While it’s ubiquitous on American diner menus, the origins of the Denver omelet—a mixture of egg, ham, bell pepper, onion, and cheese that’s sometimes known as the Western omelet—are mysterious. By most accounts, it originated as a sandwich. Some say it was invented by immigrant Chinese laborers working on the region’s railroads, who adopted their Cantonese egg foo yung to local ingredients to create a hearty, inexpensive breakfast sandwich. Others say it was first hawked on Denver’s streets by an Italian immigrant in 1893. But another explanation has been immortalized on Downtown Denver’s official Denver omelet plaque: that it was invented by early settlers in the region, who added onions to enhance the flavor of eggs that had lost their freshness over long journeys West.
The plaque, one of a number of downtown memorials marking everything from Kerouac to cannibalism, is a paean to this filling breakfast. Besides a note about the dish’s ostensible pioneer origins, the plaque includes a recipe for the omelet, advising passersby to beat two to three eggs, add ham or bacon, green pepper, onion, and fold to serve. The exclusion of cheese from this official recipe may, however, be controversial. “If it doesn’t have cheese I’m not even talking to you,” Denver resident and Civil War historian Frank Deserino told a team of researchers hot on the trail of the omelet’s origins.
If merely looking at the plaque doesn’t sate your hunger, you can sample the Denver omelet itself at nearby Sam’s No. 3 at 1500 Curtis Street. The Sam’s diner empire has been a Denver fixture since 1927—almost as old as the omelet itself—and, to the delight of local residents with strong opinions on the matter, its restaurants usually serve the Denver omelet with cheese. They claim the addition of tomatoes transforms the Denver omelet into a Western omelet.
As for the original Denver sandwich, while it continues to be popular in Minnesota and parts of St. Louis, it is mysteriously absent from diner menus in Denver proper. Die-hard sandwich seekers can journey to Wheat Ridge, just outside of Denver, where Li’l Nick’s pizza place offers The North Denver, a variation that adds roasted peppers, mozzarella, and marinara sauce to the classic ham and onion combination, in a tribute to the neighborhood’s Italian-American and Mexican-American communities. It’s a fitting modern homage to a scrappy omelet that, whichever legend you believe, originated among people making do (and delicious) with what they had.