Most meals fill your belly, many fulfill nutritional needs—and others, rare others, feed a sense of beyond-physical (perhaps you'd call it spiritual) well-being. On a recent early-spring road trip to Southern Utah, I ate two such memorable meals at Hell's Backbone Grill and spent an hour or so at a sunny table talking with owners Blake Spalding and Jen Castle, the two inspiring women who started the restaurant over a decade ago.
Located in Boulder, Utah near the sandstone canyons of Capitol Reef National Park and on the road to Grand Staircase, Bryce, and Zion, the outpost is a "two-woman Business in a one-hundred horse town" as they say in With a Measure of Grace, the Grill's cookbook/memoir. In fact, Hell's Backbone Grill was one of the first restaurants in the U.S., along with a few notable others such as Cafe Nora and Chez Panisse, to focus on organic food.
The main room was comfortably filled with families and couples when my husband, kids, and I arrived, hungry and weary from the day's drive. We started with the appetizer special, a delicious puffed-pastry filled with pine nuts and tahini. Sweet roasted root vegetables accompanied the decadent Moqui mac and cheese with poblano chiles, red peppers, and roasted corn kernels.
Both dishes represent the restaurant's culinary philosophy I learned the next afternoon. The biodiversity of that particular high, forested desert is what inspires the food, explained Spalding. "When we started out, we asked ourselves 'What would taste good here?' Pinion (pine nuts), bees (honey), juniper berries, chiles, and cattle are common in this bioregion." In fact, the small fertile valley where Boulder is located was once an agricultural center for native cultures who developed water-moving systems still in use today. Long after those cultures had disappeared, Mormon settlers brought cattle to the region and began farming it once again.
Spalding and Castle have a deep commitment to—not just good, but exceptional—ingredients and flavors, beginning with sourcing. As many fruits and vegetables as possible are grown on the restaurant's 3-acre organic farm just down the road; ingredients are procured locally (roughly defined as the 4-corners region) whenever possible. "We've picked up a few side projects along the way," Spalding said with a smile, "including the organic farm, and now community housing for our workers."
While we chatted, Castle whipped out her iPhone to show me that morning's fresh eggs all nestled in a basket, ranging from cream to light brown in color. "Look how beautiful these are!" she exclaimed, as anxious to share her love for such fresh ingredients with me as with the restaurant's many Facebook friends. "Every day is different; every year is different," said Spalding. "But our goal is always the same—to educate about food and to bring happiness to people."