Food Matters: SO Café at the Aspen Art Museum
Before there was art at the Aspen Art Museum on Hyman Avenue, SO Café was onsite.
"We were contracted to be partners of the museum when this was still a dirt lot," explains Allen Domingos, sitting at a table in the airy dining space on the museum's third floor. "Remember the stainless-steel ping-pong table installation down there? We've been here since then—even did a reception for donors on top of the scaffolding once (that was) up. We brought shrimp cocktail up the ladders!"
Yet even now, five years this August since renowned architect Shigeru Ban's notoriously controversial basketweave building was built, SO Café seems to fly under the radar within the lunchtime landscape. Perhaps because it's located on the museum's roof deck, a lung-pumping hike up 57 concrete steps to panoramic views of Aspen Mountain, yet hidden from street level. Allen's wife and business partner, Julia Domingos, suspects that the museum may be situated just one block too far in any certain direction for some folks who work in the downtown core and have limited minutes for a midday break.
Regular visitors—myself included, since SO Café has become a breezy spot for weekday meetings—surely don't mind that the place is still somewhat of a gem hiding in plain sight. What's more, "The venue inspires artful presentation," quips Lea Tucker, local PR maven and café devotee. Since AAM lacks a permanent collection in favor of rotating exhibitions, it follows that the SO Café menu of just four to six items changes weekly. This serves a multifaceted purpose: keep diners returning frequently and stoke the chefs' creative whims.
"Typically we write the menu based on about five factors: food trends, time of year, weather for the next week, what is harvested now, what's going on in town," Allen shares. "We're not trying to be on the cutting edge; we're trying to make food that makes people happy. A play on comfort food."
The Domingoses have studied their loyal audience over the years, too.
"I knew that the first week of January people wanted (lighter fare)," says Julia, who concocted a vegan carrot soup for cleansers. "We contemplate that we cover all the bases each week. Except for the gooey, like an oversized burger."
The Domingoses, who founded Epicure Catering in 2001 and run the operation concurrently, can't cook burgers or fries, anyway. The café's modest kitchen lacks a vent hood. Thus there's no grill nor deep-fryer, either; the museum didn't want stinky food odors permeating the sterile galleries anyway.
Because of these limitations, dishes balance hot and cold: Kandinsky-colorful salads, pressed panini sandwiches, wraps, soups and stews, Indian curries, dips and crudités, burrata with crackers, quesadillas and the occasional charcuterie platter with a fat slab of luscious triple-cream cheese and smattering of dried fruit and nuts. The menu is posted every Tuesday (AAM is closed Monday).
Some enduring staples: warm, flaky croissants; a granola-yogurt bowl; a decadent, ganache-frosted espresso-walnut brownie; Rock Canyon Coffee; Dragonfly Jun (similar to kombucha but brewed with green tea instead of black) and a restrained menu of Colorado craft beer and wine by the glass. (Après-ski specials from 3 to 4 p.m. daily slash all beverage prices in half—one of the better deals in Fat City, no doubt.) And there's always a kid's plate, which includes a cult-classic s'mores bar.
SO Café sources primarily from Farm Runners, the Hotchkiss-based produce and artisanal product delivery service. "This time of year it can be sparse, but we can at least base one or two dishes around what's harvested locally," Allen says. Currently that means cool-weather produce—orchard apples, rutabagas, carrots, cabbage, radish, beets—and greenhouse-grown basil, all of which lend themselves to eye-catching arrangement.
"It's an intrinsic thing to me," says Julia, a Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park-trained chef with an art and dance background clearly reflected in her composed plates. (Julia is from Columbus, Ohio; Allen from New Orleans, hence the occasional Cajun-influenced dish.) "It's feminine food. And I've always done that, not too heavy, and colorful and bright."
Lisa DeLosso, AAM chief development officer, picks the shrimp curry as her favorite, with special mention to the roast beef and blue cheese or beef and pimento cheese panini. Café manager Mary Daly, the smiling face of SO Café on most days, concurs about the shrimp curry, and gives kudos to the Reuben sandwich, Waldorf salad and that rich, caffeinated brownie. Julia typically craves udon noodle soup with Asian vegetables. "That would be my last meal!" she exclaims.
Allen's choice: the everything-spiced salmon salad, ever more popular in recent years. Essentially it's a deconstructed lox bagel with cucumbers, tomatoes, pickled onion, capers, and signature seedy spice blend encrusting the fish. Last week Julia served a hearty veggie-legume chili with delicata squash and avocado, which got an umami upgrade from dried, ground shiitakes and a body boost from bulgur wheat.
Turkey-pesto panini on chewy ciabatta is layered with winter-greens pesto, fresh mozzarella and roasted artichoke relish—a bite-size hit at the latest public exhibition opening, which SO Café always prepares in anticipation of as many as 400 guests. Oil-cured tuna fattoush salad with garbanzo beans and dried olives contained surprise chunks of sumac-grilled pita, plus pomegranate seeds and lemon-dill vinaigrette. Last summer, Julia sent a nod to monks visiting AAM via Tibetian-inspired curry (perhaps unsurprisingly, they ordered sandwiches).
Fittingly, the Domingoses aim to elevate interest in palate-pleasing food that is at once familiar yet intriguing.
"It's fun to try to make it educational," Allen says, referencing ingredients such as Middle Eastern za'atar spice and the fattoush salad as expanding horizons subtly. "It is 75 percent local people who come in all the time, and we want to keep it interesting for them. The menus are driven by our love for food."
Get a taste of what he means by perusing the artsy, overhead food photography from SO Café on Epicure Catering's Instagram page: @aspenepicure.