Sunday, September 26, 2010

El Diablo Comes to Broadway

I went to El Diablo a few weeks back with my wife and another couple, one of whom is a Chicano studies professor. In Chicano folklore, he told us over a round of Tecates, El Diablo is often depicted as a well-dressed man that appears mysteriously in town during a fiesta and dances with an innocent and beautiful girl. When she then sees his one hooved foot, and his other like that of a chicken's, she faints into his arms.

A reader recently pointed out that the devil has visited Denver at least once, at Los Caporales night club years back, to woo women with his unparalleled dance moves, or display his unmatched prowess on the mechnical bull depending on who you talk to. The devil is different for all of us. And he comes in many forms. Not sure where that fits into the story of this Diablo on South Broadway, or what inspired the name. But there is one thing I know: Jesse Morreale has set his sites on another Denver neighborhood, put Sean Yontz in charge the kitchen and together they have put together another slick Mexican-themed restaurant with unmatched crowd-drawing appeal.

By now the good folks who over the years have brought us such eateries as Mezcal, Tambien (RIP) and Chama (RIP) have figured out a thing or two about niche marketing, location and bringing Mexican-like food for the masses. They have done an amazing job with their detailed decor choices over the years, and El Diablo is a step up-- both in seating capacity and amount of kitsch Mexicana. If it wasn't because I liked their food and style, I admit the decor at El Diablo would all seem a little bit forced, what with the tall altars a la Virgen side-by-side with Diego Rivera replica paintings next to dia de la muerte skulls, luchadores and other random Mexican (and Chicano) miscellany. That being said, this is one slick low-rider bathroom tile painting:

Orale.

We were there on the second Saturday of September, less than a month after El Diablo opened its doors. There was, we were told, an hour and a half wait. Luckily, my wife and I arrive everywhere we go at least a half an hour late, and that left our poor friends to wait it out themselves. When we rolled in we were already thinking of just getting slices from Famous when to our surprise, our friends were seated at a prime patio table. That's a good thing, I suppose, just not sure how an hour and a half turns into 20 minutes--but this is a new operation-- so a few miscommunications are to be expected.


To clarify, this place was slammed, and there was more than one flustered looking server that passed by us at race-walk speed. I think I read somewhere that they can seat 400, and three weeks in I didn't expect perfection from the service, the timing or the execution, but I know that these guys know what they're doing, so I figured it was worth a try. Plus, I heard they were planning a late-night taco take-out service, and that in itself makes this place worth patronizing. That being said, I am getting old, and just like I was happy to eat outside because it was so loud inside, I will be happy to be in bed by midnight  most weekends instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to eat fresh tacos at 4am. Nevertheless, this is likely the single greatest contribution El Diablo is making to those lucky energetic youngens that hang out into the wee hours on South Broadway.

pa' llevar

But back to the night at hand. Our server was very friendly and attentive. The kitchen and bar, however, seemed like they weren't quite as prepared, as the food took a real (emphasize real) long time to come out, and they were out of my first two beer selections (tap selections from local brewer Del Norte). Fair enough, I'm a patient guy and we were there to relax and enjoy ourselves with friends. As soon as I had my beer, we were happy to munch on fresh tortilla chips (for two dollars and fifty cents) and dip into some familiar salsas.


The chips and salsa are served with I think the same table salsas they serve at Tambien, of which my absolute favorite is the smoky red (chipotle or chile mora?). I like it so much (and am so entirely without shame) that after running out of chips (and waiting too long for more) I started to eat some with my fork.

The menu is full of new taco choices and everything is proudly made in house and sourced locally if possible. They run around $6-7 for a plate of three taqueria-sized tacos. They do also come con copia (with two corn tortillas) and a respectable amount of filling. Below are the lamb tacos, El Diablo's take on barbacoa, I suppose, but not really. They were still very good. A creative twist on a classic with a smoky salsa and queso panela (de la canasta, or the basket).


