Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Shoppe is The Sh!t

Halloween is upon us, and as an American I am conditioned to crave candy and all things sweet this time of year. Even my conditioning has been conditioned, because I also always crave little Butterfingers and other brand name store-bought candies. No longer welcome in my neighborhood clad in Spider-Man leotards and knocking on doors, I find myself at the supermarket emptying my wallet for some mass-produced junk food I end up getting sick of anyway by about November 2nd. But this Halloween, breaking free from the mainstream, I am heading to my local cupcake shop to stuff my face full of cupcakes--and to contribute to the recent cupcake boom.

I refer to the cupcake boom casually, as if I were really aware that there has been a nationwide surge in cupcake production. I actually got that idea from a story I heard on NPR (where a good amount of the smart-sounding stuff I say originates). In it they layed out the economic theory of cupcake production and explained the dangers of the dreaded yet inevitable burst of the cupcake bubble. And apparently, despite the ominous and inevitable fall of the cupcake, new shops are springing up all over the country with the sole purpose of slinging cupcakes. Denver certainly has been keeping up with the trend, and while I get suspicious of trends (actually I just never know what they are) and popularity (I hate that), having an abundance of cupcakes can't really be that bad for anyone, and I'm glad to ride out this bubble to the bitter sweet end (and refrain from any cupcake puns while I do it). Of the Denver cupcakes I have tried, The Shoppe on East Colfax and St. Paul is my favorite.

The Shoppe is much more than cupcakes, I suppose. It has a cereal bar and a giant TV locked on the Cartoon Network that together evoke serious childhood nostalgia for care-free Saturday mornings (minus the plasma screen) stretched out on the couch, slurping Fruity Pebbles and happily zoning out with the Smurfs, Super Friends, Pee-Wee's Playhouse and the rest. The Shoppe also has pretty good coffee and has all the coffee shop board games. It sells random hipster-friendly goods and has fun, rotating local art for sale on the walls. I like the the Shoppe for many reasons, and it is a great place to hang out for a bit and read, relax or stare out onto Colfax, but let's be real, none of that would matter much if they didn't make some mean-ass cupcakes. 

I've had a lot of cupcakes at the Shoppe. My wife and I have been regulars since they opened the doors. Here are some cupcake highlights I can remember, and what I have to say about them:

Death by Chocolate- Likely my favorite. Chocolate mousse-type icing with chocolate chips, chocolate ganache filling.
Tres Leches - A incredibly worthy re-creation of the most delectable of Mexican cakes in a tote-friendly size; the milk literally seeps out once unwrapped.
S'mores - It took me a while to try this one, but it's fantastic: little, crisp graham cracker pieces lovingly yet violently shoved into the chocolate icing. It's like boy scouts all over again.
Red Velvet - The classic cupcake. Done to perfection.
Peanut Butter Chocolate - Also my favorite. Also they have this peanut butter cookie and chocolate icing sandwich thing. Fuck yeah.
Carrot Cake - Another favorite, though be ready, the icing is so wondrously thick and rich you might not be able to handle it. 
Coconut - The favorite of the wife. She gets really happy when eating this. And now, instead of flowers, I get her cupcakes when I mess up. 
Nutella - OK, this is another favorite as well.
Oreo - Forget dunking in milk. The Oreo is meant to be crushed and sprinkled on a cupcakes.
Pumpkin - I imagine this is here for the Halloween season, and it is amazing. Rich and creamy like the carrot cake one, get to it while you can.

You get the idea. There are a lot of cupcakes and they are pretty much universally great. If you haven't been, you must be at this moment planning a trip in your head. And a great thing is that if you are reading this at 1 AM on a weekend night (you are lonely and The Shoppe can help) they are still open for another hour, so get going. In fact, for being primarily a bakery, The Shoppe keeps some great hours. I see they are open early now, but any bakery-type joint that stays open until 11pm on weekdays and 2am on weekends is right up my alley. 

Another good thing is that they besides the normal-sized cupcakes they have mini-cupcakes. Mini-cupcakes are good for those indecisive moments when you are stuck staring at the cupcake display, unable to make up your mind on just one flavor, and there are like 12 people in line behind you. And this is often the case in the Shoppe. This place can get pretty busy and for a good reason. I think that when the cupcake bubble bursts, and it will--because NPR never lies-- The Shoppe will remain standing. And if it doesn't, it won't be my fault, because I sure as hell have done my part, and will keep on doing it as long as the cupcakes stay this good. 

