Fresh Food + Local Beer + Community Spirit = Under the Sun Eatery & Pizzeria

Local beers are on tap at Under the Sun pub in Boulder, Colorado ©Allie Stoudt

Local beers are on tap at Under the Sun pub in Boulder, Colorado ©Allie Stoudt

Under the Sun is the quintessential Boulder, Colorado, restaurant: it’s got casual atmosphere that welcomes families and friendly folks, and its menu emphasizes locally sourced ingredients.

As part of the family of Mountain Sun Pubs & Breweries (with locations in Boulder, Longmont, and Denver), Under the Sun also brews its own fantastic beer, including a number of classics: Annapurna Amber, Old School Irish Stout, and Colorado Kind, a brew the original owner envisioned while biking from Oregon to Boulder in the early 1990s.

Before I launch into the dazzling six-course meal I shared with friends, here’s a word about the community spirit at Under the Sun. This pub boasts no widescreen TV. If you want to guzzle beer with your eyes glued to the boob tube, just stay home. But, if you want to share brews and food with your pals—or make friends with total strangers at the communal tables—this is the place for you. (There are even board games on hand to break the ice.)

At the end of the day, you’re likely to meet Boulderites dressed in cycling gear, hiking boots, or yoga togs—so no need to get gussied up. When the weather’s nice, you might enjoy a seat outside. Chilly? Relax by the fireplace and enjoy Under the Sun’s draught options, including 21 Mountain Sun ales, 10 guest beers and 8 wines on tap.

Awesome appetizer: asparagus with poached egg and prosciutto. ©Allie Stoudt

Awesome appetizer: asparagus with poached egg and prosciutto. ©Allie Stoudt

Service with a Smile

All the Mountain Sun pubs have a unique philosophy. First, the entire staff—from waiters to cooks to dishwashers to bartenders—share the tips so that everyone is motivated to create the best food and dining experience for guests. Really, the amiable—and usually speed—wait people are in states of good humor and efficiency.

And I should mention that the prices at Under the Sun are very reasonable for truly flavorful food. One reason the pubs can keep their fare affordable is they don’t accept credit cards. (There is an onsite ATM, and I’ve heard rumors about folks who are caught without cash being offered a “good karma IOU” envelop so they can mail in the money for their dinner later.)

Fabulous Food from Scratch

Under the Sun proves that delicious, well-made food isn’t something you can only get at fancy restaurants. The folks there are committed to serving fresh, exciting food from scratch, sourced locally whenever possible.

Pesto gnocchi ©Allie Stoudt

Pesto gnocchi Allie Stoudt

Depending on the season and menu, the kitchen serves up produce from a number of Colorado organic farms and food purveyors, including Abbondanza Organic Seeds and Produce, Cure Organic Farm, Long Family Farms, Munson’s Farm, Rudy’s Organic Bakery, Old Style Sausage in Louisville, and Steele’s Meats in Lafayette.

Vegetarians, vegans, and people who eat gluten free will find plenty of wholesome and tasty options on the menu.

Under the Sun’s executive chef Nick Swanson makes good use of a wood-burning oven to bake bread, smoke meats, char food, and roast vegetables, and of course, bake pizzas. If you want to watch the pizza-makers twirl the dough, ask to sit at the counter right by the oven. And yes, you can order gluten-free crust!

Local beer by the fire ©Laurel Kallenbach

Local beer by the fire ©Laurel Kallenbach

A Local Feast

I loved every dish I sampled  during a special taster meal—starting with the grilled asparagus appetizer, which included prosciutto, poached egg, and Grana Padano cheese. Its sprinkles of lemon-zest made it a knockout, and it was paired with the Saison D’Tropique farmhouse ale, which has bold flavor with slightly citrusy notes. This was followed by the Red Beet Salad with arugula, goat-cheese vinaigrette, candied walnuts, and fresh dill, paired with Hilltop Vienna-Style Lager that was refreshing and didn’t overpower the veggies.

Next up: housemade potato gnocchi with zucchini, garlic, and fennel pesto—plus fresh basil. It was scrumptious, and the Number One Belgian Tripel made a lovely companion for the Italian-inspired dish.

After that, I reveled in the beef short rib (fork-tender!) with fingerling potatoes and a mustard-seed vinaigrette. Colorado Kind Ale enhanced the meat’s rich, savory flavors.

