I’ve been visiting Denver since I was a little kid and I always remember fondly the friendly people, the gorgeous weather and the beautiful mountains. However, until this year, I did not equate Denver with great food.
Little did I know that my not quite annual trip to Denver to see dear friends would yield some of the most interesting food I’ve had all year. Their food scene is happening and sustainable, local food is front and center. As confirmation of the changes in Denver’s restaurants, the New York Times ran an article about farmer/gardener chefs in Denver the weekend I was there.
We kicked off our culinary adventures shortly after I disembarked from the plane. Lindy and I grabbed lunch at one of her local favorites, Fuel Cafe, a casual cafe a short drive from downtown that features seasonal dishes often from its own garden.
We ordered the oven baked “fried” chicken special served with their version of potato and bean salad and the pressed Cubano sandwich. Both were delicious, based on traditional dishes but with a few twists that made them unique. The chicken was amazingly crispy and I couldn’t believe it came from the oven. The potato salad was more like a chilled version of green beans and new potatoes with a lovely, tangy dressing. The pork on the Cubano was fall apart tender and they handmade pickles and mustard were fantastic – giving the sandwich a very unique kick.
This trip was definitely off to a good start. Lindy suggested that we forgo dessert at Fuel Cafe and head over to D Bar Desserts, home of celebrity Chef Keegan Gerhard. While I’m not big on desserts, I was interested in what all the fuss was about so I acquiesced. I loved sitting at the counter watching the cooks prep for their evening rush while we poured over the menu with frequent peaks at the cold case to see if there was something we preferred there.
We settled on the original and most famous Cake and Shake, an absolutely enormous slice of chocolate cake paired with a vanilla or chocolate shake or malt. Um, yum! I get it. The fuss is well deserved. The cake was moist and rich and the shake was lick your lips delicious.
For dinner, we headed to Steuben’s, serving traditional diner fare with a modern twist using locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant is fun and hip and, with a thoughtful selection of craft cocktails and beers, was absolutely packed on a Friday night.
We happened to catch the last night of Denver’s version of Eat Local Week and I celebrated by ordering the Colorado lamb french dip. French dip sandwiches always remind me of having lunch with my grandfather at Swensen’s in Amarillo. I thought it was so fun that I got to dip my sandwich in the jus. Steuben’s french dip was a great rendition with the tender lamb giving it a lovely richness. Add in a couple of their delicious deviled eggs and I was in comfort food heaven.
One of my favorite things about Steuben’s was the kid’s menu which offered a number of healthy choices that were then presented on a divider plate. My friends’ daughter loved her edamame, green beans and hot dog.
During my visit, I achieved a significant personal milestone. We decided we should celebrate and Jason and Lindy picked one of their local favorites, TAG, for the occasion. TAG touts itself as “Continental Social Food” with an emphasis on sharing small plates. The dishes celebrate the best of many food cultures while using some of the finest local meats and produce.
Each dish was flavorful and well executed from the playful presentation of the Taco Sushi (think tuna tartare in a taco shell) to the perfectly cooked hanger steak. Again, I was impressed with how easily the server integrated a 4 year-olds needs into the evening, bringing her a plate of perfectly-sized Kobe sliders and fries – that she devoured. They even brought her a special dessert.
And on the topic of dessert, I felt like I was back at Milk Bar when they brought me three different house made flavors of ice cream including cereal milk (cereal soaked in milk then they use the milks for the ice cream.) It sounds so weird and yet it was so good. I was immediately transported back to childhood and drinking the milk out of the cereal bowl when I was finished. (But then again, maybe you had better manners as a child.)
When our server found out I was from out of town, he recommended a few other restaurants for me to try including Euclid Hall, a new gastropub also in the LoDo (Lower Downtown) area. I decided to explore Euclid Hall at lunch on Monday while my hosts were working and I fell in love. I love everything about this restaurant – the historic building, the handmade pickles, mustards and charcturie, that they call happy hour Study Hall (please send me to study hall) – the whole shebang.
I sat by the pass so I was able to take pictures of almost everything that came out, and was having a hard time narrowing my choices. I decided to order a lot and taste a little starting with the Crispy Buffalo-Style Pig Ears. I’d never had pigs ears breaded and fried in this manner so that the ears were tender and the consistency was more like eating calamari or a french fry. The Buffalo sauce was a terrific way to spice it up.
I adore pickles and the pickle sampler did not disappoint. Each variety was packed with flavor and tasted so different than the next. The mustards were equally diverse and my favorite was the horseradish mustard which packed a serious punch.
But all of this was just a warm up for the best Boudin Noir I’ve ever had. The curry and the eggplant gave the sausage a deep, luscious flavor and the sausage practically melted in your mouth. I paired it with the grilled cabbage stack, a unique preparation of cabbage that is braised then grilled and topped with a currant vinaigrette. It was a fun and playful twist to a traditional braised cabbage and sausage dish, which sums up Euclid Hall for me – charming and I playful twist on tradition.
As I think about it, that might be a good way to capture my entire Denver culinary experience. Every place we visited was friendly and open, turning out fantastic food, but always with a little wink to the playful. It’s no wonder that we ate ourselves silly during my visit and there were countless places that we missed. It’s a good thing Lindy & Jason have a treadmill at their house; I need to come back to hit the rest of our list!
View the full photo set on Flickr.