Mountainside dining with more than a view
Right off the bat, restaurants in Cedar Crest and other small mountain villages have one thing going for them: an intensely chill attitude. I don’t know if it’s due to the small population or altitude, but every one I’ve ever visited has that trademark vibe to it. Greenside Café is no exception.
Next to Triangle Grocery on Hwy. 14, the café calls to mind Hemingway’s "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." It’s light and airy with a few hidden booths that, like Hemingway’s shadowy leaves, are refuge from the dining room's hustle. Perhaps my correlation between Hemingway’s stark description of the human condition and a place that serves chicken-fried steak is a little too deep, but mountain air has that effect on me.
Greenside cooks up stick-to-your-ribs cuisine similar to that found in many Burque establishments. Owner and chef Jay Wulf has been involved with several local restaurants, including The Standard Diner and The Range Café. He also owns Gecko’s Bar and Tapas. While the food may not be that different from what you’ll get a little further down the mountain, the location seems to have a psychological effect that somehow makes gorging yourself on heaps of heart-stopping food nearly guiltless.
First, I’d like to commend Wulf on rounding up an excellent staff. The front-of-the-house gang was quick to offer suggestions and answer any question fired at them. As impressed as I was, what really struck me was the sincerity that each staff member possessed. It’s not every day you find a restaurant whose employees care as much as the owner. Wulf seemed personally invested in his patrons, even showing interest in my plans to head into the hills for mushrooms when he noticed the field guide I had brought along to skim.
For my first meal I tried a "Sangre de Cristo," a sandwich similar to a Monte Cristo. Ham, turkey, Swiss and cheddar cheeses are fired up with green chile and nestled between egg-battered Hawaiian bread, then grilled. It’s like French toast stuffed with a deli. The bread took on a blissful custard texture, and the raspberry sauce served on the side brought the whole devilish concoction together. I found myself dunking perfectly golden French fries in the sweet sauce, while my puddle of Heinz ketchup went ignored.
When eating such filling and comforting grub, you might as well adopt an attitude of “in for a penny, in for a pound.” In this spirit, I ordered the chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy. Light and flaky breading encased a slab of fresh cube steak that was tender and moist. The thing was so huge I had to go on a mining expedition to locate the mashed potatoes. (I was actually filled with regret when I finally conceded to fullness and threw in the towel.) Likewise, the mashed potatoes were so buttery that I came nowhere near finishing them. But I made an honest effort.
The menu also yields a chipotle-steak sandwich: a spicier, more savory version of a Philly cheese steak. Sautéed onions and bell peppers find themselves in good company with this smoky, marinated meat.
For dessert, homemade strawberry mascarpone cheesecake pushed me over the edge. I was drunk on comfort food and, after three or four bites, nearly passed out in the booth. I wobbled out to the car, somehow with my dignity intact, and headed back to town, leaving behind the order that only a clean, well-lit café can provide—with a little help from altitude and fresh air.