Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Midsummer Classic: On the Porch with Basil Doc's

This past July 13th I worried the neighbors a little by kicking it redneck-style. What I mean to say is I pulled out a dusty tube TV onto the porch, set up some old-school lawn chairs, plopped down a six-pack of beer and tuned into Fox-- to watch baseball's All-Star Game (though I did keep my shirt on and the beer was in glass bottles). It is a tradition that my friend José and I started when I was renting a house in Wash Park, where the sight of two brown men carrying a TV out of a house was alarming enough by itself.

Part of this tradition involves Basil Doc's pizza, I guess because at the time I lived just down the street from the Virginia location and it was the easiest option. This year we decided to do the same, and picked up a pie from the Holly and Third location.

I hadn't had Basil Doc's maybe since I lived in Wash Park, which is now going on seven years ago. I was glad to see that the menu was pretty much the same as I remember-- and so was the pizza. Like the last pizza I wrote about, Basil Doc's is not the best pizza I've eaten, but it is a nice medium-crust pie with relatively fresh, creative toppings.

We got the Tuscan: artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese. The crust is doughy and moist yet crispy on the edges and bottom; with lots of browned bubbles of crust-- a favorite of mine. The toppings are laid on generously but the pizza is by no means greasy.

This year was especially great for Colorado baseball fans, as our own right-handed hurler Ubaldo Jimenez started and pitched two scoreless innings in his first All-Star game. 

The year our tradition started, believe it or not, we had three Rockies playing, including Todd Helton starting at first base, batting sixth and hitting a two-run shot in the top of the fifth to give the National League a 2-1 lead. Given the superstitious nature of baseball, and the otherwise minor role the Rockies have had in the All-Star Game it is likely that the Basil Doc's porch tradition will have to continue in order for the Rockies to have any degree of success in the Midsummer Classic. (As of today the Rox are on a one-game winning streak!)

Basil Doc's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Ate Everything at Taste of the Nation Denver 2010

Thirty-two restaurants participated in this year's Taste of the Nation event benefiting Operation Front Line Colorado and I tried them all--some more than once. It wasn't necessarily my intention, but with the bite-sized plates being served it didn't seem like it would be that bad. In the end, however, I was a groaning, sleepy mess leaning on the bar sipping on a cocktail with a chocolate-coated raw slice of jalapeño from Avenue Grill's enthusiastic mixologist.

Along with all this food were many Colorado breweries, distilleries, wineries and hundreds of guests. I was happy to see that Operation Front Line was able to pack them in at the beautiful though obscurely located Mile High Station. And while the crowded food-filled aisles did force me to pace myself as I made my way to each restaurant booth, I did as I mentioned, try them all. Here, in no particular order, are my top seven dishes of the night.

This horrible photo showcases a great peach gazpacho with a crab meat salad from Vesta Dipping Grill. It was one of the first dishes I tried, and among the several other gazpachos featured that night, this was the most unique, creative and refreshing. 

This ceviche/ tartar of tuna and sesame seeds from The Corner Office was delicious. Did you know the Corner Office has a Peruvian chef? 

This may have been my favorite dish of the night, but then again, I'm a sucker for moist, fatty duck. This bit of perfectly braised duck was served on a mini-pancake and topped with a cherry. Well done Avenue Grill

Lola did this Mexican-inspired dish up right: homemade gordita with tender pork carnitas, goat cheese, cilantro and a bit of cherry tomato. It was an appropriate and deliciously creative mini-version of a Mexican classic. 

Argyll came through with this shrimp mac-and-cheese served with homemade potato chips. This was my wife's favorite, and one of the largest servings to be found that night. 

I somehow lost a few photos and notes that evening. Imagine that, after 32 plates of food and countless beers and cocktails, I managed to screw things up. It likely isn't a coincidence that my missing photos are from the upstairs places, that I visited when I was already more than halfway through my Long Day's Evening's Journey Into the Night, or as Eugene O'Neill himself often was, three sheets to the wind. 

