Monday, May 25, 2015

Denver al Pastor Take 16: North County

It would not be an overstatement for me to say that tacos al pastor are a fundamental part of my being. This is true figuratively, as it has been the inspiration for this blog (from the logo to the name, and to the exhaustive and exhausting list that I once compiled annually). It is also true literally, as for better or worse, marinated pork has surely come to permanently line my intestinal tract (I think 9 out of 10 physicians would think that to be for the worse). And although I have not posted on Denver pastor for about two years now, my passion for pastor has not waned. It is rather that, as far as I can tell, I have combed the city so thoroughly that there just aren't any new pastor spits to write about. That is, until just recently.

I have stopped being surprised about where I find pastor ever since I had a taco al pastor from a spit in the posh mountain town of Telluride. Nevertheless, I was taken aback when I got a text from my friend Brian a couple months ago with this picture taken in the Lowry residential neighborhood of East Denver:

Brian knows well of my love for pastor because, as I have related before, when we were roommates in Chicago, we could have these fine tacos delivered to our apartment door at any hour of the night or day. In fact, if our lives had just gone slightly different, I might be still adrift at sea with Brian (and our other roommate Michael) on a yacht named: "The El Pastor". But that is a story for another post. Suffice to say, that Brian knows a good spit of meat when he sees one.

The Lowry pastor spit, located in the relatively new North County, as you might have guessed, is a modest one. But as I have posted before and will remind my readers, the size of a pastor spit matters little.  (The spit, of course, is still the only real requirement I have of whether I will consider a taco al pastor worth having. No matter how good the marinade, a non-spit roasted version just won't do.)

North County apparently is a very specific part of San Diego, where the words "North Country" seemingly generate great pride in people who care about those kinds of things. San Diego, I believe, is somewhere in California. You might be familiar with California as the northern and western-most region of the once-great Spanish-then-Mexican empire. It shouldn't be surprising then, I suppose, after all these years that Californianos still know a thing or two about tacos.

The North County al pastor taco was, I must admit, very good. I am now used to pastor tacos being sliced a little thicker than they are in Mexico City, and while I still prefer the thin-sliced and charred bacon-like cuts in the Federal District, I am coming to appreciate the thicker cut as it can also be quite moist and tender. North County did well, however, to impart a little char on its pastor, which is crucial, and what's more, the flavor of their marinade was spot-on. The fresh, house made corn tortillas, chunks of grilled pineapple, and a solid, spicy red salsa rounded out this all-round solid taco.

I've written before about how much I loathe taco stores that try to dress up their tacos (and give them gimmicky names) so much that they become small hors d'oeuvres that just happen to be served on tortillas. Maybe the best part of North County --  a restaurant that had all the external appearances of a place that would try to fancy-up their tacos-- is that their taco al pastor remained refreshingly simple: meat, tortilla, cilantro, onion.

I also tried a fish taco (with my second round of pastor) which was a little more dressed up, but that is typical. Still, the battered slab of fish was not lost under the simple slaw and bright mango salsa. It was also good enough that I would be happy to return to North County to see what else they have to offer.

There are tacos al pastor on a spit all up and down East Denver and Aurora, but unfortunately many people are not ready for the East Colfax taco experience. For this reason the spit of pastor at North County fills a niche and fills it well. You can now enjoy a decent taco al pastor while you sit on expensive patio furniture surrounded by suburban-looking families while sipping a "craft" cocktail instead of sitting on a plastic chair in a greasy taqueria with a can of Modelo in a paper bag. Not sure if that is really an improvement, but hey, it takes "all kinds of people", as they say. And now all those people can find a little more common ground with a mouthful of pastor.

North County on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 3, 2015

My Kids and I Love to Pig Out at Dae Gee

My blogging (it's sort of sad that the continued de-evolution of the English language makes "blogging" an accepted verb these days), along with its mandatory dinner photos (that interrupt the flow of a meal and annoy other diners and restauranteurs alike), has left an indelible impression on my youngsters in their first four years of life.

