Does Boulder County have a signature dish?

Chefs, restaurant owners and foodies share thoughts on the food that makes our County's dining scene unique

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Beet Steak Entree Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant
Susan France

Think hard and you can loosely associate almost any region, and many cities, with a type of cuisine or a specific dish. Nashville has hot chicken; Texas has brisket; New Orleans has étoufée, gumbo and Creole cuisine; New Haven has pizza; Chicago has Italian beef, hot dogs and deep dish. We could go on, but you get the point.

So, the question begs: What food or cuisine typifies Boulder County?

Of course, there’s no right answer, and so we asked the region’s top food minds for their thoughts. In fact, we contrived a scenario in which they’d have to select one dish, in the hopes the answers, together, would indicate some trends, at the very least:

“You’ve been invited to represent Boulder County in a hypothetical World’s Fair. What one dish are you bringing that exemplifies Boulder County cuisine? There are no wrong answers, and you can be as detailed (or not) as you’d like. Send a recipe from your personal kitchen, or bring a dish from a local restaurant. Add on a local coffee, beer or cocktail, or not. Bring only a locally grown carrot, or serve a five-course meal. What, to you, says, ‘This is what Boulder County food tastes like,’ and why?”

At a time when old, standby restaurants move out of Boulder into East County, two food halls open, the Rayback Collective and County streets welcome rotating food trucks, and food establishments go in and out of business, it’s hard, from the outside to tell guests, when they visit, what kind of food is big in Boulder County.

The answers below, which range from specific dishes to extemporaneous contemplations, are a start.

Oak at Fourteenth

Steven Redzikowski
Executive Chef/Partner, OAK at fourteenth

When I think of Boulder produce and farmers, I automatically think Red Wagon Farm. In my opinion, Red Wagon has the most consistent produce in Colorado. The look, taste and overall care that goes into their produce is second to none — when it comes to quality, everyone knows Wyatt and Amy are your people. Not only that, but I like to support our local growers and foragers whenever I can. If I had to come up with a dish that I believe epitomizes Boulder County cuisine and that showcases Red Wagon Farm in all its glory, it would be our Red Wagon Summer Squash 3 Ways, a dish that features tempura-fried squash blossom, oak-roasted zucchini, a squash and corn emulsion, finished with toasted pistachios.

Lenny Martinelli
Executive Chef/Owner,Three Leaf Concepts

We would bring the Sesame Beet Steak from our own Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant, a delicious dish of hoisin-glazed and sesame-dusted beets, with garlic mashed potatoes, seasonal veggies, a wasabi-cilantro vegan “cream” (non-dairy) and farm-grown microgreens.

The Beet Steak exemplifies Boulder County because although vegetarian and vegan, it’s bursting with the flavor of the local harvest and offers a nutritious but delicious plate of creative, vegetable-forward cuisine. The beets are the highlight of the dish, and rather than serve some kind of fake meat, our chefs have cast the beets as the hero of this flavorful favorite.

We’d serve this with a delightful wine from our local Settembre Cellars, like their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, an earthy, single-vineyard, Colorado-grown Cab.

Rebecca Stumpf Photography

Jon Schwartz
Regional Chef, Snooze

A fusion of free spirits, athletes, CEOs, students and environmentalists, Boulder County is not just a place with serene views and unparalleled beauty. It’s a perfectly blended community of thoughtful people who have come together to create a culture that is big on work and even bigger on play. So, when asked what breakfast dish exemplifies the “taste” of Boulder? The Snooze Makin’ it Grain Bowl was No. 1 on the list. Makin’ it Grain is a perfect blend of three grains — farro, black rice and quinoa — sautéed with onions, wild mushrooms and seasoned balsamic. The dish is finished with thoughtful fresh ingredients like pickled Persian cucumbers, baby arugula, thin-sliced watermelon radish, cage-free eggs and avocado. Like Boulder County the ingredients combine to create a dish that is elegant and beautiful but beyond the beauty are layers of nutritious ingredients that create textures and flavors that will fuel your body for the coveted Boulder balance of work and play.

Roy Benningfield
Chef, SALT Bistro

I would love to bring our famous organic power bowl from Salt Bistro. It represents so much about Boulder County and the food scene here. We love this dish for several reasons. First, it is all organic. It is also plant-based cuisine. There are many different colors and textures, so it is fun to eat and provides tons of vitamins and nutrients. Not only is it healthy for the body, but research suggests it is more beneficial for mental health than prescription drugs. The ingredients change with the seasons and mirror what our local farmers have growing during that time. We love to support our local businesses and organic farmers in the area whenever possible. Many of these ingredients can be found at the farmers’ market. We make a vinaigrette and toss all the raw vegetables and fruits in it. The dressing is made with orange and ginger, providing a flavorful punch. Currently we toss the following ingredients: quinoa, chickpeas, pepitas, cauliflower, spinach, kale, strawberries, pineapple, cabbage, carrots, beets, avocado and whole parsley leaves. We garnish with polenta croutons to avoid gluten and dairy as well. I feel that this represents Boulder County well. We are a very health-conscious community, and as we learn more about the food in America, we want to avoid any potentially harmful foods.

