OYSTERS + COLORADO = YES!
Words: Christine Vazquez
Photographs: David Vazquez
“We’re currently selling around 700 oysters a week,” Kelly Whitaker, Chef / Owner of Cart-Driver in Denver, tells me. My jaw drops. In a 640 square foot space, whose centerpiece is a wood fired oven and a menu most assume to be dominated by pizza, this fact astounds. But, it’s good in fact, since I’d called to talk oysters specifically. And even more specifically, Hama Hamas.
“It’s a passion of mine for sure,“ Whitaker says. “Once I started looking at oyster farming as I would at regular farms and farmers, my mind just expanded to the idea that it’s exactly like farming - terroir, land, water, the plankton they feed on - all of it affects the oyster. When I visited Hama Hama, there was a guy walking on water with a hoe - farming the water, essentially.” Sounds like a sort of religious experience.
Cart-Driver is the only Colorado restaurant - casual or fancy - to offer the Hama Hama variety from Puget Sound, and fascinatingly, gets them direct-shipped from the fifth-generation oyster farm in Lilliwaup, Washington. Hama Hama used to be a household name in oysters, until people started selling ones claiming they were authentic, but weren’t. It took years for them to come back to market, as market-shy as the Hama Hama folks had become, understandably. Whitaker made it a point to meet with them while on a trip to Kirkwood, Washington for a traveling James Beard dinner he was invited to participate in. He refers to it as a magical area where the Hama Hama river fuses into Puget Sound.
Rowan Jacobsen - creator of OysterGuide.com and the author of A Geography of Oysters - says of the Hama Hama:
Hama Hamas are famed for their size, shell strength, firmness, cucumber flavor, and light finish. When you see a Hama Hama, you know it is a well-weathered oyster. The knobby, heavy, sand-green shells speak to life on the beach - not just for a few months, but from infancy. After all, every one of these larvae did it the old-fashioned way, conceiving in the wild and icy reaches of Hood Canal, navigating its way to the perfect Hama Hama River delta, then grabbing on to a piece of shell and holding tight. No two weeks in a warm hatchery bath for these guys. No one knows whether this makes any difference to the quality of the grown oyster, but I do know that when you bite into a five-year-old Hama Hama, you’re into something substantial. It’s a full-contact experience, your taste buds popping with salt and citrus, your teeth working, your nasal passage filled with aromas of lettuce and lovage.
Tumbled oysters like Hama Hamas are those whose shells are deep and, well, tumbled looking. They’re ones that have been tossed and turned in rough areas of the water; this is what forms the deep cup, and also strength and resilience.
On one of many visits to Cart-Driver, Whitaker tells me, “I like eating here a lot!”. “We cook what we love to eat.” This is his answer when I ask why the oddly awesome combination of pizza and oysters. But it goes further than that, namely to Campagna, Italy, where his first cooking job was on an island in this region of Italy, and as he tells me - “everything I saw was either a pizza place or a seafood place.” For him, it was a natural fit to create this concept. Even in landlocked Colorado. Cart-Driver’s goal is to have 4 varieties of oysters on the menu at all times. It gives people choice, and also the opportunity to explore.
What many people don’t realize, and I know I didn’t, is that oysters are seasonal, just like other crops. There are also oysters seen as the creme de la creme - like Kumamotos from Japan - which are traditionally found in the fine dining environment. Whitaker says he prefers Hama Hama and also Shigoku - a new variety available just since 2009 from Taylor Farms in the Pacific Northwest and means ‘ultimate’ in Japanese. Whitaker is also a fan of Taylor Farms in general. “The work that goes into their operation is incredible. They take a lot of care. They have a bunch of 40+ year employees” - a fact that clearly impresses both of us.
Chef’s Resources - a culinary knowledge site online - lists over 90 types of Pacific Northwest, and over 60 types of Atlantic oysters. To say there’s a range and choice, would be understating it.
Pacific Northwest oysters include interesting names like Chelsea Gem, Kings Gold and Naked Roy’s Beach. Atlantic oysters includes ones like Beausoleil, Forbidden, French Kiss, Naked Cowboy and Umami.
The Hama Hamas Whitaker brings in for Cart-Driver now arrive in Denver just one day out of the water. “Local for me, is about relationship; it’s not about the circumference around my restaurants,” he says.
Whitaker had told me so many people eat their first oyster ever at Cart-Driver, and one day I was there, I was witness to this. A couple had taken seats on the front patio, and were engaged in a chat with Co-Owner, Andrew Birkholz, about having never had an oyster before. Next thing you know, Birkholz is grabbing an oyster and shucking knife, and opening one right there for them to try. It was fun to watch the look on their faces as they had this experience for the first time.
“You’re called into this industry to serve people,” Whitaker says. You can tell he’s having fun serving them up something rarely offered with the care and thought as oysters are at Cart-Driver.