If you’re visiting Denver, you have limited time to explore the culinary scene and a lot to choose from. But if you want to gain a better understanding of what makes the Mile High City’s food scene unique, there are some true Denver originals that should be on your list.
These aren’t necessarily the top restaurants or the fanciest meals; these are the things that locals love, from Den-Mex staples (yes, we have our own style of Mexican food) to an iconic dish that actually originated in Denver (according to a stone marker declaring that the case, anyway): the cheeseburger.
And fair warning: There are also some alleged Denver classics you should definitely avoid. So take heed, and happy eating.
This burger from Brass Tacks didn’t make our top 10 even though it’s damn tasty — a testament to Denver’s high-quality burgers.
While other restaurants in other towns claim to be the first to add melty cheese to a beef patty and then slap it all inside a bun, a stone marker in front of the Key Bank outlet at 2776 Speer Boulevard declares this to be the spot that was once home to the Humpty Dumpty Barrel restaurant, “Colorado’s first drive-in,” where owner Louis Ballast registered the trademark for the cheeseburger on March 5, 1935.
We fully embrace Denver’s identity as the birthplace of the cheeseburger; there are certainly plenty of damn good cheeseburgers in this city. While you can find satisfying options all over town, make the joints on our 2021 list of the metro area’s ten best burgers a priority.
Green chile at El Taco de Mexico
Since opening in 1985, El Taco de Mexico has been renowned for its tacos, burritos and other Mexican favorites. In February 2020, just before the pandemic shut down restaurants across the country, it was named one of six recipients of the James Beard Foundation’s 2020 America’s Classics Award. In Denver, news of the national honor was met by a resounding “Hell yeah!”
Every regular has a go-to order here. Mine is the carnitas burrito, smothered — and I always say yes when they ask if I want onions and salsa on top, too. The chile relleno burrito is popular and widely recommended; the huevos rancheros and enchiladas don’t get enough love, but are outstanding; and the tacos…oh, the tacos — try the cabeza (cheek meat).
For a true and proper introduction to Denver cuisine, though, do yourself a favor and order the pork green chile solo. We can debate New Mexican versus Colorado green chile, or even where to find Denver’s best green chile, all day, but the fact remains that El Taco de Mexico’s is iconic. It’ll be handed to you in a Styrofoam cup, and each bite will nourish your soul. If you walk away from that experience still not understanding why Colorado-style green chile is a huge part of the culinary culture of Denver, then you should probably just spend the rest of your visit hitting up your favorite chain restaurants.
Sometime after the invention of the cheeseburger and the rise of Colorado green chile, another burger patty-based dish was created in Denver at another long-gone restaurant: Joe’s Buffet at 753 Santa Fe Drive. The Mexican hamburger is on menus all over town today, but is rarely (if ever) seen outside the state, which is a great loss for the rest of the country.
Former Westword food editor Mark Antonation offered the anatomy of a Mexican hamburger in 2018. At first glance, it resembles a smothered burrito (we’ll talk more about those in a minute…), but inside the folded — not rolled — tortilla is a beef patty and refried beans. The whole thing is covered in green chile and the typical garnish includes lettuce and tomato. It is a messy, glorious thing meant to be eaten with a fork and knife. For a good time at a Denver classic, try the version at La Fiesta. Another standout: the Mexican hamburger at the two locations of La Fogata, where the chargrilled flavor of the burger patty stands up to the thick and bold green chile.
Smothered burritos, breakfast or otherwise
Yes, this list of ten must-try Denver dishes includes three centered on green chile, and we will not apologize for that. Green chile is not only a staple at Mexican restaurants, it’s found on non-Mexican menus all over town, too. One of the most common ways to enjoy it is blanketed on top of a burrito. While La Fiesta, La Fogata and El Taco de Mexico all serve commendable versions, the giant, smothered breakfast burritos at diner favorite Sam’s No. 3 have saved countless locals from craft-beer hangovers.
Cola-caramelized onions and cream cheese are the classic Biker Jim’s toppings.
Biker Jim’s dogs
The late, great Anthony Bourdain didn’t like much about Denver early on. But he did eventually come around (a bit), thanks in large part to “Biker Jim” Pittenger’s exotic sausages. In a 2010 episode of No Reservations, Bourdain visited a Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs cart and then told Pittenger, “Thank you for all your good work in making Denver a wonderful place to be.” And Biker Jim’s continues to do good work, now from a brick-and-mortar location in the Ballpark neighborhood, from a spot inside Coors Field and from roving carts — you can even find the dogs at Red Rocks concerts.
While the permanent location at 2148 Larimer Street offers an array of exotic meats, including ostrich, wild boar and rattlesnake, along with eight topping combination options, you can’t beat the classic Biker Jim’s order: an elk jalapeno cheddar dog with onions caramelized in Coca-Cola and a shot of cream cheese from a caulking gun.
