Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Berkshire: Pork, Pork and Bacon

On the walls of The Berkshire Men's room urinals in the newfangled, Truman-show-like Stapleton town center is transcribed the famous conversation between Homer and Lisa Simpson, where Homer questions the seemingly illogical test of will that is to be vegetarian, and at the same time learns that pork chops, bacon and ham all come from the same animal.

"Right Lisa," he taunts, not believing her, "Some wonderful, magical, animal."

It is hilarious moment in the show's history that people like me inevitably giggle at no matter how many times we have heard it repeated. I'm glad to see it written out, word for word, in a public place like a men's room wall. And it's not some drunken vandal that did it, unless he painstakingly stenciled the letters in a intoxicated state of precision and exactitude. No, it is clear that the Berkshire shares both my childish sense of humor and of course, my adult love of pork. For not only are there excerpts of the Simpson's in the bathroom, but everywhere around The Berkshire there are odes to pork (and beer), and probably it is because of this that I always feel so welcome here.

I also feel welcome here because the staff and bar keep are, well, welcoming. And friendly. I have been here many times over the past couple of years and I've always had friendly table service and generous pours at the bar.

What I also appreciate about the Berkshire is that they don't overdo it. To continue with the Simpson's analogy, there is no one at the Berkshire standing over your shoulder and ordering you to butter your bacon or bacon up your sausage. ("Butter it!") No, in fact, the menu does not get at all carried away with bacon, which is nice to see in an age where even pork lovers like me are taken aback by the amount of food that is  bacon-ized. In fact, the Berkshire even goes so far as to try and make friends with salad. Not only are there side salads (better to go for the sweet potato fries), but a whopping six dinner salads on the menu (although two come with pork and/or ham). So if your heart hurts, there are plenty of less-fatty options. I've never had any, but I'm sure they are good.

What they do make with pig parts, they do well. And several in superb style. One thing I love is that they always have jamon serrano on the menu, and it can often be seen hanging over the meat slicing station (yes, they have one of those too, and they call it the 'bacon station'). They also slice up a nice Spanish chorizo and a good salami. All these can be sampled on a meat platter--though last time I was there I saw it being served with slices from a King Sooper's baguette behind the bacon station. And with Udi's fabulous breads right across the street that borders on unforgivable! But what they do with those meats on the rest of the menu makes up for it.

What they do right is an absolutely perfect and simple serrano ham and fresh mozzarella sandwich. It is good because you can taste every subtle flavor of the serrano, and all the other ingredients-- tomato, oil and vinegar shine in the background. The muffalleta is also good, done with the serrano, chorizo and salami. Topped with provolone and an olive tapinade, it is not the most traditional, but it is a fine sandwich. My other favorite sandwich is a brunch specialty: a Monte Cristo sandwich with jamon serrano between two slices of French toast.

You say moo-fa-leh-tah...

My wife's favorite is pure gluttony: the King. Actually, maybe it should be re-named the "King Killer", as it is at least in part responsible for the not-so-glamorous demise of Graceland's most famous citizen. It is, of course, bananas, peanut butter and bacon. The bananas are caramelized and the bacon is wonderfully thick and crispy. Served between two fat slices of Hawaiian bread spread thick with gooey peanut butter, it is disgustingly good.

I have also tried a dinner entree or two, though I find the prices a little high and prefer to stick with the sandwiches. That being said, the double bone-in pork chop stuffed with apples and white cheddar cheese that I had on one occasion was well-cooked and wonderfully rich.

The pinnacle of the porkiness here is a sophisticated flight of house-cured bacon. The first is balsamic-marinated and served with a sliced strawberry; the second is cinnamon-chipotle with a single raw almond; third is a curry-flavored slice with fig; and lastly a (heavily) garlic-powdered slice with roasted garlic. Each one presents a nice flavor combination (expect the garlic--save this for the end because it is pure garlic) and is highlighted by the fact that you are eating bacon. Good bacon. Very good bacon.

Porkchops and bacon, my two favorite animals.

