Smokin’ up the slopes |

Smokin’ up the slopes

Matt Zalaznick
Wildwood Smokehouse Executive Chef Ken Ferrari checks on the smoker. The restaurant serves up a varity of smoked meats for a big apetite.

Well, Vail Mountain’s Wildwood Smokehouse, at the top of Chair 3, will certainly fuel a skier up for either a plunge down the steeps of Sun Down Bowl or a cruise on the best groomers on the front side of the hill.

“It’s easy to be happy skiing with a belly full of good food,” says Scott O’Connell, manager of Wildwood. “Plus, it weighs you down and adds momentum.”

The smallish restaurant has a more rustic, western atmosphere than your typical on-mountain eatery. With wood-paneled walls and wooden benches, a skier or snowboarder doesn’t have that feeling of being stuffed in a crowded high school cafeteria.

Our lunch began with sun and blue sky blazing through the restaurant’s windows and a spectacular view of Mount of the Holy Cross. Next, was a bowl of Wildwood’s award-winning smoked chicken and wild rice soup, voted best soup in the ski industry by SKI Magazine in 1998.

If you like creamy soups, this is a meal in itself for a skier or snowboarders – a perfect light, quick and sumptuous lunch that won’t make you feel too full to get back out on the hill.

“We’ve got a lot of faithful followers who come for their chicken soup every day,” O’Connell says.

Wildwood’s spunky vegetarian chili is also top notch –with or without the jalapenos. It’s another quickie that’ll fire you up for an afternoon of cruising and carving rather than heading back to the condo for a nap.

For an even lighter fuel stops, Wildwood, which opens at 9 a.m., serves Starbucks coffee, fresh fruits and plenty of baked goods.

The main courses at Wildwood can get a little fancier than at your average ski hill diner, O’Connell says.

“Everybody seems to want hamburgers and french fries. You offer these and then maybe there’s something on the menu that grabs them – you see our smoker’s combo and it says, “You’ve got to try me,'” O’Connell says.

The smoker’s combo – the smoking is done out front, with hickory and pecan –consists of half a barbecue brisket sandwich, waffle fries or beer-battered onion rings and a cup of soup.

The smokey brisket is marinated with O’Connell’s own sweet, tangy barbecue sauce. The recipe isn’t secret –there are about 500 gallons of the stuff hanging around Wildwood – but it is for sale. If you don’t mind skiing with a jar, you can take a batch of the sauce down the slopes with you.

A lighter alternative is the tuna sandwich. The tuna, other than a slightly smokey flavor, is served pretty straightforward –except that you’re eating tuna at nearly 11,000 feet above sea level and more than a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.

The daily lunch special the day we dropped in was a smoked prime rib sandwich with swiss cheese and sauteed onions and peppers. If you can handle this heartier cousin of the philly cheese steak and still keep your ski boots on, this may be the winner on Wildwood’s menu.

And if you don’t need the agility to ski trees or moguls in the afternoon and you’ve got room for desert, Wildwood has a top-notch blondie, which O’Connell describes as a chocolate chip bar.

The apple pie also is outstanding, but there’s a very good reason ski racers don’t wolf down a piece before the downhill. On the other hand, you’re probably on vacation and so’s the diet.

“We’re a little smaller, but we have nicer ambience and the best picnic area on Vail Mountain –better than Two Elk,” O’Connell says. “I also have the nicest tables, the friendliest staff and the best food.”

What may be best about Wildwood is its location atop a wide-variety of terrain.

“You can go right into Game Creek Bowl, or, if you’re looking for something a little more extreme, you can drop into Sun Down Bowl –or, you can head down the Minturn Mile to the Saloon for some beers,” O’Connell says.

From Wildwood, you don’t even need to take another chairlift to get to the Chair 2 groomers, such as Lodges and Avanti. And the usually-groomed easier runs Christmas and Swingsville are only a lift ride away.

“If you want quality food with a friendly atmosphere, Wildwood is the place to go,” O’Connell says. “I hate to gloat, but we have the best food on the mountain.”

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