Culinary creations keep Armour content

By Natalie Minasian

Hidden in the foothills of Manitou Springs is a wonderful Mexican restaurant with loads of history, including a visit from Chief Manitou when it was known as El-Tejano. The landmark restaurant has been reborn as the Crystal Park Cantina. Its head chef is Anne Armour.

Anne’s mantra is “We make it all here.” It is not your average Mexican cafe. Instead, you will find sweet potato nachos with chorizo and cheese, a unique tomatillo Alfredo sauce and distinctive Mexican fare.

Following years of working in catering and special events, Armour opened two restaurants in Manitou Springs – Boots & Ann’s and Sweet Anne’s Café, and two in downtown Colorado Springs called Three Doors Down and Café La Difference.

Some might be familiar with her son, Justin Armour, a Manitou Springs High School football star who went on to play wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens.

Off to Mexico
One day, after retiring from the NFL, Justin announced, “Cara and I are moving to Mexico, and mom you’re coming with us. You can do all the gardening you want and help me with the family.” Anne was a professional gardener and she planned to help improve Justin’s property. The offer that was portrayed as a beautiful retirement in an exotic country with her grandchildren around was too enticing. She accepted.

Justin and his wife Cara had fallen in love with a small village about 40 miles north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific coast. It was called El Pescadero, and that’s where Anne was headed, along with Justin’s family.

Anne started out as head gardener along with a crew of three. Although the hacienda was near the ocean, the view was blocked by a grove of palm trees and dense overgrowth. Putting on high boots (because of snakes) and wielding machetes, they cleared the land until a magnificent view of the water could be seen from their porch.

A feisty Sicilian woman cook was the one to spark her interest in native foods. Anne says that a particular tuna dish looked like dog food but tasted heavenly. The cook would not share her recipe but after three or four tries, Anne figured out the ingredients.

“My palate is very sensitive so one by one I learned how to cook these special dishes,” she said.

Taking a liking to the local cuisine
Armour spent more than seven years in El Pescadero, sampling and learning to create unique Mexican entrees. Just like her other entries into the culinary world, she found herself cooking for local weddings and large gatherings or entertaining her friends when they came down to visit.

Chilies grew abundantly. Anne says they could get them for free if they grew on branches outside the farm fence line or if they fell off the delivery trucks. She had no problem “harvesting” those free chilies!

In El Pescadero and beyond, Anne’s reputation was growing.

“I loved to cook so created big, lavish wedding parties – did flower arrangements, made the wedding cakes and of course, prepared delicious meals for the wedding reception,” she said.

Each week for 200 pesos she bought a phone card to call her daughter Necole back in the states and talk for 20 minutes. Necole had three children and, as you might expect, Anne became homesick and really missed her daughter and grandchildren.

As Justin and family moved back to San Diego, Anne got ready for her exit from Mexico, returning to Manitou Springs. Eventually all her family came to live in this area so her grandchildren (the cousins) could be raised close together.

A new opportunity
One day Anne was approached by Ben Macias who, along with his brother Glenn, owned the Mission Bell restaurant. Ben said, “You need to buy this restaurant!” Once the price came down sufficiently, they did so in May of 2011 – calling it the Crystal Park Cantina.

Anne and Justin agreed from day one that he would take care of the front of the house, and she would take care of the kitchen in the back. Everything was changed and totally redecorated with bright metal sculptures, artwork, palm trees, pottery, Spanish tiles and outdoor patio tables with umbrellas and gardens all around. It is magical.

She was more than ready to fashion a fine menu. It is a fusion of Mexican and modern that cannot be compared to any other Mexican restaurant in town. Entrees are lathered with one of her own secret recipe sauces – pork green chili, tomatillo Alfredo or mole.

Every single morning at 6:30 a.m., Anne and her kitchen staff roast that day’s chilies, fry paper thin tortilla chips and do prep work of side dishes, salads or main ingredients. Anne tries her most to buy foods and produce locally that are organically grown without pesticides or herbicides, are non-GMO and seasonal. She also makes entrees to please the tastes of vegetarians or diners who want gluten-free meals.

Most challenging of running a kitchen was to find good employees, and now she has brought together a primo cooking staff. Unlike many other restaurants, and sometimes criticized for it, Anne pays better wages, even for her dishwashers – knowing how grueling the work can be. Her work ethic is strong and based in Christian values.

“I’m a finisher – I find out what to do then get it done. Whatever it takes,” she said.

Anne is proud of every plate of food that she sets before diners. Her personal favorites are four-cheese queso fundido, sweet potato nachos with chorizo, and mushroom-spinach enchiladas with shallots.

Pero todos estan magnifico! All are magnificent!

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