The Elevated Tastes
of Denver
The author joyrides past the Daniel Libeskind-designed Denver Art Museum.
Denver reveals its rugged and 
sublime traits via culinary and 
mobile adventures.
inspire
The most immediate detail you might notice about Denver is the altitude. Maybe it sounds obvious, but a mile up, you begin to see the world a little differently. The air is clear, the topography is serious, and the astonishing—and constant—views command serious respect. But despite their lofty position cradled in the Rocky Mountains, the innovators of Denver aren’t looking down on anyone. They’re looking ahead, with an elevated outlook.
The principles of piada and pibil
After my photographer, Trevor, and I arrived at Denver International Airport, he came alive behind the wheel of our Silvercar Audi A4 rental on our way to meet Kelly Whitaker, one of the leading grain chefs in the country, at his restaurant Basta in Boulder. On the drive, I saw miles of protected bicycle trails poured out against a backdrop of snowcapped Rockies and riders bobbing in spandex through the cold.
Throwing a snowball at Trevor on our way inside the restaurant lifted my spirits. Zagat-reviewed Basta sits in the middle of one of the many nondescript, modern, live-work complexes popping up not just in east Boulder but all over the United States. Inside Whitaker’s restaurant, however, a unique story has been unfolding.
“The dish that put Basta on the map,” Whitaker said while he led us on a tour of his operation, “is bread and butter, and it’s cooked in 50 seconds.” The focus of the restaurant, both physically and ideologically, is a 1000°F wood-burning oven. It’s in plain view from almost every point in the space, and aside from being the only heat source for cooking in the entire building, all of the food at Basta is touched by the oven in some way.
Kelly Whitaker flours his piada dough and prepares it for the oven.
Whitaker and his staff ride the changing waves of this hearth, baking breads in the morning with the latent heat from the last night’s fire, saving charcoal to incorporate into their campfire vanilla-flavored ice cream, and then stoking a hot fire for all manner of pizzas, doughnuts, and even the garlic and allium confit that they pour over their signature piada bread. The chef made us some piada that afternoon. The warm gluten brought me comfort, and the unforgettable crumb and robust flavor Whitaker considers “the world’s best garlic knot” made me fall in love with bread again.
One of Whitaker’s loaves rises in the 1000-degree wood oven.
The smell conjured the delicious and powerful anachronism of mornings buying fresh bread at dawn. Transcendent. No wonder it was named one of StarChef’s top 10 dishes of 2016 and featured on guest menus around the world. I have been inspired to try Whitaker’s recipe four times at home with mixed results—you just can’t fake the wood fire, the freshly milled flour or thousands of hours of experience.
Promising to return, we headed to another of Colorado’s most unrepeatable dining concepts: Work & Class. In an upfitted shipping container in the Ballpark neighborhood adjacent to downtown Denver, executive chef Dana Rodriguez, along with manager-partner Tony Maciag, is busy turning out “square meals, stiff drinks, at a fair price” while turning up to 400 covers in as many square feet on weekend nights. That’s a lot of diners for a space so small that they prep on the community tables before doors open.
Sitting in a narrow shaft of sunlight, I watched Rodriguez cut and marinate lamb and cabrito (baby goat) while she told me about the modular menu of à la carte items that the duo thinks makes for a more fulfilling and relaxed ordering experience: “With the menu, we’re telling you what we’ve been learning over the years.”
Kelly Whitaker’s famous piada with burrata beneath confit alliums
Doughnuts and campfire ice cream at Basta
Dana Rodriguez smiles at the beginning of another busy dinner service.
Before running one of the most successful restaurants in Denver, Rodriguez began her life on a farm in northern Mexico and entered the restaurant business as a dishwasher. Seventeen years in fine dining gave Rodriguez the confidence to run a restaurant her own way when the time came, earning the nickname “Loca” for her work ethic and particular brand of relentless integrity during the course of her career.
Rodriguez credits her success to opportunities offered along the way, and she wants to give those same chances to the people who work in her restaurant. “I worked three jobs to put up the money when I was offered my first partnership,” she said. “I didn’t go to culinary school. We didn’t go to business school. Our third partner [Tabatha Knop] was one of our bussers … So we’ve been through all the steps, and that helps you understand the business better.”
Cochinita pibil (red-chile braised pork) taco from Work & Class.
Work & Class makes peppers five ways (L to R): pepper jam, Fresno popper,
bacon-wrapped jalapeño, grilled shishitos and mixed pickled peppers.
