Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Orange Crunch: My Kind of Food Truck

If I had never met my wife and was left to my own derelict, anti-social ways, I would probably be holed up in log cabin somewhere outside of Nederland, CO: sitting on a rocking chair, spitting into a spittoon and grumbling to myself about society's ills. In fact, that sounds like a pretty appealing prospect to me at least once on any given week. However, my latest foray into this quirky mountain township wasn't to scope out my mountain refuge, but rather to give our toddler boys a little taste (and smell) of our favorite mountain freak-fest: Frozen Dead Guy Days.

Most of the morning we spent meandering through the crowds that had swarmed Nederland largely to celebrate death and drinking with such notable events as a hearse parade, coffin races, frozen turkey bowling and of course, jumping in an ice cold lake. It was only on our way out of the festival, alternately trudging through mud and negotiating icy snow pack, that I spotted a beat-up blue truck that seemed to be selling food, but just as easily could have been mistaken for any work-related utility vehicle from a laundry truck to a handyman.

At first glance, this was my kind of food truck.  The words "The Orange Crunch" were scrawled on the side using the fat part of a piece of chalk. The menu was scotch-taped onto the side. That's it. As I have made it known before, I am very much tired of the all-too-common flashy food trucks that have clearly spent more time on their custom paint jobs and LCD displays then on their actual food. One look at the Orange Crunch food truck and you would know that could not possibly be the case. If they spent less time on the menu than the time it took them to scrawl their name on truck, it would be logistically impossible to actually have made any food at all.

Now this could be a turn off for some people, but not those who have been eating at food trucks since before food trucks were hip and cool. No, it is very well-established that food truck flashiness tends to have an inverse relationship with the taste and quality of the actual food. The Orange Crunch was no exception.

I wasn't able to get any details from the Orange Crunch team that day, as they were slammed, but I am going to assume that it was named for the orange-colored empanadas it slings. These empanadas are often considered a regional specialty from Ilocos, Philippines. They are made from rice flour dyed orange and while they can have many fillings, but almost always feature an egg. That is, they are rolled out fresh, an egg is cracked into the center before it is folded up and deep-fried.

There were two kinds of empanadas that day, and I had the bacon and cheese one. It was fantastic. The eggs were cooked to medium-hard and the gooey cheese was rich but balanced well by the thick-sliced bacon. Hard to go wrong with fried dough, cheese, egg yolk and bacon; and though not always the case, this was yet another example of how bacon does indeed make things better.

Though still full from breakfast, I had to try a lumpia. It was a delicious version of this Filipino classic: crispy thin layers of dough packed with fresh veggies and meat.

They also had a take on Turon, or banana lumpia. These caramelized bananas were folded into little squares--fried-- then coated in powdered sugar. There was a chocolate dipping sauce on the side. A worthy turon by any standards and a welcome replacement to my favorite that went missing many years back (RIP Tropical Grill).

They also had a chicken adobo, which is a must on any Filipino menu, but I didn't get to try it. There were also a couple of other cultural-melding menu items that looked interesting. But there wasn't that much on the menu and that's probably another reason why everything was so great. Just a couple people, cooking food they love and spending the time to make it right.

If you don't know Dead Guy Days or haven't been, I highly encourage you to go at some point in your life-- unique only begins to describe it. And if you can ever track down the Orange Crunch, please eat there. It is one of the rare food truck gems that you don't want to miss--and I'm not just saying that because it serves Filipino.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Denver Traditions and the Bonnie Brae Tavern

Fellow Denverite, when your out-of-town guests come to pay you a visit and have never been to Denver before where do you take them? After they tell you how amazed they are that the sun is shining so bright and that there are so many tall buildings and so few actual cows, where do you bring them to eat something quintessentially Denver? And I don't mean what Denver is now-- no, not one of the plentiful new, excellent, hip eateries-- but rather where do you go for something tried and true? A Denver tradition, so to speak.

It's a tough question, and it gets tougher. Where do you bring your wife's Mexican cousin who has never even been to the United States before? Where do you bring him at the end of his week's trip after he has already smothered his burrito with green chile, sipped a steamy pho, shared a shwarma, nibbled on some noodles, and tasted the buffalo for the first time?

You don't bring him to eat tacos, that's for sure. Although there are some storied Denver taquerias, some quite different from Mexican taquerias, tacos aren't what you want to eat on your first vacation outside of tacolandia. After consulting with some friends in a text message flurry the likes of which my phone has never seen-- a quantity of texting that would make any pre-pubescent teenage girl madly jealous-- I decided on one of our cities most historic restaurants: The Bonnie Brae Tavern.

I hadn't been to the Bonnie Brae tavern in years. Maybe ten or more. I remember going with some Denver friends who had been raised on the place and I remember thinking how great I also would think it would have been if I also grew up eating there. I remember thinking how rarely I eat pizza with anchovies and how fantastic it was. And I remember thinking, besides the anchovies and the ridiculous stack of other meats and veggies on our pizza, it wasn't necessarily all that great of a pizza.

