The River North Art District, or RiNo, used to be nothing more than a bunch of rundown warehouses just beyond downtown Denver. In the past few years, the neighborhood has emerged as the city’s art and culinary hub. Larimer Street, its main artery, is lined with breweries, urban wineries and artisanal coffee shops, along with galleries, and the area has no less than three food halls showcasing cuisines from around the globe. The cocktail savants behind Death & Co. recently up-leveled Denver’s drinking game by partnering with the new Ramble Hotel; and big-name out-of-town chefs, including Tyson Cole of Austin and Alon Shaya of New Orleans, are opening spots in RiNo later this year. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pay attention to the local talent. Denver chefs are having a moment, proving that this certainly isn’t just a steakhouse town anymore.
At first glance, the two adjacent bungalows on Larimer Street, nearly identical except for their starkly contrasting paint jobs (one white, one slate gray), look like misplaced homes. But on a warm day, the crowded patio outside the white building, Call (call-denver.com; 2845 Larimer St.; 303-954-0230) hints that there’s something special inside. Walk through the door and the minimalist design and aroma of freshly baked bread transports you to Scandinavia. The six-table, all-day cafe opened in December and is helmed by chef Duncan Holmes, an alum of Colorado’s acclaimed Frasca Food and Wine. All of Call’s breads — from sourdough English muffins to brioche buns used for the decadent pork and fried egg sandwich ($10) — are made from scratch and baked in the German Miwe oven that anchors the open kitchen. A counter display shows off pastries, breads, and grab-and-go sandwiches wrapped in paper printed to look like phone book pages. Aebleskiver ($6), traditional Danish treats that resemble doughnut holes, are a staple, served with whipped ricotta, powdered sugar and homemade seasonal jams. (At night, they’re transformed with lardo and porcini.) In true Scandi-style, coffee is an art here and prepared in a sleek Mavam espresso maker, the first of its kind in Denver. Later this summer, the neighboring space will open as a 17-seat, tasting-menu-only sister restaurant called Beckon.
Gourmet food halls have become essential for any serious food city. Denver has its share. The newest, Zeppelin Station (zeppelinstation.com; 3501 Wazee St.; 720-460-1978), opened in March and acts as a showcase of global cuisine from some of the Mile High City’s top culinary talents. Located at the foot of the new 38th & Blake Station on the light rail’s A Line, the 100,000-square foot space houses seven food vendors, an artisanal coffee shop and two bars. It’s easy to eat your way around the world, with menus showcasing foods of Vietnam, India, Montreal and more. A cornstarch coating and gochujang (spicy chile paste) glaze are the secret behind Injoi Korean Kitchen’s addictive fried chicken ($5 per leg; $6 for two wings; $7 for four tenders), which can be ordered plain, spicy, extra hot, regular or with a Korean-inspired dry rub. Save room for Gelato Boy’s namesake dessert ($7.25), which sandwiches a scoop of your favorite flavor (keep an eye out for roasted strawberry coconut or black sesame vanilla) in a warm sesame bun from neighboring vendor, Vinh Xuong Bakery. If you need a post-lunch jolt, order a Midnight in Saigon ($6.50) — Vietnamese iced coffee with a double shot of espresso — from Dandy Lion; for something more soothing try the matcha steamer ($4.50).
Dim sum carts, luchador masks and large format punches are just some of the highlights at Super Mega Bien (supermegabien.com; 1260 25th St.; 720-269-4695), which opened earlier this month in the Ramble Hotel. The second project of Tony Maciag and chef Dana Rodriguez, the duo behind always crowded Work & Class (located across the street), offers a deep dive into pan-Latin American flavors. Research trips to Peru, Cuba and Mexico helped inform the delicious menu, which is cleverly divided into small plates served on dim sum-style carts ($3 to $11) and family-style offerings ($15 to $28). It’s easy to make a meal of small plates, which servers track with stamps of regional heroes, such as Simón Bolívar. Dishes include comfort foods such as ropa vieja, Cuban shredded beef served atop of sweet plantain cake, and gussied Salvadoran pupusas — stuffed masa cakes — wrapped in sassafras-flavored hoja santa leaves and topped with a fried quail egg and pepitas. This is one place where it’s worth ordering the chicken as a main dish. Taking inspiration from the Yucatan’s pollo pibil, the meat is marinated overnight in achiote paste, baked and then grilled, leaving it incredibly juicy and flavorful.