I love a good picnic – sitting outside with friends enjoying great food. Now imagine a picnic in perfect Denver weather with 25 food trucks providing the fare or, as I like to call it, food truck heaven.
Denver’s Civic Center Eats Outdoor Cafe brings together over two dozen food trucks, trailers and food carts to serve lunch to hungry downtown workers every Tuesday from mid-June to the end of August. The schedule was extended through September this year because of the cafe’s popularity.
The program is run by the Civic Center Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages the Civic Center Park nestled between the Capitol and the City and County Building and home to the Denver Art Museum and the central library.
Knowing the list of vendors was long, my friends and I decided to divide and conquer – buying lots of dishes and sharing so everyone could have a taste. I reconnoitered menus as vendors set up, making sure we didn’t miss any hidden gems.
My friend Lindy Eichenbaum-Lent, Executive Director of Civic Center Conservancy, suggested that we start with the Biscuit Bus, the mobile arm of the Denver Biscuit Company. The truck offers savory and sweet sandwiches on one of the most delicate, flaky biscuits you have ever tasted. We ordered the Ellsworth with chicken, honey, mustard and homemade pickles and it was a a perfect combination of sweet and tart on a buttery biscuit. The sweet potato fries were perfect – nice and crispy.
For our second act, we headed to The Porker food cart, a new vendor that week. As the name suggests, this cart celebrates all that is pig from the bagged pork rinds to the pork belly while also offering some incredible light salads. We chose the pork belly with a soba noodle and a watermelon, cucumber and goat cheese salad.
They mix the salads to order and pay careful attention to balancing the flavors in the dish. The soba noodle salad had sweet mango and crunchy bell peppers that paired perfectly with the rich belly and the watermelon salad was light and refreshing. The Porker was definitely my favorite find of the day.
At this point, I was thankful there were four of us tasting the dishes and that we had three hours during which to stretch our meal. Pinche Tacos was next up on the list and I could tell from their long line that this was going to be a treat. This mobile taqueria was started by Kevin Morrison, co-founder of the Spicy Pickle deli chain. According to his bio, Kevin was tired of the corporate life and wanted to have some fun. It’s a good thing Kevin followed his instincts.
We tried three of Pinche’s tacos: the queso a la plancha, lengua and the asada. The lengua was by far the best of the three with tender beef tongue in a subtly spicy roasted chipotle salsa. It was one of the best tacos I’ve ever had. The queso a la plancha was a first for me; sort of a Mexican style grilled cheese sandwich with griddled Cotija cheese.
Our final savory stop was the Deluxe Street Food whose truck is also know as The Little Orange Rocket. This truck, the mobile arm of the brick and mortar restaurant Deluxe, is offering truly innovative food truck fair from ceviche cones to curries to truffled mac and cheese balls.
The most difficult part of visiting the Deluxe truck was narrowing the choices as we were edging on stuffed. The ceviche cone and truffled mac and cheese balls did not disappoint. The cone was filled with refreshing, light fish in a perfectly tart and spicy marinade. The truffled mac and cheese balls were rich and creamy and a little overwhelming – delicious, but definitely a dish to share.
We ended our lunch exploration at The Inventing Room, Ian Kleinman’s dessert cart that was inspired by Willy Wonka. The cart looks more like the lab of a mad scientist than a bakery as Kleinman whips up ice cream to order using a liquid nitrogen tank. Even the marshmallows get the freeze dried treatment giving you a crunchy sweet topping.
In many ways, this event is possible because Denver’s mobile food scene, like others around the country, has exploded in the last few years. Brick and mortar success stories like Steuben’s, Deluxe and Denver Biscuit Company all have food trucks now. And, like in Austin, up and coming chefs are finding food trucks, carts and trailers an affordable way to get started and build their brand. I expect to see great things as both The Porker and The Inventing Room grow.
The street food scene in Denver has grown so much that several of the vendors have formed The Justice League of Street Food (love this name) to organize events, capitalizing on the type of synergy and crowds created at the Civic Center Eats lunch.
Lunch at Civic Center Eats Outdoor Cafe was incredible (and I’m not just saying that because my friend runs the program.) The park is a beautiful backdrop for the innovative, creative vendors and I desperately wanted to transport my friends from Austin to the park to share the experience. Denver has areal jewel in its downtown crown with this event and I can’t wait to go back next year.
View the full photo set.