Dining like royalty in Gila Bend

A couple times a year, my good friend Dan — an occasional commenter on this blog — travels to Arizona with his mom to spend a week or so with his aunt in Yuma. Typically during those visits he leaves the ladies in Yuma for a day and drives to Phoenix to see Kathryn and me. We were expecting to host him last weekend, but his mom wasn’t feeling well, so he had to stay in Yuma. My colleague at work was out of town for the weekend, so I didn’t feel free to travel to Yuma, but we decided to work out another chance to see each other.

A quick check of Google Maps showed there’s only one town of any size that’s roughly halfway between Phoenix and Yuma, and that’s Gila Bend. We agreed to meet there for an early dinner yesterday afternoon. I’ve driven through Gila Bend a number of times on my way to or from Yuma or San Diego, but it’s always been a place to stop and use the restroom and maybe get a cup of coffee or a Big Mac. It’s never been a destination. So Dan and I both did some Google research on where to eat in Gila Bend, and although we reached the same conclusion, his path produced the more humorous results.

Dan’s search revealed a top-ten list of Gila Bend restaurants from TripAdvisor. To me, this was funny on two levels. The first level is, I don’t exactly hold TripAdvisor in the highest regard. The second level is, I didn’t think there were ten restaurants in Gila Bend. To give credit where due, TripAdvisor’s otherwise generally useless reviewers found eleven “restaurants” in Gila Bend. All but three were fast-food outlets. Of the eight fast-food places — I’m not kidding — three were Subways. One was, in fact, a gas station. And when there are eleven restaurants in town, only one can miss the top ten. Tough break, Burger King.

My research approach was more visual. I pulled up a Google Maps view of the main street through Gila Bend and looked for the fork-and-knife icons, and then hovered over them long enough to see a star rating, which, to be fair, is roughly as worthless as TripAdvisor. I kept going until I found a restaurant that won such glowing accolades as “the only place in town worthy of eating” and “it had the most cars in the parking lot”, and I knew we had a winner. It turns out it was also the same place at the top of the TripAdvisor list, a wings-pizza-pasta joint called Little Italy.

After we settled on a place, I did a little more reading and discovered — to my great surprise — the restaurant has a part in the history of Arizona’s mostly forgotten connection to the British royal family. Back in 2011, while he was serving in the military, Prince Harry was stationed near Gila Bend for a few weeks to finish his Apache helicopter training. The location was chosen because the desert conditions are similar to those in Afghanistan — and that’s probably all the description you need of Gila Bend. During his training, according to numerous gossip sources, he was spotted at Little Italy, enjoying a few beers with his comrades in arms and eating an entire meat lover’s pizza, declaring it “the best pizza in the world”, according to the owner. One wonders just how many beers he’d enjoyed before saying that, if he said it at all.

Anyway, I got out of work earlier than expected yesterday, and Dan left Yuma earlier than expected, so we both arrived in Gila Bend about 4:30 pm. Little Italy doesn’t look like much on the outside, but the interior was clean and pleasant. When we were seated, we were the only diners in the place, but by 5 pm, the place was nearly full. The decor was mostly Italian imagery, paintings of coastal villages and so on, and even a little religious imagery to keep up the appearance of authenticity. One corner of the dining room, though, had a Union Jack and a cutout of Prince Harry. I declined to take a photo.

I always enjoy a good meat lover’s pizza, and Kathryn’s instant reaction is always to roll her eyes when I suggest it. This time was no exception. However, when she looked at the menu and saw the meat lover’s pizza was highlighted as “Prince Harry’s favorite”, she changed her mind and decided she wanted to try it after all. Subtle.

Well, not to quibble with the words that were possibly not spoken by His possibly intoxicated Royal Highness, but it was not “the best pizza in the world”. I would not go so far even to say it was “the best pizza in Maricopa County”. But it was quite good, a well-above-average pizza, and to be honest, far better than anything I expected to eat in Gila Bend. The toppings were flavorful, probably the most memorable part of the pizza. The sauce and cheese were noted approvingly by my fellow diners. The crust did an admirable job of getting the rest of the ingredients to our mouths, which is about all I can say about it. The weak spot of the evening was the service, which was a bit uneven. Our server brought the check before suggesting coffee or dessert; I probably would have tried an espresso if she’d asked. To be fair, she did offer a soda refill, although it was about 90 minutes after my glass went empty.

