Comfort food, Aspen-style
December 2, 2008
ASPEN Comfort food is described in Websters Dictionary as any food eaten not only for its pleasing taste but also for a sense of contentment, nostalgia, etc. that it provides.Comfort food has always been the staple of diners and other informal restaurants, and traditionally there has been an emphasis on authenticity and low cost. But in Aspen, that isnt always the case as many local restaurants offer upscale, more expensive versions of comfort food items like macaroni and cheese with truffle oil or lobster corn dogs. But there are plenty of down-home cookin places too, and they wont break the bank in your pursuit to pig out.Science attempts to explain our need for comfort food as a chemical reaction in the brain. The brain releases certain feel good hormones into the body to compensate for all the different negative feelings that overwhelm us in every day life. Many people turn to comfort food for familiarity, emotional security, or as a special reward. In the winter months, comfort food for me means eating what sticks to my ribs and the lingering guilty feeling that remains for as long as it stays there.One persons comfort food is another persons dieting nemesis. Calorie counting be damned, comfort food sure can make you feel good and the valleys dining establishments know how to gastronomically satisfy in that regard. And when in Aspen on vacation, there should be no concern for dieting, plus youll ski it off the next day anyway.Here are some of my top comfort food picks in no particular order:
Toppers300 Puppy Smith (in front of Clarks Market)920-0069This is an American cafe thats got plenty of comfort food and the locals know it, although they dont advertise it as much as they should.Theres plenty to choose from off the menu but the must eat is any of Toppers bowls. My top two favorites are the fennel spiced pork stew (braised seasoned pork with carrots, onions, new potatoes and oregano), and the chicken cacciatore (braised chicken, combined with rotisserie chicken, mushrooms, red pepper and thyme.)Theres also the fish and shrimp vegetable curry bowl (red snapper and rock shrimp stewed with carrots and cauliflower in a red curry basil broth) and tofu and vegetable ragu (eggplant fennel, carrots, celery and onions stewed with garlic, tomatoes, fresh herbs and tofu).All of the bowls come with a side option of garlic soft polenta, whipped potatoes, brown rice, jasmine rice or black beans. I recommend the polenta, which I could eat an entire bowl full if given the opportunity.You can order half bowls for $9.95 or a full bowl for $14.95, which can easily be spilt between two people.Boogies Diner534 E. Cooper Ave. (upstairs)925-6610The hustlin bustlin 1950s-style Boogies Diner has classic comfort food. The desserts are legendary, as are Boogies thick ice-cream shakes. But the real deal is the Foghorn Leghorn Chicken and the World Famous Open Faced Turkey Sandwich. The Southern-style honey-dipped chicken is served with coleslaw and mashed potatoes. The sandwich is the house specialty with Boogies own oven roasted turkey piled high on Texas toast, smothered in gravy. The full plate comes with homemade mashed potatoes, coleslaw and cranberry sauce.Other favorites worth noting are the meatloaf dinner and the homemade chili, served with fresh bread and choices of sour cream, cheddar cheese and onions.Little Annies Eating House517 E. Hyman Ave.925-1098Little Annies is an Aspen classic. The unpretentious nature of Little Annies makes it a great stop for grub. Theres ribs, chicken and burgers, lasagna, meat and fish. Little Annies was the first place I dined when I arrived in Aspen 13 years ago and Ive been won over ever since with the Turkey Terrific sandwich. Imagine smoked turkey breast piled onto sourdough bread with white cheddar cheese warmed on the grill. It is mouth-watering and rib sticking. The one tip I would offer is to never say no to Annies mashed potatoes. They are the best in town and luckily, they come as side dishes for most offerings, including the Turkey Terrific. Another perk about Annies is that they give away Tootsie Rolls when you get the bill.Johnny McGuires730 E. Cooper Ave.920-9255If youre a health nut, dont bother stopping in at Johnnys, where