Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Den-Mex and More in the Mile High City
With travel limited to roadtripping this summer we decided to go out to Colorado for a week. My wife had never been and it had been years since I was last out there. We figured with what it has to offer (lots of outdoor stuff) there wasn't a better time to visit. We drove out and did the 15 hour drive straight through. It's a pretty boring one but that also translates to easy. Omaha is about the halfway point if you're not up to driving straight through. We spent a few nights in Denver that were split into two different stays as we arrived around nighttime and didn't want to continue on into the mountains so we stayed in Denver a couple nights to start and then finished there for a few nights with a trip to the mountains in between. Denver is one of these hip cities that's seen major growth the last decade and now it kind of feels like the rest of them. The Austin's, Nashville's, Asheville's etc. It's not the same as it was when I last visited granted that was in the 90's. So of course it's changed since then.
Even though this trip was more about the outdoors than the food you know I still had a big old hit list. Denver has always intrigued me with it's regional Mexican food labeled Den-Mex by those in the know. There's some other things they seem to do well here like pasta and greasy spoon breakfast spots. It might not be a top 10 dining city but it's headed in that direction as opposed to the opposite way. I'd describe the city's food scene as pretty good but not great. Only a few places are great but it's outdoor offerings make up for some of what it lacks in dining diversity. Like any city that's growing it's lost many of it's old school spots but some still remain which is nice for now but they're always at risk of being torn down for the next big apartment complex to go up. The beer scene is impressive and the early October weather was absolutely perfect. It's easy to understand why people like living here.
Sights from Denver
We arrived in Denver around 7:00p and first checked into our AirBNB. Since I got to stop for lunch at a couple spots in Omaha
I picked out a place she would enjoy. Well both of us actually as who doesn't love good pasta? Denver it seems has plenty of options for it. Our first choice was Coperta as it was close and they had seating right next to wide open windows. This was the first time we dined "inside" since this mess began but I must point out that Denver restaurants all seemed to be taking the pandemic very seriously. It felt totally safe with the necessary precautions taking place. We started with a well made order of Suppli with prosciutto. I've never met a piece of fresh fried suppli I didn't like. No difference here. For our pasta selections we chose a Cacio e Pepe (made with rigatoni in case you're a purist), the Thursday's only special Gnocchi, and the Rabbit Agnolotti. The last of those three being my favorite pasta prep as you can go so many ways with it. They did up a Fall recipe with toasted apple, fried sage, and hazelnut. It was the was the easy winner of the three pastas we tried.
Suppli + Trio of Pastas at Coperta
Butcher Block Cafe
Speaking of foods Denver (and Colorado) does well I'd heard this place makes great cinnamon rolls. It's one of the many old school diners that still dot the city despite it's rapid gentrification all over. Usually these old greasy spoon type spots are the first to go to make way for high rises and such. The Butcher Block Cafe is ran by some people from North Dakota but it's been around long enough to where both them and the diner itself is classic Denver Colorado. You know you're in the Southwest region when you see the option to smother green or red chile over anything. I spied a plate of eggs, bacon, hash browns and more smothered in green chile coming out while picking up my cinnamon rolls pre-hike. I said I'd be back for that but it didn't happen. It should have though bc my cinnamon roll was outstanding. There seemed to be quite a few places around here and other parts of Colorado where the cinnamon rolls were the talk of a place so it seems like that's a bit of a regional thing.
Cinnamon Roll at Butcher Block Cafe
The legendary La Fiesta was one of my must stop spots and also the closest place to our AirBNB. So it made the choice for lunch on our first full day an easy one. I knew I liked this place before we entered just based off the outside look. Then we went inside and oh man I fell further in love. Originally built as a Night Club this is your spot if you ever need to shoot a late night scene for a movie or show that takes place somewhere in the Southwest circa the 70's. The food almost could've been bad and I still would've loved La Fiesta. Luckily it wasn't bad by any means. Not if you grew up eating Den-Mex anyway. I did not but I can still appreciate all of it's interesting dishes. Like the one of a kind Denver style chile
rellenos made by stuffing “premium” cheese into a Anaheim pepper into a
wonton wrapper and frying it all until the cheese turns to queso and the
wonton wrapper gets crisp. Smothered with green chile sauce and served
with rice and beans. Paired with a pretty good chicken enchilada. Denver style chile
rellenos were first served here at La Fiesta which has been a part of
the city since 1964. “Next to the Mexican hamburger, Den-Mex (food) at
its finest!” - Gustavo Arellano.
