A half-hour’s drive south of Colorado Springs on the I-25, Pueblo is a much quieter, more Latino-based town with nice brick buildings and a river walk in the historic downtown. While strolling these streets, drop into The Daily Grind Cafe for a coffee and maybe a breakfast burrito in this cozy café. You might even want to sit in the distinctive red “hand” chair.
The Daily Grind
209 South Union Avenue, Pueblo
Monday to Friday 6:30 am-11 pm, Saturday 7 am-11 pm, Sunday 7am-9pm
(Note: I’m repeating this pick from my Best of 2012 road trip eats, but it’s well worth it). When I walk into *Bingo Burger, the very helpful, friendly server tells me my lamb burger will take 10 minutes to prepare—somewhat surprising since there’s only two other customers in the restaurant. But then I see why. All burgers and fries are cooked to order, and from a counter seat I can watch my thick, hand-formed patty grilled and then finished under a lid. Next come the twice-cooked fries—from San Luis Valley potatoes—hot out of the fryer and tossed with a little salt. My God, these are easily the best fries on the trip, good enough I don’t want to sully them with the roasted garlic dipping sauce. The Goat Hill burger (Colorado-raised lamb with goat cheese, mushrooms and a lemon-rosemary aioli) is right up there with it, cooked slightly pink as requested and requiring a well-hinged mouth to bite into. The most popular menu item is the basic Bingo Burger, with pueblo chilis worked into the beef patty. Owner Richard Warner gets about 75% of his meat and produce from area farmers, and it shows, easily justifying the slight premium charged for these superior products.
101 Central Plaza, Pueblo
Monday to Thursday 11 am-8 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am-9 pm. Closed Sunday
A hop and a skip away, Richard’s wife, Mary Oreskovich, runs the killer *Hopscotch Bakery, which turns out artisan breads, daily sandwiches and to-die-for sweets. The sweet treats include an “orange beast” (croissant dough, orange zest and sugar); a kitchen sink cookie with chocolate chunks, almonds and pecans; cream cheese brownies and honeymoon bars. The challenge here is restraining myself.
333 South Union Avenue, Pueblo
Tuesday to Friday 7 am-4 pm, Saturday 8 am-4 pm. Closed Sunday and Monday
If you want to experience a longstanding Pueblo tradition, drop into Pass Key Restaurant and order a Super Pass Key Special. It’s a house-made, slightly spicy Italian patty that’s grilled and stuffed inside a mini-loaf along with three cheeses. Puebloans have been eating these sandwiches for more than half a century. The story goes that when former residents return to Pueblo, they stop at Pass Key before visiting their families. As an outsider with no emotional attachment, I find this sandwich a decent change from the regular roadside fare and not nearly as artery clogging as described by some online commentators.
Pass Key Restaurant
1901 US Highway 50 West and two other Pueblo locations
Opens daily at 11 am. Closed Sunday
The nice thing about road tripping without deadlines is making spontaneous decisions, which invariably lead to interesting encounters. So it is when a highway sign inspires me to take a detour into sleepy Florence, located along the Arkansas River and sustained by antique shops and a high density of area prisons, so I’m told. I walk down the main drag and into Pour House Coffee Roasters, intrigued by the presence of an in-house organic coffee roaster in such a small place. So while I sip a nice French Press coffee (only $1.95), I chat with young owner Ken Paul, who’s up every morning at four, baking breakfast treats as well as later roasting coffee and making quiches, quesadillas and chicken salad sandwiches.
Pour House Coffee Roasters
202 West Main Street, Florence
Monday-Tuesday 6 am-8 pm, Wednesday-Friday 6 am- 5 pm, Saturday 7 am-5 pm, Sunday 7 am-1 pm
Just down the street, you can get a nice slice of quiche or pie at Aspen Leaf Bakery and Café. I’ve already eaten two lunches by the time I get here, but Colorado Springs reader Kay Williams Johnson calls it a hidden treasure, well worth the drive for the “fabulous sandwiches” and “best pastries in the area.”
Aspen Leaf Bakery and Cafe
113 West Main Street, Florence
Monday 11 am-3 pm, Tuesday-Thursday 8 am-4 pm, Friday-Saturday 8 am-5 pm
Salida (pronounced Sal-eye-da by locals), is my favourite Colorado town. It’s a nice mix of vibrant arts community (check out the local sculptures) and a lot of young folk playing on the Arkansas River and hills around the leafy town. The historic brick downtown buildings also contain interesting galleries, eateries and drinking establishments. “It’s a great place to be broke,” says a guy who holds down three jobs to make ends meet. But I spot a new condo project along the river, perhaps a sign that Salida will not long remain a relatively undiscovered gem of a mountain town. (By the way, props to Mike Ryan of Mike’s Automotive for quickly fixing my jammed back seat, which wouldn’t fold down, and not charging me.)
Close to the Arkansas River, *The Fritz is a cozy, local bar/restaurant that serves sandwiches by day and excellent small and larger plates by night. To me, the atmosphere is more intimate and exuberant at night, when the beer taps really get running. The burger plates (heavy, slightly rare patty) with sweet potato fries are great as are smaller dishes of beet, pear and gorgonzola salad (a bargain at $3.50) and sliced, medium-rare steaks with dijon cream ($6), all washed down with local microbrews. The thick-crust mac and cheese is also very popular.
113 East Sackett Street
Daily 11 am-2 am
Here’s how things work in small Colorado towns. Sitting in The Fritz, we start talking to a couple at the next table, Kim and Scott, who happen to own Moonlight Pizza & Brewpub. We don’t make it there that trip, but a year later I make a point of visiting their small corner eatery, fronted by several mini kayaks. The fine pizzas start with a chewy, made-daily crust, topped by layers of meat in my Caveman, which the menu describes as having turned “yoga instructors into snarling savages.” Moonlight—which donates 10 per cent of its Monday proceeds to local projects—also brews some flavourful ales, along with house-made sodas such as limeade, vanilla cream and root beer.
Moonlight Pizza & Brewpub
242 F. Street
Opens daily at 11 am for lunch and dinner
It’s enough that a place the size of Salida would have one pizza joint with a brewery. But within two blocks of Moonlight is another fine pizza place, Amica’s Pizza, which also doubles as a brewery. I’m not sure if it’s the water or just a place where people want to live… and make pizza, and beer.
136 East 2 Street
Daily 11:30 am-9ish
Cafe dawn (named in part for co-owner Dawn Heigele) is a cozy hangout for a good, strong early morning coffee or a late afternoon Colorado craft beer or wine (weekday happy-hour specials). I don’t usually order outsourced breakfast treats, but the local Flour Girl make a tasty quiche baked in a brioche pastry; if need be, you can even heat it yourself in a microwave.
203 West First Street
Daily 6 am-6 pm. Cash only