Attentive waiters often try to guide first time customers to the ideal dining experience, inquiring about preferences and tastes in order to create the best possible meal. At one of Denver’s newest eateries, that waiter is named Joe, and as I tuck in at the bar, he politely inquires, “Are you looking to get absolutely wrecked?”
(‘’)Welcome to Ganja Gourmet, billed as “America’s first marijuana restaurant.” Located in medical marijuana-happy Denver on a stretch of Broadway that boasts so many dispensaries it has been rechristened “The Green Mile,” “Reefer Row” and “Little Broadsterdam,” the establishment stands out, thanks to an enormous psychedelic mural painted on its exterior that gives the place a “happy dance around” vibe according to chef Jennifer Fowler.
Though pot dispensaries have been proliferating in the mile high city since 2001, few specialize in “edibles,” as weed-laced food is known. “There was a huge gap in the marketplace,” says Ganja Gourmet’s founder, 51-year old Steve Horowitz, who was personally disappointed with the refreshments that the other pot shops were offering. “People were selling four week old saran wrap brownies for fifteen dollars. I knew I was on to something.”
To eat at Ganja Gourmet, diners must present a state-issued license (hence the restaurant’s slogan, “Our food is so great you need a license to eat it,” seen below) and a medical marijuana card. The latter are relatively easy to procure (the majority are given to people with severe “chronic” pain), the former not so much. Since I’m not a resident of Colorado, I’m ineligible. I bring along a very willing taster, Max, who prefers that I only use his first name.
We sit down at table that, instead of sweetener, boasts a ceramic sugar holder housing rolling papers, and consider the menu. Everything from pizza to hummus to cheesecake (above) is available, but Max opts for Ganja Gourmet’s version of the prix fixe, the Dinner Buzz Special. It comes with choice of entrée, dessert and a dinner joint, all for a very reasonable thirty bucks.
First out of the kitchen, however, is a complimentary appetizer, the ganjanade (below), served with crusty French bread. Clad in his tie-dyed uniform, Joe, our “budtender”, explains that the spread gets its kick from olive oil infused with cooked down herbal trimmings. Max diligently takes a moment to savor the flavors of the thick brown paste. “There’s no hint of marijuana,” he says, taking another bite for good measure. “It’s what you would think of as tapenade. With a real smell of olives.”
When I ask Joe if the strain of pot used in the cooking affects flavor, he is matter-of-fact. “All ganja tastes the same when cooked,” he says. However, when it comes time to roll Max’s pre-prandial joint, he is more poetic, slipping into marijuana-sommelier mode. “It’s fruity and zesty,” he tells us, taking a long whiff of the dank herb. Locavores take note; all of the pot used at GG is grown in Colorado. This particular strain, Joe tells us proudly, as Max takes a hit, was grown on the Rockies’ Western Slope.
With his appetite whetted, Max digs into his entrée, the meat lasagna, or the LaGanja (below), as it’s known here. It’s based on Chef Fowler’s family recipe and the plentiful serving has the comforting appearance of home cooking, with a thick red sauce and feta topping. While Max wishes it had a bit more heat, when he praises its “good blend of herbs,” he’s referring to the relatives of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, not the marijuana. Joe suggests Max pay particular attention to the pools of red oil that collect around the lasagna. “It’s all in the oil,” he explains, in between hits off a water bong. “That’s the good stuff.” Fowler warns Mac that the high from the lasagna hits slowly, so Max should be prepared to feel it later. “It really builds up on you,” she says.
Finally, comes dessert. Joe offers more advice. “If you have a sweet tooth, try the chocolate cups. You’ll like the high. It’s energetic from the caffeine,” he says of the mocha infused treats. He does warn, however, that with some of the desserts you can taste the pot, particularly with the triple dosed space cake. “There’s no way you can hide two grams,” he says.
Max, who by this point has gotten a bit giggly (“This is hilarious,” he whispers), opts against the super powered space cake in favor of a sticky raspberry brownie, topped with pink chips. Biting into the dense pastry, Max describes it as “rich, fudgy chocolate with pot undertones,” before sharing a piece with another patron who has saddled up to the bud bar. Max then offers up the rest of his joint to Joe (below), saying he’s high enough already. Besides he needs to get going as he needs to be off for the perfect post Ganja Gourmet outing – a matinee of Avatar.
Gourmands—or more likely pot heads– looking for the full Ganja Gourmet experience should act quickly. The Denver City Council recently passed regulations banning onsite marijuana consumption that will go into effect in March. Horowitz, ever the optimist, insists that Ganja Gourmet will prevail – continuing as is or selling food to go. Besides, he says, narrowing the focus to carry out will make it easier to achieve one of his two main ambitions for the restaurant, expanding into multiple locations. His other goal is to receive a visit from his Howard Stern. “If he came,” says Horowitz, “My life would be complete. I think he’d really love the ganja ganoush.”