July 3, 2022

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Cooking is a hobby

Downtown’s newest food hall mixes food, coffee, cocktails and philanthropy | Food & Drink

Colorado Springs’ newest food hall, The Well, arrived in early spring on the corner of Weber Street and Pikes Peak Avenue, filling out the other half of the Philanthropy Collective building. That’s a gathering of several local foundations and nonprofits, serving more than 100 other regional charitable entities (see “Building Community, April 29, in the Colorado Springs Business Journal). A portion of The Well’s revenue, from the food stall tenants and uniting bar and coffee shop, goes to support the collective’s work.

The Well’s space — basically a bougie cafeteria reminiscent of a mall’s food court — features four independently run food stalls, as well as the coffee and cocktail bar. The coffee counter is the first thing you see when you come in from the north entrance, and a walk along its boomerang shape leads to all of the food counters. The fully renovated Art Deco building’s high windows allow for an airy and light-filled atmosphere, with plants, stylishly staged bookshelves and a full wall mural creating a curated downtown vibe. Outside, an artificial grass patio with lawn games and a view of Pikes Peak appear to be a promising sunny-day hangout.

We stop by around happy hour on a weeknight and find the bar already packed with young professionals. Luckily, even with a crowd, the bar’s curvaceous shape creates a natural path throughout the space, allowing for a nice flow back to each of the food stalls; there are plenty of high- and low-top tables, as well as seating at the bar. Below, we provide more backstory and break down each food and drink entity…

Dun Sun

Dun Sun, an Asian-fusion street-eats concept, hits The Well courtesy of the folks behind time-tested and respected 503W, so our anticipation/expectation may be a bit high. We taste some things we love, and we note some things that can improve. A caveat: We don’t build our own Bodhi Bowl (somewhat the menu focus) because those are so customized and what you make of it personally. We opt, instead, for shareable apps and desserts. 

First up: garlic edamame, with ginger tofu (an additional side charge). The tofu’s soft, not fried, for those who prefer it that way (whereas I generally like a little crust on mine) and the blanched soybeans are inherently what you’d expect. The ingredient that stylizes this dish is a little gochgaru (Korean chile flakes), Korean three-spice (as seen on 503’s Gangnam fried chicken), sesame seed garnish and the sweet Thai chile sauce dressing — the familiar Mae Ploy stuff you see in big bottles at markets. If this was the only dish I encountered with said sweet Thai chile sauce, I’d probably be more contented, as it’s all fine as a snack. But that sauce also shows up on our bulgogi wonton nachos and as part of the Dun Sun sauce (sriracha aioli and sweet Thai chile) served with our pork belly tacos. It’s too redundant for such a small menu, and I get fatigued on the eventually cloying flavor.    







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The tacos and nachos are both beautifully, vibrantly presented, with purple, green and orange hues from pickled purple cabbage, the cilantro and chive garnishes plus the sauces. The taco shells are actually rolled out bao buns (soft pillows of doughy delight as always) and though the pork belly’s a touch dry, the fatty flavor’s there and I like the sweet Thai chile sauce better with the spicy counterpoint; good tacos overall. I like the wonton spin on the nachos, too, as they have a texturally pleasant, airy crunch and mild flavor (compared to corn chips) that lets the topping bulgogi shine; it does, softy, chewy and tangy-meaty. Topping tri-colored bell pepper choppings add fresh snappiness and diced, raw red onions add sharpness alongside the chives. Next time I’d request the Dun Sun sauce for the spicy element with the sweet chile sauce — that’s just me, though. (I also recommend the gochu-pow sauce if you do get a bowl; it’s gochugaru and hoisin and I later try a sample just to know for next time.)  

