Where gourmet eats meet the streets in Colorado Springs, it looks like this: brightly painted pallet furniture spiffing up an old service station lot — food trucks and carts circled up like a modern, pioneering wagon train, sub shotguns for spatulas.
Banish all your memories of fluorescent-lit, grease-slicked shopping-mall meals. This is what a food court should be.
Located at 225 N. Nevada Ave., just across the street from Palmer High School, Curbside Cuisine (curbsidecuisinecs.com, @Curbsidecos) adds something right out of the playbook of industry leaders like Los Angeles and Portland to Colorado Springs' culinary scene. And since Denver just disbanded its four-year-old Justice League of Street Food on Aug. 3 ("go[ing] out on a high note," according to one vendor quoted in Westword), it might be the only such effort within a hundred miles.
More than a year in the making, Curbside was made possible by the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, which owns the property, partnering nonprofit Colorado Springs Urban Intervention (via the Pikes Peak Community Foundation), and former Garden of the Gods Gourmet owner turned co-organizer Sandra Vanderstoep. They've brought together nine businesses (described below) that provide a something-for-everyone dynamic wherein each entity does what it does best — whether pizza or barbecue, authentic Creole or Jamaican cuisine.
Granted, it's a rare day that all nine are present concurrently, and some time slots (later day, for instance) provide thinner selection from only a few members. But on those weekday lunch hours when six to eight of the players are often present, it's a palpable and palatable party with potent potential.
Catch sporadic music performances as well that lend to the boisterous vibe. Only Curbside hours are listed with each business below; check individual websites or call each for more information as to their updated hours and other locations.
Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (occasional Saturday)
Before I sink teeth into Thom Herold's beef brisket ($7 regular/$9 large) and pulled pork ($5 regular/$7 large) — the only two mains he offers daily, each including baked beans and coleslaw sides — he and I engage in a serious talk about barbecue. Which quickly takes a turn, guided by him, into discussion of the recent foodie documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Herold — who's also owner of Born Again Used Books, Curbside's site manager and a former high school wrestling coach — tells me about his interpretation of sushi master Jiro Ono's "curse" of being unable to accept less-than. He likens it to winners hating to lose more than relishing victory, then brings that around to his own 20-year mission to refine his smoking and barbecuing techniques.
The dedication shows in his laser-focused menu. His pork's plenty moist and tender, and his brisket sports a pretty char ring and crumbles easily into excellent, molasses-based sauces bearing strong black pepper bite. The regular sauce boasts brown-sugar sweetness, and the spicy one hits serious heat notes thanks to a three-hot-pepper infusion. Meats start with a basic seven-ingredient rub and finish over oak and pecan essences.
Beans are smoked with the meats and bear a dark, rich, molasses-heavy flavor; the crunchy, wet slaw faintly dances around nectarous and vinegary notes, with ample personality.
Creole Kitchen by Gus
Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4-8 p.m.
"I grew up near Lake Pontchartrain cooking this food," says Creole Kitchen chef Gus Bootle. "I never wrote down recipes until now, though. My old recipes just said stuff like, 'two whole snapping turtles,' so I had to experiment and adjust."
Bootle's done the same in his career recently, having spent two years as executive chef at the Pueblo Community College, then repping for Sysco for a year before launching his mobile business a couple of months ago.
"My style is pretty rustic," he says, "recipes from old fish camps and stuff ... The reason I call it Creole versus Cajun is the heat factor. Creole is a little more tame, more gentrified. I'm kind of a mix between the fish camp and a white tablecloth."
What that looks like: a hefty basket of crispy, cornmeal-breaded gator bites, with excellent house tartar and cocktail sauce dips, for $9. ("That price will go down if folks stop watching Swamp People," he says in all seriousness.)
Bootle's Jambalaya ($5.50/16 ounces), a descendant of Spanish paella, starts with the "holy trinity" of onions, celery and bell peppers, which he sweats in the pan with finely chopped Tasso ham. Then, in goes chicken stock and rice, treated as risotto would be, with chicken and Andouille sausage chunks finishing the mix.
