AURORA | A quick web search for Asian restaurants in Aurora yields dozens and dozens of results.
Untested diners have plenty of run-of-the-mill, westernized Chinese restaurants to choose from, eateries that don’t offer any flavors that are too exotic. Those with more adventurous palates can choose between authentic Korean barbecue joints where English is seldom spoken, as well as a bevy of pho restaurants that each boast a distinct and unique approach to making the Vietnamese soup. Thai, Japanese and fusion restaurants also figure on the list, as do specialty markets from across Asia.
Try a similar search for a German, Italian, Irish or French joint, and the options are a lot more limited. For all of Aurora’s impressive diversity when it comes to food, the choices are less than plentiful when it comes to western European restaurants that aren’t corporately owned.
“What we have competition with is not necessarily with other German restaurants,” said Helga Bruntsch, co-owner of Helga’s German Restaurant and Deli. Since 1989, the family-owned business has specialized in German cuisine, a niche that doesn’t have many competitors in Aurora. “There are so many options and choices for the customer. That’s what’s tough; it’s hard to compete with that.
Part of that trend has to do with shifts in the city’s population (according to U.S. Census data released last year, the country’s Asian population was the fastest growing race group from 2000 to 2010), and the end result is a much different culinary landscape than the norm from 20 years ago. What was once the go-to fare for diners looking to get fancy is increasingly hard to find in the suburbs.
Long considered the height of culinary sophistication, authentic French food is hard to find in Aurora. At Daniel’s of Paris, a French bakery off Iliff Avenue, the menu includes bona fide French delights like croissants, éclairs and pain au chocolat. But the bakery has had to widen its scope — in addition to signature French staples, Daniel’s of Paris also offers Italian deserts like canoli, as well as good, old-fashioned American cupcakes.
At McCabe’s Bistro and Pub in the Southlands shopping center, the owners have had to take a similarly wide-ranging approach. The theme here is decidedly Irish, and the owners have worked to create a menu with authentic takes on traditional dishes like shepherd’s pie, fish and chips and bangers and mash. But they’ve also had to temper their niche approach with American staples.
“We’ve kind of adapted to more Irish-American cuisine so we’re not keeping ourselves in one group,” said Shawn Popp, a general manager at McCabe’s. “We have our shepherd’s pie and our corn beef cabbage … but we also have hamburgers and chicken fingers.”
Since opening the restaurant with her mother more than 20 years ago, Bruntsch has also found ways to expand the menu and appeal to a bigger crowd. Sure, items like wiener schnitzel, pfalzer pretzels and bratwurst dominate the menu, but Bruntsch has also made accommodations for diners with specific needs.
“We do specialize in German food, but we also have salads and gluten-free options. We do have a lighter fare, we have vegetarian dishes,” Bruntsch said. “We had to modify and make changes as people’s diets change.”
That’s not the only step she’s taken to widen the appeal of the business. Since opening in 1991 and moving to their present location near the Aurora Town Center, Bruntsch and her business partner have built up a German specialty store of sorts. There’s a deli that features specialty German meats and cheeses. CDs, candies and other authentic goods from Europe are also available outside of the dining room.
Bruntsch insists that the variety draws in customers who are looking for a specific kind of food and a specific kind of flavor.
“Even if you’re specialized, if you’re not good, it doesn’t matter,” Bruntsch said. “Who’s going to drive from Highlands Ranch or Wyoming for something specialized if it’s not good?”
For Bruntsch and other business owners, the key to keeping up a successful Western European restaurant is that tricky balancing act between Americanized staples and authentic cuisine. Because there aren’t dozens and dozens of restaurants to choose from, the niche items have to stand out even more.
“Where else can you find shepherd’s pie?” Popp said. “You can get fish and chips, the cheap ones from Long John Silver’s. But it’s not authentic.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]