A Brief Primer on Oysters in the West
Oysters have been a staple food for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks ate them. The Romans had them imported from the British Isles and then kept them alive in saltwater pools, feeding them pastry and wine (because smart as they were, the Romans seemed to believe that every living thing could subsist quite happily on pastries and wine — and while they might have been right in most cases, they were a little off base with the oyster). American Indians on both coasts ate oysters and introduced early European explorers to the delights of bivalves of up to a foot in length. Since the 1600s, the shores and oyster beds around Virginia and Maryland have been a battlefield of on-again/off-again oyster wars, according to John Mariani in The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink. "Although the oyster may have been an expensive delicacy in Europe, it was a common item on everyone's table in America," he writes.
By the nineteenth century, Americans had gone oyster-crazy, eating them from street-sellers and in restaurants, at home and on the road, making them into pies and stuffing them into every imaginable crevice of every imaginable animal that walked, hopped or crawled. We ate oysters in times of plenty, and when times were tough, we just ate oysters even more. A dozen was barely considered a snack. By 1840, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, the annual shipment of oysters from Chesapeake Bay to Philadelphia averaged 4,000 tons, and by 1859, New Yorkers were spending more on oysters than they were at the neighborhood butcher shop.
So great was the American love of the oyster that, with the opening of the western territories, clever men had to figure a way to get oysters from the coast to the American interior. This was accomplished first by the "Oyster Line" — a stagecoach line that brought oysters from Baltimore as far west as Ohio. With the opening of the Erie Canal, oyster boats would make the run, their holds stuffed with oysters headed west. For a long time, those brave souls who'd ventured farther into the wilds had to make do with brined, pickled and tinned oysters, but the Gold Rush and the settling of the Pacific Coast opened up whole new sources of supply, and before long, oysters were being shipped all across the country by train, kept fresh(ish) in icehouses.
So joke all you want about eating oysters in a city 1,500 miles from the nearest ocean, but Denver has long been a place where all the mollusks of the world came to die. And if your forebears were willing to eat buckets of 'em brought overland by stage and rail from Chesapeake Bay and San Francisco with no fear in their hearts, how can you complain now, when they're brought in daily, by plane, from all corners of the earth and with the scent of the sand and the sea still powerfully on them?
For those of you accustomed to sucking down half-shells in the 303, you know where to go. But for those who've maybe been a little hesitant about stepping up to the raw bar and knocking back a rock full of meat and liquor, here are some places to go.
Jax Fish House, 1539 17th Street. Oysters fried in cornmeal. West Coast oysters, grilled and served with tomatillo jalapeño lime mignonette. Raw oysters served plain, on the half-shell, shucked by the master shuckers behind the bar, or with caviar, with vinegar and shallot, with rice wine spiked with chile. Jax keeps their daily deliveries on ice right at the head of the bar, and since this place is often full to bursting with oyster fanatics sucking 'em down with a passion, you know the turnover is high.
Oceanaire Seafood Room, 1400 Arapahoe Street. Fresh oysters every day, flown in from all corners of the world. Trust a place that's known for its seafood and only its seafood to offer nothing but the best and freshest product available. Again, the house keeps its supply on ice at the raw bar, so if you like, you can see your dinner live before you eat it.
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McCormick's Fish House, 1659 Wazee Street. PEI oysters, Pine Island oysters, oysters from Willapa or Netarts Bay, Blue Point oysters and oysters from Long Island Sound. That's just one day's list — a sample of what might be available at one of the city's classic oyster-eatin' destinations.
Deluxe/Delite, 30 South Broadway. The best fried oysters in the city, served dirt cheap on the happy-hour menu, in pho spoons with a biting salsa. I drool a little just thinking about these things.
Buckhorn Exchange, 1000 Osage Street. Not a fan of the bivalve? Then get thee to the Buckhorn and put some expertly prepared balls in your mouth. Rocky Mountain Oysters have long been a gag to those outside of the Rocky Mountain West, but the kitchen at the Buckhorn takes their nuts very seriously — serving up a fine plate of bull testicles breaded, fried and with a side of cocktail sauce. True, the flavor is not quite as delicate as that of a freshly shucked Kumamoto, but what can I say? You are eating testicle, after all.