Denver isn’t, generally speaking, considered a foodie capital. But from my very first meal in the mile-high city last weekend — at a sort of dingy-looking taco place on the outskirts of the city — I couldn’t stop noticing things that the Triad is lacking.
Soon after I landed and made my way to a childhood friend’s doorstep, we hopped in his car and shot over to Federal Boulevard, a stretch of road where the storefronts alternate between pho joints and taco shops that instantly reminded me of Gate City Boulevard. We almost changed course for a hole in the wall offering first-rate soup dumplings — something I haven’t found in the Triad — but the spot was closed, so we steered into the rather inauspicious empty parking lot of Carnitas Estilo Michoacan #1.
We tried several tacos, both preferring the barbacoa, but what impressed me most my friend overlooked entirely: a small stand in the dining area where you can add toppings to your tacos, from salsas to veggies like radish slices. That’s a given at places like this in Denver, my friend told me. And I’ve seen it myself in several places in Durham. But never in the Triad, despite the simple beauty and obvious appeal of the system.
The next morning I grabbed a light breakfast at the Denver Central Market, but was tempted to order the shakshuka, a tomato and egg dish I’ve only heard about by following the Jewish Food Society on Instagram. I regret not ordering it because you can’t find one in a restaurant here. But I was holding out for lunch, when I’d head to a vegetarian restaurant called City, O’ City and order the breakfast arepas.
Damn, they were satisfying. Sure, there are plenty of vegetarian dishes throughout local restaurants in the Triad, but are we really cool with Boba House being the only explicitly veg spot? I’m calling BS.
That night we hit up a pool party with water too cold for swimming and an open bar. We chowed on $2 tacos from a pop-up stand that a woman ran in the corner with — you guessed it — a small DIY toppings bar.
The next morning, significantly exhausted and somewhat hungover after a DJ set in the basement of an art museum featuring a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit upstairs my friend and I rolled up to a Jewish deli. I’d return to Rosenberg’s again the next morning, not satiated after eating the sesame bagel with Scottish smoked salmon, tomato, onion and capers.
I’m glad that Greensboro and Winston-Salem each have decent bagel places to call their own — locally I’m partial to New Garden Bagels — but it doesn’t compare to the full-on Jewish deli experience.
While at Rosenberg’s I also tried New Jersey’s famous Taylor ham for the first time, and again mourned the Triad’s dearth of options. Once home, I checked the offerings at O’Brien’s in Winston-Salem and Euro Deli Mart and Giacomo’s in Greensboro to no avail.
We walked next door for fresh baguettes from the neighboring French deli called Rolling Pin. At least here I could be thankful for the somewhat comparable Atelier on Trade in Winston-Salem, but Greensboro’s got nothing that comes close.
At this point, you might be sick of me regaling you with stories of things that Denver has but the Triad lacks. But the thing is, Denver is no holy grail of diverse or exciting food culture. Yes, I ate great all weekend. But many of the things I enjoyed are standard in big American cities, and the Triad is a big enough market to support them.
Take, for example, the Truffle Cheese Shop, where we snagged several provisions for a picnic in the park including a little wild boar and some intensely delicious speck (think prosciutto). I walked into a cheese monger in the tiny town of Great Barrington, Mass. almost a decade ago and couldn’t believe that a town that small could support such a specialized business. If it can succeed there, then it’s not just Denver we’re lagging behind.
I’m not asking for a place like the Truffle Cheese Shop where you can buy “octopus in olive oil” or caviar. A modest cheese store that’s not a part of a grocery store chain would be just fine.
We passed by other restaurant concepts that I know exist in North Carolina too, like a conveyor-belt sushi place. My friend pointed out a Chinese place that he said isn’t anything special, except that it offers scoops of whatever you want for just $1.50. It reminded me of the Chinese buffet I worshipped as a kid, and the absence of any halfway decent stand-in anywhere in the Piedmont.
Maybe I was looking for deficits, for things to whine about. The pizza place we stopped at that serves $5 pizzas after 10 p.m. is the same as Brixx with it’s BOGO $10 pizzas after 10 p.m., right? Sure, if Brixx was somehow comparable in quality to Mission Pizza without the price jump. When our server told us that the hot sauce in front of us was made from Bolivian chili peppers and was house fermented, I knew I wasn’t just inventing these differences for a reason to gripe.
I didn’t come here to heap praises on Denver while tearing down my chosen hometown and beat up on the Triad’s other cities. There’s plenty here to celebrate, and more than enough in Denver to lament (including a weed-themed sandwich shop near my friend’s apartment that doesn’t actually serve anything belonging to the cannabis family). But I believe in tough love for our local food scene, and the fact that Denver is far from being the nation’s shining city on a hill only makes matters worse.
All of the blame doesn’t belong to restaurateurs or other people working in the food industry — after all, Greensboro failed to support Jaribu with its vegan Jamaican food or the meatless Zizi’s, and Winston-Salem let me down by allowing the Honey Pot to close. If we don’t support diversity in our local food scene, our talents will give up or move away.
I really don’t think I’m asking for that much.