Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pho Duy II, Pho When I'm Sick

Despite the fun and sun of Nicaragua, upon returning I almost immediately got sick. Nothing too bad to keep me away from my nine to five, but one of those winter head colds that, much to the pleasure of co-workers and wife alike, left me without a voice for several days. All week long, in hope of some relief, I was sucking on cough drops, knocking back cough syrup and sipping on organic throat teas. All that is fine, I suppose, but in times like these, what I really need to clear the head and soothe the throat is a fat, steamy bowl of beef pho. 

Enter Pho Duy II, way out of the way on North Peoria somewhere a little south of the train tracks and I-70. The sign is glowing white and blue, prominent at night against the dark, vast background of empty lots and open spaces in this forgotten corner of Aurora. 

It's Saturday night and the place is about as packed as I have seen, mostly with Mexican and Asian families. My wife and I are seated symbolically in the middle of this cultural medley. I look up at the muted NCIS episode playing in the corner but my eyes are diverted by a wonderfully tacky painting of idyllic waterfalls and soaring gulls.

The menu is straightforward pho. I ordered a large raw beef, my wife a small chicken. The broth is consistently a little plain here, but it does the trick, and is salvageable with the right balance of fresh herbs, lime juice, fish sauce, Hoisin and Sriracha. My beef was tender and plentiful as always. The chicken, which my wife loves, was as usual, a little chewy, and in my opinion not worth getting when the beef is this good. Inhaling the spicy steam was just what I needed for some sinus relief. After a few delicious slurps I was breathing right again, my dry throat was soothed and I was feeling much better.

We also ordered the spring rolls which came with beef and shrimp. Wrapped in thin rice paper and dipped in an average peanut-type sauce, they were good enough to bide time while waiting for the pho, but it's best that this place keeps its focus on just pho.

After ordering I continued to peruse the interesting selection of drinks opposite the pho items. To pass the time, I flagged down our server to ask her about something that caught my interest: salty lemonade. What ensued was an extremely awkward conversation where I couldn't understand her broken English nor she my broken, hoarse voice. My wife served as our interpreter of sorts, and what I gathered was that lemons sat curing in salt for a month or so, then were made into lemonade. One of those lemon slices would even appear in my glass, the server assured. Sounded pretty awful, but I ordered one despite my better judgment. It tasted like swimming in the ocean then sucking on a pickled lemon; all salt with the first sips and then the fermented lemon hits hard. It actually made my stomach turn a little bit. 

Apparently, people suck on this lemon too

Nevertheless, Pho Duy II provides a reliable bowl of Pho. When I'm sick there is nothing better. I will admit that it probably won't win awards as Denver's best pho, but it is quite good, and I do end up there with some regularity. The service is friendly and efficient, it's never too crowded and the atmosphere is authentic Denver.  3371 N. Peoria St. in Aurora. 

Pho Duy Restaurant II on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sabor de Mexico: Get Your Tongue On

Just like Denver's many other anonymous taco trucks, El Sabor de Mexico sits patiently in a parking lot waiting for you to stumble upon it. There is really no telling if it will be good or bad. Hungry, I stopped in to see for myself while wandering home late on a Friday evening, after a way-too-long day of taking it from the man.

El Sabor de Mexico (The Taste of Mexico) has been around for no more than a few months on the corner of Montview and Clinton in Aurora. It takes the place of the taco void left by Taco Truck Los Dos Hermanos, which used to park across the street, and was a favorite of mine. Sabor de Mexico sits in an old gas station lot under the roof where the pumps once were; complete with a picnic table and chairs for your dining comfort and convenience. Like Los Dos Hermanos, the owners hail from Zacatecas, Mexico. Also like Los Dos Hermanos they make a tongue taco that is worth driving across town for. The main difference is that Sabor also has a full menu of tacos, tortas, sopes, huaraches and weekend specialties like Menudo, carnitas and Barbacoa.

But back to the tongue taco. The tongue here is melt-in-your-mouth soft. The flavor is also wonderfully prominent, not getting lost under the onion, cilantro, salsa and the shredded beef I think they mix in. It is likely that you would push aside your own mother to get at one of these tacos. Or likewise, in the common quandary of this taco and your mother hanging from the side of a cliff and you having only one hand to save one of them--you would certainly choose your mother-- but only because you would know that the taco would survive the fall and you could just climb down the cliff, blow off the dirt and eat it anyway. It is pretty much that good, and though I have been known to exaggerate (see what I said about this chicken liver mousse), if you are a tongue fan like me, I recommend eating here as soon as possible.