Understanding the business means Rodriguez’s restaurant group operates at an extremely high rate of efficiency, allowing her to pay her employees more, charge her diners less and continuously develop new concepts along with the careers of her staff. Maciag pointed out that their strategy targets a longer game than simply doing good business: “For me, what is continually appealing isn’t an amazing dish or an amazing cocktail, but it’s that we do things with integrity and … being thoughtful with our work to find the best solutions,” he said.
Rodriguez brought it home: “It’s not about ego … it’s about see[ing] this place full every day with happy people. It’s about everything in this building. We’ve had these servers since we opened, and they love to work with us, not for us. They present that to our customers, who become regulars because they love the food, love the drinks but, even more, they love the vibe and the service. They love that we care about the community and that we care about ourselves.” Rodriguez and Maciag are investing in people, and it so happens that passion for employees is a solid recipe for business success.
Rodriguez’s signature cabrito, carefully marinated and prepared, in its final form.
Coriander roasted local lamb with a griddled goat cheese masa tortilla at Work & Class.
Rodriguez’s passion for other human beings is apparent in her smile, the way she is tender yet firm with her staff during service, in her food philosophy, and in her service to the community. In the four years since the restaurant opened, four employees have been inspired to start their own businesses, a point of personal pride. While she cooked for us, I found out that Rodriguez also hosts events for a Colorado nonprofit organization called Work Options for Women. “It’s a pretty good thing,” she said modestly, her eyes bright from the setting sun stooping through the glass windows as she presented us with some cochinita pibil tacos from behind the chef’s counter. The marinated pork on the house-made, pillow-soft corn tortillas are better tasted than described, so I’ll leave it there.
Nothing without power
The next morning, Trevor and I ascended 27 floors in a downtown high-rise to meet Luis Benitez, Director of Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, who shared his personal motivation. “All of it is tied to this deep sense of public service, service to the community and also to the environment where we live… There are a lot of people moving to Colorado because of what we have, and what we have is that,” Benitez gestured to his floor-to-ceiling windows: It was a clear day, and we could see hundreds of square miles of the Denver metro area bounded by mountains.
Luis Benitez in front of a creative map of the Centennial State.
“The deeper question is ‘What are we doing to translate that ethic’ [for people] new to Colorado,” Benitez said. “They’re here for the amenities … but do they understand what it actually means to be a responsible person in the backcountry? How do you buy into a conservation and stewardship ethic for the place where you live?”
To help answer those questions in a time of unprecedented visitation and damage to public parks, the state of Colorado recently partnered with Leave No Trace, an outdoor conservancy nonprofit, to educate people while they plan their trips. The goal is to help visitors leave less of an impact on the natural spaces that make Colorado so special. Addressing neo-Coloradans, Benitez said, “We want you to move here, we want you to live here, we want you to play here, but we also want you to understand … how to protect [Colorado], promote it, preserve it and how to be an educated and engaged citizen.”
“All of it is tied to this deep sense 
of public service, service to the 
community and also to the
environment where we live…”
Benitez is in mostly uncharted territory in his position at the nexus of the outdoor industry and government, but his enthusiasm is palpable, and it’s clear he wants to deliver on his growing responsibilities with integrity. Regarding that responsibility, he mentioned that the outdoor recreation industry accounts for almost a trillion dollars in consumer spending annually and seven million American jobs. “In reality, we’re almost as big as the auto and pharmaceutical industries combined … so what does that look like in terms of a shared message nationally?”
Spruces and firs double-exposed over the interior of our Silvercar rental.
Benitez, who casually mentions that he has summited Everest six times among many other accomplishments, is a former Audi Quattro owner, and he recognizes why Audi has found success in the state. “This is the culture and community where it fits,” he said. “In Colorado and other mountain states, you really see this deep appreciation for all-wheel drive, but also because of the demographic, there is this appreciation for luxury as well.” We left Benitez’s office and got in our own luxury all-wheel-drive vehicle, equipped with a sense of excitement about the outdoors and driving directions from the former wilderness educator. On our way out of the office, Trevor caught a glimpse of the State Seal of Colorado and read the Latin motto out loud: “Nil sine numine.” I looked it up: not without power.
