Suburbs aren’t often thought of as travel destinations, particularly when the nearby urban core has come into its own. But Aurora, the big and noisy suburb east of Denver proper, is finding its place as a travel destination through the diversity of its food scene.
Aurora has long been an arrival point for immigrants in Colorado. Of the city’s 375,000 residents, 19.9 percent — nearly 75,000 people — are foreign-born, according to US Census data. Aurora is a less expensive alternative for people to live and work compared to the rising costs of Denver, and many immigrants have become small business owners and opened restaurants. The result is a food culture that stands apart from the outdoors, sports, and cannabis sectors that typically draw visitors to Colorado.
“Aurora is a welcoming city with residents representing cultures around the world,” Aurora mayor Mike Coffman tells Matador. “Nothing illustrates that better than our rich culinary scene along the Havana corridor, Colfax Avenue, and throughout the community.”
The region has experienced massive growth since the mid-1990s. Denver International Airport opened on a parcel of land adjacent to the city of Aurora in 1995, replacing the old Stapleton Airport that was northwest of Aurora. Easy access for travelers, combined with the craft beer market and outdoors, drew nearly 32 million visitors to the Denver area in 2017, according to numbers from Visit Denver. The state also saw 70,000 people move in that same year and 80,000 the next, a statistic dominated by outdoors-minded (and social media-savvy) Gen-Xers and Millennials not shy about sharing the place they “discovered” with friends and family back home.
With that growth, Aurora has worked to promote the communities that already call the city home.
“In partnership with our Office of International and Immigrant Affairs and business groups like the Havana BID, we are bringing in new international eateries and are actively promoting the fact that we have the best food scene in the metro area,” Juan Mercano, an Aurora City Council member, told Matador. “Aurora’s diversity is well represented in the restaurants that call our city home, and our broad range of cuisine really exemplifies that we are an international city with a lot to offer.”
Since 2012, Aurora’s city website has maintained a dining guide called YUM AURORA to chronicle restaurants by cuisine, with dedicated sections for African, South American, Middle Eastern, and others. Modern food halls like the Stanley Marketplace, opened just north of Colfax Avenue in 2016, hosts Cheluna Brewing, the state’s first Latino-owned and -operated brewery, and casual restaurants like Misaki, a sushi counter in the market’s main hall.
A tourism, visitor, and convention bureau, Visit Aurora was established in 2010 to help market these efforts.
“Aurora has definitely embraced our ethnic restaurants as something unique about our city and that we are continually promoting,” says Françoise Bergan, another Aurora City Council member.
Often, the hardest part of eating out in Aurora is deciding where to go.
One place to start is Colfax Avenue. This is where you’ll find Mango House, which opened in 2012 as a community hub and home for refugees and new arrivals in the city. Mango House offers a grocery, medical clinic, and youth center. In addition to its humanitarian services, the space is home to an international food hall with Syrian, Nepalese, and Ethiopian stalls, as well as Colorado’s first Burmese restaurant, Urban Burma.
Colfax Avenue — and particularly its eastern leg running through Aurora — has long been a hotspot for restaurants you can’t find in central Denver. Here, you can try Eastern European food at Baba and Pop’s Pierogi Shop or get your pho fix at Top Pho. Some of the best places to eat, however, are the small, family-run Mexican restaurants. Eating at every Mexican joint on East Colfax would take weeks of nonstop consumption — your best bet (unless you’re in town for a while) is to find a spot with a gathering of people outside and pull over immediately. Try traditional plates at La Costa or head to Tacos y Pupusas for the best of, well, exactly what you’d expect.
Along Havana Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, you’ll find restaurants that reflect the Korean community in Aurora. Plans had circulated a few years ago for an official Koreatown designation along Havana Street, but those were scrapped in order to prevent the image that the city was highlighting one culture over another. This would have been Colorado’s only such designation, but Bergan notes that the city would “rather celebrate all of our diverse cultures” than promote only one.
Still, it isn’t hard to see the influence the Korean community has on the city. The commercial stretch of Havana and the streets just off of it are home to more than a dozen Korean restaurants. There are spots like Funny Plus, which has a broad menu of barbecue, bulgogi, kimchi dishes, fried chicken, and other favorites. Dae Gee, a small chain with on-table grills, has a staff accustomed to walking diners through Korean-style dining.
Many restaurants are just a short walk away from each other after you hop in an Uber or take the light rail to the shopping center at South Havana Street and East Evans Ave.