It's hot on the first day of June, and the vast courtyard at the intersection of the 16th Street Mall and Arapahoe Street is crowded. Business people in A-line skirts and pleated khakis are eating their to-go lunches at sunny tables, soaking up a few minutes of real weather outside of the air conditioning and fluorescent lights of nearby offices.
Since 2005, Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs has dominated this section of downtown, proffering reindeer sausages topped with Coke-caramelized onions and a thin ribbon of cream cheese to long lines of hurried customers. Jim Pittenger, the cart's owner, was one of the forerunners of the gourmet street-food movement, and he enjoyed five years of business virtually without competition, unless you count generic hot dogs in starchy buns hawked on every block of the mall.
Five weeks ago, though, Dave Bravdica's Brava! Pizzeria rolled into a shaded cove directly across the street from Pittenger's cart. Now that the pizzaiolo has more or less worked out the angles of mobile vending, he's luring in some of those lunchers with airy crusts and stretchy mozzarella fired in a wood-burning oven atop a small trailer.
This isn't really competition. At this corner of downtown Denver, it's possible to see a cross-section of the ongoing evolution of this city's street-food culture. Biker Jim's was a new generation, making an age-old concept better. Brava! Pizzeria, on the other hand, is more like a new species entirely. With each drizzle of olive oil atop a bubbling finished pie, Bravdica's cart is redefining what can be done on the street, turning out cuisine difficult to master in brick-and-mortar establishments from a vessel he could fasten to his truck trailer hitch. There's room in the market for both of them, though, and Pittenger has been instrumental in the traffic headed toward the pizza peddler.
"We're not really stealing business," says Bravdica, as he thrusts a pizza paddle with a long handle into the oven to move things around. "Jim has helped us get the word out more than anyone."
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SHOW ME HOW
Good thing, because Brava! isn't going anywhere. Carts lease spots on the 16th Street Mall from the Downtown Denver Partnership, which gives them a relatively permanent home, and, unless he gets called away for catering, Bravdica plans on staying where he is.
For the old guard of mediocre vendors, that might spell trouble. But really, the reinvention happening in the middle of the mall is just a means to bring more Front Range diners to the street, engaging them in food they never thought possible from a cart.
Sample it yourself at lunchtime today.
In the new Westword -- and on this blog for the next week -- we'll serve up more tastes of the city's new street food.