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In Marfa, Texas, Minimalist Art and Maximum Flavor

By Daphne Beal
November 22, 2009

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“The big empty” is how my seatmate describes the landscape as our plane makes its descent to El Paso. To me it is the opposite: this is a place I’ve visited and lived in for the last 13 years, and it is a land filled with memories, adventure and possibility.

In 1996, on my way back to the airport from vacationing in Big Bend National Park, I detoured for what I thought would be a quick stop to see the work of the artist Donald Judd in Marfa, Tex. The little I knew about this major Minimalist had led me to the opinion that Judd, who had died in 1994, was hard-headed, with a conceptual ax to grind. But as I drove toward Marfa from the south and saw Judd’s giant concrete boxes lined up along the road, and beyond them two enormous brick buildings with gleaming, rounded corrugated metal roofs, I felt as if I’d just woken up. His work in Marfa — created and installed on a scale in keeping with the vast, prehistoric landscape, as well as the repurposed buildings he bought all over town — was both subtle and exhilarating to behold.

Two months later I left my job at a magazine in New York City and moved to Marfa to work at the local weekly newspaper for the summer. I lived in Judd’s former print studio at the Chinati Foundation, the museum he founded on a former Army base. Out my back door was his masterwork of 100 milled aluminum boxes installed in the two buildings I’d first seen from the road, called the Sheds, and all around me were large-scale permanent installations by his friends.

In contrast to the art, though, was Marfa itself, which had once been a cattle boomtown, so desolate that tumbleweeds rolled down the main street. By 2000, Marfa’s fortunes had begun to turn, largely because of an influx of wealthy Houstonians who were buying second homes and opening, and often subsidizing, small businesses. Three hours from the nearest airport and with a population that hovers around 2,000, the town is still small and remote. But the once-empty buildings are mostly filled with galleries now.

The other significant change since my first visit: the town’s evolving culinary scene. Back then, our options were enchiladas or frozen pizza. But recently, the town has begun to develop a reputation for food that, while not eclipsing its artistic one, might at least be said to complement it. And it is an exploration of Marfa’s foodie side that has brought me here this time.

From El Paso, barreling east on I-10 for two hours past mountains of dirt, I exit at the town of Van Horn cruising past a sign that would have once been portentous, reading DIESEL FRIED CHICKEN. Off the county highway, the Chihuahuan Desert rolls out in an expanse of pale green grass to mountains floating like islands in the distance. Great tilted plateaus rise and drop off in concave cliffs, and a train of endless freight cars chugs along to the north.

Nearly 12 hours after starting my journey, I pull up to the small adobe house my husband and I now own at the edge of town and meet my friend Rob Crowley who’s come to take me to a cookout at the home of a food-minded newcomer. Rocky Barnette, formerly the executive sous-chef at the Inn at Little Washington, in Virginia (and now with a nonprofit called Food & Water Watch), has raised five pigs, feeding them a local restaurant’s vegetarian food scraps. Two days earlier he’d slaughtered one in a way that sounds especially Texan: feeding it two Mexican beers before shooting it between the eyes. A tall, gregarious 30-year-old, Mr. Barnette carves the meat in the yard while two dogs watch attentively, kids sprint around a gigantic garden nearly trampling young fava beans, and women in sundresses discuss the benefit of drinking tequila straight: no hangover.

Mr. Barnette ventures that he might like to open a restaurant in Marfa, “Maybe a gastropub like St. John in London, where you order drinks and take them to the table.” Not long ago, this kind of statement would have sounded delusional when eating still meant cobbling together meals from the dusty supermarket.

At the weekly farmers’ market the next morning, housed under a gigantic shade pavilion downtown beside the railroad tracks, I try a savory pork asado burrito and buy a half dozen chicken tamales for later, before stocking up on tortillas, pecan brittle, bok choy, bread, yogurt and eggs, all with a vague feeling that I can’t believe my luck. Sandra Harper, who helped found the market about four years ago, points out that the shift to local food is not unprecedented: “All ranches had vegetable gardens, chickens and a milk cow until after the war. But the drought in the 1950s changed the general mind-set. Nobody thinks of this area as a growing place. It’s a big secret. The main challenge is water, but you can grow things in a backyard.”

One of the best-known eating destinations in Marfa is the Food Shark, a 1974 delivery truck that these days is parked under the same farmers’ market pavilion four afternoons a week. Krista Steinhauer, the Food Shark’s chef, and Adam Bork, its “art director,” moved from Austin in 2004 to work at a hotel, but Ms. Steinhauer soon began cooking for parties, and eventually the couple bought and altered the Shark.

Her daily changing menu includes items like banh mi sandwiches, beef curry over rice, slow-roasted pork tacos in ancho-cocoa rub, and brown butter cookies. “It’s determined by what I have, what I can get, and what I have from yesterday that’s left over,” she says. But the mainstay of the menu is Ms. Steinhauer’s falafel, which she describes as “desert food.” Inspired by a Syrian cook she knew in Romania, Ms. Steinhauer makes her marfalafel, bright green on the inside, with cilantro, parsley, onions and garlic, and sometimes mint, and rolls them in chickpea flour rather than wheat, which, she explains, “underscores the chickpea taste.”

Later, I drop by Tacos del Norte, opened by Rosario Martinez last spring, who came from Mexico via Chicago, where she lived for 20 years before her husband found construction work in the area. Set up in the old Pik ‘n’ Pak market, with two giant Speedy Gonzales murals on the walls, it’s a three-generation operation, offering homemade tortillas and chorizo, tacos and burritos in a style definitely more Mexican than Tex-Mex. Bolstering her menu with supplies she picks up on regular visits to her hometown in Coahuila, Ms. Martinez says, “I leave the crockpots going all night and do the rest in the morning.”