Susan France

Dakota Soifer
Chef/Owner, Café Aion

One of the things I love most about having Café Aion in Boulder is the amazing diversity of local produce and meats that are grown and raised here. It is really fun to be able to cook traditional Spanish dishes using local ingredients. At the Boulder Farmers Market, I can find amazing peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, lamb and grains to use in our Spanish- and Moroccan-inspired cuisine.

Paella has become our signature dish at Café Aion. In addition to preparing paella nightly at the Café, every Saturday we set up our booth at the farmers’ market and prepare giant pans at the outdoor market. This is another wonderful way to find some synergy between an old-world cuisine we love and our more modern home here in Boulder. One of my favorite summer paellas features our house-made chorizo (from local pork) corn, peppers, tomatoes and tender kale, all grown here in Boulder County.

Susan France

Hosea Rosenberg
Chef/Owner, Blackbelly and Santo

It would definitely be a dish centered around lamb. Colorado (and Boulder County) have some of the best in the world. We have amazing ranches here, and it is the best environment for lamb to thrive. I would serve a dish highlighting the many wonderful cuts of lamb, with local, seasonal produce. Right now we are serving our lamb with heirloom bean purée, roast summer squash, bagna cauda vinaigrette and calendula — a local edible flower.

Ku Cha House of Tea

Rong Pan and Qin Liu
Owners, Ku Cha House of Tea

One of our favorites is the autumn chai cookies we serve at Ku Cha. These cookies are infused with Ku Cha’s custom chai, and are perfect for nibbling across and through the winter. They’re made for apres-ski, or for a Thanksgiving dessert table, and ditto for Christmas. They’re just so versatile and satisfying.

Chris Royster
Executive Chef, Flagstaff House

Boulder County is so much more multi-dimensional than just weed and beer. To understand Boulder’s cuisine, you have to start at the Boulder Farmers Market, primarily because it offers the opportunity to know where your food is coming from and allows me the invaluable chance to meet the farmers, purveyors and producers in our area, and I love knowing and seeing the land around Boulder and what it offers. That’s what inspires me, and what makes up Boulder County cuisine.

First and foremost, residents want to know where their food comes from and the market is the best way to do that. Every farm offers something special. And not only so they grow the familiar but foods that are unique, different and outside the range of the normal varieties you find in a supermarket.

And, not only do we have amazing farms, not many people know we have really outstanding opportunities to do some great wild foraging. My sous-chef, Ben Kramer, and I are often out foraging during the season, from mushroom hunting, to foraging for greens right around the City of Boulder, to finding wild apples and cherries all around Boulder County.

Tsehay Hailu

Tsehay Hailu
Chef/Owner, Ras Kassa’s Ethiopian Restaurant

We would bring a dish of grilled chicken and cheese brats, Colorado-grown organic kale, red cabbage and chilies. It’s all grilled, then reduced in a local craft Cerebral Dark Galaxie stout.

Daniel Asher
Chef/Owner, River and Woods

Boulder County is a very sacred space for agriculture and food system awareness. There are so many amazing people doing great work to heal our food system and to connect the threads of potential that together weave a fabric of community and trust. I feel like to explain a restaurant dish from River and Woods would simply be self-serving and not necessarily convey the beauty of actually spending time here. So I would want to just introduce some great folks and hopefully their ideas and vision can inspire a visit to a farm or support of an important food related event.

Michael Brownlee and Lynette Marie, who run the Center for Co-Creation and Local Food Shift. Woody Tasch, founder/author of Slow Money and SOIL. Bobby Gill and Daniela Howell of the Savory Institute (regenerative agriculture and holistic land management) with headquarters in Boulder.

Eric and Jill Skokan, who own Black Cat Farm, Bramble & Hare, Black Cat restaurant, run a farmers’ market booth, are part of the Grain Chain Heritage Grain milling project, and somehow still manage to smile and share knowledge in the midst of all the beautiful chaos.

Rich Pecoraro of Abondanza Farm and the Masa Seed Foundation (tortillas and seeds). Philip Taylor, Mad Agriculture founder, who is leading a quiet revolution towards smarter systems for our local food communities. And Brian Coppom, Boulder Valley Farmers Market director, and Sarah Brito, the Good Food 100 founder.

Connecting with any of these people will inevitably lead to a dish that represents what Boulder County tastes like. It tastes like dreams and dirt and sunshine and hope; like optimism and thoughtfulness, moonlight and mulch, rainfall and stillness. It tastes like kindness and laughter and compost and fresh snow. Boulder County food is nourishment in its most authentic form.