This time around I felt about the same as far as the pizza goes. The plain pepperoni was fair, and the House Special--the aforementioned anchovy-laden meat and veggie combo-- was great again because of those salty little fish and because there is just something so American and so heartwarming (and heart-stopping) about putting as much food as possible together at once--in this case on top of a pizza.

This time around I also had the green chile. I never would have thought to go to Bonnie Brae tavern for green chile, and I probably wouldn't have even ordered it if my curiosity wasn't piqued by the big 5280 Banner inside, touting it as the best of 2013. Shows you exactly how much I know. This little bowl of chile, although not spicy in the least, and almost the consistency of a lentil soup had delicate layers of rich flavor: green chile, tomato, garlic, cumin. Simple but with fantastic depth. Truly one of the better bowls of green chile in Denver as far as I'm concerned-- even without the heat.

This time around I also appreciated the place itself. In addition to introducing our cousin to a slice of Denver tradition, it was also the birthday of my twin boys. They were elated when their names were announced over the restaurant loudspeaker (by the way, what other restaurants can you think of that still use a loudspeaker?) upon delivery of our desserts, and then just about jumped out of the booth with joy when the entire restaurant broke out singing happy birthday to them. It's certainly one of those times when-- for good reason-- families start to feel a bond to a place and return--maybe not because it is the best food they have ever had, but because of the memories they start making there.

So here's to Bonnie Brae Tavern as a heartwarming place to eat a ridiculous pizza, a great green chile and just to soak up the history-- 80 years to be exact. In a young city like Denver, 80 years is pretty amazing.

  Bonnie Brae Tavern on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 9, 2014

11N at New Saigon: Will You Be My Valentine?

Not too long ago, while out to dinner with my family, I was about to dig into my plate when one of my 3-year old sons grabbed my chopstick-wielding hand and exclaimed: "Papa!" I stopped--we all did, so serious did he sound-- and asked what he wanted, not sure if we were about to make a fast break for the potty or if I was headed into another irrelevant toddler rant about how the sun is a big ball of fire. Neither it turned out; instead he asked, "Papa, you're not going to take a picture?" 

"God, what I have I done!" Was my first thought as I laughed (and got out my camera to take a picture of course). Instead of saying grace, or thanks, or folding a napkin across his lap my son thinks that one needs to take a picture of food before it is eaten. At first it made me think of how silly and obnoxious it is for a diner to be constantly snapping photos (though I never use a flash) of every plate that is put before him. On the other side, food can be great and memorable, and we take pictures of monuments, churches, sunsets, and our kids, so why shouldn't we do the same with our food? The fact that there are whole websites dedicated to awkward family photos is proof enough that taking pictures of food is not the worst use for your camera. 

Besides, what my son was really doing was pointing out to me was that in front of me was one photo-worthy bowl of food, that for so many years I have been eating-- and as if taking it for granted-- I have never once taken its picture.

I am talking about the Bún Hanoi at New Saigon. BúHanoi, also known as 11N, and I have a long history. It used to be hidden on one of the all Vietnamese pages of the New Saigon menu and it was through some Vietnamese-American friends that I was introduced to it. One used to get funny looks and even groans of disapproval when ordering from the Vietnamese section of the New Saigon menu, and I'm not sure why 11N was ever on what we came to call the "secret menu page". It's not like it was a fetal duck egg or other delicacy that would turn the stomachs of most American diners just to read. No, it is quite the opposite. It is a noodle bowl full of mundane assorted pork parts, some grilled shrimp and a handful crispy egg rolls along with fresh veggies and herbs. It's like the Vietnamese noodle bowl combo platter. What meat-eating human being couldn't love a dish like 11N? The answer, to be clear, is none. None could not love 11N.

11N is a perfect meal of slither, crunch, chew, and spice. It is hearty but not heavy or overly filling. I don't remember exactly when 11N made it on to the English menu, although as New Saigon grew in popularity to its current status where its still-packed dining room hosts far more non-Vietnamese diners than Vietnamese diners on any given night, most of the menu got translated and shared with the masses. But for a long time now, even though everything else I have ever tried at New Saigon I have loved-- from the whole fried fish to the interesting curries and seafood platters-- I am almost always end up ordering my beloved 11N.

For someone who eats at different restaurants every week, New Saigon and its 11N has become an unusual routine in my life over the years. I don't write about every restaurant I eat at, and maybe I haven't written about New Saigon yet because I just feel so at home there-- such a personal connection that I either forget that I am even out to eat-- or on some level I just don't want to share. But it's not like New Saigon is a secret to anyone these days, and while the city is full of good Búbowls, I ask you to try 11N at New Saigon and see if you don't fall in love as well. 

New Saigon on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Food I Ate While in Mexico

As expected, some time has passed between this post and my last. In that time I traveled with my family to Mexico City for some two weeks, and sorting through the sheer quantity of quality food I consumed in order to filter out what I wanted to share on this blog has been daunting to say the least; and as I do when faced with anything daunting in my life, I shied away from tackling the task and hoped that it might just go away. But given that it is likely that I will carry the extra pounds I picked up on my latest trip to Mexico, so it is equally hard to shed the food from my memory and the compulsion (and yes, compulsion is really the right word) I have to write about the food I most love. So here, as it were, are some highlights.

The crags of Tepoztlan

Tacos de Cecina in the Mercado de Jiutepec, just outside of Cuernavaca, the city of the eternal spring (and Denver's Mexican sister city). The thinly sliced dried and salted beef is synonymous with the region and made for a delicious breakfast wrapped up in these large, freshly made corn tortillas alongside a cup of steaming cafe de olla. 

Itacates de chorizo y papa with grilled nopales in the Mercado de Tepotzlan. People in Mexico City say that this regional specialty is pretty much only found on the streets of this mountain tourist town just outside of Mexico City. It shouldn't taste any different from a sope, or a gordita, or any other fried masa dough combination. After all, it's pretty much the same thing only shaped in a triangle. But it does. And it is amazing. 

This was a sopa Azteca from the relatively new upscale Turtux in the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City.  The kitchen is run by the welcoming Margarita Carrillo Arronte de Salinaswho came by our table with a warm smile and made us promise to save room for dessert. But she isn't just a sweet lady who can put a modern twist on a Mexican classic with flawless technique and still maintain the rich, deep flavors of a homemade meal at grandma's, she was the driving force behind getting Mexican Cuisine recognized on the UNESCO list of "Intangible Cultural Heritages", the first world cuisine to ever make that list, and still the only one (Japan is in the process of petitioning now). She also wrote the book on Tamales y Atoles, literally

There was more as you can imagine, but besides a few tacos al pastor here and there, these were the real standouts. Here's to another year of sharing the food I eat, and stayed tuned as I get back in gear with more on Denver. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Corner Office and The 12 Dollar Cuban

If you have ever read this blog before then you might be able to feel the cynicism oozing out of this post's title. You may even have some of it on your fingers if you accessed this post through one of those new-fangled touch-sensitive mobile telephone screens. If that was the case, I apologize. If you have spent any time reading just about anything I've written on food in Denver, you would know that I can't stand fanciness or gimmickry. And while I am decidedly neutral on food pricing, a menu offering a Cuban Sandwich for twelve of your hard-earned dollars is not just over-priced, but chances are something fancy is going on that doesn't need to be.

The Cuban, as I've said at least six times before, is one of the world's best sandwiches. Pork with pork and just the right amount of toppings all pressed together on a crusty white bread. Therefore, there is no need to doctor it up in any way or change even one component of what makes it great. If one were to do that, then I would only ask that he or she call it something other than a Cuban.

But I digress. It has been a while since my wife and I have been out for a meal alone, and this meal at The Corner Office was a hurried dash-of-a-dining-experience prior to making a show at the nearby Boettcher Concert Hall. There were many other appetizing bites on our menu but there it was, the last item on the menu tucked in the corner under my right thumb: "Pressed Cuban". And a little further over, the number "12".

The price didn't surprise me, as the rent at the Corner Office space can't be cheap, so why should I expect its food to be? No, the price seemed about right for eating a sandwich downtown on a Saturday night. I was a little pessimistic, however, that the Corner Office chef might try and fancy it up in some unusual and unnecessary way, given that the first section of the menu was called "Dishin It Out" instead of what it was trying to say: "entrees". Another section of the menu was entitled: "Livin' Light" which sounds even too silly for an Applebee's. But the description of the Cuban sounded about right, except for the Dijon Mustard instead of the good ol' bright yellow kind. I decided to go for it.

The first thing that struck me about my Cuban was the size. It was small, but again, I wasn't dining here because I thought my dining dollar would go far. The next thing that struck me was that my Cuban looked, well, alarmingly like a Cuban. It was quite good, even though the bread was slightly too-soft, fluffy and hot-dog-bun like. The roast pork was delectably soft and the pickle concentration was such that every bite allowed a crunchy contrast to the tasty pork. It was a good Cuban, and although small, enough calories to keep me warm on that frigid night and dancing to the sounds of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (featuring Ozomatli, that is).

This is by no means a ringing endorsement of the Corner Office. The fries were diner-style and definitely not worth the price. My wife's mussels were only so-so due to a under-flavored broth that was supposed to be spicy. Additionally, if you don't have a reservation and eat in the front cocktail area, it helps if you are less than 5 ft tall or have little stumpy legs, as the rolling ottoman seating is barely more than a foot off the ground. Nevertheless, it was a respectable Cuban.

The woman eating next to me ordered a fantastic-looking ramen with an enormous, sexy hunk of fresh chicharron. Given that I was literally 3 inches from her, I could smell the rich broth and was practically drooling into her bowl. That might be enough to get me back into The Corner Office here soon.

Note: Looks like I missed November entirely as far as posting to this blog, and things might continue to be slow for the next little bit. Thanks again for (a) checking in and reading my blog and (b) making it all the way to the end of the post! Happy new year if I don't get back at this before then. 

The Corner Office Restaurant and Martini Bar on Urbanspoon


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