After the quiet of driving down through Montana and Wyoming and even through bigger college hotspots like Fort Collins and Boulder, it’s a shock to hit Denver. Suddenly, the lanes mushroom from two to four or five, with exits whirring by every mile. Off the freeway, the fender-to-fender traffic and lack of free on-street parking reminds me I’m back in the big city. Resisting the temptation to just hit the highway again, I circle a few neighbourhood blocks, trying to decipher street signs about whether it’s safe to park (not, for example, on the first Fridays of the month, when they’re sweeping one side of a particular street). To keep things simple, from a navigational perspective, I’ve tried to group some of these restaurants and cafes in areas that are easier to access and find parking, like the northeast end of Larimer Street.
*Crema Coffee House does a nice job of producing coffee from beans supplied by some 10 small roasters. You can, for instance, get a French press either in a personal pot or transferred to a pump pot (the latter is a bottomless cup for only $2). But what makes Crema stand out is its kitchen, a rarity for most coffee shops, which gravitate towards outsourced or wrapped breakfast treats. At Crema, there’s a steady stream of delectable quiches, cinnamon rolls, brioches and baguettes emerging from the morning oven, to go with made-to-order breakfast burritos and sweet potato waffles, the latter with a tower of hazelnut whipped cream. My lemony scone is sugary crisp on the outside with a perfect soft crumb on the inside—one of the best I’ve tasted. Located in an older business district outside downtown Denver, Crema has a relaxed, old-school coffeehouse feel, with scraped concrete floors and exposed brick and recycled plywood walls.
Crema Coffee House
2862 Larimer Street, Denver
Daily 7 am-5 pm
Think you’ve seen everything in hot dogs? Obviously, you haven’t tried *Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs, whose offerings include wild boar, Alaskan reindeer and, get this, rattlesnake and pheasant. These are no gimmick, simply the most flavourful brats you might ever taste, produced by artisan sausage makers and then split and grilled. Here’s how it works. You choose your dog, add a topping (how about wasabi aioli with caramelized apple?) and then a side to fill your plate. My elk, jalapeno and cheddar dog is literally bursting with juicy goodness, smothered in cream cheese and onions caramelized in simmering Coke (somehow the latter works). My side is breaded, deep-fried mac and cheese, which the server says is addictive; she’s right, though my arteries might collapse before it becomes habit forming. The wild dogs are matched by the attitude of owner Jim Pittenger, a former car repo man who started the business with a still-operating food cart and truck. I love this quote from an interview question about his last meal before he dies: “Reindeer sausage and sourdough pancakes. Fuck you, death! I want pancakes!”
Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs
Restaurant location: 2148 Larimer Street. Monday to Thursday and Sunday 11 am-10 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am-3 am. Cart on 16 Street Mall, across from big clock tower. Hours vary, especially in winter.
Snooze at this breakfast hotspot, and you indeed will lose, especially on weekends, when the line snakes onto the sidewalk. But arrive at Snooze at the 7 am Sunday opening, like I do, and you’ll soon be tucking into, say, an egg-cheese-and-sausage stuffed soft pretzel or an eggs benny topped with a squash-and-apple hash. I want to relive my childhood delight of pineapple upside-down cake, so I go for that in a pancake form. Actually, I order a flight of pancakes, allowing me to try three styles of pancake; the other two are a carrot cake concoction and, the best of the bunch, a sweet potato. Snooze has a bright, nouveau retro look, with a lemony-green colour scheme, one historic brick wall and cool, circular booths down the middle of the room. Trendy? Certainly—there are four other northern Colorado locations, along with this flagship spot, and one in San Diego. But the upbeat staff is friendly, and the food good and inventive.
2262 Larimer Street
Weekdays 6:30 am-2:30 pm, weekends 7 am-2:30 pm
I’d heard Curtis Park Delicatessen makes killer fresh sandwiches, prompting lunchtime lineups till they run out of fresh, locally baked ciabatta buns, usually by around 2 pm. The good news when I roll in at 10 am on a Saturday is the place is empty. The bad news is they don’t start making said sandwiches till 11. So with the help of co-owner Joseph Walker, a transplanted New Zealander, I order some sliced salami and chorizo, cheese, arugula and aioli spread, along with a day-old bun. The result is a delicious $3 mini version of their signature Italian sandwich for my drive out of Denver. Curtis Park keeps things simple, with eight standard sandwiches on ciabatta and Joseph making the aioli, pesto, mustard and vinaigrette.
Curtis Park Delicatessen
2532 Champa St, Denver
Weekdays 10 am-6 pm, Saturday 10 am-4 pm. closed Sunday
*Sam’s No. 3 feels like a New York diner, brimming with personality and action, even though it’s been dishing out big breakfasts in Denver since 1927. It’s a great place to grab a counter seat and watch the ballet between scurrying waiters and hustling cooks, the steaming plates disappearing to distant tables and booths moments after hitting the deck. My waiter, Jimmy, is a real pro, improvising my order on the fly (“Oh, did you want hollandaise with those eggs? I can do that. No problem.”) Ultimately, Sam’s wouldn’t be an institution if it didn’t consistently deliver first-class breakfasts such as its specialty skillets (try the Greek, with gyro meat) and omelettes. Just about everything comes with a mountain of crisp home fries or pancake/biscuit sides.
Sam’s No. 3
1500 Curtis Street (downtown) or Parker & Havana. Downtown location opens weekdays at 6 am, weekends at 7 am; nighttime closings are all over the map
I’m sure I’ll get arguments, but Corvus Coffee Co. is arguably the best pure coffee place in Denver. Located far south of the city centre, it shares an entrance with a yoga studio and its mingling, hugging slim bodies. Corvus’s one small room contains a coffee bar, half a dozen stools, one long table and, in behind, the roaster, where owner Phil Goodlaxson churns out his daily artisan roasts. The coffee menu is equally simple: a black (double espresso), a white (cappuccino) and a filtered, pour-over coffee. There are a couple of treats, but the focus is squarely on producing great coffee.
Corvus Coffee Co.
1947 South Broadway
Daily 7:30 am-6 pm
This is a repeat of a previous post on the best of my 2012 road-trip meals but it bears repeating. If you walk up to *Pinche Tacos in mid-afternoon and encounter a lineup, like I do, do not turn around. Grab a seat at the shoulder-to-shoulder counter or wait, within reason, for a table. The payoff for me is the best tacos I’ve ever had—little pockets of heaven, no less. If, at gunpoint, I had to pick my favourite of the three I order, it would be the delectably soft sweet-and-sour pork belly with candied garlic, cabbage and cilantro sauce. The crispy roasted pork and the triple-cooked beef tongue (seriously) aren’t far behind. Really, you can’t go wrong ordering any of the dozen tacos on the menu, ranging in price from $2.95 to $4.50, a bargain for this quality of food. The cozy cafe also has an extensive list of tequila drinks.
1514 York Street
Monday 3 pm-10 pm, Tuesday-Saturday 11 am-10 pm, Sunday 11 am-9 pm