A road trip to Mammoth requires several decelerations in the speed-trap towns of Inyo County. I usually don't pay attention to the local food opportunities in Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine and Bishop, mainly because I'm itching to speed up again and get to Mammoth Lakes. This trip, keeping my eye out for new places paid off.
But first, news from the obvious must-stop in Bishop. Meadow Farms Country Smoke House, home of some great house-smoked beef jerky, bacon and sausages, has brought back its once-discontinued Cowboy Jerky. Made from slabs of flank steak and heavily smoked and salted, this jerky the size and shape of a hockey puck is too thick to tear with your teeth. You whittle thin pieces off the slab with a knife to eat it. Pretend you're on horseback, and the image of this old-fashioned, sustaining Western food is complete.
The USDA forced Meadow Farms to stop making Cowboy Jerky several years ago because despite plenty of salt, smoke, dehydration and nitrites, the ancient method of safely preserving meat didn't meet its approval. So now, the Cowboy Jerky is sliced a little thinner and steam-processed in a way that meets the USDA inspectors' approval.
Meadow Farms is also known by the words painted on the side of its building: Mahogany Smoked Meats. The smoker is fired with mountain mahogany from the local high desert, a very dense hardwood that produces a heavy smoke similar to hickory. Gallon-sized zipper bags of the wood are sold at a rather pricy $12.99 for backyard-barbecue cooks who want to try their hand at re-creating this jerky at home.
Don't like to work so hard at chewing an old-school jerky? Not to worry. You can sample the many other jerky styles and flavors, buying as much or as little as you like. You can mail order the meat from Meadow Farms, but you won't be able to mix and match small quantities of jerky as you can in-store. My advice? Load up on the double-smoked bacon, Canadian bacon and sausages, and freeze them until your next trip through Bishop.
Now that you've loaded up the cooler, what about a nice meal? In a town filled with the usual eat-it-and-beat-it fast-food options, could it be there are good, mom-and-pop restaurants?
Last week, I discovered hidden Mexican food in an unlikely place: an old-fashioned coffee shop called the Petite Pantry. The Jimenez family serve family-style Mexican meals and American-style diner food at the restaurant they've owned for the past 16 years.
You can tell you're in for a big meal by the two huge baskets of freshly fried chips and bowls of salsa on each table. Why two? So you can choose from either corn or flour tortilla chips. Depending on what time you arrive, you could order an enormous pancake breakfast. Each night, there are two all-you-can-eat daily specials for chicken-fried steak, barbecue beef ribs, fish and chips, and, inscrutably, chicken chow mein. No matter what time of day, expect the Jimenezes to feed you like that one meal will sustain you for a three-day back-country expedition on Mount Whitney.
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I ordered the daily dinner special of birria de pollo. Birria usually means goat meat long-stewed in roasted chiles and tomatoes, but despite the large local Mexican population, goat doesn't sell well in Bishop. Hence, chicken cooked in the style of birria. Though the kitchen was a little heavy-handed with salt, the flavors of the stew and even the rice flavored with chicken stock speak of food prepared like someone's mom is in the back, making a meal just for you.
Meadow Farms Smokehouse, 2345 N. Sierra Hwy., Bishop, (760) 873-5311;
Petite Pantry, 2278 N. Sierra Hwy., Bishop, (760) 873-3789.