Chains -- my baby's got me wrapped up in chains ...
That loud pop you just heard was me removing my large, load-bearing foot from my mouth. My Birkenstock is a lovely shoe, but not too tasty.
I have frequently denounced the rampant, unchecked proliferation of chain restaurants in this city. By and large, I still believe that a locally owned and run restaurant is better than any corporate concept. But there are chains, and then there are chains.
Combining the very best elements of chain and local restaurants is the Pass Key Restaurant. The first one opened in Pueblo in 1952 and has become an institution there, with three more restaurants there turning out the same terrific food. Recently, a member of the Pagano family brought the Pass Key tradition to Colorado Springs.
The homemade Italian sausage, is the foundation of the Pass Key Special. This gigantic sandwich layers grilled sausage with lettuce and mustard on a fresh mini-loaf, and you'd better be hungry when you order it. It's big, greasy, messy -- and absolutely wonderful.
You can get a Super edition, which covers the sandwich with American, Swiss and Provolone cheeses. Or you could get a Mama Mia -- the same soft but resilient mini-loaf covered with Italian salami, ham, Provolone, Swiss, mayo and lettuce. (The special sandwiches are all available in whole or half portions.)
If you're gonna be a bear, be a grizzly. Fat onion rings, red chili fries or hot wings are all available as appetizers, but I highly recommend the fried breaded olives. These are green, pimento-stuffed olives, wrapped in a cheesy, spicy dough. Beware: They're addictive.
The Pass Key also offers homemade soups or red chili beans as well, plus a variety of burgers and grilled sandwiches. The desserts include tiramisu, coconut crme pie and cheesecake, but I can't imagine having enough room left over to even sample one of them.
A few doors north is Panera Bread, a huge chain with locations in 30 states. To say it is a bakery and caf is like saying Starbucks sells coffee. They bake 16 different breads fresh daily, plus a vast assortment of pastries and bagels. They also serve sandwiches, soups and salads.
I am wild about the bread at this place! All the loaves come in different sizes, so you can opt for a small demi-loaf or a huge miche. The sourdough alone comes in five different shapes and sizes. The sesame semolina is wonderful, covered with enough sesame seed to lend a nutty flavor to the bread. The stone-milled rye is full of chopped rye kernels and caraway seeds, with a lovely, rich flavor, chewy texture and a fragrance so beautiful you'll want to weep. Then there are the bagels, which range from sesame, nine-grain and blueberry to the more exotic chocolate chip, banana and peanut butter crunch, Dutch apple and raisin, and French toast.
And I haven't even gotten to the sandwiches. The smoked ham and cheese on rye is delish. The turkey artichoke panino combines smoked turkey, spinach artichoke spread, Asiago cheese, caramelized onions and tomato, grilled on the basil pesto focaccia.
And the Mediterranean veggie is the best mouthful I've had in a while. Roasted red peppers, cucumbers, feta cheese, lettuce, tomato, caramelized onions and roasted garlic are combined on multigrain bread.
Since Panera has been open only a couple of weeks, I haven't had the chance yet to sample the soups and salads, although friends have raved about the Broccoli Cheddar and the Cream of Chicken and Wild Rice. The salads also look tempting; they range from Asian Sesame Chicken, with fresh cilantro, sliced almonds, crispy wonton strips and more, to the Fandango, with toasted walnuts, gorgonzola cheese, Mandarin orange slices and fat-free raspberry dressing.
There's a You Pick Two special available for $5.95, where you pick two of the following: any bowl of soup, any half sandwich, any half salad. With 15 sandwiches, five soups and five salads, I can't imagine ever getting bored.