(This story was updated Nov. 22 to reflect a change in dining hall hours Thanksgiving Week.)
Food: 2 stars
Service: 2 stars
Ambience: 2 stars
Address: Center for Community Building, Regent Drive near the intersection with Kittredge Drive and east of the Regent Administrative Center, Boulder
Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday (continental breakfast, 10:30-11 a.m.), 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday-Sunday (Note: The dining hall will be closed Thanksgiving Week.)
Credit cards: Only credit cards or debit cards accepted
Noise level: High. As Chef from South Park said, "Because there's a time and a place for everything, and it's called college."
The dining center at the University of Colorado's Center for Community, or the C4C, is about as far removed from school cafeterias of yore as George Clooney is from the Cookie Monster.
Conspicuously absent is the spartan steam-table lineup freighted with tired mystery meats and carbs more suited for paste than human consumption. Instead, the C4C doles out healthier and tastier chow along with a hefty dose of unexpected ethnic dishes aggressively sought after by ardent foodies.
Dining for the public here costs $12, payable only by credit or debit cards, and there's a discounted rate for students and staff. Children younger than 6 dine free and small fry 6-12 eat for $7. Once you pay at the entrance, you'll quickly find yourself in the center of a contemporary, colorful and lively environment that is Boulder's largest eatery.
You'll feel more as if you're at a cruise ship or casino buffet than at an institution of higher learning. In lieu of a single cafeteria line, there's a multitude of stand-alone serving stations orbiting the entranceway, although they might not all be open at a given time. The sheer number of choices is a tad overwhelming, and diners might want to quickly survey the lay of the land before filling their plates.
Stations include the expected self-service salad and sandwich bars, as well as specialized sections serving fare free of gluten and common allergens such as dairy and seafood. There's also a counter offering glatt kosher dishes, though it was closed during a recent lunch visit with two companions.
Familiar ethnic eats include options from the pizza and pasta-centered Italian Cibo and Latin Comida, which specializes in made-to-order burritos and guilty-pleasure jalapeno poppers. I'll note that it took me about three of these fried cheese-and-chile snacks to confirm this shameful status, and I'll also cop to a fondness for the Cibo's green olives.
Seeking seldom-seen fare, I initially made a beeline for the Asian Shi Pin station. While this name initially sounds quite exotic, it's perhaps less so once one realizes "shi pinz" simply translates to "food." On this foray, atypical Pacific Island cuisine took center stage, with Hawaiian pulled Kalua pork the featured entree. Subtly smoky, if not a little bland, this traditional luau pig nailed the proper melt-in-your-mouth texture. While the inclusion of a decent macaroni salad might have appeared culturally incongruous, it's apparent someone in the kitchen knows this is the authentic Hawaiian plate lunch side.
A humble egg roll remained crisp and fresh tasting despite the made-in-advance presentation, and it compared favorably with what you'd get with lunch at any local Chinese restaurant. Less successful was the muddled-tasting smoked-salmon-and-cream-cheese roll from the sushi station, but what does one really expect from cafeteria sushi?
The Smoke 'n' Grill venue, whose name roughly translates to "comfort food" and whose contraction probably causes conniptions among the English department, is the place for All-American favorites. Old standbys such as burger sliders and half-sized hot dogs are on tap here, as well as such soothing sides as mashed potatoes. While the macaroni and cheese might not be as flavor-packed as homemade versions, it was acceptable and on a par with most restaurant preparations.
Our trio's hands-down favorite was the not-at-all typical Persian Ghaza station, where chef Hadi Montazeri dishes out intriguing halal meals. While the wahoo fish kabobs could have benefited from less salt, their consistency was pleasantly meaty with no indication of overcooking. Pomegranate chicken ably showcased the fruit's sweet and tart qualities and the poultry's tenderness. Sides of herbed rice and grilled vegetables were a fitting accompaniment, with the veggies evoking favorable comparisons to sit-down Middle Eastern restaurant items.
We closed things out at the dessert bar, which features straightforward cakes, pies, ice cream and drawers full of cookies. The college-age server behind the counter displayed a wisdom beyond her years when she proactively offered to heat up my slice of apple pie before adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream. While this patriotic sweet lacked the unusualness of other menu items, it still made for a satisfying conclusion.
Pleasant surprise best describes my reaction to the quality and uniqueness of the varied value-packed fare at the C4C. Perhaps a comment by one of my lunch toward the end of the meal summed it up best, as she requested, "Let me know when we're coming back."