During our trip to Estes Park, CO earlier this year, we stayed at the Appenzell Inn, a quaint Swiss-style villa on the east side of town. The Appenzell Inn has a nice little pub that had a pretty interesting, but short, menu. We were talking to the young lady at the front desk at the Appenzell telling her our need to explore for food choices. She said, "There's a handful of nice places around here, but my go-to choice is the Twin Owls." She told us where it was and we went there later that evening.
The Twin Owls Steakhouse is named after a rock formation in nearby Rocky Mountain National Park. The Twin Owls rocks look like two large owls roosting side by side. The 200-foot-high rock edifice is a popular destination for hikers and rock climbers.
The Twin Owls Steakhouse is part of the Black Canyon Inn, but is wholly owned by the husband and wife team of Thad Eggen and Sandra Huerta. The building in which the Twin Oaks is located was originally built in 1929 as a mountain retreat for a family. About 35 years later, a Dr. Meyers purchased the property as a guest ranch. He converted the house into a restaurant and called it the Black Canyon Inn for its vistas of the nearby Black Canyon.
The restaurant underwent a number of ownership changes before former Estes Park High School Spanish teacher Thad Eggen bought the restaurant in September of 1999. The Black Canyon Inn - owned by Jim Sloan - and the Twin Owls became one of the top destinations for weddings in the whole state of Colorado, helped by Eggen's wife Sandra Huerta's planning and execution. In fact, the Black Canyon/Twin Owls is where Eggen and Huerta had their wedding ceremony performed before they bought the restaurant.
Twin Oaks Steakhouse is located on MacGregor Ave. on the north side of Estes Park. (see map) If you aren't familiar with the place, you will probably pass it - like we did - as it's off the road and up a winding driveway. There's a large parking lot for both the Black Canyon Inn and the restaurant. An outdoor swimming pool - complete with steam rising from the pool - is situated next door to the restaurant.
We were greeted by a hostess who told us that it would be a 10 to 15 minute wait to get a table in the dining room. She invited us to get a drink in the bar while we waited. The only problem was that a wedding party was gathering in the bar for drinks before we got there and it was nearly impossible for the bartender to get to us before we were called for our table. I was fine with that.
The main dining room at Twin Owls is a rustic, mountain-themed room made out of logs and flat boards. There is a small upstairs dining area along a landing that overlooked the main dining room. Cindy immediately liked the place because of the old time mountain lodge decor. We were seated at a window table overlooking the pool for the Black Canyon Inn. The hostess dropped off menus and a wine list for us.
We were soon greeted by our server, Valera, a young man with a heavy Eastern European accent. He took our drink order and was back a short time later to talk to us about some of the specials they had that evening. He said, "One of our most popular items on the menu is our Elk kabob. If you've never tried elk before, I highly recommend it." Cindy said that we needed to give it a try, so he put the order in while we looked through the menu.
Steaks, seafood, pork and lamb chops and chicken dishes were prominent on the Twin Owls menu. They also had roasted duck and elk medallions on the menu. I wasn't completely certain what I wanted, but the buffalo New York strip au poivre sort of stuck in my mind as I looked through the bulk of the menu. They also had prime rib and a blackened New York beef strip, all served with their green chile-white cheddar mashed potatoes.
Valera brought out the elk kabob appetizer. It was off the skewer and featured six nice chunks of elk meat along with chopped peppers, red onion, and other veggies. I've had elk before and I found it to be somewhat gamey in taste. This was completely different. Whatever they marinade the elk meat in took away any gamey taste and helped break down the toughness of the meat. There was a side of a sauce that, while I couldn't quite figure out what was in it other than a bit of soy and Worcestershire sauce, it was very good. In fact, when we finished the appetizer and Valera came to pick up the plate, I grabbed the small square dish of the sauce. "You aren't going to take this," I told him.
I had pretty much decided upon the buffalo New York strip steak au poivre, but Cindy was still up in the air as to what she wanted. The signature dish at Twin Owls is the Filet MacGregor - a beef tenderloin filet, served over a balsamic demi-glaze, then topped with bleu cheese, chopped pistachios and a bearnaise sauce. She thought that sounded pretty good. But she was also looking at the 5 oz. lobster tail dinner or the seared scallops topped with a red pepper and coconut sauce. And she liked the elk kabob appetizer so much that she contemplated getting the elk medallions served with balsamic onions.
