Denver’s Civic Center EATS — Food trucks, fresh air, live music

Author: - May 23, 2014 - Updated: May 23, 2014

“I guess the longer the line, the better the food,” I remarked to a fellow queue-er in the lengthy, meandering line for Chuey Fu’s, a Latin/Asian fusion food truck among the lineup of moveable eateries in Civic Center Park’s promenade on May 20, the first day of the popular Civic Center EATS program.

“Yeah,” he remarked, and then a moment later, “Or maybe they’re just slow and the long line makes people think it’s good.”

I highly doubt that’s the case, but due to the hot sun I admit I gave up on Chuey Fu’s line for the much shorter one for Crock Spot Gourmet Food Truck, which contrary to my theory, was out-of-this-world good. But after seeing Chuey Fu’s line-up of burritos, tacos and rice bowls with glistening, succulent, Asian inspired fillings, you can bet I’ll be back to try their food and that of the almost 50 vendors selling their wares during this summer series. Now in its ninth year, the popular food truck round-up will take place every Tuesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., in downtown Denver’s Civic Center Park from May 20 through October 9 (except for June 5, July 3, August 28 and September 2, when other events will be taking place at the park).

Presented by the nonprofit Civic Center Conservancy, the series officially began May 20 and featured a reception for sponsors, including the Denver Post, Southwest Airlines, Denver Parks and Recreation, Noble Energy, and Pioneer Natural Resources, among others. Representatives from each organization gathered at covered tables in the park’s Greek amphitheater to celebrate the kickoff.

Tuesday was overcast, but it turns out to be a wonderful day for the kickoff of the ninth annual Civic Center EATS, and mobile restaurants fill the walkway of Civic Center Park as the lunch hour approaches.

“From our company’s perspective, it’s important to give back to the community where we live and employ people,” said Jennifer Webster, public affairs manager for Pioneer Natural Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas company that employs several hundred people in Denver and Trinidad, Colo., and has sponsored Civic Center EATS for the past few years.

Civic Center Conservancy executive director Lindy Eichenbaum Lent presents miniature cupcake offerings at the Civic Center EATs ninth anniversary’s opening day.

“It’s a perfect way to usher in spring,” Webster added.

Denver City Councilman Paul Lopez prepares to escort Erika Martinez, communications director for the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, through the maze of restaurant trucks and lunch hour diners at Civic Center EATS.

Her enthusiasm was shared by other Pioneer representatives, including Tom Sheffield, vice president of Pioneer Natural Resources’ Western Division and chairman of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association.

Barbara Burrell of Pioneer Natural Resources listens to speakers in the sponsor’s tent before foraying among the mobile restaurants filling Civic Center Park with their exotic offerings.

“It supports the local business people,” he said. “It gives us the ability to meet up with other types of people and businesses; not just promoting our business.”

Holly sparkles as she calls out an order from the small pick up window of the Mythos Greek food truck.

Civic Center Conservancy Executive Director Lindy Eichenbaum Lent returned the sentiments in official remarks to the assembled VIPs of the day.

Visit Denver’s Rich Grant steps away from the sponsor’s tent in Civic Center Park to attend to his messages.

“Your investments in these programs to revitalize the park are what makes it possible,” Lent said. “We couldn’t do it without you and we are so grateful.”

Lauri Dannemiller, manager of Denver Parks and Recreation, addresses sponsors of Civic Center EATS on opening day.

Other speakers included Denver City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb and Denver Parks and Recreation Manager Lauri Dannemiller.

Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher salutes The Colorado Statesman audience as he and City Councilwoman Jeanne Faatz enter Civic Center EATS for a lunchtime meal.

“Fortunately — or unfortunately for my waistline — I’m over here way too often,” said Dannemiller about the Civic Center EATS series, which she said makes “the true heart and soul of this park come alive.”

Among the nearly 50 vendors, a good handful are new this year, including A Taste of the Philippines, Pacific Bonsai, Jessie’s Smokin’ NOLA (Cajun/creole), and CKrêpes, which serves savory and sweet eats in the buttery, ever popular French pancake, the crepe. Some of the vendors are at the event only on Tuesday or Thursday, while others are present on both days. The event also features live music from local performers.

