It’s tough to find good food when road-tripping small towns in Utah. This isn’t the case in the UK or France, where small towns can offer better food than big cities, because everything is farm fresh and better attention is paid to detail.
But in Utah, despite all the farms, just about every town has a local greasy-spoon joint, with copious piles of hash browns, eggs, sausage or greasy cheese burgers brought to us by Sysco Foods and factory farms. Rarely are any ingredients sourced locally. We can’t blame the restaurants because they are competing against McDonald’s, where the mindset of most consumers is “the cheaper the better.”
But there are a few towns in Wayne County (away from major Interstate highways) that are bucking this trend. Boulder, Utah, is home to the famous Hell’s Backbone Grill, where the restaurant is attached to a beef ranch.
However, we didn’t drive the six hours to visit Hell’s Backbone. I had enough hell listening to my Irish Setter Joey whine in my ear for six hours on the way down. We went to the Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch, to try their food and stay a night.
“Can we bring our dogs?”
“Yes, no problem, we love dogs.”
“Well then, we will see you soon!”
Escalante (off Highway 12) is one of the best places in Utah to find absolutely stunning, year-round secluded hiking. The crowds visiting the National Parks don’t often come this way, which makes it a great local secret. Boulder, Utah, offers dozens of hikes and camping places. I was itching to take our puppies camping. The ranch would be our appetizer, but our hikes to waterfalls, arches, and red rocks would be dessert.
Sweetwater Kitchen chef Eric Arballo is a highly accomplished chef. Learning under chef Scott Ashley, he started working on the ranch six years ago. He draws inspiration from a lifetime of cooking Mexican food with his mother and grandmother. But Arballo and his sweetheart Eva, who is the restaurant manager, also make an annual trip across the US, visiting the best restaurants along the way for ideas. He says that within Utah, Brian Hendley, at HSL, is his biggest inspiration. But places like Husk, in Nashville, and Wassayaks, in Shasta Mountain, are tops on his list. Arballo has a notebook with a list of dozens of restaurants, ideas, and recipes he appreciates.
Sweetwater Kitchen sources many of their ingredients with local Boulder farmers for lettuces, onions, tomatoes and beets.They get their grass-fed pork from BlueTree Farms. Chicken comes from Utah Family Farms, and their grass-fed beef comes from Saint George’s Bar 10 Ranch. On-site they also have an impressive farm where they raise hens for their eggs. Elena Hughes is now their a full-time gardener, and they take their compost recipes as seriously as Chef Arballo takes his food recipes. They’ll soon be planting their own tomatoes, herbs, microgreens and most of their vegetables using permaculture practices.
Beyond the saying, “you are what you eat,” Chef Arballo says, “You are what you eat eats.” Arballo wants to know that all of the animals he eats lived out their entire lives on pastures, and that they were happy and healthy. “There is nothing that gives me more pleasure than to see someone really enjoying my food. It makes the 16-hour days worth it.”
Arballo uses no processed foods. Everything is made from scratch. For dinner I sampled the trout balls, similar to crab cakes, with a horseradish lemon dressing and a sour cream sauce, followed by a vegetarian enchilada. Being a true carnivore, I usually miss the meat, but Arballo made it with a sweet potato, ancho chillies, and poblano peppers in a homemade corn tortilla, topped with oaxaca cheese—a truly fantastic dish. For dessert we enjoyed a crème brûlée cheesecake baked to perfection.
The next morning we went to witness the Boulder Farmers Market, which Eva highly recommended. For a town of 180 residents, it was surprisingly well attended and had fresh breads, breakfast burritos and tinctures, and well-made products. I asked Constance, who immigrated to Boulder from Buffalo, New York, ten years ago, “What is it about Boulder that has created such a community of makers?” She said that pretty much everyone in town plants, grows a garden, and cooks homemade food. “It’s out of necessity. There isn’t a grocery store unless you want to drive two hours each way to Richfield. And we rely far less on money. We all trade and barter with each other.”
We bought some juniper berry sauerkraut from a woman who has an ongoing arrangement trading her sauerkraut for eggs. The residents of Boulder have such a laid back, relaxed vibe, we didn’t want to leave. It’s a quiet Utah outpost which is still completely unmolested by the forces of greed which are shaping so many other interesting places.
The Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch was started by Ron Johnson, who made his fortune in the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Company. Eva tells me, “He has a passion for permaculture and sustainable farming and ranching. From the first day, his mission has been to improve the ecology and the habitat for the wildlife. He brought in Craig Sponholtz who has helped improve Sweetwater Creek, and we now have four beaver ponds, and far more native grasses have returned. Before, this creek was just a small crack in the desert landscape, now it’s just amazing to see what’s happened.”
The Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch hosts all sorts of retreats and intellectual talks on permaculture and soil throughout the summer. There are yoga retreats, silent retreats, healing and medicinal plant retreats. Musicians come to perform and record here, and writers come for a quiet work setting.
Boulder has become a stellar example of what a small town can be if the residents all choose to make, grow, craft, buy, and barter with each other. Boulder is a 5.5 hour trip from Salt Lake. The hikes around the Escalante River and upper Calf Creek falls make it worth the drive, and the amazing Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch make the visit even better.