Den-Mex at La Fiesta
Mexico City Lounge
Speaking of must stop spots here's another one of mine. Maybe my number one actually. Readers know I love a good crispy taco and I know damn well some people are offended by them. They shouldn't be. Crispy tacos are a part of Mexican-American style of food which is of itself regional Mexican food. It just so happens to be served in a region north of a stupid border that separates countries but not peoples love of tacos including the Mexican's who first brought them across the border. As the aforementioned Gustavo Arellano mentions in the crispy taco episode of 'Taco Chronicles' on Netflix - "it was either these tacos or no tacos" plus lets not pretend they don't eat crisp shelled tacos in Mexico (See: Guadalajara
). Well anyways Denver is a major stop on America’s Crispy
Taco Trail and Mexico City Lounge is a must. They’ve been serving their
deep fried tacos since 1968. They’re fried with your choice of meat and
a slice of American cheese in between a white corn tortilla. I tried
one of each of the steak, chicken, and ground beef and was reminded that
nothing works better than ground beef in a fresh fried crispy taco. Especially with
a slice of melted cheese.
Deep Fried Tacos at Mexico City Lounge
Stoic & Genuine
Another one of her picks. Luckily for me there's not much I don't like and that includes happy hour oysters. Stoic & Genuine is located in part of the Union Station complex just out of the picture to the left of that up above. They had a nice happy hour going with some terrific east and west coast oysters. I forget exactly what kinds they were and where from but they were good enough to where we ordered a second round. Then a third. The house special here is a big whole crispy fried haddock and we had plans to come back for it but they never happened. We both love a good whole fried fish.
Oyster Happy Hour at Stoic & Genuine
Brewery Bar II
Despite it's beer bar sounding name Brewery Bar is another one of the city's classic Den-Mex dives. Come here if you want to get a feel of what Denver bar life was like some 30 years ago. Before the major change started happening. Brewery Bar is often mentioned in the best green chili in Denver conversation. I might not have made it if my cousin who lives in Denver didn't suggest we go. The name fooled me when I was browsing through thinking it was just another brewery. But it was a great call by him as they have a large outdoor patio and there was plenty of space to where we weren't near anybody. The menu has all the Den-Mex classics but again it's the green chili that people really love. We all got a bowl of hot (as opposed to mild) and it was HOT. In fact as far as heat goes I don't think I've felt like that since I was in Thailand a few years ago. It was no joke. But I kept eating it as it was also really good. You can see they use a decent amount of tomato in their recipe as the soup itself is basically red. This was more like a stew you eat with a spoon than a sauce that's smothered.
Green Chili Stew at Brewery Bar II
My cousin lives over near Federal Blvd which is where people in Denver go for late night tacos. I was surprised as we rode the strip one night and it was lit up from the lights of different taco stands and trucks up and down the block. I stopped at Tacos Marlene having read they have some popular tripas tacos served extra crispy if requested. These were indeed some of the crispiest tripa tacos I can remember. They reminded me of my first date with tripas dorados down in Aguascalientes where my same cousin got married. I also loved the diced onions cooked in the grease they throw on top.
Tacos de Tripas at Tacos Marlene
A search for the best breakfast burrito in town led to me Onefold. It's a hip coffee shop where they also make breakfast and lunch. Lots of talk of their breakfast fried rice made it seem as popular of an order as the burrito. As someone that loves rice for breakfast I had to try both of them. The fried rice comes served with bacon and was really well executed as far as the cooking of it and the seasoning. We ended up coming back a couple days later and getting another order. Pictured below with bacon.
Bacon Fried Rice at Onefold
The breakfast burrito was as good as advertised. Probably the best burrito this trip but there were some other good ones for sure. That said this one most likely had the best ingredients as far as assembling it goes. They use an organic handmade flour tortilla that's filled with scrambled eggs, asadero cheese, duck fat fried potatoes which is then smothered in housemade pork green chili.