As I said, there are plenty of items I haven't tried at the Berkshire that may very well be good. They even have a deep-fried Snickers bar if you are so inclined. And just so it won't seem that I am on the payroll (not that I wouldn't mind free bacon flights for life), there is at least one negative thing I have to say besides the King Soopers loafs in the kitchen (which is worth repeating): the pulled pork sandwich is just not that good. It's too bad in a pork-centric place like the Berkshire, but it is consistently dry and way too salty.

The Berkshire appeals to the gluttonous Homer Simpson side of me, but it also does so with a certain degree of class. And again, the staff is welcoming as is the place itself. I haven't sampled much of their dinner entrée menu, mostly because when I go there I feel like a beer, some bacon and a good sandwich with some of their great sweet potato fries. So when your in the mood for some pork, check out the solid sandwich menu at the Berkshire. It doesn't have to be bacon day.

Berkshire on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jax Fish House + Panaderia Rosales + Homemade Chile = ??

Here is something I am not good at anymore: staying out late (even late-ish is pushing it) drinking, then waking up early the next day to do something. The doing something early this time around was snowshoeing. The drinking part was complicated by oysters, oh, copious amounts of oysters, Mexican pastries, three bowls of chile, and more Mexican pastries. In that order.

It all started innocently enough, with of all people, my friend Brian. You may remember Brian from such roles as the rarely-seen-former-roommate, in posts such as Happy New Year, King's Land Style. If you remember anything at all about that post, it might be that, despite our best efforts and our physical proximity, the two of us hardly ever see each other. When we last parted ways, we resigned to see each other in the year 2012, so it comes as little surprise that our reunion, a mere four weeks later, started off with a few celebratory clinking glasses.

It was Friday afternoon and we were at Jax Fish House in Denver. It was Oyster Week, and to celebrate they were running a few specials, most notably $1 oysters flown in fresh daily from places like the Chesapeake Bay. My original idea was to slam a couple dozen oysters between the two of us and make a taco run after that. Brian quickly put the stop on that, citing a recent trip to Florida where he overloaded on oysters, other food and beer only to awake with a nauseating hangover that I now remember him describing not unlike the one I would have the next day. He wanted to keep it simple. Clearly I paid this quite blatant piece of foreshadowing no heed-- but I digress.

The oysters were fantastic. The best of the bunch that we tried were the fresh Chesapeake Bay ones they had on special. They were large and sweet, wonderfully cold and fresh.

We also ordered a couple of different trios of "specialty oysters" off another menu card at the bar. To be honest I can't remember which oyster came with which presentation. One set had cream and caviar, and the other was nori-wrapped in the shell. Neither was all that fantastic, especially compared with the straight up oysters we were getting for a dollar. The cream drowned out the first oyster and the caviar was rather frugally portioned; the nori wrapping was also a little powerful for the other set. It was also served on a giant plate with painted-on sauce lines, like they seem to use liberally here. I'm all for creative and visually appealing presentations, but I expect it to be functional and integrated into the dish somehow. The crispy crab claws we had, for example, were served with an excellent dipping sauce painted in a checked pattern on the plate; running the crab through the lines was interactive and delicious. What do you do, however, with lines of sauce zig-zagging the plate containing three oysters that you are planning to eat with one slurp? You can't very well dip the shell in, or get a spoonful even (especially when you have no spoon). You just look at it, think, "That is visually pleasing and perfectly useless," and eat your oysters.

They should just buy plates with black lines on them

Despite my cynical digression, it was an excellent meal of oysters. I was also far too happy and tipsy to care about some extraneous plating. We also had some great fried calamari; it too, with palatable and useful sauce-art plating, although more of the concentric oval variety: mango chile and lime aoili to be exact. It was a tasty mix of flavors, and the calamari were perfectly chewy and moist on the inside, fried-crisp on the outside.

We wrapped up our oyster binge with an oyster shooter which was horribly unnecessary. It was vodka, bloody Mary mix and, well, an oyster served in a glass. It tasted fine, I suppose, but it was odd eating an oyster one minute and the next washing it down with an oyster-infused vodka. It did, however, inspire my wife, who had come to join in the frenzy, to order a bloody Mary, which was an interesting blend of fresh chunks of jalapeno and cucumber. And more oysters.