As Lent summed it up, “There’s something for everyone.” That’s no small feat considering close to 3,000 people attended the opening day — the largest first-Tuesday turnout in the event’s history, Lent said.

Returning vendors include some names you might be more familiar with from their physical restaurants. Denver Biscuit Company sent their Biscuit Bus to the event, and Pinche Tacos, which began as a food truck and blossomed into a wildly popular set of hip taquerias, will be available on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sadly, Pinche didn’t make the opening day. Those searching for a Latin fix flocked to Quiero Arepas — which Lent named as one of her favorites and one of the most popular¬ — for moist pockets of maize dough overflowing with choice toppings.

When sponsors and city officials escaped the hot sun to sample their lunches, City Councilman Paul Lopez enjoyed a Hawaiian burger with his fellow councilmember Susan Shepherd and friend Erika Martinez, communications director for the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative, who were eating a Greek wrap and tacos, respectively.

For Shepherd, a highlight of the Civic Center EATS series is the diversity of the food choices available, from various ethnic cuisines to plays on old favorites like a truck that specializes solely in different PB & J combinations. That, combined with the fresh air and familiar faces makes the event hard to pass up, she said.

“It’s like a scene,” Shepherd said.

Martinez agreed: “I really like the community feel to it. This is why I love Denver; because you’re able to pull this off.”

For Lopez, it’s satisfying and fitting to see the food truck, a mainstay of urban culture, catching on in Denver on a bigger scale.

“It’s good to see that Denver’s caught up on the kind of things that make a city a city,” Lopez said, adding that food trucks have for years “served a purpose” in many Denver neighborhoods as quick, cheap refreshment for construction workers and the average pedestrian.

Restaurant and retail owners have differing opinions on the economic impact of food trucks, Lopez said, but with the right laws in place they can be a vibrant force in bringing parks and other spaces alive.

“We have to make sure that we have strong regulations, the health code is enforced, and they’re picking up their trash,” Lopez said.

According to Lent, the thorough application process leading up to Civic Center EATS ensures all of the food trucks meet those requirements as well as other standards for visual appeal and popularity. Not to mention that they certainly liven up Civic Center Park, which has at times been known as a hang-out for druggies and other unsavory characters.

The food truck gathering also brought people who’d never heard of it until that day. Metropolitan State College of Denver junior Jonothan Meyer said he wouldn’t have known about the event had he not been handed a flyer while walking on 16th Street Mall.

“It sounded awesome, and it is awesome,” he concluded after finishing a bowl of fried rice and spicy shredded beef.

I concur, Jonothan. After standing in three lines, perusing at least a dozen menus and having both forearms nicely sunburned, I settled on a very customizable bowl of bulgur wheat, melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork and sautéed broccoli, smothered in avocado and chimichurri sauces, from the aforementioned Crock Spot. It didn’t just hit the spot; the hearty, spicy, texture-happy bowl made a bull’s eye on my hunger.

Walking away from the still-crowded park, I regretted that I couldn’t try a bite of each dish from every one of the food trucks — an impossible task even if I go back every week for the rest of the summer. But I think with the help of Denver’s hungry downtown work force, I should at least be able to make a dent.

For more information on Civic Center EATS, including a full schedule of vendors and musical acts, visit www.civiccenterconservancy.org/event-civic-center-eats-2014_74.html.

Maggie Tharp is and always will be passionate about eating good food and writing about it. She lives with her husband and kittens in Westminster and has dined in Denver, Boulder, Longmont, Vail and beyond. Thoughts? Suggestions? Maggie can be reached at Maggie@coloradostatesman.com.

Denver Police Chief Robert C. White wends his way through the lunch hour crowd at Civic Center EATS.

Stylish City Councilwoman Jeanne Robb celebrates the event’s ninth anniversary in part by watching 3-month old Richie Pachner at rest in his stroller. Richie’s mom is Stacie Loucks, Director of Excise and Licenses for Denver.

Photos by John Schoenwalter/
The Colorado Statesman

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