Tourism, dining, business: They're all tied together as Denver continues to boom. The Dairy Block, bounded by 18th, Wazee, 19th and Blake streets downtown, is a prime example. Slated to host a number of new restaurants, shops, offices and other amenities, the block welcomed some its first tenants this week: the Maven Hotel, with its accompanying restaurant, Kachina Southwestern Grill, and bar, Poka Lola Social Club — all from Sage Hospitality Group (and its subsidiary, Sage Restaurant Group).
The restaurant is Sage's second Kachina in metro Denver, but general manager Luis San Martin explains that the new version has a distinct personality, and a menu that includes only about 60 percent of the dishes served at the original in Westminster. While the first Kachina draws families from the surrounding suburbs, San Martin notes, the new incarnation is designed with downtown denizens, travelers and businesspeople in mind. So it has a brand-new cocktail menu from Brandon Wise, Sage director of beverage operations, and some new dishes from executive chef Jeff Bolton.
Kachina fans should know that the Navajo fry-bread tacos have made the leap from Westminster to downtown, only there's one more on the list here: the Mojave, made with duck confit, pickled nopales, Manchego cheese, spicy-sweet chipotle agave, and a duck-chicharrón garnish. The puffy tacos can be ordered individually or on mix-and-match platters of six or twelve (at a significant discount, so bring friends).
Bolton has maintained a whole-animal butchering program at the original Kachina, bringing in whole bison, hogs, beef and other animals, and working with his butcher to run specials on every part of each animal. He plans on doing the same at the new Kachina, although logistics are tough owing to a smaller kitchen space. But you'll still find an upscale Sonoran hot dog with a housemade sausage, ranch-style machaca (a type of chopped and cooked beef jerky — also made in-house), bison meatloaf and braised pork shank.
Staying true to regional Southwestern ingredients is important to Bolton, who is using some uncommon items from Native American farms to round out his menu. Olive oil and elderberry balsamic vinegar come from Seka Hills, an artisan food company run by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. Pima corn grits, wheat berries, tepary beans and a product called ga'ivsa (smoked, dried and cracked corn) come from Ramona Farms in Arizona. (Bolton says that to his knowledge, a few of these can only be found in one other kitchen in Denver: that of Tocabe American Indian Eatery, which has locations in north Denver and Greenwood Village.)
To match the Southwestern spirit of the menu, the decor — executed by Creme Design — and details have a distinct local flair. A large mural by artist Emanuel Martinez has a woman in reflective sunglasses overlooking the main dining room, while smaller details like hand-tooled leather accessories (cocktail menu binders, satchels for waitstaff and coozies for margarita glasses) were made by Valentich, a Denver company specializing in handmade leather and fabric gear. "It all speaks to the DNA of our restaurant, the adventurousness," says San Martin.
Between the restaurant and the lobby of the Maven, there's a reconditioned Airstream trailer that will soon serve food and cocktails to walk-up customers wanting a more casual experience; right next to that, there's an indoor "patio" that extends the Southwestern vibe into the hotel space.
But look past the typical lobby seating areas where travelers linger with their luggage to a jewel box of a bar: the Poka Lola Social Club, Wise's new cocktail playground. The beverage director brought on Mike Henderson, who most recently headed the beverage program for Ophelia's, Root Down and Linger, to design a menu that captures a Midwestern soda-fountain style through sophisticated cocktails based on phosphates, egg creams, lactarts and seltzers, as well as vintage mixed drinks like re-imagined highballs and vespers.
Poka Lola definitely feels posh, with black-and-white tile floors, comfy lounge seating in seafoam-green leather and gleaming cocktail sets arranged on marble-topped lowboys. But there's a playful, relaxed side, too, from the vintage pinball machines (free to guests) to the soda-fountain design of the bar, which Wise says was influenced by Red Knapp's Dairy Bar in Rochester, Michigan. While many of the drinks are complex and esoteric (the bar makes its own phosphate soda, for example), almost everything is priced at $10 or less. And a few off-menu specials will appeal to industry folk, like Miller Hi-Life minis and a Fernet-Chartreuse blend on tap. High rollers will find rarities like Scarlet Ibis rum and and the ultra-exclusive Black Tot.
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A limited food menu will be available in the bar, with such late-night snacks as Detroit-style Coney dogs, chili cheese fries, smoked lamb short ribs and a "Timpano," which Wise describes as a "bowl of cheese." Inspired by the movie Big Night, the Timpano will actually be a layered pasta bowl with sausage, peppers and plenty of gooey cheese. "If nothing else, we hope it's satisfying," Wise says of both Poka Lola and the Timpano.
Kachina is open daily for lunch and dinner, while Poka Lola opens daily at 4 p.m. (closing hours are not yet firm). For more photos, see our Kachina Southwestern Grill slideshow and our Poka Lola Social Club slideshow.