Travelers to this Rocky Mountain state seem to expect “wild” game on the menu, and a number of restaurants aim to please. We’re talking bison, elk, venison, quail, pheasant, trout and other native fare. But wild? Not really.
“There’s nothing we serve that has been caught in the wild,” says Bill Dutton, general manager and co-owner of The Buckhorn Exchange in Denver. “Somebody can’t pull up in their Chevy with a deer strapped to the hood and say, ‘I want this for supper.’”
(The one exception is rattlesnake: It’s caught in controlled rattlesnake roundups, mostly in Texas.)
“We call these exotic meats, because they are farm-raised, not hunted in the wild. And they’re not ‘gamey’ at all,” Dutton says.
The Buckhorn Exchange, Colorado’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, sets the stage nicely with walls filled with taxidermied animals, from elk to jackrabbits.
Never eaten rattlesnake? Here’s the place to try it, along with the quail, various preparations of elk, and just about any cut of buffalo you can imagine.
The Fort, in Morrison (in the foothills just west of Denver), is a replica of an old Colorado fort and serves up a menu that might have looked somewhat familiar a century ago. For a sampling, get the Fort’s Game Plate, with an elk chop, buffalo tenderloin and grilled quail.
The Craftwood Inn in Manitou Springs, tucked between Colorado Springs and the foot of Pikes Peak, practically invented what is now called “Colorado cuisine,” and has long been known for its innovative game dishes, such as smoked wild boar tenderloin with cherry-peach chutney, a marinated elk steak in red wine sauce, or roasted antelope with a honey-lemon-butter sauce.
The Red Lion Inn in Boulder offers a small but tasty array of wild game dishes, including a sampler appetizer featuring a boar brat, buffalo sausage, duck paté and wild boar ham, or an entrée starring an elk rib-eye, and nightly game specials.
At the Metate Room in the Far View Lodge at Mesa Verde National Park near Durango, Colorado, both the meats and the accompaniments reflect the region’s heritage. They present corn, squash and beans (grown hundreds of years ago by the ancestral Pueblo Indians) in unique and creative ways. Try the black bean hummus appetizer, the grilled quail on a bed of red chile polenta or the outstanding bison rib-eye with cilantro butter and green chile mashed potatoes.
The popular and trendy mountain ski town of Aspen has several restaurants serving a smattering of game dishes.
Some are easier to get to than others: The Pine Creek Cookhouse in the Ashcroft Valley is accessible only by cross-country skis or a horse-drawn sleigh in winter (and by car in summer). Entrees include a grilled elk loin and buffalo tenderloin, and appetizers include wild game momos (Nepalese dumplings).
You can ski or snowboard to the Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro at 10,700 feet at Aspen Highlands to chow down on their hearty venison ragout.
In Vail, try the Game Creek restaurant for its popular elk dishes. Preparations change seasonally, but one recent presentation featured wild mushrooms, red cabbage and a whisky sauce.
Or check out the Atwater Grill, where you can find a rack of Colorado venison with a side of celery root pierogi and various savory sauces.
At Keystone, the Bighorn Steakhouse is the place to get game. They have game sliders (antelope, buffalo and elk), a mixed grill with venison chops, buffalo sirloin and pheasant sausage, and a buffalo carpaccio with shaved Manchego cheese on the menu. But their single most popular item is the venison soup (they get regular requests for the recipe).
Copper Mountain’s CB Grille also offers wild game entrees, and it’s a lot easier to get to – it’s right in the village. And it serves its version of “surf and turf” – a marinated buffalo sirloin with pinon-crusted Rocky Mountain trout.
If all this seems too frou-frou, then scale it back a bit. In downtown Denver, you can always stop by Biker Jim’s Hot Dogs on the 16th Street Mall and get yourself a buffalo, boar or reindeer dog. Yes, really.
Linda DuVal, a former travel editor, is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs.