Showing Off Colorado’s Culinary Scene

Not everyone thinks of Colorado as a “foodie” destination. The state is better known for its national parks, soaring peaks, breweries, and outdoor activities. The thing is, there absolutely are incredible culinary gems sprinkled throughout the state that are worth traveling for, whether that’s making the hour or so drive to Denver or flying in from elsewhere.

I visited some of the best places to have a meal to remind our readers how good the food is — and to show off to out-of-towners who may still be unaware of the excellent barbecue, peaches, Mexican food, and even gluten-free options. As someone who has traveled across the globe in search of great meals, I am here not only to vouch for Colorado’s food scene but to encourage others to travel the state for a great meal.

Note: Always ask your server about allergy information and cross-contamination. Everyone has different levels of food allergies and not every restaurant mentioned here is specifically allergy friendly. The following are my personal experiences and recommendations.

Comal Food Heritage Incubator – Five Points, Denver

Comal Heritage Food Incubator’s “heavenly” fish tacos

The murals catch your eyes first. Vibrant and welcoming, they offer just a small glimpse of the experience inside. Stepping into Comal felt like taking a breath of fresh air. The interior design was bright, open, and inviting. The agua fresca handed to me almost immediately after introducing myself confirmed Comal’s hospitality.

I arrived just as they were opening. Front-of-house specialist Michel Sohai told me there’s often a line out the door, especially on Thursdays when the restaurant serves its famous “Frankies.” This is a new location because between hosting events, growing in popularity, and of course helping so many immigrants, Comal needed a larger space.

My meal here was a never-ending rotation of multiple cuisines served by the generous staff. The tacos were heavenly, and I have very high standards. Both the fish taco and the fall-apart tender pork were highlighted with a handmade tortilla. If you’re reading this and are not sure if you’ve had a handmade tortilla or not, head to Comal now. Not just a cliché, you can taste the depth of flavor and well-balanced spice in every bite.

Next was a biryani plate with two yogurt sauces, one more savory and one sweet, both very complementary. Following that was a deluge of dishes, with lentil soup, butter chicken, and beans as some of the highlights. Homemade flan was next, the perfect texture and creaminess I hoped for. Just when I thought I’d reached the end of a satisfying meal, I was presented with Comal’s Thursday staple, the “Frankie,” an eye-opening chicken and cheese tortilla wrap.

Comal’s Biryani dish

Through my talks with staff, it became very clear that Comal is something much more than a restaurant. Of course, I knew this going in. It’s “Food Heritage Incubator,” not “Restaurant.” Their goal is to provide a working space for women refugees and immigrants to learn how to open their own restaurants. The three-year program starts in the kitchen — honing cooking skills, sharing recipes, and learning staples — and culminates with financial and business training in addition to partnering with Focus Points Family Resource Center to hopefully secure a loan and open their own restaurant.

In a part of Denver plagued by gentrification, the hope is to offer a path forward for immigrants to not only train to work in kitchens but become business-people and entrepreneurs of their own and gain more individual agency in the face of economic and societal change — which of course is very noble, but the real draw to Comal is the food. I have never had so many incredible dishes from such a variety of cuisines as I had during my lunch here. Normally, if I saw a menu that offered Guatemalan, Indian, American, and several regions of Mexican cuisine, I would run away. Typically there is just no way to make that many dishes taste good in one kitchen. At Comal, they not only pull it off, they excel.

The secret ingredient is not a Cheesecake Factory-style endless list of mediocre options. It is by employing women from different regions to authentically recreate dishes from their homelands. This means the menu changes from time to time as new meals are tested, new cooks are added, and new combinations are found. One of the women working in the kitchen shared with me that she loves the blending of ideas, learning to cook different cuisines, and creating dishes from her culture to share with others. Food is better when cultures exchange ideas. Cuisine, culture, and humanity all benefit from spaces of collaboration and acceptance like Comal.

