Fine Dining in the Desert

by John Delach

The following piece is partly an excerpt from a travel document I wrote about a trip we made in September of 2004 with two other couples, Don and Helen and Mike and Peggy to several Southwestern National Parks located in Arizona and Utah. They have been edited for content and subject manner.

On Tuesday, Sept. 21st, we departed Zion for Bryce Canyon where we hiked and explored in the late morning before having lunch in the park. After lunch we drove north another 100 miles to the Wonderland Motel in Torrey, Utah.

The afternoon scenery rivaled the morning. Don and Mike shared the drive north on Highway 12 through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park and Garfield National Forest. We reached 9,293 feet, as we ascend and descend on grades of 8% and 10%. The temperature dropped from 66 degrees to 38 as we encountered snow flurries and foliage comparable to New England at October’s peak. The most dramatic stretch of highway began north of the run-down downtown of Escalante where the road corkscrewed down the cliffs, crossed a small river then zig-zagged though a red rock canyon. Route 12 is cut into the right side of the canyon wall where we climbed at a steady pace. The left rim disappeared leaving the road to rise along the side of a mesa. On the opposite side, once we ascended to the top, a canyon provided a dramatic drop-off of several hundred feet. The top of the mesa was only wide enough to accommodate the road and narrow shoulders. This all happened in the space of five or six miles.

We reached Torrey after 5 pm and checked into the Wonderland Motel. Despite its whimsical name, the motel was strictly run with many rules. The woman behind the desk was polite, but firm. We could have only one key per room and could not check-out until the key is returned. The dinner menu at their restaurant was uninspiring and Don and Helen found an alternative in their AAA Guidebook called Café Diablo. It didn’t take much to convince the rest of us to take a chance over the Wonderland.

A 15-minute car ride into the desert brought us to what we were about discover was a four-star gourmet restaurant that was only open from April until October. When we arrived at six, it was already busy, and it just kept getting busier. As we enjoyed our meal, people crowded the lobby waiting for a table. Having to wait 20 minutes for a table on a Tuesday night in Torrey, Utah speaks volumes for the menu and quality of Café Diablo.

Our meal began with a complimentary Southwest Tapas. For appetizers we shared free-range rattlesnake, (it tasted like chicken) coconut calamari, and a house specialty called, Firecrackers with subcategories, Lady Fingers, Cherry Bombs and M-80 which were nowhere as hot and spicy as we expected. I ordered ribs that are served vertically in a circle. I could peel the meat off with a spoon. Don and Mary Ann had salmon, Helen, roasted pork tenderloin, Peggy, pecan chicken and Mike, Utah Lamb. Our margaritas received Don’s seal of approval. Our waitress was delightful, the wine, good and reasonable. She pointed out the fellow who is the owner and chef. He was busing a table when we spoke to him. He’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. “Why do you close for six months?” We asked. “Because I like to ski and travel, too.”

All desserts arrived with a separate serving of home-made ice cream. Mike devoured a large piece of chocolate cake, Helen, shared a piece of fruit-nut tart and Don, a plum tart, both topped with chunky ice cream and bourbon.

Mary Ann remarked, “Sure beats what we would have eaten at the Wonderland,” to which she received a collective, “Amen!”

A story about Utah triggered me to recall Café Diablo. I am happy to report that it is alive and well. Their 2019 menu includes Rattlesnake Cakes, Asparagus Firecrackers and Hellfire Shrimp as appetizers, Honeybee Salmon, Pomegranate & Chipotle Ribs and two steaks, the Rocky Mountain Elk Sirloin and the Boulder Mountain Ribeye.

As far as dessert, the menu notes: “It would be a sin if we told you before you got here.”

Café Diablo describes itself as: “A gourmet restaurant nestled below the Boulder and Thousand Lakes Mountains on the doorstep of Capital Reef National Park in Southern Utah. Café Diablo offers a fresh and fun dining experience that celebrates the geological majesty we find outside our own backdoor. Dine outdoors on our patio or indoors surrounded by paintings inspired by our landscape and the seed catalogs of the Early 1900’s. “

“It is our undying aspiration to make sure that you say ‘WOW’, when the food gets to the table. That you say ‘WHOA,’ when you take your first bites., and that you find yourself saying ‘WITHOUT A DOUBT ‘we will come back tomorrow.”  

I am pleased to discover that Utah’s own gourmet restaurant lives on and remains true to its culinary mission.

Café Diablo, live long and prosper.