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Vital Vittles

Best New Restaurant
Readers' Poll Winner

The Famous
31 N. Tejon St., 227-7333

Proprietors Chris Martell, Cindy Gough, and Anna and Tony Leahy (she, formerly of Phantom Canyon; he, the Tony of Tony's Bar on Tejon Street) thought downtown Colorado Springs needed an upscale steakhouse, and apparently they were onto something. Diners have embraced the swank interior of the perfectly transformed former shoe store at the corner of Kiowa and Tejon streets and love the food. The dcor is red leather and gold with tasteful spots of light, a beautiful horseshoe-shaped bar and a shiny black grand piano. The food is prime beef, aged and cooked to perfection, and classic appetizers like jumbo shrimp cocktail and crab cakes. If The Famous delivered less quality than it promised, the concept would fail. But these veteran restaurateurs know what they're doing, and they deliver. --kce

Best Place to Eat While Lying Down
Mataam Fez
101 N. Tejon St., 634-2101

Given the choice between sitting on a cloud and playing a harp for all of eternity or having a gourmet seven-course Moroccan meal while reclining on a bed of pillows and watching a lovely young woman shake her midriff to the hip-shifting beats of Middle Eastern music for a night, well ... I know which I'd choose. --nb

Best Barbecue
Readers' Poll Winner

Charlie's Pit Bar-B-Que
4325 N. Nevada Ave., 266-4355

In general, if a barbecue joint doesn't have the word "pit" in it somewhere, just keep on driving. Charlie's manifests a smoky, beefy aura of barbecue perfection that makes anyone driving past insanely hungry and prone to drool all over their shirt fronts. There is, properly, no frippery or frills. Just great barbecue, especially the Cajun ribs. Hot enough to build a beautiful, slow-stoked heat in your mouth, but too good to put down. Wear an old T-shirt to avoid stains, and be prepared to lick your fingers and suck the bones. --mbp

Best Green Chili to Kick Your Ass
Western Omelette
16 S. Walnut, 636-2286

When you move to Colorado, it's hard not to become addicted to green chili. You generally start with the mild stuff -- flavorful, but benign as a tea wafer. Then you begin to suffer cravings, needing more flavor, more burn. Then one day, you discover breakfast at the Western Omelette. Their green chili's homemade, and served either mild or hot -- there's no in-between. So if you order hot, be prepared: Bring a towel to mop your forehead, bring some soothing balm for your lips -- and perhaps a fire extinguisher if you lack an iron throat. The heat might knock your taste buds flat, but the flavor bursts right on through. Oh, the sweet burn. --sb

Best Seafood at 8,500 Feet
Emily's Ocean Grill
609 W. Midland Ave., Woodland Park, 686-9800

It may be a long, long way to any ocean, but do we really have to settle for tummy aches from Generica's seafood joints? A short drive to Woodland Park and you can choose fish that didn't arrive frozen in a crate a week earlier.

Emily's menu is driven by seasonal availability: Hawaiian Ono, mahi-mahi and wahoo; Florida grouper; Arctic char; Atlantic salmon; Pacific snapper and halibut; tilapia, cod, sea bass, orange roughy, escolar and swordfish are among the surprises that might swim your way, courtesy of the various distributors who deliver fresh fish daily.

Preparation at Emily's is no less important than freshness. Options include baking, poaching, charbroiling, sauting and blackened. Many dishes come with delectable sauces -- like Santa Fe Lobster finished with a margarita sauce, or shrimp in a lobster Alfredo.

