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Denver's Local Flavors

How do you experience the best of Denver’s food scene? We went straight to the source — some of The Mile High City's most accomplished chefs — to find out. 

“Find a local,” recommends Alex Seidel, chef-owner of Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provision and founder of Fruition Farms, a 10-acre plot southeast of Denver that’s fertile ground for the herbs and vegetables that Seidel, a 2010 Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef, utilizes at his acclaimed restaurants.

Denver foodies will likely steer you toward tacos or green chile, probably the two most worshipped foods in the city: universally accessible, inexpensive and arguably better than just about anywhere else in America. Denver’s infatuation with Mexican fare extends throughout the city, including Colfax Avenue. The 26.5-mile expanse — the longest commercial stretch of asphalt in the United States — trumpets a fistful of taquerias, not to mention dozens of other restaurants, most of which proffer international cuisines. Federal Boulevard and Havana Street follow suit, extolling the virtues of Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Chinese, Ethiopian, Korean, Japanese, African and regional Mexican cooking. Federal Boulevard, by the way, is the undisputed kingpin of Denver’s taco culture.

What else do locals crave? Envision a metropolis, too, where restaurant menus are inked with some of the most coveted ingredients in the nation — Colorado lamb and beef, Palisade peaches, Olathe corn, cheese and sweet cherries. “Local ingredients always influence our menus, and my staff and I love to go to the farmers’ markets to buy what’s in season — and then we go back to the kitchens and play,” says Jennifer Jasinski, a James Beard Award-winning chef, who co-owns RiojaBistro Vendome and Stoic & Genuine. Innovative and creative restaurants are rampant in The Mile High City, and there’s culinary progression at every turn.

“Our community is filled with entrepreneurs that are excited about the American food movement, and the amazing opportunities for growth are fostering the next generation of food thinkers in Denver,” says Seidel.

An unparalleled destination, too, for craft beer and cocktail bars, including the nationally celebrated Williams & Graham, plus an ever-growing splay of food halls and neighborhood pockets that are pillars of culinary passion, Denver ballyhoos extraordinary diversity, along with a striking sense of community and comradery among chefs.

“Organic, growing, lively and funky

When Jennifer Jasinski, a protégé of Wolfgang Puck — and one of the most lauded chefs in Colorado — launched her career in Denver, originally at Panzano, a downtown Italian restaurant, she was fed the same line that Denverites had heard for years: “People told me that this was a steak-and-potatoes town,” recalls Jasinski, who quickly dismissed the claim. “I don’t accept that notion now, and I didn’t accept it then,” insists Jasinski, who describes Denver’s culinary scene as “organic, growing, lively and funky.”

Adds Frank Bonanno: “It’s a myth that Denver is a steak-and-potatoes town. For proof, look at the explosion of fresh, young talent and really great concepts that are popping up all over the city.” He should know: The all-star chef owns a bevy of restaurants and bars of his own, including Mizuna, a New American stunner that’s an integral part of Denver’s culinary timeline.

New York City native Justin Cucci, founder of Edible Beats, the restaurant group that opened Root DownLingerOphelia’s Electric Soapbox, El Five and Vital Root, concurs that Denver is a dynamic city for dining. “There will always be the mainstays of the past,” he admits, “but Denver is really starting to take a bite out of the dining apple, so to speak.” Take that, New York!

 “There’s a really strong farm-to-table scene in Denver”

Just about every chef in Denver will attest to the fact that Colorado’s growing season is abbreviated. They’ll tell you, too, that rather impressive spring snowstorms, bursts of hail in the nucleus of summer and sheets of frost when you least expect it, presents its own unique set of challenges. But make no mistake: Denver chefs subscribe to a full-throttled farm-to-table dictum.

“The farm-to-table scene in Denver is really strong,” observes Lon Symensma, whose anthology of restaurants includes ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro, YumCha and LeRoux. The chef, who likens Palisade peaches to “nectar,” procures much of his produce locally, incorporating things like rhubarb, heirloom radishes, corn and pea shoots in magical ways throughout his repertoire of Southeast Asian-style and French dishes.

For Paul Reilly, executive chef/co-owner of Coperta, it’s winter spinach that he most looks forward to. “It’s the first crop to pop up in Colorado and the kick-off ingredient for local vegetables,” he says, noting that while Colorado has a fickle growing season, “farming partnerships are far more commonplace than in the past and those partnerships are elevating Denver’s dining scene.”

If you ask Justin Cucci, who favors local White Mountain Farms’ quinoa, about Denver’s farm-to-table movement, he’ll tell you that he’s “never seen a more vibrant local food scene.” As for produce, there’s “always something coming down the pike, and all of that wonderful produce gets my chefs super-excited to represent Colorado,” says Cucci. And every year, he adds, “the bounty of local products and crops just gets better and better.” Expect to find enormous creativity, variety and local tastes on all of Cucci’s vegetable-focused menus, which trumpet spring peas and carrots, roasted baby beets and arugula paired with local goat cheese, asparagus and sorrel in a spinach gnocchi and a risotto with fava beans and wild mushrooms.

“The lifetime of learning is rooted in the research it takes to source ingredients, understand how to use them and how they’re produced, who grows them and then to build relationships that are everlasting and make good sense on a number of levels,” says Alex Seidel, a self-described “sucker for Colorado peaches, Olathe corn, Rocky Ford melons and foraging for the most perfect porcini mushroom.”

