Little wonder 

Unlikely neighborhood landmark east of downtown dishes standards, surprises and charm of bygone days

Enter the Little Market & Deli at the corner of Willamette Avenue and Prospect Street and you enter not only the city's oldest grocery store, dating to 1902, but also one of its most diverse and unusual delis.

With original tin ceiling panels and scuffed hardwood floors, the tiny market looks like it belongs in a cottage-strewn beach town or a middle-of-nowhere intersection. That it's survived on a lightly trafficked street in a residential enclave of Colorado Springs would be a mystery if owner Chris Bettendorf's daughter, Kim Garcia, didn't offer a simple explanation.

"It's the people in the neighborhood. They're very loyal," she says, noting that kids regularly come in with grocery lists and their parents' credit card. (Well, that much has changed since the old days.)

Like any self-respecting grocery with antique charm, Little Market is equipped for off-list splurges like Pixy Stix; frozen, chocolate-dipped cheesecake wedges; and an array of house-made pastries (all under $1.99) like Monster Bars, which are sweet squares jammed with M&M's, Rice Krispies, peanut butter and oats.

But beyond the familiar, you'll also find signature cultural items passed down from Garcia's grandparents on both sides. For instance, potica (pronounced paw-TEET-zah, $9.99), an egg-basted, Bohemian, rolled sweet dough loaf filled with walnuts, butter and brown sugar, and runza, a doughy German/Russian round stuffed with cabbage, onion and ground beef ($3.89).

The former tastes best when warmed and topped with a little extra butter. The latter, which Garcia jokingly calls "the original Hot Pocket," is as delicious as it is simple.

When Bettendorf, a former nurse who purchased the market 10 years ago, isn't behind the deli counter assembling sandwiches, she's likely at her second Springs business: The Drive-In at 2309 N. Weber St. The iconic ice cream stop was in Bettendorf's family for nearly 20 years, and after it spent a decade under different ownership, she re-purchased it five years ago. Garcia says her mom routinely spends 70 to 80 hours weekly between the two.

The team keeps a display case next to the register stocked with daily-made sandwiches on 6- and 8-inch Italian hoagie rolls ($3.89/$4.29), side dishes like potato salads and cole slaw ($1.09), and inclusive items like gluten-free tamales ($1.89 each). Save for some poorly washed lettuce, our deli sandwiches fared well, with satisfactory filling for the price.

If you can wait three to five minutes, they'll assemble a hot sandwich like a Reuben ($3.89), mesquite chicken breast ($4.89), a burger ($2.99) or 8-inch hot or mild Polish sausage ($3.89). I suggest you do that, because the bread's better warmed, and local purveyors Andy's Meat Market and Sara's Sausage provide quality meats.

Though it's a little odd to eat a burger on a hoagie roll, split down the middle, the flavors still jive, as they do in the standout chicken sandwich. While the Reuben rates average, Sara's hot sausage measures up with a respectable lip-burn.

Add snacks and a soda, juice or tea from an extensive drink cooler to your sandwich and sit at one of a few outside benches to enjoy more of the market's quaintness. It's something you won't find at any other lunch spot nearby.



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