October 15, 2021 | OPINION | By Hank Bedingfield | Photo courtesy of the author
For those looking to properly acknowledge Indigenous Peoples Day and, in some small way, support the marginalized community, Indigenous-owned Carefree Bar & Grill takes the concept of an unassuming sport bar and gives it some spirit, with beautiful murals, cheap drinks, and touches pre-Columbian cuisine.
Per the unspoken laws of misery and unimaginative architecture of Colorado Springs’ regrettable urban sprawl, this meal out began at a strip mall. Thankfully, as the corner turned, I realized this strip mall was different from my last experience.
On the western side of the restaurant is a patio with beautiful murals wall to wall of the tiered perimeter, the artistic handiwork of local legend Paes164. In vibrant colors, Indigenous women, scenes of the southwest, and men on horseback excite and inspire.
Inside, what would be kindly characterized as an unpretentious sports bar, is elevated with another mural and Indigenous decor. A full bar of Colorado Springs locals, eagerly engaging in the American ritual of Sunday football and affordably-priced beer by the bucket, round out a blue-collar feel, where you can blindly trust in the quality of burgers and wings.
The menu, from top to bottom, shows flashes of Indigenous cuisine, a point of pride for the restaurant’s owner and member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Cynthia Bikal.
With wide eyes and an audibly-displeased stomach, everything looked good. I ordered wings, the Intertribal Burger, and Not-So French Dip. The wings, some of the finest I’ve had since travelling west, were meaty to the point of GMO-questioning, and properly lathered in sauce worth licking your fingers for.
Of the ten I ordered, five were coated in a formidable honey barbecue sauce, layers of sweet heat that anyone can enjoy, and five were evenly cloaked in Wojapi. This viscous nod to the Ho-Chunk –– a jam-like berry reduction, usually from chuckberries and/or blueberries and a thickener like arrowroot, is not-too-sweet and pairs well with a traditionally hot buffalo wing. Bottom line: if we’re talking about wings worth fighting over, these put Buffalo Wild Wings and any of its bastardly iterations to shame.
Another ode to the Indigenous on the Carefree menu is the prevalence of bison, which can be swapped for beef at every occasion. The Intertribal burger with a bison patty (for an extra $3) piled high with BBQ sauce, bacon, cheese, fried onions, and shredded bison tenderloin, is a crescendo in that ode. With a cold beer, many of which are under $4, and this protein-packed delight in hand, anyone can be a king. The bison two ways makes for a blast of flavor and substance that easily bests a standard BBQ bacon burger and fried onions leave a satisfying crunch with every bite.
Nearly every offering at Carefree comes with onion rings or fries as well. The onion rings make for an ideal side, with a perfect crunchiness and the integrity to withstand a bite without the entire onion being disemboweled.
For dessert on the go, a bag of fry bread bites, hastily ordered as the check was coming back, was the best afterthought I’ve ever had. The munchkin-sized treats bring the thrill of a youthful carnival without the dense, doughy, self-loathing.
Each bite, popped in rabidly, is so airy it seems to melt on contact with the mouth. Tossed in cinnamon, cinnamon sugar, or powdered sugar with the choice of fudge or Wojapi for dipping, you can’t go wrong.
Carefree Bar & Grill is nearly perfect for a casual bite, spectating a sports game, or getting a taste of American cuisine before centuries of genocide and attempted cultural erasure fucked it up.