There’s a new American city on the Jewish food map, and it’s nowhere near either coast.
In the past several months, a number of new restaurants have opened there. Last July, Rye Society started serving classic deli fare in the River North neighborhood. Across the city in Lower Highlands, Ash’Kara, a new Israeli restaurant by Montreal-born chef Daniel Asher, is offering riffs on hummus and a tagine made with duck, the hottest ingredient of the year. In the Golden Triangle neighborhood, close to Westside, home of the city’s largest Jewish community, Leven has been making house-cured pastrami sandwiches and “nosh plates” since last summer. Even a celebrity chef is in the game: Last August, Alon Shaya, the New Orleans chef who won the best chef in America James Beard award in 2015, chose Denver as the location for Safta, his new Israeli restaurant. Safta is the first venture by Pomegranate Hospitality, Shaya’s new restaurant group, which he founded amid legal battles with former partners.
Why Denver? One reason has to do with sheer numbers; according to the 2007 Metro Denver/Boulder Jewish Community Study, in the decade from 1997-2007 the Jewish population in the area grew by 33 percent, compared with 22 percent for the area’s general population. But Shaya also cites an increasingly positive sentiment toward Denver that’s harder to quantify. “The great people, sense of community, the mountains, the low humidity, and the overall sense of optimism and forward progressive thinking attracted [my wife] Emily and me to open here,” he said.
Ever since legalizing cannabis for nonmedical use in 2012, Colorado has been climbing up the quality-of-life ranks in nationwide surveys, Denver leading the pack. It’s also become a growing tech hub—without the skyrocketing rents of the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2018, it was ranked second-best city for single people in a national WalletHub study.
Young, free, and (kind of) affordable? Sold. “I definitely see more young Jewish families moving here from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles,” said Bethany Friedlander, a community organizer for the Denver-based organization Mazel Together, which helps families build Jewish communities in their neighborhoods. “They come here because it’s beautiful and the quality of life is high, and they’re willing to build communities from scratch. They’re interested in the cultural aspect, rather than the religious ones.” It’s worth noting, at this point, that none of Denver’s new Jewish offerings is certified kosher.
This blooming interest in Denver, among Jewish millennials and others, has been translating into a burgeoning restaurant scene. The growth of Jewish and Israeli restaurants reflects Jewish restaurateurs’ desire to reinvent their childhood foods. “I think people just enjoy being out there, so naturally you’ll see business start to open up,” Shaya said. “I also think it’s great people are connecting with their roots and cooking food they are passionate about.” Used to creating vibrant, produce-heavy dishes in a carb capital like New Orleans, he also highlights what Denver brings to the table, quite literally: “Colorado has some of the best beef and lamb in the world, same thing with beautiful mushrooms, peaches, cherries, and wild berries. We are building all of those into the menu as we continue to change items throughout the season.”
When Jerrod Rosen, the man behind Rye Society, decided to venture on his own after years in the hospitality and restaurant industry, it made sense to go the Jewish deli route. Rosen grew up in Boulder, his grandfather a diner owner, his grandmother on the other side a grocer, both sides of the family active members of the “close-knit Westside Jewish community.” His return to the area completes a full circle after stints in France, San Francisco, and Chicago. Five years ago, as Mile End in New York and Wexler’s in L.A. were thriving, Rosen started toying with the idea of a Jewish deli in Denver. “I thought, people love deli food, there’s community and culture behind it,” he said, “and even though delis were dying in the ’90s, new places have shown that you can bring the delis into the new generation, people still want them.”
Inspired by other places that “make it work,” Rosen set out to feed the developing River North arts district “Hebrew Hammer” bagel sandwiches and pickles made using an old family recipe, all of which can be eaten under portraits of Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman, famous Jews millennials can get behind. “It’s something that’s been missing in the area,” he said. “On the weekends there’s more of a Jewish audience, but during the week it’s anyone.”
Anthony Lygizos, the owner of Leven, grew up in Chicago in a Greek and Jewish family, but went to college in Denver. Last year, as he was consulting with chef Luke Hendricks, the two realized they were excited about deli food. “He was just joining a congregation as we started talking—he’s way more Jewish than me,” Lygizos said. Leven’s first weeks weren’t easy. “We kept our doors open during construction, and kept hearing from the community that they want classic Jewish food,” Lygizos said. “But when we opened, no one was buying it. So we reworked the menu to include stuff that wasn’t traditional.” Leven’s menu now includes an Italian sandwich and a grilled cheese offering, with a side of cauliflower pickles. His choice to focus on Jewish food, he said, “isn’t very altruistic, I just love the heritage of the Jewish deli food, and it was due for an evolution—past due even.” The fact that Golden Triangle residents like the refurbished menu better, Lygizos believes, indicates “that perhaps they were originally overwhelmed by the offerings.”
While Lygizos, who points out Leven caters to business within a 20-mile radius of the city, can’t attest to the strength of Denver’s Jewish community, Shaya sounds excited: “The Jewish community in Denver is so strong and committed to their city,” he said. “We’ve really felt the love from the community since we’ve opened and we plan on strengthening those relationships through the catering arm of Safta, as well as further outreach for charities and community events.”
Perhaps Jewish and Israeli food is gaining ground in Denver because the city’s food scene was ready for an upgrade, with something new on the menu. “Denver is very white, utilitarian, and the food is safe and muted,” Lygizos said, “but the people are building maturity. We’re figuring it out.” Rosen, who says Rye Society’s food is “pretty traditional,” also attests to Denver’s growing appetite for new and exciting flavors, even if it’s an old-school egg salad sandwich that wasn’t previously available. “The going joke is that Colorado’s new national bird is the crane,” he said. “There has been great expansion, and with social media nowadays everyone’s pushing boundaries. Ten years ago no one knew what a gastropub is, and Denver was a little bit more ‘meat and potatoes.’ Right now, I’ll say people here like food they understand—with a twist.” Creative pastrami sandwiches and Mediterranean salads just might be that twist.
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