INSIDER EATS: Last meals
Dining critic eats her way out of town
The Broadmoor. For many years, my family went to The Broadmoor for their epic Easter brunch buffet. As it was my first brunch experience, the gourmet excess spoiled me for most others up to this day. I have photos of the family by the lake, the old Broadmoor World Arena skating rink in the background.
Sizzler Steak House. My Sizzler Steakhouse memory has nothing to do with its food, about which I remember only a salad bar that stretched to infinity. It was the slide, a fast metal surface that angled down, through the floor into the restaurant's arcade. More quarters, Mom?
Golden Bee. My mother and father hung out at the Golden Bee during its rise to coolness in the '70s, and by the time I was 21, that fact made me proud to go there, rather than embarrassed. We celebrated my (not yet) husband's 30th birthday with a half yard of Bristol Beehive at The Bee, and winning the pub's 2010 scavenger hunt netted me my own Golden Bee mug.
The Rabbit Hole. My first assignment for The Gazette was a burger comparison, and one competitor was the Rabbit Hole's all-bacon Juicy Lucy. The eatery reminds me of that hopeful beginning and of one of my favorite turns of phrase: "A carnie could spin this meat onto a stick like cotton candy and I would be a happy woman."
Spice Island Grill. This Jamaican joint was the first restaurant to which I awarded 4.5 out of 5 forks. More memorable, though, is that on a later visit, Spice Island Grill was the first place that quoted my own rating back to me. To the server was just another hungry customer, of course.
Trinity Brewing. The only source of craft beer in my neighborhood, I was at Trinity with bells on opening night, have worked there via wifi and even hung out on their patio with my dog when I was evacuated during the fire. I packed six Trinity growlers – yes, six, collected over the years – with tender care for the move to my new home in Boulder.
I've sometimes had trouble writing dining columns. I'd squeeze my eyes shut and focus on wringing delicate flavors from my palate's memory. I'd pour over notes, zoom in on my food photos for garnishing details. I've agonized over adjectives ("What shade of rich was it?") and debated degrees of judgement ("Bad, but how bad?).
I set a new standard of difficulty today, however, because this Insider Eats is my last article as dining critic for The Gazette. After having the privilege to be the person behind the Groucho mask for more than a year (my first column ran Sept. 30, 2011), my life has taken a new course, northward to the city of Boulder.
The flavor of this move is easy for me to identify: bittersweet, the very definition of the word. But I refuse to mourn over what will soon be left behind, to let all my personal and professional food experiences in Colorado Springs be eclipsed by the sadness of their ending. Instead, I chose to celebrate. I indulged. I had four last meals in this hometown of mine, each one a fond farewell.
These meals are not, repeat it, not a list of my "Best of the Springs" selections, which, by the way, would include Little Nepal Restaurant and Everest Bar, STIR coffee shop, The Cliff House, Crystal Park Cantina, Black Forest Pies and Grinders, and Chingu Chicken House, among others.
Instead, each of my meals was a goodbye to different people, special-to-me people. And each of my meals was a tribute to one of the city's many personalities, which together create the unique experience of living and dining in Colorado Springs.
The Mining Exchange, a Wyndham Grand Hotel
8 S. Nevada Ave.
We grow up in Colorado Springs learning to cherish our city's founders: the Penroses, General Palmer, Stratton. We are born in hospitals and play in parks that bear their names. Our downtown is studded with their statues, and was also the setting of my farewell tribute to the historic side of this city: The Mining Exchange, one-time trader of the golden wealth of Cripple Creek, built by Stratton in 1902.
Now a luxurious Wyndham hotel, the Exchange lobby bar serves expertly mixed cocktails and pub fare from Springs Orleans, which I have long appreciated for their creative but composed Cajun cuisine. In fact, Orleans' blue lump crab cake ($12) -- with crispy, fried carrots and creole sauce -- is one part classic fare and one part modern creativity. Better, it suits the personality of the hotel, where original columns frame towering modern windows.
It's an atmosphere that lends another level of enjoyment to the restaurant's homemade trotolle pasta in a bath of black truffle-laced cheese ($11). When there is the staff available to help, bar guests can order off Springs Orleans' full menu, including special-occasion indulgences like sweet potato Disco Fries and chocolate lava cake (both $9).
For me, the special part of the occasion was sharing this final meal at a bar table with family over excellent cocktails like the Refresher ($10, with cucumber vodka, St. Germain, basil, oranges and cucumber) and classic martinis, followed by glasses of red wine.
2607 W. Colorado Ave.
With its small plate served with time for conversation, Tapateria must have been designed for groups of good friends like mine. One table expands to two and eventually four as more people arrive. So, too, do the glasses multiple as we share a carafe of the restaurant’s tasty sangria ($12.50). Oh, and another carafe, too.
