Whether they enjoy the ride up Mount Lemmon for the dramatic, twisting ascent or for the sheer joy of feeling the synapses in their brains snap back on one by one in the cool air, Tucsonans love going up the mountain to beat the heat. And once you're standing there on the mountainside, listening to a creaking pine, enormous satisfaction can be found in staring down at the hot little valley down below. Tucson is no bigger than a throw rug tossed down at your feet, a carpet of overheated, polluted misery. There you are, up in the clouds, a cool breeze tousling your hair. You might find yourself wanting to sit down and savor the afternoon. Perhaps with a morsel to eat.
You won't be alone. Everyone loves to dash up into the clouds for a bit of cooling off. To make the most of your afternoon of reverie, be sure to plan ahead. Apparently, since so many Tucsonans love Mount Lemmon so much, we've needed to widen the road. Considerably. So the highway is under major construction. To save yourself disappointment or irritation, be sure to phone ahead or check the schedule so that you can meet the pilot car on time. (751-9405 or www.mtlemmonhwy.com). Nothing can quite extinguish your plan of misty cool air as completely as missing the pilot car and baking in the hot sun for an hour waiting for the next one.
Once you do reach the top, without a doubt the quirkiest and best food is found at Mount Lemmon Café. Owned by Pam Rinella, a transplanted Pennsylvania Dutch, the café's rich and satisfying fare fits right in with the piney mountain atmosphere. Rinella knows quality ingredients and showcases them in every item. Her homemade pies are alone worth suffering the pilot car. Her sprawling outdoor patio is a lovely spot to lose yourself for an afternoon. Order the cheese fondue ($11) and you'll be rewarded with a bubbling crock of creamy cheese dip. Since Rinella smokes all her own meats in-house, you can select German sausages to dip, or perhaps chopped fresh green apple, broccoli and bread. Whatever you choose, sitting on an open mountainside in a cool breeze with a bubbling crock on your table is like a transport to another world. One that has never suffered the term "dry heat."
Not a big quiche fan, even I was seduced by the towering wedge of eggy wonder placed before me. Rinella uses only fresh eggs from her chickens for the quiche, and the deeply golden result is clearly worth the effort. Layered with fresh spinach, feta and sautéed onions, this comforting dish can heal even the most heat-inflicted.
Save room for dessert, since Rinella bakes all her own pies. The list is impressive: fresh blackberry, peach, apricot, sour cherry, coconut cream ... . There are at least 10 different types of fresh pie served daily. And they are worth the drive. Stuffed to the brim with fruit, with a snappy crust and a trowel of ice cream, these pies signal that you have been indulged. And it's pie! Pie makes you think of mothers and vacations and sunburns and all those childhood summer days spent lazily scratching mosquito bites since there wasn't anything else to do. Not bad for a couple of bucks.
Although Mount Lemmon Café won our hearts with its generous fare and local color (they showed us the freezer full of fruit that the bear tried to pull off the wall last year), to enjoy your visit requires an empty afternoon and patience. Since the erratic flow of cars up the mountain periodically jams the café or leaves it empty, the service suffers. If you find yourself jittery, impatient and on a time budget, then you might want to consider another venue.
If you are starving, keep driving down the main street to the Summerhaven Coffee House. The walk-up counter can stave off plummeting blood sugar. House-baked goods featuring cakes, pies and muffins, as well as quality teas and coffees, make this an ideal quick stop for stoking up. Soups, salads and sandwiches are also available. On a recent trip we found the tomato-roasted bell pepper bisque to be a velvety, rich soup that offset the cool, misty afternoon in just the right fashion. The Greek Salad, an enormous affair, featured fresh, crisp produce. More than anything, the swift service and thoughtfully prepared food insures recovery from any residual pilot car issues.
Should both venues be packed, or if you're in the mood to have dinner and a drink, or to spend the night, then the Alpine Lodge offers a complete menu and bar. Some kinds of ambiance you just can't buy, and the Lodge tips the scale, based loosely on a Swiss chalet. The suit of armor that greets you at the door, the dingy green aquarium and the dark wood paneling slick with the patina of a thousand summer evenings spent consoling heat-besotted Tucsonans offer their own form of charm.
The menu is largely continental and straightforward. Green Valley must have been having a hot day when we visited, since the dining room was abuzz with hearing aids, canes and the confused. "Is this Summerhaven?" one man roared at a frazzled server. Another wanted to know what would happen if he kept going down the road. To his credit, the snappy waiter was kind and welcoming, and fed the clamoring crowd.
We sampled the Chinese chicken salad ($8.95); although a little pricey, it was perfectly acceptable, a healthy toss of vegetables, greens, crispy noodles and, oddly, still-hot chicken. The French Dip ($6.95) with Swiss cheese (the only way to order it, darling, so our waiter crooned) was an enormous wedge of fresh bread piled high with well-done roast beef and cheese. Served with a warm jus, this dish was satisfying in the same way discovering a relic is satisfying: offering proof of another civilization.
We found it charming. While this venue does a hopping business, we wondered if it wasn't because it is also a local watering hole. If you need to anesthetize, then this is the spot. Just make sure to check on room availability before you try to pour yourself back down the mountain.
Whether you need a bracing afternoon getaway or a full-on weekend of recovery from the inferno, Mount Lemmon is just an hour away (give or take the pilot car). Just remember to pack your sunscreen. And your patience.