September 10, 2021 | OPINION | By Hank Bedingfield | Photo by Claire Bogart
Shuga’s restaurant and bar takes classic soups and sandwiches and creates something deeply religious and spiritually restorative. If it’s not on your radar, you’re either new in town, an idiot, or the victim of a sinister plot, trapped and uninformed by a cruel god, basking in your misery.
Shuga’s stands alone at the end of the all-American drag in downtown Colorado Springs with outlandish dignity and unquestionable swagger. When all else fails, spirits are short, pockets are light, and the forces of loathing and terror seem to be on the verge of victory, head to Shuga’s. I can promise nothing more than the sweet relief of a stiff drink after a long day and the beautiful, slow-burned tease of falling in love — but that’s pretty good for a soup and sandwich joint.
Approaching Shuga’s is a ritual in seduction and salivation. As the front door inches closer, sights, smells, and sounds blend and swirl in a kaleidoscope of eager anticipation. Common decency and basic cognitive function are tossed aside and beaten down to some precognitive level by a much more primal urge that reduces even the most refined into single-minded soup fiends. With carnal intent and murderous eyes, the walk from sidewalk to front door, when it comes to Shuga’s, is more of a march.
One single thought — “I need that” — engulfs all others, resulting in a depraved and confusing advance and a frequently humiliating exchange with the friendly host, quickly reduced to monosyllabic grunt-words and manic gesturing.
Once inside the restaurant is best. Glancing past commissioned “Shuga’s” artwork with the restaurant’s name and some European turn-of-the-century pop art style, a suspended flock of origami cranes gently dances with the passing breeze overhead, and the bar is well-stocked, lively, and marked by a cheap, rotating “crappy beer of the moment”. The entire collage-like decor demands humility and patrons have the distinct thought that they are in the company of unpretentiously artful genius—an oxymoronic concept and awe-striking presence.
The kitchen at Shuga’s is the size of a cubical and, frankly, bears uncanny similarities to one, adding to the mysticism and magic of the whole experience. The dining area is split into thirds, with front and back patios for diners to enjoy fresh air with their meal, under the inviting shade of an umbrella surrounded by beautiful, aromatic flowers.
The inside dining area is a cluttered mix of smallish tables, each with a cigar box as a centerpiece and close enough to other tables that the whole experience feels communal. Shuga’s also offers an exclusive, dine-in-a-tipi experience which, acknowledging the more than dicey implications of cultural appropriation, commodification, and fetishization of a brutally subjugated group of people, is memorable to say the least.
On those tables and in the air wafts the aroma of soups, sandwiches, cocktails, and little more. What Shuga’s makes in their cubicle-sized kitchen, where the bangs of pans, and multicultural shouting intrigues and excites, they make well — really well. Soups, salads, charcuterie boards, and sandwiches fill up the food menu and leave little for want. Out of the sandwiches, each with distinct and undeniable deliciousness, one stands above the rest and haunts my dreams with near-nightly, taunting appearances: the Cuban Mojo.
The grilled classic is about an inch or two thick on hotly pressed french bread, but, despite its slimmed down look, packs a mighty punch. Thinly sliced pickle, mustard, swiss cheese, ham, and roasted pork shoulder, amalgamate into something truly beautiful. If I ever start a cult, desert society for a life of rigorous asceticism, or swear myself to a life of sexually frustrating celibacy, it’ll be in fundamentalist honor of this sandwich.
If you think that’s over-the-top, try me. If you think I’m wrong, I’ll refund you the cost and eat whatever scraps are left over. Here it is in print.
For all the praise the Cuban Mojo deserves it is matched and married, with the loving cohesion seldom found in modern, or any, marriages, with the Spicy Brazilian Coconut Shrimp Soup, which may be the most gratifying spoonful-of-anything the material world has to offer. Shrimp, jalapeño, ginger, coconut milk, peanut, and more create the most mentally invasive dish I’ve ever had. For a $5 cup, faith in the world, goodness, and other wavering ideals being slowly choked out by society, can be restored.
This is food synonymous with and co-created by pure happiness. Staff and customers alike are as eclectic as the decor, as charming as the food, and frequently can be confused for each other. Everything moves and dances. Scrambling bodies with steaming plates, carafes of booze and flashing smiles, soup spoons clanging happily, and an international soundtrack all create the impression of some precisely orchestrated performance. There is a palpable feeling that everyone is there to celebrate something and after a meal the urge to elope, run away to some grandiose fantasy, or book a vacation is nearly undeniable.
For a meal worth more than it charges and a momentary pause from the crippling forces of existential dread, unreciprocated love, or just the Block Plan, weight your feet and drown in the delicious offerings of Shuga’s.
702 S. Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs, Colo.
Brunch, (On Weekends) Lunch, Dinner, Drinks
Monday to Friday 11 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Saturday, Sunday 10 a.m. – 12 a.m.
Dine-in and Curbside Pickup
Prices range from $4-$14