The mountains are calling your name — but so is a heaping portion of mac and cheese. Fortunately, not too far off, tendrils of wood smoke beckon with the aroma of roasting meats. Just up Parmalee Gulch Road from Highway 285, the towns of Indian Hills and Kittredge hide two restaurants that could hold their own against big-city competition, offering reasons beyond hiking, biking and other outdoor activities to hit the road for a day trip filled with good eats.
Mac Nation Cafe
5510 Parmalee Gulch Road, Indian Hills
An entire menu dedicated to macaroni and cheese is something you'd expect to find in one of Denver's trendiest neighborhoods or food halls. But if you want to choose from more than thirty mac-and-cheese styles, you'll have to look to the tiny town of Indian Hills. Mac Nation Cafe, a cozy spot with a multi-tiered patio, was opened in 2015 by Alton McCullough; her mom, Kiki Frisbie, chipped in with the interior design. The result is cheery, colorful and cluttered, with mismatched chairs and cafe tables spilling out from the compact dining room.
A chalkboard menu greets visitors with a list of more than 25 meaty and a half-dozen or so vegetarian macs, nearly all of which are named for U.S. cities and states, hence the name Mac Nation. Each order is built with rotini (a fine substitute for elbow mac, since the many coils hold more cheesy sauce) in an aluminum pan and topped with regional ingredients from around the country. A quick finish under the broiler adds crispy bits to the edges of each round pan.
Start local with the Colorado, topped with tangy green chile thick with shredded pork. The chile's good enough to stand on its own, so ask for a bowl or cup if you want to sample it without the pasta. Or explore beyond the Southwest with the Philadelphia (Philly cheesesteak toppings), the East Carolina (barbecue pulled pork) or the Nebraska (Reuben sandwich ingredients). Prices run from $9 to $14, but portions are big enough for two.
Mac Nation Cafe also serves breakfast pockets, lunchtime sandwiches and salads, and smoked baby back ribs. While you're there, pick up a Mac Nation T-shirt to prove your dedication to the mac-and-cheese cause. Stop in from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (though you might want to rent a cabin nearby so that you can spend a week eating your way through the cafe's menu).
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26220 Colorado 74, Kittredge
Continue up Parmalee Gulch Road until you hit Highway 74, then take a left and you'll soon be at Switchback Smokehouse, founded by Darryl Swarts in 2012. Switchback took over the former home of Dick's Hickory Dock after an extensive remodel, but the barbecue you'll find here is nothing like what was served at the old place. Meats are smoked over fruit wood (a good choice in Colorado, since other hardwoods are scarce), and some, like the brisket and duck breast, are cured first. The cure is what makes the brisket (served Friday through Sunday) Montreal-style, so it comes out more like pastrami, but the result is juicy and packed with flavor.
Switchback's pulled pork is some of the best you'll find anywhere on the Front Range, and pork ribs, tri-tip, sausage links, chicken and salmon are all worth sampling by the quarter-pound. Sandwiches are more than just meat on a bun; they're constructed with housemade sauces and quality ingredients. Sides run from the traditional (cowboy beans, slaw, mac and cheese) to the unique, like the deep-fried giardiniera, big pieces of tangy cauliflower, carrots and peppers in crunchy breading.
The smokehouse looks over Bear Creek, so you can enjoy barbecue on the shady, dog-friendly patio with a beer, the sound of running water and a cool mountain breeze. Switchback is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Lunch is your best bet to ensure a full selection of meats.