The nine best places for Texans to eat in Denver
Texans love Colorado; they come by the wagonload to ski, hike, mountain bike and otherwise spend tourist dollars in Denver and nearby mountain towns. Colorado may not love Texans, but we're more than happy to take their money -- so why not show our guests from the Lone Star State a little hospitality by giving them a taste of home when they're away from home? Texans are proud of their traditions, especially when it comes to food, and they may be just a little confused by our versions of Mexican food, our hodge-podge barbecue joints that owe as much to St. Louis, Memphis and North Carolina as to Texas, and our new-fangled ice cream shops that might feature garam masala before pecan praline. All that drawling and touring works up a Paul Bunyan-sized appetite, so here are a few Front Range favorites to help dispel any lonesome, homesick blues.
The little trailer attached to the big red pick-up may not be run by Texans, but it's serving up a pretty decent version of the stuffed pastries of central European origin that Denver has been missing since the Kolache Factory closed. Don't expect tender fruit-filled buns, though. Dense and hearty is the style here, with breakfast versions that include egg, cheese and jalapeño and lunch varations filled with bacon, macaroni and cheese or barbecued pulled pork. Get there early, though -- the Cabin starts start slinging at 6 a.m. -- because breakfast items often sell out before 8 a.m. and other options might be gone by noon.
2. Breakfast Tacos
Austin natives will flock to Moontower like moths to a flame based on the name alone, which refers to the historic light towers that watch over the Texas state capitol. And once in the door, they'll love Austin transplant Brent Thrash's renditions of migas tacos stuffed with scrambled eggs, avocado, strips of fried tortilla and three-cheese queso. More adventurous Texans can say howdy to the Doggfather: chicken and waffles wrapped in a tortilla and served with syrup, candied jalapeño and apple butter.
3. Barbecued Brisket
Wayne's Smoke Shack in Superior began as a dream of re-creating owner Wayne Shelnutt's childhood memories of central Texas barbecue and culminated as a meat-market style pit barbecue specializing in meat by the pound, including a juicy, dry-rubbed brisket that needs no sauce (although Wayne's offers a variety of housemade sauces). There is no substitute for Texas brisket, with its coffee-hued bark, pink smoke line and enticing aroma of post oak and hickory -- authentic woods that Wayne's proudly uses -- that'll draw you right out of your Luccheses to the front of the line.
4. Bluebell Ice Cream
Despite the multitude of ice cream brands available at grocery stores and the growing number of Denver homegrown favorites like Little Man and Sweet Action, Texans still yearn for scoops of Bluebell Ice Cream, made in Brenham, Texas, since 1907. Since Bluebell opened a distribution center in Denver in 2011, tubs of the sweet stuff can be found at many area grocery stores. But rather than spending precious vacation time in the freezer aisle, take your favorite cowboy to Griff's Hamburgers, a South Broadway stalwart, for a classic old-school burger and a milkshake spun with creamy Lone-Star goodness from Bluebell.
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Texans like their margaritas big and powerful, not watered down by syrupy mixes that taste more like floor polish than fresh citrus. While the food at the Rio, a Colorado chain, may not satisfy a craving for authentic Tex-Mex, the Cuervo-heavy concoctions at the Rio fit the bill; a three-drink maximum means one margarita will quench a Texas-sized thirst, two will have you doing the Cotton-Eyed Joe between the tables and three will make you see big and bright stars.
6. Chile Con Carne
Don't even utter the words "green chile" in front of a Texan; you'll only be met with a confused look. Down there, it's spelled with an "i" and it's always deep reddish-brown and thick with beef, not pork. Despite chili's humble origins in the street vendors of San Antonio, a satisfying bowl of chili can be found at Elway's Cherry Creek -- look for "spicy steak chili" on the lunch or dinner menu. Surrounded by the hobnobbers and forever-blonde set of Cherry Creek North, your favorite Texan can get a fix for a relative bargain and feel at home scooping spoonfuls from a cast-iron crock of kicked-up comfort topped with the requisite cheddar cheese, onion and sour cream.
7. Frito Pie
If you're not from Texas, Frito pie is just an over-the-top, fast-food mashup best left to the Guy Fieris of the world, who can declare that it's "off the chain!" with hot chili still clinging to his beard. For Texans, though, it's comfort food of the first order; at one time it could even be found on public school lunch menus. Dousing Texas-invention Frito corn chips with a healthy dollop of saucy chili con carne may not seem like much of a culinary effort, but the resulting mess -- salty, crunchy, fiery hot -- makes most Texans a little misty. A well-executed Frito pie, like the bellyful dished up at Steve's, is topped with housemade but unpretentious chili of the highest order with enough yellow cheese to add gooey delight. Colfax Avenue may be a little overwhelming for a ranch hand from west Texas, but Steve's Frito pie will set his mind at ease.
8. Chicken-Fried Steak
You don't mess with Texas and you don't mess with traditional chicken-fried steak. Unless you have talented cooks like the crew at Lola, which is billed as a Mexican fishouse but somehow pulls off a brunch-only chicken-fried steak that will have even the most conservative Texans swooning and swearing their allegiance to this liberated interpretation. Served with sweet-potato hash and ladled with green chile and chorizo gravy, pounded New York strip takes the place of humbler cuts for a decided advantage. And once Lola wins them over, maybe Texans can even be coaxed away from their beloved Tex-Mex platters for a taste of Mexican seafood.
Efrain's menu has roots in northern Chihuahua, just across the Rio Grande from southwest Texas. The food in the region evolved long before international borders were set, so Texans are familiar with the deep red, robust chile colorado (named for the color red, not our beloved Centennial state), the piquant enchilada platters and the sizzling fajitas that jumped from Texas to national notoriety in the 1980s. If you're dining with your Texas pals, just shield their eyes from anything labeled green chile or chile verde to avoid a brain freeze of the caliber also triggered by Efrain's frozen margaritas -- another Texas invention.
Whatever you do, don't send your new friends from the Lone Star State to the Lone Star Steakhouse; the first restaurant in the chain opened in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and although it's now headquartered in Plano, Texas, there are no branches anywhere in Texas.
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