Word of Mouth Denver: Cannabis and Culinary Culture

The mile-high city comes into its own with regulated recreational marijuana and an equally thoughtful boom in the food scene

The hype surrounding the highly regulated legalization of retail marijuana in Colorado has subsided in the last six months, with tax revenue forecasts being taken down a notch and the absence of statewide hysteria confirming what may have motivated many of the majority voters: it’s really not that big a deal.

When it comes to Denver, cannabis culture isn’t exploding with the modified laws so much as it is acclimating itself in the retail realm outside the black market, which means prices are significantly higher with as much as 25% tax tacked onto the top, and a growing number of retail dispensaries—many connected to medical outlets—cropping up around town. Still, the licensing process has been strict and slow, with nearly 80 stores open as of April 2014 and as many pending approval. You can’t use it in public, drive while under its influence, sell it, grow it in the unlocked open, take it to the airport or across state lines, or consume it until you’re 21—just like alcohol. Colorado residents can buy up to an ounce, and out-of-state visitors, up to a quarter-ounce.


In other words, it’s more of a subtle relaxation of the rules, and one that pairs nicely with the rise of Denver’s culinary chops, another gradual but significant cultural proliferation in the Mile High city.

Known as a city of transplants, historically for its proximity to the mountains and that all-encompassing notion of “quality of life,” Denver has, in recent years, brought to bear that sense of good living and prime location in a number of sophisticated eateries. From delis that can compete with compatriots in larger, more famous cities, to uncannily world-class sushi in a landlocked state, here are just a few of Denver’s best food finds that may just come in handy if you’ve gone shopping at the dispensaries.


Old Major

Named for the revolution-inciting pig in Animal Farm, Old Major supports the idea that swine should be treated right. Besides the prevalence of heritage-raised pork, beef, and chicken raised on Colorado farms, the Lower Highlands hot spot prides itself on its selection of thoughtfully imported seafood and farm-fresh local vegetables. They call their concept seafood, swine, and wine, with the last element headed up by prominent local winemaker Ben Parsons of Denver’s vineyard-free urban winery, Infinite Monkey Theorem.


Sushi Den + Izakaya Den

Skeptics may be quick to question the likelihood of making excellent sushi in landlocked Colorado, but in the 30 years since its opening, Sushi Den‘s owners, brothers Toshi and Yasu Kizaki, have proven it most certainly can be done. Their youngest brother, Koichi, is stationed in the Nagahama fish market on Japan’s Kyushu island, and the restaurant sources their supply directly from the mother land, along with certain selections from prime regions in North and Central America. The Kizaki’s sister restaurant is Izakaya Den, a small-plates Japanese gastropub and sake bar which opened its new location last summer. Both veteran and relative newcomer stand as two of Denver’s hottest tickets.


Masterpiece Deli

Opened as a side project of sorts by Old Major owner and executive chef Justin Brunson and his partner, Steve Allee, Masterpiece Deli takes the simple concept of a sandwich to new heights worthy of the spot’s name. At two locations in the Lower Highlands and Uptown neighborhoods, ingredients reign supreme. Lunchtime and breakfast sandwiches served all day can be custom-stacked with farm-fresh eggs and vegetables, and meats braised, cured and roasted in-house—including Brunson’s own Denver Bacon Co. bacon. Straightforward choices like Cubans, Reubens and egg salad are best eaten outside and washed down with a local microbrew.


Marczyk Fine Foods

Pete Marczyk’s Marczyk Fine Foods grocery store encompasses all the romance of a neighborhood market while stocking the very best quality gourmet food items from Colorado and beyond. The butcher supplies meat from nearby Niman Ranch exclusively, and the in-house bakery has become known for its Polish rye, among other bread varieties. Besides the local goodness, which also includes farmers market produce and a wide variety of cheese, grocery items range from Savory Spice Shop spices and baking mixes by Denver’s Women’s Bean Project, to beloved Jeni’s Ice Cream from Cleveland.


Sweet Action Ice Cream

Sweet Action is not your precious little ice cream parlor, but bears a comforting resemblance to the straightforward neighborhood joint you may have grown up with. The flavors filling the fridge, however, are anything but standard. Owners Sam Kopicko and Chia Basinger apply a nerd-level fascination with spices and combinations of ingredients to sometimes surprisingly harmonious, creamy ice cream varieties like garam masala, Mexican chocolate stout, after dinner mint, vanilla rose, horchata, vegan ginger, and much more. While the flavors are bold, they’re not aggressive. Plus, the shop’s Broadway location in the Baker neighborhood lets you grab a cone and stroll the strip’s boutiques and bars.

Images courtesy of the respective venues