The word “authentic” gets abused quite regularly. Like “fresh,” “gourmet” and “boutique,” the word “authentic” suffers from overuse and its meaning gets diluted. A common measure of “authenticity” in tourism is: “Did the tourism attraction exist before tourists got there? Would the attraction continue to exist if tourists stopped going?”
The word “authentic” gets abused quite regularly. Like “fresh,” “gourmet” and “boutique,” the word “authentic” suffers from overuse and its meaning gets diluted.
A common measure of “authenticity” in tourism is: “Did the tourism attraction exist before tourists got there? Would the attraction continue to exist if tourists stopped going?” If both those criteria are met, the attraction is authentic.
If this is a true measure of authenticity, then the Salsa Trail is as authentic as it gets.
The Salsa Trail consists of a collection of a dozen Mexican-American restaurants, a tortilla factory and a chile farm in the eastern Arizona towns of Safford, Pima, Thatcher, Solomon, Clifton, Duncan, Willcox and York.
I am not the first writer to notice the Salsa Trail. It has been written up in several local and national magazines. In addition, September 2009 has been declared Salsa Trail Month for the state by Gov. Jan Brewer.
The destination clearly had a lot of people talking. I was intrigued, yet hesitant. Could I make a weekend trip out of this adventure? How good could the food be? I was ready to find out.
For a weekend getaway, I estimated that five meals at five different stops from among the Salsa Trail’s dozen restaurants would be enough to get the flavor. I needed to bring someone with me who could keep up with a serious eating schedule, who knew his way around a chile relleno, and had an appreciation of quality down-home Mexican-American cooking. Fortunately, I knew just the individual: my good friend Ron.
Getting on the Salsa Trail was easy. Taking the U.S. 60 east as it turns into the 70, a two-and-a-half- hour drive though scenic roads got us to Graham County, home of the Salsa Trail. The Gila River Valley is surprisingly green, and abundant fields are evidence of the area’s agricultural importance.
Safford, the town with the highest concentration of Salsa Trail restaurants, was the logical jumping-off point. As we entered Safford, a large sign welcomed us. Right before the sign was a Taco Bell relegated, apparently, to the outskirts of town, shamed to exile by the massive quantity and quality of the Mexican-American food yet to come.
Main Street in Safford, with a population just over 9,000, is Main Street, USA. After spending years in the massive Valley of the Sun metroplex, I had almost forgotten what a true small-town main street looked like. Stores lined the sides and the street ended in a grand City Hall.
On Main Street was our first stop, breakfast at El Coronado. The restaurant was like stepping back in time, with the feel of a classic coffee shop. Our proximity to the New Mexico border was evident in the El Coronado menu as it was on other stops along the trail. I ordered the huevos rancheros, a house specialty.
We were greeted by Mary Coronado, the restaurant’s owner. With a little prodding she told us, with a blend of modesty and pride, about her restaurant’s 28-year history and her award-winning salsa.
After breakfast was a visit to the San Simon Chile Co., a small farm just outside Safford. Jane Wyatt, the proprietor, took time out from her giant, propane-fueled chile roasters to explain the types of chilies and jalapeños she grows. We sampled the salsas and jalapeño jelly produced on the farm.
Lunch brought us to Bush & Shurtz in Pima, a short drive from Safford. Bush & Shurtz is a little restaurant in a building with a lot of history. The location had been a hardware store, the original Bush & Shurtz, and an icehouse prior to that. Every Monday through Saturday, the local farmers and businessmen meet, as they have since the early 1900s. Ron and I had a Shurtz Burger with the local farmers and listened to their stories and jokes.
Dinner that evening was at Casa Mañana. Our friendly server wanted to know where we were from, something that we were routinely asked during our trip. When I asked her back how she knew we were from out of town, she just smiled.
The food, including the incredible, slow-cooked shredded beef, was some of the best on the trail, which is saying quite a bit.
We stayed at the Olney House, a classic B&B. The building has a great history of its own. The hosts made us feel as if we were staying at someone’s home as welcome guests.
Early morning found Ron and I at the Manor House for breakfast. An official trail restaurant, the Manor House is not a Mexican restaurant; instead, it has a Western theme in a fine dining atmosphere. We had a pleasant chat with owner Mary Lou Krieg, who was pleased to show us the Salsa Fest trophy earned last year for the Manor House’s salsa.
Our final meal on the trail was at Chalo’s. The friendly staff and great food were the perfect reminder of what the Salsa Trail is meant to be: no pretension, no fancy napkin folds or culinary gimmicks. I enjoyed delicious green chile and an amazing relleno. After finishing the last bite of his fried ice-cream dessert, Ron announced he was “done.”
My handpicked eating partner had met his match with the incredible food on the trail. It was time to head back to the big city.
Driving out of Safford, as the town gives way to farmland, the appeal of the Salsa Trail became clear. The food, although amazing, authentic and made with pride, wasn’t the main attraction. The true draw of the Salsa Trail is the hospitality and the people of Safford, Pima and all the towns on the trail.
The reason to visit is the friendly staff who greeted us, the owners who shared their stories with us, and the friendly locals who shared their small town.
If you are planning to go, be sure to check out the trail’s Web site, salsatrail.com. The best time to go is now. The Salsa Trail’s third annual Salsa Fest is coming up Sept. 25-26 in Safford. This will be a multiday, community event. Hot air balloons will light up Main Street, and a wide array of activities are planned.
There is no better time to experience the people, food and small-town authenticity of the Salsa Trail.