Wendy Lu McGill is standing in the kitchen of her Denver home, lining up plastic baggies filled with what looks like rich, crumbly brownies. These snack bars, however, are a potential new product made with McGill’s crickets, which she raises, along with mealworms and wax worms, in a repurposed shipping container in Westwood. A former United Nations marketing and communications consultant, McGill and her company, Rocky Mountain Micro Ranch, have supplied local restaurants and wholesalers with her bugs, as well as imported species like black ants and locusts from Asia and Europe, since 2015. And although she’s the state’s only edible-bug farmer, McGill says “more locally raised edible insects are being used in Denver restaurants than in any other city in the nation.”
For a developing culinary market like Denver’s, such affinity for “entomophagy” (human consumption of insects and arachnids) is impressive. McGill attributes that openness to Boulder and Denver being the epicenter of the nation’s natural food industry. “The reason I decided to base my business here,” McGill says, “is because there’s such a strong focus on sustainability and nutrition. Insects are one of the many solutions we need to produce nutritious food with ever-diminishing natural resources.”
A dietary staple for about 80 percent of the world’s cultures, edible insects and arachnids often contain just as much protein per gram as mainstream meat. And with the UN predicting a global population exceeding nine billion by 2050—and challenges such as climate change and urban sprawl negatively affecting food production and security—farming insects is on the rise in the typically bug-averse West.
For their part, McGill’s bugs feed on spent grain from Denver’s Wit’s End Brewing Co. and Rising Sun Distillery. It’s a practice that’s not just about reducing food waste: It also produces insects with an appealing, nutty flavor. Plus, crickets—or “tofu bugs,” as McGill calls them—take on any flavor they’re prepared with. One example is her Kentucky-fried cricket snack collaboration with chef/partner Daniel Asher of Boulder’s River and Woods. The KFCs are brined in local buttermilk and then dredged in a mixture of heritage cornmeal (from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwestern Colorado), salt (from Utah’s Great Salt Lake), and 15 different herbs and spices. Once fried, they really do taste like the Colonel’s secret recipe and “overcome the ick factor for many people,” McGill says. McGill and Asher’s goal is for the snacks to appear on River and Woods’ menu and at local retail locations in the near future. Until then, here’s where to find McGill’s crickets (and other bugs) in Denver and beyond.
Eat Your Bugs
1. Comida at The Source
Spicy fried crickets get the taco treatment or top open-faced huaraches at this popular cantina’s RiNo location. The Source, 3350 Brighton Blvd., 303-296-2747, eatcomida.com
2. El Jefe
Margaritas rimmed with ant salt are the perfect accompaniment to bites like four-queso dip with crunchy crickets and pepitas on top or Mexican street corn sprinkled with crispy black ants. Chorizo made of mealworms is also on the menu. 2450 W. 44th Ave., 720-389-7615, eljefedenver.com
3. The Welsh Rabbit Cheese Bistro
Head to Fort Collins to try the Cricket Curious plate, in which locusts and a caramel honey sauce accompany the crunchy main attraction. Also look for the “fromage aux fourmis,” which pairs Canadian chèvre with black ants. 200 B Walnut St., Fort Collins, 970-232-9521, thewelshrabbit.com
4. Pappardelle’s Pasta Co.
This local wholesaler offers dried tagliatelle made with crickets. Try cooking the noodles at home with shallots, fresh thyme, sautéed mushrooms, and a splash of cream to complement the earthy flavor of the insects. pappardellespasta.com
An early adopter of Denver’s bugs-as-food trend, Linger creates innovative dishes such as sweet and sour tempura crickets with charred Chinese broccoli and long beans over black ant rice. 2030 W. 30th Ave., 303-993-3120, lingerdenver.com
Quench your thirst with the Jiminy Cricket cocktail: Don Julio Blanco, Cointreau, blood orange juice, habanero, cilantro, sugar, and a candied cricket garnish. 24 Broadway, 720-550-7267, lenadenver.com
Photography by Benjamin Rasmussen