JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING
August led me to the tiny mountain town of Jackson Hole, at the entrance of the Grand Tetons near Yellowstone. Just landing in the airport, the only one inside a national park in the US, is a thrill. The Tetons’ jagged peaks pierce the bluest of blue skies, making a majestic line along the valleys of grass and wildlife below.
Near this natural wonder is the tiny, walkable little cowboy/tourist town of Jackson. Thanks to a city law, all architecture must fit the mountain theme, so log cabins and rustic chic abound, looking not unlike the architecture around much of Tahoe or Aspen (I loved the historic Wort Hotel, capturing the charm and history of the Old West).
The bad news is, it is a tourist town so most establishments cater to that constituency (and all that implies). Sure, if you can afford thousands for leather coats and cowboy boots, you’ll find some unique stuff. But if you’re a world-seasoned traveler or live in a major world city, the look will charm, but the substance behind, not so much.
I found that though there are a couple popular sushi or Nuevo Latino restaurants in town, they’re hardly comparable to what you can eat in many great cities. Of course, you don’t come here for the food, because cities don’t offer such wildlife, splendid nature and views. I was lucky enough to meet some amazing locals and see their lovely homes… but in my unstoppable search for great meals wherever I may be, my eyes were charmed by down-home bars and restaurants, while my taste buds were feeling a bit left out.
I WISH I could have made it to Jackson’s most famed restaurant, Snake River Grill, a rustic-chic dining room I peeked into. With a dear friend’s wedding festivities every night I was in town, I couldn’t get away long enough for a fine dining meal, though I was dying to try the North Dakota Elk Chop with spiced bing cherries and sweet potato fries (at a shockingly high$49!) or a humble Sugar Snap Peas with sesame and mint ($6). From what I hear, this is Jackson’s shining mecca for food, albeit at a price.
I’m tempted to come back in Winter (Summer is the busiest season, the town completely overrun by tourists) for sleigh rides among moose and elk, world class skiing and warm drinks by roaring fireplaces.
Jackson Hole Roasters: A delightful shock in Wyoming or anywhere… who’d have thought this coffee snob (that’s me, by the way) would find a café serving not only beans roasted on the premises, but made one cup at a time in an astronomically expensive (and rare) Clover machine? Though service was surprisingly abrupt and distant (come on, really?), for “the goods”, this is the one and only place around to get it. Another plus? It’s in an utterly charming cottage a couple blocks off the Town Square with a green, lush yard, picnic tables, and a front porch swing so you can peacefully take in the glorious mornings.
The Bunnery: AVOID at all costs the mile-long breakfast lines filled with Food Network viewers… every critique I read ahead of time warned that the restaurant was less than mediocre (looks like a Knotts’ Berry Farm-type country kitchen: cute but bland). What’s all the fuss about, then? Baked goods are their claim to fame, which you can get at the to-go counter.
Though my mouth watered just looking at bakery choices, I have to say the pastries and Pumpkin Apple Muffin were alright. I’m spoiled with Tartine (James Beard winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef in the US this year, and the best pastries I’ve tasted anywhere), plus many other greats within walking distance of me . But The Bunnery’s famed Very Berry Pie (raspberry & blackberry) is just like Grandma used to make: sweet, jammy, buttery crust dusted with sugar. Paired with Jackson Hole Roasters’ coffee (where I took my goods to eat)… watch out!
Cadillac Grille & Billy’s Giant Burgers: Believe it or not, the best meal I had in my Jackson visit was burgers. I wanted there to be more, but this duo of restaurants serving each other’s food (the cute diner/bar side or ‘classier’ restaurant side), was the most solid meal I had. Hearty burgers were great whether from Billy’s to-the-point burgers (around $5) or “fancied up” (with applewood bacon and avocado) from the Grille menu ($9). Even Wyoming’s state law allowing only MEDIUM WELL on any restaurant meat (what the?! how can a true chef work under such a law?) didn’t stop them from grilling it pink and juicy for me.
Q Roadhouse: For the sake of trying something “new and hip” in town, or rather, in nearby Wilson (about 4 miles from Jackson), I hit up this fun-sounding mix of BBQ and New Orleans. The space has personality, even if rather chain-like in spirit. Tons of Harleys were parked outside while bikers were celebrating a wedding at a large table in rowdy fashion.
