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Sensi Magazine

For the Love of Food

Mar 30, 2019 03:03PM ● By Stephanie Wilson
IN AN AGE OF SOYLENT GREEN YES, IT REALLY EXISTS NOW REAL FOOD MATTERS. IN THE OPENING PAGES OF ANTHONY BOURDAIN’S KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL, HE REVEALS THE MOMENT OF HIS CULINARY AWAKENING. IT HAPPENED IN THE CABIN-CLASS DINING ROOM ABOARD THE QUEEN MARY DURING A TRANSATLANTIC VOYAGE FROM NEW YORK TO EUROPE. HE DESCRIBES THE MOMENT IN GREAT DETAIL IN THE OPENING SENTENCES OF THE “FIRST COURSE” CHAPTER OF HIS BEST-SELLING MEMOIR, WHERE HE WROTE:

“MY FIRST INDICATION THAT FOOD WAS SOMETHING OTHER THAN A SUBSTANCE ONE STUFFED IN ONE’S FACE WHEN HUNGRY LIKE FILLING UP AT A GAS STATION CAME AFTER FOURTH-GRADE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. … IT WAS THE SOUP. IT WAS COLD.”

Before that fateful summer vacation with his family, the young Bourdain had eaten in restaurants, sure, but this magical liquid dish he later learned was called vichyssoise was the first food he noticed, the first he enjoyed and remembered enjoying. It resonated. His tastebuds were woke.

I recall with vivid detail the moment my tastebuds were awakened. Like Bourdain, there were cruise ships involved, although I wasn’t on one; I was at Smith & Wollensky’s in Miami Beach, a wonderful haven at the southern-most tip of South Pointe Park, bordered on one side by the channel to the Port of Miami. It was happy hour, and the cruise ships were casting off for week-long island-hopping adventures because it was Friday and that’s what cruise ships do on Fridays. That’s when the big ones sail out.

I had been invited to join my boss for this end-of-week wind down; as a new editorial assistant at Dining Out Miami, I knew it was important to expand my culinary horizons on her dime whenever possible. (Editorial careers are hardly ever lucrative and they tend to start out on the “fake it ’til you make it” side of the livin’-large equation.) That much I knew. Most of the rest of the things that make an adult a functioning member of society were still lessons to be learned.

I had arrived in Miami Beach straight from Amherst, Massachusetts, where I had earned my journalism degree (from the state university, not the Ivy League one). Born and raised on a dirt road in New Hampshire, I brought with me little knowledge of the ways of the world or as much knowledge as one could attain in the early days of the world wide web. To put it succinctly, I didn’t know much. But I thought I had a handle on the basics. For example, I “knew” I didn’t like steak.

So when my boss, the publisher of the dining magazine, ordered us a snack to share filet mignon, medium rare, sliced, with a side of béarnaise I planned to take a bite to appease her and leave it at that.

That bite changed my life. Changed my perspective. Woke up a fire inside me to taste the good life, to taste all the lives, to experience the world through all the foods. Because it turns out I didn’t like steak cooked the way my mother did: charred.

As we stood on the corner of the outdoor bar, glasses of wine in hand, watching the pretty people jogging and rollerblading by (because rollerblading will always be a thing in Miami Beach), chatting and laughing and squealing at the dolphins cresting in the water leading the ships out to sea, I fell in love with the full spectrum of life. With the feelings that fine dining, that dining in general, can deliver straight to your soul via your belly.

If the way to a man’s heart is through the stomach, the way to mine is washed down with a glass of wine.

That was in 2003. When DiningOut asked me to move to Denver and join the team at their Johnson & Wales-based headquarters in 2005, I wasn’t ready yet to leave the palm trees. I was still tasting all of the Caribbean- and Latin American influenced cuisine permeating the local dining scene. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get my fill, or that Denver’s culinary landscape could ever live up to what was happening in the southeastern tip of the country, which was in the midst of a transformation from a spring break hotspot to a world-class destination, calling in renowned chefs and delivering some of the most exciting dining experiences in the country.

When I arrived in Denver in 2015, I saw another city in the midst of transformation into a world-class cultural destination. A few eating experiences later, I saw, smelled, tasted, and relished just how wrong I had been about the dining scene in the Mile High.

