Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Shhh, I'm Eating: A Night Out At Denver's Hush

When I got an email in my inbox last month about Denver's newest culinary adventure, I didn't know what to think. It crossed my mind that it was some sort of mistake, being that I am not on the cutting edge of anything that I do, much less where I dine, often finding myself in a dirty old taco spot instead of the newest trendy bistro. This is often the case not because I won't like the food, but rather that any trace amount of hipness I may have once had left me years ago, and as far as trends go, let's just say that I am glad people are listening to vinyl again.

Nevertheless, there it was, and mistake or not, I responded. Whether from sheer embarrassment, pity or some continued misunderstanding, my email was answered and I was "confirmed" for a night of surprise dining along with 100 or so other lucky diners.

Looking back, it turns out that it probably wasn't a case of mistaken delivery, because after meeting Phil Armstrong, the brainchild and ambition behind Hush, I found him to be a genuinely nice, inclusive and welcoming person. In fact he confirms why I, in general, like dining in Denver: people aren't so full of themselves. Of course there are exceptions, but the lack of pretension in the Denver dining scene, at least in my eyes, is refreshing, and must be in part a reflection of the cooks themselves. Mr. Armstrong, along with this night's featured chef, proved to add more evidence to my theory.

Tonight was Hush's second event, and showcased Ian Kleinman, who was friendly, informative and enthusiastic through the entire four-hour event. Of course, Colorado diners are familiar with Chef Kleinman as the adventurous nitrogen-toting molecular innovator of O's at the Westin in Westminster. Now he has ventured out on his own with the appropriately named company, The Inventing Room; and while catering and experimenting with who-knows-what, he is also planning a retail space sometime in the near future.

In the meantime, he was here at Hush, with his family of sous-chefs (literally--his dad and wife among them) to take us lucky diners on a wild ride. With him was Colt and Grey's mix-master Kevin Burke, who quietly stirred up drinks to accompany each course.

Hush is hosted in Studio Como, which, in the words of Phil Armstrong is where you should come, "to redecorate your house if you have some money." And likely I would, but since that won't be in the foreseeable future, it is nice to dine on some furniture I could not afford to own; and it felt luxurious to lounge with a filo-dough shrimp, almond and mint roll on a chair straight out of the Jetson's while gulping back a whiskey caviar and cream cocktail.

After a few more whiskey cream shots, and wandering around gawking at the furniture we would never see in our own home, we were summoned to our seats by our host, Phil Armstrong. He explained the impetus behind Hush, which he started as an "Intimate dining club", to showcase chefs and allow them be as creative as their culinary hearts desired. After some more kind words, we proceeded to delve into our first course, with the goal, according to Chef Kleinman, of presenting us with familiar flavors, unfamiliar textures and unique presentations via his scientific, food-altering approach.

The first course was likely the best for me. It was, as Chef Kleinman promised, at once comforting and radically novel, familiar yet unique. The centerpiece was a beautiful piece of buttermilk fried chicken covered in coconut gravy, served alongside a corn flan with freeze dried corn sprinkled over the top. Flanking the chicken were perfectly seasoned sous-vide potatoes with a rich blackened flavor. Powdered coconut was sprinkled off to one side. It was excellent; in texture, taste and presentation. And it was accompanied by a perfect gin martini.

The second plate was served with a tasty honey-infused old-fashioned. Or something like that. I have never had a hard alcohol paired six-course dinner, so excuse me if some of the details are hazy. What it was paired with, however, I remember clearly as being oddly delicious and unforgettable: compressed apple, yogurt meringue sticks, apple Lego and a hibiscus smoked trout. The juicy and crispy compressed apple was wonderfully concentrated with flavor. The trout had a powerful smoky taste. The stick was somehow a crunchy and flaky, well, meringue. It all went surprisingly well together. The Lego probably didn't need to be there, but as a Lego-geek of the 1980s, I, along with the rest of our table, was all like, "Cool, a Lego," so I'm glad it was there.

In between the first two courses Chef Kleinman did a table-side demo, making a nitrogen-frozen kettle-corn syrup ball, appropriately named "Space-foam". It was a light, airy and delicious palate cleanser with the added bonus that smoke came out of everyone's nose. After the second course he gathered us around a table, explaining, among other things, how nitrogen is the perfect way to make ice creams due to the rapid freezing that occurs. He then backed it up by making a divine nitrogen-frozen strawberry yuzu sorbet sprinkled with frozen, crushed olive oil. Amazing. Equally impressive was how nonchalantly he reached into bowl after bowl of bubbling nitrogen as if it couldn't burn him as easily as boiling water.

