By Elliot Jackson
212 Main Street, Westcliffe, CO
Open throughout the winter.
Wed.-Thurs., “3 p.m. to close (or about 8 p.m.)”
Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-close (8:30-9, traffic dependent).
“This restaurant,” says Jordan Hedberg, new manager and head cook at Sangrita in Westcliffe, “in some ways represents a last, desperate attempt to sell local food differently.”
Sangrita has been a fixture in Westcliffe since the 1990s, but by the time I arrived here two years ago, it had pretty much shut down. Owners Robyn and Tom Wallerich had had enough of running the place themselves; their latest attempt at finding a chef to take over had looked promising, but fallen through; and it seemed as if Sangrita, with its pleasant atmosphere, including an enclosed patio with open-air seating and bandstand, and its bar, well-known for being well-stocked with local craft beers, was closed for good.
Then Hedberg approached the Walleriches with a plan. An almost-native son (he moved to the area as a boy with his family in 1999), he had left Westcliffe to go to college in Illinois but returned to work the family business, ranching grass-fed beef which he sells directly to customers. He had developed a relationship with local farmers, particularly the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers Association, and that served as the basis of his pitch: take over Sangrita and turn it into a “farm-to-table” restaurant, serving as much locally-sourced food as possible in its menus. The Walleriches took the chance, and Hedberg opened the new Sangrita a couple months ago. We joined him the other night in Sangrita’s kitchen, where he was rolling out and cutting fresh pasta.
Hedberg, whose other career – besides farmer, rancher, cook, and self-described “Cisco of local food” – is journalism, spilled the (locally-sourced) beans on the “farm-to-table,” or “locavore” movement: despite its apparent boom and media popularity, spurred by such texts as Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – both of which extol at length the health and ecological benefits of eating as much locally-sourced food as possible – the local food market is actually collapsing. Hedberg cited a number of contributing factors: the aging of the farming/ranching population, coupled with the staggering increase in land prices in rural Colorado, which makes it prohibitive for young people to get a start in farming; the sheer amount of work involved in farming and ranching, which takes its toll on marriages and family relations and ends up driving people out of the business; and lastly but perhaps most significantly, the fact that the big boys in the food industry – the Walmarts and Whole Foods, the big restaurants that tout “locally-produced” or “organic” fare – are, in fact, not selling locally-produced fare.
“We got into the market (selling grass-fed beef) right at the right time – demand was building, and we had the product,” Hedberg says. “Now every Walmart sells ‘grass-fed beef.’ But if they can get it for ten cents a pound cheaper from Australia, they’re not buying it locally – they’re shipping it in.” He pauses and adds, “But you really can taste the difference between local and not. So, this is our latest attempt at selling local food – not everyone goes to farmer’s markets, but people do go out to eat!”
Okay, a word about the pork fat. One of the things that has been most gratifying to me about the local food movement is that once-despised “your grandma’s cooking” staples like animal fats are coming back with a vengeance. And high time, too – these cheese curds, like the onion rings that I had sampled earlier in the week, also on the appetizer menu, have a delicate, tempura-like crust that melts in your mouth with not the least hint of sogginess or greasiness, which makes a perfect complement to the lusciously gooey cheese. My only quibble with the subtly-spiced and delicate tomato coulis is that I wanted it just a trifle thicker, the better to pile on the curds. (We ate the rest of it with a spoon after the curds were gone).
Now a word about that filet. If wine cam be said to have “terroir” – a signifying quality that comes from the local soil – I’m going to posit that beef does, too. I’m not sure how to describe the taste exactly – smokiness comes to mind – and the texture, which was buttery and carved like a dream. I’m trying to come up with something more descriptive, more elegant and precise than the words I found scrawled in my notebook, sometime during the course of a second glass of Cabernet: BEEF SO GOOD IT MAKES YOU WEEP. But I’m not sure I can, so I will leave it to my partner D., whose own forays into animal-flesh consumption would tend to be limited to cans of tuna if he weren’t hanging out with a Carnivore Cavegirl, to sum it up. After eating so much we were staggering out the door – because we had also sampled dessert, a pumpkin crisp with house-made ice cream – D. said, meditatively: “I could go for a piece of that steak.”
Come down to Sangrita and go for a piece of that steak. The local-food movement here will thank you.
Elliot Jackson lives and writes in Westcliffe, and by press time will probably have emerged from Food Coma.