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Matters of Taste: Verde Canyon Railroad's Copper Spike Café emphasizes farm-to-table offerings

Matters of Taste: Verde Canyon Railroad's Copper Spike Café emphasizes farm-to-table offerings

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As the train pushed forward and chuffed, the children squealed with glee and waved to those on the platform. Riders from 2 to 92 years old who have never lost their wonder are bound on a Magical Christmas Journey with the man in red himself, traveling on Santa’s magical tracks to the North Pole in Verde Canyon. Specialty treats, like cotton candy, funnel cakes and sugared nuts, add to the joy.

Verde Canyon Railroad has a reputation for providing exceptional adventures in a classy fashion only a ride on the rails can provide. In less than four hours, travelers pass through 110 years of history on “Arizona’s longest-running nature show.” Take an excursion to enjoy the fall foliage or toast Ales on Rails with Arizona craft beers and brats, or break out the binoculars for the Wild Splendor and Eagle Watch. Onboard, choose any one of four classes of comfort in meticulously restored cars pulled by powerful FP7 locomotives built for the Alaska Railroad in 1953. These iron horses received an update last year and now display the American bald eagle with distinctive glory.

The train’s heritage is intertwined, like its iron links, joining the past and present. In 1912, as Arizona became a state, the railroad hauled mining materials, but by 1953, a diverse mix of products and people road the train. In fact, its celebrated history includes transporting concrete from Clarkdale to build Glen Canyon Dam. Dave Durbano bought the line in 1988, and after his first ride through unspoiled wilderness, he proclaimed it a treasure and began an excursion service a couple years later. Since then, 30 million passengers have traveled the Verde Canyon Railroad.

Still, no rail journey is complete without stylish food and drink. The Copper Spike Café provides quality meals both at the depot and on the train. Southwest favorites, daily specials and seasonal goods in hot and cold entrees suited to travel for lighter or heartier appetites are available.

Kitchen Manager Bri Lawton, a Cottonwood gal born and bred, has established connections with local growers. With 16 years of food experience and a powerful passion for change, she has revamped and upgraded the menu choices and resources.

“I’m a strong believer in farm-to-table and fresh food,” Lawton said. “Just because we’re a quick-paced café, doesn’t mean that our food can’t be bursting with flavor, beautiful to look at and healthy.”

Blazin’ M Ranch, a dormant chuckwagon dinner and show venue, leases its riparian environment to produce quality produce. Luke Hammond runs Liquid Life Farms there growing tomatoes, watermelon, squash, corn, spring greens and seasonal vegetables. Working along the same riverbed as the railroad, his farm stands sells out daily. Eric Kostecki of Sweet Greens Arizona grows 50 types of micro greens. These sprouted seedlings provide dense nutrition through vitamins, phytonutrients, living enzymes and antioxidants.

“That extra step in picking and planning goes a long way, and people can tell the difference between food that’s made with love and thought, versus food that’s simply assembled,” Lawton said.

The Copper Spike Grilled Cheese is not your granny’s recipe. Made with Swiss cheese, bacon, jalapeno and house made jam on thick-cut sourdough, the result is smoky sweet and melty marvelous. The Switchmen Turkey Sandwich handcrafts turkey breast, Provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion on marbled rye. The Smokestack Pulled Pork employs pork smoked in banana leaves to retain moisture, tossed in vinegary barbecue sauce and served on a brioche bun with coleslaw. The Roundhouse Salad blends local lettuce, arugula, broccoli and basil with Parmesan cheese, olives, turkey and pumpkin seeds, dressed with ranch or balsamic vinaigrette.

The menu remixes for Christmas, offering such items as the Sleigh Bell Wings or Tenders, Scrooge Gourmet Grilled Cheese plus some seasonal additions—Mistletoe Cranberry Chicken Salad Sandwich, St. Nick Monte Cristo Sandwich and Bah Humbug Steak Sandwich.

Add a caboose to your meal with a cocoa brownie, rich in chocolate with a mousse quality and strawberry whip to dip. Everything is prepared on site for consumption, serving 150 meals daily at the cafe and 200 trays on the train.

Verde Canyon Railroad continually improves its grounds, experience, venues and more annually. From Arizona author Roger Naylor’s baritone narration sharing insights on the platform, storyboards describing area history, John Bell’s Museum filled with legacy items, increased patio and beers on tap, artisan wares in an eclectic gift shop or the Copper Spike Cafe’s sourcing and menu, it’s about pleasing people. That’s why employees always wave off the train. Verde Canyon Railroad reminds their guests in so many ways: It’s always a good day when you’re on a train.

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