the motto is Health Food Sucks. This joint is all about big fat sandwiches doused with dressings, cheese and veggies. If youre up for the challenge, try the 220-B (roast beef, turkey, bacon, cheddar, horseradish, barbecue sauce and mayo), the Marley (grilled steak, barbecue sauce, cheddar, grilled onions and peppers and mayo) or the Trucker (grilled turkey, bacon, barbecue sauce, cheddar and mayo). Served up on white or wheat in a 6-inch or foot-long sub, Johnnys also has a satellite Lil Dill sandwich wagon in Snowmass Village.Crystal Palace Grille300 East Hyman Ave.925-4900New to the Aspen restaurant scene is the Crystal Palace Grille, which opened in the summer of 2008 after the historic Crystal Palace dinner theater closed after more than 50 years in business.Chef Brad Smith has created some savory dishes in the dining room, which is formal and expensive. But the bar menu is where youll find the locals eating hot dogs, mini sliders and hamburgers, which are ground from wagyu kobe and piedmontese meat. All aging, cutting and grinding of the beef is done on the premises.But my favorite is the short ribs served with polenta. Theyre on the bar menu, not expensive and can be split between two people.Buenos Aires Fusion308 S. Hunter St.920-7722This new Argentina restaurant has brought a taste of Buenos Aires to Aspen. Everything on the menu that I have tried has been amazing in terms of the price, quality and quantity. Ive also wanted to take a nap afterward from being so stuffed because the portions are more than healthy.The menu is extensive, starting with the empanadas, which are pastry pockets stuffed with a variety of fillings. For an appetizer, the bacon-wrapped figs in barbecue sauce are amazing and can be shared with another person. The provoleta (grilled aged provolone) also is another starter worth trying.My top three entrees range in flavor but are equally good. The Pollo Relleno is a boneless chicken breast stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese, topped with mozzarella and pancetta sauce, with a side of angel hair pasta drizzled in olive oil. Or try the Lomo de Cerdo al Limn, which is a pork tenderloin scaloppini sauted with lemon capers sauce and a side of garlic-mashed potatoes. Last but certainly not least is my personal favorite Ravioles de Calabaza. This portion of ravioli is huge and comes with pasta stuffed with butternut squash and walnuts, in a creamy rose sauce. Double Dog Brew Pub305 E. Hopkins Ave.925-3459Connected to the Steak Pit, the Double Dog Brew Pub has won the stomachs of locals, offering both a pub menu and the full steak house menu. While there are plenty of places in Aspen to woof down a burger, this is the best I have found. Thats because I can load it up with my favorites cheddar cheese, and perfectly cooked bacon and perfectly ripe avocado. The half-pounder also can be dressed up with Gorgonzola cheese or mushrooms.Also favorites among locals in the brewpub, especially in the winter, are the beer battered fish and chips, and the beef and Guinness Stew with mashed potatoes.The pub allows you to order off the Steak Pit menu and while there are plenty of excellent choices, I would recommend an appetizer the portabella mushroom stuffed with goat cheese, spinach, sun dried tomatoes served with grilled garlic crostini. Its rich, so plan on splitting it with someone.Also unique to the Pit and something that shouldnt missed is the hot fudge, which is made from a secret recipe created by Barbara Guy, the former owner of the restaurant. Current owners Bob and Cindy Glowacki dont dare share the recipe they come in personally and make it. Have it for a hot fudge sundae or on the mocha pie an Oreo cookie crust layered with mocha ice cream.The Woody Creek Tavern002 Woody Creek Road923-4585Located next to a trailer park and known for its eclectic surroundings, the taverns walls are papered with snapshots of regular patrons, including famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The menu features burgers, steaks and Mexican fare, which is tops in my book. The enchiladas are the best youll find in the valley, served with green chilies, blended cheeses in corn tortillas and covered in green chili sauce. Its served with black beans and rice. Split an order