I nabbed a slice of my friend’s wood-fired Wild Boom pizza (topped with local Hazel Dell mushrooms, wood-fired onions, sundried tomatoes, and Fontina cheese) just because it looked so delightful.

The perfect finale: wood-fired cookie with vanilla ice cream and stout-caramel sauce. ©Allie Stoudt

The perfect finale: wood-fired cookie with vanilla ice cream and stout-caramel sauce. ©Allie Stoudt

Luckily, I still had room for the wood-oven-fired oatmeal chocolate chip cookie served with a dollop of Sweet Cow vanilla ice cream. Heaven! (And by the way, Chocolate Dip Stout, which contains real chocolate, accentuated the dessert’s flavors, proving that beer can be great with every course of a meal.)

As you can tell, I love the idea of drinking beer brewed onsite. The brewers at Mountain Sun/Under the Sun favor hoppy brews. If you like super-hops, I recommend the FYIPA, which pairs nicely with pizza.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Chef Nick Swanson is Under the Sun's kitchen magician. ©Allie Stoudt

Chef Nick Swanson is Under the Sun’s kitchen magician. ©Allie Stoudt

Oregon’s Sylvia Beach Hotel Is for Book Lovers

If you’re a literature lover, allow me to introduce you to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon (a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Portland). A quiet place on the coast, this 20-room inn sits atop a bluff right above the surf and offers a literary pillow to readers and writers.

The J.K. Rowling room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, shows off a Harry Potter theme. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

The J.K. Rowling room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, shows off a Harry Potter theme. Photo courtesy Sylvia Beach Hotel

If you can set aside your book or the manuscript of your magnum opus while staying at the Sylvia Beach, you can enjoy strolling on the beach or taking a (chilly!) dip in the ocean. You can also explore the artsy, historic Nye Beach neighborhood with its lovely mix of bookstores, cafés, bistros, galleries and the Yaquina Art Center.

Ken and I stayed in the Sylvia Beach Hotel 20 years ago, and on this year’s trip to Oregon’s central coast, we stopped by to see how the place is faring. Its literary theme is as whimsical as ever: each guest room is decorated in a style and with mementos of a famous author.

Literary Magic

The door to the Tennessee Williams room where we slept two decades ago still says, “Stella!” (a famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire), and the double bed is still draped with mosquito netting (ala Night of the Iguana). The Edgar Allan Poe room still has a stuffed raven to commemorate “The Raven,” and a metal pendulum hangs over the blood-red bedspread, an eerie reference to Poe’s story, “The Pit and the Pendulum.”

The Dr. Seuss room is popular for the young, or young at heart.

The Dr. Seuss room is popular for the young, or the young at heart.

You can also indulge your inner child in the Dr. Seuss room, decorated in homage to One Fish, Two Fish, The Cat in the Hat and other works of juvenile genius.

There are no TVs, radios, telephones or Wi-Fi at the Sylvia Beach, yet it’s still an English major’s delight. The rooms aren’t grand, but what they lack in luxury they make up for in literary spirit.

Tables of Content

Miso Pumpkin Soup, one of many delicious things served in Tables of Content restaurant.

Miso Pumpkin Soup, one of many delicious dishes served in Tables of Content restaurant.

Meals are a time to be social at the Sylvia Beach—even if you keep your nose in a good book during the rest of your stay. Breakfast is included in the room rate, and guests sit at tables of eight in the “Tables of Content” dining room. (I think group tables are a great, no-stress way to get to know other literature lovers!)

Dinner, served at 7:00 p.m. each night, is another chance to enjoy pleasant conversation with a bookish bent. The food is served family style (with a choice of four entrees) and the evening’s icebreaker is game of Two Truths and a Lie. Essentially, you introduce yourself to those at your table with two biographical facts and one whopper of a fib! Then your fellow gourmands guess what part of your tale is a lie. Coming up with a lie gets your creative juices flowing, and when I played, it was fun recalling unlikely trivia from my past.

The Mark Twain room has a fireplace and private ocean-view deck.

The Mark Twain room has a fireplace and private ocean-view deck.

Rooms at the Sylvia Beach

All the hotel’s rooms are themed according to an author. Here’s a sampling:

Classics: Rooms directly over the surf with fireplaces and decks. They include Agatha Christie, Colette, and Mark Twain.

