Denver is one of the more underrated dining scenes in the country, accompanied by lauded craft beer and distilling booms in the state. With frequent visits there last couple years, I already claim a long list of favorites. This Spring, I spent another nine days in Breckenridge and Denver for ADI’s (American Distilling Institute) Craft Spirits Conference, packing in many a meal and cocktail bar visit in between working the conference.
There were some solid tastes at Red Star Deli, Sweet Action Ice Cream (cherry Oreo!), and unfortunately lackluster ramen at Bones. I was grateful for a little time to return to favorites like that dim den of cocktail and spirits perfection, Williams & Graham.
Creative Cocktails-Experimental Food
SQUEAKY BEAN, Northwest/LoDo
I visited cult Denver favorite The Squeaky Bean in its chic, new location no less than three times this Spring. You can call it “the whole package”, mainly because its seasonally changing menu is exciting, even if not always consistent, and its cocktails, thanks to Bar Manager Sean Kenyon (Denver’s great barman, also of Williams & Graham), are some of the best in town.
Whether you gather at the large, half circle bar for bites and cocktails next to a shrine of Farrah Fawcett, or dine in the airy space, graced with funky touches like a vintage cigarette machine filled with empty spirits bottles, there are pleasures to be had. Start with blissfully unique, salty-tart bar food: Snack Attack ($7), a generous bowl of charred lime peanuts accented by crispy chicken skin, shrimp chips, contrasted with dates.
Master Chef/Partner Max Mackissock’s skilled playfulness is widely apparent in foie gras parfait and dippin’ dots. Yes, I said dippin’ dots: icy cool with currant pâte de fruit hidden underneath its fluffy, rich folds. The pate de fruit became a bit gummy and hard under the cool foie, yet points for ambition. One can’t help but taste the potential even in the unrealized dishes. Smaller plates are $14-18, large plates $28, lovely desserts (like their version of a mud pie), and there’s a killer cheese platter. Making me feel back at home in Cali, they source much of their produce from their own garden, the Bean Acre.
But it’s the cocktails ($9-12) that brought me back numerous times. Grouped by cheesy-cool 1980?s movies (Weird Science, Up the Academy, and Rocky III), sections move from light long drinks to experimental preparations. Though boozy, spirituous joys are plentiful (like Dukes of Hazzard tribute, The Uncle Jesse: Old Grand-Dad bourbon, Rothman & Winter Orchard Cherry, Cynar), I was most gratified by vegetal concoctions like Mr. Green Jeans, a spritely blend of new Colorado craft darling Spring 44 Gin, celery, cucumber, given just the right contrast from black pepper and lemon. It’s balanced, green, intoxicating, commandeered by a stalk of celery. Or take beets, in the case of Beet Street, a layered, earthy cocktail of Ocho Plata tequila, basil, sorrel, lemon, sugar, and, yes, beets, frothy and elegant with egg white.
In its new incarnation, the Bean is a sophisticated-cool dining and drinking venue that handles it all with a touch of levity.
OLD MAJOR, Northwest/Highland
Old Major (named after the character from Orwell’s Animal Farm) was merely 6 weeks old when I visited early this Spring… a restaurant and bar to watch. Hipster leanings infuse “farmhouse” cuisine and an in-house butcher program, alongside a globally-savvy wine list, and Denver’s most extensive amaro collection to date. The bill adds up quickly but entrees are generous and the experience hits high notes in service, food, cocktails and wine (like a treat of a bottle of 2009 Franz Hirtzberger Smaragd).
Executive Chef/Owner Justin Brunson heads an ambitious menu that includes whole fried fish, which in my early visit was a bit dry and overcooked, but striking in presentation (current fish dishes include a fried walleye in remoulade, $26).
The dish that best exemplifies the vision of Brunson was a “lobster hot plate” ($21) in a red-and-white-checked paper tray, fair/festival style. Both high and lowbrow, large chunks of lobster, tater tots and peas are smothered in cheese curds and lobster gravy. Delightfully decadent.
