thirsty lion pork belly tacos

Thirsty Lion’s Summer Menu: Pork Belly Tacos, Heirloom Tomato Salad, and More

I’ve really liked Thirsty Lion ever since they opened at Union Station (they now also have a Cherry Creek location). It’s a fun, hip bar that’s always happening, has a great patio facing all the bustle of Union Station, offers awesome happy hour deals and an extensive menu — and is in my opinion the best “gastropub” we have in downtown Denver. I recently got a chance to try their summer menu with a friend of mine, and I cannot recommend it enough. Read on for some of the highlights — all available at Union Station or in Cherry Creek.

Before I get into the food, I do want to mention this amazing summer cocktail: The Raspberry Mint Mule-jito (fresh raspberries muddled with mint, lemon, lime, Bacardi rum, Malibu rum, simply syrup, and ginger beer). I love raspberries, so maybe I’m biased, but I always crave a refreshing raspberry cocktail in the summer. Panzano used to have a fantastic one (the R&R), but that’s long gone. This is definitely the perfect replacement to fill the hole in my drinking heart.

thirsty lion summer cocktail

As much of a meat-lover as I am, my 1st love in life is tomatoes. Anything that says “heirloom tomatoes” will get me through the door. So yes, yes, and yes. No summer menu is complete without some generous slices of heirloom tomato. Add some fresh mozarella and basil — and my life is complete.

thirsty lion heirloom tomato salad

If you know me, you know I love me some tacos. Especially pork belly tacos. These have a fantastic Asian twist with the hoisin glaze, daikon, carrot, jalapeno, gochujang sauce (red chili paste), and pickled radish. There are a lot of people doing pork belly tacos all over town, but it’s hard to get the right combination: you definitely need some spice, vinegar, and crunch to balance out the sweet fattiness of pork belly — and these do a great job, if I may say so myself.

thirsty lion pork belly tacos

If you’d told me there was a “summer” pasta dish before this day, I’d be very skeptical. In fact, I was very skeptical when I ordered this Seared Shrimp & Heirloom Tomato Linguini (with garlic, asparagus, olives, red peppers, grape and heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, spinach, feta, and a parmesan crisp). But in fact, this is the perfect summer pasta dish. No heavy creams or butters or super-meaty sauces here (which are delicious, but not quite suitable for summer). Just some juicy shrimp and a variety of veggie flavors and textures — all piled on top of a simple pasta. A great go-to summer Italian dish!

thirsty lion summer pasta and shrimp

I of course couldn’t leave without managing to make room for dessert in my already-full stomach. It’s a skill I work very hard for. (Some people go to cycling class… I eat and drink.) Introducing the Strawberry Rhubarb & White Chocolate Cheesecake. It’s not quite D Bar dessert quality (then again, what is?) — but still a very satisfying end to the meal and perfect for summer 🙂

thirsty lion summer cheesecake

And if you’re curious about the full summer menu (and happy hour menu, of course) — here they are! Some of my happy hour recommendations include the caesar salad, bacon-wrapped BBQ prawns, and spicy fried chicken sliders.

 

Citizen Rail Opens in LoDo with a Fantastic Happy Hour and Dry-Aged Steaks

The recently-opened Citizen Rail on 16th & Wewatta in LoDo has brought an awesome new happy hour to the area — and it definitely stands out among all the other downtown options with the quality of the food and drink options.

Happy hour runs daily 2:30pm – 6pm, but get there early, because it gets packed!

During happy hour, you can get select specialty cocktails for $7, beer for $4, wine for $5, or a “combo” such as a glass of rose + mezcal (or a glass of stout + bourbon) for $7. What I like is that the happy hour wine options aren’t your typical Chardonnay and Merlot, but a Spanish Albrarino and Garnacha.

A must-order during happy hour is the Crispy Artichokes & Dungeness Crab (photo at the top of this post). Not only does it look like a work of art, but it’s also delicious. They get those artichokes perfectly crispy, which goes so well with the tender crab. And it’s only $9 during happy hour, vs. $16 during dinner.

