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Colombian Caldo de Costilla soup features a beef rib in a hearty broth, with an arepa on the side.

Epiphany is outwardly trying to reimagine hospitality. They use those exact words in their {E}zine. That’s right: They have an in-house zine, on sturdy cardstock with slick design. They spend the first issue introducing themselves and attempting to educate and engage customers.

Some of the print’s utilitarian, like cornmeal arepas and the $7 cover charge for weekend music performances explained. Chef/managing partner Ben Gallegos Pardo shares his family heritage by way of outlining this particular brand of American Latin Fusion cuisine. Then there’s the borderline-pretentious alliterative word play that hints at the concept perhaps taking itself too seriously. Like all bars and coffee shops inherently, it aims to be a community gathering space, but one home to “moments of inspiration and magic” with “enlightenment and exploration” and “revolutions and revelations.”

I mean, damn, when did going out for a meal get so serious?

Epiphany says they want to get to know your story. There are even six questions at the zine’s conclusion — though it’s unclear if guests are supposed to answer on social media, quiz one another, or perhaps stop a staffer to relate the best advice they ever got from their grandmother. I’m not being flippant; that’s actually one of the questions. As is asking “What’s the color of: peace/revolution/magic/wonder/hope/curiosity/community?”

Shit, man, I don’t know. Purple, blue, pink, green — can I just order a frickin’ drink now?

OK, now I’m being flippant. There’s no prerequisite to engage with the zine to get service and the staff is actually quite attentive, expeditious and professional. Guest care begins the moment you top the staircase or exit the second-floor elevator into what used to be the Thirsty Parrot, and the music club 32Bleu prior (where I worked for a couple years, giving me a personal appreciation for how Epiphany has decorated the space for the better). A staffer greets you with your first explanation of Epiphany’s no-tip model, which you’ll hear again upon seating and a third and final time with the check presentation. The managing partners — including the Wild Goose Meeting House and Good Neighbors’ co-owner Russ Ware and longtime music ministry worker Mandy Todd — want to make certain folks don’t overtip. General Manager Johnathan Shankland, who holds a lengthy local résumé inside fine dining, tells us they want to ensure they’re being transparent, calling spots elsewhere disingenuous if they obscure the embedded gratuity. The Goose and Good Neighbors have already been operating with the model at smaller, coffee shop scale, with “no tipping” notes listed prominently on their websites.

There’s a whole spread in the zine that deserves attention and outlines what Epiphany aims to do through this hospitality-included model. I’ll come back to that below. But let’s look at the food, drink and atmosphere first. 

Epiphany opens early with a morning menu robust enough to elevate it above common coffee shop pastries into a legit breakfast spot. Ware has established a solid track record with quality coffee and that’s seamless here, where they’ve invested in a sexy Slayer espresso machine (that evokes images from Buffy episodes for me as a Pavlovian response to the word). The house ’spro — a Guatemalan-Ethiopian Meeting House blend — hails from Hold Fast, one of our town’s finest roasters who may still be underrated for just how damn good their products are. Epiphany’s team validates that with well-made classic drinks like the Americano, macchiato and cappuccino. Those highlight the various dilutions and cream ratios and uniformly point to some lovely aromas and flavors, from a bright, astringent fruitiness to milder, less-bitter citrus peel essence I detect at one turn.

Teas are served too, alongside an exclusive Chocolate Santafereño: a traditional Colombian cinnamon- and allspice-laced hot chocolate drink from roasted cacao nibs served with an arepita (mini arepa for dipping) and shredded mozzarella cheese that you toss in and let melt on the cup’s bottom for a rich finale. Some people might be put off by the notion of a gooey cheese lump lurking in their mug, but consider our fetish for sticky marshmallows in hot chocolate, or the rising popularity of Asian cheese teas capped with salty cream cheese. So try it; there’s nothing not to like here as a sippable savory-sweet combo, lightly sugar sweetened.

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The sound quality in the updated and improved performance space is excellent.