I could go on and on. It was an entertaining night filled with excellent and creative food. The next course was a sous-vide succulent pork belly with a paper made of mustard, and a pastrami hash covered in a immersion-circulator poached egg. Finishing the night was a bread pudding with banana foster ice cream and a frozen caramel powder that melted all over everything to become a thickly rich and satisfying dessert.

The last surprise of the night was to ingest a miracle fruit pill, which is the latest craze of foodies all over the world. I had heard about the pill, and even had a reader suggest that I try it and write a story about it, but I dismissed it as a little too ridiculous for me. The "miracle" fruit temporarily blocks the sour taste receptors of the tongue, so that everything has a sweet edge to it. We "fruit-tripped" our way down a line-up of food ranging from lemons, grapefruits, pickles, Tabasco, olives and tomatoes while sipping on a lime drink that made me pucker up in anticipation of its sourness, but that of course, didn't. Thus is the story of the miracle fruit. You should try it. It's fun.

Hush is a perfect example of what I like about Denver dining, and I would argue that only in a town like Denver can this type of event be so accessible and lack any hint of snobbery or pretension. To paraphrase the words of Phil and Ian, this is one reason we choose to live in Denver. I can't wait for the next one.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Denver al Pastor Take 5: Tacos Tijuana

As is well-established by now (and maybe bordering on annoying for my long-time readers), is that I love tacos al pastor. For better or worse, they are the inspiration for me even deciding to publicly share my random thoughts about food online. I like to think, however paradoxical it may sound, that I am a connoisseur of all things pastor, starting with my first rule of true pastor: it must be roasted on a spit. I would also like to think that I have a sixth sense, as the saying goes, about finding pastor spits roasting in the open air. Or, if not a sixth sense, at least a combination of senses one and three, so that I become acutely aware of the smell and sound of open flame crackling marinated pork when in my immediate vicinity. There is nothing quite like it, and it has, for many years, been my obsession; so that is why I was at once shocked and smitten when, for my recent contest, a reader suggested Tacos Tijuana on 44th and Sheridan for it's fresh spit-roasted pastor under a tent in the parking lot out back.

What was shocking was that, while I don't often pass by this corner, I certainly have been in close enough proximity enough times over the last few years that my acutely refined pastor-sensing afferents should have been activated. Nevertheless, I was thankful and anxious to try it, and for that, this reader was duly awarded a debatably desirable and decidedly modest prize per the rules of aforementioned contest.

From the outside, Tacos Tijuana looked to me just like one of my taco mainstays, Taco Mex. Outside were white walls with red trim, and a big white tent erected under the yellow lights of the parking lot where the spit in question sat, dripping red juices while being roasted by a bright blue flame. My first impression was that of admiration, for this was an enormous spit of meat. I stopped for what seemed like a brief moment (but likely was closer to several minutes), in order to better study the layout and snap a few photos. The taquero, hard at work prepping for the night, looked up from his station and gave me a not unfriendly look that nevertheless said, "What are you doing? You gonna order some tacos?"

Because taqueros of pastor and I share a unique mental telepathy, I, without words, communicated to him that yes, I was going inside right now to order. I gave him a nod and although his face still read, "What the fuck?" I knew that he was really saying, "Welcome, make yourself at home here."

I stepped inside, where my wife and friends had already gone. Besides us, the place was empty. Two ladies were mopping the floor, and if it weren't for the taco man slicing and dicing out back, I would have thought the place was closed. We stepped up to the counter and were quickly helped by one of them. She was friendly enough, and became even friendlier when we proceeded to order in Spanish.

I went outside to hand in my ticket. Between three of us we were getting 16 tacos al pastor, and when the taco man went down the ticket it was clear to me that he was impressed by our appetites, though he didn't exactly show it as he casually put the receipt down and began to throw the tortillas on the flat-top. He had just finished grilling a batch of freshly sliced pastor (remember, they only do this in the US) and he proceeded to scoop out generous portions onto the tortillas.

"Con todo?" He asked. (FYI, my gringo friends, this is a useful Spanish phrase to know at a taco joint).

"Si," I responded, I always get my tacos with everything.

