Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Tale of Two Vietnamese Sandwiches

There's not an official Chinatown in Denver, but if there were one, it would be centered around the Far East strip mall on the Southwest corner of Alameda and Federal. The Far East mall, whose entrance is framed by a magnificantly tacky Chinese-style arch, is home to several dining and shopping gems (note giant, non-tacky, golden pig), including an inconspicuous Vietnamese bakery in the far corner, Vinh Xoung. Travelling south down Federal, mixed between the taco trucks and tons of other Asian joints, is another Vietnamese bakery, Ba Le.

Today it was my pleasure to sample Bánh mì sandwiches from both bakeries.The Bánh mì sandwich is an example of how imperialist Western colonial rule can result is something good. Without the French, there would be no Vietnamese bakers making French-style baguettes, and no one would have even had the chance to think of cramming a bunch of meats and vegtables into them. Luckily for us (though maybe unlucky for many Vietnamese of the late 19th century), the French came to Vietnam and the French bakery was born in Vietnam.

I guess it is inevitable that when you have good bread around, it eventually gets made into sandwiches. The meat is the obvious part, and like other great sandwiches of the world (the Cuban, the Torta Cubana, etc) both ham and pork are used in the typical Vietnamese sandwich. Other delectable, though still obvious, toppings include paté and a mayonnaise-like spread. The genius came from whoever decided to stuff the baguette with big chunks of cucumber, carrot, daikon, onion and cilantro. Theses are flavors more familiar in a Vietnamese spring roll, but the crunch, texture and flavor they give to the Bánh mì is what gives it a unique, unforgettable and addictive flavor.

First stop of the day was Ba Le Bakery. I think it is a national chain restaurant. I'm not a huge fan of chains, but there could be worse things that a chain of Vietnamese bakeries. I had never been here before, but any time you see the Eiffel tower next to a bunch of Vietnamese lettering, bet money that there is a Vietnamese sandwich inside. If that wouldn't have tipped me off, the English part about selling Vietnamese sandwiches did. Once inside, I was a little thrown off by the choices. There were ten options on the wall with pictures, numbers and descriptions. Now I've had plenty of Vietnamese sandwiches, but I'm no expert, so when I go to a Vietnamese bakery I usually just wander up to the counter and say, "Sandwich, please." I am not used to so many intra-bakery options. All my previous training was useless here. And my limitations of reading Vietnamese or knowing what I wanted became quickly obvious to the cahsier, who was nice enough, in a dry, could-care-less, kind of way. This is the best I could come up with: "What is your best sandwich?"

"Most popular is Special." She dryly responded while looking out the window at our car that was parked in a 10-minute only spot. Then she looked back at me and gave me the hurry-up-cause-you're-in-the-10-minute-only-spot look.

"Is it the best?" I asked, hoping some playful banter would loosen her up. No real response. "Does it have ham, pork and paté?"

She nodded.

"One, please."

While I fumbled around at the counter like a rookie, my wife expertly managed a self-serve frozen yogurt bar, and came to join me at the counter with a cupful of exotic frozen yogurt flavors. We got our sandwich and filed out the door. We ate the yogurt in the car on our way up north to bakery number two. The purplish, taro-flavored yogurt was my favorite, although the coconut and green tea were a close second.

Upon arriving at Vinh Xoung I stepped into the familiar unfamiliar. The only thing I could really relate to in the whole place was the the little Westword "best-of" sign behind the register. Also, there were Cokes and Sprites in the fridge. Besides that, it was a cluttered world of strange looking pastries along with a lot people chatting away in Vietnamese. Perfect. Easy. I sidled up to the counter: "One sandwich, please."

The lady behind the counter barked an order into the back room and I assumed that work on the sandwich had begun, so I began looking around and decided to grab a pudding-like dessert from the fridge. It had a description in English: coconut milk, yam, sweet potato, taro. Sounds good. Different at least. I grabbed it, and with my sandwich ready, headed out the door.

Vinh Xoung, meet Ba Le

My wife in the meantime had wandered into one of the Chinatown-like stores but emerged without a golden giant pig despite my birthday being only weeks away. She was ready to eat and joined me on the steps outside to began the taste test. To start, both sandwiches cost less than $3, which is typical of this sandwich and an incredible value. Both were also very good but had more differences than I expected. The Ba Le sandwich was warm and the baguette was excellent. It had less toppings than the Vinh Xoung sandwich and more mayo-substance. The Vinh Xoung sandwich was bigger, had more meat, was heavy on the paté and the vegtable chunks were huge. It is more what I am used to in a Vietnamese sandwich, but I do admit I like the warm bread and meat, and the Ba Le baguette was worlds better. I would go back for either one. Both places have a great dessert too. The Ba Le yogurt was like $0.45 an ounce and is a great value for some unique flavors. The pudding-like thing was amazing as well. It was almost like the Mexican arroz con leche (rice pudding) but with coconut milk. The sweet potatoes gave it a unique, savory sweetness.

