by Eric Elkins
What does comfort food mean to you? A toasty cup of soup on a snowy day? A deep bowl of ramen, rich in broth and overflowing with noodles? Hot stews, redolent of braised meat and golden aromatics?
Sure, Colorado has plenty of those dishes (some served all year), but we also sport tasty platters of delight that will provide you with a warm belly and a happy heart on a chilly winter’s day.
A rundown like this can be challenging, with so many changing menus inspired by seasonal ingredients and mile-high style. So I’ve focused on staple, signature dishes you should be able to find throughout the colder months.
Hot Bowls o’ Goodness
If you ask fans of Uncle what to order, they’ll reliably tell you that the spicy chicken ramen with its creamy sesame broth and soft egg is the best thing you can slurp up on a crisp evening. But if you’re up for something different, try their spiced lamb, all sauced up and flavorful, with nuances of fennel and coconut milk. It’s served in a bowl alongside hot jasmine rice, which lets you mix the two together a little at a time, making every delectable bite balanced and perfect.
The modern take on traditional hot pot at Bronze Empire has a burner at every place setting, meaning everyone at the table can select one of their many broth options and then share all of the ingredients to drop in — from thinly-sliced brisket to seafood to mushrooms to tofu and more. Fill your table with everything you love, then cook it all in your personal pot until each item hits the tenderness your palate prefers.
On Fridays and Saturdays only, Zoe Ma Ma in Union Station serves up their unctuous and hearty duck noodle wonton soup. It’s one of my favorite dishes in the whole city, and worth a stop on your way to or from the airport if you’re taking the train at Union Station. This big bowl of noodles and broth is topped up with shredded duck meat and duck-filled wantons. Add in your sauce combination of choice and breathe in the happy.
Israeli Shakshuka, eggs simmered in a chunky tomato base, isn’t just for breakfast anymore! And when it’s served up at Safta (on the second floor of The Source Hotel in RiNo), with their epic fresh pita, you’ll feel so enveloped by warmth and flavor, you won’t care what time of day it is. The restaurant’s menu is basically a rundown of the tastiest Mediterranean-inspired comfort foods.
For some of us, sushi is a year-round comfort food. But if you want something steamy, try the Agedashi Tofu at Mizu Izakaya. Served up in a Japanese pot, the dashi broth is salty and sweet, and the deep-fried tofu is crispy on the outside and panna cotta-smooth on the inside. A hot green tea and a cold sake are the perfect pairings on a cold, snowy day.
Fortune Wok-to-Table is a secret gem in the heart of Cherry Creek North. The casual downstairs dining area specializes in dumplings and toasty Chinese noodle soups — pick your broth, protein, and noodle style. You can also venture to the tiny upstairs dining room for a more elevated take on Chinese cuisine, like a rich and spicy Mapo Tofu.
Proteins and Potatoes and Pastas
If you just need a simple, delicious warmer and nothing else will do, make your way to one of the following restaurants and settle in for a fill-up.
The Way Back in the Highlands has some of the best homemade pastas you’ll find in the city, but the restaurant, known for its constantly changing menu (based on fresh ingredients available) has a strong reputation for kick-ass fried chicken. Served up with seasonal sides, it’s a go-to for neighborhood regulars.
And though Chef Justin Brunson is proud of his own fried chicken at meat-centric Old Major, he recommends the hearty ham and biscuits appetizer, served up with red pepper jam. Sweet and savory!
By the time you read this, Ash’Kara will have opened in the LoHi neighborhood! You’ll want to warm up with their toasty tagines — warm, braised meats and veggies in a hearty sauce. Chef Daniel Asher is known for his comfort food as much as he is for his attention to detail and sustainable practices, so anything you order will be good for your soul.
Chow Morso opened their downtown brick-and-mortar restaurant in early autumn after a stint in the Avanti Food & Beverage startup incubator. The big star from the beginning was their gnocchi with crimini mushrooms and a rich umami sauce. With big flakes of parmesan cheese feathered over the whole bowl, this filling dish is an achievement.
The Wolf’s Tailor (in the Highlands) changes its menu on the fly, depending on what ingredients are available. Whether you call it Japanese-inspired Italian food or Italian-inflected Japanese cuisine (you heard me), you’ll also call it delicious. Dishes range from izakaya-style skewers and tapas to big, sharable plates of food. But with their pastas handmade from heirloom grains ground in-house, their noodle soups are unique and dramatic — think bucatini in a shitake and beef ragu or buckwheat soba noodles in a golden bone broth.
