Grazing along I-8

Fun places to eat on the long haul from Phoenix to San Diego's beaches
Nora Burba Trulsson

Interstate 8 through southern Arizona and Southern California is, for the most part, a hellish road, stretching through vast tracts of unpopulated farmland and sparse desert browned by the summer sun. The long miles of nothing are occasionally interspersed with signs of civilization in the form of off-ramp gas stations and mini markets.

From Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend, though, this is the road more traveled. Driving cars laden with body boards and sunscreen, "Zonies" ― as Arizonans are called by Southern Californians ― hit the highway as part of annual pilgrimages to the balmy beaches of San Diego.

Seasoned I-8 travelers know that there's not much you can do about the monotonous scenery or the triple-digit heat, but you can choose where to refuel. And mini-market Big Gulps and drive-through hamburgers aren't the only choices when it comes to road food. Several well-established eateries along the way offer hearty meals, quirky specialties, and plenty of local color. Most important, they're all within minutes of the interstate. Take a break, and the drive along I-8 just might seem shorter.

GILA BEND, AZ

Space Age Outer Limits Restaurant at Best Western Space Age Lodge. The Sputnik satellites inspired the design of this 1960s landmark restaurant and motel highlighted by a flying saucer-shaped sign and rooftop spaceship. Inside, the restaurant features NASA murals and a hearty-eaters' menu; alien-shaped lollipops are sold near the cash register.

SPECIALTIES: Duke's Good Morning Breakfast includes melted cheese on toast, hash browns, bacon, and eggs; for dinner, try the fried chicken.

FROM THE FREEWAY: From exit 119 (Butterfield Trail) go north 2 1/2 miles. $; 5 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. 401 E. Pima St.; 928/683-2761.


DATELAND, AZ

Dateland Restaurant. This simple, family-style diner and gift shop is set on 230 acres and within sight of a nine-acre date grove, which provides the main ingredient for date-based desserts and treats. Look also for big-eater breakfasts, burgers, and Mexican entrées such as chile rellenos. The historical marker beside the restaurant commemorates World War II army training camps and airfields that once dotted the area.

SPECIALTIES: Date shakes, date cream pie, date bundt cake. Did we mention dates?

FROM THE FREEWAY: Take exit 67. $; 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. I-8 at exit 67; 928/ 454-2331.

Interstate 8 through southern Arizona and Southern California is, for the most part, a hellish road, stretching through vast tracts of unpopulated farmland and sparse desert browned by the summer sun. The long miles of nothing are occasionally interspersed with signs of civilization in the form of off-ramp gas stations and mini markets.

From Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend, though, this is the road more traveled. Driving cars laden with body boards and sunscreen, "Zonies" ― as Arizonans are called by Southern Californians ― hit the highway as part of annual pilgrimages to the balmy beaches of San Diego.

Seasoned I-8 travelers know that there's not much you can do about the monotonous scenery or the triple-digit heat, but you can choose where to refuel. And mini-market Big Gulps and drive-through hamburgers aren't the only choices when it comes to road food. Several well-established eateries along the way offer hearty meals, quirky specialties, and plenty of local color. Most important, they're all within minutes of the interstate. Take a break, and the drive along I-8 just might seem shorter.

 

YUMA, AZ

Lutes Casino. The decor features movie and advertising memorabilia, and the menu's big on burgers, hot dogs, and Mexican dishes; the cavernous pool hall and restaurant date back to the 1940s. Old-timers gather daily for dominoes at the front tables.

SPECIALTIES: Potato tacos or the Lutes Special ― a hot dog on top of a cheeseburger.

FROM THE FREEWAY: From the Giss Pkwy. exit, go west about 1/2 mile, then go north about a block on Maiden Lane; look for restaurant parking lot. Front entrance is in the Main St. pedestrian mall. $; 9-8 Mon-Thu, 9-9 Fri-Sat, 10-6 Sun. 221 Main St.; 928/782-2192.


EL CENTRO, CA

La Fonda. The dining room at this family-run eatery sizzles with serape-striped tablecloths and a collection of neon beer signs. The Mexican-style menu maintains a devoted local following, with breakfast served all day and vast combination plates. This is the older of the two La Fonda restaurants in town, with lots of character.

SPECIALTIES: Huevos rancheros or machaca con verdura ― shredded beef with vegetables. If you're adventurous, try the birria de borrego (barbecued lamb) or lengua en mole (tongue in a mole sauce).

FROM THE FREEWAY: Take the Fourth St. exit, go north about 1 1/2 miles to Broadway, then go west two blocks. $; 9-9 Mon-Sat, 9-5 Sun. 548 Broadway St.; 760/353-6450.