What is the taste of Colorado?
I have been asking this question — in various forms, in various places — almost since the day I started this job. One of my first columns was about the way green chile changes on the way from southern New Mexico to Denver, from the pure verde kick in Hatch, to the thin, soupy sauce of Albuquerque, and its steady thickening as it travels north along the green chile trail until it reaches the gelatinous goop of Denver, all studded with pork, completely missing the original vegetable sweetness of the fruit and encompassing varying levels of heat, from granny-safe to scorching. At the time, I could not stand the Colorado version of green chile. I found it repugnant and horrible and wrong. Over the years, though, I've come to appreciate the place of Colorado verde in the pantheon of green chile preparations, recognizing that this unique green chile (with its infinite variations) is truly one of those tastes that will always be associated with Colorado.
This week's review of La Loma (page 38) takes us back almost four decades into Denver's culinary past — to a time when the city's food identity was still very much in flux. And yet, it has all the elements that seem to be so common in these foundation stories: commingled families, someone's grandmother in the galley, a very popular neighborhood hangout that goes big and becomes an institution with a reputation for powerful drinks and good grub, including green chile. La Loma certainly qualifies as being an avatar for that elusive taste of Colorado — even if that taste is, sometimes, less classy than we'd like to see ourselves (deep-fried chimichangas like pizza rolls) and sometimes less than masterfully represented.
Still, La Loma in Colorado is like Lutèce to historic Manhattan when compared to some of the other places where tourists in our great state are getting their first hits of Colorado's cuisine. While I was in the hills a few weeks ago, I ate at the Blue Moose (where the food was edible, but barely), and then made the terrible mistake of scheduling a dinner at Up the Creek, the top-rated restaurant in all of Vail on tripadvisor.com — one of the big travel and tourism websites out there in the virtual universe. It has a four-star rating at Yelp, gets five stars from Yahoo. On the night that Laura and I showed up, Up the Creek was packed, with a line running out the door, while most of the other restaurants scattered around the schlocky faux Bavaria of Vail Village barely had enough trade to fill out their patios. Even though the space (lovely patio overlooking the namesake creek excepted) was cookie-cutter "Upscale Family Restaurant" circa 1987, this was obviously the place to be, at least in the opinions of the tourists, an expensive exemplar (entrees at forty bucks) of what Colorado is supposed to taste like.
And, apparently, Colorado tastes like crap. Like overpriced, poorly plated, dishwater-dull and ridiculously derivative crap. The menu was like some kind of relentlessly focus-grouped social platform for a third-string presidential candidate fighting for his political life — offering a little something for everyone, none of it too daring, none of it too threatening, none of it wedded in the least bit to anything else on offer. Even before the waiter showed up at the table, I knew what specials were going to be offered. Without reading a word of description on the menu, I knew how every plate was going to be presented. Of course the disjointed, misplaced crab cake was going to come with a red-pepper rémoulade and lemon aioli, of course the mussels special was going to be in a white wine and garlic broth, of course there was going to be a short rib, a Colorado lamb loin, a plate of calamari with wasabi, frites doused in cheap truffle oil, a jumped-up mac-and-cheese.
As dull as the menu read, the food itself was duller. The Maryland crab cake was wet and mealy — admirably large, but essentially tasteless. I'd ordered shrimp-and-lobster ravioli in lavender honey cream and got what I swore were machine-stamped ravioli (meaning not homemade at all), stuffed with a rock shrimp paste and a sauce that tasted of milk, partly thickened and dimly smelling of lobster brine. The short rib was overcooked so much that the meat wilted when you looked at it harshly and could've been easily chewed and digested by a toothless newborn. The best thing we ate that night was an order of panko-breaded chicken fingers off the kids' menu — and that's not a good sign for any kitchen.
This is the taste of Colorado that so many visitors to our fair state get. This is the flavor that they leave with — taking whatever dim memories they may have of this completely forgettable food back to New York or California or Berlin or Sao Paulo. I can only hope that Up the Creek is not the only restaurant that they hit; that they manage to make their way to Avon Bakery (which was incredible, almost magical in the way its bakers are able to turn around all those rules about baking at altitude and make some of the greatest croissant I've ever had anywhere) and the original Larkburger in Edwards (which was excellent in every respect). All things considered, I kinda wish all those people eating around me at Up the Creek that night would've just followed me back down the hill so we could've all gone and had some tacos and fajitas and green chile together at La Loma. That, at least, would've been a less embarrassing introduction to the tastes and flavors that have kept me curious and searching for the past seven years.