The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Bison steaks, teriyaki quail, and elk medallions are all specialties that have been on the menu at the Fort since the Morrison restaurant debuted in 1963. But there’s a recipe even rarer than game meat that the fine dining venue has served since the beginning: a vinaigrette infused with damiana, a wild herb from Mexico commonly used as an aphrodisiac.
In 1963, Samuel and Elizabeth Arnold opened the Fort as an ode to frontier history and the cuisines of American Indians and mountain men. The restaurant takes the homage all the way down to its adobe bricks: The Fort is housed in a full-scale replica of La Junta’s Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, a fur trading post along the Santa Fe Trail that was active in the 1830s and 1840s.
“Originally the building was to be a living history museum to teach the public about Bent’s Fort—but the construction costs got so expensive that the SBA [Small Business Administration] suggested we put a restaurant in the building, and we converted the upstairs to be our living quarters,” says Holly Arnold Kinney, who was nine years old when her parents opened the Fort and is now its proprietress.
To curate a menu that trappers and traders may have enjoyed at the original Bent’s Fort, the Arnolds hired antiquarians to source rare cookbooks and diaries that documented recipes used along the Santa Fe Trail, which ran from modern-day Missouri to New Mexico. Samuel eventually became a food historian on the topic, often traveling to central Mexico to research Indigenous foods likely brought to Colorado via the storied route—which is how he discovered damiana.
“There were a lot of medicinal herbs [used by] Indian tribes and the Mexican people, and [damiana] was known as a good digestive as well as aphrodisiac,” Holly says. Samuel decided that the herb, similar to tarragon and oregano, could be showcased in a vinaigrette, and the dressing has been on the menu ever since. Holly says her father, who passed away in 2006, even joked that the aphrodisiac was to blame for Denver’s growing population and the increased traffic congestion en route to the mountains.
Try the vinaigrette on the Fort’s salad which comes with every entrée, or make it at home with the recipe below (be warned: it technically takes two weeks). The dish is the perfect prelude to the eatery’s other famed specialties such as the Fort’s Game Plate—which features an elk medallion, bison sirloin medallion, and grilled teriyaki quail—and the roasted bison marrow bones, a delicacy that Holly is thrilled more customers are ordering these days than in the past.
“All of these creative things [are now more accepted],” she says “There’s a lot more adventurous palates out there who want to explore and try new things.”
The Fort’s Damiana Vinaigrette
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 Tbs. water
3/4 tsp. dried damiana
1 1/2 cup salad oil (like olive oil)
1 Tbs. sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Heat the vinegar and water in a nonreactive saucepan to almost boiling (about 190°F). Add the damiana and mix well.
- Place the vinegar mixture in a sealed glass container and set aside at room temperature for 2 weeks.
- Pour through a strainer to remove the leaves. Whisk in the oil, sugar, and salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.
Celebrate the Fort’s Anniversary
The restaurant will ring in 60 years with a big bash on February 17, which will include live music and dance performances, food stations (don’t miss the Rocky Mountain oysters Rockefeller), and cocktails. Tickets are $60 and can be purchased here.