Colorado Feature

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Flavors of Colorado

Despite a short growing season in much of the state, Colorado enjoys a strong culinary reputation for its commitment to organic, sustainable farming practices, farmers’ markets, and chef-fueled focus on buying and dining locally. Locally produced microbrews and wine, a robust agricultural foundation, and a continual roster of food-theme festivals make it easy for the traveler to snag a taste of Colorado while passing through. The region also is known for its many steak houses that keep the state's reputation as cattle country thriving.

Festivals of Local Bounty

Nearly every region of Colorado has some kind of fruit or vegetable that grows so well it makes a name for itself—which inevitably leads to a festival. The alternating swathes of high altitude and low valley are credited with providing a head start or a late blast of sun that in turn pumps that produce with extra flavor.

Peach Festival, Palisade. The small town of Palisade, which also is blessed with a climate ideal for growing wine grapes, is noted for several types of fruits, including their famous peaches, which are celebrated in August.

Wild Mushroom Festival, Crested Butte. The climate above 9,000 feet in Crested Butte is just right for fungi, which leads to a celebration of the result every August.

Stream-Raised and Grass-Fed

Colorado is famous for its trout, beef, bison, and lamb, so much so that vegetarian restaurants have been slower in proliferating than in other parts of the country. The state also offers visitors the chance to pluck the trout right from its many rivers and lakes—rainbow, cutthroat, brook, brown, and, of course, lake—although so many get shipped out that it's as likely to be frozen as not at restaurants, so be sure to ask. Meanwhile, whether or not the beef and bison seen grazing across the West are natural (meaning no hormones, steroids, or antibiotics), every town, large or small, boasts a steak house. And it's the grasses in their mountain diet that have been credited with the superior flavor and texture of the Colorado lamb.

Buckhorn Exchange, Denver. More than 500 pairs of eyes stare down at you during the meal, but it's what's on your plate that will keep your attention: dry-aged, prime-grade Colorado steaks served with hearty sides. Since 1893 this has been one of the state's game-meat specialists, as well.

Elway’s, Denver, Cherry Creek, Vail, and Denver International Airport. Four locations means four chances to try some of the best steaks you’ll ever have. The porterhouse is the one to order, a 22-ounce hunk of USDA prime. They also do a lovely rack of lamb and a bison rib eye so tender you can cut it with a fork.

The Fort Restaurant, Morrison. Bison is a particular specialty at this replica of Bent's Fort, a former Colorado fur-trade mecca, but the steaks, trout, elk, and other meats are delicious, as well.

Game Creek Club, Vail. With the word "game" in the name, it's not hard to imagine that the tony eatery does a good job with meats. The Bavarian-style lodge is open to the public for dinner.

Green Chili

Not the pepper itself but a gravy-like stew is what Coloradans refer to when they talk about chili verde, the heady mixture that migrated with families who made their way from Mexico up through New Mexico and Texas and over from California to settle the high country. Its recipes vary as much across the state as minestrone does across Italy and pot-au-feu across France, but you can usually count on a pork-based concoction with jalapeños, sometimes tomatoes, and maybe tomatillos, the heat ranging from mellow to sinus-clearing. Green chili can smother just about anything—from enchiladas to huevos—but a plain bowlful with a warmed tortilla is all the purist requires, and it's the best hangover cure ever.

Dos Hombres, Grand Junction. The regular green chili at this cheerful spot is tomato-based, with a variety of chilies and pork for a thick, colorful mixture. They also offer milder, vegetarian, and New Mexican–style versions.

Fiesta Jalisco, Avon, Breckenridge, Colorado Springs, Steamboat. Light on chilies but packed with pork, the green here is medium-spicy and perfect on a burrito. The margaritas are special, too.

Jack ‘n’ Grill, Denver. This family-run joint pulls its chilies from New Mexico and makes its green chili stew into a fire-breathing brew made of cooked-down, chopped green chilies that they roast themselves, so hot it separates the serious from the simply curious.

Topical Microbrews

Although fancy cocktails and wine continue to make headway against beer elsewhere in the country, Colorado is still the land of microbrews. Pool tables, multiple televisions for sports viewing, and live music make the brewpub an essential part of the weekend scene in most major cities and towns. Many of the best Denver brewpubs are in LoDo, or lower downtown. These offer tasting flights much like wineries, served with food that runs the gamut from pub grub to upscale. Many microbreweries also have tasting rooms open to the public, where growlers (half-gallon glass jugs) of fresh beer can be purchased for takeout, perfect for picnics and tailgate parties.

Boulder Beer Company, Boulder. Colorado's first microbrewery (it started in 1979) offers a British-style ale; amber, pale, golden, and India pale ales; and a stout, to name a few. It also has a pub attached that offers a solid roster of grub. Catch a tour weekdays at 2 pm, and Saturday at 2 and 4 pm.

New Belgium Brewing Company, Fort Collins. Fat Tire Amber Ale resonates with Coloradans because of its mountain-biking history, and is this microbrewery's most popular beer. It's readily available around the state, but a visit to the 100% wind-powered brewery is the best way to check it out.

Wynkoop Brewing Co., Denver. You can see part of the brewing operation through large glass windows at this popular brewpub in LoDo. The Rail Yard Ale is one of the signature beers, but the spicy chili beer is a local favorite.

Local Wines

Microbrews may rule, but Colorado's wine country continues to get kudos for producing reasonably priced, award-winning vino. The wines run the gamut, from lightweight whites to heavy-duty reds, and Colorado varietals as well as wines made from California grapes that don't grow well in the short season (such as red zinfandel). Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay are the most popular, but the viognier and Riesling offerings have gotten good press, too. Another of Colorado's best-kept secrets is its winery tours through Palisade and Grand Junction.

Balistreri Vineyards, Denver. This family-owned, down-to-earth winery offers free tastings daily of their popular chardonnay, viognier, merlot, cabernet, or more than a dozen other wines. The tasting room also serves small plates for lunch on weekdays.

Two Rivers Winery & Chateau, Grand Junction. With its setting evocative of rural France, this inn set among the vines is the ideal spot for a sip of Burgundian-style chardonnay after a tour of the Colorado national monuments.

Updated: 2014-01-21

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