You can almost smell the salty sea air. --nh

Best Mexican
Readers' Poll Winner
Best Chips & Salsa
Readers' Poll Winner

Amanda's Fonda
1625 W. Uintah, 447-1950
3625 W. Colorado Ave., 227-1975

Amanda's Fonda fills your belly with traditional Mexican dishes spanning portions and price ranges for everyone; from overstuffed burritos, fish tacos and fajitas to inexpensive and filling soups including menudo and posole accompanied by a side of onions, beans and tortillas -- all served to you by festively dressed, friendly servers. Their salsa is chunky, fresh, full of cilantro and served with plentiful -- and award-winning -- baskets of chips. Their margaritas and desserts complement any meal. Now, if you can only leave room ... --cms

Best Indian Buffet
Mirch Masala
5047 N. Academy Blvd., 599-0003

If you can't find anything you like on this buffet, you should take your tastebuds out and slap them. The food is freshly prepared and brilliantly seasoned -- meaning it's not the same old/same old. The flavors are bold and exotic, walking on the wild side of the buffet street. You won't get limp pizza, chewy fried chicken, or 30-odd deep-fried oddities that you're scared (rightly) to eat -- just sincere Indian food, which your server will be happy to interpret for you, if necessary. The baskets of warm, chewy naan bread appearing magically on your table don't hurt, either. --mbp

Best New Chain Eatery

Panera Bread
7344 N. Academy Blvd., 522-1100

Why, oh, why does Panera Bread, "your neighborhood bakery-cafe," have to be located in one of those impossible strip malls on Academy Boulevard where you have to be prescient to know where to turn across four lanes of traffic? It's a regular field trip that absolutely requires a car to get there -- even the actual neighborhood closest by is fenced off and barricaded from the acres of parking lot at 7344 N. Academy Blvd. But once there, Panera's breads will soothe your traffic-rattled soul. The sourdough is chewy with a crisp, brown crust and, like most of their breads, comes in a large or demi size, so that you don't have more stale leftovers than you need. The muffins, danish, scones, croissants, bagels, sandwiches and soups are all superb. With eight locations in Denver, the Midwestern chain is reportedly planning expansion in the Springs as well, to Powers, the Shops at Briargate and Southgate -- all shopping-center locations on acres of asphalt, the "neighborhood" of the millennium, I suppose. --kce

Best Place for Breakfast
Readers' Poll Winner

Best Omelet Readers' Poll Winner

Omelette Parlour
900 E. Fillmore St., 633-7770

Giant wooden booths, fresh orange juice the minute you sit down, and an endless stream of piping hot coffee. You want something more from a breakfast place? How about big, overstuffed omelets, overflowing with fillings like OP potatoes, crisp bacon, cheddar and tomatoes; or Italian sausage with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella? Or fluffy, toast-brown pancakes that absorb all the butter and syrup you can lavish upon them? How about a peppery, meaty, feisty green chili that you can eat in a bowl, on an omelet, or topping a platter of eggs and potatoes? The Omelette Parlor's superiority is no secret, as the weekend lines will attest, but it's worth the wait. --mbp

Best Upscale Burger

La Petite Maison
1015 W. Colorado Ave., 632-4887

We get so accustomed to eating flat beef patties, over processed and overcooked, that a taste of the way a burger is meant to be is as surprising as it is indescribable. La Petite Maison, long a bastion of fine dining and innovative options, has taken a casual turn in its lunch and patio menus. And the star of the show is the burger.

It's plump, it's juicy and it's topped with Blue d-Auvergne cheese, caramelized onions (no cheap slice of raw red onion for this baby), watercress and a delicate green peppercorn mayonnaise. It's a gourmet carnivore's dream. Though the waitress blanched when asked for ketchup, a tiny dollop was all it needed. --nh

Best Cheap Afternoon Sugar Rush

Mrs. Fields Cookies
32 N. Tejon, 475-0803

It's 3 p.m. That cup of morning coffee is a long way in the past. Lunch just made you want to take a nap, and you still have two hours of work to go. The clock on your computer has said the same time for an eternity and you just don't know how you're gonna get through the day. ... No fear, Mrs. Fields Cookies is here. If you are lucky enough to work downtown, scurry over to the corner of Tejon and Kiowa and get yourself a cup of soft-serve ice cream -- chocolate, vanilla or swirl. And no need for your checkbook or debit card! For a measly buck-fifty, you get a huge serving of sugar-filled, frozen delight that will pick you up. You all know she can make a cookie, but that little machine behind the counter will be your afternoon savior. --cms

