Venue Review: Garden of the Gods Trading Post, Gallery and Cafe
The century-old Garden of the Gods Trading Post might seem like the last place to go looking for an authentic taste of the West. After all, the mock-pueblo trinket shop catering to hundreds of thousands of tourists a year is an honest-to-goodness rubber-tomahawk shop.
I actually found rubber tomahawks on a recent visit, next to the suction cup bowand-arrow sets. Growing cultural awareness or not, they were $1.99.
But the historical curio shop also holds some surprises. Back beyond the rubber tomahawks and tacky wolf T-shirts, a high-end gallery sells some beautiful work by local artists and real native crafts such as hand-carved Hopi Kachinas and $1,300 Navajo rugs.
So I figured the same might be true at the little cafe in the back of the trading post. Yes, it would probably have burgers and Slushees for the droves of tourists, but maybe it would serve a little of that real flavor you can get at little, roadside bluetarp stands on the reservations: fry bread and mutton stew or blue corn atole.
Turns out, the most interesting thing on the menu is the rubber tomahawk of “Western” cuisine: the buffalo burger. Among the sandwiches, wraps and salads, there are also buffalo bratwurst and buffalo chili.
“I haven’t seen this much buffalo since ‘Dances With Wolves,’” a friend said as we walked up to order.
He got the ultimate buffalo bacon cheeseburger ($8.75). I got the chili ($5.75). We grabbed a seat under the gorgeous, ancient cottonwood on the patio.
The burger wasn’t bad. Buffalo can be a bit lean and dry, but it was dressed up with a nice piece of cheddar and smoky, crisp bacon. Nothing worth crossing town for, but a good choice if you have to show Garden of the Gods to Uncle Jeb and Aunt Betsy, and they insist on taking you out to lunch here.
The same isn’t true with the chili. It’s a lunchroom-style Styrofoam bowl of canned beans, onions, green peppers with a buffalo-burger patty unceremoniously ripped up and tossed in. The whole thing is sprinkled with yellow, pre-shredded cheese, giving it a bland, Midwestern flavor equivalent to filming one of the “Dances With Wolves” bison-hunting scenes in a Kmart in Topeka, Kan.
Oh, well, know your customers.
The next day we tried again, ordering the Buffalo Bratwurst ($5.95) and a roast beef croissant ($5.95).
Both were disappointments. The brat was served on a doughy white hot dog bun with pickles and red onion on the side, but it wasn’t a bratwurst.
It was a spicy pink kielbasa. No explanations from the kitchen. I’m not even sure they noticed.
The roast beef arrived with a healthy pink blush and nice flavor, but it came on a croissant that left a waxy film in my mouth. I’m not sure if that means it was made with trans fats or tropical oils, but it didn’t taste or feel like real butter.
Nothing at the little cafe falls far short of its mark, but the mark is pretty low: snack bar food for out-of-towners looking for convenient food. The only true taste of the West at Garden of the Gods Trading Post comes from the lovely patio, where diners can enjoy the shade of the cottonwood while catching glimpses of the mountains through the leaves.
It’s not enough to make a trip worthwhile, but it’s a bit of compensation if you do end up here.