Colorado's Most-Iconic Dishes

With its sweeping plains, rocky mountains and serene lakes, Colorado is home to some pretty stunning vistas — but did you know the regional cuisine is just as diverse and captivating? Here are some of the state's quintessential eats, and the best spots to score them.

December 22, 2022

Related To:

Photo By: ADAM LARKEY PHOTOGRAPHY ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Scottie Davison ©Scottie Davison Photography

Photo By: Marc Piscotty ©© 2011 Marc Piscotty

Photo By: Jessica Grenier ©Jessica Grenier Photography

Photo By: ADAM LARKEY PHOTOGRAPHY ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: ADAM LARKEY PHOTOGRAPHY ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: ADAM LARKEY PHOTOGRAPHY ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: ADAM LARKEY PHOTOGRAPHY ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Rocky Mountain Eats

If you believe, as some do, that Rocky Mountain oysters (look them up if you don’t know) define the core of Colorado’s food climate, consider these 36 dishes that challenge that assumption. Colorado is a melting pot of food cultures that stretches far and wide, and while we’re always on the prowl for edgy, postmodern dishes that raise the culinary bar, these classics are iconic, pioneering tour de forces that beckon us back time and time again.

Editor's Note: This guide was originally published in November 2016 and has been updated with the latest information on these restaurants.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Lamb Fondue

Lamb is one of Colorado's most-famous foods. So while the steaks at Elway's, a quartet of carnivorous emporiums named for the former Denver Broncos quarterback, are exceptional slabs of beautifully seasoned beef well worth a splurge, set your sights on the lamb chops and fondue. The bucket-list starter parades a trio of lightly gamy chops - the lamb is sourced from Mountain States Rosen, a ranch in Greeley - that expose remarkably tender flesh throttled with flavor. The chops really don't require a sidekick, but the warm cheese fondue, creamy with pepper Jack and peppered with a variety of fresh chiles, sort of makes you want to snort it. It's been said by many that Colorado lays claim to the best lamb in the world; Elway's chops are proof positive that they're right.

Prime Rib

Prime rib, recently derided as nothing more than hotel buffet trickery, has not completely fallen by the wayside. And to ensure that it never does, there’s the Ship Tavern, a decades-old, nautically appointed throwback to simpler times, when things like fat-wreathed strips of beef, mashed potatoes, vodka martinis and crooners tickling the ivories symbolized a life of luxury. A Denver mainstay, the Ship Tavern still strikes notes of nostalgia, corralling locals and tourists alike with its piano bar and lionized prime rib, fatty and tender slabs of slow-roasted meat paired with whipped potatoes, vegetables, grilled tomatoes, au jus and horseradish. If the Tavern has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes you don’t want to jump ship for the latest and greatest food trend. 

Go to: Ship Tavern

Rocky Mountain Oysters

Colorado is revered for its brilliant blue skies, snow-powdered ski slopes, endless pageantry of sunshine, towering peaks and unparalleled beer climate. And for better or worse, the state is also extolled for its Rocky Mountain oysters, otherwise known as the balls of a bull. Frankly, they taste a lot like chicken and aren't as remotely exotic as some might think, but visitors insistent on biting the bullet should go full on balls-to-the-wall and make the pilgrimage to Bruce’s Bar in Severance, a small town north of Denver “where the geese fly and the bulls cry.” An affable staple since the 1950s, Bruce’s serves its signature baskets of Rocky Mountain oysters, breaded and fried, in bull or bison varieties, and just in case a barrage of fried testicles doesn’t fulfill your grease allowance, take solace in the fact that the baskets arrive loaded with fries too. Ballsy.

Photo courtesy of Adam Larkey

Go to: Bruce's Bar

Lobster Macaroni and Cheese

Anyone remotely familiar with Mizuna, Chef Frank Bonanno’s French-inspired flagship restaurant in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, knows exactly what to get: the long-standing, much-ballyhooed lobster macaroni and cheese. It’s completely anti-ethical if you’re obsessed with having a Barbie doll waistline, but for the rest of us that revel in the sensuality of butter and cream, coupled with the ultra-richness of mascarpone and sweet Maine lobster flesh, it’s the kind of heart-racing dish that stirs up lusty emotions normally reserved for a different kind of love.

