Fast and flavorful

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Sushi chef Dung Tran rushes an order to one of the 15 patrons who are able to be seated at a time at Rice Monkey.

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to the Herald

You know winter is officially over when you’re eager to grab lunch on the run and dine outside in the fresh air and midday sunshine.

For park-bench lunches or eat-and-run strolls along the riverfront, a number of downtown walk-up restaurants, kiosks and food trucks offer quick and tasty options.

Mariana’s Authentic Cuisine, next to Sixth Street Liquors at 273 East College Drive, serves a half dozen Chinese and southeast Asian take-out items plus daily specials. Most items are prepared fresh to order, with an emphasis on herbs such as lemongrass, bay leaf, tamarind, garlic and ginger, owner Mariana Hidayat said.

Indonesian bah mee, chicken curry and rice-paper spring rolls are prepared in advance, but other specialties are prepared with the customer’s choice of condiments to amp up an otherwise mildly flavored selection. Phone-in orders get even quicker service, Hidayat said.

College students and loyalists from last summer’s Farmers Market bring friends to visit her big yellow trailer on College Avenue between East Third Avenue and downtown, where she’s on a month-to-month lease until she can find a location to open a drive-thru restaurant.

“These are my great-great-grandmother’s foods. My mama taught me that herbs are the real food. Durango people like healthy and fresh – what I served at the Farmers Market,” Hidayat said.

Also specializing in fast and healthy cuisine, Rice Monkeys at 1050 Main Ave. offers Asian fusion and a sushi bar. The 4-month-old, 15-seat restaurant is the collaborative effort of associates Jimmy Nguyen, Dung Tran and Ezrig Villafuerte and already has earned a reputation for being big on flavor.

Beef broth used in many of Rice Monkeys’ offerings simmers 10 to 15 hours to develop a complex, full-bodied aroma and a balance of Asian flavors. Nguyen said his “third-a-third-and-a-third” combination of protein, carbohydrates and raw ingredients is the healthful balance that keeps customers returning, some as many as four times a week.

Francilia Ehrig is among the health-conscious customers who prefer to select from among 20 gluten-free options, including her top picks, the Southwestern Roll and the Rice Paper Fried Pork Vermicelli Bowl.

“I’m here maybe six times a month. It’s my favorite place in town,” Ehrig said.

Guests at the 600-square-foot restaurant squeezed between Carver Brewing Co. and the Old Main Post Office wait patiently in a long but fast-moving line that can snake out the front door to the sidewalk.

“Our customers are pretty cooperative. They know it takes about five to seven minutes to make an order and that seating is limited,” Nguyen said.

Customers who prefer not to wait can phone in a to-go order, and for a $3 fee, Rice Monkeys will deliver within a five-mile radius.

More than two dozen rolls, rice bowls, vermicelli bowls, soups, salads and appetizers are prepared from start to finish in the well-appointed, fully visible kitchen, which Nguyen said makes a difference to Durango diners who want to see fresh, quality ingredients.

Nguyen, a former travelling sushi chef, is known to add a surprise special to the extensive menu, “whenever we start craving it.”

The staff works shoulder-to-shoulder with assembly-line efficiency and not an inch to spare in the 400-square-foot kitchen.

Rice Monkeys’ loyal fan base benefits from social-media sites such as Facebook, where some of the 450 “likes” visit as often as four times a week. The downtown office and retail crowd of 30- to 50-year-olds is among the regulars, Nguyen said.

For a classic American Philly cheese steak, the sidewalk crowd heads to the Good on the Bun pushcart parked on the corner of 11th Street and Main Avenue. That’s where Philadelphia natives Markus Chesla (“Marcus Farkus”) and Tom Corrado tag-team orders, serving up soup and sandwiches of the day, brats, hot dogs and all the trimmings.

Chesla said the two weathered rain and snow to be a reliable presence on the corner for the last six months. It’s paid off, the former Durango Natural Foods deli cook said.

Chesla and Corrado had been offering food-concession services at local athletic events and music festivals such as Planet Bluegrass, but both needed steadier employment in the food-service industry.

The childhood friends pooled $6,500 to buy the cart and all the licenses needed to operate a “truly portable” food business.

They spent another $500 on food ingredients and got permission from the local chapter of the Elks to use its commercial kitchen to launch their menu of homemade soups and sandwiches.

“We’re all in. We spent every dollar that we have,” Chesla said.

On a good day, they’re cheese-whizzing up to 30 Philly cheese steaks, made from fully-cooked, sliced ribeye kept warm in their portable steam table. In the last week, they cooked 20 pounds of pork butt for Italian pork sandwiches slathered with pickled red onion, sharp provolone and braised bitter greens such as broccoli rabe.

The two use weekly updates on Facebook to let fans know what soups and sandwiches will be on the menu they serve from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. Each week they feature a gluten-free soup and a specialty sandwich. On Mondays, they shop and cook, and the rest of the week, rain or shine, they’re on the corner.

On a different corner of downtown, at the southeast junction of College Drive and Main Avenue, Michel’s Corner Authentic Crepes has been an urban garden landmark for the last four summers, parked among planters bursting with colorful, trailing petunias.

“Our product is specialized. People are curious, and we offer something that is unusual,” said owner-chef Michel Poumay.

His semi-permanent kiosk offers nearly a dozen different sweet and savory crepes. Last week, an influx of spring break tourists added to his typical winter business, and on one 10-to-5 workday, Poumay turned out 108 crepes.

Winters usually aren’t that busy, Poumay said, except for special events such as Snowdown. But summer is another story.

“Wind and rain is my enemy. Sunshine is my best friend,” Poumay said of the roller-coaster reality of outdoor dining.

Among his European-influenced offerings are classic ham and Gruyere crepes with mustard and tomato, and a recently introduced turkey, cheddar and avocado crepe, garnished with green chile and salsa, reminds diners where they are on the map, he said.

Tourists factor heavily into his target market, but some locals visit three or four times a month. One fan recently booked her June wedding rehearsal dinner for 25 on the corner patio.

“Everyone has a favorite crepe, whether it’s chicken and wild mushroom or chocolate hazelnut with whipped cream,” Poumay said.

About 80 percent of his guests eat right there on the patio, but for those who take their crepes to go, Poumay has sourced a wax-lined, triangular crepe carrier designed in a small French town near the Alps, to hold the heat and keep delicate crepes intact.

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