The two missing dishes that I want to mention were from Table 6 and Jonesy's EatBar, both of whom I have written about in this blog, which makes me feel less bad. Although noticeably without Chef Scott Parker, the Table 6 team was serving up thin slices of rabbit bologna. Let me write that again, so you can say it out loud without having to re-read: Rabbit Bologna. "Rabbit" is another of my favorite eating animals and "Bologna" is a classic piece of nostalgia from lunchtimes past. Together they create a new powerful yet endearing super-food that with a dab of fruit preserve cannot be beat. It was delicious. I wish I could at least show you just how much.

Jonesy's made a bread pudding with cherries served with an ice cream that I think they told me had chipotle. It was a white and silky ice cream that did indeed have a pleasant kick of spice at the end. It was perfect over the rich bread pudding that sopped up the melting ice cream flavor in a quite exquisite manner if I do say so myself.

It was an incredibly fun evening and it was all for a great cause. If you don't remember, Operation Front Line is a program with a mission to end hunger in Colorado by educating families about cooking with and shopping for nutritious foods on a limited budget. If you want to learn more, visit them here and see how you can help by generously donating your money or volunteering your time. See you next year!

These are just some of the 32 restaurants (here are the rest) that came out to support the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. See their full profile and location on Urbanspoon and thank them with your business.

Vesta Dipping Grill
Vesta Dipping Grill on Urbanspoon
Avenue Grill
Avenue Grill on Urbanspoon
The Corner Office
The Corner Office Restaurant and Martini Bar on Urbanspoon
Lola on Urbanspoon
Argyll on Urbanspoon
Table 6
Table 6 on Urbanspoon
Jonesy's EatBar
Jonesy's EatBar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I Want to Go to School on the Denver Biscuit Bus

I've never craved biscuits much. I do like them, just never have I had an insatiable pining for them. Not enough, anyway, to think I would care one way or another if they were portable or not, available on the street, piping hot, flaky, buttery, smothered in jam or gravy. I've been at restaurants plenty of times, saw a biscuit dish on the menu and ordered it, but never did I have any preconceived plans about doing so. I've never woken up with the burning desire to go eat a biscuit and been disappointed that there wasn't one on the corner down the street from my house. No, I've never yearned for biscuits much, until now.

The Denver Biscuit Company-- housed in a bar on East Colfax that I am far too un-hip and old to go in -- filled a need I never realized was there by taking their show on the road as part of the Denver Food Truck Boom of 2010. To get technical, they call their truck a bus. The bus currently parks at the Cherry Creek markets on Wednesday and Friday, and the Stapleton farmer's market on Sunday.

The biscuits are delicious and I would argue, a relatively good value-- the latter which seems to be a hot topic these days amongst those that care to argue about such things. Let us, however, return to the biscuits themselves, which are in fact, a little bit addicting: flaky, warm (though somehow still satisfying on a 90-degree summer day), buttery. So addicting, in fact, that I don't mind the 15-20 minute wait that I have had every time I've eaten there. Nor do I mind the attitude I once witnessed: "They're FRESH BAKED! It takes TIME," snapped the cash-register-guy once at a customer wondering where his street-food biscuit was. To be fair, everyone is allowed a little temper every once in a while, and it must suck being stuck for hours on end in a metal box with the blazing hot Colorado sun in your face and 400-degree ovens on your back; though maybe it is the elevated position of the truck counter itself that gives one an elevated sense-of-self. Seriously though, they are generally quite nice and all smiles on The Biscuit Bus. Oh, and those biscuits are absolutely wonderful.

To know a biscuit, it is important to try it not-all-smothered-in-gravy or mixed up with whatever creative pleasure suit your fancy, but rather in its naked state-- and with a little jelly. Here is the Denver Biscuit Company's mobile biscuit with its very good raspberry jam.

And with apple butter. Also homemade. $2 for the biscuit, $0.75 for the jam.

Next, we add another layer of complexity: bacon. This, it may come as no surprise, is my favorite biscuit that I have tried from the Bus. A plethora of peppery, thick-sliced bacon smothered in grape jelly and sandwiched between two flaky, hearty and buttery biscuit halves. And for $5.50? There is $5 worth of bacon on it.