Photo courtesy of Scottie Davidson

Go to: Mizuna

Braised Duck

Countless Denverites trained their taste buds at Barolo Grill, a shrine to northern Italian cuisine that opened in 1992 and continues to spellbind the culinary cognoscenti with exquisite creations that push the envelope. But while Executive Chef Darrel Truett trots out a new menu every few months, he realizes that some things are sacred: the restaurant’s brilliant Barolo wine-braised duck, for example, which, since its inception, has always occupied a prominent spot on the menu. If Truett dared to remove it, Denver would unleash a gaggle of demonic geese at his doorstep. The duck, billed (no pun intended) as the "Anatra di barolo" on Truett’s board, gets its name from the original recipe — a recipe that a few chefs tampered with before Truett restored the mother clucker to its former glory.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Greiman

Go to: Barolo Grill

Double Johnny Burger

The double-fisted burger from My Brother’s Bar, a decades-old corner tavern that’s devoid of signage, is the equivalent of a culinary artifact. It’s been a staple for more than 40 years, wooing Denverites and sojourners alike with its duo of thin patties paved with properly melted Swiss and American cheeses, a smear of cream cheese and grilled onions, all tucked between two sesame seed-dotted bun halves wrapped in wax paper. It really doesn’t require embellishments, but if you insist on extra flourishes, there’s an accompanying condiment tray stocked with bowls of pepperoncini, raw onions, pickles, relish and more.

Photo courtesy of Ben Haley

Go to: My Brother's Bar

Soup Dumplings

In Denver’s culinary circles, you really can’t utter Chef Lon Symensma’s name without interjecting superlatives about his soup dumplings. They’ve graced the menu of ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro from the beginning, and while Symensma frequently flecks his Southeast Asian board with captivating new knockouts, the soup dumplings are his indisputable hallmark (his kaya toast with coconut jam and “egg cloud” is a close second). Propped in a dim sum basket, the pliable dumplings, plumped with sweet caramelized onions, nutty Gruyere and a broth fragrant with sherry and thyme, are one of the best bites that will ever pass through your lips. 

Go to: ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro

Truffle Fries

The venerated fries at Aspen’s hottest apres-ski hangout, Ajax Tavern, are a splurge, but so is everything else in Glitter Gulch, so you may as well embrace the high life and hefty price tags. And truth be told, Ajax elevates the humble potato to soaring heights, as its signature hand-cut, skin-on, bronzed fries are served in a seemingly bottomless V-shaped cone. The fries, spritzed with truffle oil, flecked with parsley and topped with crumbles of Grana Padano, are nothing short of legendary: You’ll even witness celebrities kicking their diets to the curb to indulge in the gluttony.

Photo courtesy of Ajax Tavern

Go to: Ajax Tavern

Smothered Chile Relleno Burrito

Pretty much nothing personifies Denver’s obsession with plumped burritos more than this chile relleno heavyweight from El Taco de Mexico, a modest storefront — in the colors of the Mexican flag — that dispenses the city’s best tortilla-wrapped gut bombs. There are several flavor combinations, but the relleno number, a lightly breaded and fried chile stuffed into a griddled tortilla already bulging with refried beans and rice, is the joint’s siren song. Do what everyone else in Denver does and smother it with the kitchen’s sensational green chile, a smattering of white cheese, a fistful of cilantro and onions, and a liberal surge of the vibrant salsa; you’ll understand why there are moans of euphoria after every bite.

Photo courtesy of Lori Midson

Go to: El Taco de Mexico

Cinnamon Rolls

Since 1952, Johnson’s Corner, a trucker pit stop in Johnstown, has plied weary, bleary-eyed road warriors with what may be the state’s most-glorified injection of sugar: scratch-made, skyscraping, spiraled, old-fashioned cinnamon rolls lavishly glazed with white icing. The original cinnamon roll — a recipe created by a former employee — is always available, but keep an eye out for the monthly concoctions that zigzag from blueberry to pumpkin to bacon-cinnamon. Eat one there, then pick up a baker’s dozen for midnight snacking.

Photo courtesy of Johnson’s Corner

Go to: Johnson's Corner

Sugar Steak

There are plenty of yesteryear heirlooms at Bastien’s Restaurant, a retro Denver steakhouse that channels the days of Dino, Frank and Sammy with the decor of a mid-century supper club and cocktails that hanker back to a time when vodka martinis were all the rage. Not much has changed throughout its storied 75-year history, including its legendary sugar-dusted steak, a thick-cut slab of grill-marked beef festooned with a flower and matched with soup or a house salad and an election of spuds, the winner of which is the twice-baked potato.

