We drove south on I-25 and didn't mind the DTC, Castle Rock or Colorado Springs traffic one bit. In fact, before we knew it we were plowing through Pueblo and well on our way to Santa Fe, via the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, our destination for that evening.
To get to the Sand Dunes from I-25, you turn right at the town of Walsenburg. Arriving in Walsenburg was excitement enough (you've never read those words before), as a couple years ago, on this same drive, we found a great hamburger stand typical of Southern Colorado full of all the usual suspects: Frito Pies, green chile burgers, smothered burritos, etc. We rolled slowly into town, carefully scanning the street for our meal-time destination, unsure of its name but with a clear picture of the New Mexico colors it sported as well as the drive-thru window. Sure enough we found it, except now it looked like this:
"Awwwwwww," I moaned; the excitement of the drive, the long weekend and the triumphant arrival to Walsenburg left me momentarily, and in its place was the familiar feeling of grumbling hunger. All day in my mind I was preparing for this moment, when I would sit down in a booth at Tes' (pronounced Tess') and stuff my face with smothered this-and-that. I even skimped on my other meals that day knowing I would throw down like a ravenous stray dog when I got to Walsenburg. And now this? Boarded-up windows and empty parking lot? How much good food could there be in Walsenburg?
But remember that this week I had adopted (I have since neglected it) the admirable Serenity-now-like philosophy where a small crisis like this is not a setback but rather an opportunity to experience something new. Serenity now. Or something like that.
What I did next was more similar to how I had been dealing with difficult situations in my life up until a week ago: go into the liquor store. Actually I just wanted to ask someone where I could get some good Mexican-like food in this town.
For a while, Walsenburg had it all: drive-thru liquor and Frito pie on one corner.
I asked the guy behind the counter the deal. Apparently Tes had a big fire a year or two ago, but there were other places, he assured me. After some difficult hemming and hawing on his part between the other two or three other restaurants in town, he came out with it. While his friend worked at this one place, he would go to this other place: Huerfano Cafe. "Man, my friend would kill me if she knew I sent you there," he said. Not to worry my friend, me writing that in my blog is as good as the best kept secret.
I appreciate the honesty of a good liquor store employee, and bought a couple tall boys of Tecate before heading out. Newly invigorated, we got in the car and drove through lovely and historic downtown Walsenburg, passing historic city hall (right), turned right at the stoplight and continued on to the edge of town to find our destination.
The Huerfano Cafe is the good company of restaurants that close on a random weekday that is not Monday (a good sign). Inside was a simple diner-style layout with booths in the middle, tables around the walls and two hard-working servers handling a full house. This truly seemed like the place to be in Walsenburg that night as families, biker-couples and lone aging cowboy-types packed the place. We got a table after a short wait and sat down to order.
Our server was especially friendly and was clearly a professional. She stacked and piled plates like few others I have ever seen, clearing a full six-top in one precarious but confident trip--without a tray. Then she hustled over to us, smiling big like she was really having a great time. We got the wipe-board special of Chicharrones as well as some enchiladas and a daunting smothered sopapilla hamburger.
The chicharrones were fresh-fried and served with warm flour tortillas. It seems like bits of fried pork skin in a tortilla would be too dry, but just like a torta de tamal, it was actually quite good. We didn't exactly finish the small bowl off, but that is also because looking at the size of everyone else's plates, we knew what we had coming.
The enchiladas were excellent and curiously prepared Mexican style, with pan-fried crisp corn tortillas instead of the more typical baked New Mexican-style enchiladas. It was, though, topped (smothered) with a delicious New Mexican-style green chile and alongside it were refried beans that tasted wonderfully of lard.
It was an excellent green chile and a very good plate of enchiladas. It was large as well, but the true gut bomb of the evening was the sopapilla hamburger. Smothered. The New Mexican and Southwestern sopapilla is the rough equivalent of the Mexican gordita, except the dough is lighter and it is typically served as a dessert. Here it was used as sandwich around ground beef. It reminded me of the infamous and deadly donut hamburger, sometimes called the "Luther burger" in honor of Luther Van Dross (who did fill out rather robustly after its "invention" and unfortunately suffered from diabetes and hypertension). I propose that this Chicano version of the Luther burger could then rightly be called the Fluffy burger, in honor of the obnoxious (but sorta funny) comedian Gabriel Iglesias.
You can't really tell what is going on in the following smothered mess of a picture, and true to the chaos present on the plate, so it was in our stomachs as we drove the rest of the way to the Sand Dunes. It was, of course, a very good mess of a meal. The crunchy-yet-soft sopapilla soaked up the delicious red chile like a sponge, and the unnecessary half-pound of ground beef was obviously good.
The Huerfano Cafe in Walsenburg is not on the way to much, but when out wandering in the Southern parts of our great state, it is certainly worth your while to stop and have a well-made meal that is sure to satisfy.
Just make sure it's not a Tuesday.