5 must-have seafood dishes of Denver, Colorado
For a landlocked city hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, Denver, Colorado, has some of the best seafood offerings in the country. The city has proven that being coastal does not mean seafood superiority.
It is also one of the country’s most forward-thinking and progressive food scenes, with chefs flocking to the city from both coasts for the opportunity to make their mark and define their own style of cooking.
Several factors came into play in Denver’s seafood evolution. In the mid-to-late 19th century, when an oyster craze hit the U.S., oyster houses or saloons were popping up in cities across the nation. At that time, oysters were cheap, trendy, and readily available – thanks in part to the new transcontinental railway.
Now that oysters could be shipped more speedily, they could be harvested and nourished in ways to help them last the long journey. They appeared on toast for breakfast, in sandwiches for lunch, and as a filler in soups and hotpots for dinner to hike up the protein.
One of the first such establishments was Pell’s Oyster House, which opened in 1881. The owner was George Pell, an entrepreneurial businessman who relocated from Brooklyn, New York to Denver, believing the market was perfect for his envisioned style of oyster house. And he was right on the mark, as before long more similar establishments dotted the city, often located in basements to take advantage of the cooler temperatures.
Then, in 1906, a young man named Mose Iacino was sent from Grimaldi, Italy, to join his brothers in Denver in pursuit of a better quality of life. His brothers owned a meat market, but after a train trip from Seattle – where he met a seafood-loving chef – the 16-year-old decided his destiny was to bring fresh oysters and fish to Denver. He began selling oysters in a small corner of the family store, which was so successful he opened Seattle Fish Market where Denver’s Union Station now stands.
Iacino travelled to Seattle to seek out the best fresh fish, then found a way to keep the fish fresh over the week-long journey. His solution was to pack his product on sawdust, surround it with ice, and replenish the ice at stops along the way.
Fast forward to today and Seattle Fish is one of Colorado’s main seafood suppliers, along with Northeast, bringing sustainably caught seafood from the four corners of the globe to an increasingly discerning audience. In fact, Iacino, a lover of travel, sought much of the produce out himself, visiting farms around the world until his death at age 95.
Another key factor in the city’s quality of seafood is the fact that Denver International Airport is the fifth-busiest in the U.S., giving direct and regular access to flights from around the world. So much so, another modern-day entrepreneur chose Denver to be the base for his Icelandic fish company: Niceland.
According to Derek Figueroa, CEO and president of Seattle Fish, Denver is a melting pot of people from both coasts who are hungry for the seafood of their home.
“And Denver chefs don’t have a defined style like you find in other cities,” he said. “They are unencumbered and love variety. They are fun and open minded but with a firm dedication to seeking new and environmentally conscious seafood choices. You don’t have to go to a seafood restaurant to get great seafood!”
As Figueroa suggests, Denver is often touted as being at the forefront of sustainable and traceable sourcing, with Seattle Fish being one of the driving forces. This has been partly driven by market demand, as the city’s population is highly educated, environmentally aware and health conscious.
Chef Sheila Lucero, who is the executive chef for the Jax Fish House group and Lola Coastal Mexican Kitchen, is an active member of Monterey Aquarium’s Blue Ribbon task force, and recently traveling to Washington, D.C. to represent the seafood industry in sustainability talks.
Denver is brimming with chefs eager to take on the sustainability challenge, “even if it means the extra cost and travel time to purchase from farms and fisheries outside the country,” explained Chad Petrone, of Northeast in a story in 303 Magazine on the topic.
More strong proponents in the movement, and active members of James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program, are Jennifer Jasinski, who co-owns Rioja, Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall, and Stoic & Genuine; Jeff Osaka, of 12@Madison, as well as many sushi and ramen restaurants in the city; Matthew Vawter of Mercantile; and Paul C. Reilley of Beast and Bottle.
Following are five of the biggest names and restaurants in the Denver seafood scene, along with their “must-do” dishes.
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