Two Rocky Mountain titans duke it out for the title of best food city
1 of 19Photo by Annabelle Breakey; written by Elisa Bosley
Rocky Mountain Smackdown
Argument for Boulder: Since we tend to draw the spotlight, Denver likes to claim us as its suburb. Back off, big brother. This town of 105,000 is setting Colorado’s food pace on a carbon-fiber-framed bike. The most acclaimed restaurant in Colorado, Frasca Food and Wine, is in Boulder, and organic foods have been here since the ’60s. In no other town do chefs so vociferously champion their friend-farmers—and even become farmers themselves. At one of the nation’s all-time-great and truly local farmers’ markets, the peaches are better than Georgia’s, the lambs are raised on Rocky Ford cantaloupes, and corn is still warm from the field. Just ask Denver chefs: They shop here for their menus.
Argument for Denver: While Boulder is driving the food equivalent of a Mini Cooper, we’re attracting chef transplants from New York and L.A. to feed our 660,000 eaters. Awesome about your organic kale and fruity wines, but Denver is where you get international flavors. Locals here are a little too busy to bike downtown for a wheatgrass smoothie (we actually have day jobs), but great food is devoured into the wee hours. You can only dream of the pork-shoulder udon bowls we’re eating long after you’re fast asleep.
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Boulder: Star Wattage
We’re the home of the 2008 James Beard award–winning chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson (pictured) of Frasca, and 2009 Top Chef winner Hosea Rosenberg. And ever heard of Slow Food? Boulder’s Peggy Markel was among the first to bring the movement to the States, hosting a gathering here in 1996 in a tipi off Plateau Road.
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Boulder: New Ideas
Must be something in the Eldorado Natural Spring Water: Just look at the list of household-name, innovative, healthy-gourmet companies started or based here: Celestial Seasonings, Bhakti Chai, Silk, Horizon, Seth Ellis Chocolatier, Justin’s, and more. And we’re among the towns chosen by Ann Cooper—America’s Jamie Oliver—to pilot salad bars and other healthy foods in public-school cafeterias, drawing in Boulder chefs like Bradford Heap of Salt bistro to cook for kids.
4 of 19Photo by José Mandojana
Boulder: Great Markets
Boulder Farmers’ Market (pictured) is so good that Denver chefs shop it. Every seller is a bona fide farmer or producer, including Boulder’s Black Cat chef and organic farmer, Eric Skokan, who mans his own stand and offers cooking tips. After losing our only cheese shop a few years back, we’re excited about recently opened Cured, on Pearl Street’s eastern end, for cheese, charcuterie, and wine—all obsessively sourced.
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Boulder: Obsession Factor
We take a Darwinian view: If a restaurant isn’t good, it deservedly dies. Bloggers keep the conversation timely, from freewheeling Use Real Butter to the hilariously snarky Kitchen Witch to thoughtfully comprehensive Culinary Colorado. Blogger Elana Amsterdam(elanaspantry.com) has penned 2 cookbooks too: The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook and Gluten-Free Cupcakes (pictured, strawberry). Super-fit Boulderites (70-some Olympians included) make healthy fare rule.
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We have more Master Sommeliers per capita than any other major U.S. city—and 5 of Colorado’s 12. And beer? There are 20 brewpubs and microbreweries, notably Avery Brewing. Cocktails? Mark Stoddard of the Bitter Bar (pictured) was on the gold-medal team at the 2011 Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand. And we never turn down Evan Faber’s mix-and-match cocktails at Salt bistro.
7 of 19Photo by The Kitchen
Boulder: Crowd Control
No car necessary: You can get to all of Boulder’s restaurants by bike from anywhere in town. Two of our best, Frasca and The Kitchen (pictured), launched sister eateries priced for the average joe. Heedless of nasty weather, we flock to the farmers’ market from April to November.
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Boulder: Smug Factor
Enough with the self-righteous proselytizing. We don’t always want a provenance lecture, a guilt trip, or another reason to fear our food; occasionally we just want a good steak. And would it kill Boulderites to wear something other than performance-fiber windbreakers and bike cleats to dinner?
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Boulder: Variety / Diversity
Aside from artisanal pizza as well as standout Mexican food, Ethiopian fare at Ras Kassa’s, Mediterranean plates at Arabesque, and a few good Asian eats, notably Zoe Ma Ma (“the best $8 Chinese lunch outside of New York”) … Boulder is mostly white bread.
10 of 19Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki / PLATE
Denver: Star Wattage
With his 10 restaurants (and pie shop), Midas-touch Frank Bonanno keeps wowing, especially at Mizuna, Bones, and his speakeasy, Green Russell. Chef Alex Seidel of Fruition (pictured) is among the city’s best, raking in national magazine accolades. And a pair of our star chefs, Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja and Max MacKissock of the Squeaky Bean, are married, so just think of the potential.
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Denver: New Ideas
ChoLon, LoDo’s Asian bistro (pictured, chef Lon Symensma), is playing with “digital engagement”—backstory videos and uncensored critiques on its interactive website, and a webcam that turns line prep into reality TV. And while Boulder starts to snore at 10, we’re just getting going. Some faves: Satchel’s on 6th late-night “shift meals” (you get what the servers eat) for $20 after 9, and the hipster-urban El Diablo serving Mexican takeout till 4 a.m.
