Organixx may be green, but that's not what makes it great
Sustainable, eco-friendly, reusable, recyclable, fair trade, natural, energy efficient, organic, local, green, low-impact, fresh. These are words that inspire us at Organixx. From the building materials that surround you in our dining room, to our food product choices, culinary procedures and sanitation practices, we strive to have those words define our actions.
I read this and I'm thinking, "Oh, crap. Not again." I'm thinking, "Not one word in there means 'delicious'." I'm thinking how it sounds like a pitch for a new laminate flooring material or, perhaps, the impossibly chipper drivel generally spouted by some company that just invented a new chemical to inject into Chicken McNuggets. It doesn't sound like they're talking about a restaurant at all. Or at least not one that I'd ever want to go to.
I was walking along the 1500 block of Blake Street, in a part of LoDo that's become a real restaurant row, when I saw the menu taped up inside the front windows of the former Eggshell and read the mission statement (for lack of a better term) written out boldly at the bottom:
Our menu represents the best of organic, natural, local, wild caught and traditional products available to us. We welcome you to join our efforts to conduct business in an earth friendly fashion. Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas with us.
Oh, I felt free, all right. And I certainly had some ideas.
1) A list of buzzwords does not equal thought, and no one ever walked away from a table happy, stuffed full of catchphrases and green-movement agitprop.
2) Just because something is called "organic" does not immediately mean it is "delicious" or even "good for you." Hemlock is organic, but I don't want any in my salad. And you know what else is organic? Sharks. But I'd be pretty pissed if I found one in my mueslix.
3) I'm not coming to your restaurant to join your cult or be converted. Just make me a sandwich and shut up.
Was I bitter? Yeah, a bit. So many restaurants have opened lately under the flag of the Michael Pollan/locavore/Omnivore's Dilemma revolution that I was already way past sick of the sloganeering and self-promotion when Organixx started its buildout late last year. Still, I spent a lot of time in front of this storefront, staring in through the windows and watching it take form out of a cloud of dust and contractors, wondering if they, too, were organic, all-natural, local...
Owner (and restaurant-world newbie) Erwin Chang got Organixx open in mid-February, and I immediately rushed right out and didn't go there. I had cheeseburgers to eat, after all. And pho and tacos and all that other good stuff made by kitchens more concerned with the quality of dinner than the provenance of the arugula. I figured it would take about six months before the place either closed or gave up completely on its organo-local ideals and, like a proper restaurant, started simply serving the best grub it could get its hands on, regardless of origin.
But somewhere along the way, a funny thing happened. Not only did Organixx become successful, but it became very successful. Like, line-out-the-door successful. Fully-booked-and-on-a-wait-on-a-Tuesday successful. I heard stories about lunchtime crowds (the place is essentially a breakfast bar, open early and closing by three every afternoon) that started stacking up before eleven. And that made me curious, because even though I have a fairly low opinion of the dining public in general (have you ever seen the crowd jammed up outside an Olive Garden on a Saturday night?), I have a fairly lofty opinion of those who would willfully go out of their way to patronize a local operator in LoDo — of my people, in other words. I didn't think they'd be easily fooled by some smooth operator with nothing more than a bunch of green-movement buzzwords and a nice location to his credit. Which meant that something else had to be going on at Organixx, and I wanted to find out what.
Which is how I found myself crammed into a corner of the restaurant during a recent lunch rush, sandwiched between the self-serve coffeepots and a press of polo-shirted businessmen and nattering publicists in stiletto heels getting all damp and breathless waiting for their Santa Fe salads and plates of quinoa Niçoise. The place was completely full, the staff moving like ninjas through the throng, delivering surprisingly artful plates overloaded with ingredients that seemed to explode off the white china in small mushroom clouds of (local, organic) greens and swollen mounds of (organic) egg salad. All around me at Organixx, the conversation was all about Organixx — about what each person had ordered, what they'd ordered yesterday, what they were thinking of ordering tomorrow. And in the middle of it all was Chang, looking composed and unshakable, already a restaurant-industry veteran after not quite six months in business.