Upon leaving, my wife and I had a party to go to, with instructions to bring a dessert. Having nothing, we stopped at Panaderia Rosales in hopes of picking up a pastel de tres leches. They didn't have any cakes ready, so we got a tray and filled it, with among other things, carrot cake, faux Ho-Hos (or fake "Pinguinos" depending on which side of the Rio Grande you were born), and a neon-pink white sugar cake.

They also had some interesting pan dulces (sweet breads) like a flauta, which is a filo-type pastry rolled up like a cigar around a jelly filling. My old favorite, the pig-shaped anis-flavored conchinito, was stacked in impressive numbers, and also made its way onto the tray, though not all the way to the party. Yes, it goes without saying that by the time we left the store and made it the party, a mere 10 blocks or so away, I had eaten at least three pastries, and still felt just fine.

I will have to say that this bakery won't make it as one of my favorites although it was good. I found many items to be a little on the stale side, though this might have been due to the lack of evening traffic in this part of town more than anything else. My favorite place, El Paisa (now sadly my favorite former favorite place), gets a lot more traffic at all hours of the day and night, so while their display cases aren't always teeming with pastries, what is out is fresh and often still warm. 

The party, as I alluded to, was a chile potluck. I continued with some beer and ate three different types of chile. They were good, I guess that's why I ate so much, and I also helped myself to homemade mac and cheese, a few brownies and washed it all down with some more pan dulce.

It all ended happily enough that night, and it wasn't until the morning that I found any suffering. It was more of a nauseating food hangover than anything else, but I can't imagine all the beers helped any. With a double shot of espresso I managed to stumble into the car, happily surprised to see that I had stashed a bag of pastries (now semi-transparent with grease as it should be) behind the passenger seat the night before. I ate a few more on the way up to the mountains, sipped some more coffee and had a great day eventually.
Jax Fish House on Urbanspoon
Panaderia Rosales
Rosales Mexican Bakery on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tortas de Tamal in Denver at Leobardo's!

Denver's South Federal is full of surprises. On a recent Sunday afternoon, my wife and I found ourselves driving south from Alameda to an old favorite of ours, Tacos y Salsas. I haven't written about Tacos y Salsas yet, and thanks to my fleeting, TV-conditioned attention span, I was momentarily distracted by a large sign less than a block away from Tacos y Salsas, and I won't be writing about it this week either.

TV also taught me the art of impulsivity, and that moment of distraction was all it took for me to pull a U-Turn on Kentucky, just a few feet short of our original goal. Actually it was two signs that distracted me, and both tugged longingly at my heartstrings. One was advertising tacos al vapor, which are deliciously fatty and flavorful steamed beef tacos, not all that common in Denver; while a second, larger and more attention-grabbing sign advertised Tortas de Tamal.

Tortas de Tamal are very special to me despite possibly sounding very ridiculous (and dry) to many.  I understand this logic: why put a hunk of steamed dough inside a hunk of baked dough? Well, in Mexico City, where someone somewhere has already tried anything you can think of inside of a torta, tortas de tamal are commonplace.

When I was living in Mexico City, just about every morning before work, I would stop on the corner near my in-laws house and get one. From the first morning I tried it I was hooked. It really wasn't all that dry, probably because the tamales were served fresh from a steaming pot; and it was definitely hearty and satisfying. And for about 15 pesos ($1.50 back then), I would get one along with a fresh squeezed cup of OJ.

My wife was equally excited about our detour, being that we have never seen anyone offer up this Mexico City specialty here in Denver. In fact, it is so uncommon even in the rest of Mexico, that we never thought to even look for one here. We practically burst through the door and scrambled up to the counter to order, but not before taking a couple seconds to shake our heads in disapproval at a third sign, bright yellow and advertising the place itself. It featured the stalest and unfortunately emblematic stereotype of Mexican culture -- the sleeping drunk under a cactus, clad in serape, sandals and sombrero. "Leobardo's Taco Shop," it read.

