May 9, 2014 at 3:15 PM

Route 66: An American Food Byway

Exploring the foods of New Mexico's iconic Route 66

By Lynn Cline

Gourmet Girl

Lynn Cline is a former food editor and the author of two books – Romantic Days and Nights in Santa Fe and Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies, 1915-1950. She also loves to cook, when not dining out.

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Spring is here and, though we'll probably have a few more snowstorms, it's a great time of year for a road trip. Here in New Mexico, the perfect getaway for fans of history and American food takes you back to the heyday of neon lights and all-night diners, an era when families explored America in shiny new cars rolling along the Mother Road,  otherwise known as Route 66.

The famed Main Street of America, also known as  the Will Rogers Highway, stretched 2,448 miles and officially opened Nov. 11, 1926. It ran from Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Santa Monica, Calif. and was celebrated through song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” and the popular television series, “Route 66.”

But Route 66 was also known for a new kind of cuisine, one that featured comfort food and traditional American dishes as well as road food that was easy and quick to prepare for diners on the go. From burgers and fries to shakes, chicken-fried steaks, meatloaf mac'n'cheese, pork chops, lasagne and the iconic blue plate special, the original Route 66 cuisine included dishes that remain American classics today.

It's easy to take this trip back through history. Start in Tucumcari at La Cita, famous for its towering sombreros and open-faced enchiladas and hot chile, or Del's Restaurant, another Route 66 classic that's been serving up great chile con queso for years. Check out Moriarty's Blackie's Restaurant, once a Route 66 bus stop. Numerous roadside eateries that still line historic Route 66 have pilgrimage stops for foodies traveling the iconic highway tracing America's foodways.

In New Mexico during the heyday of Route 66, you had your choice of greasy roadside diners offering steak, beef stew, red and green chile, pickled okra, hash browns, chile rellenos, carne adovada, shepherd's pie, barbecue, buttermilk biscuits,  and even shrimp egg foo yung. Dessert temptations included coconut cream pie, chocolate pudding, malted milk shakes, ice cream sundaes and chocolate cake with thick, velvety frosting. 

Who hasn't savored a greasy burger, hot off the grill and slathered with cheese and fried onions all piled onto a soft pillow of a roll and covered with ketchup and mustard, served with perfectly cooked fries and a pickle? Or a towering reuben of pastrami, sauerkraut and Russian dressing tucked into thick slices of rye bread and served with coleslaw and potato chips. Don't forget the blue-plate specials, daily doses of American comfort food like meatloaf, turkey with gravy, lasagna, macaroni cheese and other staples of yesteryear, which persist in popularity today.

In Santa Fe, La Fonda was a welcome stop for weary travelers along Route 66, and you can dine there today and still savor a taste of the historic hotel's legendary past as a stop on Route 66 with a menu that includes enchiladas and rellenos, a Caesar salad, and pork carnitas. The Pink Adobe was another Route 66 eatery and its menu reflects its history with lobster salad, green chile stew and French apple pie.

The Plaza Cafe, Santa Fe's oldest restaurant, was also around for the heyday of Route 66 and you'll still find items like green chile meatloaf, roast turkey dinner, mac'n'cheese, chicken fried steak, patty melts and shakes on their menu.  The Shed was a Route 66 dining fixture as well, serving up traditional New Mexican food along with chilled raspberry soup and a perfect lemon souffle. And don't forget the Hotel St. Francis, a popular overnight spot for Route 66 travelers back in the day. The menu at Tabla pays tribute to the hotel's history with the Mac'n'Cheese Pops, green chile chicken corn chowder, pork chop and steak and frites.

But you don't have to trek far to find great Route 66 diner food, thanks to the “Route 66 Cookbook: Comfort Food from the Mother Road,” by Marian Clark, which features wonderful recipes from the Mother Road's era, covering all the eateries along the historic route as well as a detailed history of each restaurant and the famed Route 66. Here's just a small sampling of the book's recipes from Route 66 diners.

La Fonda French Toast (Serves 1 to 2)
3 slices bread, 3/4-inch thick
2 eggs
½ cup whipping cream
Pinch of salt
2 to 3 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
Applesauce, honey, syrup or jam

Del's Chile con Queso
¼ cup chopped onion
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 16-ounce can stewed tomatoes
1 cup canned green chile
1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder
1 ½ teaspoons oregano
1 pound Velveeta cheese, cubed
Milk, to desired consistency

Saute onions in oil until they are translucent. Strain off fat and add tomatoes, chile and seasonings. Simmer 20 to 30 minutes. Add cheese a little at a time, stirring constantly to blend. Thin with milk to desired consistency.

Grand Canyon Cafe Chicken-Fried Steak

Begin with fresh choice steaks. Dip the steaks in flour, then milk and then cracker crumbs. Lightly salt and pepper. Fry in vegetable oil until tender.

Route 6 Pileup (Serves 1)

Spread a cup of freshly prepared cottage fries on a plate. Top with two slices of crisply fried bacon and fresh chopped green chile. Add melted cheddar cheese and two eggs, cooked to order. Top with red or green chile sauce and serve hot.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim crusts from bread. Cut each slice in half to to form triangle.

Whisk together eggs, cream and salt. Soak bread in egg and cream mixture.
Heat shortening in skillet. Fry bread, turning once. Transfer to paper towels to absorb grease.
Put bread on baking sheet and place in oven to 3 to 5 minutes, until puffed. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and serve with applesauce, honey, syrup or jam.

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