Most travelers are familiar with Southwest Colorado towns like Telluride, renown for excellent (and often pricey) restaurants and cafes. However, there are a lot of other communities around the spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park that food lovers should explore.
I recently traveled through the town of Montrose and a number of towns in nearby Delta County and was pleasantly surprised by their culinary offerings. Here are some places you’ll find real good eats:
Main in Motion. This community of about 16,000 boasts a vibrant downtown with plenty of interesting shops, cafes, coffee houses, and restaurants. If you come during the summer on Thursdays, they block off several blocks of the downtown area for Main in Motion and the area fills with booths and tables from restaurants and a variety of vendors (selling everything from chair massages and feather hair extensions, homemade soaps and jewelry, to farm-fresh garlic and freshly baked goods). It’s a great time to get a feel for this friendly community and sample food from many of the local restaurants (a number of them sell small plate sized foods for $1-2, a great way to sample plenty of local fare. www.maininmotion.com
Damiano’s on Main. Another downtown favorite is the Italian themed Diamiano’s on Main. Here you can order house made fried Mozzarella and several pasta dishes. I tried the scampi which came as several good-sized shrimp, perfectly cooked, and served over a dente fettuccine noodles with a garlicky wine sauce. My dining companion enjoyed the rigatoni with Bolognese (tomato-based meat sauce) and proclaimed it hearty and delicious. 1135 E Main St, (970) 249-4446
Simmer. This is sophisticated stand-out restaurant, home to Chef-owner Donn Wagner and his friend Chef Peter O’Brien, reflects the sheer joy these men feel in preparing wonderful food for their guests. They use local products, including local meats, veggies and greens, and farm-fresh eggs. The rich, complex flavors, often with sweet and spicy counterpoints, are a product of Chef Donn’s background in Mexican cooking (he spent time cooking in restaurants in Mexico City and learned the art of mole making in central Mexico). Every night they offer a different pre-fixe dinner menu that includes appetizer, soup or salad, entrée, and dessert for the bargain price of $25 ($39 if you pair wines with every course). The selections on this menu depend on what the chefs find fresh and available at the local farmer’s market and fish market and, when the chefs aren’t in the kitchen cooking up your meal, you can find them in the dining room laughing and chatting with locals.
Every dinner begins with Simmer Sticks, house made bread sticks served with a fresh-tasting pesto dipping sauce. The night I dined there, the pre-fixe appetizer was a shrimp, scallop, and roasted potato stack served with a large mussel on the half-shell with a spicy house made cocktail sauce. It was as beautiful as it was delicious.
For my salad, I chose the fried hen egg salad with tomato slices, wilted spinach, and big, chewy chunks of bacon dressed with a warm bacon dressing. The farm fresh egg (with an amazingly orange-yellow yolk) added a lovely creaminess to this interesting salad.
The night I dined, the pre-fix entrée offerings included halibut with tomato confit or chorizo-stuffed boar. The halibut was pan-fried, served on a bed of hearty stir-fried quinoa, and topped with tempura broccolini. The fish was beautifully fresh with the tomato confit adding a touch of sweetness. The broccolini was cooked al dente while the tempura coating was light and airy.
My companion ordered the Hot and crunchy ruby red trout and it was the hit of the evening. It was served with mango-jalapeno aioli on a large grain couscous with the plate striped with “war paint,” a spicy red sauce. The trout was fresh and sweet with the war paint offering a bit of heat and the mango lending sweetness.
The calabicitas, a Mexican vegetable casserole, is one of the many sides offered on the regular menu and it’s delicious. It comes with thinly sliced squash and onions, topped with toasted croutons served with a cheesy, creamy sauce that has both sweetness and a bit of heat. We only wish this dish had been served with some crusty bread so we could have sopped up all that delicious sauce. For dessert, the Godiva chocolate mousse topped with freshly whipped cream was incredibly creamy, almost velvety, with a subtle chocolate flavor. 320, East Main St., Montrose, www.simmerfoodandwine.com
The Stone House. This clubby, cool restaurant is a good lunch spot offering a good selection of sandwiches and salads. My French dip came served on a soft French bun with a good amount of thinly sliced beef with a tasty au jus. I opted for the salad as a side, which came with crispy greens, cucumber, and tomatoes with chunky blue cheese dressing. My companions ordered the sweet potato fries as a side and they came as crunchy and sweet cross cut chips. www.stonehousemontrose.com
Not far from Montrose are Delta County and the communities of Delta, Crawford, Cedaredge, Eckert, Hotchkiss, and Paonia. This county is more agriculturally based and you’ll find not only interesting cafes and restaurants, but also plenty of wineries and distilleries, many with free tasting, and fruit stands selling locally-produced food products and fresh produce grow in the area such as cherries, peaches, and their famous Olathe Sweet Sweet Corn.