Breakfast Burrito at Onefold
The Original Chubby's
Next stop was a place long on my Roadfood bucketlist. I first learned of Den-Mex when the Colonel Gustavo Arellano first wrote about it
. His 'Taco USA
' book was perhaps the first to explore Denver's unique regional Mexican-American dishes. The Mexican Hamburger is the most iconic of them all. You see a “Mexican Hamburger” is something
completely different in Denver. It’s more like a burger burrito and best
eaten at Chubby's where it’s said to have been invented. The Original Chubby’s
was born in 1967 and the Mexican Hamburger soon after. Made by stuffing
grilled hamburger patties and refried beans into a flour tortilla and
rolling it up into a burrito. Traditionally served smothered with their
famous green chili sauce with lettuce, tomato, and cheese. Now found on
pretty much every menu at every Mexican spot in town. Be careful with
their green chili. It’s fire in flavor and heat level.
The Mexican Hamburger at Chubby's
Santinas Food Truck
Here’s a regional specialty that had
evaded me until very recently. I was excited to finally get to check out
Pueblo, Colorado but a change in plans put that on further hold. It’s
regional style of Mexican (American) food being the reason for a visit.
Had I gone I would’ve stopped for a Slopper at one of the popular bars
that gets mentioned when this messy regional treat is talked about. It’s
a full fledged cheeseburger and fries smothered in Pueblo style green
chili and I found one at Santinas Food Truck here in Denver. Colorado is often said to have inferior chile crops to
that in New Mexico but that’s a NM tourism trick to get you to come
visit. If you have aspirations to attend Hatch chile fest there’s no
reason you wouldn’t want to check out Pueblo’s celebration of green
chiles too. Hopefully someday.
The Pueblo Slopper at Santinas Food Truck
Daughter's Thai Kitchen
After a week of ski town food (report coming soon) we needed something with a bit of spice(s) in our life. Enter Daughter Thai Kitchen and Bar
which I’d seen mentioned among Denver’s best new restaurants. They’re
known for killer bowls of Khao Soi and delivered on that promise. We
also did up a Thai style Friday Fish Fry featuring a whole fried bass
bathed in a spicy tamarind glaze and served with sautéed peppers and onions and crisp basil. Much needed after life up in the mountains.
Khao Soi and Whole Fried Fish at Daughter's Thai Kitchen
Taco House Mexican Food
Nestled amongst the taco trucks and immigrant owned restaurants lining Federal Blvd is Taco House. It's a 62 year old Denver institution for Gringo Mex. The menu rocks crispy tacos, smothered burritos, and enchiladas among other favorites. The cheese enchiladas are the most popular menu item. I had to stop and try them knowing full well they wouldn't be "authentic" so to say. But they actually are authentic by which I mean classic old school Mexican food in America. Processed cheese is melted inside corn tortillas until bubbling and it's all smothered with a mild red chile sauce. Tasty and cheap.
Enchiladas at The Taco House
Swift's Breakfast House
The Toro-Pot Burrito is another Den-Mex
specialty that had evaded me until I started researching the food in the area. The Toro Pot is not quite as common as some of the others but they they still
make the original version of the dish at this longtime diner that could
fit anywhere in the rust belt. But it’s the option to have your food
smothered in green chile that gives away it’s Southwest location. So
this is a burrito with spiced ground beef and breakfast potatoes that’s
smothered in a really good traditional Coney Island style chili and thus
it’s red and not green though people will still order it with green
chile. Shredded cheese and chopped tomatoes on top. Swifts has been
serving breakfast in Denver since 1960. No surprise to find lots of
greasy spoons like this in a city with an omelette named after it.
Toro Pot Burrito at Swift's Breakfast House
More Denver Style Fried Tacos at a spot I’m not
sure many visitors get too. It’s in a very industrial part of town. So
no surprise to find a spot like El Toro. It’s an old bar and restaurant
and big plates of Den-Mex and cheap drinks are what keep the customers
calling. They also open at 8a so you know this isn’t a gentrified part
of town. What makes for a Denver style crispy taco is two major things
the first of which is the way it’s cooked. They’re crisped up on a hot
flattop with a generous amount of oil ala Tacos Dorados de Barbacoa
estilo Guadalajara. The other thing that makes them distinctly Denver
style is the inclusion of a slice of American cheese in the tortilla
with the meat. So it melts into a molten of beef and cheese best cooled
down with tomatoes, lettuce, and a cool in temp red
salsa. As mentioned before don’t waste your time with anything but
ground beef in these. I love them.
Fried Tacos at El Toro
Tamales by La Casita
I tried more than a handful of spots said
to have the best green chili in Denver and this spot served my favorite.
