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Road Trip: Bite After Luscious Bite at Denver Restaurants

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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.

Fried Chicken and New Potato Salad at Fuel Cafe Cuban Sandwich at Fuel Cafe

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.

Cake & Shake at D Bar Desserts

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.

Deviled Eggs at Steuben'sColorado Lamb French Dip at Steuben's

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.

Kid's Meal at Steuben's

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.

Tuna Tartare Tacos Local Hanger SteakKid's Meal at TAG

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.)

Triple Ice Cream Dessert at TAG

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.

Fried Pigs Ears with Buffalo Sauce at Euclid HallHandmade pickles at Euclid Hall

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.

Boudin Noir at Euclid HallPickled, Braised and Grilled Cabbage Stack at Euclid Hall

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.

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Road Trip: Markets Galore in Denver and Boulder

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My friends and I used to spend our days shopping at the mall when I visited them, but now they indulge me by planning our weekends around visiting farmers markets. During my recent trip to Denver, my friend Lindy spoiled me by taking me to visit two farmers markets and two neighborhood markets that feature local goods.

Friday, we filled our afternoon touring Tony’s Market and Marczyk Fine Foods, small neighborhood groceries that feature local produce and treats from area food artisans. At both stores we were greeted by mounds of Colorado peaches and found all sorts of local treats from the dairy to the deli. Both stores offered a great way to add local items to your pantry in between farmers markets.

Colorado PeachesIsraeli Melons
Local Elk BratwurstDSCF3015

How my life has changed that I’d rather poke through the aisles at a neighborhood grocery than go shoe shopping. (Lindy probably would have rather gone shoe shopping but she was a great sport about it.)

Saturday, we loaded in the car for the short road trip to the Boulder County Farmers Market, the largest market in the area. The market stretches for about five blocks on the border of Boulder’s Central Park and is packed with customers from the moment it opens. The market offers some of the region’s best produce, meats and dairy as well as dried black beans, pasta and even edamame.

Black BeansMarket Produce
What's in Season?Tomatoes as far as the eye can see

The hot food vendors (take note Austin Health Department) are grouped together to make a pleasant outdoor cafe where you can snack on everything from gyros to dim sum to tamales.

Dumplings at the market
They even have a vendor selling honey wine and mead. Unfortunately, Colorado laws prevent you from tasting it, but the novelty of the honey wine was intriguing.

While the Boulder market is teeming with goodies, it is also teeming with people and was crowded enough to be uncomfortable at times, particularly while trying to maneuver with a 4 year old. Bigger isn’t always better.
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We dispatched fairly quickly to the more spacious Pearl Street outdoor mall area to check out the local shops. We wandered upon Peppercorn, a fantastic kitchen and specialty store where you could find almost anything you might want to help you cook or serve the perfect meal. The two story playland for foodies is like a Williams Sonoma on steroids packed with cookbooks, gadgets, tools, dishes and linens. Heaven! It was a miracle that I made it out with one small bag.

On Sunday, we visited the Old South Pearl Farmers Market in Denver. This market, while smaller with about 40 booths, still had plenty to offer a shopper without the harried crowds of Boulder. We had a terrific time visiting with the vendors as we examined the produce, meat, spices and prepared foods.

Shomai at the marketRoasting Peppers
PIzza and Bread
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I even saw my first truck bed garden. I swear gardeners will plant veggies anywhere they can find a container. Love it!
Truckbed Garden
Denver’s Pearl Street is also the home to a number of locally owned gift shops and restaurants that make the trip to the market a double treat. We had a terrific time poking around the shops when we we’d exhausted the market and capped off the morning with brunch at the Black Pearl. It was a lovely way to start a Sunday and a perfect way to finish our market adventures for this trip.

View the full photo set on Flickr.

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Road Trip: Discovering Food Truck Heaven at Denver Civic Center Eats

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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.

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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.

Civic Center Park

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.

Biscuit BusChicken Biscuit & Sweet Potato Fries

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.

Mixing Salads at The PorkerPork Belly with Soba Noodle salad from The PorkerWatermelon & Cucumber salad
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.

Crowd at Pinche TacosDSCF3245

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.

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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.

The Inventing RoomDSCF3270

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.

Justice League of Street Food Logo

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.

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Farmers Market on the Road: Cherry Creek Fresh Market in Denver

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I’m in Denver this week celebrating the 4th of July with friends (Jason, Lindy & Avery). They were generous enough to feed my farmers market “jones” by getting up early this morning to explore the nearby Cherry Creek Fresh Market. Like the Sunset Valley Farmers Market in Austin, the Cherry Creek market has some local produce vendors, but has many more vendors of local prepared foods and goods.

There was a bounty of local produce. It was exciting to see spinach, broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower and salad greens that have long since passed their season in Austin. There were plenty of summer crops like squash and tomatoes, as well as gorgeous apricots and cherries.

The Cherry Creek market also has vendors for locally raised beef, pork and bison. The smell of roasted green peppers from the hopper filled the market and made me hungry for green chili stew. There were stands full of beautiful breads and pastries, tortillas made on the spot and homemade tamales.

The market offers a wide choice of treats for breakfast or lunch with everything from hamburgers to gyros to potstickers (we had the Chicken Basil dumplings with Lime Soy sauce at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival the night before and they were delicious!) to crepes. We had breakfast crepes and they were amazing. Lindy had a Fruit & Creme crepe (strawberry, banana & whipped creme), Jason had a Cordon Bleu crepe with an egg (chicken, ham, cheese and vidalia onion sauce) and I had a veggie crepe with an egg. They were so good!

We didn’t buy a lot since they had hit the grocery earlier in the week, but Lindy got a fine looking bag of bing cherries and some beautiful tomatoes for our burgers tonight. I treated myself to a big bag of Orange flavored granola from Two Turtles Granola (twoturtlesgranola@comcast.net). It is now my 2nd favorite granola, next to Jake’s Cranberry Pistachio Granola.

The Cherry Creek Fresh Market was a very fun way to spend a Saturday morning in Denver. (Pictures will be posted as soon as I get home and can download them.)

P.S. If you like arts festivals, the Cherry Creek Art Festival in Denver is worth the trek. We saw wonderful art that ran the spectrum: contemporary, traditional, painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics – you name it. The music and food are great too.

Some of our favorite artists:

James Aarons – beautiful ceramic bowls, plates and wall installations
Jim C. Brown – digital photography on plaster – gorgeous
Chase DeForest – very novel baskets and furniture made from garden hoses
John Harris – paintings and prints so detailed that they look like photographs – love the water paintings
Owen Mortenson – pressedleaf.com – gorgeous art made from leaves and flowers – not too “nature-y” even though it might sound like it
Kreg Yingst – Linocut prints of various artists and musical styles. I fell in love with the Johnny Cash and Stevie Ray Vaughn prints

And if you haven’t been to Denver lately, you should come for a visit. This city has something to offer everyone from nature enthusiast to art lover. I had a great time exploring downtown. I spent 2 hours in the Tattered Cover (one of the best independent bookstores in the US – next to BookPeople, of course), had a great time at the Denver Art Museum, and exploring the shops and restaurants in Larimer Square.

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