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In the Spring of 1992, while in college in Atlanta, I got the idea in my head that I wanted to go to graduate school (I later came to my senses). In order to visit a couple of universities in Arizona, I decided-along with two friends-to drive there and back over our 11-day Spring Break.
The trip encompassed 10 states and slightly more than 4,000 miles. And for the three of us, it was our first real travel experience without our parents.
A few days into the trip, we reached northern New Mexico and stopped for dinner in Albuquerque. I fell in love with the state and the city at first sight. It was so different from my native Midwest-everything from the landscape to the architecture and the people to the music.
We picked a New Mexican restaurant and the waitress corrected us when we referred to the food as simply Mexican, noting that New Mexican cuisine prominently featured green chiles (as well as red).
Since a kid, I had been known in my extended family for being the pickiest eater of the bunch. No onions, no peppers, no salsa, nothing spicy, and the list when on and on. I'm not sure what happened that evening while staring at that dinner menu, but something changed in me.
I decided that part of experiencing this new state that I'd just fallen for had to include the food, too. I ordered things I wouldn't have dreamed of eating only days before. And I discovered that I loved it all. We finished the meal with sopaipillas, soft fluffy pillows of fried dough with honey drizzled on them. I was hooked.
The rest of that trip, I continued being adventurous in my eating, and the new me didn't vanish once we returned to Atlanta. I even found a New Mexican restaurant in the city's northern suburbs and I became a regular. I made trying the local cuisine a regular part of all my vacations and learned a new way to connect with people.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I have two boys, 17 and 11. They both share my passion for travel and my childhood pickiness for food. I've always tried to encourage them to try new things on vacation, without pushing too hard … I know they have to want it for themselves, just as I did all those years ago.
On a Caribbean cruise several years ago, I asked them to be open-minded about trying new things at dinner each night, and they both willingly tried new things here and there.
I've relayed my story of that night in Albuquerque to them several times over the years when we talk about new food. For this year's summer vacation, our family decided to explore New Mexico, from south to north over a week. One night at dinner, my younger son asked, "Dad, I wonder if that restaurant you ate at is still there?"
"It might be," I told him, "but I don't have any idea what the name of it was, that was so long ago."
Still, the idea of it stuck in my head. For several nights, I combed my brain, trying to remember something about the place. It was a small local chain, but I couldn't get the name to come back to me.
I thought about calling my old friends … what was the chance they'd remember it? Probably less than me, as it wasn't the kind of epiphany moment for them.
Then, one night, a word floated into my head: Giordano's. "No, that wasn't it," I told myself, "that's the famous Chicago deep dish pizza place." But something about it stuck with me. Why had that name come to me? Maybe I was close.
I got online and typed Giordano's and Albuquerque and New Mexican cuisine into Google … and there it was: Garduño's Restaurants. I'd found it!
And, in the small world category, there was a location right next to our planned hotel in Albuquerque. We made plans to have dinner there, and I wondered: Can you go back? Will the experience be the same?
I'm delighted to report that we had an amazing meal. My older son actually ordered a dish with green chiles in it, without the slightest prompt from me. I nearly fell off my chair. He absolutely loved his dish, as did I-we all had a delightful meal, full of laughter and great conversation with our waitress about the restaurant.
Happily, I reflected back on all that had transpired since that meal more than a quarter of a century ago. Travel without good food wouldn't be the same, and it certainly wouldn't engender the same kind of lasting memories.
Paul J. Heney is a lifelong writer and avid world traveler. He's served as Editorial Director for several hospitality...
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