The food here actually has a New Mexico background (cant wait to get there). Tamales by La
Casita has been serving their tamales, burritos, and green chili sauce
since 1974. Pictured below are a tamal smothered in green chili and cheese and also a shredded beef and refried bean burrito also smothered. There's a location at the airport but the
original is the spot you want to check out. I ended up taking a few quarts of their green chili home with me. I thought it was that good.
Tamales and Burito (Smothered in Green Chili) at Tamales by La Casita
Denver has some good happy hour deals going down. Food and drink. It seems as though just about everywhere except Chicago does. She found Senor Bear searching for happy hour margaritas. We're vets of the happy hour trade and the margaritas are usually the way to go. Plus the spots that have them will usually have good happy hour food too. Like here where they had a gooey in a good way green chorizo queso as well as refreshing seafood tostadas. The margaritas were also well made.
Happy Hour at Senor Bear
The Wolf's Tailor
One night for dinner we checked out this food media darling run by a well known Boulder chef. The menu mixes Asian and
Italian with a focus on wood grilled cooking and grains. Lots to like.
At least from what we tried. Wood grilled hamachi collar was as crisp as
I’ve ever had it. Served with greens from another project as this is a
no waste facility. I feel like Dan Dan Noodles are made a million ways but this is the first time I’m seeing them with chitarra
noodles made in-house. Final dish was a duck confit congee that had me
hyped for Thanksgiving. Made with Carolina gold rice and fermented black
bean sauce. It reminded me very much of my moms turkey with mashed
potatoes and gravy.
Dan Dan Noodles
Duck Confit Congee
El Taco de Mexico
You're looking below at the “special pork” burrito from the recent
winners of a James Beard ‘American Classics’ award. Even though it’s
got taco in its name it's the burritos that draw locals into El Taco de Mexico. It's what they're known for be
it this or the traditional breakfast version. The pork in these is guisado like in
that it’s so tender it was obviously stewed beforehand. Mixed with rice
and beans and smothered in a house green chili sauce that’s also
commonly mentioned among Denver’s best. Some shredded chihuahua cheese
on top and it’s ready for serving. Old Denver hangs on over here.
Special Pork Burrito from El Taco de Mexico
We drove up to Boulder one morning for a hike and then hopped around town afterward. Cool college town. I'd like to spend a little more time there than we got to. I chose to do lunch at Santo which is known for it's Northern New Mexico menu. Pictured below is a New Mexico Style Carne Adovada (pork
shoulder braised in red chile) burrito smothered Christmas style (green
and red chile sauce). As delicious as it was the Hatch Margaritas from were
even better. If you're ever in Boulder check out this ode to to the food from the area where one of
Colorado’s most heralded chefs grew up.
Christmas Style Carne Adovada Burrito at Santo
It’s not all Den-Mex in Denver. It seems to be a really good pasta town
too. If that’s your jam don’t miss Restaurant Olivia over in the Cherry Creek neighborhood. A spot where it was hard to decide
which dish we tried was the best. A candidate for meal of
the year in an asterisked dining season.
Charred Spanish Octopus over white beans with nduja and black garlic
Rabbit Cappelletti (Roasted and Pickled Mushrooms, Sauce Chasseuer)
Duck Confit Tortellini (Coconut Red Curry, Brocollini, Garlic Chips)
Lobster Spaghetti (Black Truffle, Butter Poached Lobster, Preserved Meyer Lemon)
Before leaving for the mountains from Denver I walked over to this NY / NJ style deli to grab us some bagels and cream cheese to have at our mountain rental. The bagels were expensive albeit really good. It's owned by a guy who grew up out that way and wanted to bring the taste of his childhood to Denver. He did a good job and the fact they open at 6a (before most other spots) meant it was our last stop in Denver too. I got a Jersey style Pork Roll Sandwich on an egg bagel which is something pretty much anyone in New Jersey has started their day with at one point or another. Taylor Ham is basically a bunch of different pork parts and spices that are preserved and then smoked and packaged. It's kind of like spam but don't let that deter you if you ever see one on offer. It's most popular paired with egg and cheese in breakfast sandwich form. You wont find it at too many spots outside the Tri-State area but you can get all the ingredients (+Kaiser Rolls) at Fresh Market Place on Western
. There's also an old school soda fountain next door to Rosenberg's. Owned by the same guy. Good phosphates and such. That's it for this trip! Post from the Colorado mountains coming soon.
Pork Roll Breakfast Sandwich at Rosenberg's Deli
Notes: For the addresses to all these spots plus many others we didn't make it to please see my google maps guide by clicking HERE.
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