Well, Colorado, it’s time to say adieu to 2014. But before we amble, appetites ever primed, into 2015, it seems only fitting that we give a nod to the culinary achievements of our state. From soaring chef celebrities to grassroots-grown, farm-to-table feasts, we give thanks for the prowess of eminently talented chefs in Denver, Boulder, and beyond. Is it any wonder our country’s foodie media—NPR to Bon Appétit and everything in between—see us as a delectable rising star?
But what makes us so great? While our past is not as deep as that of cities in the East or West, we know how to celebrate our history. Forever linking past to present, we honor landmarks like Union Stationwith genuine homage paid to what was, while toasting to what we are today. Fittingly, this landmark is home to some of Denver’s iconic culinary names—Jennifer Jasinski (Stoic & Genuine), Alex Seidel (Mercantile Dining & Provision), and sibling duo Jon and Adam Schlegel (Snooze, an A.M. Eatery), among others. Their concepts are, like Union Station itself, a testament to growth that embraces what made them a success once upon a time.
And yet, while preservation of history makes us swoon—who hasn’t enjoyed a game meat sampler at The Fort, or a rarified steak at The Broker?—we also love to explore the unknown. Call it the Manifest Destiny of the foodie West—a crazy culling of tradition with a cowboy’s wild side. We undo what’s been done (surf and turf will never be the same, and don’t get us started on the wild side of fries). We welcome outsiders with open minds. We taste; we try; we learn. There’s no cuisine we don’t relish, and no diet we dismiss.
But at the end of the meal, our hearts are humbly grounded in what makes us Colorado—the world-class beef of our pastures, the small-town beer of aspiring brewers, the farms that fuel our hyperlocal menus. We are both explorer and homebody, knowing what we do best while learning to do everything else better. We are without pretense, and ever marked by passion, in a state of constant culinary adventure.
And, dare we say, 2014 brought us a Mile Higher. Here’s a toast to that, with special nods to the culinary moments we carry into 2015.
We could wax extensively about trending menu items and our favorite things, but let’s look at the hard facts. This past year, experts and everyday food-lovers elected our city’s best taco, burger, beer, and more.
At Top Taco, the favorite creative taco of the people came from Moontower Tacos. The judges deemed the best creative taco to be the crispy cricket-topped beef tongue variety from Machete Tequila + Tacos. The people’s choice for traditional taco came from local favorite Pinche Tacos, while the judges deemed the beer-braised carnitas tacos from Comida numero uno. Both judges and festival-goers agreed that La Biblioteca‘s avocado-blueberry boba margarita reigned supreme.
Same goes for burgers—forget a basic American cheese-topped patty. Denver Burger Battle‘s 2014 winner came from Crave and went by the name of Love Stinks: Garlic cream cheese, raw onions, garlic mayo, red pepper aïoli, roasted red pepper, and candied bacon.
On the libations side of things, GABF hung golds on the bottlenecks of several Front Range brews. Cannonball Creek scored for their Black IPA, Funkwerks for their Belgian-style Raspberry Provincial, Wit’s Endfor their Belgian-style Jean-Claude Van Blond, and FATE for their German-style Laimas Kölsch, to name a few. 39 breweries across the state won medals—we were a close second behind California, boasting 46 winners.
In the shaker, the US Bartenders’ Guild elected Vail-based bartender Tacy Rowland’s “Germaicha” cocktail the winner, with Bombay Sapphire, St-Germain, and Sencha green tea brewed with star anise, white pepper, and caraway. And the vivacious martinis and cocktails at Williams & Graham earned this modern day speakeasy a spot on Drink’s International’s list of the World’s 50 Best Bars.
Takeaways: Coloradans love their tacos—26 competitors went neck-to-neck at the packed Top Taco festival—and we’re not afraid to go bugs-to-the-wall wild with our fillings. Same goes for our burgers—bring on the strong aromatics, the richness, and the unusual combinations, Mile High patty flippers! We continue to lead the country with our brews, which hail from 200-plus breweries stretching across the entire state. And tea-infused liquor is popping up in cocktails citywide–brew up a bottle in your home.
Mile High Iconic Dishes
In a place where craft beer reigns supreme and Rocky Mountain oysters are still a thing, it’s tough to name the most iconic dishes of the past year—especially when the paradigm is constantly shifting and the bar is ever rising. Yet, there are a few standout items that we found to be particularly unique, exciting, or trend-setting this year.
First up? Baum cakes. These German-born baked delights first nabbed our attention at Glaze when the shop first opened—that is, before Glaze sadly announced they were closing down after only about a year in operation. Thankfully, the good people at Sushi Sasa came to the rescue, offering a sweet partnership that spawned Glaze by Sasa. Now, guests can walk in for a baum cake or an authentic sushi dinner, or both. Not one, but two types of round, rolled, flavorful foods makes Glaze by Sasa a unique Denver icon.
