Like many of the area towns, Buena Vista (pronounced Beeyoona by locals) combines the holy trinity of mountain biking and river running or fly fishing the upper Arkansas River. Locals and visitors can also develop an appetite by running up one of the nearby 14,000-foot mountains.
I generally research my road-food stops in advance, to maximize the odds of hitting the best eateries. But occasionally, I like to wing it, which often means following the old formula of looking for the most parked vehicles. This leads me to Evergreen Cafe just as the rush for the $5 breakfast special is ending. That gives me room to find a counter seat near the grill, which provides added entertainment as a new cook is being schooled by the exacting owner. On the second try, my over-easy eggs pass approval and arrive perfectly cooked, along with a pancake and sausage patty. The sharp-eyed owner notices me watching the action and asks, “Who are you?” “Just a traveller,” I say, as I furtively slide my notebook into my briefcase.
418 Highway 24, Buena Vista
Daily 6:30 am-2 pm
For such a small place, Buena Vista is a serious coffee centre. At the south end of town, there’s Brown Dog Coffee Company (713 South Highway 24, daily 6:30 am-9 pm), where you can get a nice in-house-roasted coffee, a slice of coffee cake or a sandwich. You can also drive down historic Main Street to *Buena Vista Roastery (409 East Main Street, daily 7 am-6 pm). There, you can pick up a pound of Kenyan to go or sit in a comfortable cafe and enjoy a pour-over coffee along with a house-baked bagel or cheesy hot pocket. Not content with running a vibrant business, co-owner Joel Benson is also the town’s mayor.
Heading north of Buena Vista on Highway 24, you can continue to the historic mining town of Leadville. Or you can hang a left on the twisting Highway 82 that climbs all the way to Independence Pass, at a lofty 12,100 feet, before plunging down to Aspen.
Aspen is one of those aspirational places that perfectly fits the line “the billionaires are pushing out the millionaires.” It’s a beautiful but highfalutin, spotless resort town, where the coiffed regulars wear down sweaters and are pulled down sidewalks by well-bred dogs. (One waitress who also looks after a number of properties for seasonal residents tells me she has to run out and FedEx a forgotten sweater to an absentee owner.) Still, amongst the high-end galleries and clothing stores are a surprising number of excellent, affordable eateries. After all, the help have to eat somewhere.
I make a beeline to Poppycock’s Café for just one reason. “Would you like to see a menu?” the waitress asks. “No thanks. Just an order of oatmeal buttermilk pancakes, please.” Apparently, I’m not alone. The signature oatcakes are so popular, they ship some 50 two-pound packages of the mix every week, more around Christmas. I can see why. Unlike normal hotcakes, these are moist and dense, like hot oatmeal. The corn griddle cakes also sell like, pardon me, hotcakes; you can buy that mix, too. In house, the latter come with Poppycock’s pistachio sausage patties.
665 East Cooper Avenue, Aspen
Monday to Saturday 7 am-2:30 pm, Sunday 7 am-2 pm
Make sure you get a counter seat when you eat at *Johnny McGuire’s Deli. At lunch, most people are standing, waiting for their food to take out or to eat at a sunny, outdoor table. But what you want is a front-row seat to watch short-order cooking at its finest. The Spanish-speaking cooks I observe are a blur of coordinated action. As one guy flips grilled steak slices and onion onto half a toasted sub, the other is simultaneously putting greens and sauce on the other side and then quickly cutting the sandwich with a big knife. Despite what looks like a time-consuming line, half a dozen sandwiches are ready in a couple of well-orchestrated minutes. Soon, I’m biting into a Marley, a hot, juicy combination of grilled steak, onions, barbecue sauce, cheddar and veggies that dribbles down my chin. The cold subs—such as one loaded with turkey, ham and bacon—are equally good. Johnny McGuire’s makes things easy by charging the same price for all the subs, the cost varying only by size; the $7.50 eight-incher is plenty for most appetites, especially if accompanied by some hand-cut fries.
Johnny McGuire’s Deli
730 East Cooper Avenue, Aspen
Daily 9 am-9 pm
It’s called *The Big Wrap, but it could well be the definition of hole in the wall. Walk by too quickly, and you might miss its location, down a few stairs from street level and not much wider than the front door. Walk a few steps inside and you’ve reached the back counter. Needless to say, there’s no bathroom and only a handful of stools. Given what Aspen’s sky-high rents must be, I’m sure this tradeoff in size allows Big Wraps to deliver just that: hefty, delicious wraps that are a steal at under $7, especially in a resort town. The creative concoctions include my choice of a To Thai For—grilled chicken or tofu, peanut sauce, jasmine rice, black beans and crunchy confetti slaw stuffed into a chili tortilla. It’s a two-napkin explosion of flavour. Other inventive combinations are mashed potato and grilled steak or grilled chicken and couscous; they’re what co-owner Babs calls her science experiments.
The Big Wrap
#101, 520 East Durant Avenue, Aspen
Monday to Saturday 10 am-6 pm. Cash only
Another lower-level eatery, 520 Grill also offers some good, affordable lunch and dinner fare. Try the seared ahi tuna or grilled Portobello mushroom sandwiches or the kale and quinoa salad (520 East Cooper Avenue. Monday to Friday 11 am-9 pm, weekends 11 am-5 pm). If you need a beverage to go with all this eating, Victoria’s Espresso and Wine Bar has some potent French Press coffee in their pump pot and offers a range of breakfast baked goods, salads and curries. 510 East Durant Avenue. Daily 7 am-9 pm, except 10 pm Friday and Saturday.