124 South Glasgow Ave. in Rico, 970/967-3000
In the middle of nowhere, great food.
Only Rico is more than a wide spot on the highway. It’s beautiful and romantic, a half slumbering half ghost town whose residents mostly commute to Telluride for work. And the Argentine Grill at the Rico Hotel offers more than a great burger, though it does, in fact serve up a great burger, made from organic sirloin and served with carmelized onions and an irresistible spicy garlic dressing ($14).
Maybe in France or Italy, but almost never in the United States, you have a reasonable expectation of eating well in the hinterlands. Chef Eamonn O’Hara at the Rico Hotel defies the low expectations of anyone driving past who stops in for a meal, and he regularly attracts discerning eaters who are more than willing to make the gorgeous drive over Lizard Head Pass from Telluride for a rustic – but still fine – dining experience.
In mid- to late summer a meal should start with Olathe sweet corn bisque, garnished with a rock shrimp ($9), world famous from Dolores to Mountain Village. O’Hara has a particular knack for soup, so the soup of the evening, even if corn is not in season, is highly recommended. Another starter, the grilled beef tenderloin taco ($12), is easily shared by a table of four, since it is already cut into quarters. The flavors are more Asian than Mexican, hinting at O’Hara’s inventiveness.
Beef tenderloin tips made an appearance in a recent special, served in a pink sauce on penne pasta; another special that same evening was a meltingly tender four-cheese ravioli. Those entrees, like those on the regular menu, are all priced between $20 and $30.
Among the standard items, the grilled organic chicken is a favorite, but when is the last time a server cautioned you that the chicken takes awhile because it is cooked from scratch to order. You may dream later about the crunchy skin.
In summer, salads are built from ingredients provisioned from organic farms down the road in Montezuma County, outside Cortez. In autumn expect wild chanterelles and porcini, harvested by O’Hara himself. His Rico Hotel truck can be spotted parked on high alpine roads most days during mushroom season.
How did a chef of this caliber, from Dublin, no less, end up in Rico? Years ago he worked as Wolfgang Puck’s sous-chef at the Bel-Air Hotel in Beverly Hills. He was recruited to open the food service at the new hotel that is now The Peaks Resort (then, the Doral Telluride). Ownership turmoil there led him to take a job as a private chef at Dunton Hot Springs, and from there he moved to Rico, where he has been running the former mine boarding house for years. Turning out high end cuisine in a remote town with a population of few hundred isn’t exactly a simpler life, but it is far from the pressures of major league, big city restaurateuring, and it obviously suits O’Hara, to the good fortune of those Rico residents who can boast of a local eatery of such unexpected quality; passing tourists who stumble in; and regional residents who never doubt that it is more than worth the drive.
With everything else, Rico’s destination dining experience features a very affordable and small but impeccable wine list; and O’Hara is no slouch in the dessert department either. A recent dessert consisted of house-made cherry ice cream on a cherry pie – the crust more French than American, the cherries fresh from nearby farms. And some of O’Hara’s fans have been known to make the journey to Rico just for his Crème Brulee. And the corn bisque, of course.
THE VIBE: Rustic, surprising and romantic, warm and welcoming. Every mountain resort should have a nearby getaway like this. Rico is Telluride’s.
THE CLIENTELE: A mix of locals eating out, tourists who stumble in as they drive through, and regional residents who never doubt that a meal at the Rico Hotel is worth a mountain drive.
CHEF’S SPECIALS: Along with the beef taco and crème brulee, O’Hara’s crab cake is a specialty. And skip the soup at your own risk.
Dinner served nightly 5-9 p.m. ( $15 early bird special 5-6 p.m.); brunch served on Sunday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.