At one time a stage coach stop because of its natural springs creating the ideal place for watering horses and passengers as they crossed the Sonoran Desert, Rock Springs, a chunk of land just north of Maricopa County off of Interstate-17, is the site of one of Arizona’s oldest restaurants as well as an iconic salute to the old west.
It started in 1918 when Ben Warner erected a canvas tent and started selling mining equipment for those digging for gold and silver in the Bradshaw Mountain range. One of the mines, the Tip Top, ultimately yielded over $4,000,000 worth of silver. Now a ghost town with some buildings remaining, at one time the population reached 500.
Ranching was also big and so even though the stagecoach era was coming to an end, Warner soon had gas pumps and a building that functioned as a hardware store and café with hotel rooms on the top floor. Early Silver Screen actress Jean Harlow—known for her platinum hair—stayed so frequently (why we don’t know but it may be because of the still found on the property signifying that despite Prohibition alcohol could be had here as well as water) that the room where she stayed is now a museum. Cowboy movie star Tom Mix was also said to spend the night.
I-17 was a sheep trial back then and herds of 20,000 sheep were driven up the dirt trail to Flagstaff. The Rock as it was called had the only telephone in the area. The number, if you needed to call, was Yavapai County #93. The post office was housed in the hotel and Warner was the post master until it closed in 1955. There were no tanker trucks delivering gas and so Warner brought it in five-gallon cans. Because cars used a lot of water back then, there were canvas bags that could be filled with water to take along for when the radiator went dry.
“Cars going up the incline which was made of gravel and dirt would stop here to add water to their radiators,” says Augie Perry who owns the Rock Springs Café outside of Black Canyon City.
Now you can buy all the hardware you want at one of the big box stores in Phoenix, everyone has cell phones, the hotel is closed, and the rooms where people stayed are now used to sell arts and crafts but much of Warner’s original store remains. The original flooring, timber, and staircase remain as does the reputation for traditional American diner food—steak and eggs, chicken fried steak, liver and onions, fried chicken, and grind the meat for the hamburgers and meat loaf they serve.
Mrs. Warner made pies and Perry has kept up that tradition as well but on steroids. Rock Springs Café sells about 120,000 handmade pies a year—their busiest times being around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. During the regular non-holiday week, they sell 250 to 350 pies daily and 500 each day of the weekend. The demand was so high that they started shipping pies about six years ago.
Their most popular pie is the Jack Daniels Bourbon Pecan Pie which Sean Penn ordered when he stopped by a few years back. My favorite is the Tennessee Lemon Pie, but for whatever taste, there’s a pie—chocolate silk, lemon meringue, banana cream, mixed berries, you name it. Their cream pies have a signature top to them—bee hive cones that twists up and has been lightly given a pass over with a torch for a slight touch of golden brown atop the peaks. The pie business is so good that Perry, who has a long history as a consultant for large restaurant groups and also owns another eatery in Prescott, Arizona, has just renovated the old stone building where the Warners lived into The Pie Box. It had fallen into disrepair but now will sell pies and other pastries and feature seating areas both inside and out. Another plus, instead of crowding the restaurant and gift shop, people can come and get their pies here.
The property—about 60 acres—is private and it’s a free-range place. For Great Lakes people like me, that doesn’t mean much but in Arizona that translates to cows getting to roam free—which they do. Typically in the morning they come around to drink from the spring. We haven’t heard of any ordering a pie to go but maybe that’s next. They usually are gone by afternoon, maybe because they don’t want to be in vicinity when it comes time to make hamburgers. Because there’s a spring here, the gardens are pretty and lush with flowering plants, grass, and leafy trees. A small collection of historic buildings sell Native American art, organic and freshly grown produce, and specialty foods. There’s a wide selection of foods in the gift shop area of the café as well including cactus candies and other cactus goodies. Another room contains a huge Brunswick Bar built in 1856 and other artifacts from its early history.
Rock Springs in the 1920s and 1930s was what Perry describes as being an “urban western” place with a mix of cars and horses. That’s in comparison to Tombstone which was “frontier western”—pretty much just horses. Whichever you stumble upon, it’s a refreshing reminder of what the west once was like.
Chicken Fried Steak
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons seasoned salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 pounds cube steak (tenderized round steak that’s been extra tenderized)
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 to 4 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Mix the milk with the eggs. In another bowl, flour with the seasoned salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper, paprika and cayenne.
Sprinkle both sides of each steak with kosher salt and black pepper, then place it in the flour mixture, coating on both sides. Dip in the milk/egg mixture, again coating each side and then dip on both sides in the flour.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the steaks three at a time making sure not to crowd them until their edges turn golden brown, about 2 minutes each side. Drain on paper towels and cover with another plate or tin foil to keep warm. Repeat with the next batch..
After all the meat is fried, pour off the oil/butter/dredgings into a heatproof bowl. Without cleaning the skillet, return it to the stove over medium-low heat. Add 1/4 cup of the oil back to the skillet and heat.
Sprinkle the flour evenly over the hot oil. Mix the flour using a flour and stir until it turns a deep golden brown color.
Pour in the milk, whisking constantly. Add the seasoned salt and black pepper to taste and cook, whisking, until the gravy is smooth and thick, 5 to 10 minutes. Be prepared to add more milk if it becomes overly thick.
Jack Daniel’s Pecan Pie
1 cup granulated sugar
4 tbsp melted butter
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
3 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cup Pecan halves
2 1/2 tbsp Jack Daniel’s
1-9 inch pie shell, unbaked
Preheat oven at 375.
In a bowl, add sugar, melted butter, Jack Daniel’s and stir well.
Then add dark corn syrup, beaten eggs, pecans and stir well.
Place filling into pie shell. Transfer pie onto cookie sheet and place in oven.
Bake at 375 for 10 minutes. Then lower to 350 and bake for additional 25 minutes or until pie has set.
Tennessee Lemon Pie
3 eggs, separated
Zest of 1 lemon
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup extra-fine sugar, divided
1 9-inch Pure Butter Pie Crust, pre-baked (see recipe below)
In a medium-sized bowl, beat egg yolks for 2 minutes. Add lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and 1/2 cup granulated sugar.
Transfer mixture to a double boiler and cook, stirring constantly, until very thick and a thermometer reads at least 182°F, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in vanilla and let cool for 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
In a large bowl, beat egg whites with a hand mixer or stand mixer, until stiff peaks form. Add remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar and beat until just combined.
Fold egg whites into the custard, until just combined. Pour into pre-baked pie crust and then bake for 15 minutes, until pie is set. Top will lightly brown.
Pure Butter Pie Crust
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, unsalted and very cold
1/4 cup buttermilk or ice cold water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon extra fine granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Place flour in a bowl of an electric mixer and place in freezer along with mixer’s paddle attachment for at least 20 minutes.
Cut butter quickly in small cubes and place in freezer for 15 minutes.
Combine buttermilk with salt, sugar and vanilla extract and place in refrigerator.
Remove cold flour bowl from the freezer and add butter. With paddle attachment mix mixture on medium speed until butter pieces become smaller than peas and mixture feels like coarse meal.
With machine mixing on low speed add buttermilk mixture very fast and mix just until dough forms. Do not overmix. Chill dough in refrigerator for at least one hour.
Roll dough into desired thickness of about 1/8 inch and use for baking pie. Shapes of leaves can be cut out for pies if desired.
For more information about Rock Springs Café, (623) 374-5794; rocksprings.cafe