Jess' Best BBQ
121 W. Main St., Florence, 719/784-1960, jessbestbbq.com
While sidewalk shopping for art and antiques in Florence — 'cause that's what the tiny town's regarded for — we're stopped by two Jess' Best employees seated on a bench outside its front door. The cook starts telling us about beef brisket he's just pulled from the hickory smoke, and we find ourselves sucked indoors.
Two pints of New Belgium Tour de Fall soon follow at the bar, and we order both brisket ($9.95) and pulled pork ($9.35) sandwiches, each including a side; we choose what turns out to be crunchy, decent coleslaw and nicely seasoned mashed potatoes. The moist brisket sports a thin edging of char and plays well with the single house-made barbecue sauce, which is mildly spicy with black pepper finish. The proficient pork picks up squirts of both Carolina- and St. Louis-style sauces to overall satisfaction. Bonus points for a gluten-free bun we'd never have expected to find here. — Matthew Schniper
Pho Saigon Grill
3071 S. Academy Blvd., 391-0148
This past February, I was elated to discover Pho Saigon Grill, which introduced me to new ingredients and the awesomeness of Vietnamese fondue. The place truly stood apart, shining with authenticity and freshness. So seven months later, I was excited to return and relive the glory. That is, until I learned upon seating that it's already changed ownership.
Gone are the fondue, caramelized catfish and other memorable items that distinguished this from other pho spots. I did locate a slightly modified goi dac biet salad ($13.95), with shrimp, pork and squid bits intermixed with greens, ample peanut crumbles and onion, carrot and cucumber slivers, plus my favorite garnish: krupuk prawn crackers for extra crunch. It, and a combo pho bowl ($8.95 for a gargantuan large serving) are still pleasant, but lack the special fifth element of the old Pho Saigon Grill. — Matthew Schniper
5528 S. Hwy. 85/87, Security, facebook.com/valleyespresso
Despite its humble location in a wide, mostly empty parking lot, Valley Espresso is a bit more than just a coffee stop. You've got your house-made, two-dollar frozen bananas — dipped in chocolate, peanut butter or, natch, chocolate and peanut butter — and you've got your likewise original mini-donuts coated in cinnamon-sugar ($2.50 per dozen), and you've even got, should you be so inclined, up to 32 ounces of bubble tea ($5.40).
But since coffee rivals oxygen for necessity, a 20-ounce ancho-chile mocha ($3.95) was called for. Made with two shots of espresso from Oregon-based Cascade Estate Coffees, the drink offers a balanced, measured effect: It never overindulges in sweetness or feels gritty or chalky, and it never kicks into hotter territory. Most of the pepper's effect comes post-sip on the tongue, which for me is a bit of a letdown, but the lingering smoky interplay is still fun. — Bryce Crawford