LEE VINING, Calif. - A century ago, prospectors were scouring the Eastern Sierra, searching for gold. These days, foodies are doing the prospecting - and they're striking it rich.
Along Highway 395, between Independence and Walker, 21st century edible treasure hunters are delighting in delectables that would wow diners in New York City, San Francisco or the Napa Valley. Only these epicurean gems are turning up in funky, little-known towns - including some destinations that hardly show up on road maps.
Whoa Nellie Deli
Who would have believed slices of perfectly seasoned and seared sashimi-grade ahi, fanned on a bed of edible seaweed, served in a gas station?
The Whoa Nellie Deli, in the Mobil station at the junction of Highway 395 and the Tioga Pass, is as closely related to the AM/PM model as foie gras is to chopped liver. Any foodie worth his or her salt has been here - or at least knows about it.
Thus, it was our first stop when Union-Tribune photographer Crissy Pascual and I embarked on a weeklong expedition, prospecting for dining treasures in the Eastern Sierra.
Today, Matt Toomey, 40, runs the deli, turning out dishes such as seared ahi, pistachio-crusted rack of lamb, enormous steak Caesar salads and legendary fish tacos, served with mango salsa, ginger coleslaw and Brazilian black beans.
Foodies have read about Toomey's deli in New York Times Magazine, seen it on the Food Network. Gourmet magazine labeled it among the 100 most interesting restaurants in the world. Only the informality here reminds customers this is gas-station deli: "There's no dress code, no reservations," said Toomey. "Just come on in, order your food, find a seat and plunk on down. Pick up your food when your number's called."
Convict Lake resort restaurant
At the restaurant in the Convict Lake resort, about 10 minutes south of Mammoth, off 395, we found chef Matt Eoff.
Dress is casual, but ambiance here has a coat-and-tie feel: Tables are covered in crisp white linens, romantic oil lamps, fresh-cut flowers and baskets of warm sourdough bread.
Guests sit in plush red leather booths. On cool nights, a fire blazes in the copper-topped hearth.
It's Eoff's superb, country French style cooking that keeps this off-the-beaten-track restaurant busy year-round.
The restaurant's long menu features everything from escargot en croute and crispy duck confit ravioli in curried cauliflower purée to sea scallop and Louisiana crayfish cakes - and those are just the starters.
Fish is flown in daily from Seattle and Hawaii. Produce comes from local growers.
We sampled a perfect warm goat cheese and arugula salad with sherry glazed shallots. The potato sirloin soup, with caramelized onions, fresh leeks and rosemary was exquisite comfort food on a cold autumn night.
Pascual opted for the Hawaiian moki, a kind of snapper, stuffed with blue crab. I had fresh Alpers trout sauteed with scallions, oven-dried tomatoes and toasted almonds in a chardonnay butter sauce. Our plates included an adventure in accompaniments: a buttery dollop of spaghetti squash, creamy mashed potatoes with a hint of nutmeg, a fan of marinated and grilled red onion.
We shared - and agreed we'd struck gold. These were two of the best dishes we'd ever had anywhere.
mountain view barbeque
Northeast on 395, we went on a quest for the perfect hamburger. The Walker Burger, in the postage-stamp-size town of Walker, failed to live up to its reputation.
Less than a mile south, though, we were lured by a man with a long gray ponytail tending a 9-foot roadside smoker. We couldn't resist the bait.
"It's truly slow-smoked, Texas-style-barbecue," said Houston transplant Jeff Hinds, the smoker tender, chef, waiter and owner of Mountain View Barbeque.
The ambiance here is roadhouse cool. License plates from around the world hang on the walls. Hinds handcrafted all the furnishings, including booths and a bar made with woods from a century-old barn.
Pascual and I sampled everything from pork spare ribs to an obscenely large slab of apple crumb caramel pie, served with three scoops of vanilla bean ice cream.
Still Life Cafe
Almost every chef we met on the road advised us to dine at the Still Life Cafe in Independence.
We opted for dinner at the restaurant - and decided to spend the night in Independence. Good thing.
"It's hard to find employees. Some days I'm the only one in the kitchen. My customers know us; they're so patient," said French owner and chef Malika Adjaoud.
The place has the look and feel of a neighborhood bistro in Paris: small tables, a banquette along one wall, a stand-up bar and an upright piano where locals play for tips on Friday nights.
Our dining experience stretched to around 21Ú2 hours - from the goat cheese salad with roasted beets, peppers and sun-roasted tomatoes through the sublime rabbit in a creamy butter sauce served over perfectly cooked pappardelle.
At a nearby table, a gaggle of National Park Service seasonal employees were indulging in an annual pilgrimage: "There are 18 people in our crew," said Brian Pope, a trail builder. "As soon as we're off, we know we're going to this little French restaurant."
If you go
-- Whoa Nellie Deli, www.thesierraweb.com/tiogagasmart. Open seasonally from the end of April to early November, check for hours. Mobil gas available 24 hours a day all year long. Take Highway 395 to the intersection of 395 and California State Route 120, 22 Vista Point Road in Lee Vining, just south of Mono Lake.
-- Restaurant at Convict Lake Resort, (760) 934-3803, www.convictlake.com. Take Highway 395 south from Mammoth about 15 miles to the Convict Lake Road turnoff. Follow the road a mile and a half.
-- Mountain View Barbeque, (530) 495-2107, www.mountainviewbbq.com. Call for hours and days open. Take Highway 395 to 106834 Highway 395 in Walker, south of Topaz Lake.
-- Still Life Cafe, (760) 878-2555. Call for hours and days. Take Highway 395 to 135 S. Edwards in Independence, south of Bishop.