Montie, the Lodge’s Director of Sales, greets us in the reception with a bottle of herbs and spices prepared exclusively by the Lodge’s resident chef Ryan Clark. As we finish checking in, I uncap the bottle, put a dab of the herbs on my tongue, and feel the taste of the desert I’ve come to know so well literally melt on my tongue. Smoked cumin, fiery paprika, a dash of jalapeno pepper–these are the tastes of the Southwest.
There is a light breeze in the air, the faint smell of cactus flowers, and the calming sound of a fountain trickling into a pool of water behind us. As we lift our overnight suitcase up a flight of stairs to our king-sized bedroom (with cozy beehive fireplace and quirky thrift-store side table, I’d like to add), the fact that I’m just five miles from where I live starts to slip away. By the time we’re at the top of the stairs, I’m on vacation.
The Lodge on the Desert is not in a place you’d expect: it’s not in the foothills, it’s not nestled in among the other golf course-and-resort combos so frequented by visitors to Tucson, it’s not tucked away in a lush garden in a relatively untouched part of town. It is, in fact, located smack-dab in the middle of this crazy city. It is less than 5 miles from downtown Tucson, and yet, once you pass through the adobe walls that protect the resort from the outside noises and busyness, you’d never, ever know you were that close to downtown.
It’s worth noting that the Lodge didn’t start out wanting to be a Lodge “on the city.” Established in 1936 as a private guesthouse with seven operating rooms, it used to exist far outside the confines of the city, a little oasis in the desert. As Tucson has grown, though, and changes to the face of the city have forever solidified this place as an eccentric mash-up of funky Southwestern buildings, dilapidated store fronts, and residential housing, the Lodge on the Desert has done everything it could to maintain its serenity, its property surrounded by adobe walls. And if my opinion means anything, I’d say it’s done a fantastically good job.
We stayed at the Lodge in early October. Though we didn’t get there until sunset, we arrived just in time to see the archetypal southwest sun dip below the adobe roofs and wash the entire resort in a warm, golden color. With an hour til dinner, we opened up our patio door of our Deluxe King guest room to let the fall breeze in, made a pot of coffee, watched some high-definition television on the flat screen, talked about everything other than grading papers and wedding-planning, and lounged around in the terry-lined bathrobes I found in the closet. In short, we did everything we’d been meaning to do in our daily lives but had forgotten to do: take a moment to rest our busy minds and just be.
The Lodge’s restaurant, which features an eclectic menu of what they call “new American cuisine,” sits off to the side of the residential haciendas. Ryan Clark, the Lodge’s resident sous chef, does everything he can to embody the farm-to-table concept gaining momentum in the city. With community co-op farms and slow-f00d movements popping up all over town, his motto has become a mainstay in Tucson since he began preparing his delightful menus at the Lodge: “Our role,” he’ll tell you simply, “is to facilitate the food’s journey from farm to fork.”
And farm to fork it goes–though you’d never know you were eating locally harvested produce and vegetables by the delectable looks of Ryan’s artful masterpieces. Ryan (my fiancee, that is, not the chef) and I began our culinary tour the way we do when we have the rare experience of being out at a nice restaurant, and ordered a normally-too-expensive-for-grad-students cocktail. This being the Southwest (and having lived here for four years), we knew exactly what this area of the world is known for: its fantastically spicy peppers and its cultural re-appropriation of Latin gastronomy. The cosmopolitan I ordered, complete with Grey Goose vodka, triple sec, lime juice, and POM juice, came spiced with habanero pepper bitters and an orange peel. Ryan’s prickly pear mojito, mixed with local prickly pear syrup, came garnished with fresh mint picked from the Lodge’s organic garden. As you might imagine, we were in love with the Lodge long before we received our entrees.
Our meals were just as unusual and well-crafted. In a temporary moment of epicurean curiosity, we ordered two appetizers (although, yes, they were both salads): a spinach salad with candied pecans, blue cheese, spiced apples, and Arizona honey vinaigrette and a side of grilled romaine hearts. If you have no idea what a grilled romaine heart is, never fear (I didn’t either): it’s literally a slice of romaine lettuce slapped on the grill and seasoned with roasted garlic and Sonoma Jack cheese and coupled with a side of lemon-anchovy dressing. And yes, it’s absolutely fantastic. Slightly charred, still crunchy….and totally heavenly.
For dinner, we tried the grilled salmon and the spicy red corn tamales. Both, like the rest of our meal, were perfect: the salmon, placed atop a bed of lemon-dill risotto, was flaky, soft, and grilled in all the right places. Ryan’s tamales, with jalapeno masa and fresh paprika, reminded us why the Southwest is such an unusual–and sometimes difficult to describe–place. We spent the rest of the evening having wine, talking until the lights dimmed, and strolling through the gardens. By morning, we were well-rested, well-fed, and, well, happy. The Lodge had worked its magic on us, and we’d been effectively wooed by the sense of peace it cultivates in the middle of this busy city.
After getting home, it occurred to me that going to the Lodge on the Desert as a “local” offered some interesting challenges: How, for instance, should I write about a place that’s literally in my backyard? What would someone who’s never been to the Southwest think about the abode-style architecture and the Mexican fountains and pottery? What would someone who’s never seen an Arizona sunset think of the sight we watched on our balcony that night? If a visitor has never had a prickly pear, a corn tamale, or a mojito, what would he or she think of chef Ryan’s southwestern-inspired American cuisine?
What I realized, after contemplating these questions for a while, is this: if the Lodge worked for me, it’ll work for you. There’s no reason why the perfect getaway can’t be right in your own backyard or a thousand miles away.
Special thanks to the Lodge on the Desert for graciously hosting me during my stay.
The Lodge on the Desert offers extremely reasonable rates, especially this time of year. Room rates begin at $139.00 and go up to $229.00. They also accept AAA discounts. Check out their website to make your reservation online. Or check prices online at Hotels.com.
Article and photographs by Kristin Mock.