In Colorado's scene-loaded mountain resorts, that's a tall order. But the Gashouse, thirteen miles down-valley from Vail, more than rises to the occasion. This rustic joint in an old log building has all the trappings of a perfect post-ride meal: a straightforward menu, reasonable prices, a casual, noisy, muscle-soothingly comfortable setting, and a staff that knows its way around the slopes (ask a waitress about her favorite run and you'll be on it the next day). Even the story of the Gashouse is a gas--literally. It was built in 1940 as a petrol station, with what is now the dining room serving as the cashier's counter and the bar area as the owner's living quarters. In 1983 the Irons family bought the by-then-defunct station, converted it to a restaurant and proceeded to fill it with unusual items found on their travels through the area. For example, there's that nineteen-foot anaconda hanging from the ceiling, which the Irons clan found in somebody's garage, nothing but a bunched-up pile of skin. (It took a taxidermist a year to straighten out the boa.)
For food, the Ironses decided to take a less exotic approach. Rather then serve the frou-frou fare found in so many resort restaurants, with the help of chef Fred Nordstrom they assembled a mostly meat-and-potatoes menu. Lunch and dinner are both available all day--"So many people fly in here from another country or a state on the East Coast that we like to be able to meet the time zone they came from," explains one employee--and $20 buys a meal big enough to satisfy the most extreme skier.
After all, man does not live by shred alone.
Over the course of two weekend trips to Vail we managed to get into the always-crowded Gashouse on three occasions and had wonderful food each time. On our first visit we were wowed by the Cajun shrimp ($13.95) coated in Bayou-scented seasoning, as well as grilled quail ($13.95) that was surprisingly tender (it's easy to dry out this bird), crisp-edged and swimming in its own juices. On our second trip we wolfed down an enormous helping of pasta marinara ($9.95) that left us wanting more. The spaghetti was just the right consistency; the sauce lacked the acidity that so often ruins an otherwise good red and was heightened by garlic strong enough to get up and ask for a drink.
On our third stop, a couple of beers were all we thought we were looking for. (It was early afternoon, and a blinding wet snow had forced all but the diehards off the slopes.) But the curmudgeonly diner next to us looked so cozy cuddled up to a bowl of chili ($4.50) that we decided to give it a try. The concoction was thick with soft kidney beans and seasoned ground beef; something sweet like molasses added an unusual flavor that was almost overpowered by the punch of chile powder. It turned out that the chili was just about the only thing our fellow diner liked; when we tried to strike up a conversation with him about the snow and skiing, he told us he hated both. "Skiin's for shitheads," he said, looking as though he'd just surprised himself with this brilliant piece of wisdom. "Only people who ski are stupid showoffs who got somethin' to prove."
A quarter-pound of peel-and-eat shrimp ($5.95) and a jalapeno-studded quesadilla ($4.95) spilling cheese out its sides rounded out a pick-me-up snack that was enough to send us shitheads back to the slopes. As we left, we heard our friend griping to another table about how the Gashouse was "gettin' too popular."
It's so popular, in fact, that reservations are not just a suggestion, they're a must on the weekends and at peak eating times. But that's a small price to pay for food and atmosphere that make glitzier places seem as substantial as artificial snow.
Little Annie's Eating House in Aspen doesn't take reservations, and there's almost always a line out the door. The reasons for the crowd are obvious: This 24-year-old eatery is a country-style cutey pie that serves up homey meals you don't have to sell the Jaguar to afford. The name comes from Little Annie, the same silver-miner's daughter whose name graces the mine on the backside of Aspen Mountain; she had been the town darling in the 1870s, and a hundred years later, the restaurant's owners decided to adopt her welcoming attitude. Even at the height of ski season, they manage to pour on the charm.
The staff's friendly concern was apparent the minute we finally got through the door and to a table. The woman seating us noticed that I was having a little trouble sitting down. I had just come from my first snowboarding lesson, and parts of my body were no longer working properly. "Hon, hold on one sec and I'll get you a pillow," she said. I had to restrain myself from kissing her when she returned with a nice embroidered cushion for me to sink into. When I explained the cause of my condition, she nodded sympathetically and said, "Well, you're gonna need some mashed potatoes."
She was right. A side of the mashed potatoes ($2.50), a specialty of the house, looked suspiciously like my leg muscles felt. And the chunky spuds tasted like my dead grandmother had taken over the body of Little Annie's chef Robbie McClanahan in order to whip them up in my hour of need. But Grandma clearly wasn't responsible for the gravy that covered my spuds--a thick, artery-threatening sauce flecked with bits of chicken scraped from the bottom of the pan--or a banana nut bread ($1.50) so wonderfully moist I could have wrung it out and filled a water glass. McClanahan put more potatoes to good use in the latkes ($6.95), huge pancakes deep-fried until their exterior was like a coat of armor protecting the mealy, steamy grated spuds and pieces of onion packed inside. We mixed it all up with applesauce and sour cream and thought life couldn't get any better.
But it did. Little Annie's half-pound burger ($6.95) soon arrived, the chopped sirloin cooked to a perfect medium-rare--no e. coli fear here--and stashed on a fat, doughy bun; hefty steak fries that looked like quartered potatoes came on the side. The BBQ beef sandwich ($6.95) brought more juicy meat, slips of brisket held together by a spicy-tart barbecue sauce that somehow escaped the enormous bun and got on everything within a five-foot radius, including more of those mashers. The kitchen had concocted another excellent sauce for its Asian BBQ spare ribs ($14.95), a half-rack of bones dripping with ginger, garlic and sweet-and-sour barbecue sauce.
After my arduous day strapped (no escape!) to a four-foot piece of wood and P-Tex pre-programmed to fling itself out from beneath my feet, what I really needed was to crawl back to the hotel and climb into a Jacuzzi. But first I decided to reward my efforts with the chocolate avalanche brownie sundae ($3.95), a nut-jammed, chocolate-chip-crammed fudge brownie snowpacked under two scoops of Haagen-Dazs, real whipped cream and enough Hershey's syrup to put my entire party into sugar shock.
Jack Nicholson, eat your heart out.