Best Sellers: These rooms have an ocean view with panoramas of the coast and the Yaquina Head Lighthouse. In this category are rooms devoted to Alice Walker, E.B. White, Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Jane Austen, Lincoln Steffins, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and Virginia Woolf.

Novels: These rooms have no ocean view, but they’re still cozy and fun. Here you’ll find Gertrude Stein, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Who Was Sylvia Beach?

A mural of Sylvia Beach and author James Joyce decorates the lobby of the Sylvia Beach Hotel.

A mural of Sylvia Beach and author James Joyce decorates the lobby of the Sylvia Beach Hotel.

In case you were wondering if this ocean-overlook hotel was named for a beach called “Sylvia,” let me put your questions to rest. Sylvia Beach was an expatriate American who dominated the literary scene in Paris between WWI and WWII with her English-language bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Company. James Joyce fans will recognize Sylvia Beach as the publisher of the Irish author’s famous book, Ulysses (1922).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Out yourself as a bookworm and let readers know of other literary getaways they shouldn’t miss. Just leave a poetic or prosaic comment below!

Strolling Old San Juan’s Colorful Streets

Some of the most pleasurable parts of visiting a new place are free—as I learned while rambling among the vibrantly painted apartments and churches in Puerto Rico’s historic downtown area of Old San Juan. My entertainment during my two-day solo stay there was soaking up the atmosphere in Old San Juan, founded by Spanish colonists in 1521.

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The streets of Old San Juan are a riot of Caribbean color. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The architecture is a spicy mix of old-world Spanish and Caribbean tropical hues. When I got tired of walking, I stopped into some authentic local eateries to sample the flavors of the island too.

Yellow window, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Old San Juan is probably Puerto Rico’s most-visited spot, and rightfully so, with its colonial, cobblestone streets lined by a rainbow of apartments with balconies and bougainvillea. Add in palm trees, fragrant food cooking at wonderful restaurants, and sweeping views of the Atlantic, and you’ll fall in love.

I did.

On my two days in Old San Juan, I wandered among the quieter boulevards and simply drank in the colors. Except for the cars parked all along the streets, it’s easy to imagine how the town looked in the 16th and 17th centuries, back when it was a Spanish colony.

Old San Juan has shops, of course. I dropped into a few local artisan shops during the quiet hours, early morning and late afternoon when the cruise ships weren’t in port.

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The inner courtyard of private home. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are also satisfying restaurants, including modest spots where locals grab breakfast or lunch. At Café Manolin, an Old San Juan institution that serves creole-style food, I had fried eggs and beans with tortillas while I watched the old-style orange juice machine mash up oranges and spit out fresh juice. It tasted heavenly.

For high-end dining, there are many possibilities in the old town. One evening I enjoyed an early dinner at the snazzy Hotel El Convento tapas bar, where I sat on the patio overlooking the courtyard. Contentedly, I sipped a Bacardi Mojito and savored slices of Manchego cheese drizzled with truffle honey served with fresh-baked bread.

Mostly though, I wandered Old San Juan until my feet were sore or I got too hot in the Caribbean sun. That’s when I knew it was time to return to my “home” during my stay: the Casablanca Hotel. There I could nurse a margarita or cold Puerto Rican cerveza—the Old Harbor Taina brews are lovely—and watch one of my favorite movies of all time projected on the wall of the bar. Or, I walked up the stairs for a siesta in my room, which was small but comfy with a Moroccan flair.

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I never got tired of taking photos of the brilliant architecture. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The concierge at the Casablanca steered me to the best restaurants, and he humored me by letting me practice my Spanish. (For the record, most puertorriqueños speak fluent English.) This U.S. territory uses the American dollar. And I did a double-take one day when I bumped into the mailman wearing the traditional U.S. mail uniform—with shorts of course!

In addition, the Castillo San Cristóbal fortress and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro  are part of the U.S. National Park Service, where interpreters in those Smoky Bear hats give you guided tours of the old fort walls overlooking the azure ocean.

Mostly I loved Old San Juan’s small details, like iron knockers, glimpses into courtyards of apartment buildings, and colorful shutters. Nearly every apartment number was painted on glazed tiles.

