In the 13 years that Cafe Aion has operated from its intimate location at the base of University Hill, the Spanish and Moroccan restaurant by Chef Dakota Soifer has distinguished itself for its paella and a decidedly more refined style than most of its neighbors. On Tuesday, April 4, Soifer and current chef Austen Vasquez reintroduced lunch after a three-year hiatus. The menu features a blend of classic items alongside a new set developed by Vasquez.
Soifer was raised in South China, Maine, by parents he describes as restaurant folks and back-to-the-land hippies.
“For rural Maine I experienced a ton of great and diverse food. We had a couch in our kitchen. It was more of a living room than our living room,” the chef says. His mom would cook dumplings, and his dad, who had previously managed private clubs in Washington D.C., would make dishes with a clear sense of refinement.
In high school, Soifer began working for his uncle’s catering company, a large-scale operation based in Connecticut that would routinely work massive jobs including events at Madison Square Garden for more than 3,000 people. He moved to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado, where he studied architecture. During that time, he started rolling burritos at Illegal Pete’s, which helped reignite his interest in kitchen work.
“I was eating two or three burritos for my shift meal,” Soifer says with a laugh.
After graduating, his love for restaurants continued. He cooked at the sorely missed Caribbean-fusion joint Rhumba before moving over to The West End Tavern. Soifer then spent some time at Zolo Grill before moving to San Francisco to work at the James Beard Award-winning Zuni Cafe, a space he likens to the SF equivalent of Alice Waters’ Berkeley-based Chez Panisse. He then popped up to Napa for a stint, working the line at Bistro Don Giovanni, an old school white-tablecloth joint that focused on hand-crafted pastas and Neapolitan pizzas.
After returning to Boulder in the mid-aughts, Soifer helmed the back-of-house at The Kitchen Upstairs before running the whole operation for three years. It was during this time that he began experimenting with the type of cuisine that would eventually define his menu at Cafe Aion.
“You find a lot of ingredient crossover with Colorado and Spain,” Soifer says, noting that seasonality informs much of Aion’s cooking. Directly ahead of opening Aion, Soifer worked for Meadow Lark Farm Dinners, an annual project that hosts fine-dining meals at farms around the Front Range, including Red Wagon Organic Farm, Lyons Farmette and Oxford Gardens. “I was able to make wonderful connections with local farmers.”
Soifer diligently ran the kitchen until 2020, when he hired Vasquez to oversee the menu. “He’s kind of grown into the role,” Soifer says. “It’s fulfilling to mentor someone a little bit.”
Vasquez’s tenure started in March 2020. He and Soifer quickly converted Aion into several ghost kitchens, including Brasserie Boulder, a French concept helmed by Vasquez.
“Working at Colterra and Salt, I was comfortable doing French food,” Vasquez says. When Cafe Aion reopened for standard service, Brasserie Boulder’s menu was folded into the existing list, though the two concepts still remain separate on all delivery platforms.
Aion’s new lunch menu is a neat blend of appetizers, sandwiches, entrees and desserts with classic items from across France and Spain. A croque madame and French onion soup sit well next to shakshuka — a Moroccan tomato stew with house-made flatbread — and a BLT served with house chips that are coated in baharat, an Eastern-Mediterranean barbecue spice made with black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, coriander and paprika. Larger plates include moules frites — mussels with garlic, butter, white wine and French fries — and coq au vin, a red wine-braised chicken with vegetables, potatoes and jus.
“It’s not on the menu, but if someone asks for a paella, I’ll make them a paella,” says Vasquez with a grin, noting that the dish takes no less than 45 minutes.
The lunch menu is also full of vegetarian options, including the veggie burger with a house-made quinoa and yam patty and the unmissable mushroom flatbread that comes topped with a hearty mix of king trumpets, blue oysters, black pearl kings, beech and pioppino mushrooms, all from Denver’s own MycoCosm Mushrooms.
With Vasquez behind the wheel, Soifer has had a chance to focus on the backend and administrative roles as well as recently taking over the Loveland Breakfast Club, a longstanding institution with a compact menu of diner classics.
“It’s really exciting to have Austen flexing some muscle and showing his take on Cafe Aion,” Soifer says.