Pop-Ups and Ghost Restaurants Are Creating Some of Denver’s Most Exciting New Cuisine

Denver is a creative city. It’s full of people who refuse to take catastrophe lying down. Since March, restaurateurs have been relying on a range of imaginative solutions in order to stay afloat. Business owners have been waiting with bated breath for the opportunity to re-open. Many still managed to put other’s needs ahead of their own, with huge numbers of meals being prepared and distributed from a range of individual operations and coalitions alike.

It has been a long way from easy, but chaos has indeed bred innovation. One-off and recurring pop-ups have done a good job of providing temporary relief and a chance for chefs to flex a little experimentation. Most exciting of all, new concepts from well-established talent have quickly grown from within existing kitchens, with many of these so-called ghost restaurants appearing to have all the makings in place to flourish into lasting enterprises. A range of innovative projects have been serving separate menus from within established domains — either alongside current offerings or, more often, fashioning a separate list better-suited to occupy a different time of the day. For some chefs, the glint had already crossed their eye, calamity sparking opportunity. Other ideas have arrived more by accident. Whatever the case, most of the experiments have yielded tremendous results.

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Of all the newcomers, Jabroni and Sons has perhaps landed with the loudest splash. Serving East Coast-style sandwiches out of the Bar Dough kitchen with immaculately crafted irreverence, the menu seems to have emerged from the direct intersection of divine inspiration and the kind of shit-talking camaraderie that can only arise from years spent cooking together. The sandwiches are rude and overbearing, a whole one sure to sedate even the experts. They are also some of the best in the city. The team includes Eric Wiffin — who spent four years at Grateful Bread and had been working as an expo at Morin ; A.J. Shreffler — a Philadelphia native who had been working at Bar Dough and Culinary Creative’s Max MacKissock. The trio had been plotting some kind of sandwich venture for years.  Once the spark was lit, it took a mere two weeks and the blessing of Luigi Fiorentino Jabroni — a Calabrian immigrant of mythical origin — to set the behemoth into motion. Now serving Tuesday – Saturday, the sandwiches have been routinely selling out. Pre-ordering — even days in advance — is highly recommended.

This week, MacKissock will also be introducing Buckets and Bubbs out of the Morin kitchen. The weekly pop-up involves expertly-prepared fried chicken, sides and champagne ranging from German Gilbert Brut Cava ($30), to Krug NV Grand Cuvée ($215), all the way to the Miller High Life Loosie ($2) for the more discerning palate. While it will be introduced as a Saturday-only event — with orders being cut off Friday afternoon — the team hopes to expand it to two or three days a week as opportunity allows.

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For Big Red F founder Dave Query the pop-up model has been useful in addressing scarcity, both in staff and supply chains. “Staffing is at a minimum right now. Not all restaurants are built for to-go food, putting food into boxes. The pop-ups at Jax and Lola allow us to bring in some ingredients and products that aren’t coming into the state right now like fresh oysters, stone crab claws, razor clams and soft shell crabs. Having our guests pre-order the food allows us to only order what we sell, as having extra products in the house at this time in our lives is not an option,” he said. Many restaurants have been opting to bundle kits to be cooked at home — The Cinco de Mayo pop-up at Lola Coastal Mexican providing a range of goods, including paella and Carne Asada. While Big Red F is now reopening its concepts — after massive interior overhauls — Query has suggested that some of the innovations may be here to stay. “Lots of opportunities and creative detours are coming out of this, but getting our restaurants open and our employees back to work is priority number one right now,” he continued.

While Jabroni was a powder keg waiting to be lit, many concepts developed with little to no preparation. Burrorito — the wood-fired burrito joint currently occupying Fish N Beer full-time, arrived out of necessity. “There’s not a need for to-go seafood,” said Kevin Morrison — the owner of Fish N Beer and Tacos Tequila Whiskey. Once the idea hit, it didn’t take long for the experienced restaurateur to build the concept. “Within two days we had a name, a logo and a menu,” he continued. “I knew my crew was badass.” Morrison initially planned for the pop-up to be short-lived, with the first tentative end-date being set for May 21. He has since said the concept will be extended until restaurants are able to open at full capacity. While it could be tempting to compare Burrorito and Tacos Tequila Whiskey, the new concept nicely avoids being typecast by its predecessor. “It’s related but it stands on its own. We’re not going to be doing burritos at Pinche,” said Morrison.

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Fine-dining restaurants have had unique challenges in trying to figure out how to translate cuisines that often rely on immediacy and service into something worth taking home. For Jennifer Jasinksi and the Crafted Concepts team, shifting gears towards health-oriented bowls full of fresh, seasonal and responsibly-sourced ingredients has provided a nice alternative. Flavor Dojo has been serving colorful plates from the Rioja kitchen during lunch hours Monday – Friday, with a particularly delectable assortment of proteins — including hoisin-braised short rib, crispy soppressata and cardamom-brined pork belly — reminiscing Euclid Hall on what, to the untrained eye, could be mistaken for just a salad.

For Boulder’s The Kitchen Upstairs, using the wood-fired oven to make a weekend-only pizza pop-up seemed like the natural solution. Pizzeria Di Sopra — or Pizzeria Above — has been serving a limited menu of pies Thursday – Saturday from 5 – 8 p.m., by preorder only.

For Misfit Snackbar’s Bo Porytko, the decision to establish his pierogi and pelmeni side project Dill and Dough came whimsically. After a successful Asian dumpling pop-up and subsequent pierogi pop-up towards the beginning of quarantine, Porytko began hustling packages of the cook-at-home delicacies out of Misfit. Each Tuesday the chef has been preparing a stockpile for the coming week. “If I have a week where I don’t sell anything it’s just less work net week,” laughed Porytko of the frozen goods. With keen iconography, the new concept continues Porytko’s tradition of ruffling feathers for anyone astute enough to be ruffled. The project sits alongside Misfit’s changing menu, with pre-orders being highly encouraged.

Next Monday, June 8, Blue Island Oyster Bar will introduce Blue Tide Tacos with hopes of delivering the same top-tier seafood in a more to-go friendly format. Arriving as Blue Island reopens for dine-in seating, Blue Tide has been designed to supplement the in-house experience with a more casual menu of SoCal-inspired tacos, burritos and snacks. The decision to add Blue Tide right as restaurants are re-opening is a good indication that nobody is out of the woods and inventive adjuncts may indeed be a hugely favorable if not crucial component of the changing dining model.

Whatever road chefs took to get there, the surge of innovation has surely been one of the saving graces to arise from an otherwise abysmal chapter. With the world becoming more disordered with every passing minute, it just makes those who have chosen to create and modify even when the eleventh hour is bleak all the more admirable.