See you at The Shoppe. 3103 East Colfax at St. PaulShoppe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Bad Airport Food

Its 7:45 in the morning, breakfast time, and I'm not eating Wheaties or sipping on a martini; I'm throwing down on a gorgeous Frito Pie, the true Breakfast of Champions. But something somehow seems strange. It's not eating a Frito Pie for breakfast, for that is perfectly normal. In fact, its Mexican ancestor, Chilaquiles, is a traditional morning meal infamous for its magical hangover cure. Also perfectly normal is that my wife is sitting across from me, happily eating some good-looking tamales, another traditional breakfast delight. Nor is it strange the feeling I have in my stomach from the early morning battle going on between green chile, Fritos and coffee. What is bizarre, is that I am basking in the sterile glow of florescents at the Denver International Airport.

Frito Pie at the Airport?!

I am actually a little suspicious, and crouch over my plate, guarding it with one arm as the other shovels my mouth full; as if some annoying TSA agent is going to sneak up behind me, ask me to take my shoes off and start probing my frito pie. That somehow sounds wrong, but it does feel strange and indeed wrong to be having this much dining pleasure in an airport. But no one comes to frisk me or to snatch my plate away, and I go on devouring bite after savory bite of my pile of Fritos, green chile, beans, tomatoes and lettuce.

This was not a dream. Or some fatigue-induced airport mirage. On the contrary, this is a real and true airport oasis. La Casita--yes, that La Casita--has a counter in Terminal C at the Denver International Airport. I did not know this. Although, when I really think back, someone may have told me about this months or years ago and I have since forgotten. Well, blessed be my poor long term memory, because stumbling into Terminal C that morning with hunger pangs from rushing out of the house without eating, I was dreading a dry Einstein's bagel or $8 cup of fruit and yogurt, and was pleasantly surprised to see La Casita shining like a beacon of hope among the hopeless tragedy that is airport food.

The shining beacon of La Casita
I've actually probably walked by this La Casita a dozen times before and sadly, it is pretty easy to miss. Tucked in a corner, its counter obscured by the puzzling long lines at McDonald's, and its sign sort of blocked by a roof beam and some pillars, it waits patiently for discerning airport diners.

My wife ordered some of the renowned tamales, smothered, of course, in green chile. It was quality La Casita cooking, albeit dialed down on the spice quite a bit, I assume for the transient East Coaster who thinks food that causes sweating is a bad thing. My Frito Pie was excellent as well, and although also lacking in heat, I must say they still make a fine green chile. Anyway, I can't complain, condsidering that my belly was now full of Frito fun-time.

Now on the plane, I settled into my cramped coach chambers and started to doze off, pleasantly stuffed to well before the vomiting point, eyes closed and a grin on my face as if I'd discovered a great secret. And I did. And it will forever change my flying experience at DIA. Next stop: Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico. More to come.

Visit La Casitas two North side locations, or start your next plane ride out right at the Airports best dining counter.
Tamales By la Casita on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Roasted Suckling Pig at Osteria Marco

I’m a Filipino. Actually, I’m a half-Filipino-American who doesn’t speak any Tagalog and who has only been to the Philippines twice. I speak Spanish, and I know more about Mexican food then to know where to even start with Filipino food. I grew up with meat and potatoes, and a Filipino dad who needed detailed, written instructions to heat up his food from the freezer when my mom went out of town. But if there is one thing that unifies the Pinoy culture, from the Americanized half-breeds like myself, to the Islanders on the homeland, it is roast pork, or as we know it, lechón. 

You say the word lechón in a roomful of Filipinos and you’ll have the attention of everyone. And all their mouths will be watering. And you better either have some lechón or know where to get some, or you’ll have a roomful of salivating, angry Filipinos on your hands and it will get ugly and sloppy in a hurry. This is especially true for us Filipino-Americans, because unlike our brethren in the PI, we don't have round-the-clock access to lechón. Despite our varying levels of accessibility, we as a people are unified by our love of lechón. (I am stereotyping a little, but really, only a little.) And for us Babylon-dwelling Pinoys, if it can’t be perfectly done lechón, pretty much any roasted pig will do. But the sad fact of the matter is that here in America (which is supposed to be such a great country), whole, spit-roasted pigs are not that easy to come by, and I am lucky to get to one pig roast a year.