The biscuit and gravy is the obvious next choice. The white sausage gravy (vegetarian also available, but why bother?) is a wee-bit spicy, rich and heavy. Again, somehow I didn't mind eating it under the searing summer sun on the shade-less pavement of the Cherry Creek farmer's market-- probably because it was so good. At $6 it is a value I think, but if you're a cheapskate (I can totally respect that) you can also get a plain $2 biscuit and a "side" of gravy for $2, which still is a worthy breakfast for most people. The full meal puts the hurt on a little if you eat it in less than 90 seconds as I did, but it is a very, very good biscuit and gravy.

Although I too have cringed at the prices of some of these new food trucks, I think on the Biscuit Bus they are not unfair. And while price is one thing, I would argue that street-food does imply a certain amount of speed to be categorized as such, so let's hope the Biscuit Bus can figure out the timing, or get another oven in there. Until then go get your iced coffee or try and find some actual farm-fresh produce at the "farmer's" market you are attending, because you will wait-- but it will be worth your while.

Denver Biscuit Company on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pizza in Salida at Amicas

I'm picky about pizza, but then again when I'm craving a slice almost anything will do. I love deep dish Chicago-style of course, and even that thin greasy stuff they fold in half in places like New York. The best pizza I've had was at a place called Dar Poeta somewhere in the twisted maze of cobblestones of Trastevere, Rome. Denver has some great pies and although I haven't written about any yet, I like just about all of it: from Famous Pizza on Broadway to East Colfax's Enzo's to Basil Doc's and even that fancy stuff at Marco's.

My last pizza experience came during our recent trip to Salida. If you've ever been there on a weekend night in the summer, you will know that Amicas is the place to be. I lived in Salida for a summer and never actually went, partly because of its popularity-- the wait is upwards of an hour on weekend nights-- but mostly because I was broke and not making any money. When talk of Amicas would come up, the locals start drooling and make sweeping statements of a generalized nature (I can respect that) like, "It's the best pizza I've ever had."

That always made me skeptical, "In Salida," I would add when they said this, hoping to clarify their enthusiasm with a minor qualification.

"No," they would swear, "Ever."

When I returned to Salida a few weeks ago and happened by Amicas, my wife and I were famished, and handmade, wood-fired pizza sounded perfect. It was almost 8pm and the wait was an hour and a half. Yikes. Luckily they had pagers that worked all over town, so we set out to see some galleries and wander the lovely Salida streets in the meantime.

We came back an hour later and ordered some beers. Our hostess found us and said something to the effect of us needing to figure out what we wanted because our table was almost ready. "Sure," I thought to myself, thinking she thought we were sick of waiting and wanted to order as soon as possible. But we were in no hurry, so I settled into my barstool to enjoy a fine brown ale (brewed in-house) and gaze out the window at the summer twilight hues. Her hurried (though very friendly) demeanor seemed a little contrasted with the mellow Dead bootleg playing over the speakers. "Whatever," I thought.

Then the confusion, bizzaro-world antics of Amicas started. Amicas is one of those sit-down, table service restaurants where you order first and then pay before you eat. My wife, of course, had taken the words literally and had picked out her order from the big menu on the wall behind my big head. She placed her order at the register and looked to me. I was the clueless new-guy who fouled up the whole process, taking several awkward minutes of hemming and hawing to decide, monkey-wrenching the otherwise efficient flow of this insanely busy night. But to everyone's credit, no one seemed to care in the least.

Then, meal pre-paid and receipt in hand, we were seated in front of an incredible elfin mural that I won't even try to describe:

Then we ate a delicious Caesar Salad with lovely anchovies. I like when restaurants dare to put anchovies on plates. We should all eat more of these fun little fish.

And a fabulous bowl of homemade carrot-ginger soup with baby spinach. This was easily the highlight of the night. The soup was vibrantly fresh and perfectly seasoned; the strong ginger flavor was nicely balanced by the sweet carrot, and it was slightly creamy but still light. Delicious.

Then the pizza. In the end we ordered a large pizza with plenty of cured meats and sausage. It was thin, crispy, the cheese was browned and the crust had a delicious char. I ate most of it and was a little ill in the end, but liked every bite of it. Was it the best pizza ever? Of course it wasn't, but it was very good and in Salida I would wait an hour for it again and again.