The Fort – Morrison

The Fort’s cocktail

The word “institution” was thrown around quite a bit when people were recommending the Fort. This may be the most uniquely Colorado restaurant around. Using pioneer-inspired ingredients, you can find buffalo empanadas, bison bone marrow, and smoked duck. These foods intentionally harken back to a more historic time, but the Fort elevates dishes to another level.

Anyone afraid to expand their culinary palate past pork, chicken, and beef doesn’t have to. There are tons of great options, but I would remind readers that French cuisine often uses game, duck, and other meats we don’t always see on American menus. The meals here mostly reminded me of Quebecois food, which is a mixture of indigenous ingredients, frontier history, and European techniques as well. Somewhat like Colorado, Quebec also has an underrated food scene.

The Fort itself is an “adobe castle” initially intended as a residence and a replica of the historic Bent’s Fort. The restaurant was added to help bring in money with the twist that the menu was designed around foods that pioneers, Plains Indians, and Spanish settlers may have eaten. This unique mixture of cultures and lifestyles — although not a peaceable one with a happy ending — produced a heritage that is remembered and reflected in Colorado through meals at the Fort.

The Fort doesn’t just reminisce on history, it helps preserve and pass down culture through the Tesoro Cultural Center, heritage-inspired meals, numerous events, and its admission to the National Register of Historic Places. The architecture is replicated and preserved just like the cuisine is.

Just BE Kitchen – Boulder, Greenwood Village, Denver

Just BE Kitchen’s scalding hot cauliflower wings

Just BE Kitchen is the largest gluten-free, allergy-aware chain in the state, and they’re aiming higher. Owner Jennifer Peters’ vision is to be the largest in the nation. As someone who suffers from numerous food allergies myself, I can only hope to continue to see them grow and inspire other restaurants to explore allergy-friendly food.

A vision, a dream, and the idea to help others are always great, but it’s the food that will make or break a restaurant. Just BE packs complexity and ingenuity into each bite. Head chef Jude Romero was a busy man the night I visited — attending to me, taking orders, explaining a dish, checking on the kitchen — but made the time to talk with me about the details of the menu and his own creations.

First up was “Daring,” the cauliflower wings with dairy-free ranch dressing. I’m not vegetarian or vegan — I get actual chicken wings at most places — but let me tell you, these “wings” brought the heat. Covered in sauce and grilled on the flattop, they nearly filled me up before I remembered there was a whole feast ahead.

Just BE french toast sliders

Romero brought me his favorite creation next, the French toast sliders. He excitedly told me how he was inspired by a McGriddle and set out to recreate it albeit one more allergy friendly. The gluten-free almond flour toast absorbed the syrup nicely and held together the sausage and egg patties, all topped with a surprise hint of toasted coconut. I even heard someone at the table next to me tell Romero it was their favorite dish. I agreed. “Bliss” is a fitting name for these sliders.

To be fair, I’m not the first foodie to visit Just BE. Guy Fieri stopped by and proclaimed that the green chili and the chicken and dumplings were his favorites, hence “Favorites,” which is a soul-warming combo of the two dishes with a huge gluten-free tortilla. The bone broth stock makes for a perfect base, with the green chili as my personal favorite. Romero mentioned the lengthy process to make such an authentic, rich stock — something many restaurants skimp on.

Just BE’s one of a kind gluten-free brownie

The gluten-free brownie that wrapped up the experience was on par with anything made with wheat that I can remember. The texture was immaculate. There are only so many words you can use to describe a brownie, and this was all of them — gooey, rich, chocolatey, heavenly.

What is so wonderful about Just BE is that even after such a hearty meal, I didn’t feel overly full or bogged down. The food was great. I would have never guessed the cheese in the green chili wasn’t “real” or that the brownie was gluten-free or that the “wheat” style tortilla was allergy friendly. It was just a damn good meal. My mood matched the decor. The Boulder location is light and airy, which is not a coincidence. The whole idea is to make food stress-free for those of us who have to be careful and to offer an experience other than “health food” for the entire party. The idea is not just working, it’s growing.