Point made: this half-Pinoy kid already rocks a pig tattoo!

So the other night I finally went to Osteria Marco for the Sunday night roasted suckling pig special. I can’t believe it has taken me this long. I have been to Osteria Marco many times in the years since it has opened but have not been able to drag myself over on a Sunday night.  On any other night, I already know I love it. The fresh-made cheeses, the specialty meats—just about everything on the menu is universally great, but that is for another time and another review. (Although I will say I started with the house-made Burrata and, as always, it was divine.) This post is all about the pig. 

One thing that I wondered about before going (and I did wonder about many things before going, although maybe you would call it fantasizing) was, will I be able to enjoy the skin? The skin is likely the best part of a roasted pig, but it is only really good right after the pig is done roasting. In the week leading up to the dinner, I was trying to imagine how and if they would serve the skin. In my wildest fantasy the chef plopped a steaming, suckling pig onto our table and, bare-handed, napkin tucked into my shirt, I groped at the pig, breaking off thin, crispy, translucent pieces of skin. My imagination took me other places as well, some likely not appropriate for even the internet, but each happy scenario was met with sad reality, and finally I became convinced that there would be no skin. So you can imagine my giddy pleasure to hear the server describe the pig for the night. It went something like this: “blah-blah-blah, fried skin pieces, blah-blah-blah.” Of course! They took the skin off, chopped it up, then fried it, cracklin-style, to keep the crispy, fresh-off-the-spit feeling.

Out comes the plate and it is everything I could have hoped for: nine ounces of piled pork, steaming hot over a bed of creamy polenta, lying in a pool of pork-bone gravy with sautéed greens lain over the top. Sprinkled all over everything were copious amounts of fried pig skin bits. It was simple yet intricate. The pork, I am happy to say, was roasted to perfection; tender and very lightly seasoned.  It tasted like pork should taste. That being said, the bitter greens were a good balance to the richness of the polenta and gravy, and everything together was a nice complement to the pork.

 Everything I could have hoped for, minus a few cracklins

I also had a salad that night. Although, I will say, if you get an appetizer and a pig platter, you might steer clear of the lamb salad. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delicious creation; with olives, fresh tomatoes, roasted peppers, goat cheese and shaved lamb. The lamb is tender and tasty, but the lamb to lettuce ratio is pretty even and so it’s a lot of freaking lamb. And a lot of lamb is a good thing. And I ate and liked it, but by the time I got through with my pig entrée and my second glass of wine I was about ready to lay down under the table, curl up in the fetal position and groan (in pleasure) for a good 20  or 30 minutes. 

Instead I headed to the coldest professional baseball game ever played in the history of keeping track of such a thing. As I watched my neighbors shivering in their seats, I calmly sat back and sipped on a cold beer, warmed from the inside by my digesting lamb and pig. The Rockies lost and everyone left a little sad, but I was still happy from my Sunday night feast at Osteria Marco. 

It's almost Sunday again. Get your reservations and get there early, last week's pig served 28.
Osteria Marco on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 9, 2009

East Colfax Treats: Pan Dulce at El Paisa

East Colfax at Dallas St is in the heart of the wonderfully diverse downtown Aurora. In between the pawn shops, dollar stores, Mexican fashion outlets, Spanish speaking only insurance/ tax stores, the blue chair and the other magnificent miscellany of Aurora's diverse stretch of East Colfax, there is a bakery that consistently pumps out excellent sweet Mexican breads at all hours of the day-- and even into the night.

In fact, El Paisa (Pie-sah) brags on it's business cards that they have pan dulce (sweet bread) at every hour. That also means that ever-present is the warm and sweet smell of baking pastries emanating from the store, and from a good half-block away, it lures you in. If you approach from the north down Dallas you also have the chance to peek into the kitchen through the oft ajar door, and see the chaotic clutter of baking trays, mixers and concentrated bakers always hard at work. Actually, you never know what you might see. One time I was coming around the back from Dallas St and scared away of group of pigeons huddled outside the back door. As they waddled off the curb, too stuffed with pastry crumbs to bother to fly away, I stopped to check out the bakery action. On the floor inside, three very guilty looking pigeons looked up at me like, "Oh shit, he caught us". They froze for a second, but realized I wasn't angry, flailing my arms or armed with a broom, so they went back to grabbing crumbs off the floor.