Cheap booze at a Colfax dive
Trendy bars abound in Denver these days, but nothing beats a down-and-sometimes-dirty night on Colfax Avenue. In a city where things have changed more than many would like over the past ten years, this street holds fast to some favorites that haven’t changed in decades — and we wouldn’t want them to. Start your Colfax adventures at two of the best dive bars in town: Nob Hill Inn and PS Lounge. Then end your night at our next pick…
A late-night meal at Pete’s Kitchen
Denver never had the most robust late-night scene, but we did have one. Then the pandemic hit and we wondered if some of the city’s 24/7 joints would ever return. So in June, bar-goers and late-shift workers rejoiced when Colfax classic Pete’s Kitchen announced that it would again be open all night (at least on weekends). Pete’s is an old-school diner of the best kind, with cheap prices, good food and even better conversation with staff and strangers alike.
With the abundance of farmers’ markets in town, it should come as no surprise that Coloradans are very, very proud of our locally grown produce. Georgia may have the big national peach reputation, but the varieties grown here are oh-so-sweet and juicy. Peach season kicks off mid-June and runs through September, so if you see the words “local peaches” anywhere (particularly “Palisade peaches”), buy them, eat them and then buy a few more.
Local craft beer
There are over 150 breweries in Denver, detailed in our dedicated coverage of the beer scene, including a weekly calendar filled with new releases and other beer-centric events. There is no reason to drink anything you can get back home while you’re visiting, okay? And if there’s one beer that really represents the city, it’s Patty’s Chile Beer. Brewed at the Wynkoop Brewing Co. (which was co-founded by John Hickenlooper before he became mayor, governor and then senator), flavored with green chiles and named for Westword founder, editor and onetime Wynkoop neighbor Patricia Calhoun, it doesn’t get much more Denver than this.
Everything at Hop Alley
Paying respect to the flavors of Denver’s culinary history is important, but Denver’s recent growth has also led to a thriving modern food scene. If you’ve only got time for one meal at a standout restaurant that’s helped to push Denver’s dining reputation to new heights, make it Hop Alley. It was our 2021 pick for Best Chinese Restaurant, but it’s so much more than that. Restaurateur Tommy Lee already had a hit with ramen spot Uncle when he opened Hop Alley, named for the area that was once Denver’s Chinatown. Located in the trendy River North (RiNo) neighborhood, a trip here gives you a feel for modern Denver, a high-energy city with bold experiences — like the restaurant’s bone marrow fried rice and fiery la zi ji (Szechuan fried chicken) — waiting to be discovered.
Now that we’ve covered what you should be eating and drinking in Denver, here are five things to skip…
Nothing is worse in an omelet than cheap ham and bell peppers.
The Denver omelet
We won’t get into the theories about how an omelet came to be named after the Mile High City — we already covered that back in 2001 — but the bottom line is, it was not invented in Denver, and it’s high time that the Denver omelet’s association with the city faded. The combo of green peppers, ham, onion, cheese and eggs is meh at best. There are so many better breakfast foods to eat in this town (see “breakfast burritos,” above for starters), so skip the tired omelet and hit up any of these places instead.
Rocky Mountain oysters
Another food item that’s always associated with Denver despite it having no actual specific roots in the city, these are not oysters at all (as everyone knows by now; even the joke of a name is tired). Rocky Mountain oysters, or bull testicles, harken back to the days of the American West and the tradition of eating the whole animal — which is something we can totally get behind.
Sometimes they even taste good, but at the city’s oldest restaurant, the Buckhorn Exchange (which is where tourists and locals alike are often directed to try them), they are thin-sliced, deep-fried and served with a dipping sauce, all of which covers up any actual offal flavor. At that point, you could be eating deep-fried anything.
When the Netflix series Fresh, Fried & Crispy filmed in Denver, the Buckhorn Exchange was the first stop, a disappointing pick considering how many other tasty fried things exist in this city. A visit to the Buckhorn Exchange can be a wonderful experience — it’s a place packed with history (and taxidermy) — but there are better things to eat there, and all over the city, than Rocky Mountain oysters.
See “local craft beer” above. Coors has a long history in Colorado and pioneered the way for the craft breweries of today. And a Coors (or Coors Light, depending on your preference) is a great beer in its own right. But all visitors to Denver should use their time in town to broaden their beer horizons, then crack another Coors when they get back home.
The fast-casual burrito chain that started a fast-casual revolution began in Denver — the original location is still operating at 1644 East Evans Avenue, and if you love Chipotle, go ahead and love it. But again, eat it when you get home. If you really must have a fast-casual burrito fix while you’re in town, consider a trip to Illegal Pete’s. It’s another homegrown chain with a similar build-your-burrito-down-the-line set-up, but with a few major differences including green chile (duh), actually delicious queso, fried fish tacos and burritos, a full bar with killer happy-hour specials and a burrito filling mixing technique that guarantees you actually get a little of everything in every bite.
Sugar steak at Bastien’s
Do make like Truman Capote and go to Bastien’s at 3503 East Colfax Avenue; just skip the sugar steak. A visit to this iconic steakhouse from Denver’s past (it opened in 1959) feels like you’re stepping back in time in the best way — and it made our 2021 list of best classic steakhouses for good reason: the sunken bar, the martinis, the still-low price for a steak dinner. If you live in Denver, sure, you should try a sugar steak at some point (just like you should visit Casa Bonita, even if only for a tour). But if you’re getting one shot to eat at Bastien’s, the sugar steak can be hit or miss, and the kitchen has many other preparation options. No matter which one choose, though, please order your beef no more than medium-rare.
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