We return to Dun Sun for dessert and are very pleased by doing so. Again, presentations are on point, colorful and creative. We eat with our eyes first and I’m practically full before I bite into either the lilikoi (passionfruit) wonton ice cream or the honey brick toast (hell, even the words that label these desserts are alluring). The latter is a locally made Japanese milk bread (like French toast with a funnel cake vibe, fried brown) topped in fabulous, homemade ube (purple yam) ice cream, strawberry slices and whipped cream drizzled with yuzu syrup. Just — damn! The lilikoi ice cream’s also homemade, as is a matcha-green-colored coconut milk-avocado ice cream scooped atop it. The ice creams sit on crumbled wonton pieces (for a little savory counterbalance) and slices of strawberry plus orange pearls of passionfruit boba bursters. Very fun.

Emilio Ortiz, Dun Sun co-owner and 503W’s bar manager and GM, says to look for brunch items and specials soon.







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Noble Burger

Noble Burger brags that they are rooted in Midwestern sensibilities, and a pass over their menu backs that up. There are several burger and sandwich options (including meatless patties), as well as a variety of fried sides.

We opt for the American classic, a juicy lucy that comes out neatly wrapped, but we find that in unwrapping it we have to deconstruct the entire burger because the wrap is trapped between the melty cheese oozing out of the patty and the bun that has gone soggy. If you like a messy, greasy burger, this one is for you. A few bites are fine, but I’m put off by the wet bun. I do enjoy the addition of caramelized onions that offer a break from the otherwise (in my opinion) unsavory texture.

The meatloaf sandwich appears much more my type with buttery Texas toast securing a hearty slice of meatloaf. The housemade pickles on this gift some tang and apple butter barbecue sauce elevates it from tasting like it was made out of last night’s dinner. The big slice of meatloaf paired with the thick toast slices makes for a big bite — you might be better off fork and knifing the sandwich — but it’s worth it for this one. 

Per the cashier’s recommendation, we also try the “haute dish,” a take on the Midwestern classic side dish. Based on the name, I’m expecting an elevated version, but I’m sadly wrong. There’s nothing “haute” about this tater-tot topped cream of mushroom soup casserole. While I’m sure it rings nostalgic for some, the entire dish lacks any memorable flavor or seasoning, and a handful of crisp tater tots cannot salvage the gooey texture. 

Noble offers your classic burger sides — fries, onion rings and tater tots — as add-ons. One surprisingly unique side offering is the portobello mushroom fries. Long strips of mushroom are breaded and fried, resulting in a crunchy-on-the-outside, juicy-and-savory-on-the-inside bite. A dip in their creamy homemade ranch takes these from tasty to borderline addictive.







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Kumbala

Originally started in Chicago, Kumbala proclaims dope tacos and bomb pozole. Their menu offers several kinds of tacos, each coming out in orders of three. I would like to be able to mix and match, but that isn’t an option right now. We opt for an order of the hongos and the pollo, which come out heavily garnished with shredded cabbage on a metal tray, adding to The Well’s overall cafeteria vibe. 

I’ve never had mushroom tacos like these. The shrooms are coated in a salsa maca, this Venezuelan chile paste reminds me of chipotles in adobo sauce and gives a lingering and juicy heat. I don’t miss the meat in this taco at all. This option, along with the vegetales tacos (chayote, calabacitas and cactus with red chile) are fully vegan. 

The pollo, unfortunately, are not as exciting. The chicken thigh is claimed to have been marinated in red chile, but chews tough and dry. A topping of slaw, while an attractive garnish, gives the taco an overall unappetizing dry texture. The whole thing desperately needs some salsa, or even a squirt of lime. This is where it would be nice to mix and match the tacos, because we’re now stuck with an order of three that we don’t enjoy. 

We also order a side of pozole and opt to add carnitas, but when it arrives instead with chicken, they give us a side order of just the carnitas meat. It’s a blessed mistake, as the chicken in the pozole is nothing like the taco filling — it’s juicier and moist, and goes great with the pozole. It’s hard to say if a truly authentic pozole exists, and I dig the twist Kumbala has put on it. This is a green version, with zucchini swimming alongside tender hominy in a perfectly salted broth. Our side of carnitas is great, too. I’d definitely come back to Kumbala to try an order of tacos with that earthy and tender pork.