I've written before about how my poor kids think it is normal to snap a close-up of every plate that is set down before them, but the other day they took it to a new level. We had eaten at the relatively new location of Dae Gee on Colorado Blvd. a week before, and when we asked them what they wanted to do this past Friday afternoon they simultaneously yelled: "Pig Out!" "Pig Out" is more or less the tag line of this Colorado Korean chain, and they proceeded to march around our house chanting: "Pig Out! Pig Out!"

The chant lasted several minutes before one of them (they look the same, you know) asked to see my photos from our last visit. All I had to show them was a solitary photo of my steaming Bibimbop bowl. Where, they wanted to know, was the up-close photo of their zucchini pancake? Those little crunchy things (fried dumplings)? What about the little white plates that were all over the table (Banchan), or the great big sticker of the pig's face that they had each stuck on their shirts like walking Dae Gee mini-billboards?

"I only took this one picture," I said, and I could feel their disappointment swell up from within their little bodies.

"Who are you?" They each seemed to glare, "I thought you were my father?"

That is how I found myself back at Dae Gee, camera in hand, ready to snap photos to temporarily win the affection of my boys. And ready to eat. Although Dae Gee is advertised as Korean BBQ, they don't have table grills as of yet due to pesky regulartory processes. Still, Dae Gee has the thick, smoky, greasy air of a real-deal Korean BBQ joint. The aroma is at once enveloping and instantly inviting. I went from ready to eat to ravenous in an instant. Indeed, there could not be a better way to describe my mindset that the two words splattered all over the restaurant: "Pig Out".

The last time we ate there we shared a Galbee BBQ plate which gets cooked in the kitchen (again, waiting for the table grills). We also shared a bibimbop. Sharing quickly became an issue, as this is a favorite of mine, and it is hard for me to stop and pass once I get going. "Sharing" quickly turned into a race to see who could scrape the most perfectly browned rice from the hot clay bowl. When we returned for our second meal, we each got our own bowl. Here's mine:

When this dish is done right (and it is done to perfection at Dae Gee), it is really one of the world's greatest dishes. The key is that fire-hot stone bowl. So hot that it cooks the raw egg as it gets mixed in with the rice, veggies and meat. But waiting a few minutes is also key. It lets the bowl brown the rice into an irresistible crust. Then, and only then, mixed up all together it becomes a delectable Korean harmony: mmmm.

There are, of course, many other items at Dae Gee. I will probably wait for the table grills to be installed before getting the BBQ again, though it was really pretty good the last time I had it. (Plus there is a little bit of a misleading verbiage on their menu that implies "unlimited BBQ" that will come with those aforementioned table grills.) My sons are also in love with the zucchini pancake which, though a little greasy, is a chopped veggie -almost latke-like patty with a distinct Korean flare.

And the fried dumplings, which anyone would love, but that are particularly good at Dae Gee for being so light and fluffy.

We also shared a small bowl of Man Doo Gook, or chicken dumplings (and such) in a beef broth. It was a glorious soup: a subtle but intricate broth packed with veggies and shredded beef. 

There is not a shortage of Korean food in Denver. However, much of it is found in the far corners of places like Aurora, which understandably makes it less likely to reach the average Denver diner. Dae Gee brings the Korean adventure to the average Joe. It does so with a clever logo, a streamlined image, a clean design, and a friendly, inviting environment with staff that is willing to spend some time to explain the menu and educate its customers. They even break down the basics in their menu with a step-by-step guide to eating proper BBQ.

Dae Gee does all this, as far as I can tell, without sacrificing real-deal Korean flavor.  You can't get fried rice. There is no kid's menu. Nothing is dumbed down or disguised in order to appeal to the middle-American palatte. Dae Gee brings the flavor to you, Denverite. Now go and thank them with your business.

Dae Gee on Urbanspoon

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


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