In conclusion, I liked the Vinh Xoung sandwich a little better for the big vegetable chunks and thick spread paté, but the warm, crispy bread of  Ba Le won over my wife. I don't think you can go wrong with either one, especially not for $2.75. So what will it be?
Vinh Xoung?  Vinh Xuong Bakery on Urbanspoon or
Ba Le? Ba Le Sandwiches on Urbanspoon You Decide.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Denver's Best Taco Truck

It's Friday afternoon. I just got done with a long week of work, and I'm hungry and tired. I need tacos. I'm excited that it's Friday of course, and to put an end to this busy, taco-less week, but what has me running out the door down the four flights of stairs out of my weekday confines is returning to La Lonchera Dos Hermanos. 

In my taco truck (AKA La Lonchera) introduction I mentioned that a lot of taco trucks have specialties. Nowhere is that more true and delicious than La Lonchera Dos Hermanos. These two brothers from Zacatecas, Mexico, specialize in two tacos, and make them as good as I've ever had. Memo (short for Guillermo) mans the window and does the talking. He looks tired this afternoon, and he should be. He works all week washing windows and then, either for fun or necessity or both, sets up shop on the weekend selling what is a masterpiece of a taco. His brother Lasaro is off to the side cooking and preparing the tacos. It's a beautiful thing really. These two brothers, part of the faceless and thankless workforce that keeps our city running, are also quietly and faithfully making some of the best food Denver has to offer.

And Memo and Lasaro make a mean taco. The absolute specialty is Tacos al Vapor, a traditional dish from the brothers' home state of Zacatecas. Tacos al vapor literally means "steamed taco". It is steamed beef, shredded and served in a steam-warmed corn tortilla. It is topped with the usual suspects of onion and cilantro, and finished with a light and spicy red salsa. It is soft, tender, virtually grease-free and it is so good it is addicting. The other taco they do to perfection is lengua. Lengua is tongue. Tongue scares off a lot of Americans but is a tender, richly flavored meat. It is worth trying for the first time here, and if you don't like it here, then you just don't like tongue. And while I think it's great, I come for the Vapor, and I recommend a 5:1 Vapor to Lengua ratio. 

From their lonely location in a relatively empty lot on the Northwest corner of Colfax and Xanthia, it is understandable why so many unknowing people pass it by. The parking lot is usually empty. The truck stands alone in a lot belonging to a night club that isn't even open by the time the brothers have to leave at 7 PM. The hand-lettered sign they put out facing Colfax is makeshift at best, and doesn't exactly grab one's attention. To make things worse, there is another taco truck two blocks away with fresh detailing, flashy painted lettering and a prime location on a busy intersection. 

Memo and Lasaro used to have a piece of prime real estate: the bustling corner of Montview and Clinton between two predominantly Mexican strip malls. This year they were kicked out of the Montview location and had to scramble to find this one in front of an empty night club. The politics and the licensing requirements for the "mobile food trucks", as the city refers to them, is complicated, but the first need is a property owner willing to play host. The old owner complained that Memo and Lasaro's truck was crowding the parking lot, but I would venture to say that what really happened was that the brothers' tacos were so much better than the two restaurants in the strip mall that they were threatening business. Because seriously, if you've ever been to Montview and Clinton on a Friday afternoon, you didn't turn around and go home because there wasn't a parking space. 

So that brings us back to the sad and scrumptious corner of Colfax and Xanthia. My wife and I stand at the truck's counter and eat one after another of these incredible tacos. We watch the busy afternoon traffic race by and I think of how many people would like this place if only they would stop. I see in Memo's bloodshot, swollen and fatigued eyes that he is thinking the same thing. He is powerless to change his situation currently, but is hopeful that more business will come soon. And there is hope, because these tacos are so damn good. While we are there chatting a guy walks up and skeptically decides to order two tacos. He takes a bite, his eyes light up and he nods his head while he chews. He quickly finishes them off then flashes two fingers up towards Memo with his mouth still full. Two more. Memo and Lasaro only need the people to come. The tacos will do the rest. 