AJ’s Pit Bar-B-Q by Campfire Concepts – Evergreen, Lakewood, Denver

AJ’s is old school. That’s all I want from a barbecue joint. With wood piled up out front, smoke billowing out the back, the smell hits you first. This is the real deal — Texas-style, low-and-slow-type cooking. The menu isn’t extensive. It isn’t fancy. Nor should it be.

I tried the smoked pastrami, smoked brisket, and jalapeno cheese sausage along with coleslaw and potato salad. This is where I would take someone craving a bite of brisket that can change your life. Michelin Guide agreed, with AJ’s recently winning a “Bib Gourmand” recommendation. The difference between a Michelin Star and a Bib Gourmand is not quality it’s pretentiousness. There is no multi-course, bite-size tasting menu with cream sauces, off-the-charts prices, and French table-side service, food here is down-home and world-class.

It’s hard to get barbecue right, despite the process seeming so simple. All you do is smoke meat at a low temperature for a long time, right? Not so. Pitmaster and general manager Patrick Klaiber talked about the lengthy process that imparts so much smokiness and perfectly rendered fat. He also talked about the sausage, made with hearty trimmings, and stuffed with jalapeno cheese. The difference in taste is immediately noticeable, and in this case, I didn’t mind hearing how the sausage was made because they use quality ingredients.

AJ’s mouth-watering BBQ

I finally took one bite of brisket and closed my eyes. It took me back to spots in Texas I’ve been to. No sauce needed, just a black crust and a pink smoke ring. The sauces were really good too. It’s just that a perfect brisket doesn’t — shouldn’t — need anything. That’s the difference here. The smoked pastrami was excellent as well — something I don’t usually order but now will, and every time I do, I’ll be comparing it to AJ’s.

I left smelling like smoke, with a huge bag of leftovers, already counting down until I was hungry enough again to eat some more. This is where you go to show off Colorado barbecue.

Palisade Peaches – Colorado Western Slope

What state comes to mind when you think of peaches? Georgia, of course, which just shows the power of marketing and advertising. California actually grows the most peaches — Central Valley produces about a quarter of all the fruits in the nation — but Colorado produces the highest quality.

No specific restaurant to list here, you just need to show off how the mountain air, fresh streams, and elevation all equal the perfect peach. Everyone from food writers to readers to social media commenters to KUNC has reported the incredible quality, richness, and perfection that is the Colorado peach.

Piripi – Erie

For whatever reason, Spanish cuisine is somewhat underrated globally, and here in the U.S. I have no idea why. They take the fresh ingredients and beautiful simplicity of Italian grandmothers and combine them with the precision techniques and passion of French chefs to create a uniquely Iberian way of elevating simple foods to the highest levels. Some of my favorite meals have been in Spain. I was ecstatic to find these same flavors in Erie from Chef Hugo. Officially a Mediterranean restaurant, Piripi’s Spanish influence is the tastiest I’ve found.

Piripi, which means “tipsy,” has a menu that is “99% gluten free,” although you would have no idea based on the quality of the food. Paella is served on the first Monday of nearly every month. The Papas Bravas, Pan con Tomaco, and Pulpo Piripi brought me back to the shores of the Mediterranean while in the shadows of the Rockies.

Aloy Thai – Boulder, Denver

Thai cuisine is not just pad thai and mango sticky rice, although Aloy does both very well. Real Thai food also does not use soy sauce, again making this an allergy-friendly place to visit. The owners are from Bangkok which infuses the spot with atmosphere and flavor not typically found elsewhere. I always encourage everyone to travel, but if you are not able to make it to Thailand, at least come here and try some of the surprising salads, noodle soups, and panang or massaman curries to sample some of the flavors of one of my favorite cuisines in the world.

What Colorado brings to the table

From American food to indigenous ingredients, from Southeast Asian spices to local produce, Colorado has a lot to offer. It’s not just diners and dives — although there are plenty — the passion and authenticity poured into numerous places across the state deserve more attention than the national press or food snobs may give it. But that may be changing. There were numerous Michelin recommendations for Colorado restaurants this past year. Colorado is making history in allergy-friendly chains, and places are preserving the unique blend of pioneer, indigenous, and European influences that have shaped this land for centuries.