Inside Leobardo's, any transient disappointment we may have felt outside was quickly dissipated by a friendly chat with one of Leobardo's cooks, Elias. Elias is from Pachuca, and although not the owner, he was rather proud to tell us that he too had never seen another Denver-area restaurant with tortas de tamal. Pachuca is about an hour drive from Mexico City, so Elias was familiar with the notorious sandwich from his proximity to the city. He admitted to us that, like many non-Chilangos, it didn't sound all that appealing to him when he first heard about it. He began to politely give several explanations for this (he was really quite friendly and enthusiastic), then motioned to us to come in a little closer, as if he had a secret to share. He then asked us to excuse the expression he was about to use, but the first thing he thought when he heard of the sandwich was, "...que puerco!"

Literally he meant, "what pigginess", or more loosely translated, "who is the fat-ass who wants to eat that?!" He hoped we weren't offended. No, I assured him. There are many things that I take offense to, but being indirectly (or directly for that matter) called a pig is not one of them.

Needless to say, we ordered tortas de tamal, one green and one red. We also ordered a couple of tamales de elote (corn) and a taco al vapor just for good measure. Que puerco, indeed.

The tortas de tamal came out and they looked different. I will digress for a moment and rant a little about the state of torta bread here in Denver. For some reason it is universally too soft. The other alternative found around here is the too-hard bolillo roll. Happily in between the two is Telera bread, what is commonly used throughout Mexico for the torta, and is hard and crusty on the outside yet soft on the inside. It is the perfect torta bread, and I can't imagine it is that hard to make, but for whatever reason, I have not seen it used here.

Needless to say, I wasn't surprised to see the soft, mushy bread come out with our tortas de tamal, but I was surprised to see that they had been grilled. Traditionally, if the bread is warmed a little, it would be with steam, like that used for cooking the tamal. Elias explained to us that because the bread is a little soft, he decided to start grilling it, to give it a crisp. I admit that it was better than what it would have been otherwise, but it still lacked the authenticity of the true torta de tamal. Also, the tamales were small, so next time I will get two tamales per torta for proper tamal to torta ratio. And the taste? Well, it is not an authentic torta de tamal, but the nostalgia factor was high, so overall I liked it. The red and green tamales are quite good and I would recommend either to those who may also have a hole in their lives where the torta de tamal once was, and to those who have never tried it, or worse, dismissed it as too ridiculous.

The tamales de elote were not good. They looked good, filled with chunks of corn. They smelled good, like steaming corn bread baked with lard. But they were mushy and fell apart too quickly. They had a sweet corn taste, but otherwise were under-flavored and bland.

The taco al vapor was very good--at least part of it. The steamed beef was moist and tender with a rich flavor of being cooked slowly. The red salsa was dark and smoky, the green sweet and sharp with onion; both were adequately spicy. The tortillas, however, were of the packaged variety, and were simply dipped in oil and grilled whereas with this type of taco they ought to be steamed. (For a great taco al vapor, click here.)

Overall it was a great meal, and for that I can only thank my aptitude for distraction and my ability to impulsively act on it. Leobardo's is new to the south Federal scene, and shows much promise in its early months. There is a drive-thru window which they plan to put into use soon. One of the signs outside also purports that it is open 24 hours a day. It isn't yet, and even though our friend Elias smiled as he verified the new hours, his eyes said differently, as he surely knows he will have his share of overnight taco and torta-making shifts. Until then, visit Elias and his crew all week long during the 16 or so hours they currently stay open during. As for us, we took our piggy selves to the lot next door and bought a half pound of rosted piñones.
Leobardo's Taco Shop on Urbanspoon825 South Federal.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Learning the Facts of Lunch with Hi Rise, Hutch & Spoon and Udi's

I don't get out to lunch that often during the week. I work in an isolated part of town, and frankly get so swept up in my work that there are days when I don't even get outside to breath in any semblance of fresh air, much less all the way to my car to go out and eat. Sad in a way, but I like what I do, and to get me through the day, I often remind myself that as a fact of life, one must take the good with the bad; it is then that I start humming the timelessly wise melody of Mrs. G, Tooti, Blair, Jo and the gang.

