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Boulder Cork celebrates 50 beefy years in veggie-centric Boulder

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Alan Teran and Jim Smailer
Susan France

In 1969, the hippies had invaded Boulder and Richard Nixon was president. Cell phones, the internet and the Paleo diet were decades in the future. Foodies transported back to Boulder would be appalled at the limited dining choices and lack of international eats as the ’60s became the ’70s.  

1969 was the year the Boulder Cork — then the Cork and Cleaver— opened in a new building in the middle of nowhere. Seriously. Few businesses and condos had been built yet in the vicinity, and the only thing east and north of its location on 30th Street, then a two-lane road, were cows. 

The action was all downtown, where you could still drive down Pearl Street between 11th to 16th streets. Only two other local eateries open in ’69 are still serving diners: Flagstaff House and The Greenbriar Inn. A thousand other restaurants have come and gone in Boulder in the intervening half-century. 

What drew locals and visitors to Boulder’s fringe was prime rib: famously fork-tender, well-marbled and juicy rib beef served rare or medium rare. 

Prime rib was a hard-to-find menu item locally in 1969… and in 2019. There’s a reason. It’s roast beef, not a cooked-to-order steak, so it’s something of a crapshoot. At the end of the evening, the pricey leftovers can go in sandwiches or roast beef hash, but the next day’s prime rib starts raw.  

“We really became known as a prime rib house, and not a steak house. That’s always been the biggest draw. We sell at least 1,400 portions a month, too,” says Jim Smailer, executive chef of the Boulder Cork. He has prepared prime rib (and everything else) in the same kitchen for more than 38 years. 

Alan Teran was the CEO of the Cork and Cleaver restaurant chain. In September 1981, he bought the business and changed the name to the Boulder Cork. Smailer came aboard shortly thereafter. “In ’81 we had a really limited menu, seven or eight items including teriyaki steak. We had a salad bar until the early ’90s,” Teran says. 

Susan France

Fast-forward and the Boulder Cork is still at the same location, although the building has been enlarged. The Cork has survived in part by being a bastion of meat in a city that was rapidly becoming the epicenter of the natural foods industry and a community at the forefront of vegetarian and vegan cuisine. To many Boulder residents then and now, prime rib is exactly what’s wrong with our food system and a threat to the sustainability of the planet. 

Teran says they knew they couldn’t rely solely on the sizzle. “We realized we couldn’t survive in Boulder just being a steak place,” Teran says. 

So, Smailer developed a roster of Southwestern-accented items, including the Cork’s popular chicken enchiladas. Before FedEx existed, Smailer secured fresh fish and seafood from both coasts for his specials. He texts regular customers when limited amounts of stellar bay scallops, Maryland crab and other treats are in-house. And yes, lots of veggie-centric diners patronize the establishment, ordering crispy polenta, baked stuffed Anaheim chilies and quinoa cakes with greens, beets and avocado, Smailer says. 

To local growers, Smailer is an important customer. The chef has shopped the Saturday Boulder Farmers Market almost every week since its inception, always leaving with a load of produce destined for the menu. For years Smailer has also maintained a large, prolific organic garden behind the restaurant. In season, he proudly leads tours of the herbs, vegetables and flowers used in his kitchen. 

“I learned a long time ago that consistency was essential, and you couldn’t have a high turnover in employees,” Teran says. The Boulder Cork has employees who have been on the staff for 40 years, and many for a decade or more. 

That’s comforting for regulars — several generations in some families — who see familiar faces when they return for teriyaki steak and mud pie. 

The staff has always included University of Colorado students and the restaurant has had a close association with CU’s athletic department. “We employed the parents when they went to school and now their kids work for us. You have people who were here in college and now their kids are here, so they come back to eat,” Teran says. 

“The thing I’m proudest of in my career is that we’ve maintained a fine dining establishment in Boulder all these years,” Smailer says.

Unlike many restaurateurs, Teran has never given into the temptation to float a second Cork. “How could you duplicate this somewhere else?” Teran says. 

shop for local food gifts

Fill your pantry and gift baskets and support sustainable local food at the free Winter Market at the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont, Dec. 7-8. This final event of the 2019 Boulder Farmers Market season features many of my favorite farmers and food artisans including Black Cat Farm, FermenTasty, Truffles in Paradise, Izzio Artisan Bakery, Medovina Mead and Il Porcellino Salumi, not to mention dozens of gift makers.   

Local Food News

The Boulder-Denver culinary community is teaming up for the second annual Denver Planned Parenthood Bake Sale Dec. 7 at The Source in Denver. Safta, Oak, Moxie Bread Co., Blackbelly, Cake Crumbs, Work & Class and many others are producing and donating the baked goods from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Arrive early, as the goods sell out quickly. … Learn about the heirloom grain movement with Colorado grain expert Nanna Meyer Dec. 7 at Boulder Public Library followed by a grain dinner at Dry Storage. slowfoodboulder.org … Daikon, a banh mi sandwich shop, is open at 1805 29th St., and Cheba Hut sandwiches has closed at 1313 College Ave. 

Taste of the Week

Searching for certain traditional baked goods that make the holidays taste like home in your family? Here are a few local sources: 

Bûche de Noël: Le French Cafe, Boulder 

Stollen: Babette’s Artisan Bread, Longmont

Stollen and springele: Rheinlander Bakery, Arvada

Hammantaschen and rugelach: Rosenberg’s Kosher, Denver 

Lemon ricotta pie and cannoli: Giovanni’s Italian Bakery, Lakewood

Pannetone and sfogliatelle, Dolce Sicilia Italian Bakery, Wheat Ridge

Russian tea cookies, rum balls and paczki: Royal Bakery, Arvada

Kringle and strudel: Taste of Denmark Bakery, Lakewood

Words to Chew On

“You could probably get through life without knowing how to roast a chicken, but the question is, would you want to?” — Nigella Lawson  

John Lehndorff is looking for a locally baked artisan fruitcake. He hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, kgnu.org).