Colorado cuisine is a culinary rodeo: Libertarian and lawless
I was back in Denver for three weeks last month, during which I ate what was basically one continuous meal interspersed with brief lulls that occurred when I had to switch venues or go to sleep (which was sort of often, given the food comas and also the drowsiness that comes on after the day-drinking I forgot that you all love to do -- I blame the altitude for my inability to keep up). This gluttonous respite was awesome. I knew I loved Denver's restaurants, but coming from a different city -- especially a city like New York City, where you can find practically infinite dining options -- brought into focus what makes eating and drinking in my home town really unique.
Laura Shunk during a last dinner in Denver.
- Denver spots I'll miss the most
- With Uncle, Tommy Lee proves he knows how to use the old noodle -- and make it new
- Laura Shunk dishes out some tips for Gretchen Kurtz, the new Cafe critic
During my years in the Mile High, with a break for college and a first foray in NYC, I frequently fielded and wrestled with one particular question: "What, exactly, is Colorado's cuisine?" The answer to that question -- or rather, being able to answer that question -- seemed important. I felt certain that Denver was at the cusp of becoming one of the serious food cities in this country, joining the ranks of Austin, Portland and, more recently, Charleston, smaller-population cities that still gave rise to restaurants that defined the industry on a national level.
Steuben's: Influenced by other places, but only found in Denver.
But I had a hard time articulating what defined Rocky Mountain cuisine -- even though I didn't have any trouble pointing to grown-up versions of coastal fare, Southern comfort food or Tex Mex coming from Portland, Charleston and Austin. Don't get me wrong: Each of those cities has a lot more to offer than just that, but the signature cuisine provided a solid tree trunk and root system of history and tradition, which allowed a leafy canopy to flourish.
I wondered if Denver really had that. I believed in the power of the green chile, sure, and I couldn't deny the prevalence of game meat, buffalo and Colorado lamb. But I also suspected (somewhat resignedly) that the food scene here was mostly a product of ideas imported from other regions of the country, a mishmash of the coasts, the south, Mexico and maybe Texas, with a sizable Vietnamese population bestowing upon us a sizable -- and underrated -- selection of Vietnamese spots. While so many of Denver's restaurants were good, they were impossible to define as a group -- which didn't bode well for the city's national cred. Or so I thought just a few years ago.
Maybe it's the perspective that comes with distance but now, as I feasted my way across Uptown, downtown, Highland, Lower Highland, the Golden Triangle, Federal Boulevard and more, Denver's restaurant brand suddenly came into sharp focus for me. And while restaurants in the the Mile High City, like restaurants anywhere, exhibit signs of having been influenced by other places, they're also bona fide Denver joints, delivering a type of experience that's common in this city but distinct from what you get elsewhere -- and difficult to replicate.