All food menus are set to expand in the coming weeks, but for breakfast eats during the opening period, Chef Pardo — who a decade ago introduced a few Colombian elements as operator of Café Corto Downtown, and recently left his role as coordinator of diversity, equity and inclusion and public relations at Pikes Peak Community College to co-launch Epiphany — offers a balanced list of both sweet and savory options. I did not try but observed others happy with their tres leches waffles and empanadas (with mango or guava-cheese fillings), but I later try the buñuelos as a dinnertime dessert. They’re described as a Colombian doughnut, made with a dough incorporating salt and cheese that encases melted queso fresco and feta here. To the eye, they could be hushpuppies or even arancini, but bite in and it’s clear you’re more in a dense beignet or churro territory texture-wise after making it through the crunchy exterior. They’re naked at breakfast, but presented with mango sorbet and chocolate ice cream for dessert. To us the mango tastes mismatched, while the chocolate once again proves the Colombians’ fettish for cheese and chocolate isn’t misguided.

But back to breakfast, you’ll also find a Tortilla Española, a Spanish omelet having nothing to do with a Mexican tortilla; instead it’s a layered potato and egg dish with vegetarian or serrano ham options. And there’s a handful of stuffed arepas with only one of those repeating into lunch/dinner hours for a current total of nine options. And we try a vegan version as a sample of an upcoming menu addition; my vegan dining mate loves the mix of bell peppers and black beans on an arepa variant. I save my arepa experience for dinner, opting instead for the Caldo de Costilla soup.

Back in 2012, Pardo introduced me to ajiaco at Café Corto, a hearty, chicken-based broth (infused with a Colombian herb named guasca) to which a few potato varieties are added with corn on the cob, cilantro, avocado and crema Mexicana. I relished it, and am glad to see it listed on the dinner menu. But for the Caldo de Costilla — served in a bowl atop a long, elegant, handled plate also set with an arepa — he floats a sizable beef rib, thick, tender meat still attached, with slivers of potatoes, carrots and avocado slices in a mildly seasoned clear broth with garnishing cilantro and green onions. It’s hearty and delicious, reminding me of other Latin and Asian countries in which I’ve traveled where breakfast soups are common. That simply hasn’t caught on in children’s cereal-obsessed America.

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A vegan arepa variant with beans and veggies plus a lively aji sauce

We return for dinner and a show by local Latin jazz outfit Nube Nueve, a tight group heavy on percussion, with the keyboard, brass and conga elements necessary to speak directly to human hips and the movement of them. The sound quality in the space is excellent, balanced and not drowning out conversation at the upper bar level above the stage and lower dance floor and seating area. Again, speaking as an alum of the building, it’s great to hear quality live music here again. And credit to Ware and designer Tiffany Schmid, the printed music posters around the space and other Insta-friendly decor make it a pretty damn cool-looking space, cozy with an Edison-bulb glow and feeling sophisticated and stylish.

We start with a side of thick-cut yuca fries (gluten-free and vegan), dense cassava with a brain-pleasing starchiness and side dips of basic guacamole and a lively, piquant aji amarillo sauce, a Colombian condiment that’s about as spicy as the cuisine gets (i.e., not much compared to the pantry of Pardo’s Chicano heritage). We nab a pair of cocktails: the Flashy Bolt and Eureka. The first mixes coconut simple syrup, lime and bitters into Wild Turkey 101 rye whiskey, with a toasted, shredded coconut, mint leaf and fine cherry garnish; the second cuts Monte Alban reposado with Campari, housemade sour and Fever Tree tonic, garnished with a dried orange sliver. Both are just fine, not outstanding, respectively lime forward with a faint tropical finish and tequila-leading with layered citric bitterness.

Come entrées, we order Pardo’s Cubano and a Colombian chorizo arepa. The chef respectably makes his own pan cubano, a soft chewy bread that presses well to crisp on the crust, and his own sausage for the arepa. I say this every time I eat a Cuban sandwich locally, but nobody can top Lucy I’m Home. Still, Pardo makes a good bite that would fly fine in Miami, with the requisite roasted pork, ham, Swiss, mustard and pickle. The arepa’s sausage, however, needs more work texturally, as its casing comes apart and strands of it stretch like gum in our teeth, the filling crumbling out. Plus, it has a very breakfast-y flavor that leaves me thinking it’s better left solely on the morning menu, especially because the arepa also comes stuffed with a fried egg.

