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'Top Chef' takes on Denver, where food scene is reaching new heights

Lori Rackl, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Travel News

Now "Top Chef" is tapping into the zeitgeist, aiming its cameras on the cuisine of a city -- and state -- more famous for its beers than its bites.

"So much has changed in Denver, even in the last couple of years," said Baird, who helms the kitchen at Bar Dough, an Italian eatery in the Lower Highland neighborhood, known as LoHi. "There's a lot of chefs here cooking outside of their culture. We have a Latin restaurant down the street that just opened, Senor Bear, and they're doing really special, really neat things.

"And the guys at Hop Alley ...," she added, referring to another small venue with big buzz. "Again, (they're) Colorado-born and -raised, but doing Chinese street food. ... Everyone's pushing the envelope."

Those guys at Hop Alley are the team led by chef and restaurateur Tommy Lee, an Emory business grad who skipped culinary school but made a lot of burritos during a three-year stint at Chipotle, headquartered in Denver.

Lee's joint opened in the River North Art District (RiNo) in late 2015, cranking out flavors as bold as the hip-hop and rap music that fills the bumpin', 57-seat space. The wait for a table can be long (no reservations for smaller parties) but -- spoiler alert -- it's worth it. On the menu: crispy pig ears, chilled tofu with spicy bang bang sauce, and charred and steamed vegetables that could convert a die-hard carnivore.

On a recent Friday night, while Lil Wayne and Wu-Tang Clan brought the beats, our waiter sold us on a side order of pickled and preserved veggies, sagely billed as "the perfect hit of acid" to balance our crunchy salt-and-pepper soft shell crabs and fluffy bone marrow fried rice.

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Much like Denver itself, Hop Alley's RiNo neighborhood -- recently named one of the country's 10 hottest 'hoods by Lonely Planet -- is booming. The boundaries of this mural-laden industrial area contain not one, but two beloved artisan food markets.

First on the scene was The Source, which set up shop in a former ironworks foundry. Its offerings include Acorn, a contemporary American eatery from chef-owner Steve Redzikowski, a 2017 James Beard Award finalist in the Best Chef Southwest category. (For those who don't care to travel far on a full belly, note that a hip hotel is headed to The Source early next year.)

About a mile away, another old brick building in RiNo has found new life through food. The airy and inviting Denver Central Market is a collection of a dozen or so purveyors selling wood-fired pizza, ceviche, ice cream flights and some of the best pastries I've had outside of Paris, courtesy of Izzio bakery. The editors of Bon Appetit magazine must have liked it all; they declared Denver Central Market one of the nation's best new restaurants of 2017.

Food markets, food halls, glorified food courts -- whatever you want to call them, they're a trend that admittedly goes beyond the 303 and 720 area codes. But the concept has really taken off in the Mile High City.

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