Anyway, I’m genuinely pleased to have gotten to see Dan before he heads back east later this week, even if it was in what seems the most unlikely of places. In the process, I have a new place to stop between Phoenix and Yuma, one that I can happily recommend to others. Apparently there’s more to Gila Bend than Big Macs.

A woman walks into a bar

A beautiful woman walks into a bar. She has wild, dark, curly hair. She wears glasses. She has a smile from ear to ear that shows off a mouth full of braces. She sports a heavy scarf, as if unaware she’s in Phoenix. She approaches with great confidence. She takes a seat across from me, in a booth near the front window. The bar has an English theme. She orders Corona Light and a basket of mozzarella sticks. We talk, we share thoughts and memories, and time slips away. Her laughter is infectious. Her braces are covered with cheese and marinara that she deftly clears away by whistling. Eventually we part without making future plans.

That was ten years ago today.

I saw the woman again three weeks later. She is now my wife.

Eye in the sky on the street

Between the overhead cameras and the ever-present security personnel, you expect to be under constant surveillance when you’re in a Las Vegas casino. Recently I’ve noticed the surveillance extending to the street as well.

This mobile surveillance station, courtesy of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, was seen on the northeast corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo, in front of The Cromwell, which used to be Bill’s Gambling Hall, which used to be Barbary Coast, which probably used to be something else prior to that. If you’re staying there on a low floor, it can probably see into your room. 

I saw two of these stations, although I now can’t remember where I saw the other one. I also didn’t see many uniformed police officers patrolling the Strip this visit; I’m not sure I saw any. Usually there are almost as many cops as hooker card snappers.

White Christmas at Wynn

While we were in Las Vegas, we had dinner with high school classmate and long-time local resident Kerrie. After dinner we all had an evening stroll together, and she suggested we check out the Christmas decorations at Wynn. They had set up a number of snow-covered miniature villages between the casino floor and the boutiques, but the one pictured above was my favorite. Who doesn’t like model trains?

Sambalatte at Monte Carlo, Las Vegas

One thing Kathryn and I struggle to find in Las Vegas is a decent cup of coffee. Yes, you can get the paper-cup sludge from one of the Starbucks you pass every fifty yards or so on the Strip, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a carefully prepared espresso drink, served in a real cup that’s designed for the drink I ordered, and a pleasant atmosphere in which to enjoy it. A city the size of Las Vegas should have dozens of such places. This weekend we finally found one called Sambalatte. They apparently have three locations in Las Vegas; we visited the one at Monte Carlo.

At five bucks for a latte, it was definitely overpriced, but otherwise it was the best latte we’ve had in Las Vegas — if that’s not damning something with faint praise. The café had a comfortable seating area with tables or big padded armchairs, if you’re into that sort of thing. It also had an heated outdoor seating area facing the Strip, which is where we would have sipped our coffees if there hadn’t been gale-force winds yesterday morning.

Still, this is Las Vegas, so we noticed most of our fellow patrons were drinking their coffee from paper cups with plastic lids — à la Starbucks — even though they weren’t going anywhere. It was a reminder to me that a trip to Las Vegas can be whatever you choose to make of it. You can lose yourself in a charming, urban European café, or you can get your routine caffeine fix in an industrial, suburban coffee chain, and you can do it in the same place. All that changes is your perception.

Desert rain

The drive from Phoenix to Las Vegas was uneventful except for the rain, which is unusual to see on that stretch of highway running mostly through desert.

Earlier this week I looked at the tires on my car, realized they had worn down to baloney skins, and decided they weren’t making the drive to Las Vegas. Since I didn’t have time to get four new tires before we left, we took Kathryn’s car this weekend. With the sheets of rain we saw during yesterday’s drive, I’m glad we had a decent set of treads between us and the road.