Another amazing happy hour option is the Hickory-Braised Oxtail & Rice Grits (below) — $6 during happy hour instead of $13. Oxtail is generally my favorite cut of meat, because of how tender and juicy you can get it if you cook it right — and this is cooked right.

A little less unique, but no less delicious, are the Mesquite Fired Mussels ($8 during happy hour, or $14 during dinner).

What Citizen Rail is actually known for is it’s dry-aged steaks — which are butchered in house and displayed in a glass room for everyone to see. And what a beautiful sight it is. I love what lengths they go to for sourcing their meat, too:

“When it comes to sourcing proteins, Chef Graves is meticulous. He searches out wild venison from Texas, tender Sonoma ducks, cattle raised on spring water and pristine Wyoming pasture. Adjacent to the grill, you’ll find sides of pasture-raised beef and house-butchered Colorado lamb slowly maturing in Citizen Rail’s dry-aging room alongside hand-cut venison and pork steaks, rabbit and fowl.”

One of the in-house dry aged options is the 36oz Tomahawk steak (for two). If you like your steaks with that salty bit of crust and a good amount of marbling, this is for you.

Or you can go the 18oz bone-in rib eye route, which I think was my preference. For sides, I highly recommend the duck fat roasted potatoes (let’s be real, you can’t go wrong roasting anything in duck fat).

To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what dessert we ordered, but it had chocolate and ice cream — and it was delicious. I have no idea how we managed to eat it after everything else, but we did. From appetizer to dessert, I really can’t point out any down sides with the meal.

If anything, I would say the chicken entree isn’t for everyone: I tried my friend’s, and it had a little too much of a smoky flavor and not enough crispiness on the outside for me. But if you come to a steakhouse to get chicken, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Great Lunch Plates: Nachos and Chicken Caesar Salad at the Tavern Downtown

I know, some of you may be shocked. The Tavern Downtown?! And yes, I normally I consider the entire stretch of bars/clubs around 20th & Market to be “frat row central” — as I like to put it. However, the Tavern has a really nice, quiet, open rooftop patio if you decide to venture there for lunch (and the misters are great during the summer). It’s hardly the packed, thumping, V-neck T-shirt and mini-dress filled place it can be at night — as you can see on the right below.

These two photos courtesy of the Tavern Downtown website

The Tavern is also both the University of Miami bar and the San Francisco 49ers bar — so it’s pretty much my 2nd home during football season.

And Monday through Friday, 3pm – 7pm, you get buy-1-get-1-free house wine, well drinks, and all draft beer.

What may surprise you, is that the food here is actually quite good. It’s always great for a burger and a beer (I personally love that they have Alaskan Amber in bottles), but I also have 2 favorite plates here that I think are pretty unique:

1) The Tavern Nachos

Guys, they’re pre-portioned! And melted! Every little nacho has the perfect amount of chicken, refried beans, melted pepper jack cheese, and a jalapeño on top. You can also get this with ground beef instead of chicken, but I really like the chicken. You can also get them vegetarian, but then what’s the point? (The guacamole you need to order separately, but it’s worth it.)

Who else do you know that does this? No really, cause if you know, tell me. Normally you eat the few nachos on top that have all the good stuff on them, and then you’re digging for the last tiny bit of meat with the 100 nachos you have left over.

Best. Nachos. Ever.

2) The Chicken Caesar Salad

So I don’t know if the photo does it justice. Hell, I don’t even know if that’s home-made Caesar dressing or something out of a bottle (I’m betting the latter). But I have to be honest, this is my favorite Caesar salad in town — and has been for awhile. They take an entire head of romaine, split it in half, and grill it. And they give you a very generous amount of shaved Parmesan and Caesar dressing (you don’t have to use it all if you don’t want). And then one of my favorite parts: you can choose between chicken breast and chicken thigh. And if you’re any kind of foodie or home chef worth your salt, you know the chicken thigh is where all the juiciness and flavor is at! I can’t believe more places don’t do this.

And yes, I don’t know where the hell the croutons are at… normally they have them on there. I should have said something, but I was too excited for the rest of it. Surprise.