Flying Fork Café & Bakery. Paonia, a little village of 1,000 has a quaint downtown filled with interesting shops and restaurants that really hops, especially on the weekends. One of the most interesting restaurants is the Flying Fork Café, a lovely little place with a Mediterranean feel. Customers can eat indoors or outdoors on a shady stone patio next to an herb garden and burbling water feature. Dinners start with a plate of small sautéed nicoise olives and soft foccacia and herbed bread with balsamic and olive oil for dipping.
Their 10” thin whole wheat crust pizza is Italian style with just the right amount of topping so you can really taste each flavor. Their Margherita pizza is crispy with sweet tomato, creamy mozzarella, and fresh basil – delicious.
They offer interesting salads like mista, greens, tomato, cucumber, red onion, parmesan; arugula with Bing cherries, toasted almonds, caramelized onions, and goat cheese; and spinach with walnuts, crispy pancetta, and slices of fresh pear and Manchego cheese.
They also feature several pasta dishes, along with lamb shanks, steaks and chicken dishes. I ordered the linguine and wasn’t disappointed. Pasta dishes come in appetizer or regular size. Judging from the generous appetizer portion and all the to-go boxes going out the door, I suggest ordering the smaller portion or plan on delicious leftovers. My linguine came cooked perfectly al dente with salty capers, chunky bits of garlic, good olive oil, and plenty of fresh parsley. Even ordering the smaller portion, we found ourselves too full to order dessert. www.flyingforkcafe.com
Orchard Valley Farms and Black Bridge Winery. Nestled along the North fork of the Gunnison River, this farm grows peaches and cherries and sells other produce and locally-produced gourmet foods, jellies, and honey. Their winery features both free tastes of their wines and balsamic vinegar and various infused oils like lemon olive oil. You can enjoy a glass of their wine at a riverside picnic table or Adirondack chair and watch the hummingbirds hover over the rushing waters. In the summer, they celebrate Friday evenings (5-7 p.m.) with Wine Down where they fire up an outdoor brick beehive oven and bake up free pizza for customers. www.blackbridgewinery.com
Sparky’s Farm Market. Located on Hwy 92 just outside of downtown Hotchkiss, Sparky’s Farm Market offers local produce, their own products like cherry pie filling and cherry syrup as well other locally-produced products. They have a shady patio area with chairs and tables and an old-time village facade for the kids. In season, you can u-pick Bing and three different types of pie cherries. 31164 Highway 92, Hotchkiss, (970) 872-7737.
Jack Rabbit Hill Winery and Peak Spirits Distillery. On a high North Valley hill in Hotchkiss, Anna Hanson and her husband have established one of the first biodynamic wineries in the country. According to Anna, this method of organic farming focuses on improving the soil by creating a closed system that utilizes compost and other products made on the farm. In addition to making wines, they also have a distillery that makes fruit-based gin and vodka. It’s a casual place where you’ll be invited onto the front porch for a bit of tasting and terrific views of the vineyards and surrounding countryside. www.jackrabbithill.com
Coaltrain Coffee House. This little café that specializes in breakfast and lunch offerings got its name because one of the coal trains that run behind the café dumped a load of coal onto the hillside next door. It’s a pleasant place with tables next to a tiled fireplace and a comfy reading room next door. A favorite among locals for breakfast, they offer quiche, breakfast burritos, and their specialty, buttery, flaky spanakopita that’s chocked full of fresh spinach and feta cheese. They bake their own scones and cinnamon rolls (they’re big with plenty of cinnamon and just the right amount of frosting). They also offer tea, coffee, and espresso drinks. www.coaltraincoffee.com
North Fork Life Style Boutique. Who’d expect a high-end food emporium in a little town like Hotchkiss? Right next store to the Coaltrain Coffee House is a new foodie boutique that features gourmet foods like quality olive oil and olives, and fun food-related items like aprons, wine stoppers, and beautiful olive oil bottles. You can often sample their food products. 320 West Bridge St,, Hotchkiss, CO, (970) 872-3344
Black Canyon Café. In the tiny, Western style village of Crawford (population 360), the Black Canyon Café is an elegant yet casual lunch and breakfast spot originally developed by rocker Joe Cocker and his wife Pam. The café, a favorite among motorcyclists driving the beautiful West Elk Loop scenic byway, is decorated with bright blue blown glass and copper work by local artists and chairs and stools covered with Watusi cattle hides.They have a real old fashioned soda fountain, a banquet space, and a shady outdoor patio with a garden and waterfall.
The food at Black Canyon is equally impressive. I ordered one of their half-pound burgers made with Rocky Mountain beef, served on a fresh, chewy bun that wasy juicy, beefy, and one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten. It came with a pile of their slim sweet potato fries that were sweet and crispy. Even their iced tea, which came in an oversized glass and was continually refilled by attentive wait staff, was delicious. They also bake their own pies and we tried the cherry, made with locally grown cherries not canned filling, and found it to be wonderfully sweet-tart with a buttery, flaky crust. 300 Hwy. 92, Crawford, CO (970) 921-7632 www.blackcanyoncafe.net/