Occasionally while driving, I'll take a break from scanning the strip malls for the next great undiscovered hole in the wall. To occupy my time in the car, I'll tune the radio to sports talk to be amused by just how far past the end of the Broncos' football season commentators can still dissect one play over and over again.
With the Super Bowl fast approaching, many Denver radio stations have taken their show on the road and are broadcasting from New Orleans, site of Super Bowl XVII. Seasoned radio veterans and ex-jocks turned commentators are even now being feted with Louisiana's best food and drink while schmoozing with current players and coaches ramping up for the big game. And because opinions are being thrown around with the frequency of Peyton's Manning slant passes, the topic of food is certain to come up -- especially considering New Orleans' reputation as one of the best food cities in America.
I was surprised, though, to hear former CU Buffalo quarterback and current 104.3 FM morning sports guy Joel Klatt so wholeheartedly endorse the Big Easy at the expense of Denver.
He raved about an alligator burger with tiger sauce that had been served to him the previous night, while at the same time stating that nothing so good was to be found in Denver -- primarily, he said, because Denver is "a chain-restaurant town."
I was incensed. I was livid. I was sure that this was some suburban cul-de-sac dweller complaining about the sad state of food affairs in Highlands Ranch or Parker. But as I listened, it became clear that Klatt is a seasoned traveler who takes full advantage of his restaurant-industry connections in cities outside of Colorado. His argument was backed by evidence, even if ultimately I knew he was wrong.
I could barely pull over fast enough to tweet the following:
To my amazement (I'm pretty new at this Twitter thing), he responded:
I sent a few more messages with lists of my favorite spots, including some of the best and most creative new restaurants as well as a few of the more exotic, if not quite so chic, dives and joints that are dear to my heart and belly. He said he liked a few, but that some were not so good. Eventually, he sent this out...
Now, I understand what Klatt meant, but I don't think he ever clarified it on the radio or on Twitter. He used places like New Orleans, Kansas City and Los Angeles as shining examples of food cities, whereas Denver -- as his argument went -- has some good food, but is not a food city. What I would have said in his place is that Denver does not have as deep a history or culture of cuisine.
Kansas City has its barbeque. New Orleans has home cooks and restaurant chefs creating myriad versions of Cajun and Creole classics. Los Angeles has a Hispanic heritage, an enormous population and a ton of Hollywood money. It's no surprise that good food can be found in these places. Denver is a young and fairly small city. Sure, we have our pork green chile, but you can't build an international reputation on a chunky sauce-stew hybrid, no matter how tasty or ingrained it is in area restaurants. We have great Mexican cuisine, but so do many other cities of the Southwest.
But do we have the grand old restaurants, the classic stand-by stalwarts that can be depended on year-in and year-out to represent the best of the food culture of the Front Range?
I knew he was right about one thing, though probably not intentionally. Denver is the Great Rift Valley of fast-casual -- spawning a migratory stream of nationwide chains of quality quick dining: headed by Chipotle, but with Qdoba, Smashburger, Quiznos, Noodles & Co. and many others joining the evolutionary parade.
But if Denver has a real food history and culture, it's in meat, whether it's the pork in our beloved green chile, the cowboy-cut rib-eye steaks of the many steakhouses that have come and gone and come again, or the recent embrace of whole animal butchery that seems like a national fad but has taken more of a foothold here than in many other cities on the coasts or throughout the Midwest.
I thought of the old guard of the carnivore circuit -- places like the Fort and Buckhorn Exchange -- and realized that many Denverites turn up their noses at overt old-timey themes and kitschy décor, even if they presaged current trends like offal dishes and game meats. Since we're such a young city (both historically and demographically), it's not surprising that many of our best restaurants are less than ten years old. But many modern Denver restaurants, such as Euclid Hall, Colt & Gray and the soon-to-be-opened Beast + Bottle, are embracing butchery, charcuterie and organ meats that the old places have been doing for years (though often met with more scorn than praise).
So it is meat in all its glorious cuts and textures that seems to be the legacy of Denver's food culture. In various forms and presentations, there's been a continuous thread of eating all the best parts of local lamb, buffalo, elk, pork and beef. If I do have the opportunity to sway Klatt's opinion in favor of Denver's dining scene, it will be at one of the shrines of nose-to-tail, whether old or new, classic or trendy, kitschy or sleek. Maybe I could swing appetizers at the old and entrees at the new.
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Joel, I hope you like Rocky Mountain oysters.