Asada, carnitas, pastor, tongue

I've been back now several times and I've found that the barbacoa is just as good. Barbacoa can be many things: cows head, a whole sheep or goat. The idea is that is slow cooked, like its north of the border counterpart, barbecue. At Sabor de Mexico it is lamb. Fatty, juicy pieces of lamb shredded on a taco; tender and richly flavored. The best results will be on the weekends when it is fresh made.

Also fresh most Saturday mornings about 10 am are the carnitas. By Tuesday and all week long they are a little dry--but the good flavor is there, and doused in either the very good red or green salsa, it is still a good taco de carnitas. Fresh made, it is one of the better tacos de carnitas I've had in Denver.

The tostada with tinga (pulled chicken bathed in a chipotle sauce) is also excellent. All the ingredients---beans, cream, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, salsa-- are laid on thick and tasted fresh. The asada is average, and probably not worth getting with all the other great options. The pastor is a joke. Literally, they might have been playing a joke on me: un-marinated and dry pork bits grilled with pineapple and chipotles. But even with this grave misrepresentation of what pastor is, the tongue and barbacoa are so good that this truck still comes highly recommended.

There are quite a few menu items painted on the side of the truck that are not available as the husband and wife team are just beginning to see what sells and what doesn't. Apparently the pata (feet) are no longer an option (much to my wife's dismay) because no one actually ever ordered it (except for my wife). And the pozole is no longer there. They were also out of adobada when I last visited. And my precious lengua (tongue) seems to run out more often than not, but the pattern seems to be that it is fresh and ready to go at the end of the week and into the weekend.

If you are coming from across town give a call first, 720-206-7291, but mostly they seem to be consistent everyday sometime in the afternoon until about 8pm. Tacos are large, come with two tortillas and cost $1.25.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

And the Winner Is...

Earlier this week I returned from my latest voyage and I was happy to see that quite a few of my astute and discerning readers left their two cents, as they say, on where I should be having my next meal. The options were plentiful, and I must say that my readers have quite good taste when it comes to restaurant selection. Again, the humble reward for the winner of this contest is a DINR deck card, which is more a token of my appreciation than anything else-- my way of saying thanks for all the emails and comments over the past five months.

The decision was not easy, as there were many good suggestions. Much to the dismay of my lovely wife, no one was able to tell me where to get tostadas de pata. Despite her disappointment, it may be for the best, as it is probably sufficient for her (or any human for that matter) to eat pickled pigs feet but once or twice a year during our annual Mexico visits.

(Thanks to this Flickr user for the image)

Given that there was no pigs feet option, what I decided to do was narrow my selection down to places I have never been to, and better yet, never heard of. This eliminated some great places that I haven't written about yet on this blog, but have been to in the past, and will be sure to include in the not-too-distant future.

Even then there were two or three places that really made me hungry, and after what turned into a disproportionate amount of deliberation on my part, I gave up and decided to have more than one winner. So without further delay, here are the winners.

For sure I have to go with Tacos Tijuana on 44th and Sheridan. I've heard mixed reviews about this place, but I did not know that they put the pastor spit out on the weekends. If you've ever read this blog before, you know well that any place with pastor on a spit, charring in the open air over open flame, is going to get a visit from me. It was almost like cheating to suggest that one, but nevertheless thanks for the heads up.

I also want to give a prize out for another Mexican place I have never been to: La Loncheria Mexicana on 32nd and Clay. Again, my slight (extreme) bias towards Mexican food is coming out, but I can't help myself when an unknown place like this comes so highly recommended.

I also want to thank our third and final winner for reminding me of the opening (finally) of Den Deli, the newest addition to the Sushi Den South Pearl Street empire. I know that this place will probably receive plenty of press over the coming weeks, but my Asian side can't resist trying the newest Kizaki venture.

As I said, it was a difficult decision, and as you can see, I managed to avoid any and all difficult decision making by simply choosing three winners. Congratulations and thanks again for checking in on my blog. I hope you will join me as I eat and write my way through 2010 by subscribing to my feed, following me on Twitter, or becoming a fan on my newly enabled Facebook page.

-Denver On a Spit

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Back From Nicaragua and Thinking About a Winner

Once again I find myself sitting in front of my computer writing about food. This time it is after a 10-day journey to surprisingly lovely and enchanting Nicaragua. I had a great time and left with great memories thanks to the warmth of the people and rugged beauty of the landscape. I did things like climb up to the rim of an active volcano, look down into its vast crater and choke on its sulfurous smoke.

And watch the sun set perfectly over the ocean.