The best part of the night was the bomber of Green Chile Ale that I put down with my pizza. Not only did it go incredibly well with the pie, but it really somehow tasted like fresh-roasted green chiles. And while that might not sound great (I was skeptical but far too curious to not try it), it was actually perfectly done. The crisp, refreshing ale slowly transitioned to the smoky green chile and then finished with a mild tinge of spice. It was at once two distinct tastes and experiences but somehow blended together perfectly. And as a bonus they even bothered to spell "Chile" correctly (not Chili).

The bottom line: Amicas of Salida, CO is a good place to get a good pizza and good beer.

Amicas on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

4th of July Pig Roast in Chicago: Why I Love America

I used to visit my native land on such cold, bitter and unpleasantly cloudy holidays as Turkey Day and Christmas. It was nice to eat Filipino food, see the family and friends-- but that's about it. And I would inevitably be stuck in the airport with the other millions of knuckleheads doing the same thing because--allow me to emphasize-- the weather is notoriously lousy in the Windy City that time of year.

Then a couple of years ago my friend Michael decided (or couldn't refuse) to host an Independence Day pig roast (AKA the Patriotic Independence Gathering) at his home and invite all the homies. Unlike its miserable and suffocating winter days, Chicago in the summer is a haven of sun, festivals, patio dining and general outdoor fun-time. The fine citizens of my birthplace, who have been hibernating all winter in front of TVs with beer and sausage (or deep dish pizza or -- insert favorite Chicago food here) take to the streets, parks and restaurant patios to--- well, drink beer and eat sausage. The point is that everyone is outside all the time-- and they truly do drink a lot of beer and eat a lot of sausage in Chicago.

And the other point is, I now make at least one of my annual visits to the Chi on the 4th of July. U-S-A!

A normal 4th of July tradition is to go to the Taste of Chicago on July 3rd, stuff my face with mediocre food at unusually high prices and then sit on a blanket to watch fireworks blasted off over the lake to the "da-dum-dum" of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Recession-fueled budget cuts have, however, eliminated the fireworks part, so now it is simply a million people crammed into Grant Park to sample the usual suspects of the over-hyped Taste of Chicago.

Nevertheless, a combination of vague nostalgia and poor long-term memory brought me back. This year was no different: it was hot and humid, there were far too many people and the food ranged from horrible to good. On the horrible spectrum was a Puerto Rican pork-filled banana empanada and on the good end were the famous Harry Carry potato chips. And roasted corn. "Really," I asked myself, "I came here for corn and potato chips?"

This picture sums up the good of the Taste of Chicago

But of course I didn't. I came to Chicago for the Patriotic Independence Gathering. Really, of course, the P.I.G. Roast is just a bunch of cats (that's "dudes" in Chicago-ese) sitting in my friend Michael's backyard watching a pig turn on a spit for nine hours under the hot sun while drinking beer. In other words, it is blissfully fun and a truly beautiful experience.

Here is the lucky pig that made the party. All 250 pounds of him. Lovely.

Once during the day my wife and I were left alone to tend the pig, which involved spraying it with a salty beer solution every once in a while. I also burdened myself with the ever-important duty of making sure none of the hanging pieces of skin dropped into the fire and were thus wasted. It was toiling and heroic work, but it had its obvious upsides: look at this perfectly crisp skin.

After it was all cooked there was order and structure as several more responsible-types spent at least an hour or two butchering and slicing meat. On the other hand, a few of us hovered around the head, tearing out chunks of cheek with our hands and generally going-to-town in a most ravenous manner. It was heavenly.

Ever since partaking in this tradition, my patriotism has easily doubled. I love America now more than ever and hope to go back to Chicago in 2011 for my third annual Patriotic Independence Gathering.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Brunch at Denver's Parallel 17

I went to Parallel 17 for the first time a few weeks ago for brunch armed with my wife's DINR cards. When I later sat down to write about it I became interested in knowing more about the head chef, Mary Nguyen. While perusing the standard online resources (that is, I Googled her name) I found myself re-reading her two-part interview in the Westword from November 2009.