Photo courtesy of Ruth Tobias

Go to: Bastien's Restaurant

Pineapple Upside-Down Pancakes

Of all the pancakes that stamp the breakfast menus of Denver, none has quite the devout following as the pineapple upside-down flapjacks at Snooze, a collection of retro-themed diners that channels The Jetsons. You, like everyone else, will stand in line for an astronomically long time, giving your brain plenty of time to ponder the cosmos, but once those prized saucer-shaped pancakes — implanted with particles of caramelized pineapple, streaked with vanilla creme anglaise and dabbed with a blot of cinnamon butter — hit the table, you’ll be so dizzy with delirium that you might begin to wonder if flying saucers really do exist.

Go to: Snooze 7co

Eggs Pontchatrain

Trout fishing — lake, stream, reservoir or river — is one of Colorado’s most-ritualistic outdoor pursuits, and while the angler’s favorite flapper is usually on the docket for dinner (cue campfires and Kumbaya), Lucile’s, a homey local chain that specializes in Cajun and Creole cuisine, trots out the trout for breakfast and lunch, mating the pan-fried mountain catch with a pair of poached eggs draped with bearnaise sauce, plus grits, potatoes or a gloriously flaky buttermilk biscuit. Make sure to get a cup of the caffeine-jolted chicory coffee too.

Photo courtesy of Adam Larkey

Go to: Lucile's Creole Cafe

Elk-Jalapeno Dog

Twelve years ago, Biker Jim, aka Jim Pittenger, opened a tricked-out hot dog cart on the 16th Street Mall in Denver. But instead of dishing out dirty-water dogs, he channeled his wacky side, pimping exotic game sausages to curious onlookers, teenage ninjas and just about anyone else prowling for a different breed of tube steak. Several carts and a brick-and-mortar Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs outpost later, Pittenger’s wild wieners, especially his canonized elk-jalapeno sausage embellished with the classic unification of squiggles of cream cheese and onions sweated in soda, are still top dog.

Photo courtesy of Biker Jim’s

Go to: Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs

Artichoke Tortelloni

At Rioja, a beautiful Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of Denver’s Larimer Square (co-owned with business partner Beth Gruitch), Executive Chef (and James Beard Foundation Best Chef Southwest title holder) Jennifer Jasinski turns out a star-studded repertoire of dishes that evoke audible murmurs of rhapsody. Of them, none may be as spellbinding as the signature artichoke tortelloni, a dish that’s graced the menu since day one. The delicate handmade pasta pillows, cradling creamy goat cheese mousse scented with white truffle essence, float in an earthy artichoke broth that‘s so ethereal no one faults the diners who drink the bowl dry.

Photo courtesy of Rioja

Go to: Rioja

Cheese Enchiladas

Even Coloradoans who haven’t hit up a Taco House since high school still know precisely what to pick: cheese enchiladas, three to a plate, stuffed with plastic yellow cheese (maybe American, maybe Velveeta, probably both), their top layers sprinkled with the smallest dice of onions and cloaked in a red gravy that the joints in Lakewood and Denver sell by the pouch. Everything here, including the plate of enchiladas, leans more toward a suburban potluck palette than toward the prim parties of, say, politicians. But the enchiladas have been a staple on the menu for more than a half-century, and while you’ll never hear anyone dare call them "authentic," they embody the comforting embrace of childhood.

Photo courtesy of Lori Midson

Go to: Taco House


First thing’s first: Casa Bonita in Lakewood is a tourist trap, a crazy-weird, multilevel labyrinth of pirate caves, omnipresent mariachi bands, fire jugglers, arcades, goofy magicians, goofier puppet shows, fake shootouts, some dude dressed as a gorilla who chases after shrieking kids, pseudo tropical trees and muscle-flexing males diving off a cliff, a cascading waterfall at their backs. The food? Set expectations low, because the cafeteria-style, Americanized Mexican stuff that’s propped on your plate often doesn’t satisfy fiesta fantasies. The one exception is the incredulously delicious sopaipillas, puffy pillows of sugar-smooched dough that, next to the cliff divers, have been the star attraction for more than 40 nostalgic years. Bonus: The sopaipillas, which come free with every food order, are bottomless.

Photo courtesy of Food Network

Go to: Casa Bonita


There are many things worth stuffing down your gullet at Denver’s The Bagel Deli and Restaurant, a Jewish deli that’s still going strong after three decades. But the Reuben, a portly pyramid of melted Swiss, tangy sauerkraut and hand-sliced corned beef fleshy with patchworks of fat and sandwiched between slices of crunchy rye, reigns supreme. Its imposing size makes most sandwiches of the same ilk look positively anemic, but this is a deli that’s extolled for plates that grandstand plentitude, and given the sandwich’s elevation, it's likely you’ll waddle out the door with leftovers.

