Sunday, June 21, 2015

Shopping Mall Snacks: The Sweet Shop and it's "Dorilocos"

Shopping mall food. It's bad. I don't exaggerate (much) when I say that it is never, ever good. Even the standard fast casual chains you otherwise don't mind most of the time somehow taste worse in the middle of those evenly lit, beige-tiled, echoing hallways of consumerism. Then there is The Sweet Shop in Colorado Mills. It looks like just another run-of-the-mill candy store that even with its insanely bright colors fails to stand out much among the chaos of Colorado Mills on a weekend afternoon.  But it is much more. A couple ofweekends ago, among those marching ants ready to always buy more was my family of four, who after sating our shopping needs headed over to The Sweet Shop-- straight through the distracting displays up front to the back counter where the good stuff is.


The Sweet Shop, as much of Colorado Mills, does things Mexican style. The front half is full of antojitos that make my wife's mouth water: chile covered dried fruit and hard candy of all kinds. Above, from the ceiling, hang piñatas of all your favorite cartoon characters. But at the back counter is where it gets really good. The first thing that stands out is a display fridge with rows and rows of fresh fruit in cups, ready to be sprinkled with chile and lime.

My Kid. In a Candy Store

There are also things like this:

And this:


That is, food in a shopping mall unlike anything you have ever seen in this town, though variants on food you find on any street corner in Mexico (OK, maybe not the over-the-top pineapple concoctions pictured above). The Sweet Shop also has Dorilocos, one of the latest food-fads from the streets of Mexico. Making Dorilocos involves cutting open a bag of Doritos and dumping ungodly amounts of seemingly random food items - from candied peanuts to fruit to pickled pig skins-- then dousing it all in chile and lime, and serving it right in the bag. Appropriately, for a food store located in a discount outlet mall, the Colorado Mills "Dorilocos" is a knock-off version that uses Tostitos and is therefore cleverly called "Tostilocos". But even a taste of Tostilocos will give you an idea of why a) it's actually rather good, b) you may only choose eat this once in your life, c) thank goodness that fads, by definition, don't last.

The picture above was from months ago. This time around I did not dare sample a Tostiloco again, but pretty much had the same toppings on a bag of plain potato chips. It was called, you guessed it: Papas Locas.

This snack, not being a bunch of nasty Xtreme nacho cheese knock-off Doritos but rather tried and true plain ol' potato chips was, well, amazing.

Instead of trying to describe how it tastes, let me just list the ingredients and let your imagination and mental taste buds run with it. The base is simply plain potato chips. The rest is not simple at all: sliced jicama, mango, and cucumber; Japanese peanuts (candied peanuts found everywhere in Mexico), cueritos (pickled pig skin), chile-covered raisins, and copious amounts of runny, vinegar-forward hot sauce similar to Salsa Valentina. Flavor, it does not lack. This is modern Mexican taste condensed and served up in a convenient plastic bag: salt, spice, sweet, and sour. Chewy, crunchy, juicy all at once. Let's take a closer look:


My wife wasn't so sure after our last Dorilocos experience here, so she got a simple mango cup. When I tapped out about halfway through my battle with the enormous bag of Papas Locas, she was happy to take over. Meanwhile, I devoured the mango cup, which was chock-full of perfectly ripe mango:


I am still waiting for chile-covered fruit stands to take off in Denver. I am not surprised to see it at Colorado Mills, though I am surprised there isn't more of it all over town. True, it is an acquired taste to many of us, but there is something particularly satisfying (and incredibly addicting) about spicy fruit even after the novelty wears off. The Dorilocos thing, however, will absolutely not last. It can't. It is too horrible on too may levels. And even though some variant of it will (the Papas Locas, for example), you should -- wait, I never, ever thought I would write these words and not mean the exact opposite of what I was saying: do yourself a favor and get on over to Colorado Mills now.

The Sweet Shop can also be found on the internet. Seriously, do yourself a favor and pay them a visit.  

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Joy of Ballpark Food: A Book Report and Reader Contest

Recently someone was nice enough to send me a book. It was flattering that after pursuing my blog that this publicist thought me literate enough to both read and then summarize a grouping of words longer than a tweet-- or a blog post. But of course book reports are also a staple of most elementary education programs, so I guess she might have figured anyone could really do it. And unlike books of English classes past, I actually read this one.

"Part of this D-minus belongs to God."

The book that I was sent was called: The Joy of Ballpark Food: From Hot Dogs to Haute Cuisine by Bennett Jacobstein. Baseball and food. With pictures. I haven't had such a bonding experience with a book since someone sent me a recipe for al pastor years back.


I have always been somewhat of a ballpark food purist-- although traditionalist is the better word, as "pure" cannot be used to describe anything I normally eat at a ballgame. When I take my toddlers to a game I give them a steady diet of peanuts in a shell, hot dogs with mustard, and a box of Cracker Jack. This to me is as fundamentally important to baseball as good defense and base running. My kids may never grow up to be three-tool ball players, but they will know the three essential foods of the best baseball fans.



Mr. Jacobstein starts out his master work by underscoring these important traditions as well. He does a great job of presenting a good bit of baseball food history, including a fascinating look back at the origins of the hot dog. Then he gets into the meat of the book: an exhausting list of unique ballpark foods from every single stadium in the country.

Over the years I have taken advantage of the fact that Coors Field allows its fans to walk in with just about anything that isn't in a glass bottle. I have strolled through the Blake St. gates with Cuban sandwiches, empanadas, tacos, burritos, and even a full pizza in a box. But that has also kept me from experiencing some items that I didn't know were even available to me that Mr. Jacobstein so kindly highlights in his book, such as chocolate bacon.

Other highlights and obscurities were Koren tacos in Baltimore's Camden Yards, or a bloody Mary that comes garnished with a full-sized bratwurst in the Twin Cities. Indeed, Mr. Jacobstein has done some enviable research and presents it all in a easily digestible format (pun absolutely intended). It is certainly worth checking out, and has already become a staple on my coffee table. He was kind enough to offer a free e-copy of his work, which I will pass along to the best answer to one of the following questions:

What is your favorite baseball food? 
Or 
What food brings you the best baseball memory?  

Just send me an email or leave a comment below (though I will need an email at some point to get you the book) and my favorite answer will become the lucky owner of a virtual copy of Ballpark Food. 

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. 

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