By Rebecca Spafford
Old Town Fort Collins offers a plethora of culinary choices; one can opt for Thai, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Indian and many fused in between. However, for our second installment of Hunters and Gatherers, we decided to eschew any particular cultural theme and simply embrace the anthem: “No Meat!”
We kept our tradition of small samplings in numerous restaurants and let our appetite be our guide – we embarked on a vegetarian voyage; eager to revisit old haunts and discover new favorites.
A briskly cold evening prompted our enthusiasm for hearty fare and a seasonal ale at the perennial favorite, Avogadro’s Number (popularly known as “Avo’s”) at 605 S. Mason Street. Not strictly vegetarian, this truly unique establishment has hugged a few trees in its 35+ years and knows how to entice omnivores to the green side!
We wanted a friedstravaganza of vegetables, cheese, and jalapeno poppers, so we paired our appetizers with New Belgium’s Seasonal 2° Below Ale and settled into our macramé-surrounded booth. How can a beer named after something so cold make one feel so warm? The beer’s bright, semi-peppery qualities balanced the hand-battered treats. A blend of panko bread crumbs, 90 Shilling, and Parmesan cheese crispily coat each item without enveloping each lusciously fresh piece of zucchini or lightly spicy jalapeno. The homemade marinara is lusty with garlic and has a rustic texture that complements the melted chewiness of the mozzarella sticks.
No visit is complete without their famous tempeh, so we shared their Veggie Steak Sub. Tempeh’s soft-crunchy texture wins you away from meat patties when correctly and creatively prepared, and Avo’s does it right. A little hot sauce perked up the subtle flavors and prepared us for our next stop: Ras-Ka.
Ras-Ka is a short walk away at 120 W. Laurel Street. The home-kitchen feel and steamed-over windows of Ras-Ka evoked warm summer days wandering the Fort Collins Farmer’s Market, discovering the flavorful beauty of owner Hanna Selassie’s Ras-Ka sauce. If three words can describe a person, a restaurant and the sauce that inspired it, they would have to be “energy,” “experience,” and “balance.”
The no-nonsense atmosphere is offset by the energy of the owner/chef and the other patrons – college students, other first-timers and foreign nationals. However, nobody remains “foreign” for long; food and conversation soon brought us into a community of conviviality. While my friend and I used the spongy injera bread to scoop up the savory delights of the Alicha (an Ethiopian stew of cabbage, potatoes and carrots flavored w/ saffron and turmeric), the yumminess of the tender eggplant and the unsurpassable sweet-spicy yams with caramelized coconut cream, we connected with others while sharing a unique experience together.
The inspiration for most of Ras-Ka’s cuisine is Hanna’s native Ethiopia, yet her recipes reflect her experience with people and places around the world. They are balanced by one key ingredient – her Ras-Ka sauce. Upon reading the menu, I wondered: how can dishes containing the same sauce taste different? The sauce is the culmination of years of energy and experience in order to achieve balance; remarkably, when paired with different herbs and ingredients, each dish absorbs or transforms the properties of the sauce to become its own mouth-watering amalgamation of flavors.
Even considering the amazing food and atmosphere, it was surprising to realize we had whiled away two hours of our time. We still wanted to squeeze in the remarkable and truly vegetarian Tasty Harmony at 130 S. Mason Street.
Once there, we realized there really were no worries. Despite arriving right before close, we were greeted warmly and enlivened by the bustling, warm colors of the décor. After some debate we decided to forego our planned sampling and to revisit a dining experience in the future.
Instead, we ordered a moist and flavorfully dense green tea and almond confection – to go. While the air bristled around us and our car warmed up for the drive home, we shared this treat and I realized that my guilt over not “fulfilling” our mission was unfounded.
In the true spirit of our Hunter and Gatherers mission – to experience Northern Colorado’s food in a non-traditional way – I was successful. My friend and I laughed, toasted one another with our biodegradable forks, and felt the lovely buoyancy of good food and friendship.