When Valera came back to take our order, Cindy was stumped. But he came to her rescue and suggested the Twin Owls 4X4 - a four ounce Filet MacGregor and a 4 oz. lobster tail. She said, "I saw that and I think that will be perfect." Roasted rosemary potatoes came with the dinner. We both passed on getting salads as we had already had the elk kabob. And I ordered up a bottle of the Luigi Bosca Argentinian malbec to go with our meal.
Valera brought our meals to the table after about 20 minutes and we were ready to dig in. I was a bit apprehensive getting the buffalo New York strip steak au poivre as buffalo meat is so lean and can get overcooked rather quickly. But the first cut into the steak showed that it was a perfect medium-rare and still had some juices inside. The au poivre sauce was rich and creamy with a wonderful cracked black pepper taste. The sauce and the lean buffalo steak were a great taste combination.
Cindy's plate was a jumble of colors and flavors. The Filet MacGregor was covered in a bearnaise sauce, bleu cheese with chopped pistachios. And the lobster looked to be more generous than 4 oz. with a large chunk of lobster meat sitting in the fanned-out tail. Cindy declared the steak to be "fantastic" and the lobster tail as "excellent".
My white cheddar/green chile mashed potatoes were good and rich. I thought of how easy it would be to make these at home. We both got a medley of grilled vegetables that we didn't concentrate on as the rest of the items on our plates overshadowed the veggies.
I was able to finish my steak and have a bite of Cindy's lobster tail. She was right - it was excellent. I left about half my mashed potatoes and the bulk of the grilled veggies on the plate. When Valera came back to take our dishes, he asked if we wanted any dessert. I sort of groaned, but Cindy said, "Well, it depends on what you have."
He mentioned a homemade creme brulee and she stopped him right there. "We'll take that with a couple spoons." And I'm glad she decided to get it. The creme brulee was very good - topped with an assortment of strawberries and mint leaves. The presentation was almost as good as the taste of the creme brulee.
Things had settled down enough for Valera to strike up a conversation with us as we enjoyed our creme brulee. He said he was from Moldova, sandwiched between the Ukraine and Romania. He said that in addition to English - which he learned within the last four years, and spoke rather well - he spoke his native Moldovan dialect, which, he told us, is basically the same thing as the Romanian language, and Russian. He said, "The difference between Moldovan and Romanian languages is sort of the difference of how people talk in the south part of the U.S. compared to people in the north."
He said that he made his way to Estes Park to visit friends. We had noticed during our short time in Estes Park that there seemed to be a number of Eastern European workers in the service industry. He said, "Oh, yes. I have lots of friends from Romania, Moldova and Bulgaria who live here." He said that he fell in love with Estes Park when he first came here and decided to stay. He said, "Moldova is a poor country." And he said with a laugh, "And the skiing is better here."
Valera acknowledged that it was probably a four-hour drive to the nearest ski resort in west central Colorado, but he said that when the winter comes, the downtime is more plentiful. "We may as well shut down in the winter time," he lamented. "It gets very slow. In fact, I sort of hate the winter around here other than the skiing. But the summer time business more than makes up for the slowness in the winter." He was a great young man who got a nice tip from us that evening.
Less than a week later, Estes Park was ravaged by relentless mountain rains along the front range of the Rockies. Valera's winter season came early as access in and out of Estes Park was disrupted for weeks. We couldn't help but think about him and the others in the Estes Park area that we met while we were there.
We ate at a lot of very good restaurants during our Colorado visit this past September. But I think my wife would agree with me as I say that Twin Owls was the best meal we had on our trip. Everything was just absolutely wonderful about our experience. The solid mountain ambiance of the restaurant, the unique nature of our excellent meals, and the solid and friendly service we had from Valera all contributed to a very memorable meal. Since then, more than once my wife has said, "Boy, I'd love to go back to Estes Park and eat at the Twin Owls..."