Cocktails, wine and beer are selected from iPad menus, a trend at a handful of restaurants around the country in the past decade, while the Old Major bar stocks heavily on amaro, the kind of selection I commonly see in SF, NY, Chicago, Seattle. My happiest cocktail moment was an off-menu amaro beauty, lush with spice and bitterness, mixing Old Grand-Dad Whiskey, two amari – alpine Braulio and B. Nardini, and house cascara bark bitters and syrup. A pea sprout flower delicately rests atop large chunks of ice for visual effect.
Uncle is the ramen house I wish I had at home. While there’s similarly trend (as well as traditional) ramen houses aplenty in the Bay Area and NYC, Uncle’s bare bones decor, packed crowds, and in-and-out speed just illuminate the fact that this is damn good food.
Denver native Tommy Lee opened the restaurant with minimal culinary background and a desire to make creative ramen, but not necessarily being “schooled” in it. His fresh perspective breathes new life into a genre that continues to trend around the nation and a staple in cities with rich Japanese cultures. But unlike lackluster ramen at nearby Bones (which has been in Denver longer), his ramen explodes with flavor and unexpected touches. Spicy chicken ramen ($14) is revelation, the broth creamy with tahini paste, laced with scallions, bean sprouts and egg. Kimchi ramen ($14) with shredded pork and Napa cabbage packs a little heat. But it’s sesame notes of the tahini chicken ramen I long to revisit.
Other joys might be a fresh Fuji apple-turnip salad ($7) tossed with duck prosciutto and fennel in a red wine vinaigrette, or bao buns ($7 for two), the best being flavorful vegetarian bao: fried green tomato, miso, pimento, Thai basil, or avocado, spicy mayo, red onion, mint.
All this, set to chilled cans of draft sake – like dry Funaguchi Young, Kikusui ($13), and finished with a salty-sweet vanilla semifreddo ($5) drizzled in root beer sauce, under flakes of pretzel and potato chips. Sigh.
Give Me Comfort
PINCHE TACOS, Northeast/City Park
Growing up in and spending a good portion of my life in Southern and Northern California, Mexican food is often sadly lacking outside of the state except when I’m in Mexico proper. Moving to NJ in high school or visiting family in the Midwest growing up made this painfully apparent.
Though I’ve certainly tasted an improvement in recent years on what is loosely deemed “Mexican”, authenticity and flavor are still often lacking, depending on what region of Mexico (or Cali, for that matter) you prefer stylistically. I love many categories, even “white people” Mexican.
Which is exactly what Pinche Tacos is (hence the cheeky, swear word name). It is not necessarily the best of the genre nationally-speaking, as hipster taco and tequila spots like this have sprouted up in numerous cities. But it’s well done and certainly as good or better than many similar places around the country, satiating cravings with serrano-cilantro-tomato-laden guacamole, greasy queso fundido with chorizo, and tacos ($2.95-$4.50), like a chipotle beer battered fish taco topped with slaw and avocado-pineapple guac, or surf & turf of lengua (beef tongue) and fried shrimp. I loved rajas con crema y maiz tacos: cotija cheese griddled to a golden brown with roasted chile poblano peppers and creamed chipotle corn.
Blissfully pair with $3 Palomas, Margaritas or limeades during happy hour, or cocktail pleasers like Oaxaca Shocka ($8): Del Maguey Vida Mezal, house habanero and lime liqueurs, and one more housemade item, grapefruit bitters.
Cafe/Bar is a lovely, airy corner restaurant, ideal for lunch. While a Bison Pastrami Ruben ($13) was not as life-changing as I’d hoped (um, actually not at all – I’m quite picky about my pastrami), it was a solid sandwich lathered in cheese, sauerkraut, smoked garlic dressing, between rye bread. Sweet potato fries – a worthy partner.
