From Arizona, Destinations, Southwest

Travel Arizona – “Cliffs,” Canyons and Cottonwood Eats

Greetings from Cliff Castle

Arizona offers¬†lots of great travel options for players so when you can combine a casino trip with a train ride, spectacular scenery, a wealth of good food and a visit to a national monument, what’s not to like? Backstory – Last March, P.B. and I attended the Phoenix Suns’ “Suns and Stars Charity Event” at the Arizona Biltmore and bid on and won a travel package featuring two nights at the Best Western – Cottonwood and tickets for four people on the Verde Canyon Railroad. Using those two items, we put together a really fun trip with lots of indoor and outdoor activities – a trip that we highly recommend you consider for a quick getaway.

The First “Cliff” – Cliff Castle Casino

On our first day, we drove about an hour and a half on I-17 from Phoenix north to Cliff Castle Casino near Camp Verde and spent the morning playing video poker. This was our first visit to Cliff Castle and I was pleasantly surprised at the light and bright casino interior. There were lots of popular games in all different denominations as well as blackjack tables and a separate Poker Room. Along with the gaming floor, this casino also features a large bowling alley and an arcade for the kids.

Scrumptious Indian Fry Bread at The Gallery, Cliff Castle Casino

Colorful, messy and soooo good.

As usual, I played videopoker and actually hit for $500 playing Triple Double Bonus on a quarter Triple Play machine so that was certainly a nice start to the trip. Ready for lunch after a couple of hours of play, we checked out the restaurant selections open mid-day and, in addition to a Johnny Rocket’s burger joint near the bowling lanes, the casino features two sit-down restaurants open for lunch, “The Gathering” and the one we chose – “The Gallery.” It was here that the real highlight of our visit occurred – my yummy Indian Fry Bread entree. For $6.99 I got this huge plate of hot fluffy fry bread topped with green chili beef, refried beans, loads of cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato and more. Guacamole, sour cream and fresh salsa rounded out the plate. I HIGHLY recommend you try this. P.B. ordered a turkey, bacon and avocado Club sandwich – also $6.99 – and was very pleased with the over-stuffed ‘wich and the side of fresh summer fruit salad. We will definitely stop and eat here anytime our travels take us along I-17. Really, we would have been happy to spend the rest of the day here then concluded our visit with dinner at their fine-dining restaurant, “Storytellers,” but it was time to move on to our hotel in Cottonwood, check in, and then meet up with our friends for dinner.

Cottonwood Dining

Cottonwood, Arizona is a neat little town but you won’t see that charm until you drive past the Walmart, turn and head for the original downtown area. It’s so gratifying to see old buildings reinvigorated with hip new restaurants, cozy cafes and coffee bars, funky gift and antique shops, galleries and more. You can easily spend a couple of hours wandering through the shops and admiring the handmade furniture and other unique items available for sale.

We were pleased to discover that we had lots of independent restaurants to choose from for our dinner that evening and we ended up very pleased with our choice of Nic’s Italian Steak and Crab House. Located in one of the renovated downtown buildings, Nic’s wouldn’t be out of place in any major city. The dark interior, tin ceilings and ornate bar reminded us of places we’d been in NYC and D.C. We had a slight wait for our table so headed to the bar where we found a nice selection of wines by the glass. Our table was ready almost immediately so we sat down to look over the menu with a basket of warm chewy artisan bread served with a plate of perfectly-seasoned dipping oil to keep us happy while we decided. As the name says, steaks, pasta and seafood rule the menu. Our group chose lobster ravioli, that night’s halibut special and two old favorites – veal parmigiana and veal Marsala. Dinners were served with a simple and fresh mixed green salad and the veal dishes included pasta sides while the halibut had grilled veggies as a go-along. All four entrees were quite good – the halibut well-seasoned and juicy, the ravioli bathed in a zippy pesto cream sauce, while both veal dishes were tender with generous portions of real veal scaloppini. The only off note was the night’s special pasta side which had a leaden sun-dried tomato and bacon sauce. The star of the evening was the dessert course. A trio of luscious creme’ brulees in apple, chocolate and vanilla flavors. We played “dueling spoons” trying to get to the last bits of cream in each ramekin.

The Tavern Grille in Old Town Cottonwood

Our hotel provided a light breakfast buffet so our only other in-town dining experience was at lunch the next day – a visit to The Tavern Grille in Old Town Cottonwood. Located across the street from Nic’s, we later discovered that the two restaurants share the same owners, Eric and Michelle Jurisin, who also own Jerome’s “Haunted Hamburger” and “Grapes Restaurant & Bar.” Again, they have done a terrific job of saving a down-on-it’s-luck building and giving locals and tourists alike a hip, casual dining spot. Lunch with our friends was even more tasty than our previous night’s dinner. This place has an extensive menu of appetizers, soups, sandwiches, salads, pastas, entrees and – if that’s not enough – combination plates featuring soups, salads or “mini sandwiches” – whew! We took our time over drinks to study the menu and finally decided on the Seared Ahi Tuna Salad for P.B., the lavosh “pizza” with Havarti cheese and artichokes and the SW Prime Rib Melt sandwich suited our friends while I ordered a combo consisting of the Bleu Cheese Wedge Salad and an order of the Prime Rib Sliders. Lunch was – in all ways – outstanding. The Ahi tuna salad was huge with an extremely generous portion of fresh-tasting fish along with mounds of crunchy veggies and greens. My bleu cheese wedge salad was huge – and this was a smaller portion? – and totally yummy. Great house-made dressing and no skimping on the bacon and other toppings. The prime rib in both my sliders and in my friend’s SW sandwich was tender and well-seasoned and, again, plentiful. The lavosh, crispy and hot – topped with scads of melted cheese and artichoke hearts – could have easily served a small army. Even with four people, we had to have half of it packaged up to go. Kudos to the chef and owners on this gem of a restaurant.

One more place you need to know about in Cottonwood – the newly-opened gelato cafe, A Scoop Above.

What a cute shop!  A Scoop Above in Cottonwood

This little gem serves 25 flavors of homemade gelato that will rival anything you find in Phoenix or any large city, for that matter, and at a price that you will not believe. A buck a scoop. Yes, I said $1 a scoop for each 4-ounce serving of fresh gelato. My Rocky Road had at least a dollar’s worth of walnuts alone! In addition to the Rocky Road, we also had scoops of orange, chocolate and cherry flavors and all were quite good but I have to say that the R.R. was definitely the favorite. The servers and manager are all very friendly and eager to take care of you while the interior is just as bright and cheerful as the employees. There’s also a little play area for the kids with a miniature train running along the playroom walls. The whole place is just too cute and, really, they should be charging more for how good the stuff is!

Now how good does this stuff look?  Yummmm

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