Tuesday, Oct. 1, as some of you may know, was World Vegetarian Day 2019, an event that coincided somewhat with the Basalt Town Council’s announcement one week earlier that they would be going vegetarian with all their meals from now on. Couple that with the mounting evidence that raising cattle, pigs and chickens on a massive scale is horrible for the planet, and, well, it’s enough to make a dedicated carnivore panic.
Finding myself amongst those who suffer from the fear of a plant-based future, I decided it was time to reassure myself that meat is still alive and well in the Roaring Fork Valley.
I’d developed a sneaking suspicion that some of the best Mexican fare around could be found at gas stations between Carbondale and Woody Creek, so in a bit of a rebuttal to World Vegetarian Day and the Basalt Town Council, I embarked on a quest with my friend Chuck to find out if I was right. Two men, four gas stations, four tasty asada (steak) burritos and 16 miles of highway. Let the engorging begin.
D’Karni Express at Catherine Store
Parked near the back of the lot, behind the store and the gas pumps, this bright red food truck has been operating all summer and will be back serving breakfast and lunch again next year after closing from roughly December to February. Curiously, the owner-chefs, who hail from Rifle, have preemptively booted the truck, as their previous one was stolen back in the spring. In addition to burritos, they serve tortas, tacos, quesadillas and other Mexican fare.
Burrito: Made to order by the very friendly staff and costing $10.35, this was the second-most-expensive burrito, but it was large enough to make a meal for two average-appetite humans. It came grilled and stuffed with ample amounts of tender steak, as well as beans, cheese and cilantro (we eschewed the onions) and was quite good, although it was a little heavy on the cilantro, giving it a bit of a soapy flavor.
Ambiance: With three picnic tables under a tent in a shady area near a dumpster, D’Karni Express actually rated high in this category. It was not without an evocative charm. Chuck mentioned that he’d seen lots of similar setups all around Austin, and I was reminded of roadside eateries in Costa Rica.
Willits General Store
This eatery came on people’s radar a couple of years ago when they won a taco contest at Crown Mountain Park, beating out a host of other local restaurants. Since then, the general store’s popularity has surged as folks have caught on what is one of the best lunch spots in the Mid-Valley. Personally, I go there all the time for chicken sandwiches, burgers, soft-serve ice cream and the chance to win a free small soda or cup of coffee by correctly answering the daily trivia question. I don’t need the extra calories, but I love thinking I’m smart until I do my next dumb thing.
Burrito: You can likely have the cooks in the open kitchen make you a burrito to order, but the standard issue is a grab-and-go special that, at $5.72, was far and away the least expensive of the quartet. It was on the small side, as one might expect, and was heavier on the rice than the steak, but it had a very good flavor augmented by fresh, homemade salsa in green and red varieties.
Ambiance: With a handful of tables wedged between the storefront and the parking lot, there’s not a lot to recommend outside, but in the mornings the communal counters inside fill up with old men in tattered baseball caps, giving Willits General Store a pleasant diner feel.
Old Snowmass Market
Having developed a reputation for great Mexican food under its previous owners, people were worried when this tiny spot at the Old Snowmass Conoco changed hands in May, but it turned out the new owners were Javier Gonzales-Bringas and Laura Maine, the husband-and-wife team behind Basalt’s Tempranillo Restaurant. The couple reworked the store’s interior and brought in their own team to start making paninis, sandwiches, burritos, tacos and, starting last week, four kinds of soup from scratch. “We do our upscale dining at Tempranillo,” said Gonzales-Bringas, “but we thought it was important to have something for the workers going up and down the highway every day.”
Burrito: With a price tag of $11, this was the most expensive burrito Chuck and I tried, but it was huge – plenty for two people – and came made to order with mounds of steak, beans, rice and potatoes. It was delicious, and in addition to steak, one can choose other savory meats like melt-in-your-mouth lengua (tongue) and carnitas made from heritage pigs that Gonzales-Bringas and Maine raise on their ranch in Missouri Heights.
Ambiance: With just two picnic tables between a concrete wall and the gas pumps, there’s not much outside, but the reconfiguration of the interior, with display counters, a communal table and a homemade salsa bar, reminded me of the great delis I’d grown up with back in New England.
Woody Creek Station at Aspen Village
Overlooked for years, this gas station became a hot spot over a year ago when the new owners lowered gas prices to Glenwood Springs levels. It really became the place to go this summer, however, when the former kitchen crew from the Old Snowmass Conoco took over and started churning out their amazing food, which includes grab-and-go burritos and tortas, as well as a make-your-own taco and tostada bar. There are also soups, chile rellenos and other fare all made from scratch on the premises.
Burrito: Modestly priced at $7.98, this burrito makes you feel like you’re ripping someone off, as it comes stuffed with what seems like ten bucks worth of steak. It’s not quite as large as the more expensive burritos at D’Karni or Old Snowmass Market, but it’s meal enough for even the heartiest appetite. And as far as the flavor, well, all the burritos we tried were good, but Chuck and I both gave the nod to this one. There was just something special about the flavor of the steak, refried beans and homemade green salsa that separated it from the others.
Ambiance: Inside, this is still a convenience store. Make no mistake about it. The prepared foods section is just a corner in the back, but there are nice seating areas on the covered veranda in front, and the handful of picnic tables abutting the nursery next door make for a fine place to sit and enjoy one’s meal.
In summary, I stand by my original assertion: The gas stations of the Mid-Valley are home to some of the best Mexican food around (and the Basalt Store’s pupusas offer some of the tastiest Salvadoran fare). It’s really hard to go too far wrong. I think Chuck and I would recommend all the burritos we tried, and I think we’re both anxious to go back to each place and see what else they have to offer – whether it’s tacos, tortas, paninis or burgers.
So if you find yourself fretting over the coming vegetarian apocalypse, know that there’s an easy cure. Hit the highway, pull over to get some gas in your tank and then, who knows, maybe even fill up your car with unleaded while you’re there, too.