Sunday, February 1, 2015

I Ate a lot of Food in Mexico, But The Best Taco in the World?

Once again I was back in Mexico City and was literally overwhelmed with good food. Much of it this time around was of the homemade variety, as we jumped from one family affair to another--and even made a road trip around Central Mexico. The following are some highlights:

The first plate was an alambre to end all alambres from the semi-famous Tacos Copacobana of Southern Mexico City, my wife's family's go-to taco stop. Good alambres are hard to find in Denver, though I'm not sure why, as it is a really simple mix of chopped taco meat (in this case pastor), bell peppers, onion, and a couple meat essentials like bacon and salchichas (hot dogs). It is all grilled on a flat top with copious amounts of cheese until it forms a massive, delicious blob that is meant to be pulled apart in sections and rolled into tacos. Besides being simply incredible, this Copacabana version was enormous. I think I could have wrapped it over my equally enormous head (hat size 7 5/8-- I mean I have a really big dome) and wore it like a helmet: A greasy, delicious helmet that would protect me from being healthy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of what is good about food from Mexico City was the next dish. A delicate, complex mole from Azul Condesa, one of four beautiful restaurants in the D.F. under the "Azul" name by Ricardo Muñoz Zurita. Chef Muñoz does brilliant job keeping the storied heritage of Mexican cuisine alive and thriving with minimal gimmickry and clear reverence for what is one of the world's truly great culinary heritages-- if not the greatest. 

I had a mole with roots in Oaxaca. It was black as the night but not anything like a typical bitter chocolate mole negro that might come to mind. No, the base of this mole was the ash of burnt Chile Chilhuacle. And like all great moles, it was full of paradox: while there was a clear taste of ash, nothing tasted burnt. And though after each bite was swallowed I could grind bits of ash between my teeth, the texture was smooth on the palette. It was incredibly subtle for how clearly complex it was, and had completely different tastes with each other food item on the plate: the beef, the grilled veggies, or the little chochoyones. Although a second trip to his restaurant proved disappointing, this was among the best plates of food I've ever eaten. 

We also took a road trip and stopped in the town of Leon, Guanajautao. You will probably never travel to Leon. It is most famous for being the leather and shoe capital of Mexico, and besides that there is at least one big car factory nearby. It reminds me a little of Detroit maybe for that reason, though the Leon GM plant continues to boom (ouch! sorry Detroit). If I have now sparked a yen in you to travel to Leon, you would not be disappointed at all if upon your arrival you stayed in the Hotel Hotson, which despite its hilarious and awkward name, is a top-notch hotel that has a low-key restaurant tucked in the back serving dynamite food. I was ready to hate the dish I ordered for being so outwardly wrong, and even though I tried to find something else to order, once I saw it on the menu I knew I would get it: Lasagna de Mole.

It was quite simple: lasagna noodles layered with shredded chicken and queso Oaxaca, all bathed in copious amounts of mole Poblano. My picture makes it look rather awful, and even without the blurriness of my photo, it wasn't much to look it. It might be best described as a mound. A mound with cheese and a single roasted tomato. It took my palette several bites to adjust to the texture of lasagna and the taste of pasta without a tomato sauce; and alternatively to rich mole without a crisp onion or a fried tortilla. I almost passed it off to my wife who had a enviable plate of enchiladas with mole de pipian, but when my feeble brain caught on to what this chef had brilliantly done I absolutely loved it. All lasagna should have mole. All of it.

We had barbacoa a couple times during this trip but one stop was notable as it is often mentioned as the best barbacoa in all of Mexico. Being the best barbacoa in all of Mexico is a lot like being the best sushi in Japan. That is, you might as well come out and call it the best in the world. And while calling anything the "best in the world" is essentially guaranteeing that it won't ever be the best at anything, this so-called title was laid upon Barbacoa Santiago by a bunch of food bloggers, so there is pretty much no credibility to begin with and therefore nothing to worry about. 

Were they the best tacos in the world? Of course not, simply because there is no such thing. But they are worth driving out of your way for if you are ever anywhere near them. In fact, they are somewhat conveniently located on a busy highway that leads north from Mexico City to Queretero.  Barbacoa Santiago was just one of dozens of giant roadside truck-stop sized food stands on the highway and could be easily overlooked. But unlike any truck stop I have ever known, these folks pit-roast whole lambs wrapped in banana leaves each day and serve them on fresh, fat, house-made tortillas alongside  fiery hand ground molcajete salsas. The best barbacoa is rich and fatty, simple and satisfying. On a chilly and rainy afternoon, the Barbacoa at Santiago's warmed my soul. It really was perfect. Even if you've never had barbacoa before, you would take one bite of these tacos and know that everything was done with the highest degree of care and quality. It's the kind of taco that reminds you how truly great a taco can be. 