Considering this, it may then be deemed ironic by some, that on the aforementioned business card, El Paisa also touts that their bakery is "Absolutely Hygienic". Not sure if Mexican bakery hygiene is a problem in Aurora (and it very well could be), but maybe they get a little sensitive because some people don't consider the fine pigeons of East Colfax absolutely hygienic.

Moving on. The pigeons were in the back room anyway, not in the bakery. And its not like they were on the tables kneading dough or flying around with sacks of flour. That could happen to anyone, even the most absolute and determined hygienists. The point is, I went in that day and got myself a whole huge bag of amazing Mexican pastries and have been going back ever since (because it is so damn good) without having contracted any pigeon-related illness. I only wish I had my camera that day.

Once in a Mexican bakery, or panaderia, it can be a little confusing if you don't know the protocol. Almost always there will be a stack of trays and tongs somewhere around. Grab one of each, and go to town. At El Paisa, there are five large pastry cabinets usually full to the brim with strange and fun looking delights. Like this one:

This one is a pig. Made from a light filo-type layered dough. With two candy eyes. And it is coated in sugar.  It's also delicious. This one is my favorite:

Another pig. Little pig, actually, or cochinito. It's not as sweet as its candied-eye cousin, but has a wonderful anise-licorice taste. It is perfect dunked in a steaming cup of coffee or hot chocolate. Now, not every pastry is shaped into a pig (although an argument could be made that they should be), but like many pig products, all the combined pastries at El Paisa certainly leave enough grease on a paper bag that they would be perfectly acceptable in any Dr. Nick-approved weight gaining diet.

"If the paper turns clear, it's your window to weight gain!"

Other items that made it on my tray that day can be seen below. A chocolate coated thing called piedra, or stone; a circular, spinkle-coated sugar cookie; a slightly charred elephant-ear (oreja); a fluffy, cinnamon-and-sugar coated deal called a moño (bow); and a polvoron, a classic, crumbly, sugar cookie.

I don't really have any specific recommendations except for the cochinito-- the pig shaped anise-flavored one. But really the thing is just to pick and choose whatever looks good and fresh. I think each one costs about $0.50, so you really can't go wrong. They are good day and night. In Mexico they are sometimes eaten for breakfast, but oftentimes are enjoyed as part of a light dinner or a late-night snack. Nothing like some coffee and refined sugar before bed.

They also have all those last minute necessities like dried chiles, milk, beans, eggs and tortillas. As well as a large selection of Mexican phone cards. They make cakes too. I haven't had any yet, but I've seem plenty of families pick them up, and the smiles on the kid's faces say everything. It's cake after all. I'd give it a try. In conclusion, make your way over to El Paisa, or your other local Mexican Panaderia and see what you find. It won't disappoint.
El Paisa on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Best Taco Truck Revisited

My favorite Taco Truck, which seems to be sadly teetering on the very brink of existence is going through some changes. Since several people have told me they were going to head over, I thought I would put the word out that La Lonchera Dos Hermanos won't be there on Friday night for the foreseeable future. I tried placing a large order of Tacos al Vapor tonight for a party on Friday. Unfortunately, the brothers Memo y Lasaro now have to work late that day (at their bill-paying jobs), and don't have the time to make tacos. Instead they will be open starting at 9am on Saturday and Sunday; and will stay open until the tacos run out or until about 7pm. Too bad for our party guests on Friday, but certainly better hours for all you West-siders. Still the best bet is to call.

720-621-8686 8700 East Colfax and Xanthia (2 blocks west of Yosemite). 

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Denver al Pastor Take Two: Los Carboncitos

Last Saturday night my life once again came full circle as I found myself in the middle of plates and plates of al Pastor. If you are new to this blog, then you might not know exactly what Pastor is. Simply put, it is marinated pork that is stacked on a spit, then slow roasted and charred before being sliced off onto a taco, torta or any other vessel of one's choosing. Now that we are all on the same page, I'll get to the point and tell the tale about what may be the best pastor Denver has to offer.

Los Carboncitos’ original location is on 38th and Pecos. The bright yellow and orange façade is at once inviting and overwhelmingly bright in the midday sun. You can’t miss it. And you don’t want to. By night the almost-day-glo-yellow walls are tamed under the light of the street lamps, but there is still no mistaking it. Inside it is nothing special, but the staff is friendly enough and the food is so good that tables and chairs are just a bonus. 

