Whether you want to hit the hot springs, raft the Arkansas River, or bike Monarch or Marshall Pass, all the outdoor activities are within reach in blink-and-miss Poncha Springs—a tiny enclave about five miles from Salida in Chaffee County. But those in the know pump the brakes at this highway juncture to take in the collection of locally run pit stops for a.m. fuel or a post-trail drink. Here, seven must-stop places to eat and drink in Poncha Springs.
Don’t let the shabby structure deter you. Once you find Tony’s in the Shell gas station parking lot, mosey up the creaky wooden ramp, and discover fresh made-to-order tacos. You can get everything from shrimp enchiladas ($14) to a sizzling Philly cheesesteak ($12) at Tony’s. But we recommend keeping it old school with an order of four carne asada street tacos ($12). The Mexican seasoned beef piled on grilled corn tortillas with a handful of diced white onion, spritz of lime, and generous snips of cilantro hit the spot. 11346 US-50, Poncha Springs
Look for the wacky, waving, air-dancing pickle on the side of Highway 50 to find the Poncha Pub. Inside the squat blue building you’ll find locals occupying the five barstools and sipping from four tap brews. The no-frills sandwich joint flaunts a logo of a pickle with paddles, so you know these hearty hoagies are built for rafters to pound after a long day on the Arkansas. Grab a dry erase board to fill out your order and let your stomach guide the marker. We like the Pickle Club ($13) stacked with honey smoked ham, smoked turkey, crispy bacon, and cheddar on soft parmesan bread. And load it up—the messier the better—by checking all the boxes for lettuce, tomato, onion, banana peppers, pickles, and cracked pepper. For the full experience, add an enormous dill pickle ($2). 10238 US-50, Poncha Springs
Elevation Beer Co. & Mangia Food Truck
Edging toward Salida, Elevation Beer Company stretches out on its own arid plot overlooking the Collegiate Peaks. It’s tough to choose just one pint from the taproom wall of more than 20 recently brewed temptations—the milkshake hazy IPA, bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout, and a salty lime lager with a dash of bloody mary mix each caught our eye. Try a flight of five and take your time sipping them on the dog-friendly patio while onsite food truck Mangia builds your basket of veggie nachos ($13) topped with roasted whole garlic cloves, carrots, and radishes and then doused in oh-so-creamy queso and crumbly cojita. 115 Pahlone Pkwy., Poncha Springs
Red Truck Pizza Co.
The legit Neapolitan-style pizza at Red Truck Pizza Co. got its start via a wood-fired oven built on the back of a 1959 Chevy truck. The rusted red pickup now sits outside of the humble pizza shop where a new wood-fired oven replicates that original crunchy-chewy crust with hints of char. Browse the new-school pizza list for the island barbecue ($15) and delve into 12 inches of oven-roasted chicken, hickory smoked bacon, tangy barbecue sauce, red onion, pineapple, jalapeños, and divine hunks of mozzarella that melt down into beautiful gooey cheese pearls. We’re coming back for the crab rangoon pizza with sweet chile sauce. 10015 US-50, Salida
Thai Mini Café
The vintage wooden ice cream cone and burger sign on the dated building in a lonesome dirt lot may not scream “authentic Thai food here,” but regulars know Thai Mini Café is where you go for green curry and pad thai. Faded posters of Thailand and beautiful hand fans grace the wall next to a scant shelf of coconut milk, red curry paste tubs, jasmine rice, and other nonperishable goods for sale. The years are showing through scuffed floors and dingy walls, but it’s not about the decor at Thai Mini Café‚—it’s about the food. Order the pad thai ($13) loaded with shoestrings of cabbage, green onions, chopped roasted peanuts, and steaming rice noodles; and choose your spice level (medium packs some heat). The sweet-savory-spicy green curry ($13); fried shrimp and steamed veggie Bangkok Special ($16); and green tea ice cream ($3.50) are also standouts. The other side of the menu is flush with American classics in case the kids want a cheeseburger or chili cheese dog with fries. 11150 US-50, Poncha Springs
FlaminGo Breakfast Spot
Poncha Springs is next to nil on breakfast options—but that’s about to change. The FlaminGo food trailer opens in May, rolling out a full early bird grab-and-go menu. Wake up with a rich dark roast from Peregrine Coffee Roasters out of nearby Westcliffe and dig into a ricotta-parmesan-lemon-spinach portable omelet ($6) with a side of puff pastry sausage rolls ($5). Or nab a vegan breakfast bowl packed with quinoa, spinach, green chile salsa, and chipotle cream ($9.50). And a slice of homemade pie ($5), of course. Because who doesn’t love pie and coffee in the morning? 10538 US-50, Poncha Springs
The Hunger Shack
Sharing the same parking lot as the FlaminGo trailer, brick-and-mortar Hunger Shack is a summertime draw for roadside barbecue, burgers and soft serve. The lunch hour fills picnic tables with locals who keep coming back for the famed smoked Rueben ($16) with special sauce on marble rye sourdough and the daring ghost pepper patty melt ($13) with sautéed onions smothered in fiery ghost pepper cheese. ’Cue fans will appreciate the satiating barbecue plates. The baby back ribs are smoked onsite for 10 hours and come highly recommended. 10538 US-50, Poncha Springs