So we pull into this town, famous because of its mention in the Eagles song “Take it Easy”, after 16 hours on the road and ready to rip each others’ heads off while hunting for a motel in the middle of town instead of along the interstate. We finally found one and headed to find some food, and based upon the state of the motel room, I wasn’t expecting much food-wise from Winslow.
I once lived in Arizona for 10 years and knew next to nothing about Winslow or anything in it. But I lived here long enough to know that if you find a Mexican restaurant with a lot of cars outside, it’s probably worth venturing in. So we went into the Casa Blanca Cafe and after picking out my usual (Green Chile Chicken, the dish I use to test the worthiness of a restaurant) I looked around and spotted someone who looked VERY familiar sitting at another table.
“Oh my God! That’s the dad from Family Ties,” I told my husband. Then I thought, “It couldn’t be. We’re in Winslow-freaking Arizona.” But then I heard him talk and, sure enough, it was Michael Gross. Then I started debating whether or not to say something to him. I had my camera. Do I ask to get my photo with him? Do I get his autograph? My husband told me to leave him alone, but I was unconvinced. This is where the evening took a much more interesting turn, if you’re food obsessed like I am.
A man walks in, his arms full of jars of honey, and walks over to Dad Keaton’s table and starts handing out honey to him and his seven dining companions. I love honey and I was super jealous. I no longer cared about getting a photo with a hollywood star, I wanted to talk to the beekeeper about his honey. I summoned him over and he told me about the different varieties he had including desert wildflower and a camelthorn honey (we also discovered that his brother lives about 10 miles away from my hometown in Missouri which is also where I currently hang my hat). The camelthorn was most intriguing. It turns out this plant is considered one of the “dirty dozen” invasive species of the southwest, but this beekeeper was using it to make honey. Sadly, he had none left, but it is on my list of honeys to try.
So Michael Gross leaves, and I’m having a few regrets about not asking him for a photo until a woman pops up out of the booth behind us while the waiter, waitress and I were talking about our celebrity sighting. She starts talking to my husband and me and it turns out she’s the owner of the restaurant.
Helen Ribera looks like she could be anybody’s Nana. She’s dressed in a purple print top and is wearing a large, striking necklace that hits just above her waist. She proceeds to tell me that she’s owned the restaurant 40 years and that she makes sure everything in her restaurant is made from scratch. The beans soak overnight and are cooked slowly starting in the morning. She makes sure the rice is made in 4 quart pots so everyone gets it fresh– no bain maries keeping food warm here. The honey served with the sopapillas? She gets that from the honey man who was in the restaurant earlier. It was so great to find a small-town restaurant that’s committed to fresh, homemade, local-when-possible food. The food doesn’t have to be fancy; at Casa Blanca it’s just good and simple home cooking.
Mrs. Ribera was an absolute gem and I’m so glad she told us about her restaurant and her food. After meeting her, I no longer minded that I didn’t talk to Michael Gross. In fact, I decided I’d rather have her picture than his. Unfortunately, she had already left when I went to ask if I could take her photo. But I managed to talk our waiter, Stephen, and the waitress who is also Mrs. Ribera’s granddaughter, Brianna, into letting me take their photo.
So the moral of the story: Flash and fame may be impressive, but it’s usually the quiet people who have the best stories to tell.* For those who are wondering what Michael Gross was doing in Winslow, it seems he was on some sort of train tour. Winslow is a big railroad town and it turns out Michael Gross is a train and railroad enthusiast.