I had a total crush on Jo, before the mullet.


So as I was saying, because of the facts of my life, I don't often get to those places that close down for dinner. In the last couple of months, I have made it out a whopping three times to breakfast-and-lunch-only places, and for these sadly rare, but nevertheless monumental events, I thought I would share.

Hi Rise
My first lunch adventure happened at Hi Rise bakery. A while ago, during a Cuban sandwich frenzy, the good people at Hi Rise sent me a "tweet" letting me know that they too, had a Cuban. Now this was before I really knew what Twitter was for, much less that people could (or would) send messages directly to me-- I thought it was cool enough that I knew when Shaq was in the can, or when Lance Armstrong was donning his spandex. So needless to say, I didn't find the message until a couple of months later, and made a mental note. One Sunday when my wife and I were wandering around downtown, we came across Hi Rise on 21st and Larimer and went in to see.

We ordered and I did get a Cuban. As I remember it, the ingredients between the bread were pretty much right on. The bread was very good too, and I will say that I enjoyed the sandwich very much, but it was not traditional Cuban bread, and so it is hard to call it and rate it as I would a Cuban. Let's just say it is a great deli ham sandwich on fresh baked bread. My wife got an excellent bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado sandwich on soft and delicious white bread. Both are worth going back for.

I also really liked hanging out in Hi Rise. I took advantage of the free internet and enjoyed the open, airy space. What I really liked was how friendly everyone was. Mid meal someone from the back room (the owner, I assume) came out smeared with flour and smiling ear to ear. He proceeded to go table to table and ask every single customer how his or her meal was. You don't often see that, and I appreciated what I perceived as genuine passion for a craft and care for a business. So much so that I bought a half-dozen jalapeño bagels and a loaf of bread, both of which made my boring office lunches a little nicer that week.

Hutch and Spoon
Part two took me to Hutch and Spoon, the new-ish day-time eatery down the street from Hi Rise on Larimer and 31st. It is a long and narrow space, tastefully decorated with lots of wood and exposed brick; both antique hutch and giant spoon sit near the entrance, as I suppose would be suspected. That day it was sunny, warm and inviting. The staff was friendly and helpful as we mulled our options. Not being all that hungry, my wife and I ordered a meatball sandwich and a pear and mixed greens salad to split. Everything tasted fresh and the salad was particularly vibrant. The sandwich was surprisingly hearty and the meatballs were well-flavored and moist. The highlights, however, were our homemade sodas: vanilla passionfruit and cucumber. Especially the cucumber. For whatever reason I love cucumber drinks, but usually only find freshly juiced cucumber in the street stalls of Mexico. This version was fresh as well, but the carbonation put it over the top for me. If I was famous, and that soda got bottled, I would be doing ad after ad for it, cheesing for the camera as I touted its special powers ("...unleash the awesome power of apples! cucumbers!"). The passionfruit was good too, but I will go back again for the cucumber soda.

Udi's Bread Cafe - Stapleton
And last, but definitely not least was Udi's. Definitely not least because the French dip sandwich, with its tender and juicy medium-rare roast beef is out-of-this-world delicious. OK, maybe I exaggerate, as I did actually have this one on a rare trip to the outside during a work week; and during those rare adventures, everything I experience takes on the rosy hue of freedom. There is, however, likely a reason that it made it on the Westword 100 best Denver dishes list. The beef, which is apparently fresh-roasted daily, is covered in caramelized onions and sticky, melted Gouda. The bread, a crusty baguette, is also excellent--as I have come to expect from Udi's. Dipped in the rich Au Jus, it is a sandwich that should be savored and relished, although I devoured mine with the haste. It really is rather delicious. I didn't have my camera that day, so I borrowed a beautiful image taken by the Westword (hope they don't mind):

That about does it for my latest lunchtime adventures. Udi's in Stapleton is now going to be open for dinner again, so I guess that solves my lunch dilemma there. I would also love to get back to both Hi Rise and Hutch and Spoon as often as I can, to continue to sample the gamut of their breakfast and lunch options. In the meantime, I will be holed up in my hole of an office (where, by the way, the world never seems to live up to my dreams), humming away as I munch on my not-nearly-as-tasty homemade sandwiches.

