Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about new restaurants around Summit County. If you have a newly opened restaurant in the county, contact arts and entertainment editor Krista Driscoll at email@example.com.
Phil Palmer said he wasn’t worried about adding another Mexican restaurant to the lineup in Breckenridge when he opened the doors to Montanas Mexican Cantina in early June, despite the handful of other similar options for visitors and locals.
“I felt like it was a good concept for La Cima,” said Palmer, who owns the restaurant on the lower level of the mall. “We’ve got so many great restaurants in there; it was complementary to what everybody else is doing. … I guess there’s room for everybody. If there’s that many T-shirt shops and many real estate shops, I feel like I should be OK.”
Fresh, Baja-style tacos
The heart of the menu at Montanas is the street-style tacos, served with veggie escabeche and fresh limes, and the burritos, served wrapped, smothered or naked. Palmer said his Baja California-inspired cuisine is a step off pace with other Mexican restaurants in town, as is his commitment to serving the freshest ingredients.
“I wanted to bring fresh Mexican food to town,” he said. “We’re going for that farm-to-table Mexican fusion, that really fresh Mexican. We use locally sourced Red Bird chicken and Colorado-farmed red meat. We’re smaller scale, so we can utilize the farmers market. Everything here is fresh as fresh can be, from the salsas to the sauces to everything that gets cut fresh every day.”
Palmer said at Montanas, he’s trying to serve good food at a good price, and he chose the food style and created flavor profiles based on what he likes to eat, especially the signature pork belly al pastor tacos, with guajillo chili-pineapple marinated pork served on corn tortillas and topped with fresh lime, pineapple, cabbage, pickled onion and cotija cheese.
“We’re the only people in the whole town doing it,” he said. “It’s a pastor style, with the pineapple. I love it; it’s my favorite.”
Come in early and grab brunch from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, or hang out from 2 to 5 p.m. in the afternoon for Montanas happy hour, with $2 draft beer, $3 house margaritas and specialty margaritas ranging from $4 to $8. The restaurant also trots out food deals for happy hour, including the quesotarian, fresh veggies served with fresh-made queso, and après-ski nachos.
“Once locals and tourists start to catch onto it, it’s going to be wildfire,” Palmer said. “We also have a surf and turf tostada with pork belly and shrimp for only $5, and it’s a huge serving.”
Palmer and his staff spent 40 days renovating the space, transforming it from the former Lucha Cantina to Montanas but keeping the same footprint.
“The drywall was replaced, all the equipment was replaced,” he said. “Visually, it had a huge cleaning — everything got gone through. We rethought out the equipment as far as steamers and cheese melters. The hood (above the grill) was already existing, but we changed the bar around.”
For the top of the bar, and a few of the custom-built tables, Palmer inlaid pennies, using the more oxidized coins in contrast with new, shiny ones to create motifs. The L-shaped bar top depicts a mountain range that shimmers under the hanging pendent lights.
“I’d seen that before and wanted to do it and did all the work myself,” Palmer said of the penny art. “We had the idea to do the mountains out of the pennies with the new ones for that copper feel. It’s the little touches.”
The open food line and grill allow customers to see their dishes being created, allowing them to keep a close eye on quality and cleanliness, something that Palmer said was important when revamping the space.
“I’m a super clean freak, so it was important to me,” he said. “There’s only a handful of places in town where you can watch all the food get cooked right in front of you. It’s kind of a unique thing, so you can sit down and have a craft cocktail and watch your food get made. I know some people find that comforting — I do.”
Consistency is key
From his experience working in other kitchens around Breckenridge, Palmer learned that it’s important to strive for consistency, from the service to the food to the atmosphere to timing the meal experience.
“Consistency gets lost when this town is really busy,” he said. “We’re small enough we can provide that consistency and that guest experience. It’s not all about turning and burning. … You don’t have to have a gimmick. If you provide that consistency and good service and good food, everything else will take care of itself.”
Palmer has owned the Liquid Lounge, located just above Montanas, for the past five years and said the new restaurant is a chance to create a warm, family-friendly atmosphere that crosses barriers and demographics that Liquid couldn’t bridge. From the $5 kids’ menu and ordering Etch-A-Sketches to entertain the tykes to a date night for the younger crowd with great deals on drinks and apps, Palmer said he is attempting to understand his guests and give them a variety of options to meet their needs.
“Just in the short amount of time we’ve been open, we’ve seen customers on their fifth, sixth, seventh time coming back,” he said. “The word is spreading, so it will be exciting to see it grow.”