Good times can be had on the back patio overlooking a broad lawn where kids chase each other as parents look on. There’s a good beer, cocktail, and whiskey selection (Mint Julep for me, thank you!)
Fried Green Wyomatoes ($7.95; don’t ask – I refused to say that word out loud) are spicy as all get-out, but playful. The BBQ is surprisingly disappointing (dry, flavorless pulled pork; faux-BBQ sauce at the table). I couldn’t believe it: we have more authentic Southern BBQ in San Francisco. Crab & Avocado BLT ($11.95) was bland. Oddly, sides ($3.95) ended up being the highlight. Satisfying Mac & Cheese and some of the best BBQ Beans I’ve ever had. Smoky, loaded with savory, tender chunks of beef brisket…. Mmmm. All in all, this place offers something special in setting, but not with the half-baked menu.
Alpenhof Lodge’s Bistro: This one really let me down but I should have known being in a touristy Teton Village resort (about 10 miles from Jackson). But the online menu looked authentically Austrian/Swiss with mention of Tyrolean cuisine, a mix of Austrian and Italian food I love in the Tyrol region of Italy (on the border of Austria – a region I explored last year and rare to even hear mention of this cuisine in the US).
As they served fondue for lunch (per their menu) in the Bistro as well as at dinner in the Alpenrose, I was hoping to recreate favorite travel memories in Swiss/Austrian/Italian mountain settings, maybe even finding some Tyrolean sausages, which I still dream of from carts in the Italian Alps. But it was one let down after the other… not only was the dining room décor a mix of dingy 1980’s bar with a meek attempt at Swiss/Austrian (thank God for the sunny outdoor deck) but I was told no fondue was served during the day. I told them they should update their website, but the damage was done.
We ordered a hearty meat and cheese platter with some authentic Swiss/Austrian cheeses and meats that paired nicely with a glass of Gruner Veltliner. But the phyllo-wrapped “sausage” was pretty much a glorified hot dog and the rest of the menu, simple American sandwiches. I’ve heard the one other Austrian restaurant in town, Steigler’s, is better, but it’s not open for lunch. I suppose my Tyrolean dreams will have to remain sweet memories until I return…
Elk or Buffalo Jerky at Jackson’s Farmer’s Market: Enjoying the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market around Jackson’s Town Square, I tasted Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat’s famed gourmet jerky in beef, elk and buffalo, impressed by mild, meaty flavors and tender (for jerky) texture. An appealing snack and palatable intro to buffalo and elk for the uninitiated.
Million Dollar Cowboy Bar: THE bar to in town, it’s right on Town Square, unmissable with kitschy old world Vegas signage and loud décor (just follow the crowds). It’s too crowded for its own good – on Summer nights, you might not even be able to get in (my friend got ‘bounced’). There is usually a cover charge for live bands, but you can walk through during the day or come by for a quick drink just to see the huge, open space filled with red pool tables and wood carvings, lined with saddle bar stools. In a memorabilia display case showing off spurs and chaps, I beheld tickets from when Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash played here decades ago. A girl can dream…
Mangy Moose: Another tacky bar with furniture and large items hanging from ceilings and walls, this Teton Village bar inside the aptly named Mangy Moose Lodge has a relaxed feel and eclectic look worthy of a few photos (though the restaurant side looks better than the bar, I wouldn’t recommend eating there). Best of all, there are some surprisingly good bands making their way to the stage, like the upcoming Mofro or Eric McFadden Trio shows.
Saddle Rock Family Saloon: Yet another kitschy, over-the-top cowboy bar – this one offers a for-tourists-only “family saloon” menu and Wild West show. I’d avoid all the above, but was still charmed by the atmosphere. It reminds me of the Disneyland Frontierland of my youth with swinging saloon door, animal heads and cheesy nature paintings.
CAFES/TAKE OUT FOOD
Back Country Provisions: Sandwiches to go? You could do worse than this little deli serving a long list of delectable sandwiches with quality meats like Genoa Salami, Prosciutto, Soppreseta and Mortadella.
Planet Palate Organic Café & Bakery: The most Bay Area-like café around, the food is organic (Carrot Cardamom Muffins?), the space clean and modern, with sunny outdoor deck (in front of neighboring Blu Kitchen with a modern fusion menu – only open for dinner).