A City in Tasty Transition
My Denver culinary awakenings keep coming as I explore this ever-evolving city and its surroundings. It’s a delicious game of seek-and-ye-shall-find that may drain my bank account but fills my stomach with goodness and heart with love for this city.

My exploration of Denver/Boulder’s thriving, expansive dining scene showed me its tastebuds are on fire: top chefs from around the country are moving to the Mile High to open outposts, the city hosts the annual Slow Food Conference every summer, it’s got a ton of James Beard winners (including the reigning Best Chef Southwest title holder), season 15 of Top Chef was filmed here and aired in 2018. We’ve got food festivals galore. Hell, even former Bachelor star Ben Higgins is about to open a restaurant in town and he’s partnered with some top local chefs for the Middle Eastern concept. Denver is also the birthplace of leading brands like Chipotle, Pizzeria Locale, even Quiznos.

Why the growth of the fine dining scene? Few reasons:
1) population has exploded and people need to eat;
2) rents in coastal cities are much higher for restaurants, so chefs are flocking to the Mile High;
3) there’s a general laid-back creative spirit in Colorado that leads to innovative cuisine served without pretense;
4) Coloradans are among the most active in the country, and all those activities cause us to work up quite the appetites. I’m sure the legal pot doesn’t hurt either. Munchies are a real thing. (Although during my first meal with Sensi Senior Editor Leland Rucker, when I told him I get the munchies, he told me to get over them.)

While I’ve navigated the city’s offerings over the last three years on my limited budget (startup life is real), I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite spots that have called me to their bars so far, and I’m more than ecstatic to share it with you. Dining out is my favorite thing to do, followed by CycleBar classes as a close second to allow me to continue to dine out on the reg.

Because first thing’s first: if you want the best dining experience, grab a seat at the bar, not a table in the corner. This is my hard, fast rule whether I’m dining alone (a favorite pastime) or on a meet-and-greet with a swiped-righter or meeting two friends for a bite. (Three people: aim for seats at the corner of the bar; more than three: go ahead and get a table.) You get immediate service from the bartender, your drinks stay constantly refreshed, you can ask more detailed questions, you can chat with other patrons. You can get a better feel for the place than you ever could tucked away in a booth.

Second thing’s second: if you’re going to take a page from Bourdain’s worthy book and let the local food landscape and dining traditions reveal the true nature of a city or town, you’ve got to be open to all of it.

I used to have a rule that if there was something on a menu I haven’t tried yet, that was what I was going to order. It only served me wrong once or twice (don’t let anyone tell you monkfish is the poor man’s lobster), and it’s introduced me to some incredible dishes that now are a staple part of my dining out diet (let me tell you lamb vindaloo is delicious, if you can handle the heat.) That said, I’ve yet to order any Rocky Mountain Oysters. In my defense, I’ve only seen them on the menu at one place I’ve frequented, Buckhorn Exchange. And I was slightly relieved to see many things on that menu I had yet to try, so I gave myself a pass on the testicles.

The first palate-opening order I made in Denver came at the now-defunct Wursthuche Sausage Bar, near where LoDo intersects RiNo, when I wandered in and ordered a rabbit and rattlesnake sausage during my first week in town. My thought after just one bite: Denver’s wild.

As I’ve eaten my way through town, here are some of my favorite encounters/discoveries some you’ve heard of, some you’ve been to, some I saw you at last week. In no particular order (except the first one):

Break Fast: Go to Rosenberg’s Bagels. Get the salt bagel with dill cream cheese. Add tomato and onion slices. Eat it slowly and let the cream cheese cover your face with no shame. Just don’t go on a Sunday morning like I tried to do today; the line was two-dozen people long. I’ve waited in that line in a hungover haze more than once, and on those days, it was worth every second. Bonus points to proprietor Josh Pollack’s vocal support of the cannabis scene. He even shared a recipe for his infused Pot-sah Balls with Sensi, which we ran alongside a profile of the establishment when it was preparing to reopen after a murder/fire in the apartment above the Five Points bagel shop a few years back. You can find a second outpost of this hot spot in Stanley Marketplace.

