A Rocky Mountain Road Trip

Gourmet Girl - May 30, 2013

Wild game, aged, hancut beef, jackalope sausage & more from the Rocky Mountain region

I just got back from a weekend family celebration in Beaver Creek Colorado, a ski resort in Vail Valley that serves up some mighty fine food.

A six-hour drive from Santa Fe, Beaver Creek is a resort village high in the alpine mountains, with restaurants, shops and lots of outdoor options that include skiing, hiking, mountain biking, swimming, hot tubbing and more. We were there to celebrate my brother's 50th birthday and we have some serious foodies in the family who knew about some of the finest restaurants in the area.

The best meal we had during our stay was at Sweet Basil in Vail, which opened 36 years ago on Bridge Street, overlooking Gore Creek in the heart of the Vail Village. This iconic restaurant's seasonal creative American menu includes signature dishes like red wine-marinated Burrata with a violet mustard and pine nut dressing and country croutons, buffalo carpaccio, Gulf bay scallops with Parmesan foam and clam sauce, and those are just the appetizers.

Our party of eight feasted on wondrous dishes full of intriguing flavors including Heritage Breed pork tenderloin with artichoke and lemon milk foam; merguez spiced lamb shank with pickled relish, spring peas and radish top vinaigrette; and hanger steak with balsamic confit shallots, potato and spring garlic hash and red wine veal glace. Even the desserts were out of this world, from hot sticky toffee pudding to Greek yogurt cheesecake with fresh blueberries to sour cream donut holes that with sweet milk foam.

Sweet Basil is one of Vail's finest spots, and the service and ambiance were excellent. Our table overlooked the roaring creek that ran just outside the window, providing an excellent view of Colorado's spring runoff and our server was superb, striking a perfect balance between professional service and friendly conversation about life in one of the most chic ski resorts in the country. To see the menu, click here.

We also tried a favorite spot in Edwards, just down the road from Beaver Creek and famous for its handcut, aged Colorado beef, wild game and seafood, flown in fresh daily. The Gashouse, a rustic log cabin that occupies a former filling station, is filled with animal trophies that line the wall and stare at you, making you feel guilty as you dine on venison carpaccio, buffalo ribeye, elk tenderloin and jackalope sausage (a combo of rabbit and antelope).

We ordered the mixed wild game grill, which came with buffalo sausage and that spicy jackalope sausage, as well as fresh oysters, Maryland crab cakes (a house specialty), Colorado rack of lamb with pomegranate balsamic reduction, buffalo ribeye and more. We felt like rugged Coloradoans sitting in a hunting cabin dining on locally raised beef and game, venturing to taste foods many of us had never tried before. Again, the meal was excellent and we ended it with a celebratory birthday cake and candle, as the entire restaurant joined in to sing the traditional song. The place was packed and obviously popular with locals. The service was excellent, too. Click here to see the full menu.

On the road home, we traveled through historic mining towns like Granite and Leadville as well as railroad towns including Buena Vista and Salida, the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve outside Alamosa, and gorgeous Rocky Mountains that towered above us with snow-covered peaks. We had lunch at Laughing Ladies, a sweet little spot in Salida, a thriving art center with shops, boutiques, cafes, restaurants and great mountain views. Although the menu is small, it features organic Modern American cuisine that emphasizes fresh seafood. We tried the grilled chicken sandwich with bacon, tomato and sprouts served on an egg brioche and the avocado, goat cheese sandwich stuffed with tomato, cucumber and sprouts. The food was fresh, flavorful and healthy, and it left us feeling full and ready to finish the road trip. For more info, click here.

We wound our way down through southern Colorado and then through Taos, where I almost suggested we stop at the new Lambert's, which opened in the space formerly occupied by the Apple Tree. We had enjoyed lunch there on our way up into Colorado, sitting on the romantic patio and listening to live guitar music as we feasted on the famous Apple Tree Chicken Mango Enchiladas topped with local green chile, cheddar, and Oaxacan cheese (a mainstay from the Apple Tree); a prosciutto and cheese sandwich tucked into a crisp baguette; Southwest marinated chicken sandwich with green chile, local cheddar and chipotle mayo and served on a green chile cheddar bun; and excellent green chile stew with pico de gallo, cheddar and cilantro. (Click here for more info.) But instead, we decided to drive onward so we could get through the Rio Grande Gorge before dark. We ran parallel with an alarmingly low Rio Grande through the farming towns of Dixon and Velarde, which made me wonder how the growing season would be this year, considering the terrible drought that has afflicted the region.

We ended our Colorado road trip in Santa Fe at one of our favorite restaurants, Harry's Roadhouse, where the day's specials included smoked trout cakes, veggie fritters with a beet walnut dipping sauce, hanger steak and mojo pork rubbed with cumin, chile and other spices and slow roasted to a texture so tender the meat just fell apart with a fork. That's exactly what we ordered, and we ate to our heart's content, glad to be home after a long day on the road. We topped things off with a slice of chocolate mousse pie  and Almond Joy tart, which tasted exactly as it sounds…joyful.

There's no place like home, even after an amazing trip, and there's no place like Harry's for divine comfort food.