For sides, we order the two plantain items: Tostones are green disks pounded thin and fried, and maduros are ripe, sweet plantains, baked. The aji dip makes the tostones shine, but we question the presentation of the maduros in huge hunks, like the fruit quartered. I typically see them cut into thin coins so there’s more surface area to caramelize and they soften more; these are dense and less sugary. We do enjoy a cubed jicama fruit salad too, sweetened by Mandarin bits and pineapple and interestingly spiked with cilantro and a touch of cinnamon.

Returning to the service-included model: Epiphany’s branded “revolutions and revelations” statement speaks less to what’s happening with the food and drink and more to this model they’re attempting locally. I first experienced a tip-included meal in Los Angeles six years ago and didn’t have strong feelings from the customer point of view — in terms of the final bill it seemed about the same as it would have been with elective gratuity. The true success would have to be gauged by how the staff felt about it. I use the word “attempting” above because Epiphany is transparent in the zine, saying they’re “not sure what the best answer is.”

Their article begins by asserting that industry folks everywhere feel the old tipping practice is “broken” as well as inequitable and unsustainable. Here’s where it must be mentioned that Ware himself came under fire in late 2020 at the Wild Goose when a group of its workers organized and alleged tip and wage theft because tips were being shared between front and back of the house and management in a way they said avoided paying minimum wage. (See “Colorado Department of Labor rules against the Wild Goose,” Feb. 25, 2021, for Ware’s detailed response, in which he says he believed the system to be legally compliant, but called themselves “humbled.”)

Anyway, before contending that this new model creates a reliable pay rate that’s equitable and non-discriminatory, reflecting the true cost of operating the business, the zine article cites writing by Nina Martyris (see “The Land of the Fee,” March 25, 2021, at NPR) but doesn’t summarize her argument. After I read the article online, I felt Epiphany sidestepped the explosive keywords, mainly how the custom of tipping furthers the “legacy of slavery and racism,” arriving in the U.S. after the Civil War, borrowed from Europe and a feudalist past. I mean, if you want to get conversations going at the end of your zine with a list of questions, why not get right to the heart of this conversation and poke people by asking them how they feel about perpetuating the history of exploitation in their day-to-day lives? Fire some shots and light a fire. Don’t just talk vaguely about culinary roots to Africa in Latin cuisine; remind folks it’s because people were brought in chains across an ocean to be slaves, and influenced the flavor of the New World… The color of revolution, you ask? It’s red. Blood red. 

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Chef and partner Ben Gallegos Pardo

Shit, maybe I’m the one taking all of this too seriously now. But I’m genuinely curious whether our town will embrace this model in this form or resist it. Psychologically, when customers are used to seeing a lower price and expecting to tip, they tend to have trouble looking at a $16 cocktail and not initially thinking, “wow that’s overly expensive,” especially for mid-shelf spirits. That Cuban is $18.25 and the arepa plate at dinner costs $22.95. For a dinner for two, nothing overly lavish, including the $14 cover charge, we walked out spending $130. Speaking of feudalism (wherein peasants and vassals were the nobles’ tenants), there’s also a line item on the receipt for a 1.8 percent PIF (public improvement fee) imposed by the developer.

We left feeling like the overall cost at dinner was high, higher than it would be elsewhere for similar fares under the status quo. To justify this price, if we’re taking on exploitation, I would like to see a dedication to non-exploitative food practices too. Things like pasture-raised vs. commercial eggs and local meat sourcing as a thumb in the eye of corporate big ag and all its related social and environmental ills. I mean, we’re talking revolution, right?

I’m all for it if Epiphany can prove the model. They’re focused on what’s best for their entire team, they write, which is commendable. But if it does come down to the consumer picking up the slack, is it really equitable? Are customers meant to be altruistic, and to whose ultimate benefit? History shows us there’s always someone getting the short (or blunt) end of the stick. Is it a cycle that can be broken in restaurants?

I guess nobody ever said reimagining hospitality was going to be easy. It’s probably going to take much more than an epiphany. 

Food & Drink Editor

Matthew Schniper is the Food and Drink Editor at the Colorado Springs Indy. He began freelancing with the Indy in mid-2004 and joined full-time in early 2006, contributing arts, food, environmental and feature writing.

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