The first time I ate at Taco Party, in downtown Grand Junction, I felt obligated to choose one of the canvas-shaded outdoor tables lining the sidewalk. My shirt was salt-stained and smelly after my morning hike, and a gritty crust of sunscreen covered my flushed face. I had no business mingling among the deodorized couples in the cherry-red leather booths inside. But then I bit into a taco and experienced the kind of rejuvenation that no mere shower can achieve: This was wholesome medicine for weary muscles.
The tortilla was crafted from native blue corn farmed on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, 200 miles south of Grand Junction. It cradled delectable bits of slow-roasted local pork dressed with radish salsa and a creamy drizzle of Colorado-grown mayacoba beans. It was delicious, yes, but also a radical offering in a town that had never tried to be cool.
In the 20-plus years that I’ve been weekending in Grand Junction (or “Junction,” as locals abbreviate it), I’ve noticed that the community has never worked hard to turn visitors onto its charms—perhaps because those draws seemed too obvious to need boosterism. Colorado National Monument borders the city to the south and dazzles hikers with red-rock cliffs and spires. Some pockets equal the scenic value of Arches National Park, 1.5 hours west—but with a fraction of the crowds (Arches hosted 1.8 million visitors last year, compared to 500,000 at Junction’s backyard park).
Mountain biking is also big here, particularly on Grand Mesa, the massive, flat-topped mountain east of GJ where the new (summer 2021) Palisade Plunge bike trail drops 5,000 vertical feet on a top-to-bottom course spanning 32 miles. Grand Mesa is also home to Powderhorn Mountain Resort, a charmingly non-corporate ski area.
Beyond the scenic bounty, there’s the yum-factor of the surrounding vineyards and farms. Grand Junction sits on the confluence of two major rivers (the Gunnison and the Colorado, formerly named the Grand) so growers have historically enjoyed plenty of water for cultivating grapevines and fruit trees in an arid climate. In April and May, those orchards explode with white flowers growing in tidy rows beneath the wrinkled flanks of Mount Garfield, an eroded clay mesa where wild horses roam.
For years, I searched Grand Junction—in vain—for postadventure refreshment that wasn’t produced by a national fast- or casual-food chain. Then Denver native Josh Niernberg opened Taco Party in 2017 (after establishing Bin 707, his fine-dining concept, in 2011) and at long last, explorers with local and distant addresses had a creative way to refuel bodies and imaginations after rambling among Junction’s canyons and vineyards.
“There’s nowhere else in the state that has the access to the outdoors and to unique, fresh, local food that we do,” says Niernberg, who relocated here with his wife, a Grand Junction native. “We really are this tourism destination that’s always been off the radar.”
There are signs, however, that GJ’s sleeper status may not last much longer. In March 2022, Niernberg earned his second nomination for a James Beard Award, for the Outstanding Chef category of national contestants (his previous nod was for the regional “Best Chef: Mountains” niche). It recognizes not only his use of local Colorado produce but also his creativity: Niernberg uses lacto-fermentation to transform local elephant heart plums into stand-ins for limes, which the valley doesn’t produce. As a member of Zero Foodprint, an organization that allows chefs to support soil regeneration, Niernberg is also developing pathways that would allow local restaurants to improve soil health at nearby farms.
Winemakers and brewers unite
Niernberg isn’t the only creative to want to exploit Grand Junction’s seemingly untapped potential. After years of turning grapes grown by Grand Valley native Kaibab Sauvage into wines for Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem, winemaker Patric Matysiewski partnered with Sauvage in 2019 to create a new Grand Valley label, Sauvage Spectrum. The duo is dedicated to discovering what Colorado’s wine profile can and should be, and what varietals thrive in the high-altitude vineyards near Grand Junction and the smaller town of Palisade, located 12 miles east amid the vines.
“We don’t need another California chardonnay, and they don’t particularly fit our season,” says Matysiewski. Instead, Sauvage (who also farms peaches) is experimenting with grüner veltliner (a white varietal from Austria) and teroldego (a red grape from northern Italy that Matysiewski translates into a lambrusco-style sparkling red wine). Both grapes hail from mountainous regions that share commonalities with the Grand Valley’s cooler climate.
“Over the years, people have tried to figure out what [grape varietal] is going to put Colorado on the map,” says Kevin Webber, cofounder of Denver-based Carboy Winery, which began in 2016 by making wine from out-of-state grapes but recently shifted to using exclusively Colorado-grown fruit. After purchasing the former Garfield Estates winery and vineyard—plus two additional vineyards—Carboy opened a tasting room in Palisade with a grand opening scheduled for April 2022.
“You can sit on our rooftop patio and enjoy a panoramic view of Mount Garfield and Grand Mesa,” says Webber, who also planted teroldego. Like Sauvage Spectrum, Carboy is betting that Colorado’s future is in sparkling wines. “Grand Valley grapes tend to be of a higher acid profile, and that minerality lends itself really well to making Colorado-style prosecco,” Webber explains.
Transplants aren’t the only ones driving Junction’s newfound ingenuity. Ramblebine Brewing Company, located around the corner from Taco Party in downtown Grand Junction, was founded by a native son who realized that there’s no place like home. To complement its IPAs and flavored stouts, Ramblebine invited some of Niernberg’s protégés to open Block Party, a gourmet kitchen serving bar snacks beside the taps.
Walk one block in the opposite direction and you land at Moody’s, a new nightclub launched by Logan Moody, a Junction-born drummer who wished GJ had a cocktail bar with a stage for small ensembles—so he opened one. Craving a proper Old-Fashioned? This is your place. Moody’s list of whiskies and Scotch is easily GJ’s broadest, though admittedly, competition for that title is thin given the region’s dedication to producing wine and, increasingly, cider.
It all represents a huge expansion from 2008, when Niernberg first landed in Grand Junction. “This was an agricultural hot spot, but before farm-to-table was a thing,” he recalls. Personally, I’m glad to see Junction supporting craft farming and the treats that can result. This is the same admirably unpretentious city amid the canyons and mesas that are so worth exploring—only with a better après.
Where to stay in Grand Junction
Book Now: Spoke and Vine Motel
In Palisade, the Spoke and Vine Motel is a 1950s-era motor lodge with a very likeable facelift: Top-shelf beds guarantee a sound night’s sleep, and the convivial bar and patio provide the perfect place to enjoy breezes off Grand Mesa while you sip something local.
Keep an eye out for the forthcoming Estate House accommodations at Carboy Winery, which also plans to install tiny homes around the property so guests can sleep among the vines.