About halfway between Lander and Laramie, Rawlins is the site of the Wyoming Frontier Prison, under lock and key since 1901. As it advertises, “come hang with us” on a tour of this often brutal prison’s history.
As I pull up to Rose’s Lariat, a traditional Mexican place on the edge of Rawlins, I ask a guy laden with takeout what’s good. “Anything smothered in green,” he replies. Thus armed, I spot a number of menu items so described, including chimichangas, stuffed sopapillas and my choice, a beef and bean burrito. It arrives in three minutes, and I savour the green chile’s lovely, slow burn as I tunnel down through the sauce and surrounding ingredients to the burrito below. The restaurant only takes cash, not a big deal considering my fairly substantial meal costs less than $5. Situated in a faded blue, trailer-like structure, Rose’s tiny interior is surprisingly and probably unintentionally retro, with one small table and a dozen vinyl-covered stools at a pink countertop. To use the cubbyhole bathroom, you have to first walk through the kitchen, where the cooks are gabbing in Spanish.
By the way, I haven’t eaten at Su Casa Café in nearby Sinclair, but a former student at the University of Wyoming says friends drive all the way out from Laramie to eat the Mexican food there. 705 East Lincoln Avenue, Sinclair. Daily 11 am-7 pm
If you’re looking for another good ethnic lunch place in Rawlins, try Anong’s Thai Cuisine (also a sister location in Laramie). For a light meal, order a substantial clay bowl of Tom Ka soup, a lemony-coconut concoction with big chunks of chicken and mushroom. Hungrier? Fill your plate during the popular lunchtime buffet ($10.50) or order a spicy eggplant dish with your choice of stir-fried meats or tofu.
Anong’s Thai Cuisine
210 5 Street, Rawlins
Monday to Saturday 11 am-3 pm and 5 pm-9 pm
Laramie is the only place in Wyoming with a university, but college tastes don’t seem to dominate, at least from my paltry sampling of the city’s cuisine and culture; you can walk around the downtown centre in 10 minutes. The most striking thing, for me, is Laramie’s altitude of 7,165 feet, almost 2,000 feet higher than Denver and certainly one of the highest true cities in the U.S. I certainly notice the effects of that elevation, sleeping in the back of my car at -8 Celsius (18 Fahrenheit) the first week of October.
People seem surprised there’s a vegetarian restaurant in Laramie. But on a Saturday night, Sweet Melissa Cafe is packed with young, old, students…. heck, just regular folks. These customers don’t seem fixated on getting their daily intake of seitan or tempeh, though you can find such protein in stir fries and the like. They just like good food, served hot and fast, and Sweet Melissa certainly delivers. It doesn’t take big culinary risks; this is still Wyoming, after all. So you’ll find recognizable dishes like big green chile burritos (filled with beans instead of meat) vegetarian lasagna and black bean tamales. My eggplant parmigiana typifies this, with a crisp Parmesan layer over slices of eggplant, tomato sauces and spaghetti—served piping hot. Washed down with a pint of rye IPA from the attached Front Street Tavern, it adds up to a fine vegetarian comfort meal. Sweet Melissa gets character points for its cozy space, with hardwood floors and old brick walls, plus freight trains that go hurtling by just across the street.
Seeking a good, hearty, no-frills breakfast at an affordable price? Look no further than J’s Prairie Rose Cafe, in the heart of historic downtown Laramie but not far from ranchland Wyoming, judging by the sea of cowboy and baseball hats and hunting fatigues. By 7:30, the wood-paneled place is filling up fast, with breakfast dishes flying off the grill in this efficiently run operation. Prairie Rose serves a monster breakfast burrito, a nice stack of pancakes and tasty chicken-fried steak and eggs. But how can I resist the special—a slice of prime rib with eggs, hash browns and toast for only $7.99? The medium-well-done prime rib is the hook, but the real winner is the hot, crispy hash browns.
J’s Prairie Rose Cafe
410 South 2 Street, Laramie
Monday to Thursday 7 am-3 pm, Friday 7 am-8 pm, Sunday 7 am- noon
There’s a decidedly different vibe a couple of blocks away. Coal Creek Coffee Co. has that college, Internet-cafe feel, with a pumpy soundtrack and students at small tables bent intently over their laptops while sipping from oversized cups of coffee. The downtown location is a great space, with high ceilings, old brick walls and well-scuffed wood floors. But the gleaming showpiece is much more modern—a towering silver Elektra espresso machine that steadily doles out 21-to-23 second espresso pulls. Besides fine coffee from its nearby roastery and a good selection of loose teas, Coal Creek has many tempting fresh eats and treats, ranging from daily quiches and croissants to mouth-watering pecan pie and raspberry tea cake. It’s all prepared in house, which is delightfully different than most coffee houses.
Coal Creek Coffee
110 East Grand Avenue (downtown) and 2317 Grand Avenue, Laramie
Daily 6 am-11 pm