Let's play a game: I'll name a city, and you think of food associated with that place.
What comes to mind? Omelets? Rocky Mountain oysters? How about bison, venison or the meat of other animals that keeps taxidermists paying income taxes?
Maybe you're pondering another kind of edible, given Colorado's embrace of recreational marijuana.
I ran the question by a pro during a recent visit to this outdoorsy city perched on high, rolling plains.
"When people think of Denver food, I think they're always just thinking about mountain food -- elk and trout -- and that's not necessarily true," said local chef Carrie Baird.
She recently played a different food-related game in her hometown: "Top Chef."
The best cooking competition on television (yeah, I said it) chose Colorado as the lofty setting for its 15th season, which debuts Dec. 7 on Bravo. Baird is one of 15 "cheftestants" duking it out for the title.
The series, hosted by velvet-voiced Padma Lakshmi, filmed earlier this year in Aspen, Telluride, Boulder and Denver, where the food scene happens to be hotter than a Pueblo chile. (If you want to get Denverites talking, ask where to get the best green chile sauce, and pull up a comfy chair.)
More than 220 restaurants opened in Colorado's capital in 2016, the same year the culinary guide Zagat crowned Denver the third Hottest Food City behind Washington and Los Angeles.
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.
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.
Why? "Top Chef" judge and Chicago celeb chef Graham Elliot has a theory.
"Markets bring people together, and Colorado has always had that kind of feel -- it's a little more communal," said Elliot, a frequent visitor to the land of fleece and polarized sunglasses. His brother lives in nearby Boulder.
DENVER DINING SCENE
"Top Chef" filmed its 15th season in Denver, where the dining scene is reaching new heights.
Yet another high-profile food market is in the works, this one in the shadow of Coors Field in Lower Downtown, or LoDo. (Denver loves its place-name portmanteau words almost as much as Broncos fans dug the 2016 Super Bowl.) The Milk Market, part of a larger redevelopment of a former dairy, will have around 14 culinary concepts when it opens next year. Among them: a Ford Bronco converted into a poke cart and a Carnegie Deli-style spot serving massive sandwiches, "the kind where if you finish it, there's something wrong with you," said New Jersey native Frank Bonanno, the prolific chef and restaurateur behind the project.
Bonanno moved to Denver in the mid-'80s and hasn't looked back. The same can be said of a lot of people moving to this millennial magnet. (When you're done talking green chile sauce with your new Denver buddy, bring up natives versus transplants, and hunker down for an earful.)
During the planning stages of Milk Market, Bonanno did some recon in Chicago, checking out Latinicity and Eataly for inspiration.
"I'd say mine will be like an Eataly-meets-Whole Foods," he said. "Every one of our concepts has alcohol -- that's one thing we really loved about Eataly."
He noted that the city's famed suds will be well represented at Milk Market.
"If you go to some of these great breweries, they always have one beer they only sell in their taproom," he said. "We have 12 breweries lined up where the only place you'll be able to get the beer is here. We'll put it on tap with their handle."
Milk Market is part of the larger Dairy Block development that includes The Maven Hotel, a funky 172-room property that debuted earlier this year. How funky? The lobby has an Airstream trailer where guests can fetch a free beer or margarita in the evening. Overnight rates start at $189.
The Maven is where the "Top Chef" cast holed up during filming. Lakshmi, the show's host, stayed in the Diamond Suite, a massive space decked out with a few tasteful baseball references and a baller view of the Colorado Rockies' home field.
Head judge Tom Colicchio, I'm told, liked to hang out by that funky Airstream in the lobby, reading a book and sipping whiskey.
The "Top Chef" contestants stayed in another part of town called Cherry Creek, which I'm happy to report doesn't go by ChCr.
This tony neighborhood full of shops is where "Top Chef" Season 12 runner-up Gregory Gourdet last year opened a Denver outpost of his forward-thinking restaurant, Departure. (The original is in Portland, Ore.) Eating here is like taking your taste buds on a whirlwind tour of Asia: wok-fired Thai sausage and fried rice, steaming bowls of Korean bibimbap, skewers of octopus and jackfruit grilled over petrified Japanese charcoal. Vegan, gluten-free, paleo -- no problem. Also: sushi and dim sum: The moist chicken wings with a sweet chile glaze are a house favorite.
Departure is on the ground floor of the Halcyon Hotel, another good option to bed down during a Denver visit. Opened last year, the Halcyon has a rooftop pool and 154 guestrooms that feel less hotel, more cool condo. A "gear garage" in the lobby is stocked with big-kid toys, such as extra-long skateboards, vinyl records (rooms have turntables) and cruiser bicycles you can borrow for a spin on the nearby Cherry Creek Bike Path. Overnight rates start at $299.
Departure -- and chef Gourdet -- will be getting some "Top Chef" airtime. The sleek restaurant is the site of an elimination challenge, when one unlucky cheftestant will be told to pack his or her knives and go.
Lots of heavy hitters in Denver's dining scene will make cameos throughout the season. Among them: Bonanno, whose restaurant empire includes several addresses in historic Larimer Square, where "Top Chef" cameras rolled during a food festival competition. We'll also be seeing "Top Chef Masters" 2013 finalist Jennifer Jasinski, as well as 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist Alex Seidel, a Wisconsin guy who hightailed it out West not long after college.
"I left Milwaukee on Amtrak with four boxes and a bike," Seidel said. He eventually ended up in Denver in 2002.
"When I first moved to Denver from Vail, I felt like I took a step back," he said. "At the restaurant, I was working at, we were serving salmon on mashed potatoes; it wasn't great food."
Seidel opened his own place, Fruition, a little over a decade ago near the Capitol Hill area. A couple of years later he bought a 10-acre farm south of the city, where he raises animals, fruits and vegetables for Fruition, as well as his newer eatery, Mercantile, in the city's impeccably restored Union Station.
"Just in the last two years, we started the Union Station farmers market," Seidel said. "It's unbelievable to say this -- but it was Denver's first producer-only farmers market."
"Top Chef" filmed at Seidel's farm in Larkspur, where he once had as many as 130 sheep. Decadently high in butterfat, sheep milk is the basis for the rich, artisan cheese he produces under the Fruition Farms Creamery label. The ricotta and feta are especially dreamy.
In a "Top Chef" elimination challenge in the fourth episode, teams have to create a four-course meal, with each course featuring a different cheese from Fruition Farms. The dinner takes place at Mercantile.
"My 10-year-old son is a judge on the show," he said, smiling with pride.
I tried to convince Seidel that his cheese-making skills must stem from his Wisconsin roots.
He wasn't buying it.
"I never lived on a farm; I grew up in Racine playing soccer," said Seidel, another transplant making his mark on ever-changing Denver.
"Technically, yes, I'm a Cheesehead," he said, "but Colorado is home now."
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