Los Hermanos Lasaro and Memo only serve tacos Friday and Saturday afternoons until about 7 PM on the Northwest corner of 8700 East Colfax and Xanthia (2 blocks west of Yosemite). The tacos are $1. Call Memo if you want to be sure he is there: 720-621-8686


This Spring my wife and I were wandering the streets of a small Italian beach town and stopped to eat at some random bistro-bar. After we ordered, we struck up a conversation with the owner. The talk eventually turned to food, and he began to describe to us, with a straight face and in broken English, that the way to tell if one has eaten good food is by the taste and quality of one’s burps. My wife about did a spit take, but I was right there with him. After eating McDonalds, he went on to elaborate, the burp tastes horrible. Disgusting. On the other hand, he pointed out, after eating his brilliant and fresh pesto with his homemade pasta, all our burps would be quite tasty. He actually guaranteed that any burping we did would be delicious.

My wife gets a little (a lot really) disgusted when I burp, or talk about burping, or burp letters of the alphabet. But really, we all burp and well, that Italian was so right. Now back in Denver, I just ate at Jack-n-Grill, and hours later I can say that my burps are tasting fine. And the New Mexican cuisine served here, as well as the enormous portions, are very conducive to the burp.

New Mexican cuisine is quite a bit different than the Central and Southern traditional Mexican food I know. But don't think that just because it is a newer cuisine that it doesn't have tradition, it does.  Also, let's be clear that New Mexican food is distinct from (and better than, in my opinion) Tex-Mex. And then both of those styles are different from the places that just bastardize it all with bland American interpretations of "Mexican" food. The ingredients for all these varieties are often very similar but the final products are unique. It gets very confusing. Let me just tell you what we ate.

We decided to share a few plates and start with what to me is the most classic of all New Mexican dishes and my personal favorite: the Frito pie. (If you don't know what a Frito pie is check into an earlier post of mine--then hurry to Jack-n-Grill to get one).  All the Frito pies I've eaten in the past have been from a roadside stand, served in little paper baskets. I guess when you put it on a restaurant menu, you quadruple the size and throw in a scoop of guacamole for good measure. It was a literal mountain of Fritos hidden under the lettuce, tomatoes, onions, sour cream, shredded cheese and chile. If there is a Frito pie in heaven (don't worry, there is), this is how big it would be. Check out how I stuck a fork in it and the tines were completely buried:

The other amazing thing is that the fork stands unsupported

We also ordered a "half-bowl" bowl of green chile. This was actually enough for a hungry family of four. I think for the full bowl they take you back to the kitchen, throw you into a pool of it and you have to eat your way out. It too, like the Frito pie, was excellent. Actually for me, it is one of better green chile bowls in Denver. Spicy. Sweaty spicy, yet not overpowering and without killing the taste. 

Another thing that is good: gorditas. Now, to my Mexicanized palate, gorditas are supposed to be thick corn tortillas, fried in oil and then split open and stuffed with any number of fillings. These too were fried then stuffed, but in a wheat, flour-based dough (a sopapilla) instead of corn. My friend, who is a Chicano studies professor, gave me a mini-lecture on the staple crops of New Mexico (wheat) versus Mexico (corn) and how they helped form the regional cuisines. Ahh,  the age-old debate: flour versus corn tortilla.  I nod my head and take in this useful knowledge. "Another important point to consider", I add, while intellectually stroking my chin, "is that they are both stuffed and fried."

And my final piece of wisdom regarding Jack and his grill is that you also must try the carne adovada. You can have it stuffed into a gordita with potatoes or beans. You can have it folded in a taco or rolled in a burrito. You can order a insanely huge platter of it. But you really should try it. Carne adovada, or adobada (Mexican spelling), literally means marinated meat. But more specifically and deliciously, it is pork marinated in a sweet yet spicy red chile sauce. The exact recipes vary, and crossing the border south will, once again, change the dish quite a bit. I like Mexican adobada a lot, but I would go back for Jack's New Mexican adovada. 

In conclusion we had a great meal at Jack-n-Grill. I want to go back to compare and contrast more New Mexican and Mexican dishes like the posole, tacos and enchiladas. I guess Jack n Grill is famous now because that one crazy Travel Channel guy went there and was like the umpteenth person to eat a 7-pound breakfast burrito. Woo-hoo. Way to go, guy. I wonder if two hours later his vomit tasted as good as my burps?  

Do you like huge portions of good food? Go to Jack-n-Grill on Federal and 25th. 
Jack-n-Grill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Word on Toronto: Cava

This past weekend my wife and I travelled to the Great White North. Toronto, to be exact. I have honestly never given much thought to Toronto, and while I know it's not full of Bob and Doug Mckenzie clones, I was surprised to learn that it is the most ethnically diverse city in the world. And what that translates into for me is: a lot of ethnic food.