In our Audi A4, Trevor and I wound our way down Route 285 and took Benitez’s advice to explore the little offshoots that lead over babbling brooks and up the terrain. I took the wheel and kicked up fallen leaves and fresh snow powder, pushing the A4 around corners above the timberline until the roads ended. Then back down the mountain road with the power of the A4 in my hands in the form of the paddle shifters. I pulled over and crunched a few steps in the snow. I listened to the cottonball sound of my hiking boots rejoicing, having finally found their purpose. I looked back at Guanella Pass and admired the wild orange sun and its blue mountain shadow, the untamed green of the pines and the white snow at their roots, all beside the seat-warmed civilization of our Silvercar rental. This was no longer a work assignment. On these roads, with this car, I was on vacation.
Balanced Rock at the entrance to the Garden of the Gods.
More like altitude wellness
The sun was setting, and we had another opportunity to dine at Work & Class. My acclaimed appetite finally returned, and we ate our way through Rodriguez’s entire genre-spanning menu. Scent memories from Oaxaca, Texas, Yucatan, Louisiana, and places I may never visit wafted from every plate we received, and the neural networks in my mind worked overtime to make new pathways for Denver through Rodriguez’s food. As a souvenir, I took with me the impression of the blue corn empanadas. Impossibly light like the cloud forests of Chiapas, they were an encapsulation of the Work & Class ethos made of fresh masa and Mexican string cheese—so simple yet so satisfying.
As we left, Work & Class was starting to buzz, and a line of excited patrons was forming outside of the former shipping container, underscoring the transformative nature of this special restaurant. We drove around a while, taking in the old neighborhoods that surround downtown Denver, and watched the late-night skateboarders show each other new tricks until the lights at Denver Skate Park went out. We went for a chilly, quick walk along the South Platte River and found ourselves at a restaurant in the heart of Lower Highlands, where we enjoyed a couple of veggie burgers and a nightcap on the rooftop. We watched students, couples, groups, and singles line up around the block for ice cream—it was 40 degrees that night—with a philanthropic twist. Since it was for charity, I figured it would be okay to end the night with a second dessert to go along with our two dinners.
Two bucks at dawn just outside the Garden of the Gods.
By our third day, I felt like I was living my best life, a concept heard often while I was in town. The Denver Art Museum inspired with its Crow Nation and Lakota rugs, oil paintings, drums, and satire. We met old friends at the Denver Botanic Gardens and admired the natural clarity and light available at this high elevation. We ate more food, and then we got up hours before dawn the next day so we could get a photo of our Audi A4 atop Pikes Peak—which Audi dominated in the 1980s behind Michèle Mouton and Walter Röhrl—at daybreak.
“In Colorado and other mountain states, you really see this deep 
appreciation for all-wheel drive, but also because of the demographic, there is this appreciation for luxury as well.”
As it turns out, Pikes Peak opens to the public at 9 a.m., and it was too windy to get to the top—so with the golden hour fast approaching, we took a beautiful drive through Garden of the Gods public park. I felt like I was stopping the car every few feet for all manner of photogenic vistas: deer licking dew from the grass, impossibly balanced 30-story stone faces and the sun trying to out-orange each other, the soaring of birds I had never seen before. The Audi A4 handled the loose terrain with ease, and we explored the virtues of the nimble turning radius and the rear view camera in some tight spots. Seriously, this is the way to explore Colorado.
A Clematis flower in its spent form at the Denver Botanic Garden.
On our way back to Denver, Trevor and I stopped at Basta again. Whitaker returned at the same moment from a one-day trip to Los Angeles, and he went straight to cooking. Taking the master grain cook’s recommendation, I tried a Slovenian white wine and the clam pizza, which is a white pie that featured pancetta and the famed piada dough. Do I do it a disservice to say it was the best pizza I’ve ever had? It was: tender little neck clams and crispy pancetta. We ordered a few other inimitable items from the wood fire, finishing with the aforementioned campfire vanilla ice cream and turkey red flour donuts.
At the end of our meal, I realized that the same qualities I loved about Colorado—the balance of rugged and sublime, confidence and humility—were present in Whitaker’s cooking. These also happen to be aligned with my feelings about driving the Audi A4 in the state. Since it was our last night in Colorado, I thought about ordering another pizza to eat on the plane the next morning but opted for restraint. After all, they still had lasagna.
The power of Colorado lies not just in its governing offices but also high atop its stunning mountains, in the melting snowpack that trickles into its rivers, in its engaged communities, and its unique two-lane switchbacks. It’s in the people who choose to live there and the food they choose to make and share. Providence comes in many forms. It was tough to leave, and I couldn’t have done it without the power of lasagna.