The first time I ate at Taco Party, in downtown Grand Junction, I felt obligated to choose one of the canvas-shaded outdoor tables lining the sidewalk. My shirt was salt-stained and smelly after my morning hike, and a gritty crust of sunscreen covered my flushed face. I had no business mingling among the deodorized couples in the cherry-red leather booths inside. But then I bit into a taco and experienced the kind of rejuvenation that no mere shower can achieve: This was wholesome medicine for weary muscles.
The tortilla was crafted from native blue corn farmed on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, 200 miles south of Grand Junction. It cradled delectable bits of slow-roasted local pork dressed with radish salsa and a creamy drizzle of Colorado-grown mayacoba beans. It was delicious, yes, but also a radical offering in a town that had never tried to be cool.
In the 20-plus years that I’ve been weekending in Grand Junction (or “Junction,” as locals abbreviate it), I’ve noticed that the community has never worked hard to turn visitors onto its charms—perhaps because those draws seemed too obvious to need boosterism. Colorado National Monument borders the city to the south and dazzles hikers with red-rock cliffs and spires. Some pockets equal the scenic value of Arches National Park, 1.5 hours west—but with a fraction of the crowds (Arches hosted 1.8 million visitors last year, compared to 500,000 at Junction’s backyard park).
Mountain biking is also big here, particularly on Grand Mesa, the massive, flat-topped mountain east of GJ where the new (summer 2021) Palisade Plunge bike trail drops 5,000 vertical feet on a top-to-bottom course spanning 32 miles. Grand Mesa is also home to Powderhorn Mountain Resort, a charmingly non-corporate ski area.
Beyond the scenic bounty, there’s the yum-factor of the surrounding vineyards and farms. Grand Junction sits on the confluence of two major rivers (the Gunnison and the Colorado, formerly named the Grand) so growers have historically enjoyed plenty of water for cultivating grapevines and fruit trees in an arid climate. In April and May, those orchards explode with white flowers growing in tidy rows beneath the wrinkled flanks of Mount Garfield, an eroded clay mesa where wild horses roam.
For years, I searched Grand Junction—in vain—for postadventure refreshment that wasn’t produced by a national fast- or casual-food chain. Then Denver native Josh Niernberg opened Taco Party in 2017 (after establishing Bin 707, his fine-dining concept, in 2011) and at long last, explorers with local and distant addresses had a creative way to refuel bodies and imaginations after rambling among Junction’s canyons and vineyards.
“There’s nowhere else in the state that has the access to the outdoors and to unique, fresh, local food that we do,” says Niernberg, who relocated here with his wife, a Grand Junction native. “We really are this tourism destination that’s always been off the radar.”
There are signs, however, that GJ’s sleeper status may not last much longer. In March 2022, Niernberg earned his second nomination for a James Beard Award, for the Outstanding Chef category of national contestants (his previous nod was for the regional “Best Chef: Mountains” niche). It recognizes not only his use of local Colorado produce but also his creativity: Niernberg uses lacto-fermentation to transform local elephant heart plums into stand-ins for limes, which the valley doesn’t produce. As a member of Zero Foodprint, an organization that allows chefs to support soil regeneration, Niernberg is also developing pathways that would allow local restaurants to improve soil health at nearby farms.