Feature

Best New Restaurants

With nearly 30 restaurants in the running, we whittled the list down to the best eight eateries in the Mile High City. 

December 2010

On the Street

You can thank the sour economy and social media for Denver’s burgeoning— and delicious—street food scene.

Just one year ago, Denver’s street food scene was miniscule. It consisted of the burrito trucks that frequented Federal Boulevard and a handful of well-loved carts—Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs and the Thai Food Cart among them—along the 16th Street Mall. Then last October Gastro Cart, the culinary brainchild of Mike Winston, who left Table 6 to cook head cheese sliders and roast lamb tacos with kimchi on the corner of 18th and Curtis streets, appeared.

The gamble—a location on the edge of downtown and an ambitious menu—paid off, and quickly. Foodies sought out the handheld eats and spread the word via Facebook and Twitter. Gastro Cart played along, posting daily specials and urgent notes reminding patrons that the lamb bacon BLTs were selling out fast. Underneath it all, the message was clear: Denver was ready to adopt the ways of Los Angeles, New York, and Portland, where street carts and trucks number in the hundreds.

Within months, the trucks appeared. First up was the Denver Cupcake Truck from Cake Crumbs Bakery owner Denon Moore. When Sean Moore (Denon’s husband) launched the truck, affectionately named Clementine, in April, his timing—a bad economy, the effectiveness of social media, and a growing interest in street food—was impeccable.

Add to that a concept that’s brilliant in its simplicity: Here’s a vehicle where there’s no kitchen required. Each morning Sean loads the floorboards of the restored 1969 Ford Vanette with jumbo coolers, all snugly stacked with plastic tubs holding frosting-bedecked cupcakes. Before pulling out of the bakery, he drums up excitement by posting location details on Facebook and Twitter (the truck is also fit with a wireless connection and a mini laptop to post up-to-the-minute location details). At last count, the truck had 7,423 Facebook fans and 1,124 Twitter followers—all of which translates to throngs of devotees lined up with cash in hand.

Within weeks of Clementine’s maiden voyage, Denver chef and caterer David Bravdica launched Brava! Pizza della Strada, a mobile wood-fired pizza oven stationed at the base of the Daniels and Fisher Tower. It took only a day or two before the hand-tossed pies (there are five varieties, all made from local ingredients) garnered enough buzz to build a daily line. Brava!’s niche is quality at a price—the most expensive pizza is $7—that you’re unlikely to find at a sit-down restaurant.

In May, the Biscuit Bus—an offshoot of the Denver Biscuit Company—began selling its hot-off-the-truck biscuits slathered with the likes of honey and mustard and stacked with fried chicken and pickles. The price: $6.50. Aside from street corners, the bus became a regular fixture at the Cherry Creek Fresh Market, Stapleton Fresh Market, and Civic Center Eats (a hub of several food trucks and carts).

As Denver gobbled cupcakes, pizza, and biscuits, Josh Wolkon, owner of Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben’s, was finishing work on an old beater, retrofitted with a full kitchen and built to run on solar power and waste vegetable oil. After a year of planning, the Steuben’s Truck hit the streets in June, peddling an American menu of cheeseburgers, fries, and Cubanos to adoring fans. (Aboard the truck, items run about a dollar less than they do in the restaurant because overhead is lower.)

Next to roll out were Pinche Tacos, Little Orange Rocket, and the Porker. At last count, there were 26 mobile restaurants in the Denver-Boulder area—with more hitting the streets each month.

Aside from a passionate interest in street food culture, what has made this trend stick is economics. Opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the best of times is expensive, but trucks carry far less risk—especially when it comes to overhead. The Moores poured $200,000 into opening (and later moving and expanding) Cake Crumbs Bakery, but only about $25,000 into getting Clementine on the road. Meanwhile, Bravdica invested $18,000 into his pizza wagon. And where five years ago it cost Wolkon more than a million dollars to build Steuben’s from the ground up, he spent nearly $100,000 on his truck (which he concedes is extremely high). “The greening of the truck cost us approximately an additional $40,000,” Wolkon says. “[But] our green efforts tie in with one of our company’s mission statements.”

On an average day, both the Steuben’s and Cupcake trucks pull in $1,000. Brava!, on the other hand, sells an average of 75 pizzas daily in the beginning of the week and 100 daily toward the end of the week. While Clementine is making a profit (which helps offset some of the bakery’s costs), Bravdica is able to pay himself a minimal monthly salary, and the Steuben’s Truck operates at a break-even level for daily sales. “Our motivation for the truck, however, has never been to make a ton of money,” Wolkon explains. “Our goals include being part of the revitalization of Civic Center Park, helping to bring a new food culture to Denver, expanding our environmental efforts, having another vehicle for our nonprofit events, marketing for Steuben’s, and fun.”

Marketing is indeed a huge bonus—especially for vendors with restaurants. While Wolkon refers to the Steuben’s truck as a moving billboard, Sean Moore says that when people taste the Cupcake Truck’s treats—which sell for $2.75 apiece—the experience often brings them into the bakery for more. “For us, the truck is a marketing tool, which is reducing marketing expenses overall and has increased overall business by 30 percent at the shop,” he says. Business is so good, in fact, that the Moores have not only launched another truck (and have yet another in the works), but they’re also reconfiguring Cake Crumbs so there’s more space for both baking and retail.

As for Bravdica, he says he began the pizza cart to promote his catering business. “I wanted the visibility—I can put a pizzeria in your backyard,” he says. “If I decide to do a restaurant in the future, I know I have a customer base.”

Like any trend, there’s always the danger of reaching the saturation point. But if the street food culture in Portland, L.A., and New York—all of which continue to grow—are any indication, Denver is a long way from reaching overkill. As Wolkon says, “I’m not sure where this will all go or for how long, but I’m happy Denver is on board and a new food culture has emerged to fill a void.”

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