But everything to me means onion, cilantro and pineapple; so when he handed me the first paper plate of tacos, dripping with taco grease, I asked, "Y la piña?" Or, where is the pineapple?

Now here is where it became clear that this taquero and I had no real unspoken understanding of each other. Or even a spoken understanding for that matter, because he looked at me like I just told him I had a dead body in my trunk: a mixture of confusion, astonishment, mistrust and even some fear. He asked me to repeat myself, although he knew exactly what I said. "Piña," I said slowly and clearly. He just shook his head and stared blankly at me.

I too, was taken aback because true tacos al pastor have to have pineapple. There may be people that don't like it, or argue senselessly that it is not necessary, but then those people aren't talking about tacos al pastor. It's as simple as that. It's like arguing that you like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich better without the peanut butter, but really all you want is jam on your toast. That doesn't make much sense, does it? Exactly.

I took it in stride but entered the restaurant a little defeated. My wife, who is from Mexico City (the birthplace of tacos al pastor), looked strangely at her plate too, and I told her there was no pineapple here, so there was no use asking or making a fuss.

The tacos were adequate. The pork was sliced thick, so it was juicy and tender; but it didn't have the good char and crisp that makes a perfect pastor. That being said, it was a good taco of marinated pork, and there are many things that are right about that. I finished my plate of six tacos in several minutes. It wasn't, however, an authentic taco al pastor in the great pastor tradition. Although, to be fair to this place, tacos al pastor get bastardized the moment you leave Mexico City, so it could be that this is some "authentic" recipe that the owner has from someplace like Tijuana.

All was not lost on this trip by any means. We also had a steak alambre in our midst that was one of the better ones I've had in Denver. Alambre, if you remember, is usually bell peppers, onions and meat grilled together with shredded cheese and served on a large plate with tortillas on the side. In perfect conditions the cheese melts into everything so that what results is a wonderfully sticky mess that can be scooped onto a tortilla and eaten as a taco. This was a rather ideal version of an alambre, and it beat out the tacos al pastor by a mile.

The tacos here cost 99 cents, so they are pretty small, and even after six I needed a couple more. I got the tongue and was pleasantly surprised by this well-prepared and tasty version. I would get this again if I returned.

Tacos Tijuana seems overall to be a solid little taco joint, and I want to again thank the reader who recommended it to me. It doesn't, however, have a great pastor, and by no means is it authentic to its Mexico City roots. And even though this may be on the bottom of the tacos al pastor I have written about so far in Denver, it did have some redeeming qualities, and for 99 cents you likely won't be disappointed.
Tacos Tijuana on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jabo's, the Champagne of Colorado Bar-Be-Q

Once upon a time there was a food cart in the parking lot of a church in, of all places, Greenwood Village. It was right off Yosemite and Orchard, down the street from the Channel 2 studios. It was a cart filled with barbecue so good that at any given time there was a line of twenty wide-eyed, salivating people waiting his or her turn to get what was not only the best lunch option for a good five mile radius, but maybe the best barbecue that Colorado has ever known. And Jabo, the animated, smiling genius of a barbecue master responsible for it all, was there at the front of the line, bantering with every customer as he scooped out succulent brisket, laid out links and smothered it all in one of his incredible sauces.

That was 2001 for me. My first of many trips to Jabo's famous barbecue cart. It had been there, however, since 1996, placating the lunchtime tech center crowd for years, before a friend finally dragged me out of my downtown bubble to pay a visit. I would go back whenever I could over the next couple years, making the way out of the way drive South for this little piece of perfection. Then one day, it was gone.

I found Jabo again a few years later in the location where he still is today: a little strip mall on Arapahoe Rd. just East of I-25. He still has the same great barbecue, but he misses that cart. Now when talking to Jabo about his old cart days he waxes nostalgic about the long lines, the fresh air and the healthy business of upwards of 250 people in a three hour lunch.

Now at Jabo's instead of a picnic bench in a gravel lot there is plush red vinyl seating and a classic black and white checked floor. There is a glass display filled with his pig-themed collectibles. There is a old-school soul and R&B playing on the speakers and, of course, there is Jabo.

Jabo is about as friendly and welcoming as restaurantuers get. And he loves talking about barbecue. Originally from Oklahoma (with a recipe that has its roots in Shreveport, Louisiana), he came to Denver, "a long time ago," and spent some years in Five Points, rubbing elbows with what he called, "Some pit barbecue masters," like the famous Daddy Bruce Jr. and Lawrence Pierre, of the former Pierre's Supper Club.