In Boulder, stop into Oak at Fourteenth for an array of comforting small plates, but don’t miss the oak grilled beef short rib, fall-apart tender and served with cauliflower gremolata.
If you’re up in the mountains, you’ll probably want to get yourself blue crab and shrimp enchiladas from Maya at The Westin Riverfront in Beaver Creek. Sure, a Mexican-inspired seafood dish might not be your first instinct in a mountain resort, but these sautéed crab-and-shrimp delights are filled with mascarpone and wrapped in a yellow corn tortilla and served with creamy salsa verde topped with a four-cheese blend. Kind of the perfect thing after a day on the slopes.
And no snowy day on the slopes is complete if you don’t pick up a breakfast sandwich or two at Blue Moon Bakery just off the highway in Silverthorne.
Not into actual meat, but still want something that’s going to fill your tummy and warm your insides? Head over to Watercourse, a vegetarian institution in Denver. The BBQ Jackfruit will make you think of pulled pork in BBQ sauce, but it’s also safe for the vegans in your life. Watercourse is full of comfort foods sans meat, and you’ll find something delicious no matter how much of a carnivore you may be.
At Uncle’s sister restaurant, Hop Alley, chef/owner Tommy Lee has a new and delicious addition to the menu — Sichuan boiled beef. As he says, “Boring name, definitely not boring on the palate.” The thin-sliced meat is simmered in a broth of peppers and fermented chili paste, and it has the inviting, front-of-thetongue buzz that only Sichuan peppers can provide.
Over on Platte Street, Dead Battery Club’s chef Scott Parker has been doing up a playful arrangement of hot, filled buns. For something unique and warming, try the green chile and brisket stuffed bun, which swims in a bowl of thick broth. Eat it with a spoon and be sure to get every last drop.
Steuben’s is an Uptown classic (with a second location in Arvada), and though I’ll always be in love with their flank steak with chimichurri butter, probably the most popular comfort dish is their green chile burger.
Oh, but Work & Class in RiNo is 100-percent comfort food, from the hearty sides to the meats you order by weight, each one special in its own way. I can’t live without the roast lamb and tender beef short rib, but if you want to try something truly magical, order a half-pound of Chef Dana Rodriguez’s shredded goat and savor every bite. It’s so rich and delightful, deeply meaty in the best possible way, and will fill you with faith in humanity. Pair it with their chickpea fritters and you’re golden.
The “Grandma’s Plate” from Dos Abuelas food truck which is parked at Finn’s Manor in RiNo, features a combo of rice, beans, and sweet plantains, paired with your choice of pork, steak, or chicken. It’s a hot and friendly taste of Puerto Rico in a casual environment.
Wherever you go in Denver and beyond, you’re sure to find the hearty dish that’ll warm you up, fight those seasonal blues, or make you forget the stresses of the outside world for a few moments. We all need a hug in a bowl sometimes.
Comfort on the Side
Plenty of side dishes and small plates fit the comfort food category, too. Here are a few staple faves.
Grilled Cheese: Melted cheese on bread is a trusty comfort food, no matter the season. The multi-cheese pressed wonder at Lady Jane is perfect for 1 a.m. hangover prevention, while the grilled cheese with tomato butter at Duo is a crunchy treat. Morin’s Pain au Lait sandwich isn’t comfort food for everyone (and it doesn’t have cheese), but the crispy veal sweetbreads, served with pickled apples between slices of milk bread perfection, are a small wonder.
Mac ‘n’ Cheese: A year-round soul saver. Denver has its share of delicious variations. It’s a must-order at Interstate in the Santa Fe Arts District, but also something you won’t want to miss at Low Country Kitchen and Steuben’s.
Soup Dumplings: Chef Lon’s pillows of heat and happy at ChoLon Bistro are a Denver legend. Let ‘em cool before you chomp on them.
Tartine and Fancy Toast: Call’s seasonal tartines are all about fresh, winter flavors. Pair with their changing array of soups. And don’t miss Chef Carrie Baird’s seasonal fancy toasts at Bar Dough.
Tots: Crispy pillows of potato indulgence are my (drunk) comfort food of choice. My absolute favorites can be found at Highland Tavern — a classic, old-school sports bar in LoHi, and at Carbon Beverage Café, where their two-bite Wu Tang Tots are served up spicy and sweet and salty.
Eric Elkins loves to pair his comfort foods with a tasty bourbon cocktail. He’s CEO of WideFoc.us Social Media, celebrating 11 years in business, and writes young adult novels on the side. He chronicles his tasty travels on Instagram at @ericelkins.