food and beverage underground

By Randy Caparoso

“ Denver, My Kind of Restaurant Town "

No doubt about it, metropolitan Denver, and the industriously growing five counties surrounding it, is one of the most significant in the nation – population nearing 2.5 million (21st in the country) – but not so intricate that even a newcomer couldn’t get the hang of it fairly quickly.

It’s like Manhattan in reverse; broad and muscular rather than tight and deep, but still very much negotiable. Only here, you get around by car rather than taxi or subway; and there’s a space for every vehicle, like a chicken for every basket. The Western American’s dream – that shining city, on a 5,280 ft. hill.

Like all well-planned towns, the oldest section, Downtown Denver, still rocks as the epicenter of business and play, from the moment the sun rises over the plains in the east ‘til long after it sets over the Rockies in the west; the latter always beckoning with its bevy of bejeweled slopes and tony resorts, kicking up the icy white spray and green of the visitor dollar.

If you want to know why the growth has been so homogenous, with few dead spots both physically and historically, you need to look at Denver’s history since its incorporation as a miner’s saloon town in 1861. The Pike’s Peak gold rush, followed by silver speculators, pretty much expired by the 1890s, but by then our fruited plains had borne a livestock industry that still goes strong today. It may not have looked like it during the recently televised Democratic convention, but Denver is still a “cow town,” and the National Western Stock Show taking place every January is still the country’s premier livestock event of the year – and a shot in the arm for the local food and beverage industry, usually doing business under a foot or two of snow, while the only big-time games in town are the steady Avalanche and the perpetually unfulfilled Nuggets.

The upshot being, Denver is where the beef (plus bison and lamb) is at, surrounded as we are by about 1.3 million head of cattle on some 13,100 independent ranches (64% of them still less than 50 head in size, many practicing sustainable methods). Besides crystal clear water (life tastes so good when it doesn’t all have to come from bottles) and crisp mountain air, we do have vibrant springs and color-coded falls, sandwiching several spurts of 90 degree summer days; consequently giving us generous amounts of locally grown vegetables, fruits and artisanal cheeses, overflowing our farmer’s markets, where you can see a good number of our more savvy chefs trolling about among the friends, neighbors, and good looking strangers (the average Denver citizen looks more like a marathoner than a joe-sixpacker, as disgusting as that may sound to other inveterate foodies and drinkies).

Forty or so years ago the oil and gas industry began to make its impact on the Denver economy; and by the time that faded in the late eighties, the diversification we see today – including the high-tech and software, financial, renewable energy, bioscience, aviation and aerospace industries – were already starting to drive the average per household income (about $52,000) well over the national average. Ergo: a bustling food and beverage industry.

So where is Denver at? As someone who’s lived, and opened restaurants, in cities as far flung as Honolulu and New York – and in between, from La Jolla through San Francisco to Seattle, Chicago through Memphis to Austin, and Philadelphia through Baltimore, Atlanta and to both sides of Florida – I can say this with authority: the average Denver restaurant-goer expects, and receives, a knowing level of sophistication, yet is not so tyrannical as consumers in so-called “restaurant towns” (i.e. San Francisco, Chicago and New York) in respect to self-imposed standards (or illusions). In other words, we just like to enjoy our food and drink, and we’re open to just about anything.

We have, to begin with, a solid core of our own “celebrity” (if you will) chefs, driving companies from modestly sized multi-units (like Kevin Taylor’s Restaurant Kevin Taylor and Prima Downtown, and Palettes in the Libeskind designed Denver Art Museum; Frank Bonanno’s revisionist Italian Osteria Marco and haute American Mizuna; and the stunningly inventive cooking done by Jennifer Jasinski at her Rioja and the more brasserie-like Bistro Vendôme), to single, postage stamp sized stores (like Patrick Dupays’ authentically bistrot Z Cuisine; Wayne Conwell’s deftly executed Sushi Sasa; Teri Rippeto’s perpetually seasonal Potager; and the almost soberingly pure distillations of flavor done by John Broening at duo).

But what if, like me, your jaded palate would just as soon dispense with the “walls of fame,” ego laden (even if unintentional) menus and affectatious wine lists, and you just want to eat; even if the silverware is mismatched, the tables and chairs just as distressed as your hair and jeans? Lots and lots of that in Denver, too. Starting with the neighborhoody Tables in Park Hill, and Table 6 tucked in a hood just north of Cherry Creek: both doing just pure, fresh cooking, sans attitude. For straightforward plates of charcuterie, confit and cheese, I opt for either Le Central on Lincoln, or French 250 in Cherry Creek.

