By Tim Mandese, Eating Wyoming columnist
The decline of Wyoming’s small towns has been documented.
The communities that were once hubs of activity have become shadows of their former selves, like Jeffrey City, or have been partially wiped away, like Shoshoni.
Not one to give up, Chugwater is digging in its heels in and resisting this trend of rural decline.
Chugwater famously hosts the annual Chugwater Chili Cookoff and Round Up. This annual event sees Chugwater’s population swell from a little more than 500 residents to more than 3,500 with the arrival of visitors for the event.
When entering the town, one of the first things visitors see is a freshly painted, mint green building that looks like it’s frozen in time.
This is the Chugwater Soda Fountain, the oldest operating soda fountain in Wyoming. In the opinion of this writer, it should be a national monument to perseverance!
Opened in 1914, as Latta’s Drugs-Fountain, it’s been the heart of daily Chugwater life ever since.
Latta’s continued operation as a soda fountain and pharmacy until the 1960s, but when it began serving lunch, the business slowly morphed into more of a restaurant.
Flash forward 60-plus years. In April 2021, author, homesteader and rancher Jill Winger, along with her husband Christian, bought the soda fountain.
“I have been in Chugwater since 2005, and I’ve been driving by the place all this time,” Jill told me. “The place just called to me. I thought, I think we need to buy it.”
She says she tried talking herself out of it many times as her and her husband are busy with the other businesses they operate. However, there was something about this place that always drew her back, and she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The business wasn’t for sale, but she reached out to the owners anyway and as luck, or fate, would have it, they were ready to retire, to pass the torch. A deal was struck and the ownership changed hands.
Jill Winger may write cookbooks, but she had never worked in food service, and never operated a restaurant. She said the transition from a well versed home cook to a commercial cook was a bit of a challenge.
“I like food, so that helps,” she said. “The hardest part for me is that I cook a lot of whole foods, very home grown, very organic at home. I have food beliefs and standards that’s hard to translate to a commercial setting.”
Since taking ownership, the Wingers have been remodeling the little soda fountain, updating a lot of things while protecting its 1914 charm.
The soda counter, which was built in England and installed in 1927, is still there. The biggest change has been the addition of a full restaurant kitchen in the back.
Completed just a few months ago, the kitchen is dishing out the best food in the area!
The Wingers have already found many pieces of of the building’s past which will be put on display in the pharmacy’s original apothecary cabinets.
The goal is to have everything completed within a month, says Winger.
But I didn’t make this trek to Chugater just to talk to Jill about the remodel, heavens no. I’m here to eat! I have four hungry friends with me too.
One of the biggest changes, besides the refurbishment of the soda fountain, is the recent revamping of the menu.
As I eagerly look over the lunch menu, I see it’s got everything there.
Burgers of course, and the world famous — or at least Wyoming famous — Chugwater Chili. You can even get a salad if you like, and you can wash it all down with an ice cold soda or, surprisingly, a frosty beer!
I had the Swan Ranch Burrito, named after the well known local Swan Ranch. This dish is a seasoned beef and bean burrito made with local grass fed beef. It’s topped with red or green chili (red in my cas) and lettuce, tomato, onions and cheddar cheese. Let me tell you, this was the best burrito of its kind that I have ever had! The beef and beans were moist and flavorful. The tortilla was soft and tender. The toppings were fresh and delicious. This might be my go-to favorite here, but I haven’t tried the burgers yet.
My friends across the table, however, did order the burger. The Wyoming Burger is made with more of that locally sourced, grass -fed beef. You can order it any way you like and top it with all the classic burger fixings. This time it was cheese and a big ol’ slice of onion.
I was told the beef was tender and cooked just the way it was ordered, and the seasoned fries on the side were hot and crispy. Something they would definitely order again.
Next up on the tour of the table were the Buffalo Nachos. Crispy nachos covered with Chugwater Chili, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion. It was a huge serving and when my friend was asked if she would like a to-go box she responded with “Are you kidding? Of course not!” They were gone a few minutes later, so I’ll just let you wonder how good they were.
Next up, and to my right, is a nicely grilled Polish Dog on a toasted bun, served with more of those seasoned fries we talked about. OK, I will confess, I artfully applied the mustard in the photo, but I’m assured you can use ketchup as well. Or is it catsup? In either case, this, too, was well received and generated a few “Mmm Mmmmm!” moments.
Now that lunch is over, it’s time to order a malt. Yes, I had room! There’s always room for a malt or a shake.
But what’s the difference between them? As Jill Winger put it, a shake is just milk and ice cream blended together with the flavor of your choice, but a malt is a whole different experience. A malt is thicker and richer thanks to the addition of malted milk powder.
For my malt today, I ordered my old favorite the peanut butter malt. The crew behind the counter lovely crafted this milky, malty creamy creation to perfection. I’ve had them other places, and normally there’s hardly any flavor. This one is worthy of a gold star!
If you thought I was finished, think again! I came back for breakfast the next morning. I just had to try their Steamboat Breakfast Burrito!
And I wasn’t disappointed. This breakfast fare was the topper for the weekend. A soft fresh tortilla filled with my choice, which was crispy bacon, eggs and cheese. It was topped with creamy sausage gravy. This and a glass of OJ got me going for sure!
So if you find yourself on a trip down Interstate 25, please do yourself a treat and get off at the exit to Chugwater, and head into town. Trust me, you can’t miss the soda fountain, located at 314 First Street. Pick up a malt for me while you are there. You know which kind.
Their hours are Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
You can also find more information on Facebook, or at www.chugwatersodafountain.com