In the Loop 

Locals know where to go

Most locals in a tourist town will tell you their favorite time is the off-season. Streets are less congested, parking spaces are more plentiful, and favorite restaurants have available tables. A stroll through Manitou Springs these days can be pretty enjoyable without those trinket-seeking tourists prowling about, and a meal at the Loop can turn into a relaxing night with the neighbors -- like the little girls serenading their dad on his birthday, or the lucky couple holding hands in front of the gas fireplace on the nights we were there.

The Loop has been in its enviable location at the corner of Ruxton and Manitou for a long, long time; current owner Matt Gray has presided over it for 11 years now. In its early days at the turn of the last century, the building housed a bar and brothel. It's tamer now, with a menu jam-packed with choices and a reputation for excellent margaritas.

Order a margarita -- even the generously sized house margarita is tart and tasty -- and dive into the basket of warm chips and salsa your server will have brought the moment you sat down. The salsa is a little disappointing -- large chunks of onion and tomato float in a base too thin to stay on the chip -- but has lots of cilantro. It's neither the spiciest nor the scorchiest salsa in town, but the chips are terrific.

We sampled some appetizers, any one of which was big enough to be a meal. The spinach quesadilla came with lots of sour cream and guacamole; the chicken taquitos (shredded beef is also available) were crisp and packed with chicken and cheese; and the mini-chimis got a thumbs-up all around. These can be made with garlic beef, shredded beef or chicken. We chose shredded beef. Any of the fillings would be good with the green chili sauce and sour cream accompaniments.

The menu is vast (three pages packed with descriptions and cute little clip art). Even with several visits and packs of hungry pals, we made only a dent in all Chef Herron Villarreal's offerings. We tried everything from the tried-and-true fajitas to the chef's signature dish, Pollo Herron. In between we tried chicken enchiladas with mole, seafood enchiladas, Chile rellenos, Chile Verde, spinach enchiladas, one of the many burritos, the Loop Especial and, because it was on the menu, a Loop burger. Though nothing was outstanding, everything was basically good. This is Mexican food my Eastern urban mother might have eaten. More to the point, it's Mexican food your finicky child will eat.

We thought the fajitas was the best dish we tried. Ours had enough tender, marinated steak, peppers and onions to fill six or more tortillas. It came with heaping portions of pico de gallo, sour cream and guacamole. The green chili stew was packed with chunks of pork -- just the sort of comfort food for a cold evening. The enchiladas were consistently good. The fish enchilada had shrimp and what seemed like a mixture of real and imitation crab, and an innocuous white sauce. The spinach enchilada, an excellent vegetarian option, was packed with spinach, onions and cheese.

On one visit, we experienced something of a mystery -- a dish called the Pollo Herron. Described on the menu as chicken mixed with zucchini and onion, it was a flavorful dish of chicken strips and vegetables. There were sugar snap peas, broccoli, carrots, yellow squash and pimento, but not a zucchini in the bunch. (Some among us considered this a plus.) It was an interesting, tasty dish served over rice with a sour cream sauce. It was not a disappointment, just a surprise.

Our only disappointment in general was the lack of zing. The Mole Poblano is a case in point. Real mole takes days to prepare and any shortcuts are easy to spot. The Loop's mole lacked the complexity the ancho chilis provide and tasted like a little too much powdered cocoa wandered into the sauce.

The obvious solution: Stick to the simpler choices. The enchiladas are tasty; the burritos are overstuffed. (We especially recommend the Loop Especial, filled with chicken, beef, guacamole and sour cream -- no calories here -- and topped with Chile Verde.) With the beans and rice that accompany most dishes, you won't leave hungry. And while the Loop burger was just a standard beef patty, the fries it came with were terrific.

Service on all our visits was prompt and friendly. With the oldies tunes in the background and sports on the TV, this is the place to go for a warm welcome and a filling meal without denting your wallet. Entre options range from $5.50 to $13.95; appetizers are $4.95 to $7.95; all items on the Kids' Menu are $3.65.

You'll probably go to the Loop for more than the food. Go for the camaraderie of sitting at the bar and watching college basketball. Go for the Two-for-One Dinners on Tuesdays through April 16. Go on Thursdays for the live acoustic guitar of Mike Barclay. Go before the tourists return.


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