Don’t get me wrong: I liked the stuff before. I grew up in this city, so I ate my fair share of green chile as a child; I have a particularly distinct memory of my brother choking on an exceptionally spicy version at a place that no longer exists. I ate a lot of it as an adult, too, especially as I sussed out Denver’s restaurant scene as Westword’s food critic. But I didn’t feel fully attached to green chile until four years ago, when I left Denver for New York City, and then left that city for Beijing. Then I fully comprehended that Denver-style green — in all of its fiery, Day-Glo-orange, gravy-like glory — is not available everywhere; in fact, it might not be available anywhere outside of the Mile High. And I pined for it. So much so that I begged visitors to bring me some when they came to China.
Green chile wasn’t the only thing I missed. My absence from Denver helped crystalize for me what’s really unique about this city’s dining scene — because they were the things that were lacking everywhere else.
Some of those things were cuisines, and quasi-Mexican cuisine specific to Denver was particularly nostalgia-inducing. Like the food at a Santiago’s outpost, where I’d go for a gut-steeling breakfast burrito on my way out of town. Or the original Chubby’s on West 38th Avenue, where I’d stop for a gut-steeling plate of chile-cheese fries on my way home from a big night out. Or El Taco de Mexico, where I never had a bad meal as long as anything I ordered came smothered in green chile.
I also missed the Mexican restaurants I’d grown up with — the kitschy, family-owned neighborhood joints that might host a weekly mariachi night and would serve you a frozen margarita without irony or judgment, even if they made a killer version on the rocks. Places like La Loma, which was my first stop back in the States and where I almost drank a bowl of its salsa, sown with chile and spiked with cilantro. I’d felt nostalgic for La Loma’s building, too, with its haphazard parking lot and pervasive casualness so specific to Denver, a casualness that’s unself-conscious, freewheeling and edged with real joy. I’d even missed Casa Bonita; its whack-job combo of cliff divers, Black Bart’s cave, horrific food and decent sopaipillas is a combination no other city seems equipped to sustain.
I was surprised to find how much I missed Denver’s excellent and underrated Vietnamese scene. Outside of Vietnam, few cities’ pho joints hold a candle to Pho Duy or Pho 95. You’d be hard-pressed to find a banh mi sandwich as good as the one at Ba Le, and you’d have to search hard to find the diversity on offer at places like New Saigon. Similarly, the Ethiopian restaurants that dot Aurora’s boulevards shouldn’t be taken for granted: I never found better wots than those I ate at Queen of Sheba.
I also missed specific, iconic dishes, of course, even if I could find approximations elsewhere: cassoulet at the now-shuttered Z Cuisine, Masterpiece’s breakfast sandwiches, Fruition’s carbonara, My Brother’s Bar’s cheeseburger, Colt & Gray’s trotters and gougères, and Il Posto’s risotto, to name a very few. Newer classics like Hops & Pie’s mac and cheese or Uncle’s ramen. Little Man’s salted Oreo ice cream, Sweet Action’s salted butterscotch. Up in Boulder, I missed Basta’s pizzas, the Kitchen’s tomato soup, and the pastas (any pasta) and gelati at Frasca. Further afield, I longed for Arapahoe Basin’s Bloody Marys and Garfinkel’s nachos in Vail.
There were things that I didn’t even know I’d missed: I had my first Colorado peach in half a decade the other week, and it nearly made my brain explode. Ditto for an ear of sweet Olathe corn. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into a Rocky Ford cantaloupe.
And then there were all things I’d simply missed out on, which didn’t exist the last time I lived here: the renovated Union Station, the Source, the entire booming RiNo neighborhood, the cozy new culinary community along Tennyson Street. All the incredible restaurants and bars that have blossomed in this city and been a major source of pride for me as I tell people I’m moving back to the Mile High — and a major reason, I believe, that most of those people have responded, “Man, everyone is moving to Denver. Denver is where it’s at right now.”
I missed having a neighborhood brewery. I missed having every bar feel like my neighborhood bar and every coffee shop feel like my home away from home. I missed happy hour, particularly on patios, a tradition observed religiously in this city, where people tend to leave the office by 4 p.m. on a sunny summer afternoon without so much as a second thought about work.
More than anything, I missed the Denver vibe. When people are out to eat and drink here, they’re out to socialize, to connect, to truly enjoy. That’s not necessarily true in New York, where plenty of diners go out to be alone and decompress after a hard day’s work, or in Beijing, where meals in restaurants are often family celebrations or business affairs. In Denver, though, going out is seasoned with spontaneous meetings and new friendships, with shared tables and afternoons that accidentally bleed into evenings.
Denver is still in the throes of defining itself on culinary terms, and that means the potential for creativity is endless. But the ambition here — and there is ambition in spades — is rarely accompanied by a tendency to take things too seriously, so that even as the restaurants get better, they never get less fun.
This is the Denver I remembered wistfully. This is the Denver I’m pleased to see again.
It’s good to be home for good.
Laura Shunk was the Westword restaurant critic from 2010 to the summer of 2012, when she moved to New York City — then on to China for a year. She’s now back in Denver, and taking over our Chef and Tell column.