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Some rules for eating on the road

One more Egg McMuffin; yet another Whopper...

Eating on the road can be oh so predictable.

I'm telling you this after a whirlwind trip in the Southwest last week. Five of us packed into a rented Crown Vic that guzzled its gas through incredible scenery.

We guzzled, too, in our own way. None of us said it out loud, but we aren't fans of franchised fast food. Yes, the places are safe; yes, they are usually clean. And their rest rooms are pretty close to long-drive nirvana. But we went for the quirky -- the local, the slightly offbeat. And we were not disappointed.

I admit that our first meal was not locally based. But how could we overlook Ted's in Tempe, Ariz.? We loved the charcoaled hots, the onion rings, the (slightly watery) loganberry, and reveled in the Western New York memorabilia. The place is an offshoot of our Ted's right here. There was the requisite photo of the city under mounds of snow, as well as an old-fashioned Buffalo News stand filled with recent papers.

And then we were off for Sedona.

Now, I'm not claiming that the Cowboy Club Grille in this trendy Arizona city is unknown. Every tourist in a very touristy town knows about it. But at least we remained true to our principles when we opted for the restaurant's award-winning fried cactus strips (made from prickly pear cactus, also known as nopales).

A thick batter enclosed a substance resembling a limp green bean and the strips came along with a sweet dipping sauce made from the cactus, too. The experience was fun, but proponents of Buffalo wings needn't worry about competition.

On the road again, to the Grand Canyon and lunch in the gorgeous El Tovar Hotel. The dining room on the rim of the canyon was hardly casual and relatively expensive -- but the meal was elegantly served. And there's the view of the canyon -- if you get the right table that almost makes the food beside the point.

Another meal was taken in Williams, Ariz., at the Cruiser's Cafe 66, right on Route you know what. It had an outdoor patio, complete with a guitarist who took very few breaks and advised us on where to buy a new suitcase, as one of ours had burst. The cafe served a remarkable smoked brisket sandwich that I remember fondly.

Then it was on to Las Vegas to catch our flights -- but not before ingesting a great meal at Circo (a sibling of the old-time great Manhattan Le Cirque) and attempting to get our jaws around a Carnegie Deli pastrami sandwich.

We ate a lot on this trip, but we did manage to tuck in a few hikes and a Jeep tour. I put together a few rules for eating while motoring that may come in handy when we travel again. (If you have your own thoughts on the subject, email me.)

1. Do some research before you go. Get a feeling for the area, its culture and its food. And start out with the attitude that you will stay away from national chains, no matter how convenient.

2. The oft-quoted advice to eat where the truckers eat is not a guarantee. It's a guide only. If you see a bunch of trucks in a parking lot, sure, take a look. A more accurate indication might be the presence of fancy cars. (If you note expensive wheels outside a humble restaurant, you're going to be happy if you eat there. Trust me.)

3. Don't let outside appearances put you off. The place may look like a shack but offer culinary gold. Check for tempting aromas and clean tables.

4. The best guide to this sort of eating is "Roadfood: A Coast to Coast Guide to 600 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Highway Diners and Much Much More," by Jane and Michael Stern (Broadway Books, 2005). They were the first to explore this field, they write wonderfully and they take a true delight in food. I swear by them.

Janice Okun, former food editor for The News, has been out and about in the regional restaurant scene for 40 years. Send your dining questions and comments to her at