For Japanese country-comfort food, there’s Domo; and for the comfort of the authentic Japanese sushi bar, there’s Sushi Den in the older burbs southwest of I-25, or Sonada’s in LoDo (“Lower Downtown”). For an oyster bar selection as fresh as anything on a coast, there’s Jax Fish House; and for coastal Mexican seviches, fresh fish tacos, and the largest selection of tequila north of the border, there’s Lola in the emerging, young-professionals neighborhood of Highlands. Finally, for the most unpretentious dining of all – microbrews, fried foods, dips and messy sandwiches – the Wynkoop Brewery Company has been going full steam in LoDo since 1988; although the scene is even more hardcore local, and frenetic, at Three Dogs Tavern in Highlands.

Seeing that almost 35% of Denver’s population is Hispanic or Latino, we happily eat that way, too. For me, burritos are properly made with all the off-meats in the world, and El Taco de Mexico in the ArtDistrict on Santa Fe delivers exactly that. For taqueria aficionados, Tacos y Salsas #3 on the “other side” of the freeway along Federal is the way to go. Tamales lovers (i.e. me) absolutely swoon over those of La Casita; and for piping hot, pillowy, honeyed sopapillas, we turn to Little Anita’s. For indubitably killer carnitas smothered in green chili, you have to drive a half-hour north of LoDo to Lafayette to find Efrain’s; and for that gots-to-have Saturday morning urge for a menudo chock-full of tripe (and less hominy), you need to drive half-hour south to Lone Tree to sit at Los Arcos.

Then there are fusions; which when done right, are possibly the funnest foods in the world. I’m originally from Hawai’i, and thank goodness there’s L&L in the workingman’s hood of Aurora for my periodic fixations on manapua (Chinese pork dumpling), kalua (shredded, smoked pork) and laulau (steamed kalua and butterfish wrapped in taro and ti leaves). For more elaborate, yet casually inclined, experiences of East-West/Hawaiian style fish, noodles and sushi, there’s Kona Grill in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, or Hapa across the street. If you still fancy the Latin/Asian fusions that were the rage at the turn of the millennium, the tuna tataki, lobster potstickers and seviches at Zengo are exhilarating. Finally, if some say South American cuisine is in itself a New World fusion, Café Brazil is where to find it.

Like that of many towns, Denver’s Southeast Asian population supplies us with the grocery stores essential for our home cooking; and Denver’s pho restaurants, fortuitously, take the backseat to no other’s. Having tried most of them (something of a feat, since there are at least 99 of them), I can say that the most consistently sustaining are those of Pho 79, with four locations covering the north, south west, and far-west sides of town; although the combinations of jellified fish and gelatinous meats at Ha Noi Pho on Federal are probably untouchable.

Denverettes, of course, are cow-towners at heart, and so the big breakfast is important to them. For bleary eyed techies, though, breakfast spots at 3 PM or 3 AM are also absolute needs, and they always know where to gravitate: the 24 hour Denver Diner. Despite a tempting number of originally conceived pancakes, at the urban-cool Snooze, down the street from Coors Field in LoDo, I usually end up with the Niman Ranch pulled pork benedict (extra hollandaise on the side); or barring that, the crabcake benedict at Toast in the old town of Littleton off Santa Fe Drive. It may not be hometown bred, but you have to grant that the Dutch Baby pancake (not to mention the mile-high Spanish omelette) at the Original Pancake House is unbeatable; and for chile rellenos with eggs or huevos rancheros, Sam’s No. 3 (flipping eggs in Downtown Denver since 1927) always meets my needs.

But wait, there’s more… but let’s cut this off with this final word: steakhouse. If anything, Denver is the place for honking red meat. When I was first escorted around the town ten years ago, one of my first duties was to visit Buckhorn Exchange – Denver’s oldest continuous restaurant (since 1893) – where among the specialites, you can savor buffalo prime rib and rocky mountain oysters (i.e. buffalo bull’s testicles). If your taste is more mainstream, however, Elway’s (owned by the hometown hero) has been doing such a bang-up job in its first location in Cherry Creek, that they recently opened up a second store Downtown in the Ritz-Carlton. Otherwise, all the national brands (Fleming’s, Ruth’s Chris, Del Frisco’s, Capital Grille, et al.) are here, and performing quite well, thank you. My favorite: Sullivan’s, as much for its handy-dandy LoDo location a block from Coors Field as its tuna tartare (my “perfect” bar food) and prime rib Sundays. From Hostess Job Description - Waiter

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