12 of 19Photo by Hugh O'Neill
Denver: Great Markets
After the Boulder Farmers’ Market, the only choice there is Whole Foods. Our home cooks and chefs can buy charcuterie and cheeses from the Cheese Company, St. Kilian’s (pictured), and the Truffle Cheese Shop; local produce, eggs, imported pasta, and house-baked goods like whoopie pies at Uptown’s Marczyk (with a sister shop in Park Hill); and hard-to-find delicacies like black onyx cocoa and cracked galangal root at Savory Spice Shop.
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Denver: Obsession Factor
Our big-scale culinary map means we blog and tweet about far more than free-range duck confit: more like which unagi leaps off the plate, the best strip-mall pho, and where to get a juicy T-bone with this month’s stout microbrew. The city’s rabbit hole of foodie bloggers includes the erudite Ruth Tobias at Zagat, Westword’s reliably unsparing food critics at Cafe Society,and Oh, Lady Cakes, with, yes, cakes and other creative vegan recipes.
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While Boulderites sip lavender-infused cocktails, we’re drinking microbeers that make us the Belgium of the West. Besides having 24 indie breweries and 5 cicerones (beer experts), including Ryan Conklin at Euclid Hall (pictured), Denver hosts the yearly Great American Beer Festival. We have our own award-winning mixologists too, like Sean Kenyon at the Squeaky Bean. They pour Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey—distilled where? Denver.
15 of 19Photo by Jennie Frake
Denver: Crowd Control
Street food, baby. You can snag Venezuelan specialties from Quiero Arepas and vegetarian loco moco from the Steamin’ Demon, a piled-high elk jalapeño cheddar brat from Biker Jim’s hot-dog cart (pictured), and that’s just a start. From June to September, we have Civic Center Eats Outdoor Café, a lunch party for happy workday eaters, with more than 20 local vendors. And food trucks? We lost count after 40.
16 of 19Photo by Teubner Foodfoto / Stockfood
Denver: Smug Factor
Cheers to the farm project of Fruition’s Alex Seidel, but beyond that, local needs the love, not just pretty talk. (What’s up with that New Zealand lamb on menus?) And if we see yet another dish with pork belly—which, let’s face it, is just a slab o’ fat—we’re going to gag, gag, gag, all the way home.
17 of 19Photo by Mark Manger
Denver: Variety / Diversity
Even without a coastline, our international mix “kicks Boulder (and a lot of other cities) in the hoohoo as far as ethnic food goes,” says one blogger. Pho, kitfo, dim sum, chicharrones—they’re all here and often dirt cheap. Strip malls on South Federal Boulevard, the best ethnic-food strip in the state, have incredible Mexican and Vietnamese food, along with the crown jewel: the tiny, mind-blowing Lao Wang Noodle House (pictured).
18 of 19Photo by Schwebb / Corbis
And the Winner Is...
Denver: 46 / Boulder: 43
Why it won: 7 spots to convince you that Denver is king
1. Snooze is breakfast heaven. Don’t try to avoid the pineapple upside-down or red velvet pancakes, or the sticky bun French toast—they’re the reason you got up. $; 3 locations.
2. Root Down. You’ve gotta love a place that caters to anyone’s eating dilemmas—vegan, gluten-free, even raw—with creative cheer. Along with spectacular, seasonally inspired dinners, the weekend brunch menu includes to-die-for lemon-ricotta poppy-seed pancakes, a quinoa muffin Benedict, and bottomless blood-orange mimosas. $$; 1600 W. 33rd Ave.
3. Pinche Tacos. The tiny farmers’ markets at Old South Pearl and Highlands are nice, but the main draw is this truck serving authentic street food with attitude—like the seared tongue with guajillo chile–honey mayo. Just don’t say the truck’s name to your Spanish-speaking abuela (grandma); it’s slang for the f-bomb because, yes, the tacos are that good.
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4 More Reasons Why It Won
4. Euclid Hall. A must-stop for lunch or “study hall” (happy hour): Chef Jennifer Jasinski (also of Rioja and Bistro Vendôme) shatters pub-food preconceptions. Throw your cholesterol count to the wind, and feast on poutine with roasted duck and cheddar curds; stuffed beef short-rib kielbasa; or puffy sourdough waffles stacked with crispy chicken and salted walnuts. $$; 1317 14th St.
5. Fruition. Cozy and unassuming, it gets national raves for its knockout farm-to-table menu. The lineup changes seasonally, but the potato-wrapped oysters Rockefeller are a staple, and chef-farmer Alex Seidel’s pasta carbonara is legendary. $$$; 1313 E. Sixth Ave.
6. ChoLon (pictured). Fresh from a post as executive chef at NYC’s Buddakan (once the fifth-highest-grossing U.S. restaurant), chef Lon Symensma helped launch this game-changer in 2010. We love his riffs on Asian street food: toast spread with kaya (coconut jam) and dipped in a frothy egg “cloud,” and banana-leaf sorbet with passion fruit seltzer. $$$; 1555 Blake St.
7. D Bar Desserts. Chefs Lisa Bailey and Keegan Gerhard can cook anything, but pastries thrill them—and that’s good news for Denver. Watch them work their magic from the bar, or loll on the patio with a sweet wine and chocolate-hazelnut beignets. 1475 E. 17th Ave.