A taste of Mexico comes to bluff


LEAH AND ANNA SCHRENKIt was a beautiful Monday morning. The eastern sky was lit up with brilliant shades of red and orange.

A couple of local high-school kids were leaned up against Bluff, Utah’s, new taco stand, Las Dos Hermanas, with sleepy grins on their faces. They were getting their first breakfast burrito from the two sisters.

I watched from the corner as Anna Schrenk placed a scoop of her homemade chorizo and a scoop of potatoes on the grill, and flopped a tortilla down on the other grill.

She flipped the tortilla twice, scooped the potatoes, eggs and chorizo onto it with a spatula, put a spoonful of beans and one of rice on top of that, spun around to the opposite counter, added sliced cabbage, guacamole and crema, wrapped it in a sheet of aluminum foil, and handed it to her first customer. Four dollars. I couldn’t eat a whole one.

There’s not much to Bluff. There’s a Mormon church. A convenience store that also sells gas, only one restaurant that sells three meals a day, another that sells dinners made from scratch five nights a week. There’s a coffee shop in West Bluff, which is more an area than a place on a map (living west of Cottonwood Wash qualifies you).

Some archaeologists have an office just down from the Recapture Lodge, where you can get a room with a kitchenette pretty cheap, especially during off-season, and just next to the archaeologists is the river company (Wild Rivers), operated by two young couples who recently moved to Bluff to launch the business.

Still, for all of its limitations, Bluff is a charming place. It lies on the north bank of the San Juan River, in a valley that’s a mile wide from one sandstone bluff to the other (the bluffs south of the river are on the Navajo Reservation).

The bluffs themselves are a distinctive and colorful feature of the valley, and then there’s Comb Ridge to the west, and if you can gain some elevation you can see Monument Valley far to the west. Bluff’s appeal lies outdoors.

If you’re looking for Native American jewelry, rugs, baskets, or pottery, you can find that, but otherwise the shopping opportunities are limited.

Across from the archaeology shop lie the ruins of one couple’s catastrophe. This man and his wife were, by all accounts, regarded as the surliest people in the civilized world. When they weren’t yelling at each other, they were yelling at the customers. They had an international reputation for nastiness.

I met an Englishman one time out in Valley of the Gods and we had a conversation: “I say, old chap,” he said, “do you know that fellow who runs the little store and gas station in Bluff? The one with the waxed mustaches.”

If someone asked about either of the pair I already knew they’d had an unpleasant experience. So I laughed. Then the Englishman, remembering his unpleasant experience, laughed too, What else can you do?

The couple had a little bit of a store with the gas pumps out front, and a half-assed garage off to the side of that, where he changed tires until he got so broke down he quit doing it.

West of the store/garage/filling station they had a restaurant. It wasn’t a bad place. It had wood paneling; the local Navajo girls worked there; but you were taking your life in your hands to go in there. Chances were real good that she would say something mean to you while you were having your ham and eggs, or she’d yell at one of the customers. She embarrassed me to tears on any number of occasions. The locals didn’t go in there much.

Well, the couple finally left. There were financial problems of some kind, I gather, and one morning they loaded up their old station wagon till the rear end was almost on the ground and drove out of town, wobbling as they went. We watched them go. Nobody was sorry, although I think everyone was equally surprised about it. The whole place wound up in the hands of the bank and it sat that way for several years.

And then the girls showed up — sisters Anna and Leah Schrenk. And bought the place. And built a taco stand that is clearly the most outrageous thing that’s ever happened in San Juan County.

It’s built to reflect the ambiance of the taco stands one finds in Mexico, especially in Baja California, where you can find the most delicious fish and shrimp tacos.

They built it out of used materials, but you have to hand it to them: These women have style. And they work. They aren’t afraid of anything. They’re just as at home with Skil saws, hammer and nails, and crowbars as most guys are, and they’re a sight better than a lot of guys I’ve met over the years. I’ve seen them up there on the roof, sawing, dragging, building their dream.

Of course, like most of us, they needed a little help, so they liberated their father, Edwin, from the comfort of his lifestyle in Morro Bay, Calif. He’s a man with a great deal of building experience, and it’s going to take that to get the restaurant open again. In the meantime, there’s the taco stand.

They built the sides out of corrugated tin, which is so Mexico you can’t believe it. Then they painted this ugly, gray old tin vivid colors: yellow, red, pink, green, blue, purple; they ran the gamut with pastels. They made it their own. They hung a Mexican flag over one of the gas pumps, there’s a neon saguaro, with little Lupita sitting on the edge. There are a thousand little details, each reflecting their passion for Mexico.

Leah has spent a lot of time in Mexico, working summers in Alaska, doing all kinds of tough and nasty jobs. She spent a summer on a “gut scow” which hauled fish offal out beyond the three-mile limit and dumped it in the ocean. Charming work.

“I worked 109 days straight,” she said. “We worked 12 to 16 hours a day. We worked, we drank, we slept. That was all.”

Anna graduated from Prescott College in plant ecology. She’s worked a variety of jobs on public lands: Bureau of Indian Affairs, U. S. Park Service. She knows a lot about plants, the desert environment — in short, life. She worked the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where I planted trees a quarter of century ago.

It was Bluff that brought them together this time. Bluff, and an idea, a dream. They both love Mexico.

“I’m Mexicana,” Leah told me. She speaks the language, loves the people. On Monday evening, after a day that started at 5 in the morning, we sat around in the gloaming, telling stories of our misadventures in Mexico, the people we’d met, the places we’d been, the adventures that had led us there.

It’s the first authentic Mexican taco stand I have seen in the United States.

“If this is the new direction for Bluff,” one of the customers said, “it’s the right direction. I’m all for it.”

It’s the essence of America. The small, family-owned business. And for Bluff, it’s a welcome change of pace.

From September 2006.