Bite(s) of the Week: Colorado Striped Bass and Bison Burger with Mash and Gravy at Hard Rock

You may be surprised to see me writing about the Hard Rock Cafe — and I am a little, too. I don’t usually frequent chains, other than maybe small chains that are all about good sourcing and from-scratch kitchens (e.g., Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar). However, I did find myself at the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Denver the other day, because it was chosen as one of 12 cafes out of the 175 Hard Rock locations worldwide to be part of their “Test Kitchen” program.

That means that Hard Rock Cafe Denver and its Executive Chef Hans Andersen have been hard at work evolving the menu to feature fresh, responsibly-sourced, local ingredients. And starting  on July 25, 2017, they started serving dishes such as Colorado Striped Bass and the Mile High Bison Burger — all locally sourced through vendors such as Seattle Fish Company, Freshpack Produce, and Rocky Mountain Natural Meats.

It’s nice to see the Hard Rock Cafe making these changes — especially it being a large chain. I think here in Colorado many of us are big on sourcing ingredients locally when possible, or at least I am.

Now for the part most of you probably care about, pictures of the food. These are my 2 favorite little sample bites I had at Hard Rock the other day: the aforementioned Colorado Striped Bass, and the Mile High Bison Local Legendary® Burger.

Hard Rock Cafe Denver samples of striped bass and bison burgerIf you’re curious what these look like when they’re served as a normal portion, I got photos of those too!

This is the seared striped bass served atop a risotto corn cake, lemon beurre blanc, and fresh seasonal vegetables (in this case, asparagus). They’ve done a really amazing job with the fish, which I really wasn’t expecting from Hard Rock. It’s extremely tender and moist under that crispy skin. Even people who weren’t huge loves of fish said they really liked this one. And I’ve never had a risotto corn cake before, but this one was pretty perfect: super creamy on the inside, but crispy on the outside. It’s definitely a dish I would come back for — and it’s perfect for a work lunch downtown.

hard rock cafe denver colorado striped bassAs for the Mile High Bison Local Legendary® Burger, it’s a house-made bison burger served open faced on freshly baked, grilled bread and topped with creamy mashed potatoes, Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale gravy, and crispy onions. This thing is pretty huge, so I’d probably do it for dinner (unless you can take a nap after lunch). However, I’m still definitely coming back for it. It’s a perfect representation of some of the ingredients that make Colorado unique, and it’s also the perfect comfort food if you’ve had a shitty day. If any of you remember Jonesy’s back when it was open in Uptown, they had these fantastic little happy hour sliders with thick slabs of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy that were just to die for — and this is better.

hard rock cafe denver mile high bison burger

Bite of the Week: Maine Mussels at The Kitchen

Note: the last few times I’ve been here, this hasn’t been on the menu, so I would call to see if these are in season if you’re going to The Kitchen just for the mussels.


As someone who used to work in LoDo (and still frequents it for all my client meetings), I have visited pretty much every restaurant in the area for lunch. And one of my favorite lunch options in downtown/LoDo is the mussels dish at The Kitchen.

The Kitchen Mussels

The “Maine Mussels” (garlic, fresno chili, thyme, grilled bread) are listed as a “starter,” but I think they’re enough for a full meal — although they’re not as big as some of the mussels pots you may be used to. At $16, they’re a little pricy, but that’s The Kitchen for you. I’m pretty sure there might be an entire stick of butter in that broth, and I so don’t care. Plus these are some of the biggest, juiciest mussels I’ve found in Denver. Unfortunately, they’re only available when they’re in season.

I think the only other dish that comes close is the Panang curry mussels at Jax — but unfortunately Jax isn’t open for lunch. The mussels are on the happy hour menu there, though, so come 4pm — pop on over there!

And if you’re looking for a good white wine, my personal favorite at The Kitchen is the Rebholtz Pinot Blanc (Pfalz, Germany), although the $50 price tag isn’t small.