I also ate a version of this every morning:

This is Gallo Pinto, the national dish of Nicaragua, which loosely translates to "Spotted Rooster". It usually came with some sort of scrambled egg and a slab of margarine so yellow it would make Big Bird jealous. Gallo Pinto is basically just rice and black beans pan-fried together until the rice is colored a "spotty" grayish brown by the black beans, like the color of a hen or rooster-- or at least that is the sum of the convoluted explanations given to me in varying degrees of believability by proud Nicaraguans, all of whom were quick to insist that the dish was clearly not invented in Costa Rica. The fact that so much national pride is staked on the origins of rice mixed together with beans is the first clue to the fact that, well, there isn't a lot going on with Nicaraguan cuisine.

That being said, I did have a few solid meals. A few highlights included a set of beautifully cooked, fat and juicy pork ribs; grilled fresh-caught fish and langoustine; and an assortment of deep fried goodies including fried mashed potatoes.

Otherwise the typical lunch or dinner consisted mostly of rice, beans, plantain and some overcooked slabs of meat. Some were decent, others bordered on inedible. This one was certainly the biggest:

The Nicaraguans also seem to have a thing for fast food fried chicken and pizza, of which there were numerous local chains. They also like eating their hot dogs from carts painted with Looney Tunes and/ or Disney characters:

Besides Gallo Pinto, the other two most touted national dishes are the Quesillo and the Nacatamal. The quesillo is a thick slab of extremely fresh though relatively tasteless cheese covered by chopped onions that have been stewing in vinegar for a week. It is all wrapped in a thick corn tortilla, stuffed into a plastic bag then doused in the cream that the cheese has been sitting in. It is served at room temperature. The tart onions give some intensity and dimension to what otherwise is a plain dish. It is good, I suppose, but it will be a while before you see a quesillo joint open up down the street. Here is a restaurant version, unbagged and unrolled:

The nacatamal is a corn masa tamal wrapped in a plantain leaf and filled with pork, potatoes, tomatoes, mint, and at times raisins, olives and chiles. Circumstances beyond my control kept me from getting my hands on one until the final night, when I was able to pick up a few cold ones. I did succeed in smuggling them home past our ever-vigilant border patrol, but by the time I opened it up, the sweaty sock stench emanating from the bag forced me to at least ponder the consequences of eating food in such a state of decay. I still have them in the fridge, hoping somehow to reverse the ageing, but I fear I will be throwing these beauties out tonight.

By no means do I pretend to know a lot about Nicaraguan cuisine after my 10-day tour, and by allowing my nacatamals to spoil, I probably missed out on the best Nicaragua has to offer. I also discovered late in my journey that the bakeries held countless varieties of meat-stuffed pastries that are sure to delight. And although I won't recommend that you venture to Nicaragua as a food destination, I do recommend that you go to Nicaragua to enjoy cheap and relatively tourist-free travel, the lovely people and the endlessly beautiful landscapes.

I also haven't forgotten about the little contest I set up just for you, reader. If you missed that post, I was looking for some great new place to visit in exchange for a $10 coupon for one of Denver's Independent Network of Restaurants. I am still debating the options and will decide on a winner by the end of the week. Stay tuned and thanks again for checking in.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Win a Prize While I'm Gone

Dear Reader,

Happy New Year and thanks for visiting my blog. August 2009 marked the beginning of this endeavor, and my readership and waistline have been growing in alarming proportion since then. 2010 promises to be a another food-filled year as I gifted my wife the DINR deck for Christmas (kind of like when Homer got Marge a bowling ball), and plan on working my way down the list of Denver's Independent Network of Restaurants over the year.

As for the next couple of weeks, I will be temporarily without reliable internet service as I travel to the tropical land known for its passion for three of life's most honorable pursuits: revolution, baseball and poetry. I am speaking, of course, of Nicaragua. While I'm there I'll be sure to try whatever food comes my way. I will also try not to get lost in a land where there is no formal address system, and many of the landmarks used as a reference were destroyed almost 20 years ago in an earthquake and never rebuilt. Oh yeah, and to make it more interesting, East is "up", West is "down", North is "to the lake" and South is luckily just "South".

Until then, please leave a comment at the end of this post (or email denveronaspit at of a place you would like to see me write about. Anything unique and decidedly great will do. I'll leave it up to you. (As a bonus I actually would love to know where I can get tostadas de pata--pickled pigs feet.)  I will choose the most enticing option upon my return, and to the lucky winner I will send the modest prize of one of my (wife's) DINR deck cards: that is, $10 off at one of Denver's Independent Network of Restaurants. If you tell me where to get tostadas de pata you get two cards.

For the duration of 2010 I hope you will continue to check in, get my feed and/ or follow my tweets as I continue my taco al pastor countdown (one, two, three, four...) and delve into my DINR deck. With that, I leave you with this thought which, for better or for worse, pretty much sums up what I do here: talk a lot of nonsense. Hopefully you will find it amusing and informative.

