Eggs Benediction: Finding Shakshuka in Denver

If you see shakshuka on a menu anywhere in Denver, there are two very good reasons why you should order it — even if you’re not sure what you’re getting. First, the combination of soft sibilance and hard k, twice in one word, is simply fun to say. Second, unless you’re among the pickiest of eaters (or have dietary restrictions), the combination of eggs and a zippy tomato sauce is likely to be delightful. And it’s showing up on more tables at restaurants around Denver, from old-world Mediterranean eateries to modern kitchens — maybe because local chefs like to say the word, too, or maybe because Denver’s getting a little more worldly.

A good place to try a traditional shakshuka is Yaffa’s Savory, at 2200 South Monaco Parkway, where the dish is served in a sizzling skillet with a side of pita. Chef/owner Yaffa Hanouna explains that shakshuka is popular in her home country of Israel because it’s very easy to make and most people have the necessary ingredients at home. “When I came home from school and there was nothing to eat, I’d make shakshuka,” Hanouna recalls of her childhood growing up in a Moroccan Jewish family.

The simplest version can be made with little more than fresh tomatoes and seasonings — salt and pepper, perhaps some chile flakes and a sprinkle of dried herbs — cooked down in a hot pan, into which a couple of eggs are cracked and allowed to simmer to the desired firmness. But for a heartier base, like the one featured at Yaffa’s, a couple of hours of stewing are needed, with roasted red peppers, onion, garlic, a more elaborate blend of spices and plenty of tomatoes (canned work well if cooked long enough). Hanouna says that while the dish can vary in spiciness, her customers prefer their shakshuka mild, so she uses just a small amount of jalapeño — a nod to our Western locale — to add warmth.

I’ve read several theories about the provenance of shakshuka; some point to Morocco, Libya or Yemen as the country of origin, but most agree that whatever region was the birthplace, Jewish communities were the likely source. “It’s definitely an Israeli dish,” Hanouna says. And in Israel, shakshuka is so popular that entire restaurants — like a place called Doctor Shakshuka in Tel Aviv — are dedicated to different variations on the recipe. Hanouna’s catering company served shakshuka at a Jewish wedding at the bride’s request, and the warming pan was emptied by guests long before more sophisticated entrees ran out.

Western influences have also shaped the version of shakshuka served at the brand-new Pop’s Place at 2020 Lawrence Street in the Ballpark neighborhood, run by chef Stephen Kleinman and his partner, Jim Pittenger, the Jim in Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs. Pittenger was in charge of designing the breakfast menu when Pop’s opened last month, and he planted chilaquiles shakshuka on the menu as a fun tongue-twister. But he had also been looking for a way to add crunchy texture to the shakshuka, and had hit upon the fried tortilla strips common in chilaquiles to do the job.

From there, the dish took on additional Southwestern character, with a dose of green chiles and tomatillos for heat and acidity. And instead of whole eggs poached directly in the stew, Pittenger’s version is topped with scrambled eggs, not unlike shakshuka found in Yemeni and East African cooking. There’s another significant difference between Pittenger’s Med-Mex mashup and more traditional versions: It appears on the breakfast menu, while Hanouna says that shakshuka is a dinner dish in Israel. But the chilaquiles shakshuka is a perfect Colorado morning meal, with thick, crunchy matchsticks of tortilla made by Raquelita’s just a few blocks north and a blend of vegetables that includes fresh tomatoes without making them the star.

In Olde Town Arvada, another newcomer recently featured the egg-and-tomato dish in a fairly traditional format — but New Image Brewing is far from traditional itself. Even just a few years ago, a brewery that served food would have been called a brewpub, but somehow the name seems antiquated when applied to this hip DIY space, which specializes in barrel-aged beers and international small plates. With the likes of pork-kimchi tacos, caramelized plantain and green-chile polenta making appearances on the rotating menu, shakshuka seemed right at home on a Saturday night alongside tulip glasses of funky, woody beers.

This version was soupy, with the eggs cooked soft so that the yolks ran when broken; a side of housemade flatbread was just right for sopping up the spicy liquid. It was a little messier than standard brewpub fare, but the hint of Middle Eastern spices was a great accompaniment to beer. New Image updates its menu frequently, and although the shakshuka is currently absent, its brief appearance was evidence of good things coming to the Arvada dining scene.
Three sightings of an uncommon dish equal what could become a trend — but these weren’t my only encounters with shakshuka. Last summer I found a scrambled version at the Sudan Cafe at 10375 East Iliff Avenue in Aurora, and just last week I plunged into a satisfying shakshuka supplemented with smoky eggplant at Stowaway Coffee + Kitchen that was good enough to land on our list of 100 Favorite Dishes.

Will Denver one day attract its own outpost of Tel Aviv’s Doctor Shakshuka? That might be a stretch, but brunch is a big deal in this town, and the simple preparation of poached eggs in tomato sauce could catch on. Kitchens looking for a low-cost item to put alongside French toast and omelets could make shakshuka the next Benedict; as with that weekend favorite, chefs are already playing with the ingredients and presentations to give the traditional version of shakshuka more Colorado appeal. With a little encouragement, we could soon hear the pleasing sound of rooms full of diners all ordering shakshuka simultaneously.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation