When I left New York more than a decade ago, foodies (as they were known then) felt a little sorry for me. What was a food writer to do in a town known for steakhouses and omelets?
But who’s sorry now? Today this Colorado cowtown is on the national food map, with a level of energy that’s attracting chefs from both coasts. To quantify this metamorphosis, you can cite data on restaurant openings and the number of independents versus chains in Denver.
Or you can just make your way past the railroad tracks to a dusty corner of RiNo and order half a pig’s head at Rebel Restaurant, which opened in a former dive bar this summer. Both techniques would tell the same story — that Denver’s food scene is insanely robust — but the head does it in a way that’s a helluva lot more fun.
Why should a braised (!), roasted (!) and deep-fried (!) animal head be anything more than what a shock jock eats for dinner? Why does this particular dish symbolize the leaps and bounds we’ve taken as a city? That’s simple: It proves we’ve evolved to the point that we’re hungry for more — more than charcuterie, scallops and steak, more than Brussels sprouts, kale and gochujang. And we’re hungry for it whenever and wherever it comes from — not just from the hands of James Beard Award-nominated chefs but also from two Ukrainian-American guys whose names you’ve never heard of, whose restaurant is on a street you’ve probably never driven down unless you made a wrong turn.
Such depth and breadth is remarkable, not to mention something to be proud of — whether you want to eat the pig’s head or not.
I chose to eat it. My friend, who’d planned on sharing it with me, did not. Normally an adventurous guy, he paled a little when the platter was set before us, the animal’s snout pointing in my direction as if sniffing me out. It was quite a sight, the kind of dish other customers would’ve gawked at — if any other customers had been sharing our community picnic table. But it was early, and Rebel’s other patrons — a group of T-shirt-clad guys and someone who looked like he thought the place was still the decades-old Flynn’s Inn — were at the bar, so the spectacle was ours alone. “The only things you can’t eat are the bones and teeth,” said the server with a flourish.
My friend begged off, but I didn’t hold back, picking my way past the glistening brown skin to uproot the prized layer of fat. I popped a hunk into my mouth, half chewing, half sucking it like taffy. Undeterred by the sight of the growing cavity, I dug into the crevices behind the eyeball, going deep into the skull, where hunks of meat were hidden. (Sorry if you’re squeamish.) My efforts paid off: The meat shredded easily, like pork on a barbecue sandwich, so tender it dissolved under the tongs’ pinch and so flavorful that I largely ignored the flatbread and kimchi ranch that came with it. Not that getting to the good stuff required much effort. Appearances aside, the head was far simpler to tackle than a whole fish, with teeth to work around but no pesky little bones.
Admittedly, the dish isn’t for everyone. And that’s precisely the point: The place is called Rebel for a reason. “Obviously, tacos and sliders will sell, but I don’t want to do that,” says chef-owner Dan Lasiy, who graduated from Johnson & Wales (Rhode Island) in 2005 and worked in New York and New Jersey before moving to Colorado, where he landed at Duo. “We’re trying to do the complete opposite of everything that you would think a restaurant would do.”
In other words, if you’re looking for a crispy, skin-on chicken breast with mashed sweet potatoes, don’t come here. This isn’t the place for steak or a bowl of lamb pappardelle, either. Small plates and entrees are meant to challenge, not comfort. Even popcorn, normally a crowd-pleasing bar snack, is a little offbeat, tossed with deep-fried anchovies, cheese and grated hard-boiled egg.
Rebel just changed its menu, but the popcorn and pig’s head remain. Not so the meatballs, which had an Asian profile of soy, mirin and ginger that’s been so heavily appropriated it’s nearly as American as apple pie. But these meatballs were made with duck, not beef — and not just duck meat, but organs, too. Even octopus, once exotic and now common on high-end menus, comes out ready to shock, served whole with chimichurri-slicked arms dangling over a heap of broccoli rabe, now replaced by cauliflower and chickpeas. Don’t be deterred by the sight; the tentacles are tender, not rubbery, and worth every garlicky bite.
Pierogi are on the menu, too, which isn’t surprising considering the owners’ heritage. (Fellow chef-owner Bo Porytko is also of Ukrainian descent; the two have been friends since preschool.) But unlike the boiled dumplings made by Lasiy’s grandmother, these are filled with non-traditional blends such as foie and mushrooms or, on my visits, pork green chile. (Also unlike hers: They’re $5 each or two for $8, a price that would’ve made my own pierogi-making grandmother faint — or rich.) Such fillings raise their fist to tradition as much as the chef’s-knife-wielding rebel fist spray-painted on the door.
But nothing captures the kitchen’s rebellious spirit more than shit on a shingle, a hallmark of the last menu. Traditionally known as a fast, inexpensive meal made with creamed chipped beef over toast, this version features beef heart — not the overly salted, dried stuff — and a garnish of gold leaf. That’s right: gold leaf. “You don’t go to a casual restaurant and see foie and uni, but you also don’t see gold leaf on shit on a shingle,” says Lasiy. “We wrote ‘shit’ on the menu,” he adds with a laugh. “Nobody writes ‘shit’ on the menu.”
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Like all acts of rebellion, some hit their target better than others. That gold leaf was mixed into the sauce, making us wonder if a bit of wrapper had fallen in by mistake. Tall semolina gnocchi had a silky, pudding-like texture, but the earthy profile didn’t match the plate’s heavy marine tilt, with nori and an uni cream sauce that I both liked and didn’t like, depending on the bite.
Everything at Rebel is designed to be category-busting, from the heavy-metal music to the exclusively communal seating. As Lasiy puts it, “the whole concept was to be limitless,” which is why despite the pierogi, Rebel isn’t a Ukrainian restaurant, and despite the pig’s head, it isn’t nose-to-tail. Still, it’s surprisingly limited in other ways. Of the few plant-based dishes on the menu, most were fried, such as a tower of beer-battered, blue-cheese-drizzled squash rings that didn’t exactly counterbalance the rich, fatty fare. On my visits, the only salad I encountered featured not mixed greens, kale or spinach, but tomatoes, watermelon and grilled cotija. Sometimes the vegetables came with dessert, like an acorn-squash purée smeared alongside a stack of chocolate-smothered crepes. Why not spread that purée on toast, make it into soup or mix it with pasta? Then again, that might be too status-quo for Rebel.
As first-time restaurateurs, this duo didn’t set out to symbolize the new status of Denver’s food scene. They just wanted to do their own thing. “I’m gambling a lot here in many ways,” Lasiy admits. His gamble is paying off, infusing Rebel with a sense of authenticity and unpredictability that’s refreshing — even if the rebellion won’t enlist everyone.
3763 Wynkoop Street
Half a pig’s head $45
Whole octopus $27
Crepe cake $7
Rebel Restaurant is open 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 3-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Learn more at rebelrestaurantdenver.com.