What first becomes obvious to Jabo when talking to me is that I don't know jack shit about barbecue. But it's alright, because I think Jabo believes it one of his missions in life to educate people, one by one, about real barbecue. One thing he seems particularly fired up about lately is a barbecue show on the Food Network where some he saw a barbecue "master" reaching for a bag of charcoal. "He sold his soul," Jabo tells a customer as he gives him his change, and then shakes his head in shame, "If that's what he wants to do, that's fine, but the man sold his soul. You just never use charcoal."

Jabo. He's not angry. He's passionate about Bar-Be-Q. 

He told me the same story the week before. "Never use charcoal," he emphasized to me, and so I will to you, "Real pit barbecue never uses charcoal."

Jabo uses hickory wood. Hickory wood that he gets by the truckload from Kansas City. He uses it to fill his pit cooker which can cook up to 700 lbs of meat at once. Damn, that's a lot of meat. And each hunk of meat, from the pork ribs to the beef brisket, is incredibly tasty and succulent.

"Hickory is the champagne of barbecue woods..."

During my last visit I had a plate of ribs. The ribs came out smothered in one of his homemade barbecue sauces, and I hovered over the plate to inhale the steam before I set it. The rich fragrance of the hickory smoke was so thick I could taste it on my tongue just from breathing it in. I looked up at Jabo and he knew what I was thinking, "Hickory is the champagne of barbecue woods," he said. And Jabo's is the champagne of Colorado barbeque.

Those ribs were so succulent and thick with meat, and each bite had a deep smoky flavor that lingered pleasantly on my palate. I licked each bone clean. The sauce I chose for that night was the cranberry, jalapeño spicy --which is 4th spiciest, after mild, medium and hot-- and only trumped by habanero hot. Jabo makes all his sauces too. He has six flavors on any given night (out of 20-some rotating varieties) that he brings out to the rookies (if it's your first time there, Jabo will find you and that's what he'll call you) in an ice cube tray. Lately it has been original, cranberry, smoky mustard, peach, maple and the most popular of all, mango. Each sauce is delicious, and if you like spicy, the habanero is pretty damn spicy.

He also makes his own links, or at least now he has them made in a local shop with his recipe. His links and beef brisket are what make up his original food-cart phenomenon, the Jabo Link: a full sized link covered in shredded beef brisket with the sauce of your choice on a hoagie bun. This is absolutely one of the best sandwiches you will ever have. How I used to eat this for lunch at his food cart and return to work, or whatever it is I used to do during my day besides take a 2 hour nap, is beyond me.

Also delicious are Jabo's sides, especially his famous "scones". I use the quotation marks because Jabo's scones are to the scones we find in bakeries all over the world like a piece of wheat toast is to a glazed donut. All over the world, that is, except Utah. In Utah, where the family of Jabo's wife Susan is from, scones are deep fried, airy pastries. In Jabo's family, they also cover them in sweet cream honey butter. It is incredible and at the same time wonderfully absurd that you would be eating one alongside a 1/3 lb sausage and 1/2 lb of beef brisket.

Whatever the case, a scone is a must alongside any of Jabo's incredible barbecue delights. Jabo has taken his famous cart indoors, embraced his new surroundings and is slowly smoking some of the best food in Denver. He is also venturing back out into the food cart world, and starting in the spring will be setting up shop at 6875 S. Clinton, in the parking lot of the Old Country Dinner Playhouse from about 11am to 2pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Jabo's Bar Be Q on UrbanspoonFor now, I implore you to visit him at his current location. It is well worth the trip down into suburbia. Take Arapahoe East from I-25, turn right on Dayton and it will be on your right before you get to the Vitamin Cottage. Open Tues - Sat for lunch and dinner. 303.799.8056.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Super Bowl, Table 6 and a New Love for Pork Rinds

Sunday marked a monumental American occasion, apparently second only to Thanksgiving in gluttony and sheer quantity of food eaten in a single day. Now being pretty much a baseball man myself, the Super Bowl signifies only one thing: about two weeks until Spring training begins. I do, however, recognize it as an important opportunity to at least sit around and watch TV while eating too much. Go America!

