Restaurants Bring Taste of Spain to Colorado
In Denver it is possible top find Spanish products like 'pimentón'. Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
Author: Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
More and more, people are paying attention to where their food comes from. This is easy to do when you’re shopping at the local farmer’s market or eating at the newest restaurant to serve locally sourced products, but when you’re dining at a Spanish restaurant located some 5,000 miles (8,000 km) away from Spain in Denver, Colorado, the idea of being able to follow the origin of your dish from the ground to the table might seem insurmountable. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it took only a few phone calls and a couple of visits to discover that the source of these far away products is not as elusive as you might think.
Denver, Colorado might not immediately ring a bell as a hotspot for foodies, but believe me, it is. Despite the abundance of great restaurants and specialty food shops found here however, Spanish food is relatively new to the scene. While there are a few Mediterranean themed restaurants with some Spanish-inspired dishes on their menus, I could find only two specifically Spanish restaurants in the area. Off the beaten track from cities like New York and Miami, where Spanish restaurants have long been institutions, this city seemed like the perfect subjects for my investigation. I was curious to see what kinds of Spanish products were found here, how they arrived, and from whence they came.
I was able to find only two Spanish restaurants in Denver. With a population of around 600,000, Denver is a classic western city that sits a mile-high in the middle of the Great Plains. Its streets are impeccably clean, there is always parking and people are overtly friendly. The downtown is arranged in a tidy grid around a handful of skyscrapers, which in turn are surrounded by an abundance of two and three story brick buildings and factories from the late 19th century. The 9th Door Restaurant occupies one of these old storefronts on a main street near the baseball stadium. Opened six years ago, Bill Kennedy (one of three owners) told me that they found inspiration in a Spanish restaurant run by friends in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and realized that Denver had nothing similar. Not to mention that this was a time when “New Spanish chefs were really pushing the envelope in terms of Spanish food”, thereby taking the country’s cuisine to a new international level.
The 9th Door’s menu has some seasonal dishes, but also depends largely on the popularity of traditionally recognized Spanish products like jamón serrano, Marcona almonds, Spanish olives, Manchego cheese and chorizo sausage; as well as some more surprising and lesser known products like pimientos de piquillo, membrillo (quince paste) and Cabrales and Idiazabal cheeses. While the dishes are not strictly authentic, sometimes mixing in more Latin American ingredients like Poblano chilies and pico de gallo, perhaps chef Kevin Marquet is trying to reflect the innovative approach to traditional products that has been made internationally famous by the renowned Spanish chefs of today. At the same time, finding and using exclusively Spanish products can be both challenging and expensive so far away. According to Kennedy, the restaurant depends on 2-3 distributors and 2 specialty food purveyors, all of which offer a general selection of international foods with limited amounts of Spanish products, with the exception of The Spanish Table, a distributor based in Seattle, Washington.
The other restaurant is located in the nearby suburb of Cherry Creek, only about ten minutes away from downtown Denver by car. Despite its casual name, Ondo's Spanish Tapas Bar feels more like a serious Spanish restaurant. Co-owners, Chefs, and husband and wife, Curt Steinbecker and Deicy Villaveces, met at the Luis Irizar Culinary School in San Sebastián where they trained for two years. This was accompanied by internships under venerated Basque chefs like Juan Mari Arzak and Pedro Subijana, and followed by experiences at other restaurants in San Sebastián and Barcelona.
This first-hand knowledge of Spanish gastronomy is evident in the menu, which despite its focus on tapas, raciones, salads and bocadillos (sandwiches), is largely traditional in terms of both ingredients and preparation. I was surprised to see tapas like La Gilda, a toothpick skewered with an olive, anchovy and Basque guindilla pepper. An incredibly typical pintxo, the Gilda was invented in San Sebastián in the 1940´s and named after Rita Hayworth’s character in the movie of the same name.
Surprises in a can
Another surprise was the section on the menu dedicated to several different types of conservas (preserves). These long flat tins of preserved fish and shellfish such as tuna, razor clams, anchovies, octopus and sardines are not only extremely traditional in Spain, but usually contain top-quality gastronomic products. When I first moved to Spain almost 15 years ago, I remember being shocked that there were tapas bars whose entire menus would consisted canned foods that would be opened and served, still in the tin, to eager customers. In fact, conservas are an incredibly traditional element of Spanish gastronomy that I have seldom, if ever, seen served in a restaurant outside of Spain. Despite the authenticity of these and other products however, Curt points out that some adaptations must be made for clients who are unfamiliar with these foods or styles of eating. An example of this is the fact that they originally served the conservas “Spanish style” in the can, but now plate them, as many American customers find it strange to eat out of a tin at a restaurant.
Like the 9th Door, Ondo’s relies on a network of different distributors and specialty foods companies, including Spanish food importing giants Culinary Collective and La Tienda, which are particularly useful for finding difficult ingredients like squid ink and ñora peppers. Additionally, they have also found a partner in the locally based Spanish food importer and distributor, Iberia Foods.
Another husband and wife team, Iberia Foods belongs to Tina and Ignacio Jiménez. Ignacio is originally from Spain, and according to Tina, “Each year when we went to visit family we would taste delicious things. Every region that we would visit had such unique food. We would pack our suitcases with products to bring back home. For years Ignacio wanted to bring in olive oils for retail. Finally, in 2009, we decided to ‘go for it’ and started to import products.” The company sells primarily to restaurants and food stores, but also has an online retail store called Comida España.
The search of products
The thing that I find most interesting is how they, and other companies like them, find and decide which products to import and distribute in the United States. According to Tina, the answer is often simple, “We started out contacting the manufacturers of the products we brought back from Spain and made contacts at food shows. We do go to Spain every year and search for products at the El Corte Inglés supermarket. We even look and see what is selling in the airport in Madrid on our way back to the U.S.” She also clarifies that the company places emphasis on Designation of Origin protections and finding smaller companies, especially as “The U.S. consumer wants more products that are organic...but taste is most important for us.”
Of course, finding a product that you want to import isn’t always enough. Strict Federal Department of Agriculture regulations and the high costs associated with FDA certification can make it difficult for smaller companies to get their foot in the door. These challenges not only affect what Spanish products are distributed in the United States, but also directly affect the dishes that are served in Spanish restaurants across the country. As Curt Steinbecker pointed out, the dishes on his menu are influenced by the products that are available to him. Some products that he would like to serve, such as the famed Spanish pimientos de padrón, are unavailable here and therefore impossible to recreate.
The good news is that both the supply and demand for top-quality Spanish gastronomic products are on the rise. Restaurants like Ondo’s and The 9th Door are introducing Spanish products and gastronomy in cities like Denver, where these dishes and their flavors were previously the stuff of European vacations and “Foodie” TV travel shows. Meanwhile, both large and small importers and distribution companies are specializing in traditional Spanish products and getting closer and closer to their source. This makes it even easier for diners halfway across the world to answer the question, “where does my food come from?”.
Adrienne Smith is a sommelier, chef and freelance writer. She has spent the last decade eating and drinking her way through Spain.