Service here is modified fast-casual: You make your way through the alley that runs between the front door and the counter, put in your order to the cashier, are given a number, and then get out there on the floor and fight, Thunderdome-style, for a seat in a pleasant, open-plan dining room that, though large, is already too small by half for the amount of trade that Chang is doing during his rushes. Once you get a table (or have agreed to share one with a complete stranger who will then whip out her copy of The Secret and proceed to shamelessly read it in public as though it were an actual book and not an immediate name tag labeling her as both gullible and desperate), you just stick your number in the conveniently provided holder and wait for the kitchen (which works amazingly fast for being under such continuous pressure) to hack its way through to your order. At that point, Organixx becomes table service. Plates are delivered by whoever has a free hand at the moment any order comes up in the window. And when those plates are delivered, suddenly the reason for Chang's success becomes clear.
The food is really good. It is pretty and it is fresh and it is presented with a surprising artfulness on the plate in an almost Jeremiah Tower-meets-Gotham kind of glorious and overwhelming simplicity. My first meal was straight out of the Alfred Portale playbook — an avocado tower filled with rock shrimp salad — and plated like something from Chez Panisse: in mounds, dressed with fresh, local greens and garnished with grilled vegetables marked with perfect quadrillage. Although I loathe celery (the Devil's tuber) and the shrimp salad was full of it (in addition to a lovely brunoise of red onion and roasted pepper and a restrained mix of herbs), I couldn't stop eating. I devoured every bit of the salad, chasing bites with huge chunks of beautifully fresh and fatty avocado, then stabbing the scratch-made croutons (made from the leftover house bread, which is also excellent) with my fork and using them like tiny little bulldozers to plow whatever scraps I'd missed into piles that I could scoop up and eat.
When I returned for breakfast — during one of Organixx's off-hours, when the dining room was cool and quiet and empty — I had a simple organic egg, ham and cheddar breakfast sandwich on the best brioche I've found in Denver. And then I ordered the breakfast burrito, which is where these straight hippie, granola-eating operations invariably fall apart, since burritos packed with bean sprouts and wrapped in dry, mealy whole-grain tortillas cannot possibly stand up against the quick-and-dirty breakfast burritos I love at every little taquería west of the Mississippi. But Organixx impressed me again by stuffing a good (though thin) tortilla with scrambled eggs so rich and yellow they were almost orange, chopped potatoes, cheese, bacon (from, one would assume, happy, local and free-range pigs) and chopped green chiles and serving it with a side of fresh fruit. It wasn't the best breakfast burrito I've ever had, but it was damned good. And as I stood to leave, Chang nearly vaulted the counter and raced me to the front door to wish me a good day just because he didn't have anything else to do for those ten seconds.
The only miss I found at Organixx was the potato salad, threaded with something I'm guessing was shredded cabbage but that tasted like old newspaper. But then, that potato salad came on the side of a brilliant sandwich of smoked turkey, gingered cranberry-apple chutney and Brie on sourdough. It was so fine that I was even able to forgive the sprouts piled on top, and I am not a man who generally forgives sprouts on anything. The salmon burger, made with wild-caught salmon, onions, peppers and rémoulade, was entirely un-disgusting — a remarkable achievement, because I've never had a fish burger that was anything but gross. The Peruvian roast beef with garlic aioli and smoky red barbecue sauce was amazing, made with asado-style beef and roasted peppers and mounted on a forgettable baguette that I forgot mostly because I was busy pulling the beef off and eating it with my fingers. And the kitchen also does cherry pancakes (in season), which were so awesome I could ignore the fact that they were multi-grain and probably better for me than anything else I'd put in my mouth the entire week.
That, then, is the trick of Organixx. Sure, the organic-this and all-natural-that may get some people in the door, and the local-only mantra may make those of a particular political bent feel good about spending their money inside. But no one in their right mind continues going to a restaurant for its politics alone. You don't feed your hunger with mere words.
You do it with pancakes and bacon and eggs and burritos. Everything else is just (organic) gravy.
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