Mysterious Origins of the Denver Omelet

The city's namesake omelet began its life as a popular sandwich



The North Denver Sandwich at Li'l Nick's in Wheat Ridge is a relic of a bygone era. The Denver sandwich, precursor to the Denver omelet, was ubiquitous nationwide in the 1950s but has all but disappeared from menus in the Mile High City. Li'l Nick's sandwich adds unique elements, such as roasted green chiles and marinara sauce.

Making a Denver omelet is simple: Throw together some eggs, ham, green peppers, onions, cheese, and voila – breakfast is served. But for such a simple dish, Denver’s namesake breakfast favorite has a surprisingly convoluted backstory. 

The Denver omelet began as the Denver sandwich, essentially a Denver omelet between two pieces of toast. The sandwich was widely popular for much of the 20th century, with its heyday coming in the 1950s. “Denver sandwich has become big coast-to-coast favorite,” declared a 1954 headline in the Dallas Morning News. And a nationally syndicated newspaper article from 1959 stated, “The ‘Denver’ sandwich is listed on more restaurant menus than any other sandwich with a name.” 

There’s clear evidence the Denver sandwich predates the Denver omelet, so to find the origin of the omelet, all we have to do is figure out where the sandwich came from. Easier said than done. Cookbooks and historical newspapers suggest a number of competing inventors, and it’s anyone’s guess as to which story is true. Did pioneer women invent the Denver sandwich, using onions to mask the taste of spoiled eggs? Or did Chinese immigrants modify egg foo young to serve laborers on the transcontinental railroad? There are reports of an Italian immigrant selling the sandwiches from a cart on a Denver street corner in 1893, while Denver restaurateurs Albert A. McVittie and M.D. Looney separately claimed to have invented it in 1907. There’s even a probably apocryphal tale of Baby Doe Tabor inventing it in the kitchen of Denver’s Tabor Hotel.

Whatever the sandwich’s true origins, it was a staple of breakfast menus from the 1910s through the 1970s that inexplicably disappeared in the 1980s, giving way to the Denver omelet. Today, the Mile High City’s glory continues to spread in omelet form, even though some establishments insist upon calling it the Western omelet.
Here we present Denver omelet recipes from three Denver restaurants, including a traditional omelet, a skillet and a rare example of the nearly extinct Denver sandwich.

 

NORTH DENVER SANDWICH

The Denver omelet started out as the Denver sandwich, a culinary delight that has largely disappeared from Denver menus (although it is still fairly common in Wisconsin and Minnesota – go figure). One of the few remaining Denver-area restaurants to serve the sandwich is Li’l Nick’s Pizza and Restaurant (5016 Kipling St., Wheat Ridge). 
Owner Bob Quintana grew up “slinging hash” at restaurants in North Denver, where he first encountered the Denver sandwich in the late 1950s. When he founded Li’l Nick’s in the 1970s, he added his own take on the sandwich, which he modified to reflect the flavors of North Denver’s Italian and Hispanic communities. Covered in mozzarella and peppers, and served with a side of marinara sauce for dipping, the North Denver Sandwich is great at any time of day.

 

    2     oz ham, diced
    2     oz onion, diced
    2     oz bell peppers, diced
    2     eggs
    2     slices mozzarella cheese
    1     roasted green chile 
          (Li’l Nick’s uses canned Ortega brand)
    1     6-inch French sandwich roll
    4     oz marinara sauce
        vegetable oil

        Serves 1

 

In a small frying pan, saute onions in oil for a minute, then continue sauteing with bell peppers and ham. Break eggs into pan, scrambling into the mixture of ham, bell peppers and onions. Slice roll, leaving one side hinged, and spread on griddle to toast. When eggs are done, place egg mixture on roll. Lay roasted green chile across eggs, then top with mozzarella slices. Place on oven-proof plate and put in oven at 450° until cheese is melted. Serve with side of warm marinara sauce in a small bowl for dipping. Can be served with appropriate side dishes for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2016 print edition of Colorado Life Magazine. The issue includes two more Denver omelet recipes, plus a story about three classic Denver diners: Pete's Kitchen, the Breakfast King and Davies' Chuck Wagon.

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