Longtime residents and visitors may remember the Ancient Mariner bar in Manitou Springs near the Ruxton Avenue roundabout. It is now the Armadillo Ranch with plenty of vestiges of its former self: sea-faring décor, expansive bar and stage for live music. Besides the name, the big difference is the Armadillo Ranch is more a restaurant than a bar.
Fall is a transition period in this popular tourist town, so it wasn’t too surprising that the place was almost empty. Although later, walking after dinner, we noticed plenty of people patronizing other restaurants on Manitou Avenue. They were either seated on patios or we could hear the buzz emanating from the places with open doors. Apparently, lunch is livelier at “the Dillo,” as owner/operator Jason Wells, refers to it, and when there’s live music, which is most weekends, the place can be packed.
The slow night didn’t diminish our server’s friendly and attentive demeanor. He recommended “anything with our barbecue” since meats are smoked in-house for 12 hours and the sauce is homemade. The same claim is bestowed upon the potato salad. We were also told all of the pasta dishes are exceptional because the head chef, Lyn Ettinger-Harwell, has opened numerous restaurants, including several Italian ones. He was not in the kitchen the night of my visit.
We started with an appetizer of braised Brussels sprouts ($8), which we learned are lightly fried in addition to being braised. Caramelized onions and crunchy pistachios add texture and flavor while some of the outer leaves of the Brussels sprouts were crispy. However, some of the mini-cabbage-like veggies would have benefited from either more time in the oven or fryer; a few were undercooked. Still, this was a nice way to begin the meal.
The menu features an array of sandwiches and burgers, including a pricey BLT: $9.50. This is the same price as a meatball sub. I like BLTs but thought the entrees provided a better deal.
The classic chicken Parmesan ($11) was also recommended. It’s served with “house pasta,” which I took to mean made in-house. Instead, according to our server, it’s made fresh daily elsewhere. The location wasn’t disclosed. An ample serving of basic spaghetti noodles was smothered with sauce and topped with a well-cooked chicken breast and melted mozzarella cheese. Since the place wasn’t busy, it was easy to hear the sizzle of the chicken when it hit the fryer. It wasn’t greasy and maintained its crispy coating.
The sauce was another story. It tasted like nothing Italian. I was told it is made in house “with lots of herbs and paprika.” I associate herbs with spaghetti, but not that spice. If that was, in fact, the ingredient, it did the sauce no favors.
The barbecue combo plate ($14.50), was more successful. Pulled pork, sliced brisket and smoked sausage with a small container of barbecue sauce and the side of potato salad was a filling entrée. The latter was creamy with just the right amount of tangy pickle juice, diced celery and celery seed. I thought the pork was on the salty side but found the sausage to be exceptional. The brisket was fine.
As mentioned, the place barely had a pulse. Not that a crowd would necessarily improve the food, but it would have livened up the ambiance. Perhaps lunch is the better option here.