It's awesome, but benefits further from douses of one of the eight available hot sauces lining Creole Kitchen's order-window rail — which is, by the way, Curbside's most compelling, decorated with Mardi Gras beads, Saints apparel, archival photos and ample tchotchkes.
The Gumbo Ya-Ya ($5/16 ounces) "is all about the roux," a dark one again built off the trinity of veggies and meats in stock thickened with filé powder, a defining, earthy spice made from sassafras leaves (first cultivated by the Choctaw). It's a superior rendition, greatly enjoyed with a bag of Zapp's Voodoo chips ($1.50), just one more offering that illuminates authenticity.
The Heavenly Dessert Truck
328-9212, theheavenlydesserttruck.com, @HeavenDesserts
Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday, 5-8 p.m.; and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Go for the brownies ($3.50) first; they're superb, with a dark, fudgy, soft body that's moist, non-crumbly and potent on the cocoa front. All varieties start the same, but finish with different toppings, such as mint, Nutella or the sea-salt-caramel-cream-cheese glaze that we tried and loved.
Pastry chef Stephanie Van Wuffen graduated from Palmer, then the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, before earning a baking and pastry degree from Denver's Johnson & Wales University. She interned at the Broadmoor last summer and her mom, also the business co-owner, has operated Starlyn's Chocolates (an online chocolate-lollipop business) for the last 16 years locally.
All of the menu, which changes daily (with items otherwise available by order), is prepped in small batches with quality, gourmet ingredients, such as Madagascar vanilla, which informs Stephanie's vanilla crème brûlée ($5.50). The stuff's so potent, it could almost be dialed back a touch. A quick caramelization to-order, plus fresh berries and a whipped cream dollop, provide a little balance.
Black-, blue-, cran- and raspberries infuse the creative Berry Cobbler Cookie Sandwich ($3.50) consisting of a lovely vanilla buttercream filling between super-soft cookie rounds coated in a cobbler's classic brown-sugar-and-oat crusting. Spooning through the peanut butter s'more ($3.50), a fluff-like, homemade marshmallow layer gives way to a pudding-esque core of awesome peanut butter ganache, then graham cracker crumbles contained in a foil cupcake mold.
332-3304, zapizza.com, @zapizzaco
Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
At Za, you can pretty much disregard the reference to "cracker crust" and the slogan, "It's like pizza. Only better." Really, it is pizza, with no significant twists, and it is plenty good without the corporate-feeling tagline.
Co-owners and good friends Bill Miller and Steve Draper roll their whole wheat/wheat-flour dough quite thin, dock it (creating miniature indentations to prevent bubbling), and parbake it prior to the wood-oven firing — all to make a crispier crust. It's not that different from what you'll get at Pizzeria Rustica or Il Vicino, but it is the base of a great, 9-inch pie with quality gourmet ingredients, including a finishing balsamic drizzle. (All pizzas are $8, save for the $6 Tomat.)
The Fruita does truly stand out with green apples, figs, arugula, basil, garlic and goat cheese, dancing on a savory/sweet edge wonderfully. The Carne gets tomato slices (not tomato sauce; that's not used anywhere), garlic, basil, Kalamata olives, mozzarella, prosciutto and Black Forest ham as the meatiest of the six pre-designed pizzas. (You can also build your own.) And that Tomat is the essence of simple beauty as a classic Margherita.
But what's coolest about Za beyond the bites is the on-board wood-oven, sleek stainless steel housing the stone cook surface. The custom-built beast set the partners back $45,000, which is still nothing compared to brick-and-mortar start-up costs. And regardless, these guys see Za as an investment, and have the business acumen to know what that means: Draper is the founder of the Broadmoor Academy of Music, an accomplished musician and co-owner of Motif, while Miller is an advertising world retiree.
Good Karma Caravan
Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Good Karma is Curbside's sandwich shack, offering a menu of five wraps or sandwiches (choose your wrap or bread) with quality ingredients at a good price. All items run $7.95 and include a 32-ounce iced tea, bag of chips and pickle.
Roast beef, bacon and turkey come via Palmer Lake's Sara's Sausage, and custom-cut breads can be traced back to Denver's Bluepoint Bakery. Barista Espresso handles the fine drip coffee ($1.75 includes one refill).
