Eating Adventures

In Town for Slow Food Nations? Tour These Denver Food Originals

Slow Food warriors are heading to Union Station and Larimer Square this weekend for Slow Food Nations, a celebration of traditional and sustainable food production and cooking. The international gathering has inspired outdoor markets, cooking demonstrations, presentations and food festivals — enough events to wear down even the most earnest food seekers. You can unwind at one of Denver's many restaurants that exemplify the Slow Food credo, but you can also explore some of Denver's contributions to the not-so-slow. From hard candies to Hot Pockets, here are five Denver food inventions, some of which you can still try.

The Elvis Presley Fool's Gold Sandwich
Elvis Presley used to make occasional visits to Denver in his private jet for a very specific reason. No, the cannabis industry wasn't even a dream back in the 1970s; the King was after peanut butter — specifically in a sandwich called the Fool's Gold Loaf that was invented at the Colorado Mining Company, a popular restaurant with visiting celebs back then. The Fool's Gold is an entire loaf of sourdough bread hollowed out and filled with peanut butter, blueberry jelly and bacon. Nick Andurlakis, who worked at the Mining Company back when Elvis came to town, gave us the details of his memorable experience a few years ago. The Mining Company closed many years ago, but Andurlakis now runs his own place, called Nick's Cafe, at 777 Simms Street in Lakewood — and he'll still make you a Fool's Gold. Elvis had to pay a whopping $37.95 for the monster sandwich, which was created with an entire jar of peanut butter and a pound of bacon, but Nick's version is a streamlined model for only $7. It's good to be King — but it's even better to take a bite of Denver history on the cheap.

click to enlarge The cheeseburger shrine at 2776 Speer Boulevard is now part of the landscaping at a Key Bank branch. - MARK ANTONATION
The cheeseburger shrine at 2776 Speer Boulevard is now part of the landscaping at a Key Bank branch.
Mark Antonation
The Cheeseburger
Sometime in the early part of the twentieth century, Louis Ballast, the original owner of Denver's Humpty Dumpty Barrel Drive-In, was grilling hamburgers and had a novel thought: Put some cheese on that baby! While Ballast probably wasn't the first to come up with the idea, he was the first to officially register the cheeseburger trademark, back on March 5, 1935. The barrel-shaped burger shack was torn down decades ago, but you can still pay homage at the site, 2776 Speer Boulevard, where a stone monument commemorates Ballast's culinary contribution.

The Chipotle Burrito
The foil-wrapped burrito has become the shiny symbol of the entire fast-casual business, and Chipotle outposts can be found on nearly every city street corner across the country. But the beginnings were humble for founder Steve Ells, who built his first burrito kitchen in 1993 at 1644 East Evans Avenue, near the University of Denver.While the tiny space (the smallest in the company's armada) is closed this summer for renovations, you can stop by and take your picture out front, just as many burrito pilgrims have done for the past 24 years.

click to enlarge Jolly Rancher: the original Colorado edible. - MIKE MOZART/FLICKR
Jolly Rancher: the original Colorado edible.
Jolly Rancher Candies
America's favorite cause of tooth decay, the hard and sticky candies in a rainbow of flavors have pulled out as many fillings as they've caused over the years. You can thank Bill and Dorothy Harmsen for your childhood dental distress; the couple founded Jolly Rancher in 1949 and operated the company until Hershey bought them out in 1997. Hershey kept the factory open at 5060 Ward Road in Wheat Ridge until 2002, then shut the place down, costing the city 240 jobs. If you make a pilgrimage to the site of the factory, you won't find much — it was torn down years ago. But you can scatter a few sour apple or watermelon Jolly Ranchers along the roadside in honor of Denver's sweetest contribution to the national candy business.

Hot Pockets
You may know Hot Pockets from the creepy whisper of comedian Jim Gaffigan, or you may just bear permanent scars on the roof of your mouth from biting into a microwaved bundle of molten cheese and pepperoni. But did you know that Hot Pockets were a hot Denver commodity from 1980, when they were invented by Paul and David Merage of Chef America, to 2012, when Nestle (which purchased Chef America in 2002 for $2.6 billion) moved production to Ohio? The original production facility in Englewood is long gone, but if you find yourself near a convenience store or supermarket, grab a box of the little microwaveable torpedos, face Englewood (just southeast of Denver) and intone "Hot Pockets" in a high, nasal whine — just like Jim Gaffigan.

Bonus: David Merage and wife Laura went on to found RedLine, and today the Hot Pockets fortune pushes cutting-edge art in Denver.