SNOWMASS VILLAGE - Since the Snowmass ski area opened in 1967, the "beachfront" restaurant space at the end of the Snowmass Mall has been a coveted location.
Venga Venga, a cantina and tequila bar, opened in that space in December 2010. Venga Venga is part of the Richard Sandoval restaurant group, a Denver-based company that owns 32 restaurants across the country from Santa Monica to Denver to New York and Washington, D.C., including Tamayo and Zengo in Denver.
Growing up in Mexico City, Sandoval learned traditional Latin cooking from his grandmother, with its focus on local, fresh ingredients. He has expanded traditional Latin flavors in his restaurants (combining them with Asian dishes in some of his restaurant concepts). But he has continued to focus on creating fresh, authentic dishes that transform the traditional dinner into a special event.
Venga Venga was developed specifically for the Snowmass Mall location using a similar menu and concept from Sandoval's La Sandia concept.
Benjamin Britten has been Venga Venga's general manager since last winter.
"We want to create an experience, rather than just have people going out to eat," explained Britten. "We have 120 different tequilas that you can sample in small flights. We make the guacamole at the table from scratch. Or you can get a S'mores kit and roast marshmallows outside over the fire."
Over the past 15 years, Sandoval has grown his restaurant group, and he continues to open four to seven new restaurants each year.
"Richard Sandoval has developed really high standards," Britten said. "He starts with a great location (which we have here at Venga Venga), has a killer concept, and there's value in the menu, and he grows with excellent execution."
Both Venga Venga and Britten have quickly made a home in Snowmass. Britten was a food and beverage manager at the Jerome before moving out to Venga Venga last winter. A former plastics engineer in the auto industry, Britten did not see his future in Michigan and used his previous management experience to move forward in the restaurant industry after relocating to Colorado.
A self-described "thrill junkie," Britten has enjoyed skydiving, fast motorcycles, snowboarding and extreme sports. Now, with a wife, Liliya, a 15-month-old daughter and another on the way, he's more focused on his work at the end of the Snowmass Mall, rather than riding the steep-and-deep on High Alpine.
"I love the vibe of Snowmass," Britten said. "The best thing for me has been the friendships and the relationships I've made here in a short time. The word of mouth of Venga Venga has been great, so we've had lots of Snowmass locals: The police are cool. We love the people from Snowmass Tourism and Snowmass Hospitality. And all of the ski instructors and their clients. Moving forward, we're hoping to create more local connections."
To do that this summer, Venga Venga has lowered its food and drink prices on featured specials.
"This summer we have a very aggressive happy hour," Britten said. "Our food prices are lower. We have a daily lunch special that starts at $7.95 for two Mexican favorites. And you can add a third for another $3 so you can get a lot of food to either dine in or take out."
Other $5 happy hour specials are guacamole, wings, nachos, tostadas or sliders, along with $5 margaritas, $6 hand-crafted cocktails, and $3 draft beer, including the Mexican favorite Pacifico.
Mike Schwinkendorf is the new executive chef at Venga Venga, and he plans on maintaining its high quality of food, with everything made fresh.
"Richard Sandoval has dialed in everything so well," Schwinkendorf said. "The carnitas is so traditional that the guys who work in the kitchen say it's just like what their grandmothers used to make for them."
Venga Venga is open throughout summer, from Wednesday to Sunday, opening at 11 a.m. They will close Oct. 3 for six weeks in the offseason, then open again for winter the week before Thanksgiving.
"Come on by and see us on Thursday nights," Britten said. Their slope-side location gives them a perfect view of the Thursday night concerts. "We're going to have fun."
Steve Alldredge is the former assistant editor/writer for the Snowmass Sun. He now runs a
local communications company whose clients include Related Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.