New Basalt restaurant fills void from Taqueria’s departure
The Aspen Times
A new restaurant in Basalt has roots that are as interesting as its food.
Cocina del Valle was incubated by donors working through the nonprofit Manaus Fund’s Valley Settlement Project. The program provided financial backing and expertise that helped 12 Latinos form a cooperative that launched a catering business based in Carbondale in 2014. With the support of Manaus Fund founder and Roaring Fork Valley philanthropist George Stranahan, the cooperative expanded last month to a restaurant with a large enough kitchen to handle catering, as well.
Cocina del Valle opened quietly April 24 in Basalt in the Ute Center building, also known as Gold River Plaza, on Two Rivers Road. The owners planned a soft opening designed to let them iron out any wrinkles in their operations before drawing too much attention, but word-of-mouth traveled quickly by the time they opened on a Friday night.
“People were right there waiting at 5 o’clock,” manager Mario Alverde said.
The space they rented has been a graveyard for restaurants. Most recently it was the home of Frying Pan Kitchen and Eurasia. Neither lasted more than a few months. Everything from a bakery to a higher-end restaurant has tried its luck there before.
Alverde said he and his partners are aware of the past problems, but they’re unfazed. Offer people something good, and they will find you, he said.
“It’s about service, price and food,” Alverde said.
Cocina del Valle is filling the void left by the departure of Taqueria el Nopal, which closed last year when its ramshackle home was torn down for the construction of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s new Innovation Center and office building.
Alverde said the cooperative initially considered opening in Carbondale but looked elsewhere because of all the competition. Manaus Fund Executive Director Jon Fox-Rubin said he was informed of the vacant restaurant space on Two Rivers Road by Basalt Town Manager Mike Scanlon. The cooperative checked the space and performed a marketing study. It determined there was demand in Basalt because of the void left downtown by the folding of Taqueria el Nopal.
The cooperative hired Alejandro Reyes, the former head cook at Taqueria el Nopal, who was affectionately regarded by some as the hardest-working man in the midvalley restaurant business.
Lunches at Cocina del Valle feature food such as tacos for as little as $2.50 each and tortas for $7.50 to $9. Dinner entrees range from $10 to $22.
The restaurant is open seven days per week. It has a liquor license, and Alverde guarantees that customers will like the margaritas. The restaurant started by serving just dinner but has since expanded to lunch. Soon it aims to open for breakfast and to provide take-out food possibly as early as 6 a.m. for workers heading to job sites.
Alverde said the restaurant isn’t just Mexican food. Its menu bills it as offering “The Best Latin Food in the Valley.”
The restaurant also plans to offer interesting specials that it develops with the help of its consulting chef, Stanley Coriat, originally of Morocco.
All 12 members of the cooperative, a mixture of men and women, are helping at the restaurant as prep cooks, cooks, wait staff and bartenders. Alverde said he has worked in a variety of jobs, including as a construction supervisor, but never before in the restaurant industry.
The cooperative members make their gratitude to Stranahan apparent. A story about the roots of the restaurant on the dinner menu mentions Stranahan twice and refers to the Manaus Fund’s efforts.
The Valley Settlement Project is best known for getting children prepared for kindergarten, but it also promotes adult education and engagement in communities. One of the prime goals is to increase family economic security and community engagement among Latinos.
Fox-Rubin said the project enlists Spanish-speaking parents as volunteer mentors in classrooms. They volunteer four days per week. On the fifth day of the week, the mentors go through training with the Manaus Fund on issues ranging from adult education to financial literacy.
In a talk with Stranahan, one group of mentors said they were interested in starting a business and achieving financial independence. Stranahan asked them what they wanted to do, according to Fox-Rubin.
“A lot of them said they love food and asked, ‘How about a catering business or restaurant?’” Fox-Rubin said.
Stranahan and the Manaus Fund found donors who made “program-related investments” that helped incubate the cooperative. A catering business — and later the restaurant — was born. Assistance from the Manaus Fund didn’t stop there.
“None of the families were really restaurant people,” Fox-Rubin said.
So the Manaus Fund established an advisory committee that works with the cooperative on its business plan and operating issues. The advisers include some of the top restaurateurs in the valley, including Mark Fischer, founder of Town and the Pullman; Ismael Argueta-Cabrera of Taqueria el Nopal; Charlie Chacos of Village Smithy; Patti Stranahan, longtime former operator of the Woody Creek Tavern; and committee Chairman Jim Moser, who brings business expertise.
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