Update: Friar's Fork in Alamosa is not among the finalists for a James Beard award for best new restaurant. The Foundation made the announcement of its shortlist on Wednesday, March 29.
Just beyond an adobe archway and a charming, enclosed courtyard, a cardinal red wooden door welcomes visitors into The Sanctuary, just one facet of the Friar's Fork. Stepping inside, it's clear the building was once a church, although its mission is much different now.
Denise Vigil, owner and executive chef, said the work she does here is deep-seated in her soul.
"You spend all this time building these things that are gone in 20 minutes once it's out on the table," she said. "But there's something beautiful in that it's quite literally internalized by the people who want to be here."
Guests at The Sanctuary enjoy high-end, handcrafted cocktails, freshly brewed coffee and specialty lattes. They unwind in intimate sitting areas with a mishmash of chairs and benches situated around patterned rugs. Rows of diamond-patterned stained glass windows help fragment the room, interrupted by oil paintings of monks enjoying alcoholic beverages.
The building was desanctified several years ago and sat vacant. The altar was left behind as was a high-backed, ornately carved Bishop's chair. A handful of pews also remained. All have been put to use in the space — an intentional homage to its former life as a 1920s-era Episcopal chapel.
Just next door, through a small door adjoining the two spaces, is The Friar's Fork. The softly-lit dining room offers a handful of tables. The pulpit that was left in the chapel has been repurposed as a host stand. Former Sunday school classrooms, still with original chalkboards, offer private dining spaces.
Vigil, an Alamosa native, opened the business in July of 2022, along with her husband Nealson Vialpando. Now, just eight months later, The Friar's Fork is in the running for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant, one of the highest honors in the United States culinary world.
"I've been doing this for a little over 30 years now," Vigil said, describing her career in the restaurant world. "But this is the first time that I've had a place of my own."
Together, the pair spent a solid nine months restoring The Sanctuary and the adjoining building that now serves as a dining room.
"We had a lot of people when we first purchased the site that saw it and they thought, well, you're crazy. This is a huge, huge project," Vigil said. "But, we had a vision."
That huge project included removing carpet and sanding floors to reveal the original hardwood. They retextured the walls to give the space the ambiance of a European salt cave. A commercial kitchen was added to what was once the parish hall.
Vigil said she saw the venture as a chance to return to her hometown and open a little restaurant to focus on for the next few decades of her working life. She said she thought it would go "unnoticed."
She was wrong.
The James Beard nomination launched a whirl of attention for The Friar's Fork. In addition to her time spent in the kitchen and behind the scenes, Vigil has been fielding press interviews and penciling in reservations for people from places like Portland and New Jersey, just to name a few.
"We are able to track some of the things on our website, like where people who are looking at our website are from and it's nationwide and actually worldwide," she said. "They show a map of where all the hits come from and I'm thinking, 'Really? Someone in Portugal is looking at us?'"
It's hard to go to Alamosa by accident. The town relies heavily on tourism from the Great Sand Dunes National Park in the summer, as well as those traveling across the state along Highway 160. It sees some of the coldest temperatures in the contiguous U.S. during the winter. And in the spring and fall, it's just one of a handful of small towns in the San Luis Valley where farmers plant and harvest potatoes and lettuce — not somewhere you'd expect to find one of the best new restaurants in the country.
"We're pretty isolated. You have to go over mountain passes to get here. It's not like we're on the outskirts of Denver or Colorado Springs, we're removed from that," Vigil said.
That hasn't been a problem. Along with her roughly 25 team members, many of whom had no restaurant experience prior to this job, Vigil has hosted a steady stream of customers, anxious to try her Italian-American and Mediterranean fare. She described the food as unpretentious and approachable.
"The menu itself has all of the usual suspects — lasagna, spaghetti and fettuccine alfredo. The kinds of things that everybody knows," she said.
There's also ossobuco — beef shank cooked in white wine, served with gremolata and tomato polenta. The lamb risotto features a slow-roasted leg of lamb rubbed with stone mustard, served on parmesan-sage quinoa.
"On our lunch menu, we have our fried bologna sandwich, which is super popular but it's not my third-grade lunchbox," Vigil said laughing. "We get a really high-quality roll of baloney. We shave it ourselves, really thin, and we fry it."
The sandwich is topped with giardiniera, lettuce, tomato, stone-ground mustard and mozzarella cheese.
Vigil said she designed the menu with both locals and tourists in mind. The lunch menu tops out at $20. That includes a drink and salad. The most expensive dinner offerings are only a dollar more. She uses as much locally-sourced food as she can.
And while she's focused on finding her footing in the San Luis Valley right now, Vigil's reputation in the culinary world is solid.
Amanda Faison is a freelance food writer and judge for the James Beard awards. She said Vigil is anything but a stranger to the restaurant industry, having worked for Mark Miller at Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M., at the Little Nell in Aspen, and at Sundance Resort near Park City, Utah.
A scan of the menus at those places shows $600 caviar and $85 steak, along with bios for renowned chefs, celebrated for their work.
"To be able to bring her craft back to Alamosa and celebrate it there and have it noticed, I think that this is what the [James Beard] awards are all about," said Faison.
In the past, the awards were focused mainly on chefs and dining options in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. It drew criticism, and Dawn Padmore, vice president of awards for the foundation, said they've taken steps to improve equity and diversity in the award process, finding and highlighting hidden gems like The Friar's Fork.
"The dining landscape in this country is vast and it is diverse. And our goal is for this award program to better reflect that," Padmore said. "We wanted to open the aperture up."
Faison said the nomination is an exciting chance to bring attention to a new restaurant in a rural area.
"You can break down diversity in many different ways," Faison said. "Certainly there's racial and social diversity, but there's also geographic diversity and all three of those things are incredibly important to the foundation. And I think you see so much of that in a restaurant like Friar's Fork."
Vigil was one of two women in her class at the Culinary Institute of America in New York when she graduated more than 30 years ago. She said most women at the school focused on baking.
"I remember, initially, nobody really knew what I was talking about when I said I'm going to go learn how to cook," she said. "I'd get comments like, 'what do you mean? at Denny's?"
Vigil was not, in fact, planning to work at Denny's. It was her goal to work for people who had won a James Beard award, focusing on a certain niche at each job she took. She also worked as a special events coordinator, managing parties and banquets.
And for much of her career, Vigil was a single mom.
"When you're in the restaurant industry, your varsity crew [works] at night and that all comes to a screeching stop when you have a little baby," Vigil said.
So, for several years she managed Starbucks locations from Denver to Pueblo. Most recently, Vigil was a private chef at an elite vacation ranch in the San Luis Valley.
"My daughter is in college, so now I'm fully free to do this," she said. "And while my background was at a really, very high five-star level — it was plating things with tweezers sometimes — this work is so much more personal."
Vigil described the James Beard nomination as the honor of a lifetime.
"I'm wildly proud that, if nothing else, it shows what's possible because it wasn't even anything that I had set as a goal or was striving for. I never thought that that would even be a possibility in a small town like Alamosa," she said.
Judges from the James Beard Foundation will dine, anonymously, at each of the 29 other places nominated for Best New Restaurant. That includes a barbecue spot in Roundup, Montana and a Gambian place in Jackson, Mississippi, along with a smattering of eateries in metropolitan areas on both the east and west coasts.
They'll choose finalists at the end of March. Winners will be announced in June.
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