Some 12 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, but any "foodies" among them tend to be disappointed when they arrive at the rim.
Where in all this luscious landscape, they ask, is anyone serving food that tastes of this place? Why do so few restaurants in Arizona's canyon country feature the range-fed beef or lamb, vegetables, fruits or other seasonal fare produced by local farmers and ranchers? Except at the world-renowned Turquoise Room in Winslow and Garland's in Oak Creek, both of them Arizona towns several hours south of the Grand Canyon, few chefs in the region have been smart enough to make use of locally produced food and prepare it well.
Until now. When Derrick Widmark first got the idea for Diablo Burger two years ago, he was already working for the Diablo Trust, one of the oldest collaborations between ranchers and farmers in the West. The Diablo Trust began in 1993, at a humble community gathering arranged by the ranchers of the Flying M and Bar T Bar. Since then, the Trust has done so much to sustain open spaces, protect biodiversity and restore healthy watersheds that it has garnered awards from the U.S. Forest Service, the National Cattleman's Beef Association and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government.
And yet, even with such national and regional fame, Widmark knew that the nonprofit trust needed more of a human face in the communities of northern Arizona where it worked. Though millions of people travel through the hundreds of thousands of acres of working landscapes managed by the Diablo Trust, few had any idea what the group was trying to achieve. Fewer still ever tasted any of the food it produced in a local setting.
It took time and patience, but Widmark assembled a team of investors and collaborators who have now changed their community's notion of what good local food can be. And the food served on Heritage Square, smack-dab in the middle of downtown Flagstaff, is exceedingly good, modestly priced and served in a comfortable and elegant setting.
The beef in the burgers is raised on the open range, free of growth hormones and antibiotics. It comes exclusively from the ranches within the Diablo Canyon Rural Planning Area, an innovative effort to keep private landowners and agencies engaged in maintaining the integrity of a working landscape that covers nearly a half-million acres along I-40 between Flagstaff and Winslow. But this beef is not the tough, jerky-like chaw that Arizona ranches offered their cowboys a century ago; instead, it is deliciously seasoned and carefully prepared in a variety of ways that make you expand your notion of what a burger can really be.
Onions, herbs and tomatoes top the burgers, and they come from Mountain Meadow Farm in Flagstaff and McClendon's Select in Peoria, Ariz. The burgers come in buns, tortillas or rolls from the Tortilla Lady in Flagstaff and Simply Bread in Phoenix. Distinctive regional wines and beers are also featured. Soups, salads and desserts change each day or so, but the tomato soup I sampled was as good as any I've ever tasted: savory and smooth, but substantial.
Within the first month after opening, Diablo Burger was serving as many as 300 people from late afternoon through evening. Times might be hard, but the nation's economic downturn doesn't seem to be keeping folks away from food that's both good and affordable.
Range-fed beef, served within 40 miles of where it was produced, offers about the lowest carbon footprint of any food produced on the American continent. It's made up of sun and grass, and as free of petrochemicals as any food these days can be. You walk away from Diablo Burger with a lingering sense that your decision to eat there has been pretty good for you, for the land, and for the local rural community. What more could anyone want?
Gary Paul Nabhan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he is a professor at the University of Arizona and the author of several books, including Coming Home To Eat.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.