Beneath the green awning 

As fall passed into winter this year, a quiet buzz developed downtown over the little forest green awning that appeared on Tejon Street, the block just south of Pikes Peak Avenue. Cunningham's, the specialty food shop located north of Garden of the Gods Road was opening a new branch.

We grew impatient as November faded into December, pressing our noses against the window and watching as the refrigerated deli case went up, the shelving, the lights and, finally, the merchandise. (Downtown has not had a market since Canterbury Cheese closed its doors a couple years back.)

When Cunningham's finally opened a few weeks ago, word passed quickly that the wait had been worth it. Pizza by the slice. Rows of gourmet specialty items. Frozen stews and soups to take home. And best of all, bread, milk, butter and eggs -- this was a place where we could drop in after work and pick up the essentials for a home-cooked meal without entering the throng of the supermarket parking lot. Shopping on foot, now there's a concept.

Pleasantly packed into a very small space, the variety of selections at Cunningham's and the sheer volume of merchandise gives it the feel of a classic corner grocery store. You won't find laundry detergent or cat food here, but you will find everything your heart could possibly desire for a great lunch or dinner.

If you're the microwave type, grab a slice of pre-cut lasagna or fettucine with Moroccan meatballs ($3.26), and add a pre-prepared Caesar salad. Or check out the deli case where each day, a meat entre comes fully prepared with two side dishes. One recent evening, bacon-wrapped beef filets, cooked medium, were served with a scoop of Mediterranean potatoes (chunky mashed potatoes with mushrooms, olive oil and herbs) and a pile of colorful sauted vegetables ($12.99/lb.).

The butcher case is impressive, offering a wide array of steaks, chops and roasts, as well as individual portions of beef, pork and chicken breasts, marinated and ready for the grill. The prices are comparable to the supermarket -- a beautiful boneless leg of lamb goes for $6.49/lb; the standing rib roast is $7.99/lb.; beer brats and hot Italian sausage go for $3.59/lb. I brought home lean, boneless chicken breasts marinated in lemon, oil and ginger one night, and found they made a quick, easy and delicious chicken saut. More festive occasions might call for one of the specialty rolled meats, like the pork rolled with proscuitto, salami, sauted bell pepper and onions and Swiss cheese ($6.99/lb.), easy to prepare by sauting in a little olive oil.

I've tried several of the frozen entrees from the back freezer case. The chicken-andouille sausage gumbo is a thick, savory mix, rich in flavor and a relative bargain at about $3.50 a serving. And the salmon chowder ($7.70 for two) is a lovely, light, creamy concoction of potato chunks and pink salmon in a fragrant broth. I've had my eye on, but haven't yet tried, the frozen red bell pepper soup, served with a dollop of basil pesto, all neatly packaged together and ready for the saucepan.

For a light dinner or lunch, try one of the pasta salads from the deli case. I particularly liked the feta, red pepper and red onion pasta salad made with rigatoni ($3.99/lb.). The pizza is Jersey style -- thin with a yeasty, chewy crust -- and can be purchased by the slice or the pie ($12.99 for a medium pie; $14.99 large). I tried the chevre pizza with goat cheese, mozzarella, herbs and sundried tomatoes, as good as any I've had in town.

Cunningham's offers a sandwich menu that is quick becoming one of downtown's favorite lunch choices. My favorite so far is The Green Planet -- avocado, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, greens, sprouts and a pungent sliver of Manchego cheese with eggplant artichoke spread, served on soft dill and potato bread ($5.99).

The cheese and dessert cases are temptations I've avoided so far, and so many delicacies lie await on the shelves, I won't even go there. Just picture it: salsas, olive oils, honey, jams, tea, pasta sauces, imported chocolates, olives, cornichons, crackers, chips, cookies. Sweet little bouquets of cut flowers next to the checkout stand.

And best of all, a sign on the wall behind the cash registers promises that, come January and the holiday merchandise has moved out, we'll be able to go to Cunningham's for Tylenol, lip balm, batteries, cough drops, pantyhose, all the little things we haven't been able to find downtown since the end of Walgreen's. Downtown has a real market, and that's cause to celebrate.


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