of onion rings and save room for real Key Lime pie, which is my favorite dessert and cravings for it will take me eight miles outside of Aspen just to get it here.The Sweet Life69 Wood Rd., Suite 1114, Snowmass Village923-9903There are tasty new offerings in Snowmass for the first time in many years. The highlight will likely be the Sweet Life, where you can satisfy your sweet tooth in a variety of ways.The Sweet Life is home to an eight-seat Smores table, complete with a miniature train to deliver the goods to each seat. Theres a full complement of menu items including imaginative finger foods, burgers and desserts. New starter items include Chicken Lollipops, crunchy-coated and honey-kissed chicken served with spicy and creamy buffalo dip; Corn Dog Bites served with honey-mustard dip, and Sloppy Joe Sliders, sweet and smoky chopped beef stuffed inside mini sweet buns.The Sweet Lifes new menu also includes five different burger options, seven varieties of hot dogs and 10 choices of sandwiches. Each plate is served with a choice of fries and a two-ounce milk shake shooter of the day. The Sweet Life also will offer a selection of homemade baked goods, eight different sundaes and their signature dessert The Sweet Life Fried Oreo Basket, batter-dipped, fried crisp, drizzled with chocolate syrup and sprinkled with powdered sugar.Tempranillo 165 Midland Ave., Basalt927-3342There are several restaurants in the Basalt area that extend a bit further to the Willits area which have become popular eating establishments. My two favorite are Tempranillo and Smoke Modern Barbecue.Tempranillo has proved itself with Basalts lunch and dinner crowd. Tempranillo owner Javier Gonzalez-Bringas, from Madrid, lines up a menu filled with food from Spain, Italy and the Mediterranean. The menu overflows with choices of more than 40 cold and warm tapas, which can be an entire meal in itself. I highly recommend loading up on a variety of them, including Patatas A La Brava (fried potatoes with aioli and spicy sauce); Croquetas De Jamon y Pollo (serrano ham and chicken fritters) and the Rulo De Cabra Con Cebolla Confitada y Miel (bruscetta with goat cheese, caramelized onions and honey).Also worth mentioning is Smoke Modern Barbecue, located in the Willits Town Center (technically, its in Basalt, but locals think of it as El Jebel) and its gaining a following. Its located at 241 Harris St., Willits Town Center, Basalt, 927-5158. This is a real barbecue joint with plenty of fun side dishes, including macaroni and cheese.
I cant opine about comfort food without mentioning macaroni and cheese. Locally, there are several restaurants that serve it up. Dish Aspen is the one of the newer restaurants to put it on its menu and its very good. Boogies Diner and Cache Cache also have won me over. Zanes gives you the ultimate bar version: Mac & cheese wedges, basically Kraft macaroni and cheese deep fried. Rustique Bistro offers it up with French cheese with mushrooms and truffle oil.But the top two in my book for basic mac & cheese are at Jimmys An American Restaurant and Bar, and Brunelleschis, or Brunos as the locals call it.Ive been enjoying Jimmys mac & cheese for nearly a decade and whatever is in the kitchen can be a part of your mac & cheese experience. Is it tomatoes you want? Bacon? Crab meat? Jalapeos? Crumbles of Jimmys signature meatloaf? It can all be baked right into the dish. And if you want it crispy, a sprinkling of Parmesan and breadcrumbs baked on top creates a delicious, golden brown crust. Beneath it, macaroni is drenched in creamy cheesy sauce, accented by your favorite ingredients. The basic starts at $6 and goes up depending on your ingredients.Brunos mac & cheese is a bit creamier and more expensive, ($9) but definitely worth it. It reminds me of how my mother made it, which is an element of comfort food because its partly tied to times and places in our memories that remind of us safety, joy, warmth and well, comfort.So take comfort in the fact that I have clued you in on some best feel good options in the area. Of course, there are plenty more and I trust you will stumble across them since Aspen is all about feeling good and being happy. And that starts with your taste buds. Bon Appetite.firstname.lastname@example.org