This year, to distinguish the overeating and TV watching from the other days of the week, my wife and I invited a few close friends over. Given that everyone present was equally as ambivalent about any actual outcome to the day's big game, our main objective then became preparing and eating food. And that brings us to recipe installment number three in the random collection of Denver On a Spit recipes.

But first, before I forget, we also drank some beer; and among these beers were three particularly tasty bottles from the Sam Adams' Barrel Room Collection that I was so generously gifted many months back while at a beer pairing event at Denver's own Table 6. Apparently they had a limited semi-exclusive release this Winter which happily included Denver, and although I normally buy most of my beer from one of Colorado's fine brewers, this was a nice change of pace and I do recommend all three.

Speaking of Table 6, my wife and I had a snack there late on Super Bowl eve, and like every time I've been there, I left happy, sated, inspired and, well, a little drunk. This time the inspiration came not from the skin of a chicken, but rather that of a pig. Get ready. One of the new starters on the Table 6 playlist: pork rinds wrapped in prosciutto, drizzled with olive oil and black salt. To call it simply delicious would be an understatement. This just made it on my top 10 list of all time favorites. OK, I know I exaggerate at times, but it's just that it made me unusually excited-- in a totally normal way. So I can safely say that it is at least the finest snack food, well, ever. Crunch, chew, pork, pork, salt, oil. Think about it. Here it is:

And when I say I left Table 6 inspired, I mean to say that I left inspired to copy. The next morning after shaking off my groggy wine and pork daze, I made a trip to Rancho Liborio Mexican grocery store on East Colfax and Havana, and picked up an enormous amount of freshly fried pork rinds, or as we call them in my house, chicarrones. I then zoomed over to that whole-market place and picked up some of that fine La Quercia American prosciutto (we're not watching Italian football after all) as well as some black salt. Later that afternoon I carefully wrapped pork in pork, served it to our guests and briefly basked in their praise, until my pork-conscious couldn't stand to curse my pork-karma any longer, and I spilled my secret.

Other new Table 6 menu items for me were Kumamoto oysters served with an apple balsamic jalapeño sauce, which provided a perfect backdrop to the buttery sweetness of these Hog Island beauties without drowning them out. And for dessert, in addition to the mainstay of milk chocolate beignets, we slurped down an apricot rice pudding with a Rice Crispy crisp that was absolutely divine. Scott Parker, Aaron Foreman and crew continue to impress with fun, innovative menu items, spot-on execution, excellent service and an inviting atmosphere.

But back to our Super Bowl party and a couple recipes. After gorging on those gorgeous pork snacks, we made proper use of our molcajete (unlike some places in Denver) and whipped up some guacamole. For this I like to chop a small slice of onion, a handful of cilantro, a clove of garlic and some serranos; which I then grind up into a paste in the molcajete. Then we smashed two avocados up with this paste, added a third, chopped avocado and a diced tomato. To finish it, we drizzled the whole concoction with juice of a half of lime and added salt to taste. Guacamole is hard to mess up, but this relatively standard approach never fails.

While dipping stuff in guacamole is always good, we did something different: we sliced very (very) thin slices of jicama (a watery, crisp and refreshing Mexican tuber) into which we added the guacamole, sprinkled on some smashed up chicarrones and served up as tacos. We forgot to buy some queso fresco, which makes it an even more perfect bite, but this is still a tasty and refreshing snack.

Here is our jicama taco with guacamole and chicarron: 

For dinner we decided to cook up some burgers and one of our friends put together a nice burger-complementing salsa with the following ingredients: 3 chile poblanos, about 10 roma tomatoes, 4 thick slices of red onion, 2 cloves of garlic and a handful of fresh thyme. We roasted it all (except the thyme) on cast iron skillets, rotating each item until everything was blackened and my house filled with thick chile smoke. (By the way, make sure to keep the skin on the garlic). After removing the skin and most of the seeds from the poblanos (and the garlic) we blended everything up along with a handful of thyme, adding quite a bit of salt along the way. This is a very good salsa to top a burger, and along with a dollop of guacamole and a bottle of American Kriek, it made a rather wholesome meal. Look how good:

It was a heroic amount of eating and drinking we did that night. In fact, by the end of our meal, I was utterly worthless as a host, and I kicked back into a reclining chair, only to mumble a few feeble armchair commentaries as what actually turned out to be a pretty good football game came to its dramatic conclusion. Our guests parted ways not too much after that, and I fell asleep within minutes, content with another well spent Sunday.
Table 6 on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Paradisiacal-ish: A Night Out At Denver's El Paraiso