Photo courtesy of The Bagel Deli and Restaurant

Go to: The Bagel Delicatessen & Restaurant

Ho Ho Cupcakes

Long before cupcakes became a craze, there was the Ho Ho cupcake at City, O’ City, a hipster cafe in the heart of Denver’s trendy Capitol Hill hood that’s a super-cool spot for vegetarians and vegans to eat dessert first. Truth be told, even if you’re a cynic who cringes at the thought of a sweet finale that doesn’t involve butter or cream, you’ll still go bonkers for this hedonistic (but wholesome) vegan chocolate cupcake that’s stuffed with vanilla "cream,” capped with dark chocolate ganache and punctuated with a flourish of vanilla frosting dotted with chocolate chips.

Photo courtesy of Will Travel for Vegan Food

Go to: City, O' City

Lobster Roll

Steuben’s is not a dockside shack. Nor is it a seafood joint. Far from the coast of Maine — or any coast, for that matter — it’s an urbanized diner squatting on a tree-lined avenue in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood, where moisture is measured by inches of rain and feet of snow. But those who think that because Denver is landlocked that fresh seafood isn’t prevalent are dead-as-a fish-in-the-water wrong. For proof, consider Steuben’s lobster roll, a signature smash hit since the day the restaurant opened more than a decade ago. A marriage of knuckle, claw and tail meat bounded with a minimal amount of mayo-based dressing punctuated with onions and celery, the lobster sits in a griddled split-top bun sheened with butter. The mound of fries is legendary too.

Photo courtesy of Adam Larkey Photography

Go to: Steuben's Food Service


In the 1950s, a regular by the name of Herb Casebeer sauntered into Gray’s Coors Tavern in Pueblo and requested a dish that wasn’t on the menu: a burger smothered with green chile. The joint dubbed the impromptu creation the Pueblo Slopper, and if you happen to find yourself in Pueblo — a town where the Slopper rules the culinary wars — you shouldn’t forgo the opportunity to confront defeat, which is likely to happen since the beast-in-a-bowl that’s brought to the table at Gray’s is roughly the size of a small planet: two burger patties, a commanding wallop of green or bean-studded red chile (our advice is to get both), a toasted bun, gooey American cheese, enough onions to make your eyes weep a river and, if you’re so inclined, a crush of fries, which you mix into the lake of chile-laced lava. Nowhere else but here do sloppy and slobbery exist in such Slopper-y harmony.

Photo courtesy of Adam Larkey

Go to: Gray's Coors Tavern

Frico Caldo

If you called Frasca Food and Wine’s Frico Caldo a potato cake, you’d be right. But here, in this culinary temple of exaltation, it wouldn’t be remotely absurd to call the Frico Caldo — a food that has roots in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region — the eighth wonder of the world. It’s the one dish in the kitchen’s canon of wonderments that’s been a constant on the menu since Frasca opened in Boulder in the summer of 2004, and no matter how many times you order it, the holy matrimony of tawny potatoes, sweet onions and creamy Friulian cheese called Montaio will continue to be the best Frico Caldo you’ve ever had in your life.

Photo courtesy of Frasca Food and Wine

Go to: Frasca Food and Wine

Mountain Pie Pizza

In 1973, the gold mining mountain town of Idaho Springs unleashed the original Beau Jo’s, a rusticated habitat that introduced Colorado-style pizza to the masses. The Mountain Pies, as they’re known, are chewy, bready and barbarically thick (Chicago-style ‘za has nothing on these beasts), their crusts — white, honey-whole wheat or gluten-free — mounted with a thick blanket of cheese, one of eleven different sauces and a choice of a whopping 36 toppings that zigzag from pepperoni to kale chips. The pizzas, sold by the pound, are almost too heavy to lift, making them the ultimate expression of excess. Since the inception of Beau Jo’s, six additional outposts have opened throughout Colorado, but the Idaho Springs pioneer is still the best place to experience Colorado’s signature pie in the sky.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Holton/Beau Jo’s

Go to: Beau Jo's

Budino: Pizzeria Locale

A dessert would have to be pretty superlative to surpass a restaurant’s namesake dish. But fans of the Butterscotch Budino at Pizzeria Locale say it supersedes the restaurant’s sensational Neapolitan pizzas. The luscious dessert involves butterscotch pudding padded with a layer of lightly salted caramel, followed by a spiral of whipped cream and shavings of chocolate. Life is short. Order two.