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Red Star Deli & Subs

Red Star comes from the same business partners (Israel Fernandez and Will Bravo) as Kumbala. But Red Star’s a new concept, whereas their taco venture had previously been tested as a pop-up in a bar called Spilt Milk, in Chicago’s Logan Square. As such, Kumbala seems pretty dialed in and tight, while Red Star feels a bit like it’s still getting its footing. 

We aren’t talking about anything too challenging to execute: subs and salads. But nothing we try wows us; it’s serviceable, but needs work to rise above a generic deli level that’s not quite up to The Well’s hip factor. We grab two subs — a vegetarian roasted eggplant sub that sports a white bean paste, red onions, tomatoes and ample arugula, and the Old World, which hosts a rotating selection of finer deli meats and cheeses (Manchego, salami, prosciutto and chorizo this evening) plus herb mayonnaise and even more arugula (a shitload actually). Both are fairly unruly and present difficulty in eating, and the flavors are pretty matter-of-fact, not combining to any great effect. 







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The eggplant’s sliced thick and layered in whole strips that run the length of the 6-inch subs. Naturally, it’s a little fibrous-tough and chewy, meaning you really have to tooth through so you don’t half-ass it and pull the whole strip out in a bite; using plastic knives and forks to try to further halve it for sharing doesn’t go well either. That aside, eggplant’s such a dominating flavor everything else gets buried and forgotten. I don’t love the bread used on the subs, lightly toasted by request — at least it’s not overly gummy like some of the chain places out there serve, but it doesn’t taste gourmet in any way. The Old World feels like a charcuterie board decided to become a sandwich, which at first sounds clever, but these higher-quality meats (no complaint there) and the semi-hard cheese have a different, more firm texture than the typical deli items used widely in subs. So again, they pull out of the sandwich awkwardly with bites, bringing a lightly dressed tangle of peppery arugula along with them. I think I’d rather just order the charcuterie board listed on Red Star’s grab-and-go menu.  

Our party’s got mixed feelings about the baked potato salad side that we order. Read as written: It’s essentially a deconstructed Yukon Gold baked potato dressed in Dijon-cider vinaigrette with toppings of shredded cheddar, chewy bacon pieces, unevenly chopped scallions and a dollop of sour cream. Oddly, it comes out cold as hell — like why is this so damn frigid to the tooth? — and I immediately think it would work better hot. One dining mate abandons it after a bite, saying “nope.” I hang in there because the smoky bacon flavor’s good and if I build a bite right with all the ingredients, it tastes fine — it’s just that jarring temperature. At this time, I can’t award Red Star any gold stars.







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Gift Horse Bar & Cafe

Gift Horse’s café component is the coffee arm at The Well’s north entryway, basically a craft coffee shop in its own right, not just an afterthought to a booze bar like a sad, homestyle espresso machine. Though The Well’s managing partner, Russ Ware (of Epiphany, Good Neighbors and Wild Goose Meeting House), brings a solid coffee game to town, he’s not actually behind this equally excellent program. That’s down to Justin Anderson, The Well’s project consultant (with Simpatico Hospitality), who also wears the hat of Gift Horse Bar & Cafe GM. He credits his friend Joe Slivik (out of Detroit) for the coffee program and Michael Huebner (of Chicago’s Two Barspoons consulting) with further help behind the bar. 

Anderson says he had an intention with Gift Horse’s alcohol menu to incorporate coffee and tea into some of the cocktails and mocktails, and that with all his travel for work, he’s visited a lot of fine roasteries nationwide that he’d like to introduce periodically here. During our visit, Chicago’s music-influenced Passion House Coffee’s on display alongside Missoula’s outwardly organic Black Coffee Roasting, “one of my favorite roasters of all time,” Anderson says, noting they’re kept as one of the two drip coffees available for $2.75. He says he wants to keep coffee prices as affordable as possible. My One N’ One (an espresso and macchiato for comparison with a touch of milk) is a fair $4.50 and a delight with a bright, chocolatey Passion House Backline Blend shot. An Ethiopian bean on drip from Black Coffee Roasting tastes textbook fruity and smooth. And lastly, the sweeter-than-my-preference but still enjoyable Bee in Your Bonnet lavender-jasmine latte leans heavier on the lavender flavor with a slightly more astringent finish from the tannic tea syrup mixing with a nice honey finish.