A few days after I’ve eaten at Cochineal — enjoying a salt-and-pepper shrimp salad over fennel and oranges in a gravel courtyard under an orange-streaked sunset — the restaurant’s owner, Tom Rapp, tells me that he and his partner, Toshifumi Sakihara, opened it last year as an extension of the “global home cooking” they did at their restaurant, Etats-Unis, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, adding, “That means the home cooking takes the pretension out of the global.” Mr. Sakihara listens from the spotless open kitchen as he makes a rhubarb pie.

Mr. Rapp is pithy about the history of Marfa that’s made Cochineal viable: “In the beginning there was cattle, sheep and the railroad. Then there was Judd. Judd begat Crowley,” he says, referring to Tim Crowley, a philanthropic Houstonian central to the town’s revitalization. “Judd made Marfa a destination but did little in remaking the town. It’s in a fourth phase now that there is infrastructure, hotel space, restaurant space. It’s a solidification of what they gave.”

On my way out of town, I stop about 35 miles west of Marfa, on the far side of the next (and much smaller) town of Valentine at a one-room adobe building with a sign that says Prada Marfa above a plate-glass window showcasing expensive shoes and handbags on Berber carpeting littered with dead moths. Installed by the conceptual art duo Elmgreen & Dragset in 2005, the work’s punch line seems a little pat. Then I notice the low ledge that runs along the outside of the building where small, jagged rocks anchor hundreds of calling cards lined up like train cars: Pappy’s Kettle Corn; a medical diagnostic service; the Dallas Museum of Art. I find it strangely moving — the idea of so many people passing through, wanting to prove they were here.

ART AND A FOOD CART

WHERE TO EAT

With a menu featuring dishes like rosemary-marinated rack of lamb with mint pesto and salmon grilled on mesquite, Cochineal (107 West San Antonio Street; 432-729-3300) is set in a 100-year-old adobe building redone in a style that the owner, Tom Rapp, calls “friendly Minimalism.” The desserts, especially the baked-to-order date pudding, are excellent. Dinner for two costs about $120.

Close to the heart of Marfa’s good-food movement are Maiya and Saarin Keck, sisters who each own a popular restaurant. The younger one runs Maiya’s (103 North Highland Street; 432-729-4410; www.maiyasrestaurant.com), which offers an eclectic, seasonally changing menu, delicious homemade bread and the ideal margarita in a former jewelry store. Dinner for two costs about $120. She also opened the Get Go grocery (208 South Dean Street; 432-729-3335; www.thegetgomarfa.com), selling quality foodstuffs and many local products.

Started by Saarin Keck and her husband, Ronnie O’Donnell, the Pizza Foundation (100 East San Antonio Street; 432-729-3377; www.pizzafoundation.com) serves up stellar thin-crust pizza and fresh limeade in a former car dealership at the town’s main crossroads. Meal for two, $15.

No need to drive 60 miles for Mexican food when you can visit Tacos del Norte (1500 West San Antonio Street; 432-729-4540). Try the sopes and beef barbacoa. A meal for two is about $15.

Having just reopened after a long hiatus, Carmen’s Cafe (317 East San Antonio Street; 432-729-3429) offers cinnamon rolls at breakfast and tasty pico de gallo, enchiladas and chips at lunch. A meal for two costs about $20.

Tuesday through Friday afternoons, the Food Shark (Shade Pavilion, Highland Avenue; 432-386-6540; www.foodsharkmarfa.com) cooks up its marfalafel and inspired daily specials. A lunch for two costs about $25.

On Saturday mornings, starting at 10, check out Farm Stand Marfa (Shade Pavilion, Highland Avenue ) for desert honey, flaky pear tarts and spicy burritos, alongside the local produce.

Open only on Sunday, the airy Austin Street Cafe (405 North Austin Street; 432-729-4653; www.austinstreetcafe.com) offers brunch with fresh fruit smoothies and Texas caviar (black-eyed peas). A meal for two, about $35.

WHERE TO STAY

For a sense of what Marfa used to be, visit the Hotel Paisano (207 North Highland Avenue; 866-729-3669; www.hotelpaisano.com), where James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor stayed while filming “Giant.” Doubles start at $99. The Thunderbird Hotel (601 West San Antonio Street; 877-729-1984; www.thunderbirdmarfa.com) is 1950s architecture reimagined in hipster chic, with record turntables and manual typewriters available, and a gemlike pool surrounded by a fence made of ocotillo cactus. Doubles from $120. El Cosmico (Highway 67; info@elcosmico.com; www.elcosmico.com) is a work in progress at the edge of town and already has vintage trailers and campsites available. Doubles from $75.

Thirty-three miles south of Marfa, Cibolo Creek Ranch (Highway 67; 866-496-9460; www.cibolocreekranch.com) will take you all the way into the Wild West and offer you skeet shooting and merlot. Doubles from $295.

WHAT TO DO

Tours of Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation (1 Cavalry Row; 432-729-4362; www.chinati.org), $10, are at 10 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The Judd Foundation (104 South Highland Avenue; 432-729-4406, www.juddfoundation.org) offers tours of his residence ($20) and studio spaces ($30).

Ballroom Marfa (108 East San Antonio Street; www.ballroommarfa.org) presents an unusual roster of film, music and installation art.