The Kitchen wine

Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox: Downtown Denver’s Brothel-Turned-Restaurant

Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox garnered a lot of conversation when it first opened in Denver. It’s the 3rd addition to our city from Justin Cucci, chef-owner of two other popular restaurants: Linger and Root Down. The location’s history also certainly adds to the allure: a brothel that opened in 1889, then turned into an adult bookstore, then turned into a restaurant. And reminders of its history remain in the risqué, retro decor of Ophelia’s.

Ophelia's Electric Soapbox

It’s really impossible to convey online how cool the space itself is. You have to see it for yourself. From the downstairs stage with old cassette players on the wall, to the bar built entirely of mini Jägermeister bottles, to the decadent lounge chairs, to the retro adult movie posters, to the edison lightbulbs — everything has been carefully thought-out. (They also have a HUGE projector TV for NFL games — and apparently for Monday Night Football, they serve a 3-course $30 menu themed around the teams playing. How cool is that?!)

Ophelia's Electric Soapbox inside


Happy Hour: M-F 4-6pm

Happy hour includes $4 Colorado drafts, $6 wines, $5 cocktails, and $5/$7 food plates (and they’re not small). When they opened, personal favorite HH cocktail was the Diamond Lil’s: Cocchi Americano (an aperitif wine), prosecco, lemon, and orange bitters. I’m not sure if they make that anymore (you can ask), but there’s another awesome option on the HH menu now called a PG13 (Vodka, Dill, Cucumber, Lime, Ginger, Soda).

Ophelia's drinks


The Food

The bourbon BBQ oysters ($2/each on happy hour) were one of my favorite things here, but I don’t think they do these anymore 🙁

Ophelia's oysters

The Gigante Bean Hummus (no longer on HH, but $13 on the regular menu) is pretty awesome. It has roasted carrots, watermelon radish, dates, roasted beets, cucumbers, shishito peppers, and flatbread — which makes it the best hummus plate I’ve ever had. The Spring Cheese Incident and Green Chili Cornbread (which is on the HH menu) are also great options.

Ophelia's hummus

If you’re looking for something a bit more filling, there is a $5 mushroom or pepperoni flatbread on the menu (this is the pepperoni, with Biellese Pepperoni, mozzarella, and basil).

Ophelia's flatbread

The duck wings used to be on the HH menu, and the sauce was a little overwhelming, so I’m looking forward to trying the new jerk chicken wings on their menu.

Ophelia's duck wings

There are also duck meatballs available for $13, and I think those are much better than the duck wings actually (although the portion isn’t huge).

Ophelia's duck meatballs

These are the Dry Rub Ribs (Berkshire English cut pork ribs, Carolina Gold mustard, and apple slaw). I wouldn’t really call them “dry rub” — but if you’re a fan of Carolina style BBQ (a thinner, vinegar-based sauce), you’ll love these.

Ophelia's ribs

One of the Best Happy Hours in Downtown Denver: Panzano

If any of you know me, you know that I absolutely LOVE a good happy hour. And I’ve been to a lot of them. There’s probably not a place downtown I haven’t tried for happy hour. And one of my favorites has always been Panzano. It’s somewhat of a downtown institution — having been around for years.

I just love the variety of always-changing cocktails they have, as well as the extensive happy hour food options. You can easily have an entire dinner here during happy hour — and I often do. Plus, happy hour is 7 days a week (which is awesome if you’re looking for a weekend option) — and it starts at 2:30pm (sometimes you just need to get away a little early).

Happy Hour: 2:30pm-6pm, 7 days a week
  • $4 draft beers
  • $5 glasses of wine, or $12 carafes
  • $6 cocktails (these are absolutely fantastic and a must-try)
  • $9 barrel-aged cocktails (if you’re looking for something fancy)
  • $4-$8 eats (I love the extensive selection of Italian small plates)
  • See the menus

Make sure you get here by 5pm though, because the entire HH lounge is usually packed by then.


The Cocktails

There are tons of fantastic cocktails you can get for happy hour — and they’re just $6 (all the options in the left and right columns). I also highly recommend trying one of the barrel-aged bourbons if that’s something you’re into, since Panzano has a whole back room where they age liquors in mini barrels.

panzano happy hour drinks

One of my personal favorites on the cocktail list is the “R and R” (Grey Goose vodka, raspberry liqueur, muddled raspberries, rosemary, splash of soda). It’s not always available, but there’s always something similarly refreshing.