Think of the Caravan as a pared-down version of Manitou Springs' Good Karma Coffee Lounge & Deli, which opened last November in the former Adam's Mountain Café and Naturally's space. Co-owner Kirstin Gonyo operates the truck while her mom Kelly Myers holds down the Manitou location; Gonyo's brother, who's the chef at Aspen's Limelight Hotel Lounge, occasionally offers fine-tuning.
The Portabella Delight is closest to what you might've found in your lunchbox as a kid (if your parents were total fuckin' hippies ... I mean, um, clever vegetarians). It places the meaty mushroom with roasted bell peppers and raw spinach over provolone and a pesto mayo schmear on seven-grain bread. It's perfectly fine, but somewhat tame when sampled next to the Beef & Bleu jalapeño cheddar wrap, which delivers a mouth hammer of bleu cheese funk and a generous roast beef portion. Restaurants tend to skim on the bleu, but Karma does the opposite, pretty much overpowering the bite of red onion and horseradish mayo; crisp romaine adds a little counterbalance.
Karma's Mediterranean wrap on a spinach tortilla offers the best example of a cause-and-effect cycle I care to repeat. Bright homemade hummus and tzatziki star with a balanced amount of potent goat cheese plus tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, olives and more romaine for super-fresh effect.
Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
If you care to reward sustainability and social consciousness blended beautifully with food-truck culture, The Local's the truck for you. Culinary comrades and co-owners Sara Crowell and Jo Marini — who were college friends more than a decade ago and buddied up with co-owner Phil Petty during all of their days of Jack Quinn's employment — buy as much locally grown product as possible. There's no greenwashing going on among this healthy-minded trio, which also recently bought Raven's Nest Coffee.
The Local's daily-rotating menu board often shows the source of an item, such as Pikes Peak Urban Gardens-grown arugula, or Westcliffe-based Sangre's Best beef, both used in the uncompromisingly exemplary Local burger ($9). The team gifts the grass-fed goodness an adobo chili, brown sugar and coffee rub and a Jack cheese cap under a bacon-jam dollop, all on a hefty Colorado Bread Co. pretzel bun.
Meanwhile, thick-cut, buttered and grilled CBC sourdough tries to contain the slight sogginess of a Ranch Foods Direct pork green chile grilled cheese ($8). The moisture's from the fun Karami Japanese Salsa, an agave-sweetened, gluten-free-soy-enhanced green chile whose flavorful and commendable spice mixes artfully with the pork's potent peach- and applewood smoke accents. Jack cheese bite finishes off the fiesta.
For a smaller meal, a clever kimchi quesadilla ($3) brings Korea to Mexico with Jack cheese — it's safe to call it the truck's favorite queso — melted around the fermented cabbage (sometimes house-made; otherwise prepared locally) on an organic corn tortilla. Add arugula for 50 cents to gift some peppery snap, as the kimchi is relatively mild, making for an overall light, simple snack. Pair whatever you get with a tart, mildly sweet, house-carbonated hibiscus tea ($3).
High Grade Catering and Food Truck
Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (some Friday nights)
I have found the ultimate stoner food — like, so ridiculously good that God may have gifted the planet marijuana just to prep us for eating this — and it is High Grade's fried mac & cheese ($3).
The most perfect of perfect, guilty snacks, the starchy, gooey treat is poured into mini triangular molds with a tempura batter that's granted an airiness via a carbonated-water splash. Once fried into neat little wedges, they're almost beignet-batter fluffy, yielding to a molten, tacky center of brain-pleasing goodness. Seriously, we were freaking out, dead sober on a work lunch.
The remainder of High Grade's somewhat sizable menu is billed as "real Jamaican food" (with vegetarian and vegan options), and personable owner/chef Everton Cameron lets me know he's "on island time" when I inquire about his hours, meaning that 11 a.m. could be 11:30 on a given day.
He's likely more punctual at his weekday job as sous chef at St. Francis Medical Center, but the laid-back vibe feels completely apropos for the three-month-old food truck, at Curbside Cuisine in particular. Cameron says he grew up cooking on the island, but prepares this food at a mild spice level to appeal to average American palates. (He'll hand you homemade hot sauce by request.)
