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After huffing your way to the top of (and rolling back down) the sun-soaked Great Sand Dunes near Alamosa, you’ll likely be ravenously hungry. Thankfully, there are dozens of options for cheesy, chile-smothered Mexican dishes in the surrounding San Luis Valley. But maybe you feel like you’ve earned something a bit more refined, a little unexpected, and with a killer cocktail to boot. Until recently, you were kind of out of luck.
There’s good news in the valley, though: In July 2022, Denise Vigil and husband, Nealson Vialpando, opened the Friar’s Fork, a highly anticipated Italian restaurant and cocktail bar in Alamosa.
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The move comes after decades of Vigil working under James Beard Award–winning and –nominated chefs—Mark Miller at Coyote Cafe & Cantina in Santa Fe, George Mahaffey of the Little Nell in Aspen, and Greg Higgins’ of Higgins in Portland—and at cushy, high-roller-clientele resorts like Sundance in Park City and Trinchera Ranch in Colorado. There were also a few years that took Vigil away from the long hours of restaurant life so that she could focus on raising her daughter.
The way Vigil describes it, the timing of launching Friar’s Fork had a touch of serendipity. “It felt like the universe was conspiring to get me to do this,” she says. “I had been looking for an opportunity for a really long time, and not a month after my daughter was off to college, this place popped up.”
“This place” is a deconsecrated 1926 episcopalian church that had been empty for a couple of years. The red adobe buildings and courtyard were slowly being taken over by pigeons and piles of refuse. But Vigil saw its potential immediately. She and Vialpando, who live outside of Fort Garland, bought the property in November 2021 and set to work reclaiming the spaces—largely with their own hands—and transforming the main assembly hall into the Friar’s Fork and the adjacent chapel into a companion coffee shop and cocktail bar called the Sanctuary.
“We wanted to honor the history and the architecture.” says Vigil, standing in the Sanctuary. “We’ve worked hard to do that. And you know, people tell me all the time: ‘I feel safe here.’”
It’s easy to see why. Jazz notes float from speakers beneath the pitched ceiling, traveling over the salvaged oak lectern near the bar and out through the massive, red, double doors that are flung open to the courtyard. Plates loaded with savory charcuterie arrive and are set on doily-covered coffee tables between mismatched vintage armchairs and cushioned pews. Amber light streams through the original stained-glass cathedral windows, and portraits of ruddy-cheeked monks (reproductions of 19th-century German painter Eduard Theodor Ritter von Grützner’s works) smile and imbibe beer.
The atmosphere is one Vigil learned how to foster, in some measure, while working as chef at the Sundance Resort for actor Robert Redford. “Bob was very kind and very humble, and I think that his persona kind of set the tone,” she says. “We learned how to make everyone feel comfortable—whether it was Denzel [Washington] or a family on vacation.”
Across the flower-filled courtyard at the Friar’s Fork, pillowy raviolis and steaming plates of tender osso bucco topped with tomato polenta emerge from the kitchen. It’s pretense-free food you can’t stop eating, starting with a crowd favorite, the complimentary house salad, served family-style and coated in a light, puckery-salty dressing, and ending with a perfectly crispy, creamy cannoli drizzled with a strawberry reduction.
Vigil’s dishes are deceptively simple but deeply satisfying. “I literally have a bologna sandwich on my lunch menu,” she says, “but it’s just done really finely—sliced paper thin, sautéed with mozzarella, and topped with giardiniera and stone-ground mustard.”
The approach calls for a focus on hyper-local ingredients and products. The bar, for instance, is stocked with spirits from 1874 Distilling Ltd., based in nearby Del Norte, and beers from Alamosa’s own Square Peg Brewerks and Colorado Farm Brewery. Just launched is the Friar’s Fork’s own Mexican lager, produced in collaboration with Colorado Farm Brewery.
It’s this kind of collaboration and a sense of community that Vigil is thrilled about.
“Almost all of the places that I worked, I was the only woman there, and I’ve always been kind of comfortable with that,” Vigil says. But, she admits, having a restaurant of her own is a chance to reconnect with a broader community and to rediscover her culinary craft on her own terms in a hometown that has welcomed her back with open arms.
As she looks around the former cathedral, Vigil says, “The word restaurant originally meant ‘to restore,’ right? I feel like it’s a restaurant’s job not just restore you and satiate your hunger, but also your spirit.”
607 Fourth St., Alamosa