Obsession of the Now: Udon noodle ramen from Bao Chica Bao in Milk Market. Sure, you could go for another option like white rice or straight ramen, but the chewy thickness of the udon noodles does double duty as a base and a sponge, soaking up the intense flavors of the protein of your choosing. For that, have your pick: hoisin braised chicken, char sui pork, wild mushroom, tofu, pork belly I’ve had them all and they are all wondrous. Choose your broth (I suggest the spicy curry), add your extras (soft egg is a must, fresh jalapeños pack a punch) and carry your tray back to the Moo Bar to slurp away. Be prepared to have multiple people stop to ask where you got the dish. Point them to the Asian counter in the corner and tell them Sensi sent you. Bonus points if you’re there during the weekly Bingo Brunch on Sundays, emceed by a standup comedian. It’s free, it’s festive, it’s fun. And you can show all your followers just how much fun you’re having when you snap a selfie at the dedicated “stand here, take selfie” station in the hallway downstairs by the restrooms, where the lighting is staged to show off your natural glow.

Sweet Spot: High Point Creamery, which has a few outposts around town, including one in Central Market. Opt for the raspberry basil blend: it’s almost like a margarita pizza in ice cream form but way better than that sounds.

Old-School Digs: Gaetano’s Italian on 38th Street. It wins accolades from all the local publications every year, with good reason: it’s good. Every time. It’s lively but intimate, it’s reasonably priced, it’s authentic, and it’s got a lot of history tied to the mob. And stereotypical mob joints always have the best bolognese. This place is no exception.

It is a place that fills your heart with joy, if you’re the type of person who wants to have a place to go where everybody knows your name.

Where Time Stands Still: Queen of Sheba Ethiopian. It’s way east on Colfax, and there’s no sign for this small, authentic restaurant. It’s worth finding; Google Maps can help you. When you get there, be prepared to be there for awhile while Zewditu Aboye takes your order and then makes your meal. You’re on her time now. What the venue lacks in promptness, it makes up in flavor, with a range of traditional dishes served with the fluffy injera you eat with your hands.

Instagram Winner: Chicken-fried eggs at Sassafras. I prefer the Colfax outpost, even though I live mere blocks from the Jefferson Park establishment. Why? a) there’s a bar, and we know how I feel about dining at the bar; b) when you wait and there will be a wait for any table, at any time on any day of the week because Denverites are more than slightly obsessed with all things brunch there’s a second floor with comfy chairs and trivia cards to help you pass the time. There’s also drink service up there. Try the Queen Mary, with pickled peppered vodka, green tomato, pineapple, green peppers, and Piquante Verte.

Where Everyone Knows Your Name: MacKenzie’s Cocktails and Wine tucked away on Clay Street across from Jefferson Park had a chalkboard sign out front declaring “Dogs Drink Free.” That brought me in there the first time. When I sat down at the bar, the owner Chad got my name and my drink order, and it wasn’t long before he introduced me to everyone sitting at the bar. He knew their names, their stories, what brought them in that day. He facilitated connections, never letting conversations lag too long or drinks get too low. He made it feel like home, while simultaneously making it feel like my favorite bar. A place where good people are welcome. The food menu isn’t worth noting; some days he doesn’t serve much of anything. But this is a place that fills your heart with joy, if you’re the type of person who wants to have a place where everybody knows your name. And as Cheers taught us all, that’s something to aspire to.

Worth the Wait? Uncle Ramen, so I’ve heard, is that place. There’s always a wait. Even on a cold, snowy Monday evening in the middle of February, there’s a wait all night long. It’s a bit of a scene in there, to be honest. Buzzing with the energy of hungry diners eager to chow down on some slippery ’noods. I’ve tried my damnedest to get in there. But without fail, I always end up next door at BarDough ordering a nine-ounce pour of the house red on tap and pairing it with a half order of some of the Italian ‘noods, which are Top Chef-worthy good as well.

What it all comes down to: we all love to eat. There’s so much to explore in this city, it’s all but impossible to keep up. But if you want to plan a night at Uncle, hit me up, @stephwilll on Instagram. There’s a good chance I’ll be down.