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pink lantern, Old San Juan ©Laurel Kallenbach

One morning, after breakfast, I was crossing a plaza and saw a skinny, feral cat dash out of nowhere and grab a pigeon from a flock pecking at the cobblestones. I was shocked; domesticated cats back home are rarely that fast, but clearly this cat was hunting for his breakfast!

A few hours later, I noticed a grumpy Persian perched inside the window of a posh apartment. He gazed out at the street with a pout that reminded me of a grounded teenager.

No, pampered puss, you have an easy life in your house, I thought. The streets of Old San Juan are lovely for us tourists, but they would be hard for a cat like you.

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

Brass knocker on a door ©Laurel Kallenbach

On and on I strolled the quiet streets of colonial San Juan, enjoying the arched entryways, elegant shuttered windows, and ornate iron grillwork—an art form brought to the New World by the Spanish.

Viva Viejo San Juan—viva Old San Juan!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Puerto Rico:

My Hunt for Irish Sheela-na-Gigs

This sheela-na-gig from Seir Kieran in County Offaly was on display at the National Museum of Ireland when I visited in 2004.

Think Indiana Jones. Think of a quest for an archaeological treasure. Picture me, wide-eyed and somewhat crazed, tearing around Ireland’s rural backroads seeking a treasure. See me wading through thigh-high weeds still wet from the morning dew. Hear me cursing out loud to myself about driving on the left-hand side of the road.

Unlike Indiana Jones, no one was chasing me with a gun or a sword. I was not searching for the Holy Grail or the Crystal Skull or the Lost Ark. I was searching Ireland for sheela-na-gigs—peculiar, medieval-era stone carvings of haglike, naked women displaying their private parts.

If you read my last post, you know that during my 2004 Ireland trip, I had a bit of an obsession with searching out sheela-na-gigs, which are found on the walls of churches and castles in England, Wales, and Scotland, and Ireland. There are more known sheelas in Ireland than anywhere else, and on my journey through Éire, I stalked the gargoyle-like carvings literally over hill and dale.

Searching for Sheelas at the National Museum of Ireland

I started in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, which houses fabulous archeological treasures, such as the Indiana Jones–worthy Ardagh Chalice made by 12th-century monks of gold, silver, bronze, brass, and copper. And the golden, delicate Tara Brooch made in 700 AD is priceless.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

A book with the sheela-na-gig from County Cavan, Ireland.

Displayed alongside these magnificent works of Celtic art were two crudely carved sheela-na-gigs—much less flashy than the aforementioned treasures, but also much more intriguing. No one really knows why these “hags of the castle” were located like gargoyles on Anglo-Norman-era churches and medieval castles. But one thing we know for sure: they had meaning for people ten centuries ago.

“The name comes from the Irish language, although its meaning is uncertain,” says Dr. Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum, and author of Sheela-na-Gigs: Origins and Functions. “The most likely interpretations are Sighe na gCíoch, meaning “the old hag of the breasts,” or Síla-na Giob, meaning ‘sheela (a name for an old woman) on her hunkers.’”

I emailed the National Museum in advance and got permission on my visit to be escorted into the museum’s vaults to see a dozen more sheelas that weren’t on display but that have been in the museum’s care for decades—some for an entire century.

It’s an amazing thing to be face to face with works of sacred (or profane) art that I’ve only read about in books. (One of my favorites is The Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts because it includes a catalogue with drawings of sheelas.) So, after I got my fill of sheelas in the museum, I set off to search for others, in situ.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of Esker Castle

Locating the sheela-na-gig—reportedly located on the walls of a ruined castle near the tiny village of Doon, in County Offaly—was quite an adventure. I felt completely lost while trying to find the village, and once there, I had no way of knowing where Esker Castle was. (If there was a sign to it, I never saw it because I was too busy driving on unmarked roads.)

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig's right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela-na-gig was a cornerstone on Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland. The sheela-na-gig’s right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. Esker Castle, Doon: The sheela-na-gig her right hand passes underneath her right thigh, and her left hand reaches over her left thigh to expose the vulva. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Luckily, from the road, I could see a hilltop ruin of what might be a medieval castle—though I wasn’t positive. I pulled onto a gravel road and drove to what I hoped would be the ruin, but soon the road disappeared into grass and there wasn’t enough space to turn around. My car had pretty bad sightlines for backing up (or maybe I should have looked backwards over my left shoulder instead of my right!) but I managed to drive in reverse back to the “safe,” graveled road. At the foot of the hill with the castle, I parked on a gravelly pullover spot, pulled on my rain pants and rain jacket, laced up my sturdy hiking boots, and then set off as it began to drizzle.

