Sunday, February 7, 2010

Vacation time -Colorado

Ah, vacation. That sliver of time we all look forward to. The reward we give ourselves for months of hard work. It seems there really isn’t enough play time in life after the age of, say, 10. Lisa and I haven’t had a real vacation in years. Sure, we’ve whisked away for a weekend here or there and we’ve certainly done our parenting duty by making sure our Floridian family has seen Mickey numerous times, but to get on a plane and escape the worries of the daily grind is just something that has eluded us. Well, no longer. We decided some months ago, at the urging of our never-seen-snow-before daughter, that we were going somewhere so that Olivia could make snow angels and go sledding. This led us to Colorado. It wasn’t by pure coincidence that we chose Colorado. Some dear friends of ours –Rob, Christine and their two boys, moved to a little town between Boulder and Denver last spring so we took them up on their numerous offers for a visit.

I’m not going to say there aren’t nicer folks on the planet than our hosts simply because I have yet to meet all 6.7 billion people here on Earth, but if they exist, I haven’t met them. Rob and Chris bought their home with house guests in mind. Their 5 bedroom house has a finished basement with a bedroom, living area –complete with flat panel TV and separate bathroom –and they love to have company. This was perfect. For 5 cold January days, this was our base from which we explored the rugged Colorado countryside and, yes, Olivia got to make her snow angel. And while I could go on to detail the fun we had in our adventures from Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park, Boulder, Ft. Collins and Wyoming, I really really want to tell you about the food.

Boulder was our first stop. After a visit to the Butterfly Pavilion (essentially a bug museum) we stopped in a little southwestern café called Zolo Grill for lunch. As always, gets credit for this find. Being packed on a Saturday for lunch is a good sign that the food is worth waiting for –and it was. For starters, we wanted some chips with queso fundido (melted cheese).

This is a fairly common southwestern menu item. Lots of liberty can be taken with the recipes for queso fundido but here, goat cheese and roasted garlic are mixed with traditional Mexican cheese to create a spectacular appetizer. Warm tortillas and house made chips are served along with a red pepper jelly. I could have eaten several helpings of this and called it a day. Next I had the blue corn fried oysters with house slaw and jalapeño crema.

Coming from the gulf coast of Florida, I found the oysters to be a little small but they were no less tasty than any other. The blue corn crust was light and added a great crispy texture that hid the creamy oyster underneath. My Chicken enchiladas that followed were equally perfect with that deep flavor of the southwest that can’t be reproduced on my side of the Mississippi. We had a terrific lunch then perused the shops and galleries that downtown Boulder had to offer. What a perfect day.

One of my goals of the trip was to drive the hour-and-a-half north to the Wyoming border just so I could say I’d been to Wyoming. There were only 5 states left on my list to see (now only 4 –I crossed Alaska and Hawaii off the list years ago). The plan was to get up early and make the drive alone so as not to disturb the two families but when I brought this to everyone’s attention, they all wanted to go. Aside from the backdrop of the majestic Rockies to the west, the drive was unimpressive –and so was Cheyenne. This prairie city is a small cropping of buildings and convergence of railroad lines. I’ve never seen the movie Natural Born Killers but it could have easily been filmed in Cheyenne. We stayed long enough to fill the tank and use the bathroom and promptly left. Lunch was in the downtown square of Ft. Collins. Coopersmith’s Pub was the perfect place for a bite. The brew and ale house serves a hearty selection of their specially crafted beers as well as the standard fare one would expect in this type of haunt with a few unique specialties. Things like BBQ brisket, Prime Rib sandwiches and smoked turkey are standard but Applewood smoked salmon and brie quesadillas or the house made pretzels are not. Their Highland Cottage Pie caught my attention immediately. Beer and herb marinated lamb served in a pastry bowl with vegetables and topped with mashed potatoes, this was a Sheppard’s Pie/Pot Pie hybrid and I loved it.

Chuck wagon fare as I envisioned it. I have to give a shout out to my old colleague and friend, Jon, who dropped in on no notice when I called his cell and surprised him. I’m glad I got to see him. Lunch was great.

Across from the pub was an ice rink in the center of the square. This did not go unnoticed and soon Olivia, Christopher and Matthew all donned skates and were sliding around the ice. Growing up in Florida, I have never had the opportunity to ice skate and I can honestly say it has zero appeal for me. I grew up diving, spear fishing and water skiing and I think that’s where I’ll leave my passion for the outdoors. Still, the smiles on those kid’s faces will be a memory that I will carry forever. I sat and watched happily.

We saved our special night out for Denver and a landmark restaurant. While there are finer restaurants in Denver, there is none more unique or old west than The Buckhorn Exchange.I can describe this place no better than their own website:

“Denver’s original steakhouse, The Buckhorn Exchange is located in the city’s oldest neighborhood, just 5-minutes from downtown Denver ... This National Historic Landmark and Western Museum has been serving the finest in Old West fare since 1893.

Prime grade beef steaks, buffalo prime rib, elk, salmon, quail, game hen, and succulent baby-back pork ribs are just some of the marvelous offerings on the Buckhorn menu. Exotic appetizers such as alligator tail, rattlesnake and buffalo sausage are available, and no dinner is complete without the house specialty, Rocky Mountain Oysters.”

After reading about this place online, I had to try it. I have to say, my entrée was superb. I chose medium rare elk tenderloin and 2 quail.

Both were succulent and perfectly grilled. The rest of the dining experience was a bit underwhelming though. From the salads to the appetizers (Olivia’s gator –which she loves –wasn’t very good and my rattlesnake was hidden in a flavorless dip), we were quite unimpressed. When I saw the menu, I immediately knew we were going to have trouble finding Lisa something to eat. The epitome of picky eaters, they had little to offer her but she settled on a pot roast and she loved it. I was glad.

Even if our dinner was a mixed bag, the experience is incomparable. Every corner of the restaurant is a tribute to the old west. From the wagon on the patio, to the magnificent taxidermy heads that adorn the walls to the guns and other various items on display, The Buckhorn Exchange reminds us in a modern way how rugged life out here once was.

If you’re not in the mood to spend a small fortune on a dinner, I recommend a trip to the second floor bar that has an authentic parlor seating area to just relax and take in the museum feel to the place.

The next morning, we packed up and left our friend’s house. Vacation over for them too, they were getting back to their morning routine of work and school as we left. Our love and gratitude for Rob and Christine Balzano’s friendship and hospitality can’t be expressed in words. It was a special week for all of us.

Stay tuned next year as we are planning a ski week in Steamboat. I’ll be lucky to survive that.


John said...


It was great meeting you during your travels to Colorado. I look forward to the opportunity of our paths crossing again.

John Farley - Rob's Neighbor

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Becky said...

Sounds like a great vacation filled with outstanding food.