So that's the best of it. From a dirty, street-style alambre (that actually did get my kid pretty sick I think), to fine dining with moles, to the best taco in the world a perfect taco. Here's to another year of good eating. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Work & Class: Believe the Hype

This blog is not the place you visit in order to stay up on the latest happenings of the Denver food scene. That might be appropriate, given that in the time leading up to the start of this blog it is hard to say there was even much of a "scene" to stay up on. In the past four or five years, though, this town has blossomed into a legitimate food city, and I think our local media overall does a pretty good job of keeping us up to date. As for me, I'll continue to tell my stories (though much less frequently these days as life would have it), mostly of places that have fallen off your radar, or maybe were never on your radar to begin with. There will always be exceptions of course, like this month's post about Work & Class.

Work & Class is on everyone's radar. The other day I was busy trying to increase my knowledge of the internet by clicking on every link that came up on my Twitter feed. One click took me to a page that showed me what a bunch of Denver "foodies" thought the best new restaurants were last year. I think 10 of the 12 people had Work and Class on their list. It would have been 11 of 13 if they would have asked me (though they knew better than to do that), yet all year long I had been avoiding it. For me it had all the external makings of a place I was doomed to hate: mildly pretentious name, too-hip location, one of the hottest seats in town, full of skinny jeans and beards. However, all year long, it just kept coming up. I finally went a few months ago. Twice in fact (that's a lot for me). And I loved every single thing about it.

For example: I love -- LOVE-- a restaurant where you order a beer like Utica Club in a can for $2 and the server says "good choice" and really seems to mean it.

I suppose a restaurant should be judged on more than its flattering servers, and my first meal at Work & Class was nothing short of brilliant. On that night I sat at the kitchen bar with a couple of friends, and we were at once entertained and awed by the skill, efficiency and effortless synchronization of the professional crew. It was peak dining on a Friday night and all three cooks were clearly working at full steam: focused, intense, and on exactly the same wavelength. There were no wasted movements. No words. As one moved into the other's space, the other would just at that moment turn-- or reach for something else-- so that there were no bumps, no shouts, and no wasted movements. It was like three people moving as one. I've watched a lot of kitchens in my days and have yet to see as smooth an operation as this in such a tight space.

I only took few pictures that night and then brought my wife back about a month later. We sat down to eat at the same kitchen bar to watch the same three professionals manning the grills, ovens and fryer. The only difference was that it was 4:30 in the afternoon and though by no means empty, the buzz of Work & Class that can work itself into a rather chaotic din, was just starting to build.

That afternoon with my wife, we were served a couple of garbanzo fritters upon being seated. While nothing extraordinary, these perfect little bites seem to sum up the food at Work & Class particularly well: simple, unpretentious, well-conceived, and well-executed. Maybe not entirely original, nor hyper-local, nor the result of any fancy techniques, but tasty. And you want more.

The next plate made me reflect on the fact that my life has far to few chicharron tacos in it. I like them both ways: soft, smothered and stewing in hot salsa, and freshly fried and crisp like this version, which included a bright pico de gallo and a smear of guacamole.  The house made tortilla was a bonus. If it wash't that I already knew what else the menu held, I could have easily made a night out of five or six crispy pork skin tacos and a few more Utica Clubs.

However I was here to show my wife a good time, and no matter how many times I have tried to convince her otherwise, that usually needs to involve more than fried pork and a few cans of beer. A simple-- but again perfectly executed-- plate of shrimps and grits was a good start. Nothing fancy here. Fresh shrimp, simple seasoning, lots of butter. You want to eat this every day.

A plate of fried plantains served alongside a 1/4 pound of conchinita pibil came next. The sweet plantains were seasoned in big grains of sea salt and the pibil was an excellent version of this sweet marinated Yucateco pork dish. Simple and classic.

I had the coriander coated lamb tenderloin the first time around and it blew me away for being the epitome of simplicity and spot on execution. This time around our loin was a little limp and had started to cool off too much. The taste was there-- bold coriander, tender lamb seared crisp --but medium-rare loin that is luke-warm all around doesn't get it done. It was still quite good, however, and my memory of the perfectly cooked --and timed-- loin the first time around was enough for me to keep the faith that a little delay in service can be forgiven.

One thing about the small, hole-in-the wall places I like to cover is that they so often are an extension of the people that own them; and more frequently than not they are woven into the fabric of the community they serve. On the flip side, the one thing I so often dislike about the new hot spots is that they are all front and flash. Once gone they are barely missed, or easily replaced by the next big thing. However, all great restaurants had to be new at some time, and if Work & Class keeps its vision clear and its food this good, it is only a matter of time before it goes from the hottest newcomer to one of Denver's beloved institutions.