Fairing better was a vegetarian entree: a roasted Heirloom tomato ($15) stuffed to overflowing with quinoa, leeks, corn, and squash, doused in pistachio pesto and jauntily garnished with Parmesan tuile. Also solid but not amazing: shrimp ceviche dotted with roasted peach gazpacho, Fresno chili, lime, red onion and jicima, scooped up with sweet potato chips and best accompanied by a Fiery Gimlet ($12) of Death’s Door gin, lime and St. Germain elderflower liqueur, shaken with habanero extract.
CHERRY CRICKET, Cherry Creek/Southeast
It is all that: an old school gem of a burger in a charming, friendly, sports bar-meets-diner, multi-room dive with an outdoor patio.
From the moment you meet Cherry Cricket’s revolving, neon-retro signage, sparks fly. Then you decide you’re gonna go for the staff favorite of cream cheese and jalapenos added to your 1/2 lb. Cricket burger ($6.95) and you fall completely in love.
Have I had better burgers? Sure. But when I’m in Colorado, I crave none more than Cherry Cricket.
ACE EAT SERVE, Uptown/Northwest
The mixed reviews are true: food and drinks at Ace are inconsistent. But the massive, garage-like space, filled with ping pong tables, eclectic pieces and neon signage, Asian and retro themes, reclaimed wood and a playful mash-up menu of Asian cuisines, is a smart concept… and damn good fun.
It may all look better than it tastes, but it’s worth a look.
STEUBEN’S FOOD SERVICE, Uptown/Northwest
Right next door to Ace, Steuben’s is a modern day Denver classic. The food is not revolutionary but it is that hip sort of comfort food that begs for a bracing cocktail (of which they offer plenty) or a cold beer. The beloved mac n’ cheese ($8) was the better of the number of dishes I tried, though nothing was particularly noteworthy for gourmands or hardcore foodies.
I may be more in love with Steuben’s retro ’50’s/60’s diner design, vintage glassware collection and laid back funkiness than its food. But I’ve got a crush just the same.
Ice Cream in Coffee
2914 COFFEE, Jefferson Park/Northwest
Using Kaladi Brothers beans from Alaska, 2914 Coffee does right by a cup coffee. But the menu treasure is affogato – not authentically delicate Italian affogato, mind you, so much as heaping scoops of local ice cream doused in espresso.
They use local favorite Little Man Ice Cream. Try dreamy Salted Oreo ice cream in an affogato. You won’t regret it.
Don’t Forget BOULDER
OAK AT 14TH, Boulder
When in Boulder, one would do well to eat and drink at Oak at Fourteenth, reopening a little over a year and a half ago after a fire.
The cocktails are arguably the best in Boulder (I had lackluster service and cocktails at the locally loved Bitter Bar) in visits past) from Bryan Dayton (GQ’s Most Inspired Bartender in the Country in 2011). Drinks are broken down into low alcohol aperitifs like Eater Does It ($7) – Aperol, Grand Marnier, Kila Cava, OAK Fire Bitters, kumquats and honey, or high alcohol imbibements such as the Alpenglow ($11), a layered bittersweet blend of Anchor Genevieve Genever, Nardini Amaro, lemon, orange and honey.
While some dishes, like a buttery, pan-roasted Skuna Bay salmon ($28) alongside sugar snap peas, fingerling potatoes and cipollini onions, were well-executed if not exciting, it’s two straightforward-sounding, even common, dishes that shine the brightest. Kale salads are a dime a dozen, but Oak’s much-lauded version ($10) tossed with shaved Honeycrisp apples, Parmesan, togarashi spice and candied almonds is unexpectedly addictive
Likewise, their tomato-braised meatballs ($10) arrive in a cast iron skillet over Anson Mills grits, decadently inflected with creamy burrata cheese, a ridiculously comforting dish.
It doesn’t hurt to finish with a Smoked Sherry cocktail ($11) of musky-sweet Lustau Pedro Ximenez Sherry intermingling with smoky Laphroaig 10 year, brightened by grapefruit, lime, Angostura Bitters.