Ski Town USA grows up

The culinary scene in Steamboat Springs is evolving

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Wendy Oolman

Something special is happening in Steamboat Springs, and it is only starting to gain attention outside the Yampa valley. The iconic mountain town long identified for its champagne powder and a laid-back cowboy lifestyle is undergoing a restaurant renaissance. And so far it’s delicious.

Known as “Ski Town USA” since 1959, Steamboat seemed content to rest on its accolades as a family-friendly town with excellent powder for much of the last few decades. While Vail, Aspen, Breckenridge and others kept expanding and upscaling, Steamboat was a throwback to an earlier time.

It could have been due to the fact that Steamboat proper is not adjacent to the ski area but in fact located a few miles away. It was insulated from ski area sprawl. Or it could just be it took a little effort to get there. Lincoln Street (the main thoroghfare in town) was lined with Italian restaurants, pizza parlors, steak houses, breakfast joints and the occasional sports bar. Sure, you could find more upscale offerings, but they were few and far between.

All of that has been changing with a rash of new forward-thinking culinary hot spots opening across the town the last few years. A new breed of restaurateurs is discovering what Steamboat has to offer.

“You are seeing many young families moving into the region to take advantage of the excellent schools, college nearby and the overall friendliness of the local population,” says Fawn Racoma, owner of Rootz Cafe. “They are wanting healthier food that reflects the farm-to-table movement sweeping the country.”

Rootz Cafe is a perfect example of a changing Steamboat Springs. The juice bar/breakfast and lunch cafe has been packed since its opening last year with numerous gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian choices. The arrival of the town’s first Natural Grocers store two years ago helped usher in the arrival of fresh organic foods year round.

“The local nickname for town is ‘The Bubble’ due to the fact we’re off the beaten ski path, we’re not near Summit County,” Racoma says. “So change comes slower here — the old ways are more entrenched but definitely changing.”

Change is something Katherine Zambrana, owner of Sweet Pea Market and Restaurant, is acquainted with. Since her arrival in 1994, she has witnessed Steamboat transform from sleepy ranching town with streets only crowded during ski season to a year-round destination as visitors enjoy all the region has to offer.

“When we first opened 11 years ago it was as a fruit and veggie stand selling produce from the Western Slope. We only added a kitchen as an afterthought,” Zambrana says. “As the town has moved into the mainstream, we decided to convert into a full-time restaurant selling the freshest food possible.”

With Chef Pete List, formerly of Denver hot spot Beatrice and Woodsley, helming the kitchen, the focus is on seasonal American cuisine with a nod to the classics.

“I look to the past to move forward, to refine and redefine comfort food,” List says. “We make our own bacon, sausage, bread, pastries and jellies by hand. The menu reflects the quality of our ingredients in a relaxed environment.”

One restaurant that bucked the trend and helped alter the way gourmands viewed Steamboat was bistro c.v.

Chef and co-owner Brian Vaughn would be in high demand regardless of the city he chose to live in. With a pedigree that includes cooking with culinary superstars such as Daniel Boulud, Charlie Trotter and Claudia Fleming, he constantly pushes the boundaries in search of new flavors and exciting combinations.

Like an artist beginning with a blank canvas, Vaughn adapts the bistro c.v. menu daily to create dishes that highlight the fresh ingredients he has on hand. A fan of “sous vide” cooking since opening eight years ago, his four immersion cookers run at all times, turning out perfectly cooked meats and veggies.

“We are always changing, looking for new ways to cook. Lately we are finishing our proteins on a charcoal grill over a mixture of Japanese and Texas hardwoods to impart a Rocky Mountain feel,” Vaughn says.

Using fresh produce from Elkstone Farms, Emma Farms Waygu beef and other Colorado delicacies, the restaurant highlights the best of the region, and has acted as a beacon, calling likeminded restaurateurs to the area.

With an eye to the future, the town has slated $900,000 to transform Yampa Street into a hot spot. With a vibe reminiscent of an early Pearl Street or Larimer Square, this once sleepy street next to the Yampa River is attracting new housing developments and exciting eateries.

One such arrival is the one-year-old restaurant Aurum, the scientific name for gold, opened by Phillips Armstrong, the past general manager of Colterra in Niwot. Armstrong has created an interesting mishmash of a restaurant. There is the expansive bar where you would feel comfortable with a martini or milk stout, the dining room with its elegant feel and the expansive back deck overlooking the river with a fire pit off to one side and Adirondack chairs for sitting and sipping.

“We wanted to create a place that made you remember what it was like as a child to eat out — it was this exciting yet comfortable experience,” Armstrong says.

Executive Chef Chase Wilbanks, formerly of La Tour in Vail and Shanahan’s in Denver, creates memorable dishes with thought-provoking combinations. A few dishes recently highlighting his prowess would be the charred octopus with lemon confit potato, roasted peppers, fennel and kalamata aioli or the pan-roasted Australian striped bass with saffron veloute, tomato licorice jam and pickled mustard seed. Both dishes are flawless and could appear on any restaurant’s menu.

Filling another glaring hole in Steamboat’s resume as a Colorado mountain town, two new breweries recently opened, bringing the total number of spots for fresh brews to three. 

Storm Peak Brewing Company has been slinging suds since August of last year, turning out an excellent milk stout and orange wheat beer in their cozy brew house. Butcherknife Brewing Company is the first production brewery in Steamboat and is turning out some seriously good beers that are available across the region; their Morningside Porter is delicious.

So maybe it’s time to head to Steamboat Springs for champagne powder and now some good grub.

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