  Work & Class on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Guadalajara Authentic Mexican Buffet: A Poem-like Tribute

I've written about the fabulous tacos at the Guadalajara Authentic Mexican Buffet before, but I finally returned for their buffet spread a couple weeks ago. The buffet at Guadalajara is impressive to say the least, both in quantity and (for the most part) quality. It also includes tacos to order. It was such a great experience, in fact, that I was moved to verse. As a preface to my buffet-inspired lines, over the past month I have been reading Shel Silverstien's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" alternating with "A Light in the Attic"-- every single night (to my kids). Oh, and this incredible book about Mexican food that I can't recommend enough.

The result of my Mexican buffet binge and my immersion in rhyming children's literature-- for better or worse-- is this. If you regularly read actual poetry, or even just have a general appreciation of the art, you may be genuinely offended if you choose to continuing reading. Or enjoy, like I have, with the understanding that once you reach the bottom, there is nowhere to go but up.

The Guadalajara Authentic Mexican Buffet is Just Great

The Guadalajara Authentic Mexican Buffet is just great
For a family of four, six, seven, or eight.
Or 11 or 12, bring your grandma and cousin,
Cause this is a spread that all ages be lovin'.

Stay for a while and come with a clean palette,
Avoid fillers like rice, beans, or (worst) iceberg salad.
Stay cool and go slow - don't do anything drastic,
And best to wear pants with a little elastic.

There are chicken legs in a dark mole sauce;
calabaza and corn stewing in a rich broth.
Grilled steak and shrimp with sweet peppers and spice
and more typical plates that are sure to entice.

There's stewed chicharron in a hot red salsa,
that's a little bit salty but still freakin' awesome.
Pozole, meundo, and even green chile,
Indeed the quantity borders on silly.

When my first plate was full I was doing my best
To balance it all and not make a mess,
But I couldn't resist one more chile relleno
fearing that later I would be way too lleno.

But I didn't stop there, I went back for seconds,
Those enchiladas I missed were starting to beckon.
As were the grilled veggies and the tilapia,
You just keep eating and ain't no one stoppin' ya'.

If you are still hungry but want something novel
There's colita de pavo you could eat by the shovel.
In a brown chile sauce that is slightly murky,
that's right you can chew on the tail of a turkey.

There are some items you'd do best to not stomach
like the hot dogs or 2-day old chicken nuggets.
The droopy french fries and the crusty "espagueti"
were other items for which no stomach is ready.

The ambiance is not unlike a school cafeteria,
and though there's no beer, there is birria,
and tacos to order grilled up fresh
with a red salsa that will heat up your breath.

And while it's true that there is no booze,
there is enough food so that you'll snooze
quite well that night and into the morn'
(You might even feel hungover, bloated and worn.)

But don't let that next day stop you now,
Just think of the joy you'll bring your stomach and how
You'll never forget all the great things you devoured,
Cause you'll be burping them up for several hours.

After my third plate I felt a little fatigued,
out of breath and weak in the knees.
But eating this buffet is not for the meek
So come hungry and you'll stay full for a week.

Buffets get a bad rap in the food world these days
But this Mexican diner's no Old Country Buffet.
It's good- no it's great- but I'm repeating myself
Just get there and try it all out for yourself.

Guadalajara Authentic Mexican Buffet on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Araujo's in Jefferson Park: Much More Than Cheap Breakfast Burritos

Once upon a time I was young and considered my stomach invincible. I was also jobless and living in Mexico City, being "smart" by eating as cheaply as I possibly could. I was getting ready to sidle up to a taco cart in some forgotten corner of the city that was advertising tacos for the equivalent of about 10 US cents. I was peering over some bystanders at the grill, trying to figure out exactly what kind of meat was being served, when a wise, wrinkled (and slightly crazy) old man came out of nowhere, grabbed my arm, and basically yelled at me: "Save money now!" And he gestured wildly to the tacos: "But pay later." He winked and seemed to disappear into the crowd. Despite this ominous encounter, I still thought about eating there for a minute as a full meal for well under a dollar is not easy to come by. I stopped for long enough to look the taquero up and down and noticed his grimy hands and the greenish, unidentifiable raw meat festering below his grill. I decided to pass.

The life lesson, of course, is not that cheap food comes at a price, but that the world needs more crazy old men roaming the streets (and I for one, am well on my way to becoming one). But apart from this near miss (and a couple dozen questionable decisions in the years following that led to actual sickness) for the most part cheap street food the world round is amazing. In Denver (and most other US cities), however, you have to go out of your way to get cheap street food, what with all these fancy-Dan food-mobiles abound. And if you want to sit down with a roof over your head? A truly good and cheap meal can be harder to find than it ought to be.

