Gold Hill Java: Peaks and valleys 

In his 1989 book The Great Good Place, sociologist Dr. Ray Oldenburg put into words what most people intuitively know: Few things contribute to personal happiness like a solid "third place," a neutral, public gathering spot. With home being the first and work the second, a third place fills the need "for people to gather easily, inexpensively, regularly and pleasurably — a 'place on the corner.'"

With that in mind, we look to see how an actual place on the corner — Gold Hill Java's new downtown location — dishes mud and grub.

Three months of construction turned the shabby and sometimes less-than-welcoming home of Boulder Street Coffee Roasters into a bright and modern space that rivals anything in town for comfort, design and atmosphere. Canvas coffee bags lay flat underneath glass tops at black wood tables, while Paul and Kim Clarkson's roughly 30 varieties of house-roasted beans and loose-leaf teas line the back wall. Blackboards spell out the shop's large menu in neon chalk, while glass deli cases showcase baked goods, and bagels from Olde World Bagel and Deli.

The only problem with this picture? A lot of the sampled goods on that menu just aren't, well, that good.

The coffee is bold and complex in drip form, and even better in a strong cappuccino ($2.65, small). But from there, a café au lait ($1.55) drowns in hot milk; the chai latte ($2.35), a mix from Oregon Chai Tea, is weak; and an inconsistent mocha ($2.95) overdoes it on the Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. syrup one day, but is nicely cocoa-y the next.

Even the breakfast burrito ($4.95) finds one note, scrambled egg, and holds it, somehow missing the flavors of bacon, sausage, peppers and onions.

Lunch entrées — "sandwiches" available as wraps, salads or pizzas; and savory or sweet bread pudding — include sides like sweet, watery coleslaw; bagged chips; baby carrots; and a small, tasty fudge square. The best bet is the Kodiak in salad form ($6.95): Its tangy sauce plays well over the mandarin oranges, tender chicken, crispy chow mein noodles, carrot straws and slivered almonds. Lower on the flavor pole is the Nickel "pizza" ($5.95), really an open-faced quesadilla with mushy red and green peppers, and bland, paper-thin beef strips.

The wraps generally offer even less. The Boss ($6.45), advertised as a "traditional chicken mole ... with bitter chocolate and spicy tomatoes," lacks any of the complexity that mole implies, coming off like shredded chicken in a salty red sauce with raw coleslaw. The Thai-inspired "M" ($6.45) is worse, suffering from bland, dry chicken, equally dry crispy noodles, and an even drier double-wrapped tortilla. The sesame-lime-beef Tahleer ($6.45) is actually just kind of gross, with mushy beef and too-strong, house-made garlic cream cheese. Only the mild Randall ($6.45), basically a wrapped seven-layer dip minus the guacamole but with Fritos, holds its own.

Finally, the premade-then-microwaved chicken cordon bleu bread pudding ($6.25) comes burnt and chewy outside, and like lava inside. Surprisingly, the dish actually tastes pretty good, if one-dimensional, like salty chicken broth. It's an apt metaphor for Gold Hill, which is a lovely place to hang and grab a cup of drip, but lags everywhere else. In a downtown full of decent coffee shops, this house falls well short of third place.


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