Udi's Bread Cafe at Stapleton on Urbanspoon
Hutch and Spoon
Hutch & Spoon on Urbanspoon
Hi Rise
Hi Rise Bakery on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Smothered Burritos at La Loncheria Mexicana

After getting some excellent peach sorbet from Red Trolley one night, my wife and I wandered the two or three blocks of shops along 32nd between Clay and Zuni in the cold but refreshing night air. Before long, we found ourselves looking in the windows of La Loncheria Mexicana. Through the iron bars, the inside was lit eerily with the yellow street lamp glow, and if I didn't know better, I might have thought that the place had been closed for months. The interior was like a mini-diner that hadn't been updated much since its original construction; and barely lit that night, the classic small lunch counter, and three or four small, worn tables looked like they had seen better days.

I generally like a greasy spoon with a timeless feel, and I was excited about this one in particular, being that it is a Mexican greasy spoon. I was also excited because this place had come highly recommend by a reader as part of my January contest. In fact, she was one of three finalists, and due to my complete lack of decision making ability, one of the eventual winners in my first tell-me-where-to-eat contest. The exact words were: "My favorite Mexican restaurant is Loncheria Mexicana - the smothered (with green chili) burrito asada is out of this world. It's a huge serving for $4."

Most days of my life you can say those exact words and I will follow you wherever you need me to go. In this case, what particularly intrigued me was that I had never even heard of it. Actually what is worse, is that even though I have often strolled by it in the middle of the day, I have never bothered to notice it. So I put my trust in what I can only imagine is a discerning reader with excellent taste, and went to see for myself.

Even in the daytime, the place looks like it hasn't had much updating recently. It was packed, which is to say there were about seven people inside. We stared up at the hot-dog stand style menu up on the wall so my wife could choose something. I was, obviously, here to have a smothered steak burrito.

By the time my wife made up her mind (she is almost as bad as me when it comes to these big decisions), a couple seats at the small, L-shaped lunch counter opened up, and I was already seated there sipping a coke from a glass bottle. She sidled up next to me and we ordered. From the counter you can watch the two women cooking deftly on their single flat top grill. In the cramped area where the two have seemingly been working together for some time, they moved harmoniously from counter to grill to fridge to register without once skipping a beat.

My burrito did not disappoint. I absolutely devoured it, and slurped up the chile as best my fork would let me without embarrassing my wife. (Since being married I have come to learn that licking plates clean is mostly just an expression.) The green chile was indeed tasty, and the steak was tender and juicy; but it is the old-school atmosphere that puts it over the top as a place I would go back to without question.

My wife got a chicken gordita and a steak quesadilla. Both were a little plain. Even different combinations of the four excellent homemade table salsas couldn't save that poor gordita that tasted like it was cooked in 3-day old grease. There wasn't a big difference between the taste of the meat and the taste of the fried masa dough.

The guy sitting next to me had some tacos that looked good, and he kept ordering more, one and two at a time. I took his cue and ordered a taco de carne adobada. Meanwhile I picked at my wife's quesadilla. Doused in the smoky chile pasilla salsa, it was actually pretty good. Nothing special, I admit, but a worthy snack between burrito and taco.

My taco came out and I ate it in two bites. It was a good marinated pork taco on a corn tortilla with the standard onions, cilantro and wedge of lime. Overall the food is pretty good in this Mexican hole-in-the-wall, with the smothered asada burrito being the standout. What makes it a place that I would return to is the homey feel of the diner-like environs and the intimate character of the place itself.
La Loncheria Mexicana on Urbanspoon

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I Feel Very Sad: El Paisa Bakery Set On Fire!

Today I have some very bad news. As you may have heard, El Paisa Panaderia of Aurora was set on fire last night. El Paisa, if you don't already know, is my favorite Mexican bakery, or panaderia. So you can imagine that I was more than a little surprised to open my email this morning and find these words:

Jessie said...