Then there are places like Araujo's, just East of Federal on 26th, where one can still get a burrito for $1.50. While that is much, much more than a 10-cent taco, it's still pretty damn cheap. And for a man like me, hard to resist. So late this summer my family and I headed over for a weekend breakfast meal to see what it was all about.

Instead of ordering burritos to go, we were tempted by the rest of the Araujo's menu. We soon learned, however, that eating a sit-down meal during the Sunday morning burrito rush at Araujo's is not for the impatient. Whatever urgency we saw (and urgency is not a good word to describe anything that we saw that morning) was being directed towards getting burritos ready for the large take-out orders that seemed to roll in endlessly. To more than make up for it, though, was the coffee. The so-called Araujo's "Coffee Station" consisted of an old drip pot on a warming plate on a wobbly table. It looked like it would surely be an acrid, weak office-style brew. The kind that you can only force down because you are in desperate need of caffeine or because you hate your job and yourself. Instead it was a lovely, balanced cafe de olla: strong, but with hints of clove and cinnamon. I had several cups and actually savored our long wait for the food because it meant I had more time to sip.

Despite the excellent coffee that went surprisingly well with the loads of tortilla chips that kept appearing in front of us, I was more than ready to dive into my enormous plate of chilaquiles when they arrived. The only thing that kept these chilaquiles from being great in my mind was that the tortilla chips were too thin (the same that were served in the baskets pre-meal). I prefer a thicker totopo that gets a good soaking in chile. However, to compensate for this, Araujo's pours the salsa on just before serving, so their thin chips don't completely wither away. The green salsa, luckily, was excellent, and the eggs ran gooey all over. Melted cheese, creamy beans and swirls of crema fresca abounded. I absolutely licked my plate.

My wife went non-breakfast. A questionable move at 9am, and I think the cause of much of our delay. However, the result was a plate of perfectly fried flautas topped with fresh guacamole and copious amounts of crema fresca. Nothing fancy or too hard to execute, but flautas done right are one of the world's perfect foods.

Oh, and we couldn't leave without some burritos. My kids ordered one each, and although they do handle their spice well for 3-year-olds, they opted out of the green chile--even the mild. It was therefore hard to fully judge these 150 cent wonders, but with a good dose of green chile I imagine they would be wholly satisfying.

Araujo's is, appropriately, renowned for its cheap burrito eats, but there is a lot more going on in that tiny kitchen. I can't say enough good about Araujo's from our single visit there. Every Denver neighborhood needs a place like Araujo's.

  Villa Cafe Araujo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Film, Food and Flowers: The Sustainable Food Film Series at the Denver Botanic Garden

In spite of my general lack of posting over the past year, I just recently passed the milestone in the food-blogging world of having a blog in pretty much continuous publication for a period of five years. What this means is that I am an old man now not only in my real people age but in blog age as well, which is measured in weeks and months.  What this also means is that people have surely moved on. Surely they care less than ever before-- if that were even possible-- about what the hell an aging man and his aging blog have to say about the food in their city. Yet people still contact senile old me to participate in, or promote their events. Surprising? Yes. Frightening? Also yes. I can't even get my new mobile telephone to make calls anymore, much less string together coherent thoughts on the internet (though that was never a pre-requisite for having a blog). Plus these new phones are so big and heavy.

It is rare that I take people up on their offers for publicity in exchange for something free. In part because I don't want to feel obliged to write about it, or worse, meet some sort of deadline. But mostly I'm just a nice guy and don't want to hurt the attendance at a given event or restaurant. 

Yet here I am writing about an event that I was recently asked to attend: The Chipotle Sustainable Food Film Series at the Denver Botanic Gardens--sponsored by that locally bred burrito monopoly we all love (just admit it-- you like it too). If you have read my past posts on film and food, you would know that I love to sneak in food to the movies, and the foil-wrapped burrito is my number one choice. Furthermore, the Film Series costs five U.S. dollars, which seems like a fair market value of advertising space on my blog these days. Lastly, I am a card-carrying Friends and Family member of the Botanic Gardens.  So even if the association with me actually might hurt their image in the long run, I couldn't resist the invitation.

The night went pretty much like I expected. I got a burrito and sat down to watch an interesting film. Pretty much like every other movie I watch in the theater but this time I didn't have to sneak my burrito in and I got to eat it with the lights on.

The film series is fun weekday distraction and a wild deal for $5 a ticket that includes your burrito with all the fixings. Plus anytime you have an excuse to spend some time at the Botanic Gardens I think you ought to go. It really is a unique urban oasis. And as for the films? There is still one date left in November. Get on over if you haven't.


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