As I went to Aspen Food & Wine this June, I also spent a few days while in Colorado in Denver with my brother and sister-in-law, catching up on the latest in a city I’ve been talking about it for years when it comes to their ever-growing food and drink scene. I fueled up with excellent coffee at Little Owl Coffee (damn good affogatos, too).
Since my prior visit, it’s all about the opening of modern, hip food halls and courts akin to longtime legends in San Francisco like the Ferry Plaza Building. Denver is joining in converting historic landmarks, like the gorgeous Union Station, a working train station with whispers of Grand Central, into a food and drink destination. Within the station, Milkbox is a charming stop for ice cream from one of Denver’s ice cream greats, Little Man, while Pigtrain Coffee offers a worthy coffee fix.
While upstairs cocktail bar, The Cooper Lounge, is the best view over the station and a lush place to relax on the couch with a drink, cocktails are big city prices ($15 average) but without big city excitement or taste/balance so I’d skip it for better drinks elsewhere. More on Union Station seafood restaurant, Stoic & Genuine, below.
My favorite new “food hall” in Denver is The Source, a hipster food market in the River North district, blending in with warehouses and the industrial surroundings nearby, packed with quality restaurants, coffee, a bakery, wine, beer and spirits. Babette’s turns out artisanal breads and pastries, while Boxcar Coffee’s root beer milk is a dreamy, creamy milk that tastes like a root beer float after the ice cream has melted. It is made with a Fort Collins root beer extract and Boxcar’s own dairy milk and is served as a steamer or hot or iced latte. This, and their nitro cold brew coffee (also conveniently bottled), immediately won me over.
The Proper Pour is a downright stellar wine, craft beer and spirits shop with the best, curated selection I’ve yet seen in Colorado for spirits and cocktail accoutrements as well as highly curated, thoughtful wines and beers. One of Colorado’s great breweries, Crooked Stave (founded in Fort Collins in 2010 but moving to Denver in 2012), has a beer bar in The Source, blessedly pouring their sour beers on draft.
Here are the two top Denver newcomers of my recent trip, and the rest below.
Open towards the end of 2013, Acorn calls to you from the parking lot of The Source with the smell of brisket cooking in the smoker amid stacks of wood around their outdoor patio. Their brisket is quite good for a restaurant that is not a BBQ joint. Southern influence permeates the whole menu, done in that refreshing New Southern style one can find in all great food cities these days, but which is done best in the South.
Highlights are many. A daily house made brioche doughnut (15 made daily – $3 each) is a delight, especially when it’s a subtle Chinese 5 spice doughnut, as it was during my recent visit. Even a ubiquitous kale apple salad ($12) is gratifying and delicious dotted with candied almonds, Parmesan and togarashi (a Japanese spice blend), recalling the similar, long popular salad at OAK at Fourteenth.
Aforementioned BBQ is a surprising standout, served in the likes of an oak-smoked brisket sandwich ($14) with smoked tomato barbecue sauce, fried pickles and blue cheese slaw. Southern soulfulness with modern sensibilities shines in fried chicken and a sage buttermilk biscuit ($13), doused in spicy chicken gravy with a fried egg, or especially in fluffy Key West royal red shrimp and grits ($14), brightened by a Tabasco soffrito (sauteed chopped vegetables) and white wine.
Drink is equally a strength, also enjoyed from their bar, whether thoughtful beers like Mikkeller, Odell, Epic and Crooked Stave, or small production, Old World-balanced Napa wines like Matthiason and Forlorn Hope.
Their cocktails are the best I had over this recent return to Denver, subtle yet intriguing, as was the case with a Central Slope Sour ($11), featuring Breckenridge Bourbon, Leopold Brother’s Three Pines Liqueur, Colorado honey, Fee Brother’s Aromatic Bitters, lemon and a splash of Avery IPA beer. My favorite was the Ornamental Tonic ($10), a layered refresher of Beefeater gin, lemon, yuzu (Japanese citrus), St. George Pear Liqueur, Chinese 5-spice and Fever Tree Tonic, topped with an anise pod.
