Spear-to-table cuisine in Colorado
With 575 taxidermied animals adorning the walls, the Buckhorn Exchange in Denver does not hide what it does best.
Before there was farm-to-table, there was spear-to-fire in the western United States, where less fertile soil historically meant that many Native Americans and early settlers had to hunt and fish for their next meal.
These days, hunting remains a popular pastime in Colorado (more than 375,000 hunters visit each year), but a weapon is no longer needed to dine on the state’s best game meat. From elk to bison to rattlesnake, these Colorado restaurants offer a true taste of the wild.
The adobe fortress located in Morrison (about 20 miles west of Denver) is an exact replica of Bent’s Fort, a fur trader that operated in southeastern Colorado from 1833 to 1849. The building was originally meant to be a museum dedicated to the history of the fur trade and the international cooperation it encouraged, but as construction costs soared, the family owners added a restaurant to the lower level in 1963.
To remain authentic to the original mission, The Fort serves up a number of meats mentioned in fur trapper diaries, including venison, trout and quail, but the prime game meat is buffalo. “The Fort serves 70,000 buffalo entrées per year, as well as buffalo tongue, a sacred meat of the Indians, and buffalo bone marrow, known as ‘prairie butter’ to the trappers and traders,” said Holly Arnold Kinney, proprietress and daughter of the original owners.
True to its spirit of fostering international understanding, the restaurant hosted the leaders of the G8 Summit in 1997.
For a low-key and less expensive twist on game meats, Biker Jim’s food carts grill up hot dogs and sausages made with reindeer, elk, pheasant, buffalo and rattlesnake. The hot dogs come topped with cream cheese and soda-caramelized onions, though more traditional toppings can be found at the extensive condiment bar.
Owner Jim Pittenger attributes the renewed interest in game meats to a growing concern about the origins of food. “More and more people are leaning away from commercially raised beef and starting to explore more health-conscious, less chemically-laden foods,” he said. Game meats are often lower in fat and calories due to their grass-fed diet.
The increased taste for game has been good for business, too. Though started as a food cart on Denver’s 16th Street pedestrian mall, Biker Jim’s has since expanded to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Denver’s LoDo ballpark neighbourhood, where hungry visitors can get fries and a beer with their wild game brats.
The Buckhorn Exchange
Vegetarians beware – with 575 taxidermied animals and 125 guns and rifles appointing the walls, this historic restaurant does not hide what it does best. The steakhouse opened in 1893, making it Denver’s oldest restaurant still in operation. President Roosevelt even dined here in 1905, en route to hunt his own big game in the Colorado Rockies.
The menu has remained largely unchanged throughout the years, featuring a number of more exotic choices in addition to classic steaks. The famous appetizers include rattlesnake and bull testicles (better known as Rocky Mountain oysters when battered and fried). For a main course, the buffalo burger or the Reuben are favourites at lunch, and dinner guests can indulge in the 18oz buffalo tenderloin steak or high plains buffalo prime rib. The elk is served with a four peppercorn crust, and the Cornish game hen and quail come semi-boneless and drizzled with fruit glazes.
The Craftwood Inn
Unlike the “Wild West” theme that is so prominently on display at the Buckhorn, the Craftwood Inn honours a different type of early pioneer. English founder Roland Bautwell built the inn in 1912 in classic English Country Tudor style at the time when nearby Colorado Springs was known as “Little London”.
You will not find bangers and mash on the menu here, however, as the Craftwood features a classically Colorado cuisine of tender game meats and hearty vegetables. Though the menu changes seasonally, it nearly always has some type of mixed grill entrée, which includes three different types of meat, such as elk, red deer and classic New York strip.