Colorado was no place to live — at least not for the miners who’d gone looking for gold in the Front Range section of the Southern Rockies. “The mountains were too rough and the plains looked too much like a desert,” The Daily News of Denver wrote in 1882. “Men came with the view of making fortunes by mining, and of returning to the States to enjoy it.”
But the land was rich with berries, trout and elk, which had fed tribes like the Arapaho and Cheyenne. Arcana, a restaurant in Boulder that opened in February 2016, is attempting to resurrect this long food narrative using almost entirely local meat and produce. The menu, now curated by Kyle Mendenhall, who started as chef in June of last year, is both new-American and new-Coloradan.
“It felt important to preserve and promote early-American food history,” Elliott Toan, a co-owner, said. “Culinary traditions get to the heart of human experience, and we’re trying to honor different influences that came here, whether from Europe or Africa or anywhere else.” For inspiration, the team foraged for recipes at the History Colorado Center, at Boulder churches and within their own families, including the chef’s great-grandmother’s collection from 1911.
During a recent visit, I loved the elk carpaccio, which arrived studded with juniper custard and pickled Rainier cherries. The lamb T-bone was corralled by spring pea shoots in radicchio dressing, tasting fresh as morning dew. Dumplings made from masa (ground daily by a neighboring taco shop) were dished up with braised pork and crispy brussels sprout leaves; it was as satisfying as a classic pozole (some 21 percent of Coloradans are Latino). The tart cherry icebox pie with a thyme and rye cookie crust delivered me to my grandmother’s kitchen.
Arcana makes everything in-house, from the plum jam to the honey butter with bee pollen. And though their cocktails are compelling (like the Barn Burner, with brandy, rum, vermouth, maple and butternut squash purée, served warm), the cider list, some 40 bottles deep, is the star. “Boulder was once filled with orchards, and if you look back at America’s beverage history, cider was what they were drinking, especially pre-Prohibition,” Mr. Toan said.
I might have complained about the design of the dining space, especially its clunky tables and chairs, but their back story shut me up: They were custom-made locally from beetle kill pine — another example of making something from nothing.Continue reading the main story