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The first thing you may notice as unique at Gift Horse is the ABV listings on their cocktails; I can’t recall anyone else in town doing this. Anderson says we have all become used to ordering beers with ABV listed (helping us separate session brews from imperial bad boys) but indeed not a lot of places list it for spirit drinks. That’s changing, though, according to what he’s seen during his travels to bigger cities. He says it’s common for bartenders to be asked “How strong is it?” when folks order a drink, and putting that on the menu helps everyone out. Plus, he notes, non-alcoholic drinks are trending, as are lower-ABV drinks. So here, you can order a Spanish G&T knowing it’s only 10 percent or a rye drink called Range Life at 26 percent, even though the price is an even $12 down the whole list (which we appreciate).

We start with three batch-prepared cocktails, served on draft. The Cucumber Collins refreshingly sips like a souped-up vodka soda with fresh cucumber flavor, lemon soda and celery bitters. The Cantaloupe Cooler also goes down easy, the melon and mineral water plus pisco combination refreshes and a pink peppercorn salt rim adds interest — we’re somehow reminded of the flavor of Pop Rocks. There’s also the Hibiscus Paloma, the most disappointing of the three, tastes watered down and overly bitter from grapefruit juice and liqueur. The hibiscus’ floral, tart element appears to have softened through being batch brewed and resting.

Denver’s The Family Jones dry gin informs The Saturn cocktail with additions of passionfruit, lime, falernum and orgeat. The tropical Tiki intent isn’t lost on the drinker, with the layering of those latter two ingredients, big with almond essence and light ginger and allspice notes. We also try a delightful island-style-refreshing, non-alcoholic drink named the Coco Sencha, made with green tea, coconut milk (for a velvetier body) and ginger beer with candied lime and ginger garnishes. We could go for more tea strength as ours drinks a little more like an effervescent coconut soda.

The drink menu also boasts higher-proof cocktails. The Blueberry Bonanza and the Midnight Rambler each have an Old Forester Bond Bourbon base, but their similarities end there. The Midnight Rambler appears as an Old Fashioned riff with the addition of two amaro liqueurs for more dynamic bitterness and has the balanced taste to back it up. We only wish it was served with a large ice cube to keep it from watering down too quickly. True to the name, the Blueberry Bonanza infuses bourbon with blueberries and adds lemon and mint to the glass. However, it sips super bourbon-forward and we crave more lemon to balance it out.


Thoughts on Food Halls

Justin Anderson grew up in San Diego but took his great leap forward in the industry in Chicago, working at a couple Michelin-starred restaurants and eventually helping open Chicago’s influential Revival Food Hall. He came out west to take a position as director of hospitality development at RINO Denver’s Zeppelin Station food hall. After become a managing partner, he broke off on his own to start Simpatico Hospitality and was attracted by the folks behind The Philanthropy Collective.

 “I said this beats working with developers,” he jokes. “I love what’s going on here, I haven’t looked back.” In fact, he’s moved to town and become an avid community champion, especially for the food-and-beverage industry. He sees The Well as an incubation space for the partnering food entities much as COATI guides upstarts into brick-and-mortar dreams over time. Anderson says he’s fielded interest here from as far away as Mexico City. 

I ask him what he’s learned about food halls during his time helping curate and create them, and the first thing he says is “the larger they are, the harder they are to maintain… four kitchens here is manageable… and the truth is, they don’t make a ton of money, but they can do well depending on the structure… there’s not much leeway, you’ve got to control costs… they’re a lot of work.” 

He counts Denver at 12 food halls now, and worries about density there, saying he hopes it doesn’t get too saturated here, too. He thinks the five we now have centrally (which includes Tejon Eatery, Local Relic and now The Well, along with COATI and Ivywild School) are probably good for the Downtown area. He sees better growth opportunities north and east in the Springs.