We entered and picked a table. We were about to sit down but the waitress stopped us as the table we chose was still dirty from the last customers. She kindly escorted us to a new, clean table, and then graciously offered to turn on the light above so we would not have to dine in poorly lit conditions. We consented. To do so, she climbed on top of our table, flicked on the switch and a bright beam of light shone down on us. She deftly hopped down, gestured for us to sit and looked at us, pleased, as if to say: "There you go, a clean, well-lit table", and we pretended not to notice her dusty footprint off to one side. A little dirt never hurts anyone (usually). Who cares? And why haven’t I got to part about the pastor yet?

I had been mentally preparing for this moment all day. The waitress came back with the menus which we glanced at as a formality. I ordered for our table: pastor, pastor and more pastor. She returned with the drinks first. Average, but slightly watery horchata and agua de Jamaica ("Haa-my-kah"--hibiscus iced tea)--normally one of my favorites, but this time tasted a little of artificial sweetener. But the drinks weren’t what brought us here. In fact, they still have no liquor license so drinks don't really bring anyone here.

What does bring me here is the fact that Los Carboncitos does Mexican food right.  They advertise themselves as an authentic Mexico City restaurant, and they represent the "D.F." well. They do things like huaraches, a Mexico City specialty. Huaraches are thick, oblong-shaped, deep-fried masa dough (used to make tortillas)  spread with refried beans, sprinkled with cotija cheese, any variety of toppings, and of course, meat. (Like pastor, for example.) The huarache is named after, well, the huarache, which means sandal, and the huarache at Los Carboncitos is about a size 14. So imagine a big Shaq-sized sandal of fried tortilla dough piled with enough pastor for eight or nine tacos: piping hot, steam emanating from between the pastor pieces, fresh cheese starting to melt a little--absolutely incredible. We cut into the crispy base with the knife, divided it up between us, and in less than a minute it was gone. 

The second Mexico city delight of the evening was the alambre. Alambre translates to wire. A wire has absolutely nothing to do with what I am about to describe, but in this case it probably refers to a skewer--as in skewered meats and vegtables. Though no longer skewered, an alambre in Mexico City (and at Los Carboncitos), is a bunch of chopped up meats grilled together on a flat-top grill with diced onions and bell peppers. Towards the end of the grilling, copious amounts of cheese are added and the result is a sticky-mess-of-a-good-time. It is served with a bunch of tortillas and is usually eaten as individual, self-made tacos. We had ours with --surprise--pastor. My friends had never had an alambre, and loved the Carboncitos alambre. I though the flavors were indeed good, but the little cheese it had was clearly tossed on as an afterthought and barely melted.  I'm going to chalk that up to an off night, because I have seen some good looking alambres come out of the kitchen and this one, though tasty, was a little sad. 

The third, final and by far the best Mexico City specialty we devoured that night were tacos al pastor. The tacos al pastor at Los Carboncitos are divine. Each bite is spit-roasted perfection. I've written paragraphs and paragraphs on the virtues of tacos al pastor. I've described again and again their perfect smoky-sweet-spicy taste. I've also explained why they will likely never quite compare to Mexico City's pastor (think raw pork rotating on a spit for hours on end under a hot sun and US Health Department). But given that, the tacos al pastor at Los Carboncitos are as close as I've had to their Mexico City cousin, despite coming off the spit and getting a second (over) cooking on the grill. There is the right amount of char, yet the thin slices of meat stay surprisingly tender. The traditional and simple toppings of pineapple, cilantro and onion are all there too. They really are amazing. This picture sums it all up:

Everything at Los Carboncitos is home-made: the tortillas, the huarache, the four fabulous table salsas. Even the footprint on your table--it's all fresh. Also, everything I wrote about today is likely best with pastor. But everything can also be ordered with any number of meats and meat combinations. The next menu item that I probably ought to try (but may never get to because I always order pastor) is the huarache cubano, which is like the bastard stepchild of the horrendously hedonistic torta cubana. It doesn't even get a description on the Carboncitos menu because the list of ingredients (hot dogs, ham, pork, steak, etc) is either too long or too intimidating to actually put to print. 

Satisfied yet slightly paralyzed from the amount of eating we did, we leaned back in our respective chairs to catch our respective breaths, then stumbled out onto 38th to find a beer with which to wash down this unforgettable meal. Why haven't you gone to Los Carboncitos yet? Here's the menu. Go! 

Los Carboncitos on Urbanspoon


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