Today unfortunately (03/03/2010)at around 1 a.m. a very bad accident happened to this bakery. I've been a customer for over 6 years because their 3 leches (3 milks) cake it is absolutely delicious!! The owner Jose Herrera is a very nice and great person! It seems that this was intentional fire. No one got hurt 2 people that was renting upstairs were taking to the hospital with minor injuries. This had nothing to do with the safety of bakery, apparently someone robbed the cash registered and after that turned the business on fire! (So sad!) I feel very sad!

I too am deeply saddened, for both Mr. Herrera and the people living above. Not to mention that the pan dulce (sweet bread) and the rest of their baked goods were among the best in town, and a personal favorite of mine. (In fact my profile image --the pig shaped cookie-- is a picture from this bakery.)

I admit that I was rather preoccupied with the image of El Paisa in ruins the rest of the day at work. It seemed so surreal that a potential arson took place in the bakery I frequent. When the clock struck five, I immediately set out for El Paisa to see it with my own eyes. Even driving down Colfax, where everything was business as usual, as I pulled up to Dallas St. (and the blue chair), in my mind I expected to see El Paisa standing as it always has. I imagined that I would even go in and get some pan dulce (that I really didn't need). Instead it was, of course, destroyed. 
The door was boarded up and the second floor was gutted. The intact blinds of a second floor window were eerily blowing in the breeze. A fence set up a barrier around the lot, and signs posted on the windows offered a $5,000 reward.  It looked as if the roof collapsed, and the blackened interior was absolutely dismal. The Denver Post is reporting that it was indeed arson, and Fox reports that the fire was " fierce, it forced the firefighters out." Fox even has a video on its site which includes an interview with the devastated owner. 
The sign survived and I hope that Mr. Herrera and his crew find a way to rebuild. It is a shame and, of course, if you happen to have any relevant information to share, both the Post and Fox sites have the numbers you should contact. Thanks for the alert, Jessie, and I agree, "I feel very sad!"

El Paisa on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 1, 2010

Happy New Year, King's Land Style

I have this friend here in Denver that I only see about every two to three years if I'm lucky. It's funny, because I consider him a good friend, we live only a few miles apart and we were actually once roommates in Chicago for two years. Now, I know what you are thinking-- but unlike our third roommate who developed a hilarious yet destructive alternate personality when sufficiently soused, I was pretty easy to live with.

He is a hilarious guy, full of the only-in-America cultural idiosyncrasies I love. See, he is a nice Jewish boy from the New Jersey suburbs of Manhattan, yet he has more love of Chinese food than anyone I know. And not only that, wherever he is, he seeks out the best of it, and goes over and over and over again. To put it in perspective, he is to Chinese food as I am to my adopted Mexican love of tacos al pastor. Now that is love.

In particular my friend Brian is a Dim Sum fiend. So when he called me up out of the blue to invite me to Dim Sum to celebrate the first day of the Year of the Tiger, I didn't hesitate to say yes.

King's Land was his choice and I couldn't argue. I couldn't argue because, although I am ashamed to admit it, I haven't been to Dim Sum in Denver. Ever. I've been plenty of times before, but all in other cities, and I have yet to drag myself down to Dim Sum at any of Denver's seemingly fine Dim Sum eateries.

King's Land Chinese Food is exactly where you would expect it to be in Denver: near the unofficial China Town that is Federal and Alameda. There are actually several Dim Sum diners in this huge strip mall off Tejon and Alameda, and as expected, the parking lot was packed that day for the holiday. I met my friend and his Dim Sum crew in front of King's Land. Across the lot I could hear the beating of drums and see flickers of bright colors of a dragon dance. "Don't worry," he told me, sensing my excitement for the New Year celebration, "They'll come here next," and he motioned up to the 12 foot long string of unlit firecrackers hanging from the entrance roof as proof. Only Brian would know the rotation of the dragon parade on Chinese New Year.

Meanwhile we waited and waited in what was a packed house of a restaurant. The inside is typical Dim Sum style: huge open dining room with carts slowly making rounds; servers and bus boys flying from table to table with remarkable speed. The wait was long, and a little confusing. Typical of places like this, several Asian families walked in and were suspiciously seated right away, while the rest of us just sat and lobbied for our turn.