"I like them to talk nonsense. That's man's one privilege over all creation... Talk nonsense, but talk your own nonsense, and I’ll kiss you for it."

-Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Back Soon.
- Denver On a Spit

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Greek Town" Eulogized, Chef Zorba's Lives On

In my writing I tend to make liberal use of quotation marks to emphasize sarcasm, irony and to qualify that which is in need of qualification. I may use these punctuations excessively at times, but if anything is worthy of qualifying quotations (as well as the somewhat annoying bilateral dual-finger motions that go along with it), it is was Denver's "Greek Town". "Greek Town" in Denver should always (always) come with quotations, and when speaking, if you are averse to the finger quotation motion, you should at least say "Greek Town" with a more-than-slight amount of sarcasm.

You also must, apparently, now speak of "Greek Town" in the past tense. When I sat down to write this entry I still had the humorous image burned in my brain of the dozen or so tattered banners that have hung since 1997 on East Colfax from St. Paul to Elizabeth to mark the handful of shops that make up "Greek Town". However, when I went to take a photo in order to emphasize the sad irony of "Greek Town" with colorful digital images, I was dismayed to see that the banners have since been taken down, and that quietly, "Greek Town" is no more. As proof of their recent abject state, I submit this "current" Google street view:

View Larger Map
A more recent "street view" of "Greek Town", taken from my car 1.2.10

The origins of "Greek Town" are sketchy to say the least (see this Westword article), and now what is left is just what was there in the beginning: two restaurants, a social club, a bakery and an ice-cream parlor. (And an Ethiopian restaurant. And a Chinese take-out.) I haven't tried both Greek restaurants in the former "Greek Town", but was turned off years ago by dining at one of them: the tired and average Pete's "Greek Town" Cafe. Considering that Pete Contos now owns everything in former "Greek Town", I don't expect much more from the other place either (though I do appreciate the Greek touches in his famous Kitchen and University Cafe diners).

There is a metaphor somewhere in the unceremonious removal of the ragged "Greek Town" banners that marked a neighborhood that never really was, and though I am far too un-poetical to find it, I think there is at least a moral: one should look elsewhere in Denver for one's Greek food. That being said I have struggled to find a really good Greek-only restaurant in all of Denver (please enlighten me if you think there is one).

In the meantime, a good gyro spot is all I need sometimes, and for that Chef Zorba's on 12th and Fillmore, is perfect. Being a meat that is traditionally roasted on a spit, I love gyros. There are different kinds of gyros, and I happen to like them all, but I have a particular nostalgic soft spot for the hyper-processed, compressed meat-mix that is ubiquitous with the greasy gyro joint. In Chicago (where my gyro palate developed) this corner of the market is dominated by a company that specializes in mass producing/ industrializing Greek food; and if you have spent any time in Chicago you may have been enticed by one of their omnipresent posters displayed in the window of any corner gyro shop. They feature a variety of smiling 1980s-era models seductively offering you a bite of a Kronos Gyro. And although all these posters are somehow always sun-faded (even in a north-facing window) and at least 20 years old, they survive thanks to the timeless gaze in each model's eyes, a gaze that is only slightly less timeless than the processed meat in her hand.

(Iamges from Flickr and The Takeaway)

Chef Zorba's has this gyro. And they do a fine job of serving it with fat French fries, copious onion chunks, tomatoes and tzatziki sauce. And the pita is deliciously warm, thick and wonderfully buttery. If you are looking for the authentic processed gyro classic (apparently banned for a while in Greece), then look no further.

But the Greek menu doesn't stop there at Chef Zorba's, and though I have to admit I haven't sampled it extensively, what I have eaten there has passed as acceptable to good Greek food with an impressive amount of options including several calamari options that one wouldn't otherwise expect from an all-day breakfast-type place. The rest of the American and Mexican inspired menu is classic and well-executed diner food. The Greek 4-egg omelet with feta, gyro, bell pepper and onion served with tzatziki and hash browns is a favorite of mine, and the breakfast burrito will satisfy while at the same time put a hurt on any big plans for movement you had that day.

The meat. The spit. The Gyro.

Chef Zorba's has a lot to offer and is a welcoming place to have a meal because of its familiar diner feel and friendly, often refreshingly sarcastic servers, who will never let the bottom fall out of the bottomless cup of coffee you are drinking. There is also a full bar behind the classic lunch counter in the back. I owe it to my critical-ass self to get out and explore more Greek options in Denver, and I should probably start by trying some more stuff here. But until then, I'll always be stopping in for my gyro-fix at Chef Zorba's.

Visit Chef Zorba's and throw down on a Gyro. Or have breakfast anytime.

Chef Zorba's Cuisine on Urbanspoon


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