This blood-orange sangria (although there's a rotating daily flavor as well) is among few sangrias I've tried that couldn't also be labeled "punch." The base of wine shines through lighter flavors of fruit and the orange's citrus acid. Such is Tapateria's charm: Chef Jay Gust elevates simple fare or dishes so familiar that it seems impossible to make it any better. It shines through the bison carpaccio ($8.95), made new with its choice of meat. The thinly sliced buffalo is served with artistic dabs of truffle oil, wasabi aioli, Manchego cheese and a smattering of toasted capers.
The meltingly tender meat in the dish made it one I had trouble sharing around the table. I easily passed around the bowl of chorizo and figs ($6), two orders of garlic-stuffed mushrooms ($4.95), a boatload of warm olives ($5) and more. Only the carne adobada (too salty) ($7.95) didn't go back clean.
Fresh, delicious and relatively healthy.
In the gluten-free, vegetarian-heavy Tapateria, I was saying goodbye to the Springs progressive food community, which includes events like the Colorado Farm and Art Market and Peak to Plains Local Food Week, among others.
Uchenna Ethiopian Restaurant
2501 W. Colorado Ave.
Here, I say goodbye to my Colorado Springs date nights. Beginning with the first date, my husband and I bonded over a shared love of culinary exploration and foreign cuisine, and it was only when we began to find gems like Uchenna and others that we truly began to feel at home together in the Springs.
Uchenna is perhaps designed for lovers, or at least, to spread love in general. For example, the server and owner begins taking orders by asking customers, "What would make you happy today?" Yebeg (lamb) Tibs ($15) is never a bad answer. Using grass-fed and cruelty-free meat, Uchenna slow cooks the lamb to a pull-apart brisket texture and punctuates the shredded meat with earthy spices and chile-based Awaze sauce. All of which is consumed with only spongy, purple-hued injera bread and your fingers.
Even more delicious delights are to be found the vegetarian side of the menu. Uchenna's vegetarian combo plate ($14) includes two preparations of lentils, plus a ground chickpea mixture akin to a chile-spiced hummus, sauteed string beans and silky cabbage. Light yet hefty with flavor, you feel sated and satisfied at the end of the meal rather than heavily full. The meal isn't complete, by the way, until you eat the injera that soaked up all the plate's juices and spices. It's the best part of the meal, even better, in fact than the homemade baklava for desert ($2.50).
As a soon-to-be former resident, I was savoring a this memorable meal as well as the surprising and growing community of diverse cuisines in Colorado Springs.
King's Chef Diner
110 E. Costilla St.
For newbies, the wonderfully garish purple castle with the interior space of a walk-in closet probably seems far from representative of the Colorado Springs' character, which is more publicly linked with the Air Force Academy, Focus on the Family or majestic Pikes Peak. But for me, the original location of King's Chef Diner embodies the fun, irreverent and colorful subcultures of the city that I love. Its tattoo parlors and dive bars, rock bands and graffiti artists, motorcyclists and scooterists, hippies and hipsters.
Even if you don't fit in one of those groups, though, you're not a true Springs' food lover until you've pulled up to the counter of King's Chef for a bowl of their fire-roasted Colorado green chile ($5.75). The heat level is right on the money, meaning I'll need a kleenex for my nose and eyes but my lips aren't numb or on fire. That alone is a brag-worthy challenge, but you can kick it up umpteen levels with the New Mexico Stomper ($48.95). Finish the 5-pound open-faced green-chile cheeseburger within an hour, and the meal is on the house.
I usually aim for the middle with the chile-smothered breakfast burrito ($7.85, $5.95 half size) comprised of eggs, hash browns, sausage and cheese. I eat in a leisurely fashion, taking sips from my always-topped-off iced tea and chatting with the other counter dwellers and staff. On a recent fall morning, I compared tattoos with father-and-daughter diners and the server, and spoke with a retired gentleman about how the iPad has changed the news media.
The latter asked what I did for a living. I said I was a food blogger. Which is true, if not the whole truth. It wouldn't have been ethical to say what I really was, the food critic for The Gazette. Not until now, my final column.
The truth was that my car was stuffed with possessions, ready to head up to Boulder after I cleaned my plate. I always clean my plate at King's Chef, because, like an elementary schooler, I still get a kick out of getting a sticker (reading Clean Plate Club) and a piece of candy from the prize box. Oh, and a $25-off coupon for tattooing. Of course.
Obviously, I will return to Colorado Springs. After my last meals, I leave sated. To the city and its wonderful people, I lift my fork in fond farewell.