A bed of quinoa salty with Parmigiano Reggiano came topped with tender leg of lamb, its faintly gamey richness cut with the sharp tang of mustard. On another plate, bits of beef slid right off the shank in a version of osso buco, the meaty juices running into a dune of polenta sweetened by roasted tomatoes.
The caliber of the dishes was pretty typical for an upscale Italian restaurant located in any big city — Manhattan, San Francisco, Chicago, L.A.
Except I was in…Alamosa, in southern Colorado. Population: about 9,800. I was on my way to camp under the stars on a balmy September evening just outside of town before hiking a few miles to raft the Conejos River, a favorite fishing spot.
Before I’d driven away from Trinidad early that morning, several friends had texted that there was an “amazing” new restaurant in Alamosa. Yeah, right, I said — it’s probably right next to the Nobu and the Nordstrom that also don’t exist in the sleepy little town, which serves as the gateway to the surrounding San Luis Valley and is visited primarily by out-of-towners on their way to and from the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I pulled up to The Friar’s Fork, set in a decommissioned adobe church a block off Main Street at 607 4th Street. The 1926 building has always been striking, but it had been empty for years, its Episcopalian tenants long gone, the exterior starting to crumble slightly and trash clinging to the sidewalk along its walls.
But last year, it was transformed into a warm and welcoming space, colorful with Southwestern turquoise and red, made whimsical via churchy accents — a lectern serves as the host stand, and pews are bench seating — and situated across a pretty courtyard from The Sanctuary, a cocktail bar and coffeehouse in a chapel owned by the same family.
What isn’t a surprise to me now is that the Friar’s Fork is among the thirteen Colorado chefs and restaurants that were named semifinalists for the 2023 James Beard Foundation Awards — in this case, for Best New Restaurant in the country — in a January 25 announcement.
The news did come as a shock to owners Denise Vigil and her husband, Nealson Vialpando. “We’re still processing it. I don’t really know how this happened,” says Vigil, who is originally from Alamosa and says she’s “delighted” to be back. “I’m not a big, flashy kind of person; I just keep my head down and do my job. Being in the spotlight is just not my normal thing, and so we were floored.”
Because she’s so proud of her hometown, Vigil says that what really makes her happy is that this will put Alamosa in the spotlight, too. “I had been working at a really high level for decades; then COVID hit, and that got me thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this last 25 years of working that I have left?’” she says. “I knew that I didn’t want to plate with tweezers anymore, and I wanted to do something different that really felt like it was my vision. I just...the James Beard...that never crossed my mind."
Once you hear Vigil’s work history as a professional chef, however, it all makes sense: After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1997, she traveled the country to cook in some of its most famous kitchens: Coyote Cafe & Cantina in Santa Fe; the Little Nell in Aspen; Higgins in Portland; Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort near Provo, Utah.
She worked for a while in the kitchen at The Fort in Morrison — “Sam [Arnold, the founder] was still alive, and it was just wonderful to get to know him,” Vigil recalls — and then found herself cooking at Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Tabernash on New Year’s Eve in 2000. After she gave birth to her daughter, though, she knew that she needed to hop off the fine-dining treadmill and its crazy hours, so she spent the subsequent seven years managing eight Starbucks stores between Denver and Pueblo.
Once her daughter started school, Vigil was ready to head back into the kitchen, and she says that serving as executive chef for billionaire Louis Bacon at Trinchera Ranch in Colorado’s San Luis Valley was one of her most pivotal experiences. “I mean, I was regularly grilling wieners for the bigwigs at Bass Pro Shop, you know, but the budget was mind-blowing, and the people I got to meet, wow, because it was mainly just Louis’s family and guests," she says. "It was just really interesting being at that level and around that kind of clientele.”
As the pandemic was coming to a close and their daughter left for college, Vigil and Vialpando were visiting friends and family in Alamosa when Vigil noticed that the old St. Thomas church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was for sale.
“It fit right in with what I was looking for: a small, low-key place in my town, where I could just kind of do my thing quietly,” Vigil remembers. She assumed no one would even know she had bought the building.
“Honestly, my friends were asking me, ‘Do you think you’re opening Twyla’s cafe here?'’’ she adds, laughing at the reference to the TV show Schitt’s Creek. “But nowhere in my vision at that point did I think anyone would pay any attention to what I was doing here.”
With the exception of the “big things” like electrical wiring and plumbing, Vigil and Vialpando did much of the work in the space over a nine-month period. “That interior — I did the painting and the glazing and the staining and the texture on those walls,” she explains. “We really cleaned it up and redid pretty much everything to make it usable.”
The Friar’s Fork opened last July. Soon after, a few actual friars stopped in while on an annual pilgrimage, which was yet another pleasant surprise. Vigil says that the town has been receptive to what the restaurant is doing, which is a menu that focuses on three categories of food.
First is what Vigil calls the “usual Italian suspects — things like spaghetti and lasagna, things that people recognize.” Then there are the more refined dishes, such as the osso buco and the lamb risotto. “The third category is kind of a combination,” she explains. “Like, we have a fried bologna sandwich on the menu at lunch, and that’s something people know, but we do it with an imported bologna that we shave ourselves very, very thin, and we pile it high with the giardiniera and put it all on a really nice piece of bread.”
Sourcing in a small, remote town has been a bit of a struggle, but Vigil feels like she's figuring it out. “We are trying to do local whenever possible, and only good environmental decisions, like agave straws and compostable to-go packaging,” she notes. “We get our vodka from Marble [in Carbondale] — it’s the greenest distillery in the country — and we only ever have four or five beers on hand, because we don’t even go out of the valley to get those. We’re hoping to soon change our lamb to a local rancher who’s interested.”
Unlike so many unfortunate scenarios across the state, however, Vigil says that she has not had trouble finding good people to work at the Friar’s Fork. “There were very few people with experience here, but that was okay,” she says. “I would rather train people from the ground up than have to work out their bad habits. But also, we pay really well — fourteen bucks an hour plus tips. I think that that’s the most important thing, to give people a living wage and pay them what they’re worth. Then they have to learn the dance moves and how to dance together. And so far, they’ve been doing that beautifully.”
Vigil is already looking forward to the Friar's Fork's first full summer in the space: “I’m going to bring out the big pans and do paella in the courtyard,” she promises.
And she really doesn’t have time to worry about whether the restaurant is going to get the James Beard Award. “I don’t know what’s going to be, moving forward. This might be it, but really, that’s pretty good, right? It’s so much more than we ever expected,” she concludes. “As far as we’re concerned, we already won.”