I took this time to squeeze my way outside and, as promised, the whole parade was setting up. The firecrackers were being prepared, boys and girls were donning their dragon costumes and a big drum was set up in the middle. The fireworks were lit and with the lovely sound reminiscent of an Uzi firing rounds into the air, the madness began.

The madness then somehow began to go inside. In a space where I had to push and claw my way through, giant drums and costumed dragons squeezed by with relative ease, then paraded up and down between the tables for another 20 minutes.

Back inside, Brian and his friends had been seated. By the time I located them and made my way through the mayhem, they had a full table of steamed and fried delights. He began to point out and explain the five or six plates on the table. I didn't even try to pay attention. And it just kept coming and coming. Here was like seeing Brian in his element: more at home with Dim Sum on Chinese New Year than with Matzo at Passover.

We were situated in front of one set of kitchen doors and as the carts came out, Brian would expertly scan them and point out what he wanted, although sometimes the conversation went like this:

Brian, after getting some shrimp rice noodles, "Do you have pork ones as well?"


"Yes, but I want pork also. Do you have pork?"

"Shrimp. Shrimp."

Now pointing, "Pork. Pork."

"Shrimp," and she was off.

The service is kind of like this at King's Land. It is also at times painfully slow then at once incredibly fast. Without Brian I would have been a little overwhelmed I admit. When a cart happens to come by, you have to be ready to decide quickly and pull off what you like. If you don't act, you may never see that dish again.

Any indecision or lack of assertiveness is picked up on, and subsequently ignored. One of Brian's friends asked politely for a refill of his ice water. Our waitress, smiling, confirmed his desire by repeating it in the form of a question, "More water?" Then she took a second and thought about it. She actually stood there, sort of looked up to the ceiling, furrowed her brow a little, shook her head and said, "Later." Before disappearing into the mob, she gave us a little brush off hand motion, like a mother would her whining kids. It was actually quite hilarious. Brian, however, minutes later took control by grabbing a bus boy when he was passing by, and from him, an entire pitcher of water.

In the meantime, I was busy furiously eating a ton of food, some of which I did actually take the time to identify. Among what I remember and have pictures of, was lo mai gai, a sticky rice steamed in lotus leaf with sausage and egg yolk inside.

Also the barbecue pork bun, or Cha Siu Bao, was excellent. So was the breaded and deep-fried shrimp ball skewered on a sugar cane.

And the variety of steam and pan-fried dumplings were at once overwhelming and delicious.

And steamed clams in a black bean sauce. This was another favorite.

The best single thing was the Peking duck: served with the delicious fluffy steamed buns and hoisin-based sauce. Actually the best thing was the duck skin itself: perfectly crispy and steaming hot. King's Land duck skin goes into my top favorite foods along with what they do with skin of a chicken at Table 6 and that of a pig at Osteria Marco. I proceed to eat more than my share of duck skin bun sandwiches. Incredible.

There are very few places in Denver that one can get a Peking duck without any pre-ordering or a long wait. This is probably the one thing that sets King's Land apart from the others from what I understand. And this, of course, is all thanks to their magic duck hanging display case, proudly featured at the take-out entrance. Here is what is commonly referred to as duck-skin heaven:

Our morning at King's Land didn't end without some more service-related hilarity. Of course, as is always the case in a place like this, our server was nowhere to be found when we were ready to pay. One of us was in a hurry so we flagged down a bus boy who politely came to take our check and money with a smile. He then proceeded to set it down on a counter by the kitchen doors, smile and walk away; content that he fulfilled our wish of having our check any money wait elsewhere for our server.

We did eventually get settled and this is the best part: all of our gluttony came to less than $20 per person including tip. Pleasantly surprised and unpleasantly full, I ambled my way out. The bright sun hurt my eyes a little and my belly ached with joy. I stretched out with a groan, said my goodbyes to Brian, promised to see him in the next decade or so, and didn't eat a thing for the rest of the day.

King's Land. 2200 W Alameda Ave. Denver
King's Land Chinese Seafood on Urbanspoon


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