Food Matters: Beach dreaming at Bonnie’s on Aspen Mountain
Last call for tacos and togetherness on Bonnie’s deck mid-mountain
On the last sunny, snowy Saturday in March, Tom Kennedy and friends are posted up on the deck at Bonnie’s. Make that Bonnie’s Beach House, the pseudo pop-up that slings zesty Mexican flavors at 10,400 feet above sea level on Aspen Mountain. For about four or five weekends, hot tacos have heralded a much-anticipated season: springtime. After a long, strange winter, locals and visitors are ready to flock — socially distanced, of course — and feel transported to an exotic locale that for most of us is but a distant memory: pre-COVID normalcy.
Kennedy strikes a new acquaintance as a diehard skier and genial, seen-it-all kind of guy. Having recently wrapped the Aspen Snowmass Town Race Series, at 40 years considered the oldest ongoing recreational competition series among ski areas in North America, Kennedy sports a silver racing jacket covered in logo patches, flowing white locks, and an inviting smile. He’s lived in Aspen for five good years but has been coming here to ski for over four decades. While the coronavirus pandemic has added a veil of uncertainty, discomfort, and difficulty to our winter 2020-21 season, at least we have skiing, he says. Plus, tacos on the mountain!
“I just go by flavor,” Kennedy admits. “All of the ingredients are fresh, the tortillas are lightly grilled, the shrimp is firm, and the accoutrements —”
Fellow Town Race Series stalwart David Sturt finishes the sentence: “— Fresh guac, a little bit of coleslaw, and enough shrimp (for) two tacos (on each tortilla).”
Ringing up at $16 after tax, a basket of three overstuffed tacos makes a hearty meal, yet one that is light enough to return with ease to the slopes for afternoon schussing. Thought to have been created in Mexico in the 1800s, tacos are the very definition of simple food. Some etymologists believe they were invented by Mexican silver miners. In Aspen, home to the 1894 discovery of the largest silver nugget in the world at Smuggler Mine and today to a growing Latino community, tacos translate as food for the soul.
Tacos certainly help to soften the sharp edges of the past 13 months. They remind me of the exotic beaches I haven’t visited in as many moons. (This year’s Aspen Snowmass 100 Day Pin teases us further with Caribbean teal-tinted enamel.) Instead, 2021 is the new age of solo gondola rides, longer lift lines, camouflaged faces, and muffled voices. We crave community but are forced to separate. Gone is a dedicated lane for single skiers, yet it is perfectly acceptable to steal a four-seat chair for oneself.
Meanwhile, lunch (or breakfast, or both) at Bonnie’s provides a rare reason to gather among familiar faces, outdoors and socially distanced. (The dining room indoors remains open, too.) Music blaring from the speakers spans rock to pop to electronic and patrons range in age from toddlers to the centenarian Klaus Obermeyer. Four-year bartender Lauren “LP” Pearson maintains that Bonnie’s is, still, “My favorite place in the world.”
The pandemic may have widened the gap between Aspen’s two on-mountain eateries, vibes-wise. Unlike the Sundeck, which looks large and uninviting with so many tables absent — more so with a security guard to govern the number of people admitted into the dining area, where tables are topped with plastic to-go containers — Bonnie’s is an oasis of country cooking and camaraderie. Why buy salad in a box to eat in an artificially scented warming hut (where people with parched palates must go nowadays, since water fountains are blocked inside the Sundeck) when you can dine amid the homespun atmosphere of Bonnie’s?
Now, the end of a most memorable season in the history of skiing is drawing to a close. The slopes turn to slush long before sunset skiing rolls around. The drive-thru vaccination “lab” in the parking lot of the Benedict Music Tent sees a fair number of folks in ski gear. Despite such progress, just last week, on March 24, Aspen regressed, moving back to orange from yellow on the COVID-19 dial. Restaurants, for a brief spell operating at a much larger occupancy than has been possible since this whole ordeal started in March 2020, have been forced to backtrack. It is an obvious reminder that we’re not in the clear — yet.
Three weeks of skiing and snowboarding remain: Aspen Highlands closes April 4; Aspen Mountain, April 18; Snowmass, April 25. Bonnie’s closes April 11.
Out on the deck, cook Onias Zelaya operates the grill, which is crowded with sauté pans bubbling with marinated steak, shrimp, and corn tortillas charring slightly. He assembles tacos to order within minutes, and the scent of searing meat and seafood greets all whom walk onto the deck.
Wearing a t-shirt, cap, and shiny blue Wayfarer-style shades with reflective lenses, Zelaya is busy shaking pans and spooning salsa over taco fillings. He’s been here the past few weekends, “Only when it (is sunny),” he quips, stretching his arms wide toward the sky.
Closing April 11
North American Trail
While Mother Nature seems keen to cooperate for one final weekend of Bonnie’s Beach House — sunshine and high 50s are forecast — behind-the-scenes workers are due for a break.
“If we can get through this next week, we’ll be OK,” says Jim “Rosebud” Rose, surveying the lunch crowd last weekend. “It’s been a rough year, man. It’s a lot of work!”
In addition to hauling all of the food and supplies up to Bonnie’s (and shepherding trash back down the mountain) via snowcat a few times a week after the lifts close, Rosebud handles all maintenance. “I spent about three days crawling around on my belly, running power to the igloos,” he says of the six clear, domed structures that seat parties up to eight with a reservation (walk-ins when available). Each is equipped with a hanging lantern and heaters connected to Bonnie’s power source; Rosebud added snowflake-printed tablecloths to the ceilings, makeshift shields from the intense, high-alpine sun rays.
While the taco operation doesn’t create any extra strain on his grocery haul, Rosebud notes that it does imbue the deck with an island vibe known to cure even the most aggressive case of the pandemic blues.
“This being COVID, this is pretty nice, to be outside,” Kennedy agrees. “I had tacos today. And I’ll probably have tacos tomorrow.”
Shrimp or steak?
“Shrimp — I’m in a rut!” he continues, with an easy laugh. “They serve ’em with lemon. Very fresh and tasty.”
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