Stepping into El Paraiso on a Saturday night is maybe not exactly what I envisioned Paradise to be like, but nevertheless, there it is. I suppose if God were a Norteño, and couldn't get a real band for the night, then maybe this would be paradise, because the overwhelming sound of a one-man synthesizer show filled the restaurant in a most obnoxious manner. Despite that, when given the option by our friendly hostess of the "quiet side", where a few sad-looking Gringo families were politely munching away on their tacos, or "this side" where a mustached Mexican version of Robby Gould the wedding singer was wailing into his microphone while the "oom-pa-oom-pa" of Cumbia beats vibrated the walls with a pair of speakers that could fill a concert hall, I nodded in his direction and most decidedly indicated, "this side."

After a good five minutes she returned to seat us even though we could see very clearly that the dining room was only about half full. It was alright, however, because it gave us time to take in the scenery and soak in the plastic, day-glo vibe of the place.

Stepping down into the dining room, I was surprised not to see some hollering drunks in the back bar, or at least one couple with tight jeans and cowboy boots seductively hopping to the beat. In fact, in spite of the insanely loud music, everyone was pretty much just eating and talking; acting very much like they always dine with horrendously loud Norteña beats blasting in their ears. I have to admit, to me the music was a little overwhelming, but if this was Paradise, I wanted the whole experience.

Part of the experience in Paradise includes being surrounded by gaudy, airbrushed murals. Apparently in Paradise, giant naked woman sleep in volcanoes and when the sun rises, they burst out to catch flying Marlin from the beach. Actually, that sounds just about right.

Snapping me out of my paradisiacal volcanic fantasies, our server came by to bring us huge plastic menus and get our drink order. The conversation went like this:

Me: "Negra Modelo, por favor."

Her: "Pacifico?"


Her: "Ahhh. Una Corona."

Again, I repeated it, straining my voice over the music. She nodded, jettisoned off towards the bar and surprisingly returned only moments later with the correct beers. Now, properly beveraged, we opened menus and got to choosing.

The El Paraiso options are plentiful, but they certainly specialize in seafood and other Parilladas, or grill platters. They also have these things they claimed to have invented, called molcajetes, which, for the record, they didn't. Molcajetes are big stone mortar and pestles used to grind up salsas, and restaurants in Mexico have been using them to serve heaping piles of food since El Paraiso was still a twinkle in the eye of the Wheatridge Township.

Anyway, we order a seafood parillada and the chicken mole enchiladas. The seafood comes out looking delicious, but with varying levels of temperature. It was all actually quite good: crab legs, grilled trout, shrimp and octopus-- it's just that some things were clearly cooked a while back, and some were still steaming hot. Actually the grilled shrimp were especially good in that I could taste the smoke from the charcoal grilling it received. It was also nice to make some octopus, pepper and onion tacos with the good red salsa.

Also with the seafood parillada came the option of frijoles charros. I don't remember the other option, but it doesn't matter because you want to get this. In fact, I would have been happy with a big, steamy bowl of these beans, slow cooked in a rich broth, and full of huge chunks of bacon and pork bits. They were divine. Even my bean-hating wife couldn't stop eating them.

The enchiladas de mole were fantastic as well. This is obviously a good recipe and once you have that, it is pretty hard to mess anything else up. Topped with a queso fresco (but without onions) it was hearty and satisfying; and hard to stop eating although I was entirely full about half-way through.

So here is what I think about El Paraiso: It is not paradise by any means, nor is it likely Denver's best Mexican restaurant as many people claim, but it clearly is an authentic Mexican restaurant with good food. I get the feeling that on a good night it could be a great place, and that it maybe still is at times. However, I also get the feeling that less and less people working there care about how those recipes are executed these days. I realize it is a large place and I know that perfect, consistent execution is not realistic, but for a $19 seafood plate for one (though big enough for two), I would expect at least that it was all cooked to order. I would go back for another authentic experience, and to continue my way down the extensive menu, but I'll keep looking for another Mexican restaurant to call Denver's best.