Best Place for Herbivores
Readers' Poll Winner

Adam's Mountain Cafe
110 Canon Ave., Manitou Springs, 685-1430

The perennial, eternal favorite. If Adam's went out of business tomorrow, it would probably still win this category for the next two years. You've got your cool factor, your funky factor, your people-watching factor and your most excellent food factor all at their peak in the shadow of the Peak. You can have a business lunch one day, romantic dinner the next, and then bring in the kids for Saturday breakfast. You'll never get bored. You'll never get a bad meal. And you won't be forced to explain to your waiter that chicken is not a vegetable. --mbp

Best Reason to Go Out to Lunch

Shuga's Shrimp Soup
702 S. Cascade Ave., 328-1412

Every now and then we tire of the standard downtown lunch choices and venture over to the south end of Cascade and the cute little wood-frame caf called Shuga's. Panini are the main lunch item, stuffed with mushrooms, cheese or Italian meats and the menu offers a variety of imaginative salads. But we go to gulp down the ethereal shrimp and coconut soup -- a complex and flavorful broth seasoned with coconut milk and lime and loaded with plump shrimp. I've sat in Shuga's and watched polite diners scrape and scrape their bowls for the last bit of soup. Finally, they throw decorum to the wind, pick up the bowl and drink the last remaining drops. It just doesn't get any better than this. --kce

Best Italian
Readers' Poll Winner

Luigi's
947 S. Tejon St., 632-0700

Family-owned Luigi's has been serving Springs families since 1958 and has the warm feel of a place that has satisfied a lot of customers. The food is inexpensive, the servings enormous, the recipes rich with good ingredients. House-made ravioli and manicotti, pasta with or without signature meatballs -- the dishes are traditional, filling, warm and hearty. The dining room is pleasantly cluttered with Italian memorabilia and the wait staff knows how to please. No wonder readers keep going back, again and again, for birthday and anniversary celebrations, or just for a good Italian meal. --kce

Best Bar if You're a Little Bit Country ... and a Little Bit Punk

Benny's Restaurant and Lounge
517 W. Colorado Ave., 634-9309

With nothing on tap but Miller and Coors, and nothing on the jukebox but Patsy, Willie, Hank Jr. and other tear-in-your-beer, two-stepping favorites, Benny's has become inexplicably popular with two polar groups: old guys who have worn the same pair of jeans and sat on the same bar stool for 25 years, and younger folk who sport hair gel/grease and have a preponderance of black in their wardrobe. And lately, as if finally acknowledging this, Benny's has begun hosting local music. Change is good, but let's hope they don't fix what ain't broken: well-worn carpet, pool tables in the back, peanut machines around the bar, and cheap drinks. --sb

Best $50 Steak

Black Bear Restaurant
10375 Ute Pass Ave., Green Mountain Falls, 684-9648

You may think $49 is spendy for a steak dinner, but were not talking about an ordinary slab of beef from bourgeoisie, cornfed cattle. This is Kobe Beef, hailing from a little Japanese island, where pampered bovines are massaged with sake (for quality marbling) and fed a special diet that includes honey, and yes, beer. The result is a subtly sweet beef that is incredibly tender, velvety and juicy -- and it sells at about $300 per pound. So, forgo paying a cable bill or two, or con someone into buying you dinner; just do what you have to. Think of it not as a $49 steak, but as a carnivores dining privilege. --sb

Best Martini
Readers' Poll Winner

15-C
15 E. Bijou, Suite C, 635-8303

Hidden discreetly behind a black door on the gritty alleyway behind Tejon Street downtown, 15-C is a wood- and mirror-dominated room with low lighting, elegant furnishings and, yep, as good a martini as you'll get anywhere. They're not messing with food service or preparation here, so if all you want is a cocktail or two and a quiet place to share it with a friend, this is your place. It's a distinctive watering hole and a distinctly through-the-looking-glass experience. --kce

