It used to be that Aspen and Carbondale were the Roaring Fork Valley’s primary, and only, dining hubs. But in recent years, the scene has shifted to the bustling midvalley, where the tiny hamlets of Basalt and El Jebel/Willits (whatever you choose to call it) are demanding attention.
The biggest news of the last several months is Free Range Kitchen’s move in December from Basalt’s main drag to a modern space with a 1,500-square-patio overlooking the town’s new riverfront park. The restaurant, which Steve and Robin Humble opened in 2016, is bigger by 700 square feet, but the triangular dining room still gives it an intimate feel. As in the old space, the bar is the anchor. Warmth comes from a huge wrap of windows and rustic materials like wood and steel, big metallic light fixtures, and twinkly strands of Edison bulbs. With the move, Free Range dropped “Wine Bar” from its name, adding emphasis to the shaggy-haired Highland cow logo that greets you in lights at the entrance. As such, locally sourced meats remain at the heart of the menu, including the burrata board, pork belly (in some seasonal iteration), and the burger, along with alternatives like the veg curry and a wedge salad. And you’ll still find favorites on the cocktail list—like the basil cucumber rickey and the brown butter bourbon old-fashioned—because: why mess with a good thing?
Five minutes down the road, the dining revolution continues. While many drive right past the Highway 82–El Jebel Road intersection, it’s worth braking and ducking into Thai House Co. & Sushi on the north side of the highway and Jaffa Kitchen on the south. Both establishments are quietly churning out consistently excellent eats in spaces that may not be fancy—Jaffa is, in fact, counter service—but their menus mean business.
At Thai House Co. (which, since opening in 2019, has come to embrace its locally bestowed sophomoric nickname, THC), the space is teensy-tiny, somehow—like those bewitched pup tents with interiors the size of circus big tops in the Harry Potter movies—seating 40 with only a few tables and a compact bar. It’s so small that if you want to dine in, you’d better arrive for dinner early or late—or else be prepared to stand in line. That wait, however, is worth it. Brother and sister chef-owners Arik and Stephanie Sananikone form the core of the kitchen along with cousin Paul, who is the head sushi chef. Arik and Stephanie learned the art of cooking from their parents—sushi from their father and Thai from their Laos-born mother. That should tell you a lot right there.
The menu flows fluidly from one cuisine to another, expanding and contracting like an accordion, but is boundless in inspiration. The Sananikone trio have a gift for flavor, texture, and vibrance—you’ll see, taste, and savor it in everything you order, from the signature sushi rolls to Mama Sang’s curry (a guarded family recipe) to the “freestyle” sashimi dishes that have an omakase feel.
Almost directly across the highway sits Jaffa. Chef-owner Lior Lilah and his wife, Angie Torres (plus business partners Doina Musteata and Alexei Rotaru), opened the Israeli-inspired café last year, naming it for the port city outside Lilah’s hometown that pulses with multicultural energy.
Similarly, the cafe’s menu spans breakfast, lunch, and dinner with dishes rich in cumin and coriander, sumac and za’atar, and other spices that are the hallmark of Levantine cuisine. The first thing you see (and smell) as you walk through the door is the house specialty: chicken shawarma roasting on a spit. The roasty, fat-lapped meat is sliced off to order, and on most days the lot of it (all 30 pounds!) sells out. Try it as a sandwich wrapped in a puffy pita or as a plate with sides of Israeli salad (a toss of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, cilantro, parsley, and lemon), cabbage salad, and hummus. In either case, you’d do well with a side of the matbucha, a sultry dip made of long-roasted tomatoes and red peppers that, once you taste it, you’ll want to take home by the quart. In fact, order the matbucha no matter what else you decide on—even for breakfast, where it makes a pita sandwich of Merguez lamb sausage, Israeli salad, and scrambled eggs sing. Or maybe that Hallelujah chorus was just in my head.
Either way, there’s no denying the culinary crescendo. With these three restaurants, the valley’s dining scene is swelling and expanding, like the sound of music.
Free Range Kitchen
22864 Two Rivers Road, Basalt
400 E Valley Road, El Jebel