Panzano R and R

Another really great option that’s perfect for summer is the “Cucumber Mint Mule” (Bombay Sapphire gin, lime juice, ginger beer, muddled mint and cucumber).

Panzano cucumber mule


The Food

Holy crap, look at all those food options! I mean really, this looks more like a full menu than a happy hour menu. This is what I mean about easily being able to have dinner here — all for happy hour prices.

panzano happy hour food menu

These Cavolini di Bruxelles (brussel sprouts) come with an apple cider reduction, pistachios, rosemary salt, and sliced green apple. And despite the lack of bacon, they taste fantastic.

Panzano brussel sprouts

The plates below were 2 of favorites here (sorry for the smartphone photo — I’ve been here multiple times, and not always with my SLR). It’s the lamb ragu and veal scallopini, but I think they’ve been switched out on the latest version of the menu. Not to worry though, there’s now a tortellini bolognese with ground veal short rib — as well as a braised lamb and polenta ravioli. So decadent, meaty dishes will always be a staple here.

Panzano veal and ragu

What I do wish they’d bring back though, is the Capesante (pan-seared scallop, spinach, ricotta gnudi, spring vegetables, basil leek nage, saffron pecorino, fried shallots, and mint).

Panzano scallop

The Nickel: Cocktails and Charcuterie in the Theatre District

The Nickel replaced Restaurant Kevin Taylor a few years ago inside the beautiful Hotel Teatro in the Theatre District — and it’s been a perfect addition to the neighborhood. It’s less intimidating than Restaurant Kevin Taylor used to be, and offers a brighter space with a more trendy atmosphere. The Nickel serves up some really nice cocktails and plates if you’re looking for a bite to eat before a show — or if you need a somewhat upscale lunch spot for a client meeting.

What The Nickel does really well is straddle the line between a fine dining establishment worthy of the space in the Hotel Teatro — and an approachable local restaurant that’s perfect for a cocktail and some charcuterie.

The Nickel outside


The Inside

The Nickel is a beautiful space, but you’ll notice it feels a lot more open and approachable than its predecessor. Dark tablecloths and classic, upholstered ivory chairs have been replaced with lots of wood, leather, fun patterns, and industrial lamps.

The Nickel inside


The Drinks

The 3-5pm daily happy hour here is very reasonable. For just $5, you can get a pretty good glass of wine, or for $7 you can choose from one of two rotating specialty barrel-aged cocktails. There are also draft beers at $2 off, as well as some happy hour bites.

If you’re willing to splurge, the Seven-Nickel ($12) isn’t on the happy hour menu, but it’s one of my favorite cocktails anywhere: Leopold’s small batch gin, lemon juice, prosecco, citrus twist. It’s been at the top of the cocktail menu since The Nickel opened.

The Nickel cocktail 1


The Food

Back to the charcuterie. Christopher Thompson is the executive chef and salumaio at San Francisco’s award-winning A16 restaurant — so I had pretty high expectations. The meat and cheese list does not disappoint. I’m just sad that the headcheese I fell in love with at The Nickel’s Cochon 555 station isn’t on the menu anymore (and that’s what I was most excited about).

The Nickel charcuterie menu

We had the Jamon Iberico ($11) and Chicken Liver Mousse ($9), both of definitely did not skimp on the portions. If you’ve never had Jamon Iberico before, it’s a must try.

The Nickel jamon iberico
The Nickel chicken liver pate

The Shaved Asparagus “salad” had plenty of bresaola (another kind of cured meat) on the side to make the carnivore inside me very happy.

The Nickel asparagus salad

I also recommend the Braised Pork Meatballs ($13), which are very filling for a “small plate.” I mean who doesn’t love them some meatballs?

The Nickel meatballs

I’m not sure this was my favorite preparation of Veal Sweetbreads, but if you like fried things, then maybe you’ll be a fan of this. The maitake mushrooms, asparagus puree, and asparagus tips help brighten up the dish, though.

The Nickel sweetbreads