It's rare here to review two eateries together, but I'm compelled to in this instance because of physical proximity and similar offerings. Sun Mountain Cafe and 25C Deli opened within a month of one another, less than a block apart on Colorado Avenue, each serving menus dominated by sandwiches.
Sun Mountain does act as a coffee shop too, and I'll divide the two into separate segments below to further clarify differences. But up-front, I'm sincerely questioning whether Old Colorado City needed two new sandwich spots. Now, in the free-market sense, I get that need has little to do with want, and entrepreneurs might just want a place of their own, perhaps believing there's enough market share to go around or that they can cannibalize other outfits' market share with a superior product. And I'm all for the strength-in-numbers philosophy behind many a successful restaurant row, such as Denver's Larimer Square for diverse, fine-dining puissance. But after 10 years at this posting for the Indy, I'm also a realist, at times skeptical, but ultimately hopeful that all our independents thrive.
A friend summed up part of my concern here by quipping: "What the hell are you supposed to say about a sandwich? It's a sandwich."
Yes, there's a difference between a lame or lovely one. But if a place isn't really moving the ball down the field in a significant way creatively, then we as critics are left to simply rule whether it's a nicely composed classic at a good value. We may as well be debating the merits of Subway versus Jimmy John's. Yawn.
I mean all of this as no highfalutin Treatise on the State of the Sandwich in Colorado Springs. Launch or patronize whatever you wish and the marketplace will sort it out. Preface aside, let's take a taste, because after all, sometimes you do just crave a sandwich, familiar or not.
Stacey and Brandt Carlson have spent a combined 25 years in the restaurant industry, both in independent and chain establishments and in front- and back-of-the-house capacities. Stacey's Scottsdale Culinary Institute degree explains completely respectable, airy (though small for $3) cupcakes as 25C's house dessert option — a chocolate with bright raspberry buttercream and white cake with grainy chocolate chip cookie dough on this visit. And Brandt's sincerity when checking in with us mid-meal shows that even if we're just talking $6 to $9 sandwiches, the couple's passionate about what they do, which counts for a lot.
In an earlier phone chat for my Side Dish column, he expressed a desire to buy as much locally as possible when cost and season allow. And though commercial cold cuts presently come from the Performance Custom Meats brand distributed by Denver's Performance Foodservice, he's made at least one overture already by purchasing breads from the Old School Bakery. The panini-pressed, "brioche-style" buttery white (made with a little less egg and butter) houses a thick layer of ham, a single crunchy bacon layer and goo of cheddar and Havarti clinging to tomato slices in the 25C Hog, with both a Dijon and house green chile mayo for moisture. To 25C's credit, the mayo acts as an original touch, even if it's mild, which preserves the overall balance, no note too sharp.
OSB's whole wheat lathered in Dijon and aioli backs the 25C (A), fresh with sprouts, avocado, lettuce, tomato and onion and more crunchy bacon layered with chicken slices. Again it's well-made and tastes as you imagine it should. No complaints either on The Goat's Apple salad, which gets its name from a fan of sliced Granny Smiths and a zippy apple cider vinaigrette plus goat cheese bits intermixed with almond slices and dried cranberries in mixed greens. The couple makes a good, basil-strong tomato-basil soup too, ideal for dipping bread ends. And Rye Street kettle potato chips, out of Arizona, easily rival Boulder Canyon's. Peaches-and-cream and prickly-pear-flavored bottled soft drinks from Denver's Rocky Mountain Soda, however, drink scarily candy-sweet and somewhat synthetic tasting. But overall, there's plenty to like about 25C as a sandwich stop, located in the very plain former Nan and Pops Superhero Sandwich Shop.
Elyse Smith and Jake Reed are also hands-on at Sun Mountain, apropos for a couple coming from ICU work and an Army medic background, respectively. For restaurant-world newbies, they've designed a sharp coffee counter and dining area out of the lengthy Range Gallery space and assembled an easy menu that should play well enough with tourist-season foot traffic.
They, like many Springs establishments, have selected Colorado Coffee Merchants as their roaster — a pro for name-recognition and consistency but perhaps a con for no unique draw-factor. Plus, with well-established Jives pouring just around the corner, they'll have to win at least part of the neighborhood's fealty to ensure slow-season survival. Still, they make my friend a well-balanced chocolate-amaretto "Heartthrob" latte, and me a decent cappuccino, plus a pleasantly potent, agave- and molasses-sweetened Turkish coffee. It's not served in the traditional copper cezve, but in a clear mug, with a bit of a wait required for all the grounds to settle. The agave and molasses plus coconut sugar make for much-appreciated alternative options at a self-serve garnishing station, but the website claim of "organic ingredients" remains to be seen across the menu.
We bypass three trios of breakfast, appetizer and salad offerings, but from a trio of crostini, we order a chocolate-jalapeño-bacon option. It arrives as a single, small toast round for $3; hot, sweet and fatty fun, but overpriced. Though not nearly as overpriced as an $8.50 cinnamon-chocolate-honey panini dessert, bearing a super-scant-to-the-point-of-undetectable brie layer with melted dark chocolate and honey on dry commercial cinnamon swirl bread. Here lies an almost-clever kids snack.
Boar's Head meats, advertised by pamphlets at the register, help compose the sandwiches. They range from $8.50 to $10.50, which includes Boulder Canyon chips. A dry, crunchy baguette houses pepperoni and two salami styles with provolone and typical veggie fixings on the Italian Sub, which could benefit from an oil and vinegar dressing. The buffalo chicken club doesn't really deliver much spiciness but satisfies well enough, while the spicy turkey cobb also tops out at a Pepper Jack heat level, piloted by Boar's Head's black pepper- and paprika-seasoned smoked turkey.
None of Sun Mountain's sandwiches stand above what you likely make at home, which is to say they're serviceable but wholly unexciting and unmemorable. On the whole they feel like utilitarian food, in that they're there if you're hungry, but nothing seems to aspire to elevate far above the domain of a school lunchpail.