Taste of Denver

I am sick of the Denver omelet.

My folks were in town recently, and my dad — a willing gastronaut, but never the most adventurous eater when left to his own devices — ate a couple of these atrocities for breakfast at a couple of different places. "Well," he said, by way of explanation. "I'm in Denver. I guess I ought to have one..."

He said this as if the Denver omelet was somehow actually connected to this city. He said it the way someone visiting Cincinnati says he ought to try some chili, the way a person passing through San Francisco asks for Rice-a-Roni — as if it were a civic duty, a required activity so that he could experience this place his son has decided to call home. Or maybe he was just hungry. Either way, he made a bad choice. Because a Denver omelet is just gross.

For those of you who've never tried one (though I can't imagine who you might be...), a proper Denver omelet is made with green peppers, onions, ham and cheese. The ingredients sometimes vary — no cheese, bacon instead of ham, whatever — but the basic construction is the same. East of the Mississippi, this hodgepodge is generally called a Western, and often, it is made into a sandwich (the omelet squashed between two slices of toast or set on a hard roll).

Theories abound as to how this mess got started. One theory holds that wild onions and Spanish peppers were used to mask the taste of eggs gone bad on the trail during wagon-train times. But to my mind, that's not likely. To begin with, eggs were an extraordinary luxury anywhere that wasn't a chicken ranch, and I just can't see a smart trail boss giving up space for a perishable extravagance that would most likely break and go to waste as soon as the wagons began to move. Also, if you've ever cracked an egg that's gone bad, you know that there ain't no amount of onions and peppers going to disguise that smell and taste.

A good case can be made (and has been made in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America) for the Denver omelet as an offshoot of the Basque piperade — a mess of stewed tomatoes and peppers folded into scrambled eggs. There were French Basques living in the Nevada territory who'd come to work as miners and sheepherders and, as we all know, whenever people move from one part of the world to another, they always seem to bring their food with them. And though the first published mentions of the "Denver omelet" or the "Denver sandwich" didn't appear until the early 1900s, I think the best explanation is probably some cross-cultural fusion between the Basque miners and the Chinese immigrants employed as cooks in the railroad camps. Because what is a Denver omelet if not a knock-off version of egg foo yung (the Chinese version of an omelet and a classic comfort food from the mysterious East) made with whatever local ingredients were close at hand?

History aside, I remain convinced that today the Denver omelet is a stain on our culinary heritage: a cheap-jack, nasty and hopelessly muddled distaff cousin to those original convenience breakfasts. So here's what I'm thinking. What we need is a real omelet to call our own — something that actually has some link to Denver, that's got some Colorado soul. Personally, I believe we also need our own sandwich, our own cheeseburger, maybe an eponymous pastry — but that can wait. This omelet thing is an emergency. And, of course, I have a few suggestions.

1) The Mile High omelet: a savory, crepe-thin fold of eggs, Colorado-native matsutake mushrooms (a killer-expensive Japanese delicacy that expert fungologists can find growing here among the sun-dappled red pines) and good weed. Not a lot of weed, mind you. Just a little. Like maybe just enough to make a place like Snooze (where this omelet would ideally be served) tolerable in the morning.

2) The LoDo: Take one pint glass of a local microbrew (preferably the Wynkoop's chile beer), add one raw egg, one shake of hot sauce, hang one onion ring off the edge of the glass and serve alongside a bacon steak, à la Oceanaire. Call it a deconstructed Denver omelet and just wait for the photographers from Gourmet magazine to descend.

3) The Desayuno: eggs, green chile rajas, carnitas and queso fresco, baby. A breakfast burrito sans burrito. Add a few fried potatoes to this sucker in honor of our Michoacán brothers and sisters and this plate would just fly out of the kitchen.

4) The Sakura Square: Denver has long had a highly personal connection with Japan. We have some of the oldest (and some of the best) sushi restaurants in the country and a long tradition of embracing Asian cuisines of all descriptions. Therefore, what could be better than a tamago handroll (sweetened egg omelet, folded and tied to a rice ball with a ribbon of nori) with a paper-thin slice of cold, poached Colorado river trout inside and a single slip of jalapeño on top?

5) The Real Denver omelet: In order to give a true sense of the city from which it takes its name, I'm thinking nothing more complicated than sliced steak (a flatiron cut would be most appropriate) and a smear of Haystack Mountain goat cheese rolled inside an omelet, topped with a splash of Colorado-style green chile. Serve this with a side of lardon-studded black beans cooked in bacon grease and some whole-grain toast, and you have a breakfast truly worthy of this fine city.

But hey, I'm just one guy, right? What I really want is to hear from you folks. So if you've got a great idea — something you already cook, something you wish someone else would cook, something you'd eat proudly every morning for the rest of your life if only some smart young chef would stick it on his menu — send it my way. If I get enough good suggestions, I'm going to end this Denver-omelet nightmare once and for all. A city ordinance banning the possession, sale or consumption of Denver omelets would be a good place to start, non-compliance punishable by immediate seizure and equitable redistribution of all restaurant assets, as well as summary exile to Colorado Springs or Kansas.

So what do you say, Denver? Who's with me?

Leftovers: The former home of Mel's is now Iron Mountain Winery, but the Cherry Creek institution is coming back — just not in Cherry Creek. Last week, Mel Master told me that he and wife Jane are dumping the Montecito South concept and turning that spot at 5970 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village into a new Mel's. "After the emotional closing last April," Mel explained, "Janie and I steadfastly opposed doing another Mel's out of Cherry Creek — but we have come to our senses."

Monty South (as it was known) was simply not rising to the level of the first Montecito, which opened last December at 1120 East Sixth Avenue — a nouvelle California/Mediterranean masterpiece originally overseen by chef Adam Mali and now under the command of Jeremy Wilson. Personally, I preferred the original on Sixth or even Annabel's, which the Masters opened a few months ago right next door to Monty South in the former Ocotillo, at 5960 South Holly. According to Mel, the second Montecito space was too big for the concept, and the "results" — meaning the numbers, sure, but also the vibe — "were disappointing."

Monty South is closing October 6 for two days of changeover and a staff reorganization — Mel's veterans who were given posts at Annabel's are being brought over to the new Mel's, and Monty South staffers will move next door to work the Annabel's floor — and then will reopen on October 9 with a menu that's like a greatest-hits collection of Mel and Jane's long careers.

"We spent weeks looking at every menu from all over the world where we've been," Mel said. "In that, it will be like the original Mel's menu from many years ago."

And Mali will oversee that menu — for now. "Adam will be our executive chef until such a time as he decides to go back to California," Mel told me, adding that Mali is welcome for as long as he wants to stay. The Masters could still use a chef de cuisine for the new Mel's, though. Anyone interested?

Finally, chef Mark Tarbell — who's best known for his joints in Arizona but also gave us the Oven in Belmar — recently whupped Iron Chef Cat Cora in the apple battle during Iron Chef America. It was one of the most interesting ICAs I've seen in quite some time, since right up until the end, it looked as though Tarbell wasn't even going to get anything on the plate: He'd blown several dishes under pressure and was scrambling to get his stuff to table.

As I watched Tarbell sweat under the klieg lights, I checked on his promised second restaurant in Belmar — Home, which was originally scheduled to open in 2005 but is now listed on Belmar's website as opening "winter '08." And soon after, he'll have another metro-area joint: a copy of his eponymous Arizona restaurant, Tarbell's, slated for inclusion in the "retail village" at the new Kent Place development in Englewood.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan