Sunday, July 13, 2014

Pasty, Paste, or Semicircular Food Item? The Cornish-Mexican Connection

The empanada has many names and variants. It seems like just about every country or culture has its own version of baked or fried dough filled with any number of combinations of proteins and/ or veggies. In fact, Wikipedia list 35 countries under its "Empanada" entry-- from Afghanistan to the Philippines and just about every South and Central American nation as well. But curiously, while Wikipedia describes just about every regional empanada variety in some amount of detail it fails to give much description to the United Kingdom's version, the Pasty. In fact, it links out to a separate entry, where it is not described as an alternate form of empanada (I know they are different, keeping reading to find out how), but rather as a "semicircular food item".


Now I am all for simple and straightforward descriptions of the places I eat and the things I eat in those places, but even to me "semicircular food item" does not sound the least bit appetizing. That being said, baked dough stuffed with meat is very hard to mess up (although if anyone could make it bad it would be the English), and now in Denver there are at least two places where one can sample what is probably the UK's best-known food contribution to the world after Fish and Chips.

Part I
Everything I hate about driving and suburbs and traffic is summed up by the intersection of Parker and I-225, so for this reason it probably took us so long to actually go check out Los Pastes. By the time I did wrestle my way in there at about 6pm on a weekday (and after missing my turn once), my boys had learned two new words that they are not allowed to repeat in public, and I was more than ready to unwind with some hot meat in a steamy bun (somehow that sounds wrong, but it couldn't have been truer).


Los Pastes explains in detail the history of Cornish miners introducing their Mexican compadres of Hidalgo to what the Cornish called a Pasty. Of course, they are pretty much the same thing, and Mexicans just sort of rolled with it as they had been eating empanadas well before those English miners came over-- though there is one important distinction to be made: the ingredients of a pasty are folded into their dough raw, where Mexican empanada fillings are often pre-cooked or at least partially cooked.

Of course, in the end (as foods and cultures all over the world tend to do) the Mexicans changed the spelling to "Paste" (pah-steh) and filled them with more Mexican-born ingredients. And of course at Los Pastes this is what you get (though I pretty sure the ingredients are pre-cooked).

There is a modest selection of pastes to be had at Los Pastes, and most are pretty good. In general they lack the refinement of a place like Maria Empanada, or the flavor and satisfaction of Buenos Aires Grill or Empanada Express. For example, El Norteno (steak, green pepper, onion) was under-seasoned and the meat was chewy (maybe a shout out to the English); and El Hawaiiano was just a little silly. Both, however, were saved by the insanely good and wonderfully spicy red and green table salsas. In fact, these salsas alone would give you faith in the skills of the culinary minds behind Los Pastes, even if all the fillings were not quite there.


On the other hand there are some rather good empanadas-- I mean pastes-- like the dark mole-filled chicken one, the Veggie (potatoes, peas, onions and oregano), and El Minero (potato, beef and onion).  Also the dessert versions were all great, but especially memorable were the guayaba with cheese and the arroz con leche.


Part II
Way across town, a month or so later I stumbled upon The Pasty Republic. Located in the hip-and-getting-hipper Tennyson St in Berkley Park, The Pasty Republic is quite different in more than just location than Los Pastes. The Pasty Republic, as the name implies, slings the British original, though purports a modern twist to these handheld classics.

I think when I went to Pasty Republic it hadn't been open all that long. I know it can take a few weeks --or even months-- for a restaurant to get rolling, but I hate to say that I didn't like any of the savory pies we tried: a Miner, a Shepard's pie and a chicken pot pie. Each was enormous and piping hot. Each seemed like it would be a wonderful hearty meal-- juicy meats and well-seasoned veggies-- like a nice comforting stew in a buttery, fluffy pastry. Unfortunately, it ended up being much more of a "semicircular food item". One was so undercooked I even threw it out.


We didn't leave entirely disappointed as we finished with the Nutella-orange pasty, which in itself is worth making it back for. I don't think you should take my single visit as a reason not to go try The Republic for yourself, but in the end, in this comparison of Denver's Pasty and Paste, there is no question that the Mexican version is better.

I'm pretty sure that mixing any cuisine with English cuisine makes it a little worse--and likewise, adding a little Mexican flavor to anything is sure to make it better. So while I might have been at the Pasty Republic on an off-night or too early on, if I'm in the mood for a Cornish-inspired empanada, I'll probably stick with a Paste.


Los Pastes on Urbanspoon Pasty Republic on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Happy Hour With Toddlers: Pikka's of Cherry Creek

I have documented and commented on Cherry Creek North's downward spiral into mediocrity (albeit expensive mediocrity) before, and it has continued with the closing of the neighborhood's arguable best restaurant, Ondo's Tapas. But mediocrity is not just limited to the eroding restaurant scene that has quickly transformed Cherry creek into an irrelevant stop on Denver's otherwise booming food scene. Other small, long-time retailers continue to shutter their doors, like the recent closing of Kazoo toys, whose original location will undoubtedly be replaced by more box-cutter condos or another doldrum restaurant catering to the moderately rich and advancingly middle aged.

My family and I were here to pick up some goods at the nearby indoor retail space, which was depressingly busy considering the sunny skies and near perfect temperatures outside. We decided it would be a good idea to stroll the neighborhood and at least stop by the Public Library to see if it too had been razed, being that it is one of the last places left in those parts where the riff-raff of the upper middle class and below can loiter. We emerged an hour later with a pile Spanish toddler literature, and stumbled upon Pikka's.


I had read about Pikka's and its sister restaurant Taita when they opened, but being so happy with my beloved Pisco Sour Restaurant and Longue, I had never bothered to check them out. We were lured in not only by the thought of a fresh ceviche but also because it was 5pm and we were just in time for happy hour. 

Pikka's had the look of a place that we would not dine in under most circumstances with our two toddlers, so happy hour in an otherwise empty restaurant was probably a perfect time. Indeed, Friday happy hour has become our new favorite family time. And while many other 'nice' restaurants only seem 'OK' with it when you roll in with two toddlers, the folks at Pikka's seemed genuinely happy. From the beginning we were treated to exceptional service and the most welcoming of attitudes.  



We immediately relaxed after feeling so welcome here, and with our boys engrossed in a book about  their lofty dream profession of being garbage men, my wife and I settled back to enjoy a Pisco Sour and a fresh draft beer, respectively. 



The food specials for the happy hour were quite impressive, both in the discount and the representativeness of the overall menu. We started with a round of croquettes that were exceptionally light and airy as well as perfectly crisp, and filled with a nicely flavored ground beef. This quickly became our boy's favorite and we happily handed it off to them and dug into the ceviche. 



The ceviche was Mahi Mahi with cilantro, onion, lime and not much else. It was quite good partly because it was so simple, and came with the typical slice of boiled sweet potato and yucca which both go quite well just about anything. 


The Peruvian Paella was the next plate we dove into and it did not skimp on the good stuff. Each bite was packed with grilled seafood of some sort: shrimp, calamari, octopus or baby scallops. There was no crispy burned rice goodness you might expect from a Spanish paella, but it was a good bowl of seafood rice. Very good indeed. 


The menu listed out next dish as a chicken salad with yellow potatoes and avocado but our server recommended we sub in crab, which we happily did. It came out in a circular stack which looked deceptively like a cake. Our boys immediately dropped their croquetas and dug into this crab salad "cake" only to be sorely disappointed and return, unsatisfied, to their wonderful potato beef dish. We too, were a little disappointed in this dish, but I think maybe because we had the strong flavors of ceviche and arroz con mariscos that this dish, subtly flavored, and cold-- fell flat. On its own, with a clean palate, I imagine it would have been quite a bit different. 


Still not completely full we finished our afternoon meal with a beautiful beef lomo over a bed of fried potatoes and rice topped with grilled tomatoes. It was absolutely divine. The meat was cooked wonderfully and the bed of mashed potatoes was mixed with rice and all somehow fried together so that the outer layer was slightly crispy. On top of it all were grilled tomato slices and a rich, beefy broth. Absolutely the best plate of the afternoon. 


Pikka's is one of a few places that has opened over the past few years that offers some sabor to the otherwise dreary and plain Cherry Creek neighborhood. Pikka's also has one of those dreaded basement spaces that has swallowed several promising restaurants over the years, including my beloved Ondo's. But Pikka's is also another breath of fresh air with welcoming service, a diverse menu (and a great happy hour) that helps to keep Cherry Creek somewhat interesting dining-wise. That, unfortunately, has proved time and time again to not be a winning combination in Cherry Creek North. All the best to Pikka's, and I guess there is always Taita. 

Pikkas Peruvian Cuisine & Pisco Bar on Urbanspoon

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

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