The Denver Omelet Is a Western Classic. So Why Is It So Hard to Find One in Denver?
We tried to track down the origins of the oh-so-mysterious Denver omelet. While we may not have figured it out, we did find some delicious recipes and takes on the dish.
There are many ways to cook eggs: scrambled, poached, hard-boiled, in a salad—no one way is wrong per se. Though, when a handful of eggs are whisked and cooked in an omelet, they make for a perfect vessel to fold in an array of fillings.
Many variations of omelets can be found on menus at breakfast joints and diners, but one stands out from the crowd: the Denver omelet. As we expand our deep dive into the dishes that define the West, what better staple to home in on than one that has a dedicated plaque in the middle of its namesake city?
However, that plaque hints at a complicated origin story—and the omelet’s current reception in the city. The plaque claims this iconic dish was “developed to mask the stale flavor of eggs shipped by wagon freight.” But when I called up food historian and James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller to confirm these facts, the Denver native told me nothing can mask the taste of stale eggs—not even fresh peppers (which didn’t make their way to Denver until the mid-1900s) and onions.
As I continued to call local breakfast joints, many didn’t even know what a Denver omelet was. Of the dozen diners I called, nearly three-quarters weren’t aware of the dish. One staff member said they did have one on the menu but needed to put me on hold to confirm the ingredients.
So, I went straight to an expert source: Mayor Michael B. Hancock. The mayor assured me the omelet is a Colorado staple. “There’s nothing like having a world-famous Denver omelet right here in the Mile High City,” Hancock says. “Growing up in Denver, I’ve eaten a lot of great variations, but my favorite is the classic filled with eggs, ham, onion, green peppers.” And that filling lines up with the list of ingredients included on the city’s plaque.
However, debate remains over just how popular this dish actually is in the city. While Hancock may have grown up eating Denver omelets all over town, Denverites who favor the omelet as their go-to breakfast dish are few and far between, according to Miller.
“Can I say that Denverites are eating them on a regular basis? I can’t. I would actually be surprised if they were eating them at all,” Miller tells me. “I go to a lot of breakfast and brunch places, and it’s not a standout on menus if it’s even on them—despite its deliciousness.”
It seems the omelet may have a bit of an identity crisis.
Still, at one point, the simple breakfast was deemed a dish that defined Denver. While it may not be as popular as others in the city—one poll by a local media outlet found that 70% of voters considered green chili Colorado’s most iconic dish, Denver omelet included—I wanted to know more and to pay it the respect it deserves. After all, it’s a dish that can be ordered basically anywhere that sells omelets, if you know the right combination of fillings.
The Many Faces of an Ominous Omelet
The Denver omelet’s complicated origins may be due to the fact that its name can vary depending on where you are in the United States. Miller, for one, has heard it “referred to as a Western omelet, which changes from state to state.” A Western omelet may refer to the Denver filling of peppers, onions, and ham; though in California, many know it to be a combination of avocados, tomato, and mushroom. Confusing right?!
To this day, downtown Denver diner Sam’s No. 3 plays to the different ways to serve the dish by offering it in a handful of forms, from a classic omelet with green peppers, white onion, and ham, to a breakfast burrito and as a skillet. Across its three locations, the diners’ teams go through 22,000 eggs a week!
“When we add tomato to the Denver omelet, we call it a Western,” says Sam Armatas, vice president of Sam’s No. 3. “Sausage—it becomes the Havana omelet; Polish sausage—it becomes the Aurora omelet; bacon—it becomes the Avalanche omelet.”
In fact, the Denver omelet may not have originated as an omelet. “From what I know, the Denver omelet actually started off as a sandwich and later developed into the omelet,” Armatas says. While I couldn’t find anyone to confirm this egg sandwich of sorts, Miller tells me he’s heard that the omelet is a modern version of egg foo yong, a Chinese egg dish filled with a variety of meat and vegetables.
When Chinese Americans came West as cattle drivers and to work on railways, it’s believed by some omelet enthusiasts that they popularized what’s now called the Denver omelet by putting egg foo yong consisting of peppers, ham, and onions in between two bread slices to make for a portable lunch option.
The Denver dish may have changed its facade to feed the needs of its eaters, though the contents within it have stayed relatively the same. Odds are you have had a Denver omelet; you may just not have called it that.
How to Order It Just About Anywhere
Whether or not the Denver omelet is actually named on the menu of your next brunch spot, it’s easy to order one with a few add ons to a basic four or five-egg omelet. Simply ask for bell peppers, onions, and ham, and boom—it’s now Denver-ized. And there are myriad modern takes you can discover, too.
French chef Ludo Lefebvre, who is behind the famed Petit Trois restaurant in Los Angeles, has been serving classic French omelets on his menu since opening in 2014. Lefebvre recently opened a new restaurant in Denver, Chez Maggy (his first outside of Los Angeles) and continues to pay homage to the dish with a French-ified take.
The filling remains traditional: peppers, onions, and ham, though instead of folding cooked eggs over the meat and vegetables, he places them over five, soft scrambled eggs and rolls the omelet to perfection before pouring a cheesy cream sauce over the top.
With so many ways to make the dish, we hope to see more variations from renowned chefs like Lefebvre on menus across Denver and beyond. You can find the recipe for Lefebvre’s version below, as well as basic omelet recipes, and filling alternatives. Or, stop into Sam’s No. 3 the next time you find yourself in Denver to try a classic take.