at the salsa bar. The flavors run from mild to hot to picante, and may include specialties such as chipotle tomatillo.
Safford, a mix of modern America and old-fashioned charm, is the epicenter of the Salsa Trail, since more than half of the participants are located there. Highway 70, which cuts right through town, is filled with hotels, motels, gas stations, big-box stores, churches and every chain restaurant imaginable.
By contrast, a mere block or so away is historic Main Street, complete with a charming town square. Local businesses line the street and run the gamut from a thrift shop to a barber shop (and, of course, several Salsa Trail restaurants). Flowers hang in baskets from streetlights. People walk slowly as they window-shop, often stopping to chat with friends and neighbors.
Most of the Mexican food offered is Sonoran-style, but being so close to New Mexico, one can't help but feel the influence.
"Some of the cooks have been there for 20-years plus, and the recipes have been there even longer," says Marie Freestone, the membership coordinator for the Graham County Chamber of Commerce, about the restaurants on the trail.
Chris Gibbs, owner of the Olney House, a local historic bed and breakfast, says the food offered in the area is simple but wonderful. "We have Mexican restaurants, all mom-and-pop places with wonderful meals. There are no pretenses about what they do."
One of the restaurants on Main Street, El Coronado, has the look and feel of a good old-fashioned diner, complete with counter service and blue-vinyl-lined booths. It is owned by Mary Coronado, the 2007 Salsa Fest Recipe Champion. (She won both the People's Choice and Judges' Choice.) The stand-out dish is the huevos rancheros. The eggs, done any way you want, are served atop a corn tortilla and then smothered in that award-winning salsa. It holds just the right amount of kick. Add a side of either home fries or traditionally refried beans, and it is heaven on a plate.
Just down the street is El Charro, which claims to be "the oldest continuously owned and operated restaurant in the Gila Valley." (It's not part of the Tucson chain with the same name.) Here, you'll find not one house salsa, but three: the original, which "has been served since 1979"; the chile caribe, a thicker, spicier version; and the flaming-hot jalapeño, whose name says it all.
The menu offers all the usual Mexican items: enchiladas, tacos, refried beans, etc. But then there are three local specialties: French fries enchilada style, the chalaca and something called The Big Daddy. (See the info box.)
By the way, being asked whether you want "red or green" is a regular thing in these parts: Red means beef, and green usually has pork in it.
Another unique menu item can be found at Gi'mee's in the town of York on Highway 75. Be warned: Finding Gi'mee's can be tough. But the effort is worth it, if only to experience the chile relleno. This dish has been described as "more like a crepe" by the kitchen staff, and that's exactly what these peppers are, right on down to their golden-brown, frilly edges. Filled either with cheese or green chili and covered with cheese, then popped under the broiler for bit, this is a luscious, savory relleno like no other. Word has it that Gi'mee's offers pretty good steaks, too.
Tasty American food can also be found. In fact, Bush and Shurtz, in the sleepy farming town of Pima, and P.J.'s, in Clifton, are both known for their juicy burgers. P.J.'s also owns some bragging rights regarding their great enchiladas.
One must-stop is the San Simon Chile Company, which grows many of the chiles used in all that salsa. Oddly, the chiles are not grown in the area. Instead, owner Jane Wyatt has fields and fields of chiles growing in the community of San Simon, a tiny spot near the New Mexico border. Wyatt, who comes from a long line of growers, loves to talk chiles. "There's a world of depth of flavor between sun-dried (chiles) and whatever you get in the store," she says, pointing out a flatbed of bright-red chiles drying in the yard. She also roasts them in season.
Also in Safford is the Mi Casa Tortilla Factory, located on the edge of downtown. Here, you can purchase freshly made flour or whole-wheat tortillas, white-corn tortillas, dried chiles, masa and a full range of accoutrements needed to make your own Mexican fare.
Hilda's Kitchen and Market in Duncan is both the town market and a restaurant, of sorts, although you order at a counter in the back of the store. Locals come by and order quarts of red and green chili to take home.
Other restaurants in Safford include Chalo's, part of a family of restaurants found statewide that share many of the same recipes; Casa Mañana, which still has some of the recipes served by the original owner, including a red-onion sauce that is served with the relleno; the Manor House and Rock 'n Horse Saloon whose owner and chef, Mary Lou Krieg, won the Professional Salsa champion at the recent Salsa Fest; and Taco Taste, the smallest eatery, complete with a drive-through window. The specialty there is the super taco burro—with crushed corn chips, taco meat, cheese and lettuce.
In Thatcher, whose town line abuts Safford, is La Casita Café. The recipes here are longtime family favorites.
La Paloma, in Solomon, has recently reopened with the original owners at the helm. Folks in the area are thrilled.
To get a taste of the Salsa Trail, you can purchase Arizona's Salsa Trail: A Foodie's Guide to Culinary Tourism, by Christine Maxa. The book gives a complete overview along with 37 mouth-watering recipes from the restaurants and famous locals. It is available on the Web site, along with T-shirts, hats, magnets and—of course—salsa.
"This is not five-star dining," Civish explains. "Folks are going to walk away more with the feeling of the friendly people."
He is certainly right, but the Salsa Trail is something to treasure and should be put on any foodies' to-do list.