El Paraiso on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pho 77: New Pho For My Old Cold

Still sick from the week prior with clogged head and raspy throat, I returned for more Pho to a spot I saw while leaving Pho Duy II last week. My head was swimming with congestion and dazed from being up the last three nights coughing. I ordered to go, and as I sat to wait for my broth, I quickly became entranced by the ambient music selection of a single, relaxing pan flute that would be more at home in a dimly lit massage parlor. I simultaneously became transfixed on the giant aquarium where two lonely little orange fish were doing laps around the faux coral seascape. My eyes then wandered up to the muted TV where that annoying Family Feud host-- you know, Elaine's boss from Seinfeld, J Peterman-- seemed to dance in sync to the flute soundtrack as he moved his way down the row of star struck family members. For a surreal moment the music seemed to be part of the game show itself, but in my semi-dazed state this all seemed perfectly normal. So it seemed equally unremarkable when a polite server brought me a glass of ice water with a slice of lemon.

I sipped the water and came crashing back down to reality. Then I took my bearings and assessed the situation: I am waiting for $5 take out on North Peoria on a Wednesday night and someone just gave me ice water with a slice of lemon in clean glassware. Without asking. I fingered through my bag to see if maybe in haste I had taken a swig of my coveted Codeine-laced cough syrup, which was going to promise me my first deep sleep in days. No, it was sealed. As I sipped the cold water I smiled: so far so good at Pho 77, Denver's newest pho.

Pho 77 has only been here for about a month in a strip mall just south of Pho Duy II. The newness is probably why besides being served unsolicited ice water with lemon, the server also rushed over to open the door as I stumbled off to my car. I hope that service lasts as the restaurant grows--after the owners and staff have been working non-stop for months on end. There is hope, as the hostess (and daughter of the owner) is extremely friendly and seems to keep the place running. Also, the lettering on the doorway solicits your recommendations for your future visits:

I over Hoisin'd my first Pho there. It pretty much ruined it for me. I also got meatball pho, which I never do, so maybe that was part of it. The meatballs were gray and spongy-- but to be fair to Pho 77, they look like that at every pho place I've been. Apparently these started off as beef (I know, because I asked) but what ended up in my bowl was something more rubbery and less meat-like than any beef I have ever known.

My wife's chicken pho, on the other hand, was filled with big chunks of sliced breast. And it was tender. She also didn't mess up her broth like I did, and I will admit that I sorely coveted her pho that night, even though I don't really like chicken pho all that much. But in spite my best efforts of putting on a sad, sickly face to get her to switch with me, nothing could even get her to try my meat-sponge mess of a pho.

Even though it was my fault for messing up my broth, I may have never returned to Pho 77 if it weren't for me writing this blog. I would have instead gone back to an old standby the next time I craved pho. But I don't like to talk bad about restaurants very often, so I always try and give them a second chance if I am going to write about them-- especially new ones like this that are trying very hard to do things right. The daughter of the owner, who plays hostess at night, does so after working a full day at a bank down the street. You would never know in her attitude or demeanor that she has been working 15 hour days the entire week. I admire that determination. Especially when on top of it she is genuinely friendly, attentive and helpful. So I gave Pho 77 another chance.

On returning I was also as of healthy and sound a mind as I get, which is certainly relative and maybe not saying much, but I was at least no longer sleep deprived and half-crazed with congestion. I also ordered my old standby: raw beef. The large portion was huge and there was beef aplenty. The broth is sweeter than others that I have had, and I was told by the daughter/ hostess that this is typical for Northern Vietnamese pho, where her and her family are from, versus Southern Vietnamese pho, which has a saltier broth. Either way, it has a good flavor, and this time I skipped the Hoisin entirely, opting for just hot and fish sauce along with my herbs. It was all really quite good.

My wife was pho'd out and ordered from the right side of the menu. Here there are a handful of noodle, rice, spring and egg roll dishes. She got a Vietnamese grilled pork dish with rice. It was tasty, and it is nice to have a little variety for us, because I can eat pho anytime, whereas she likes to have other things from time to time. Please with her selection, she is now happy to sate my pho cravings anytime if she can order something like that instead.

I'm glad I went back. I like the pho and I really like the place. I hope that lost in this wasteland of North Aurora it will find a way to drive more business and eventually survive. It's not a great location to begin with, and tucked into the corner of a strip mall, it is hard to find even when you are looking for it. But now that I know where it is, I will actually probably stop here instead of driving two more blocks to Pho Duy II when going for my North Aurora pho.

3113 N. Peoria. Aurora. 303-366-0904
Pho 77 on Urbanspoon


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