True to that form, our two jerk chicken tacos ($7), whose meat is marinated for 48 hours in eight herbs and spices that include habaneros, are quite tame for jerk cuisine, especially with accompanying spiced cream sauce and tangy jicama slaw strands. The chicken's tender and flavorful, though, hugged by thick flour tortilla rounds, while somewhere a tinge of sweetness pervades.
Curried lamb (a generous $7 portion includes rice) walks a gamey line similar to the more common Jamaican curried goat. Soft chunks are drowned in a thick green curry coconut milk sauce that's again mild in heat but bursting with curry complexity and flavor. It's a lovely dish that's well-paired with an imported D&G Jamaican Ginger Beer ($3), which despite artificial flavors, tastes like a champ.
The Crepe Crusaders
337-0370, crepecrusaders.com, @crepecrusaders
Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Read the Crepe Crusaders' homepage to glean the humor of brothers Forrest and Russell Keller. They're happy to bust out commendable blue steel poses on command while laughing with you over all the pop-culture references informing the menu's silly names. From Kenny Loggins to Galaxy Quest and SpongeBob SquarePants, it's all there.
Though a strawberry, banana and chocolate chip crêpe might not be your first preference for an Afternoon Delight ($5.75), it does stimulate your brain's pleasure centers via a simple, sweet fix. And eight other sweet crêpe options are likely to do the same. From a list of six savory crêpes, the Jabroni ($7.25), inspired in name by The Rock (the muscular dude, not the Nicolas Cage flick), acts as sort of a quesadilla-turned-Frenchie-pancake creation. Inside the triangularly folded batter, gooey, sour-cream-laced melted cheddar and mashed guacamole flecked with crumbled tortilla chips grips chicken chunks to pleasant effect. I could go for a little more salsa, or better yet, a spicy green chile, but fun's had either way.
Off the griddle, the menu is completed by a dozen smoothie offerings (all $4), which are as basic as Tree Top juice flavors blended with crushed ice into a brain-freeze-ready purée. My Stralemon, a strawberry lemonade, proved expectedly tart and sweet.
Everything here's pretty approachable and easy-going, but should the brothers tire of the current tomfoolery, I'd say a nice next step would be adding some gourmet ingredients like herbs (rosemary, lavender?) or spices (odd, cool stuff from Savory Spice Shop?) to amp up the foundational fodder.
Daily, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
A few key things to know about Macos: 1) It's the sole Curbside biz that only accepts cash. 2) Chef/co-owner and Guadalajara native Miguel Hernandez speaks very little English, making menu queries difficult sans Spanish skills. 3) It's the essence of a simple, good taco truck, with great prices for good portions.
Breakfast burritos ($3, often the only Curbside a.m. option) are heavy on the cubed potatoes, with only a mild bacon presence and about an egg's worth of scramble inside thick flour tortillas with a melted mixed-cheese top. The highlight is a watery but flavorful green chile that demands the item be eaten with a plastic fork and knife. The chile's heat starts mild, but slowly builds as the sauce pleasantly saturates and sogs the tortilla.
Presently, tacos ($1.50 each, or four for $5) and burritos ($6) only come with gringo-friendly beef, pork or chicken options; gone are the classic and often superior tongue, face, skin and stomach options. But the three meats are handled well enough (our pork was rather tough, but seasonings were spot-on) atop double-layer soft corn rounds garnished generously with raw white onion and cilantro, each also getting its own lime quarter for ample citrus zing. A chile de árbol-based hot sauce is an absolute scorcher, which is to say, amazing.
Co-owner Ricardo Huerta, a local CPA who aids with the registration and accounting for a number of mobile food units in town, says tortas (similarly stuffed Italian bread sandwiches) will likely be added to the menu soon. He also explains that Macos utilizes Carniceria Leonela as its commissary, it being Hernandez's cousin's Mexican marketplace. Unlike most of Curbside's upstarts, Macos brings eight years of experience to the pavement, having previously parked at major intersections along the South Academy Boulevard corridor.