And that there is. To highlight the diversity there, take a place we visited for a coffee one morning: John’s Italian Café. It had Sanskrit lettering all over the front, advertised Thai food, the specialties for the day were Cuban, the inside looked like a gritty, old Italian bar, the music was salsa and the wait staff looked Middle Eastern. The bad part was that the coffee was horrendous. I mean, like bitter-Sanka-tar bad. In fact, for the first day or so of our 3-day stay we had some pretty bad food. Ethinically diverse, but uniformly bad. We had pretty bad shwarma (which is saying something, because that is meat on a spit), soggy falafel, and below average Thai food that included a peanut sauce that I affectionately referred to as the “spicy diarrhea sauce” (and no, it didn’t taste good).

When you're sliding into home...
By the second day we sort of figured it out and we ended up having some amazing food. My favorite was an upscale restaurant north of downtown called Cava. It served an eclectic blend of Spanish and Latino influenced tapas, and also is a charcutería (Spanish for making all kinds of dried and cured meats).  Home-made meat products of any kind are a weakness of mine. When I walked in my knees almost buckled to lay eyes on whole legs of Jamón Serrano and Iberico on the salumi bar. Everything we had there was amazing. From the oysters with roasted tomatillo salsa, to the grilled octopus, Kingfish ceviche, and beef tripe in a roasted tomato and ancho sauce. Incredible. The homemade dried and cured meats were tops too. But the best thing by far was the chicken liver and foie gras mousse. This stuff was beyond good. In fact it is the reason I have bothered to write about Toronto at all in my Denver blog. I miss it already. If this place was in Denver I would move in next door so as to be closer. I would be like Cliff or Norm at the end of bar, except I would be drinking foie gras mousse. When they got sick of me and kicked me out, I would send my wife down to order huge amounts and then I would spread it on my toast every morning. For lunch I would have a mousse and mustard sandwich. After I ate it for dinner, I would have it for dessert as well. Before going to bed I would brush my teeth with it. You don’t think I would, but I would.

Mousse on the left, I miss you...

Anyway. Moving on. Our last day we made it over to Chinatown and had amazing hand-made-from-scratch dumplings. Home made, hand-rolled dough makes a huge difference and these were some of the best dumplings I’ve ever had. A few hours later I ate the best Vietnamese sandwich I’ve had (though Denver has some good ones too—coming soon on this blog). And the highlight of Chinatown: fresh coconut on the street chopped open with a machete. Delicious. With garbage cans on every corner lettered, “Coconuts only”. Damn Canadians. They have the most diverse city in the world and have to rub it in by also being clean, orderly and efficient. 

So in conclusion, Toronto (Cava) is pretty great. We plan on going back (to Cava--over and over) when we can and finish exploring the diverse neighborhoods and eateries (or eat every meal at Cava).

Cava on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 7, 2009

Anybody Like Pork Chops? How 'Bout a Ham Sandwich?

If you were around in 1991 and listening to hip-hop you surely can’t forget the nasally voice of B Real asking you some very fundamental questions about your affection for ham sandwiches and pork chops. “Do you like them?” he asks. And then he inquires, “Do you want them?”

“Yes,” I always thought, “Yes I do. Boo-ya.”

In fact those are two of my favorite things in the world. Another of my favorite things in the world is baseball. Therefore I can say that three of my favorite things in the world are pork, ham and baseball. Sound all-American? Well, yes, I suppose it does, but I can think of a country that loves all three more than Americans do: Cuba. And when I go to the ballpark it’s all about the Cuban sandwich (not to be confused with the horrendous yet delicious torta Cubana that I wrote about recently and that would leave me comatose and unable to enjoy the first three or four innings).

Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, Aramark-run Coors field concessions has yet to include the Cuban on its menu (though it would sell like crazy). Instead, when I head down to Coors Field, I take advantage of the very liberal policies allowing fans to bring in pretty much whatever food they like (although once they frowned on the large pizza box I carried through the turnstile, but did let me through after some negotiating). And with the abundance of restaurants around Coors Field there are plenty of options. My favorite is to order up a Cuban sandwich from Buenos Aires Pizzeria and pick it up before I head in to the game.

Buenos Aires Pizzeria has much more than pizza. In fact, I don’t care too much for their pizza (though I do admit I like hard-boiled egg on my pizza and I can say that I first tried it there). When I go to Buenos Aires Pizzeria I want some of their baked empanadas or grilled and pressed sandwiches.

