Gagging over an ill-advised (and expensive) Colorado tourism campaign that invited visitors to taste our misspelled and out-of-date cuisine, last month I invited readers to send their responses to this question: "What does Colorado Taste Like to You?"
And although we're still accepting entries (you can submit one simply by posting a comment below), it's hard to imagine anyone writing a more lyrical look at Denver's current dining scene than this missive from Chris Hall:
Since I'm planning on moving away from Colorado in a few months, I think of this more in terms of what I'll miss about eating in Colorado when I'm gone. I'll miss the quirky individualism of the better restaurants around here, even the ones I hear about more than I visit. Places like Sisters Pizza & Mussels, Bump & Grind Cafe, Vesta Dipping Grill, Tin Star Cafe in Evergreen, the Diggers Diner in Brush and the Buckhorn Exchange (yes, they have rattlesnake and bull's balls, but their presence on the menu is less remarkable than their absence would be), which don't try to pretend to be anything other than their offbeat selves.
Denver has a multi-ethnic coziness about it, which is reflected in the fuzzy borders of its immigrant neighborhoods, and I haven't seen this feature in any other major city. You never feel like you're in another country altogether; you just gradually realize that there are ten Vietnamese restaurants within a six-block radius, or you notice that this little liquor store has more vodka and Russian beer than your typical convenience store. Even the smaller towns here have restaurant-sized outposts of India, Germany, Greece and Peru, while in the nation's midsection, it often seems that every town has imported just enough Chinese families to staff its sole "Great Wall."
Colorado has the most loyal food-customer base of anywhere I've been. Despite bad reviews (most famously, the late Sparrow), inclement weather, sketchy neighborhoods and overcrowding, we pick our favorites and pack 'em in. I still can't get over the fact that Racines has its own parking garage, and fills it on three or four nights a week. Duffy's, the only business i've ever mourned with real tears, was packed every night of its last month with crowds of folks like me, needing to go there just one more time. I'll have to visit SAME Cafe before I leave, to count myself among the diners who help make such a success of the opposite of prix fixe.
Then there's the beer. Even after years living here in Munich West, I doubt that I've tried quite half of the local brews. They're not all good, but the amazing concentration of brewing (and winemaking and, eventually, distilling) talent here ensures that most of them are, and some are absolute masterpieces. I tell outsiders, exaggerating but not lying, that you really have to have something going to have a successful restaurant here without an attached brewery.
Best of all, though, is the behemoth Best of Denver edition issued by a little culture rag called Westword and its diligent reviewer, Jason Sheehan. It sounds like flattery, but if flattery it is, it's sincere. When my girlfriend comes to visit, I always make a point to have the Best of issue on the coffee table, open to the beginning of the "Food and Drink" section. We spend our evenings going through our list of picks, deciding which are the best of the Best, and guessing which will make next year's list.
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He has his detractors, but Jason Sheehan takes his job as a restaurant critic seriously and does it very well. He'll try anything, and he writes about not only the food, but about the building, the business, the neighborhood, the staff and the dining experience as a whole, and makes each review a worthy piece of literature in its own right. Without his work, I'd be lost in the local food scene, and worse, ignorant of its triumphs and failures.
I only hope that during my upcoming two years in Iowa, and my unknown years in unforeseen places, I can manage to find and appreciate some of the local personality expressed through cuisine in the same way i have in Colorado, but I don't think I'll ever enjoy it as much as I have here.
Chris, we don't know you -- but we miss you already!