What started as an affordable local fast-food option in Estes Park quickly sprouted in Missoula, Montana, and Branson, Missouri. Now, less than two years since the first location opened, franchise owner Stasi Keramidis has opened his fourth location, this time in downtown Manitou Springs.
The former European Café now plays host to the Manitou branch of the Baba's tree. At its best, Baba's serves inoffensive eats that land average for the $5 burger price bracket. And at worst, the restaurant is a teenage squandering of assets akin to mixing 15-year-old bourbon with store-brand cola.
The spare dining room displays no interior design goals beyond meeting health standards and keeping the elements at bay — think drive-thru functional, sans drive-thru. Mustard and ketchup containers await customers in an iced plastic food service pan, and the restaurant's supply of cheap-as-possible napkins sits on shelves on the western wall. The walls share the middling grays of the tables, and the dining area hosts small, framed black-and-white photos of famous people eating sandwiches. Ever wanted to stare at Elvis, Marilyn Monroe or Gene Simmons getting their grub on to get you in the food mood?
Starting with the positive, the basic burgers are good. Half-centimeter-thin fast-food patties carry decent moisture and flavor. They could pass for Drifters or In-N-Out without much trouble were they cooked in mustard. For a different option, the spicy fried chicken sandwich meets the same saucing and standard veg. The crisp, reasonably seasoned, cayenne pepper-forward crust keeps the chicken moist. As a bonus, the Nebraska-baked buns used for all sandwiches are soft and light, yet durable enough to hold up to moderate saucing. There may be some space-age food chemistry involved, but what works, works.
As for sides, the fried zucchini sticks satisfy, with a decent tempura-ish coating. But the dining experience took a turn for the mystifying when my dining companion found an empty stick of fried batter, with the rectangular hole intact. Less unsettling, the fried mushrooms' helmet-sturdy breading tastes of fryer oil, while the 'shrooms themselves have a pleasant texture. Sadly, the fried pickles slide right out of their cornmeal tombs on first bite, lacking the acid and garlic bite they need to properly pop. Whether plain or "Greek garlic," the once-frozen french fries land inoffensive and wholly forgettable.
For a burger joint, gyros are an interesting addition. Go for the thick-cut gyro meat here; the chicken's flavor drowns under the garlic-heavy tzatziki sauce. But quality aside, it's not clear why gyros are on the menu when Baba's is within a falafel's roll of some of the best Mediterranean and Levantine cuisine in El Paso county.
By now, it should be clear that most of Baba's food is mid-range, serviceable fast food. But the $8 elk cheeseburger is a jest or a crude mockery of good meat, not worth the $3 jump from beef. Pounding elk to the same half-centimeter thickness as the beef patty obliterates any texture or flavor nuances. For price, it's comparable to superlative burgers at the Skirted Heifer or Bingo Burger, and the quality can't compete.
All told, were I a 16-year-old Manitoid playing suitor in my parents' sedan, Baba's would be a reasonable, affordable date spot. But for we who have survived into our adult years, it lacks any real draw.