Speaking of new icons, let’s talk surf ‘n’ turf. Denver has long been a steak haven, what with its plentiful ranching grounds and access to Midwestern beef. But accessing fresh seafood is a little more challenging. These days, restaurants are putting more effort into sourcing fresh, sustainable fish to offer our land-locked locals the best of both land and sea. At Oceanaire Seafood Room, you can have the best of both worlds with the Whole Colorado Striped Bass (seafood is flown in daily) with the Colorado Lamb Shank. Troy Guard opened Guard and Grace this year and its the perfect place to enjoy a little surf ‘n’ turf in the form of the Oak-Grilled Prime Rib with an order of Kampachi Crudo. For a purely Asian take, try Hapa Sushi‘s Surf and Turf Roll, made with lobster tempura, asparagus, and avocado topped with seared Kobe beef, garlic-basil butter, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar reduction.
When it’s cold outside, noodle bowls become all the more tantalizing. After all, there’s nothing like warm, nourishing broth and hearty noodles to cure the common cold. We love the Tom Kha at Ace Eat Serve, a traditional lemongrass and coconut soup with chicken thigh, beef, or tofu. Add pork belly, and the whole dish transforms into something even more savory. Frank Bonanno’s Bones puts soups on a pedestal, serving inspired takes on traditional Asian fare. We love the Green Chile Ramen’s ode to Western ingredients with braised pork shoulder, hominy, queso fresco, jalapeño, cilantro, and a poached egg. If you’re more in the market for the fresh, crisp, cool noodle bowl variety, Bubu lets you build your own bowl with rice noodles, grilled or chilled meats and fish, and more veggies than you know what to do with.
If you’re a visitor to Denver, locals will tell you that a biscuit sandwich at Atomic Cowboy’s Denver Biscuit Company is non-negotiable. These beasts slays our breakfast demons like no other. In particular, we love The Franklin, with its buttermilk fried chicken, Tender Belly bacon, and cheddar smothered in sausage or vegetarian gravy. Add an egg (do it) and visit their South Broadway location if you’re in the neighborhood. We’re counting down the days ’til Atomic Cowboy opens its third outpost in Berkeley in 2015.For the ever-growing population of gluten-free eaters, there’s the Portobello Mushroom Po’Boy from Watercourse‘s legendary menu of vegan and diet-friendly fare. This dish features polenta-encrusted portobellos (or artichoke hearts, if you’re not a ‘bello buff), chipotle aïoli, and slaw, served on a torta.
Fried chicken is also having a moment, with gussied up versions popping up on local menus. Head to BRU or Post–two restaurants/breweries who do fried chicken right–for a taste of this trend. At BRU, Executive Chef/Founder/Brew Master Ian Clark serves up Crisp Fried Chicken with red chile honey, buttermilk biscuits, and pickled collard greens. Order it with a Loch Wee Heavy Scotch Ale (2014 GABF Silver Medalist) and you’ll be entering 2015 in good form. At The Post Brewing Co. in Lafayette, “hot chicken loves cold beer.” Order up their signature Fried Chicken with country sausage gravy, and match it with a cold Howdy Beer, an American Style Pilsner (and another 2014 GABF Silver Medalist).
Talk of New Year’s resolutions brings to mind raw foods, cleanses, and juicing galore. Juice flights are a trending choice for juicers who seek to reap the benefits of each unique juice. Lucky for us, one-year-old Zeal–serving delicious “food for enthusiasts”–offers a flight of their specialty, house-squeezed, cold-pressed juices in a variety of combinations. “Drink the Rainbow” and try their “Red” (beet, apple, ginger, and lime), “Yellow” (pineapple, lemon, cucumber, and jalapeño), “Green” (kale, cucumber, spinach, celery, lemon, and ginger), and “Orange” (carrot, pineapple, apple, lemon, and basil) in a flight.
Takeaways: Coloradans are not one-size-fits-all in terms of taste. Sure, we can have our iconic steaks, and it wouldn’t be Colorado without a craft brew or two. In truth, we’re as eclectic as they come. With love for rib-eyes, Asian-inspired noodles, health food, and Southern fried chicken, we’re at once refined and open-minded.
Mile High’s Power Chefs
The tenor of our dining scene is largely set by some prolific and terrific local chefs, some of whom expanded their kitchendoms this year. The unstoppable Troy Guard swung open the doors to Guard & Grace, Sunnyside Burger Bar, and Bubu, and plans to open another Bubu location and possibly one more spot come 2015. Meanwhile, we’re still excited about the fact that he puts pop rocks in his sushi rolls.
The Jennifer Jasinski/Beth Gruitch team added the seafood-centric Stoic & Genuine to their portfolio with prime real estate in Denver’s Union Station. Alex Seidel of Fruition, Snooze, The Kitchen, and other spots also grew their empires in the new dining hub.
Frank Bonnano casually opened salt & grinder—an homage to his hometown of New Jersey in delicious sandwich shop form—while root down/Linger maestro Justin Cucci will open Vital Root—a vegetarian slow/fast casual spot—on Tennyson, and a tapas place near Linger. Meanwhile, John Broening swapped Le Grand for Argyll Whisky Beer, and spread the Punch Bowl love to Detroit. That’s not the only case of Denver chef’s extending their chef’s knives beyond Denver—The Kitchen opened recently in Chicago, while Snooze spread its wings to California.
Takeaways: These power restaurateurs and chefs show no signs of slowing down in 2015. Expect continued expansions of their culinary empires—both locally and nationally—and the emergence of new leaders, too. In such a fast-growing state, there’s always room for more.
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