Photo courtesy of Pizzeria Locale

Go to: Pizzeria Locale

Kale & Apple Salad: Oak at Fourteenth

Some would say that it’s time to dial back our infatuation with kale; others have written off the cruciferous green altogether, rolling their eyes at the mere mention of the four-letter word that’s synonymous with what health junkies call "maximum nutrition." But Chef Steven Redzikowski, who co-owns Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, doesn’t give a flying stem about the naysayers. A menu staple from the outset, the salad is textured with candied almonds and thin-sliced apples, and it's vibrantly seasoned with lemon, Parmesan and a shake of togarashi, a peppery Japanese spice blend.

Go to: Oak at Fourteenth

Rockie Dog

Coors Field, home turf to the Colorado Rockies baseball team, is easily one of the top ballparks in the country for foodstuffs that cover all the bases, but while the concessionaires and restaurants ballyhoo everything from build-your-own salads to gluten-free quesadillas and pulled pork and corn cakes, the Rockie Dog is the undisputed fan favorite. Stretching the length of a ruler, the Hebrew National frankfurter comes torpedoed with onions, sauerkraut and tricolored peppers.

Go to: Coors Field

Odell 90 Shilling Ale

Colorado, in case you haven’t heard, is the holy grail of hops and barley. This is a state that’s ridiculously obsessed with its beer culture, and with more than 150 craft breweries stamped across the republic — and more on the way — it’s no wonder that tourists build their sojourns to the state solely around their next pint. For an easy-drinking craft beer that represents the state’s better suds, try the flagship 90 Shilling Ale from Odell, a Fort Collins-based brewery that was founded in 1989. The Scottish-style amber ale, with a reasonable alcohol by volume of 5.3 percent, is smooth, medium-bodied and irresistibly delicious. You can sip that — and numerous other craft beers — in its Fort Collins tap room.

Photo courtesy of Adam Larkey

Go to: Falling Rock Tap House

Gyro Plate

Pete Contos, as most Denverites are aware, is the founder of Pete’s Kitchen, a 24/7 Greek diner that’s seen just about every type belly up to the counter for heaping plates of butter-soaked hash browns, omelets stuffed with the kitchen sink, breakfast burritos bigger than a newborn and the been-there-forever gyro plate — its piece de resistance. The platter, splayed with thin shavings of vibrantly seasoned, spit-roasted lamb, is paired with mint-flecked tzatziki sauce, pita bread and, for good measure, a pyramid of fries. It’s a spectacle that can seem over the top. But at 2 a.m., Pete’s is your path to lessening a hangover.

Photo courtesy of Lori Midson

Go to: Pete's Kitchen

Double Cheeseburger

You want fries with your burger? Look elsewhere. Onion rings? Not here. Over-the-top embellishments like foie gras? Snort! You’ll know Bud’s Bar in Sedalia by the motorcycle motorcade that fronts the entrance of this generations-old roadside shack that slings one thing: burgers. And the kitchen does them extraordinarily well, frying the fantastic patties on the flattop, slapping the meat with melty American cheese and begrudgingly serving a bowl of pickles and onions, known here as superfluous garnishments, on the side. A few people get a single; those in the know always, always get a two-fisted double, a bag of Lay’s potato chips and a cold beer that, like the burgers, is as familiar as the faded interior.

Photo courtesy of Lori Midson

Go to: Bud's Cafe and Bar

Tasty Treats

Oh, the tales we could tell. Gaetano’s, an indelible presence since the ripe old year of 1947, began its storied history in North Denver as a red-sauce joint owned — and frequented — by the mafia. Gentlemen — the sort that you didn’t mess with — lounged in the back corner of the bar, plumes of smoke drifting from the tips of their fat cigars. Most of them cursed and drank with abandonment. Few of them ate, but when they did, it usually involved the joint’s quintessential Tasty Treats, copper-hued rolls of dough bulked with roasted New Mexican chiles clasped around a fennel-laced Italian sausage link. Like most things, Gaetano’s has changed over the years, relinquishing the majority of its classic dishes for more modernized creations, but the Treats continue to bridge the generational gap, one tasty bite at a time.

Photo courtesy of Lori Midson

Go to: Gaetano's

More from:

States' Plates