Food Matters: Castle Creek Café is a tasteful gem in an unlikely location
Allen Cutler has eaten at the same restaurant in Aspen twice daily for three years. Remarkably, he’s not sick of the food. Not even close, he says, because Castle Creek Café offers a unique menu of two different entrées (always one vegan) and from-scratch soups, plus side dishes, a bountiful salad bar, and build-yourself burger bar (also with veggie options) every day of the month. The recipes must number in the hundreds.
Cutler, 77 and retired, doesn’t cook, so finding affordable, healthful and convenient meals at reasonable prices is important. Plus he takes his 8-year-old “loaner granddaughter” Kayleigh Flynn out to eat after skating club practice at the Aspen Recreation Center — Cutler started playing ice hockey at age 75; she’s a figure skater — three times per week.
“It’s a real gem, I think,” says Cutler, between bites of a hefty BLT during lunch one Thursday. “It surprises me at dinner — they’ll be serving ahi tuna steak or shrimp scampi, and nobody’s here!”
Not quite nobody, but the 65-seat venue is rarely jam-packed. AVH nutrition director Kristy Bates estimates that the Castle Creek Café dining room serves approximately 150 entrees for lunch and 80 for dinner, not including breakfast items and grab-and-go snacks. In addition to the café’s diverse menu and staff, Bates has overseen all AVH clinical operations of nutrition services for the past four years, which includes room service-style delivery to patients among the 25-bed designated Critical Access Hospital.
Temporary residents and hospital staff are fortunate to have this venue onsite, but a quick glance around the dining room shows an equal proportion of folks in plain clothes to scrubs. Castle Creek Café is quiet, peaceful. There’s ample space and natural light (plus 25 more seats outside in warm weather). For years it has been popular among locals in the know: City of Aspen employees, police, paramedics, ski patrollers, construction workers, and health and wellness professionals. Bates adds that many guests show up in ski gear, which makes sense considering the casual cafeteria vibe and plentiful parking just steps away.
Menus are crafted with a focus on well-rounded nutrition: a balance of protein, starch, vegetables, fruit and dairy, keeping added sugar and sodium in check. For example, this week (Jan. 16 to 23) features chicken or eggplant Parmesan; cashew chicken with fried rice; shrimp fajitas; spaghetti squash with mushroom ragù, and pineapple-pork or sweet potato tacos.
Meatless Mondays have been a boon to the Aspen area’s plant-based contingent for years (fish or seafood instead, plus the vegan selection), and the soup bar with 60-plus house-made soups per month is worth repeat visits. In fact, Castle Creek Café bested two-time returning champion Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop just a week ago at the Soupsköl 2.0 contest held at the Aspen Art Museum. Its winning concoction: roasted carrot-ginger soup with toasted coconut — a vegan creation that will be served next at the café on Jan. 23 for the standard bowl price of $3.75.
“There are a few crowd-pleasers that I don’t ever take off menu, like the bento beef; Mediterranean foods like shawarma, gyro, souvlaki; turkey pot pie. Taco Tuesdays, sometimes,” Bates says. “We try to switch it up, and every week offer really healthy options. But on Jan. 24 we have fried chicken and macaroni and cheese (as well as) a chickpea patty as a vegan alternative.”
Castle Creek Café also serves meals to inmates at the Pitkin County Jail — a contract held for decades. “It’s been a strong partnership,” says Bates, adding that she believes that such affiliation is rare. “There was a rumor that when Charlie Sheen was in jail here, he complimented the food.”
New for 2020, Bates and AVH’s new dietician, Lauren Mitchell, who moved here from Ohio two months ago, rebranded an educational community series as “Dietician Demos.” Every second Thursday of the month, the duo hosts a lunchtime seminar on a crucial topic (see sidebar, this page). More than 30 people showed up to the first event in January, “Kick the Sugar,” to learn about various types of sugar sources, and how to determine which ones might be added to food by examining food labels. The demonstration portion showcased Bates preparing gluten-free, vegan carrot cake protein bars using freshly milled oat flour (simply whiz oats in a food processor) and grated carrots.
February: Heart Health
Thursday, Feb. 13, at 12-1 p.m.
Free, including treats
Aspen Valley Hospital
Oden Conference Center
In addition to these events (next up: Heart Health Month, offering dark chocolate), Castle Creek Café is focused on ordering more organic, non-GMO ingredients and sustainable seafood, as well as continuing its mission of waste reduction and composting.
Come spring, Bates will again tend a garden of salad greens and herbs. “The cool thing is that the soil used to grow those greens came from the landfill that we send our compost to,” she says. “In a roundabout way, we’re getting some of it back.”
For his part, Cutler keeps returning to the café, a community resource — one yet discovered by a wider population. He ticks off favorite dishes easily: the steak sandwich, beer-battered cod, clam chowder, and Italian wedding soup, because of the meatballs.
“I don’t like chicken or turkey,” Cutler shares, while I tear flaky, golden crust off the top of a personal pot pie about 5 inches in diameter. “If there’s nothing on the menu I like, I can always get a hamburger.”
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With so much uncertainty still around travel, events, celebrations and plans in general, spontaneity has taken on a whole new meaning.