Caribbean cuisine is a rarity in Denver, probably with good reason. After all, moving to a city where frostbite is even a remote possibility couldn’t have much appeal for anyone who grew up on a tropical island. Still, a few folks from the Caribbean have found their way to our (mostly) fair (but sometimes frigid) city — and some of them are even accomplished cooks.
Cuban restaurants in the metro area can be counted on one hand (as I discovered on a quest for Cuban sandwiches that took me from Lakewood to Aurora), and Jamaican joints are just as scarce. Beyond those, the options are even slimmer. Empanada-style treats called pates are common in the Virgin Islands; they can be found at exactly one Denver eatery. Haitian cuisine is also limited to one restaurant here. And surprisingly, if you hunger for the food of Puerto Rico, you have a single choice in Denver — and it’s a food truck. Here are the three places where you can get a rare taste of the Caribbean.
Welton Street Cafe
2736 Welton Street
Fried chicken, catfish, pork chops smothered in brown gravy: These are the soul-food staples that diners gather for at the Welton Street Cafe in Five Points. But soul food encompasses a broad range of the culinary history of the African diaspora, which scattered the peoples of that continent throughout the Western hemisphere — including the Caribbean. Island influences can be found here in such entrees as jerked chicken and pork, and the menu’s back side promises a stuffed pastry pocket called a pate, pronounced pah-tay, as I was told after first trying to order a “patty.” Apparently Jamaicans have similar snacks called patties, but elsewhere in the Caribbean, it’s pah-tay time.
The cafe offers several different pates, but the basic options are ground beef or chicken — which can be had with or without cheese and broccoli — or seafood. The chicken and seafood pates also contain cabbage. I was expecting a small, hand-sized pastry, but what arrived made me doubt my decision to order two. These golden pockets are roughly the size of guinea pigs and so evenly cooked that the unbroken crust reveals no hint of the contents inside or the method of cooking. They could have been fried or baked, but a member of the waitstaff revealed that the pates are deep-fried in a large cast-iron pot. Still, there’s not a trace of oil on the exterior, which yielded to reveal a fluffy, bready wrapping and steaming filling — one with a simple, lightly seasoned mixture of ground beef and American cheese, and the other with diced chicken breast, broccoli, shredded cabbage and cheese. For added kick, reach for the squeeze bottle of tangy hot sauce provided at each table. One pate would be satisfying for lunch, but two make for a long, drowsy afternoon.
A Taste of Haiti
2622 Welton Street
Just down the block from the Welton Street Cafe, Haiti native Mathurin Innocent has been serving the food of his homeland to Denverites for the past two years. The space definitely has a lived-in feel, with fresh paint covering layer upon layer of previous coats, and an old bar that hasn’t served booze in decades but is still fronted by timeworn built-in stools. It’s a tidy place, with white tablecloths and cloth napkins at each table and red linoleum floors that have felt the tread of many shoes. Longtime residents know that this building holds lots of Five Points history inside its brick walls. Before its current incarnation, the building housed Coleman’s Taste of Detroit; prior to that, it was home to Ethel’s House of Soul for three decades.
Taste of Haiti honors that history with some soul food of its own, including catfish, fried okra, collard greens and barbecued beef, pork and chicken. But the house specialties from Haiti are far more intriguing. Fried patties make an appearance here, too; call ahead if you’re interested, because they’re not made every day. Goat is a better option if you’re dropping in for lunch, and it comes in three styles: fried, stewed or curried. I went with the curry.
Indians arrived in the Caribbean in much the same way Africans did — through forced servitude to European colonists. Curry came along for the ride and can now be found in many island cuisines. The bright-yellow sauce that saturates the goat and accompanying vegetables is a good indication of curry seasonings applied liberally; a big side of black beans and rice helps soak up the stew. Wash it down with a bottled ginger beer or malta, a carbonated beverage that’s basically unfermented beer. (Stick with the Vita brand, as Goya’s is cloying and overloaded with high-fructose corn syrup.)
El Coqui D Aqui
There are no Puerto Rican restaurants in the metro area, a fact that didn’t escape Alex Rivera, who moved to Denver from Puerto Rico sixteen years ago. He’s a contractor now, but he worked as a waiter, bartender and cook back home before coming to Colorado. In 2011, his desire to share Puerto Rican cuisine with others led him to outfit a food truck called El Coqui D Aqui (named for a small Puerto Rican frog). Rivera originally made himself at home at the corner of West Colfax Avenue and Fenton Street, but other responsibilities forced him to put his mobile kitchen on hold after only one season.
Now Rivera has again revved up El Coqui D Aqui. He took the truck out of retirement this month and, on the first weekend in May, served up mofongo, fried pork and other specialties at the corner of Mississippi Avenue and Potomac Street in Aurora. The lines were so long that he had to hit the grocery store several times to restock plantains, the main ingredient in mofongo. “I didn’t know it was going to be so busy,” Rivera says, adding that fellow Puerto Ricans came from as far away as Colorado Springs (there’s a large population of Puerto Ricans in the military) to try his food. The Puerto Rican community in metro Denver has increased significantly in the past several years, he notes, but Denver natives also seemed to be curious about his food.
Mofongo is a dish made with fried and pounded plantain mixed with fried pork. The resulting texture is like stiff, chunky mashed potatoes, so the mofongo can be formed into balls and stuffed with chicken, shrimp or other proteins. It’s El Coqui’s top seller, but Rivera also makes traditional beans and rice, as well as shredded-pork sandwiches with strips of fried plantain in place of bread. “You can do it with a recipe, but when you make it like you do at home, that’s when people know it’s good,” he says.
The name of his food truck and its logo, a stylized coqui inside the C on the Colorado flag (which Rivera designed himself), combine his love for both Puerto Rico and Colorado. The little frog is unique to the island, Rivera says, but he’s made this state his home. Although he hasn’t yet found a permanent parking spot for El Coqui, this coming weekend he’ll be at East Colfax Avenue and I-225 (text 303-907-4824 for the exact spot if you’re heading over).
Denver doesn’t have any beaches or palm trees, and there’s not much island cuisine, either. But one positive side effect of the city’s rapid growth has been the influx of people and food from all over the globe, which means we could soon experience a bounty of the Caribbean’s culinary treasure.
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