August 11, 2009

The Ginger Cafe

We eat to satisfy hunger. Dining is the enjoyable experience of eating.

I recently spent two weeks in Crested Butte vowing to eat as many meals at The Ginger Cafe as I could. It was the last week of February and first week of March, 2009. [Hmmm. That wasn’t so recent, come to think of it. I wrote most of this right after the visit, but I didn’t finish it, the best being the enemy of the good, so here you go!] There was lots of snow on the ground. Huge snow drifts, in fact…

Mt Crested Butte, CO at sunset (all photos by Michael Levin)

Ginger Cafe - open the door to excellent dining

Snowy Entry to the Ginger Cafe

The Ginger Cafe, specializing in Asian cuisine, is one of my favorite places in the world to dine.
It soars at 9,000 feet elevation in the mountain village of Crested Butte, CO. All of Crested Butte’s seasons are good times to visit The Ginger Cafe.

Spencer Hestwood - the owner and head chef at the Ginger Cafe

The Ginger Cafe is owned by Spencer Hestwood. Spencer is an athlete who loves skateboarding and snowboarding. He was taught to cook Indian food by a chef he admired. Spencer was a cook on the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tour recently. I can see why CSNY chose Spencer’s cooking from all the options they had available. It was fun talking with Spencer about what it was like being on tour with CSNY. Jeez, I’ve listened to and loved, been influenced by and had my moods swung by their music for so, so many years. Jim Keim of the Crested Butte Weekly wrote up a good story about Spencer and his wife Jen, the history of the Ginger Cafe and a life changing experience Spencer had.

Townie Bike at the Ginger Cafe

The Ginger Cafe has an atmosphere that appeals to me in several ways.

Hear no, speak no, say no evil...

The decor consists of photographs of interesting scenes from the countries the food originates: Thailand, Tibet and India, to name a few.

A boy unaware of this photo being taken

So, you might ask yourself “Is this gratuitous art?” Why is it here? What message is the Ginger Cafe trying to convey? After all, this is Asian food, but it doesn’t have to be an ashram. Well, when I think about spirituality in its many faces and forms, I think about doing what you do well, because you’re doing it. Just because that’s what you’re doing. So, you might say every restaurant does its best. But, even at that, some are head and shoulders above the rest. It’s more that just satisfying your hunger at Ginger Cafe. It’s about creation of combinations of ingredients into dishes that make you crazy happy. They can make your eyes water and your nose run, in a good way. They can be sweet, sweet, and make your mouth feel good. It’s the whole thing. It’s the service. The staff know everything on the menu. They have their “personal favorites”. Spencer will walk over and tell you about the dude he learned how to make curry from. He’ll describe where those peppers you’re eating grew.

Snowy view out the window of the Ginger Cafe

There’s a lot of this “shelter from the storm” thing going on. And, I tell you: it’s not just the building. It’s what they’ve made it. Because you walk in and it’s freezing butt cold outside and it’s nice inside. It’s warm. You’re noticed. You hang up your coat and sit down and pull in the chair. The wood feels good. The place smells good. The music is right. And, you know it’s going to be a fine time.

Happy Buddha at Hestwood's Ginger Cafe

There is a happy Buddha on the bar to welcome guests.

A bike that someone loves...and it shows!

There were colorfully painted vintage townie bikes parked outside near the snowbanks. I think the one above belongs to Jeremy, the bartender. While the rest of the world is investing in GPS and fuel injection, this baby has comfy, soft tires for the snow. It’s got paint that someone spent some time on. The fenders are shiny and useful. You don’t want to get snow all over your clothes or mud! The music inside is eclectic, jazzy and appropriate for the atmosphere.

A Virgin Mojito - this can only be good

The wait staff are proud of the food they offer. Each waiter can recommend personal favorites. Jeremy and Eve tended bar several nights I visited.

Eve, smiling - as only one who knows things are right will

Eve made me a virgin Mojito my first night.

A non-virgin Mojito at 9,000 feet

Spencer followed it up with one with Rum as my abstinence relaxed. The one rum Mojito at 9,000 feet had a pleasant effect on me. I flew in from my home at sea level in Florida earlier that day. Eve pounded those lime leaves into submission.

Ginger Cafe waitress greeting with a great, big smile! You know, there's nothing like a little color in your cheeks from the good vibes being somewhere you love gives you.

As the evening progressed, the atmosphere in Ginger Cafe took warmer and even more hospitable tones. How can I describe it to you? A restaurant business is not all about making money. Sure. Its not just about good food, either. Fair enough. Ginger Cafe is a place people work who are obviously proud of their product. The kitchen is visible from the dining area. It’s a busy place. You can look in and see shiny, nice cookware being worked out to produce your food.

This is a kitchen - the Ginger Cafe back room...you'll see what's happening directly from the dining room

Let me tell you about the kitchen. It’s a buzz of energy, motion, and things for all the senses. You can smell the smells of delicious food being cooked. You can feel the heat of the woks as the ingredients are roasted, toasted, seared, fried…and otherwise moved into different forms. You can hear it happening. All evening. The food isn’t just prepped and shoved out to pasture. It’s pre-PARED. It’s arranged. The ingredients work. Trust me! I’ve been coming to Ginger Cafe for a while. This isn’t hit or miss. It’s a habit. And, it’s habit forming. A heathy addiction. Nothing, but nothing but the best fresh ingredients. Everything’s clean. When you go out to eat, you want the food to be not just good, but better than you can prepare yourself. You don’t want to worry about slime in the ice machine.

A work of art at the Ginger Cafe - If you think this looks good, wait 'til you taste it!

You’ll find Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes on the menu. Even the menu is appealing, bound in bamboo.

I like the spices used in the dishes. Spencer uses local produce. His peppers are tasty and of varying degrees of heat. The heat ranges from medium to scorching hot. The waiters will warn you that ordering a hot dish will be very hot.

Form follows function...art imitates life...

The dishes are visually appealing. They are arranged so that you can see the ingredients. My favorite dish, Krapow, featured fresh green cilantro and crunchy, cool bean sprouts on top of celery, carrots, green pepper, the other vegetables and the tofu. Beef, chicken and seafood are meat options in most cases.

The Tom Yum Goong soup is fiery hot with large shrimp and fresh mushroom. Spencer said he eats it every day because it’s delicious and healthy. The whole staff, especially Spencer, are into outdoor sports. Snowboarding, skateboarding, skiing, x-c biking, hiking, the whole thing. So, the food reflects a healthy preoccupation. They’re cooking for you so you’ll feel good. So you’ll feel like … energized. Not like you want to curl up and go to sleep. But, like you’re satisfied and … intrigued. How did they make the cardamom do what it did to that dish?

The pot stickers were delicious. 6 pot stickers so searingly hot from the oven you have to be careful not to burn your lips. The dipping sauce is a soy with green onion. Well, that’s the short story. I’m sure there are some secret ingredients.

Green and red curries are options I enjoyed. Veg Curry was thick with local produce and spice. Spencer’s wife Jen makes the cheesecake. It’s rich and filling, creamy and very smooth cheesecake, indeed. Mine was green tea. “Green tea cheesecake?” you ask. Yup. Delightful. Nice, light and best of all, prepared with love just down the street in Crested Butte.

I had the lamb at lunch one day, hot off the grill. Colorado lamb is particularly tasty. Especially minutes from the toasty grill. It was grainy with spices on the outside and pink and tender on the inside. Perfect! If you like lamb and you love spice, you have to try this version of lamb. Korma? I think that was the style. They’ll clear up any confusion my memory relates here.

I liked the spices best of all, combined with the fresh, crunchiness of the veg and bean sprouts, and nuts in some of the dishes. So, there you have it. I vote that you check it out next chance you get. Ginger Cafe. Crested Butte, Colorado. Tell ’em you read about it on Elephant Journal and Michael Levin sent you. Bon appetite!

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