Ham and pork, so happy together
So the other night we were headed to the Rockies game and placed the call: an assortment of empanadas for my wife and a Cuban sandwich for me. All the sandwiches I’ve had at Buenos Aires have been great and come hot off the plancha (think Panini grill, or George Foreman grill, for the cultured folk among us). The empanadas are good too, and come steaming, fresh from the oven. They are best served with the fabulous house chimichurri sauce (apparently now, only if you ask), which is a traditional Argentine sauce that varies but has a base of parsley, olive oil and garlic. My favorite empanada was the salmon and is no longer on the menu, but the chorizo, spicy beef, corn, mushroom—well pretty much all of them—are good as well. (You can also get them frozen, pick up some chimichurri sauce, bake them at home, act like you made them and impress that special someone. But then when she asks you to tango…damn)

But let’s get back to the Cuban. The Cuban is very simple and made of deli-style ham, roasted pork, melted Swiss cheese, thin-sliced pickles and yellow mustard on a French-style bread all pressed down in the plancha. It is a delicious creation, and though I admit I’m not an expert on the Cuban, I am an expert on eating pork sandwiches, and the one at Buenos Aires rivals those from any Cuban joint I’ve been to.

I’m actually not sure why Buenos Aires has Cuban sandwiches on their menu. I’ve never been to Argentina and I suppose it could be a popular sandwich there. Possibly it is a tribute to Che Guevara, who was originally from  Argentina. Or maybe the owner just loves pork sandwiches like me. All this could be easily cleared up I think by simply asking the Argentine owner who is often roaming the place, and is very nice and approachable, but for now I’ll continue to speculate. Either way it doesn’t matter and the point is that I love Cuban sandwiches, and at Buenos Aires I can get one, walk a block and then watch a baseball game while eating it. If that isn’t as Cuban as America gets, I don’t know what is. Boo-ya!

Visit Buenos Aires Pizzeria on 22nd near Larimer, tell them you read about their Cuban on Denver on a Spit, and they'll say, "What the hell is Denver on a Spit?"      
Buenos Aires Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Denver Taco Truck Intro: La Costera

The taco truck is often home to much of Denver's finest Mexican food. As this blog is in its infancy, I have not had a chance to re-visit and write about my favorite taco trucks, but I know that as I continue to share my Denver favorites, the taco truck, AKA la Lonchera, will become a regular theme.

The taco truck is the equivalent of the street taco stands that line streets all over Mexico. Like the street stands, tacos trucks often set up shop on the same corner or parking lot and have many regular, loyal customers. Likewise, a lot of them have a specialty or two. At a taco truck it's always good to see what other people are eating, order what is being advertised or just ask about a specialty. 

The other day while car-shopping on Havana I came across a new one, called La Costera, a couple blocks south of 6th on the west side of the street. Apparently it has only been there two months. What caught my eye was the good-sized grill next to it that was pouring out smoke. That usually means one thing in the taco world: Pollo Asado.
The sign beckons you--with an alternate spelling:

Basically it is just grilled chicken, but when done right (over open charcoal flame), it is perfectly charred, golden and with just enough spice. I love this stuff. We parked and I almost ran around the truck to see the grill, which was just being opened. It all looked perfectly done and smelled amazing. I wasn't really hungry a few minutes ago, but all of a sudden I was ready to throw down. Usually I like to get a half chicken, some tortillas and salsa.That way I can make a few tacos but also eat it right off the bone. But since we were in a hurry, I just ordered some tacos.

Chicken tacos are often the worst thing on the menu in a taco joint. A lot of places just boil chicken and shred it on the tortilla. They end up with not a lot of flavor, chewy, dry and are not worth ordering. However, if the pollo is asado, then it's a different story.

The tacos here were good. Different, but good. Most of the menu was seafood, so I think that the taco topping was made to compliment the seafood tacos. It was more like a slaw with finely chopped cabbage, cilantro, tomatoes and onion. It was also sweetened--I think with a lot of lime juice. For me it didn't work so much on the chicken, which was also a little disappointing. It was moist and cooked perfectly, but it was under-spiced and got lost a little under the topping and the red salsa (which was excellent).

But not to worry, there was a happy ending, because another item on the menu caught my attention: the Taco Vampiro. Vampire Taco? Never heard of it but that had to be good. It was two open-faced grilled corn tortillas filled sandwich-style with carne asada (grilled steak), melted cheese, cilantro, onions and something spicy like Serrano chiles. The carne asada was soft, tender and flavorful and the tortillas gave it a nice crunch. As you can imagine, with the melting cheese oozing all over and the other fillers, it was a greasy, tasty, good time. 

So if you find yourself shopping for cars on Havana, pull on into La Costera. Try the pollo asado if you haven't before, just know that there is better grilled Mexican-style chicken to be found in Denver. And whatever you do, definitely get into some Tacos Vampiros. For that I will be back.


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