“Denver’s culinary scene has become amazingly diversified”

Denver, says Justin Brunson, chef-owner of the bacon-centric Brunson Meat Co., has become a “culinarily adventurous society.” And to get a real sense of The Mile High City’s food scene, “spend some time on Federal Boulevard exploring our ethnic-focused restaurants,” advises Brunson.

Here, among the dozens of affordable and convivial storefronts, is a mecca of unassailable versions of south-of-the-border street food, Vietnamese cuisine, real-deal Chinese offerings, Thai marvels and Asian-Cajun culture. The stable of standouts includes Chili Verde, which proffers Pueblan-Mexican cuisine; Lao Wang Noodle House, where the soup dumplings are legendary; New Saigon, dedicated to the food of Vietnam; El Taco Veloz, glorifying superb Mexican street tacos; and The Crawling Crab, a place devoted to crustaceans jolted with Cajun spices. Federal Boulevard, says Brunson, “features so many different cuisines that I don’t regularly cook, but that I really enjoy eating.”

Elsewhere across the city, there are numerous Ethiopian restaurants, a top pick of Bonanno. “Going to one of Denver’s great Ethiopian restaurants is one our family’s favorite nights out,” says Bonanno. Nile EthiopianQueen of Sheba and Megenagna Ethiopian Restaurant, which resides next to an Ethiopian grocer, are all worth an odyssey.

“There’s no question that Denver’s culinary scene has become incredibly diversified,” says Symensma. “We’ve got so many restaurants that are focusing on different cuisines, techniques and concepts; it’s impossible to get to them all.”

“Search out and eat in a multitude of communities”

Over the last few years, neighborhood restaurants have become their own epicenters for dining out. From Uptown to Capitol Hill, RiNo to LoHi, there’s never been a better time to explore Denver’s food-centric hamlets. Lower Downtown (LoDo), a powerhouse of restaurants, parades endless possibilities, and with Union Station, Denver’s marvelously renovated train station at its core, the area is a surplus of riches. “Something spoke to me about LoDo when I was contemplating where to open ChoLon,” recalls Symensma. “It’s incredible how much this neighborhood has developed, and with the thriving landmark that’s Union Station, I only expect bigger and better things to come.”

Reilly echoes that sentiment: “Union Station is so impressive,” and its architectural splendor, he adds, extends to restaurants like Mercantile Dining & Provision. “Mercantile lives up to the Union Station’s grandeur, and in order to get a sense of a place, you have to understand what its land produces, and Mercantile is a glowing example of that, too” he says. Reilly is also a proponent of Uptown, the neighborhood where Coperta resides. “I love the dining community in Uptown. It can be casual, high-end, quiet, or raucous all on the same block.”

Other chefs, like Cucci, who recommends “searching out and eating in a multitude of communities and neighborhoods,” sings the praises of Highland, a culinary nirvana just west of downtown. Cucci opened his first two restaurants — Root Down and Linger — in Highland, and the thriving neighborhood continues to soar. “The passion I’ve seen for the neighborhood just means that the dining scene has become a pillar of what Highland has become. It’s a neighborhood that keeps it real,” says Cucci.

Enclaves like Larimer Square, a block-long dining destination flush with chef-driven restaurants, was one of the first stretches of asphalt to ballyhoo a bona fide food scene, thanks to visionaries like Jasinski and Bonanno, both of whom have opened eateries on the block. Since then, Larimer Street has pushed the boundaries, extending its significant reach northward to Five Points and River North Art District (RiNo), both of which lay claim to some of the best and most popular restaurants in the city: Biker Jim’s Gourmet DogsWork & Class and La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal, James Beard-nominated chef Jose Avila's eatery dedicated to pozole. 

RiNo, one of Denver's most happening neighborhoods, especially for the culinary cognoscenti, also lays claim to The Source, a European-inspired food hall and The Source Hotel that struts Safta, an Israeli restaurant from James Beard award-winning Chef Alon Shaya, and The Woods, an enchanting rooftop restaurant, bar and beer garden featuring dishes paired with New Belgium Brewing craft beers.

“There’s a real sense of community among Denver chefs”

If there’s one common denominator that makes Denver’s dining scene unique, it’s the “real sense of community among chefs,” says Seidel. “We fight for each other and the greater good, which, in turn, has propelled our culinary scene to new heights.” That comradery is a conviction that’s shared by just about every chef in the city. Even more notable, says Brunson: “We really like hanging out and cooking together.”

“Denver has the fastest-growing, hottest food scene in the United States”

That declaration from chef Brunson might raise a few eyebrows, but there’s no denying the fact that Denver’s culinary scene is on a major upswing. Along with James Beard Award-winning chefs, excellent international diversity, a dedicated farm-to-table stronghold and unparalleled restaurant growth, the city is experiencing an uptick in far more sophisticated dining habits.

“Diners are much more informed and entitled,” says Reilly. “They demand great product at a fair price; it’s been fun to grow up alongside them.” Diners, too, notes Reilly, have become significantly more aware that the myths that once plagued Denver’s food climate are anything but accurate. People are beginning to realize, for example, that the notion that restaurants don't have access to fresh fish is, well, a fish tale. “We have these amazing machines called airplanes, and I can get beautiful fish from both coasts — and even New Zealand — in one day. Our fish program can compete with any restaurant in America,” notes Reilly.

Says Jasinski: “When I first started cooking here, I was told I couldn’t sell fish or lots of other proteins, but when people want something, more purveyors will carry it, and that’s exactly what’s happening in Denver. The laws of supply and demand are very much in place for restaurants, and guests seem much more willing to try more adventurous dishes.”

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