You don’t need a crystal ball to predict some of the trends that will continue to dominate Denver’s food and beverage scene in 2022. The QR codes are here to stay and we’re warming up to year-round outdoor dining. But what about the micro-trends that chefs and cocktail artisans are rooting for—the ingredients they’re hoping we’ll bite at and the drinks that they’re betting will garner excitement in the new year?
We posed the question to local chefs and bartenders: “What trends do you expect will take off in 2022?” Here’s what they have to say.
Mezcal…as an Ingredient
You’ve seen tequila-lime shrimp or whiskey-braised short ribs on restaurant menus before. Next up are mezcal-spiked dishes, predicts three-time James Beard Award nominee Dana Rodriguez, who is opening Cantina Loca, a Mexican street food spot, on January 12 in LoHi. There, she’ll have a tasting room for her premium mezcal, Doña Loca. But the smoky agave spirit will also add complexity to dishes like the cantina’s salsa borracha (a drunken salsa). Mezcal, she says, is ripe for culinary experimentation. As an example: Last fall, she donated some of her small-batch mezcal to “Hispanic Top Chef,” a culinary competition held at Metropolitan State University by the Colorado-based Hispanic Restaurant Association. Used as a “secret ingredient,” one of the contestants created a delightfully sweet and smoky pork marinade.
Pizza, French fries, fried chicken, and mac ’n cheese were a part of the great comfort food comeback of 2020 and 2021. Now, it’s time to eat your veggies. “I think 2022 is the year of vegetables—or just healthy eating in general,” predicts Jeff Osaka, owner of Osaka Ramen and Sushi-Rama restaurants. Osaka, for the first time, put a vegetable-focused ramen as the seasonal special on the menu at his RiNo ramen spot. Loaded with roasted Brussels sprouts and mushrooms and made with squash broth, sage-miso butter, and tofu, it’s been a popular order in December, even ahead of the healthy eating New Year’s resolutions.
Fermentation (But Make it Faster)
Before there were freezers and canned foods, fermentation was the way to preserve food. Within the last few years, though, the centuries-old method has made a comeback, with kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir reaching star status, thanks in part to the potential gut health benefits they have.
Derek Simcik, the director of culinary operations for Sage Restaurant Concepts (Urban Farmer, Kachina Cantina, and more), says he expects tools like OCOO to start making their way into kitchens. “Think of it as a pressure cooker for fermentation,” he says. As an example, black garlic—which is fresh garlic that’s been aged and fermented—takes three hours instead of three weeks, he says. The kitchen tool can prepare long-fermented pastes like Korean Gochujang or soybean paste in a matter of hours, rather than months.
Speaking of fermentation, Simcik says koji paste (a Japanese fermentation starter) is having a moment. “I love rubbing a little bit of koji on beef and letting it sit for a bit prior to service, as it brings a gamey or funky flavor, similar to what you find in dry-aged, grass-fed beef,” he says.
A Focus on Asia
A couple of years ago, coconut milk gained popularity in the United States as a versatile and dairy-free alternative to milk, says chef Taylor West, owner of Denver-based GetFed Concepts and a private chef who leads sushi and dim sum pop-ups. West predicts miso and turmeric are about to be among the next “it” ingredients to take off stateside. He’s been using miso a lot in his dishes, with the fermented paste adding umami to everything from starters to desserts.
“Miso caramel is something I’ve been using on my recent tasting menus and it’s been a really fun way to introduce the ingredient to people,” he says. As for turmeric, the golden spice has been used for centuries in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, and it has been popular in the United States in golden milk lattes and in supplement form. But the spice is becoming more mainstream (expect it in dishes and cocktails!) and Whole Foods put it on its list of top 10 food trends for 2022.
Experiential Dining (At Home)
To-go has been a go-to in the last couple of years, and the next iteration of this trend is a more experiential takeaway experience, predicts Denver restaurateur Frank Bonanno (his concepts include Mizuna, Luca, Osteria Marco, and others). “I can see general managers starting to look at these orders as a way to recreate the restaurant experience at home,” Bonanno says. “More to-go cocktail options? Maybe a locally made candle to add some flare? A complimentary dessert? Themed menus? There are so many ways to get creative.”
Cocktails with Big Flavors
The spicy margarita will hold its popular cocktail crown and more variations of it will emerge in this agave-loving city, predicts Drew Stephens, bar manager at Green Russell near Union Station. He also expects dirty martinis with various brines and washes and infusions will gain some momentum. The espresso martini could continue to go strong as its one that can be made with liquors other than vodka (think: tequila or amaro) to contrast the robust coffee and chocolate notes.
Something these drinks have in common? They’re no shrinking violets. Those bevvying up to the bar are craving “big, bold flavors and subtle, nuanced flavors have fallen out of the limelight,” Stephens says.
Gone (hopefully) are the days of juicing a lime or zesting a lemon and then tossing the fruit’s carcass out. Stephens says bartenders are getting more creative, and doing so in the name of sustainability. “I hope we see things like scrap cordials made with spent fruits and fruit skins along with repurposing outdated red wine, like Green Russell does with our cranberry cordial,” Stephens says. Another sustainability example at his bar is the acidulated red wine that’s made by adding citric acid to oxidized red wine to give it the same punch as lemon or lime in a cocktail. It can be used in place of a lemon in something as simple as a whiskey sour, Stephens says, and tastes fantastic.
Treat Yourself Mentality
After saving money by cooking at home, guests are willing to make some splurges when they dine out, according to chefs from Hai Hospitality, the group behind RiNo’s Uchi. That means patrons will go for those higher-end items like caviar, A5 wagyu, and specialty fish and order top-shelf Japanese whiskies and sake.
Whiskey Cocktail Revival
We need not count the ways in which Coloradans love whisky (and whiskey-forward bars). But whiskey cocktails are ready for a shakeup. “Bartenders and guests have so much to experiment with when thinking about whiskey,” says Cooper Smith, event manager at Seven Grand Whiskey Bar on the Dairy Block. Alongside the classics (Old Fashioneds, Sazeracs, and Manhattans), expect to see more thought being poured into whiskey drinks. For example, Smith says: Which cocktails work best with a rye vs. a bourbon? Can peated scotch be used outside of drinks like the Penicillin? Could the caffeinated Revolver be the next cocktail to make a comeback?