As I read the interview for the second time, I remember thinking the same thing that I thought the first time I read it but had since forgotten (such is the novelty of poor memory): she seemed as down-to-earth and unpretentious as many of Denver's finest chefs. I agreed with a lot of her answers, like when asked about current Denver culinary genius, she gave a shout to the poorly represented, "...hole-in-the-wall places that serve amazing ethnic food." Exactly. She even went further to say that her favorite restaurant is Shish Kabob Grill on Colfax and Grant, citing her admiration for the hard-working family running the place.  "[I]mmigrant dreams and hard work," she says, "It's what this country is built on." Couldn't agree more.

Then I re-read the part about her toothpaste tube full of duck-liver mousse that her European husband has smuggled in on a regular basis. It's not the illicit transport of perishable non-FDA approved food items that excited me--though I do admire it--but the fact that I have long dreamed of portable pȃté in toothpaste form. In fact, I wrote about it after a trip last year to Toronto, where I had a divine chicken liver and foie gras mousse at Cava that I thought should immediately be available in toothpaste form (and if it was I would be equally as well-stocked as Chef Nguyen). The fact that Chef Nguyen and her family keep a supply of toothpaste tube pȃté handy-- in fact they can't live without it -- can only lead to the conclusion that they have discriminating taste and are upstanding citizens of high moral fiber. Or, at least, they really like pȃté.

My wife and I also really like pȃté. And we also really like Vietnamese food. For this latter reason I was very excited to try Parallel 17.

I went with a large group of people that we can loosely refer to as the Asian crew. We were able to order a lot of items from the brunch menu, and among them was a plain plate of scrambled eggs, potatoes and fruit--or what is known as a "choke order" in a restaurant like this (I think he was hungover to be fair). But besides the uninspiring egg plate we were otherwise surprised, pleased, happy, satiated, enamored.

Banh Mi sliders started us off and we were pleasantly surprised with this creative take on the classic Vietnamese sandwich. Fresh baked soft, mushy buns hid a lovely basil pesto along with other, more traditional Banh Mi veggies. We had the pork and the beef, both excellent, but both sadly lacking a spread of pate.

I then ordered the Pho. Nervously, I admit, because I know many places to get good Pho in Denver, and with all the other interesting options on the menu, I was hoping not to make another "choke order". Of course it wasn't, and if I had remembered anything from that aforementioned Westword article about her proud Vietnamese heritage, I wouldn't have been surprised at how good it was. It was a wonderfully rich broth with tender beef that oozed comfort and home-cooked love. And as a bonus alongside the traditional Hoisin and Sarrachi sauces was, according to our server, a homemade "onion marmalade" made by Chef Ngyuen's mom.

I also tasted some of these perfectly poached eggs. On the left they are served over halves of buttermilk biscuits and topped with a chorizo gravy. On the right they are resting on top of salmon cakes and covered in a Thai basil hollandaise sauce. The chorizo gravy was hearty and the hollandaise sauce was bright and creamy. And both were as good as they sound. The home fries also had a nice deep-fried crisp to them. The only critique was the heavy hand with the salt on these two plates.

I didn't get a taste of these "tuna tacos" served over an avocado mousse, but look at the picture. There is no way that could be bad.

And then there was the Blueberry Stuffed French Toast. This dish was the group favorite, and with reason; it was a slice of blissful food erotica. The blueberry-stuffed thick-sliced bread was coated in walnuts and then-- here is the best part-- it was deep-fried. Or at least it tasted that way. It was crispy on the outside and sensually soft on the inside. It was topped with a tasty blueberry sauce, fresh whipped cream, a fried mint leaf and a five spice crème anglaise. By the end of the meal I think everyone ordered his or her own side of the stuff, as sharing this was really not an option... For a mere $4, it is a great brunch deal.

Chef Nguyen, in that same Westword interview said that her proudest moments as a chef are hearing from guests that they've had a great dining experience. Well, Chef, we had exactly that. It was a diverse and delicious brunch, and for what it's worth, the Asian crew approved (though for Pho, to be clear, would stick with South Federal's finest). Unfortunately, in the post-meal stupor that I often put myself in, I actually forgot to break out the DINR deck, so we didn't get our $10 discount. Fortunately, P-17 showed so much promise with its excellent brunch that is a great excuse to go back for dinner. Stay tuned.

Parallel Seventeen on Urbanspoon


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