Dessert? I’d make it one more cocktail: Acorn Irish Coffee ($12). Using neighboring Boxcar Stella Blend espresso mixed with Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey, turbinado sugar syrup, Amaro di Angostura cream and cinnamon, it makes for a caffeinated, creamy finish to a meal.
Though Cart-Driver’s pizza is the kind of Neapolitan-influenced pies I can find all over my SF — and across the country in more recent years — it is a welcome addition to Denver from chef and co-owner Kelly Whitaker (of Basta in Boulder). The narrow space can be packed at dinner time but chill during the day, with a wood-fired oven swiftly turning out mouth-watering pies, blissfully paired with a short-but-smart wine and beer list and Italian amaro.
There are front, side and back patios and a vibe that almost feels like an industrial-modern version of Italy in terms of its casual ease, the kind of spot where you can snag an Americano (Campari and soda) with daily oysters and snacks like chicken liver mousse on toast ($7).
In the hit-and-miss category, hipster Mexican spot Los Chingones boasts a rooftop bar with downtown Denver views but a far too loud DJ some nights ruins the setting for those who don’t want to scream over tacos and drinks.
Tequila-centric cocktails are solid, if not particularly memorable, and the tacos — of the more ambitious kind (think kobe beef with black bean parsnip puree or salmon ceviche with “Mexican kimchi”) — mostly fell flat. But the rattlesnake chorizo queso fundido ($8) laden with poblano peppers and both guacamoles ($8 – one with the rattlesnake chorizo and pickled jalapenos or a fresh corn, pumpkin seed and tomato version) were delightful and hard to pull away from, making this a better spot for a drink and chips and dip than a meal.
I wanted to love Stoic & Genuine, new-ish in the aforementioned Union Station. With its modern seafood focus and quite good cocktails (loved Ship Wrecked, a Tiki-esque drink mixing Don Q. Cristal rum, El Dorado 8 year rum, pineapple, house orgeat and lime to subtle but luxurious effect), I wanted it all to stand strong. But a confused scallop dish ($12.50), too sweet and overwrought with coconut lemongrass panna cotta, Thai curry kaffir lime vinaigrette, plantain crisps and pineapple compote, or rather warm sea urchin/uni ($16.50) with kimchi granita and miso-cured, charred fatty beef, didn’t work at all.
Similarly, I’ve had superior lobster rolls ($25) on the East Coast and far better Parker House rolls ($1) at numerous San Francisco restaurants. Virginia ham-wrapped Alaskan halibut “chowder” ($29 – pictured below) sounded creative, packed with halibut-truffle sausage, morels, asparagus and a radish salad, but the light but flavor-packed seafood sausage was the one highlight, whereas the rest of the dish, though fresh, was an oversalted mess of too much broth, too many greens, too much everything.
The sleek space, inviting outdoor patio and sweet staff make me wish even more that the rather pricey food (this is seafood in landlocked territory, after all) followed suit.
VESTA DIPPING GRILL
Longtime Denver favorite, Vesta Dipping Grill, was actually big the first time I visited Denver in the late 90’s, having opened in 1997 with their unique array of dipping sauces with each entree. I meant to visit over a decade ago but found It’s still going strong and the overall experience, despite a noisy, dim (and not romantically so) dining room, was solid.
Cocktails were irregular (my brother ordered two of the same drink and though good, neither tasted like the last — a big faux pas when it comes to balance and training of staff).
Likewise, appetizers were lackluster but it was entrees that were stronger across the board, which is often difficult to come by. My favorite was the Korean BBQ duck ($30), which, admittedly, looked rather lackluster, but the seared duck breast and braised leg were cooked with the right balance of BBQ char and tenderness. You can assemble wraps with bibb lettuce filled with the duck, rice, scallion salad, kimchi, preserved mushrooms and bean sprouts. They suggested peanut, jalapeño and ponzu sauces for this dish but — as with any dish — you can mix and match your three sauces as you choose. Being a sauce/condiment girl, I enjoyed that playful element and the chance for even further taste possibilities in one dish.