Best Cheap Friday Night Meal

Chipotle Mexican Grill
17 S. Tejon, 632-4311

Can you say "ecstatic"? Well, they can at the downtown location of Chipotle. On Friday evenings from 5 to 7 p.m., haul your work-weary bones down for Ecstatic Hour. Two-for-one margaritas that pack a punch, two-for-one bottled beer, and free chips, salsa and guacamole are there to fill your belly. The nonsmoking, non-barlike atmosphere makes conversing easy, and they have small tables for an intimate party of two or big round ones to fit your 10 closest co-workers. Go home grinning and ... straight to bed. --cms

Best Onion Rings

The Ritz Grill
15 S. Tejon St., 635-8484

Generally greasy, generally pre-fab, onion rings done right could be so easy but are so rare. What a delight, then, to find them done divinely at the Ritz. Crisp and light, perfectly cooked, and -- get this -- made with real onions -- they're neither stringy nor mushy. Sure the sliders at the Ritz are fun, but the onion rings are the real keepers, the perfect go-with-your-beer-and-blues food. --nh

Best Fondue
Readers' Poll Winner

Mona Lisa Gourmet Caf and Fondue
733 Manitou Ave., 685-0277

Mom used to host fondue parties -- lots of cheese, wooden skewers and drunk people are all I remember. Happily, Mona Lisa's nothing like Mom's old parties. It's charming and intimate, with dim, candlelit rooms, fine wines, cozy tables and, if you choose, their popular slow and elegant four-course fondue meal. And true to their name, these meals are masterpieces: A salad is followed by one of four kinds of cheese fondue, with bread, fruits and veggies to dip. The main course comes next, consisting of various meats, veggies and fish, which you prepare, after ample instructions, on a tabletop grill. And just when you think you'll burst, a scrumptious desert of chocolate fondue and a plate of bite-size cheesecake, pound cake, fruit and other goodies to dip will arrive. Who knew fondue could be so romantic, so filling, so good? --sb

Best New Food Trend for Insomniacs

Alfonso's Mexican Food
Two locations in town

Taco Express
Three locations in town

Monica's Taco Shop
Three locations in town

(Palmer Park location only open 'til midnight)

Once again
It's 2 in the a.m.
And I'm hungry as a horse
But nowhere to eat ... of course

Oh wait,
What's that I see?
Taco Express?
Could it really be?

Yes.
They're open.
There's a long line, too.
Yumm. Burritos. Enchiladas.

Oh, what to do?

Yes, there's a new trend
In late-night dining.
Mexican food drive-thrus.
No more for Denny's, Village Inn and Waffle House
Will I be pining.

Five locations total
Open 24/7
Located north, south, east and west...
... Are we in heaven?

--sb

Best Pizza
Readers' Poll Winner

Old Chicago
Three locations around town

Pizza and beer, beer and pizza. Like so many other famous food duos, one does not seem right without the other. Old Chicago has them both -- in abundance. You've got your deep dish, thin crust or stuffed crust options, and 36 toppings and fillings from which to choose. Stay classic, with the pepperoni, sausage, mushroom and garlic combo. Or if you're feeling a little saucy, try a more exotic pizza like the Thai pie or the Chicken Alfredo. Perhaps best of all, they've got 110 beers you could spend a year sampling. --sb

Best Grilled Pita Bread

Mediterranean Cafe
118 E. Kiowa St., 633-0115
The Citadel mall, 574-5839

The mystery was starting to drive me a little batty. That spice on their pita bread -- what was it? I would share bites of my takeout with co-workers (not something my greedy taste buds are prone to do), hoping for an answer. I would return to Mediterranean Cafe again and again, hoping to work up the gumption to ask -- as if it were a state secret Rumsfeld himself were protecting. Then boldness struck, and the answer was kindly offered: sumac. Though I cringed at the time (linking the delectable spice to its poisonous relatives), I quickly got over the association. Blended with thyme and sesame seeds into a mix called zatar, sumac brings plain-old pitas to life. Served warm, with a little drizzled olive oil and humus to dip in -- heaven on Earth. -- tp

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