Foolishly, I chose a steep trail that led up toward the castle—ancient fortresses were designed to be difficult to reach—but halfway up it became apparent that no pedestrian had used it in ages—perhaps since the Middle Ages. I picked my way through brambles and briars; thorns clawed at my hair and rain jacket. I lost my traction in the mud. At last, though, I emerged at the foot of the ancient stone walls, sweating and hoping that my grit and determination would be rewarded by an easy-to-find sheela-na-gig.

The luck of the Irish was with me, because I turned the corner, and there she was, halfway up on the wall of the castle amid twisty ivy vines to the left of the castle entrance. She was carved horizontally on a cornerstone, even though she’s depicted in a standing position, with both toes pointing to the right. A shiver of excitement passed through me. I’d done it: located a sheela-na-gig in a non-museum location!

Esker Castle, near Doon, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The ruins of Esker Castle, near the village of Doon, County Offaly, Ireland ©Laurel Kallenbach

The first thing I noticed was the sheela’s large, bald head, part of which was covered in white. (Maybe someone whitewashed her for ease of seeing her?) Her mouth was open as if she were grimacing or saying something. She was a bit eerie, this sheela-na-gig: otherworldly and ancient and none too inviting despite her naked breasts (just two little mounds) and spread legs.

I took some photos, but it was difficult to relax and reflect because a nasty wind had come up. Besides that, the castle ruins were gloomy, the weather threatening. I was already a bit traumatized from the ordeal of the disappearing road and the brambly path. All I could think was, What if my car gets stuck here or I fall down the hill and sprain an ankle? There was a farmhouse just 100 meters away, but I was spooked just the same.

I walked around a bit, shielding my camera inside my raincoat from the wind-driven rain. I wanted to see the sheela from several angles. And then, Irish luck struck again, and I discovered another path—a real one this time—that I might have discovered if I hadn’t been in such a frantic hurry at the beginning. Compared to the path up, this one was fairly tame. Soon I was inside my rental car and peeling off my wet jacket. As I drove off, I took one last look at the towering walls—the home of the Esker Castle sheela-na-gig—and bid a hasty farewell.

The Sheela-Na-Gig of St. Munna’s Church

Although Indiana Jones got lost a number of times on his adventures, I seemed to have more than the usual mishaps on the sheela route. Two days after I almost missed the Esker Castle sheela, I again got confused while searching for one of the stone carvings on a church in County Westmeath. First, I got lost in the nearby town of Mullingar. Shortly later, I took two more wrong turns around Crookedwood before I eventually happened upon St. Munna Church, which ironically looks more like a castle than a church because of its crenellated tower.

I parked and walked up to the 15th-century church with its old cemetery. The four-eyed sheela-na-gig was in plain sight over a broken-out trefoil window, and just a moment after I saw her, I was greeted enthusiastically by a wag-tailed black dog from a farm across the street.

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church, appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela, above a window of St. Munna church appears to have four eyes. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This sheela was fairly eroded, but she either has four eyes or two holes drilled into her head above the eyes. Again part of her head was blotched with white—I think it must have been some sort of lichen. This sheela also had an open mouth, as if she were speaking, and this one looked like she had a beard. Though her hands were on her abdomen, there was little view of her genitals other than a deep hole. It was easy for me to imagine this sheela acting the role of a gargoyle—perhaps because her features we so indistinct. It’s possible she was defaced by people in more recent centuries who would have considered this stone carving obscene.

Perhaps it was because I was very tired, but I didn’t spend too much time with this sheela. And I felt a little out of place somehow, despite the adorable dog. This was the case a number of rural sites in Ireland. I disliked being among lots of tourists, but I also sometimes wished I wasn’t the only human around. So, I paid my respects to the naked, stone woman who has gazed fiercely down upon centuries of church-goers with her four eyes. Then I moved on to my next destination: the Loughcrew archaeological site, also called Slieve na Calliagh (“Mountain of the Hag”).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland: