Finding lunchtime fulfillment in Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Those with a hearty appetite and a hankering for community head to Aspen's Hickory House for their annual Thanksgiving community meal.

ASPEN Several years ago, my wife went crazy. Certifiably nuts. And, as usually happens with these things, the impact was felt as much by those in her immediate vicinity as by Candice herself. I found my life considerably altered by my wifes lunacy. Instead of being contented with bowls of pasta and pints of Ben & Jerrys Phish Food, I was trained to get by on rice (brown, steamed) and kale (leafy, green, supposedly very good for you).Did I mention that Candice was health-crazed, and not the other kind of crazed? I should have. Her obsession with all things organic, grain-fed, antibiotic-deprived and hormone-removed has had, I am sure, beneficial effects. OK, so those dinners of quinoa and chard, sweet potatoes and beets didnt provide the gastronomic satisfaction of cheeseburgers and fries but, to my adored wifes credit, they kept me heart attack-free (44 years and counting), my hairline receding at a barely noticeable clip, and lowered my cholesterol level from dire to something I could actually joke about.The most pronounced fallout of this diet-regime change, of course, was that lunch took on a whole new importance in my life. Knowing that dinner might not sustain me through the night, lunch had to step up to the plate, so to speak. (An aside: Wasnt this a good thing? Dont those studies that compare the abysmal condition of Americans with the robust health of cigarette-smoking, wine-drinking, butter-chomping, French-speaking French people always come down to the fact that the French eat their big meal at midday, rather than at night? Yes, they do.) Lunch was no longer merely a stopgap mini-meal to get me to dinner. It needed to be a feast that would get me through the latter half of the work day, past that little hump of grains-and-greens that makes a mockery of the word meal, fuel me through the night and on into the next day. (A word here about breakfast. I barely eat one. Given the above, that might seem as if I have my own form of mental illness. But I dont wake up hungry, and with my appetite, which has been called prodigious as well as ungodly, bottomless, and Jeezum Crow, Stewy, how many donuts have you had? I figure its best not to eat on those rare occasions when Im not hungry.)And so, I expect a lot of my lunch, to fill the shoes of three daily repasts. Not exactly an easy task. But Ive put in the requisite work (gulp, stuff, cram, digest, repeat), and located those noontime meals to be had in Aspen that pull an extra share of the load.Hickory House, full rack of ribs with all the sidesThe surest sign of a big serving of food, from Aspen to Istanbul, is construction workers. The coveralled and tool-belted dutifully head to Aspens BBQ joint not because of location they have to haul their plumbers butts practically to the S-curves but because of the Hickory Houses ribs, a full rack of them. And fries. And baked beans. And cole slaw. And Texas toast. All of which are included in the Full Rack Special, served at a discounted price on Tuesdays and Thursdays. (Other days, opt for the pulled pork sandwich, and upgrade it with the Deal, which gets you potato and slaw. But trust me, theres no need to upgrade to the Beast, which offers a hog-sized portion of meat. The regular sandwich will get you where you need to go.)Lest you think all I care about is quantity of food, let me set the record straight. The Hick Houses rack, in addition to spanning one end of the plate to the other, is beyond delicious. The words that usually come to the lips of my fellow diners and myself are genius, brilliant and, on occasion, miraculous. (The restaurants literature says the ribs come from pigs from Denmark; the notions that those pigs are fed a diet entirely of tulips and are made to sleep only on one side of their bodies, to leave the other side extra tender, would have to be considered mere rumor.) The service is first-rate and prompt. And, yes, they serve foods other than pork-derived, but I wouldnt go there. I once had the Friday lunch special, of fish & chips, and if nothing else, I hope my life can serve as an example to others not to duplicate that mistake. Rule to eat by: If a restaurant has a food item in its name, get that. (The official name here is Hickory House Ribs.)Fun thing to do while waiting for your food: Count the number of male patrons. Then count the number of female diners. On a good day, the ratio can be 20-1. Also a good sign when youre asking a lot of your lunch.Cantina, soup and saladSoup and salad is the choice for when you want a light lunch, right? (Dont ask me; Ive never been so inclined.) With an adjustment or two, though, the Cantinas version of soup and salad is a grande meal.First, pick your soup; I usually go for the pork posole, black bean, or chicken tortilla, all of them tasty and filling. Then you upgrade with the rice-and-salad option. Finally, dont forget to go through at least one basket of chips and salsa.

Jour de Fte, the Duo plateIts salad, again … sort of. At Jour de Fte, in addition to the numerous daily choices (pastas, stews, meats, etc.), there is always the Duo option your choice of two salads from the case. But here, salad includes tuna, pasta, mozzarella-tomato, and curry chicken. And they dont skimp on the portions. Dont worry too much about the fact that there arent many greens in selections; a decent-sized green salad is included with all the plates. And a hunk of bread. So the smart diner can get a tuna sandwich, a hardy side of pasta salad (thats heavy on the artichokes as well), and some greens. And if thats not enough, move up to the self-explanatory Trio plate.Taqueria Sayulita, burritoIts hard to find, located in a barely marked, underground space on the Hyman Avenue Mall. The ambience is … what ambience? Its a night club space (Club Chelsea) that has been cleaned up from the night before, but otherwise untouched. But lay your teeth on Sayulitas hefty chicken burrito, and youve found the most authentic Mexican food to be had in Aspen. Its served with a small salad, which may not add to the authenticity but is welcome nonetheless. Like any good Mexican spot, the diner is greeted with baskets of chips and salsa; Sayulitas salsa is dynamite.

Tasters, the Mangia subEleven dollars for a sandwich? Yes, but before you let the price scare you into getting a mere slice of pizza, and spending the rest of the day with your growling stomach reminding you of your poor decision, consider the Mangia at Tasters: 12 inches of ham, cappicola, salami, and pepperoni yes, the Big Four of the Italian deli meats plus provolone and all the sub veggies, piled thick in an Italian roll that is, by the standards of Colorado, quite respectable. (There is actually a detectable crustiness to it.) Softening the blow of the price, the sandwich comes with a bag of chips.They also offer a six-inch version of the Mangia, which Ive never understood. I mean, after eating one full-size Mangia, Ive never felt the need to go in for more. You dont suppose theyre suggesting the half-sub in place of the foot-long? Whod want that?Oh, yeah. Normal people.

J-Bar, turkey clubFor a refined establishment, the J-Bar goes a little wild with its turkey club. Thank goodness. The standard club turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato doesnt cut it here; they add hummus. And avocado. And Havarti cheese. On a croissant. Nice. Theres a big serving of the J-Bars top-notch fries included. Sometimes, a kindly server will offer the equally tasty sweet potato fries; if so, I recommend accepting, for a change of pace. I definitely do not recommend taking the salad option over fries. Thats a suckers bet. But do dip a basket into the snack barrel, and warm up with a spicy mix of pretzels, sesame sticks and corn nuts. If Ive left any of the corn nuts.Big Wrap, Mexican wrap and chips with guacamoleFor those wondering what the difference is between a wrap and a burrito, I have the answer. Burritos come with free chips and salsa; with a wrap, chips and salsa cost extra.The Big Wraps Mexican is loaded: beans, choice of meat or guacamole, rice, salsa, sour cream, cheese. It sounds like enough, but I always find that if I dont spring for the chips, I regret the decision. Besides, a burrito, by whatever name, is never complete without something crunchy on the side.


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