Over the past couple of years, Colorado cuisine and the Denver dining scene in particular have finally been getting the spotlight they deserve on the national stage. But do all of our local traditions and trends stand up to the increased scrutiny? Here are a few food icons we cherish at their best — and abhor at their worst.
Why It's an Icon: There may be no better showcase for Colorado green chile than our beloved breakfast burrito, stuffed with some combination of eggs, beans, rice, potatoes, cheese and/or pork. When it's done right — as at Mexican-food institutions like El Taco de Mexico (pictured), Santiago’s and The Original Chubby’s — it warrants all the adulation it receives.
Why It's Overrated: But as often as not, you’ll receive a muddy mess of overcooked eggs or tasteless beans, stale spuds or gristly chorizo and, worst of all, acrid or gloppy green chile. There’s simply no worse way to start your day than with a bad burrito.
Why It’s an Icon: Combine Colorado’s ranch-land riches with Denver’s DIY dynamism, and you’ve got yourself a mecca for cured meats. For carnivores, places like Luca d’Italia, Old Major (pictured), Argyll Whisky Beer, Colt & Gray and its downstairs lounge Ste. Ellie are shrines to sausage, salumi, pâté and all the housemade accoutrements they entail.
Why It’s Overrated: Far too many restaurants have jumped on the bandwagon with “charcuterie” plates that amount to little more than supermarket cold cuts. If we wanted flaccid, chemical-laden ham and pepperoni, we’d hit up King Soopers ourselves. Guess what: we don't.
Local Farm-to-Table Fare
Why It’s an Icon: When the locavore movement got underway a decade ago, Coloradans were all over it. (We do have a pristine-green reputation to uphold, after all.) Today, we’re blessed with a number of visionaries who’ve built careers — empires, even — on a commitment to sustainable practices. See: Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk of The Kitchen, Daniel Asher of Root Down and Linger, Alex Seidel of Fruition (and the upcoming Mercantile Dining & Provision) and Eric Skokan of Black Cat Bistro and Bramble & Hare, to name a few.
Why It’s Overrated: Beast + bottle’s Paul Reilly once noted that Colorado's notoriously short growing season makes all-local sourcing nearly impossible. Chefs like him, who uphold farm-to-table ideals while remaining transparent about their practical limitations, are the good guys. But as Ellen Daehnick of Helliemae’s Handcrafted Caramels points out, “Almost none of this is monitored or measured.” What’s more, she adds, “Just because something really is local or small batch doesn't mean it's better. There are plenty of lousy local and small-batch products.” In short, while the farm-to-table lifestyle is an admirable goal, achieving it isn't so easy.
Rocky Mountain Oysters
Why They’re an Icon: If we had a dollar for every time an out-of-state visitor asked us where to find deep-fried bull-calf testicles, we’d be rich beyond our dreams. And we don't necessarily resent the assumption that tendergroins consitute a regular part of our diet — there's something flattering, after all, about being associated with such a daredevilish dish.
Why They’re Overrated: For better or worse, we’ve yet to try a Rocky Mountain Oyster that tastes like much of anything under all the breading. If it weren't for the chance to brag that you’ve tried them, you might as well be eating chicken nuggets. Chefs, consider this a challenge to prove us wrong.
Why They’re an Icon: Denver’s not called the Napa Valley of beer for nothing. Like their California-winemaking counterparts, the hundreds of breweries that dot the Front Range are pioneers of their craft, and many were early adopters of the trend toward bracing, juicy sours. Take Odell with its wonderful cherry-raspberry Friek, New Belgium’s famed La Folie and of course the many experiments of Crooked Stave.
Why They’re Overrated: After trying our share of examples that merely tasted like weird, bad wine, we turned to an expert, beer writer turned Chain Reaction Brewing Company co-founder Zack Christofferson, for insight. As he observes, “It takes a special brewer to know that a sour beer isn’t just adding bacteria; it’s understanding how the beer will react with it. Crooked Stave’s Chad Yakobson is a genius, but I’ve been to other breweries where I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, it makes my mouth pucker, but you kind of missed the boat on complexity.’” Meanwhile, Cafe Society editor Mark Antonation recently tasted a sour brown ale he could describe to us only as “oak water.” Says Christofferson, “We just need to focus first on what good beer is.”