The steak and potato tacos were quite good as well. Moist chunks of steak, crisp yet soft potatoes, mildly spicy salsa.


My wife ordered the conchinita pibil tacos. They came with black beans, thinly sliced greenbeans and were sprinkled with cheese. They were excellent, the star of our taco sampling that night.


To everyone's surprise I ordered something that wasn't tacos. The duck mole (unlike many traditional moles) was just what you might envision when you think of a mole. It was brownish, bittersweet and rich. The duck was cooked well, but the whole thing needed salt. Just a few dashes, though, brought out the rest of the complex flavors in the mole and combined with some Mission figs and sweet plantain made for a very good dish. (Though check out this duck mole.)


The desserts were amazing and quite possibly the highlight of the night. Background to foreground in the picture below was a delicious capirotada (bread pudding), three flavors of flan (horchata, chocolate Abuelita, vanilla) and a sundae with vanilla bean ice cream, roasted piñones and a habanero-caramel sauce. Each one was better than the next--starting with the sundae and ending with the bread pudding topped with dulce de leche ice cream, which I could have laid down in and rolled around in if there only would have been enough of it.


The rest of the menu recycles some classic dishes form places like Tambien: a red chicken mole, shrimp cocktail, pozole. They also have newer items like a huitlacoche quesadilla and puerco pibil (read Denveater's post for a more thorough run through the menu).

The same astute reader, who enlightened me about the devil's visit to Denver, also engaged me in a stimulating dialogue about Mexican food in Denver. He brought up the point that El Diablo falls into that ironic category of Mexican Restaurants Without Mexicans (MRWM).  El Diablo, however, I pointed out, separates itself from other MRWMs by making good food, using authentic and non-mainstream dishes and executing them well.

South Broadway has been waiting for something like this for years: a restaurant that serves Mexican food worthy of discerning Mexican food lovers like myself, yet hip enough for the typical SoBo hipster and equipped with canned PBR for the old-school Broadway drunks. El Diablo has good food, there is no doubt about it, but it will always fall into that category of restaurants brining mostly Mexican food to mostly non-Mexican diners.


I'm not sure where that debate takes me. I don't think El Diablo is the devil, and I'd rather that Joe Average Hipster learns to like Mexican food from a place like this, and maybe stops calling Hacienda Colorado "Mexican Food" at all. But I do think it is a little sad that people will flock to places like El Diablo and give it rave reviews (although deservedly--it really is quite good), while many other places I've eaten and written about are better-- only more obscure... and more Mexican. Stayed tuned, as I have one of those places coming up. 

El Diablo on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Chicken Skin in a Jar

I have been slowing down with publishing posts this month for reasons mostly beyond my control but entirely of my choosing. Turns out that in life there are at times things that take priority over spending hours sitting in front of a computer writing about one's favorite taqueria in some forgotten corner of Denver. September has been on of those months for me, though I can now see some light at the end of the dark and long tunnel of my responsibilities.

Tonight I fortuitously received an email from a friend in Chicago who knows me and my weaknesses all too well (see this post on Denver's Table 6 for more details). I thought it would be fun to share the picture that was embedded in the email of some take-out place near my friend's house. It is one of those pictures that should make you at least smile this Friday-- either that or be insanely jealous that your favorite take-out doesn't offer fried chicken skins for the price of a gum-ball. 


If I were a more prolific writer, I'm sure I could find the analogy between these tasty-looking chicken skins, the jar they dwell in and my hectic life right now. I can't, but I wish they each represented a responsibility of mine, as then they would have been taken care of long ago, and all I would be left with is that familiar aching belly and smug sense of satisfaction. 

Happy Friday, and stay tuned for some words on Denver's new Diablo...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tacos al Pastor, At the Llama In Teullride?!

A couple of weekends ago I traveled to lovely Telluride, CO for the 37th annual Telluride Film Festival (TFF). I am, according to my four-day festival pass, a bit of a "cinephile", which is pretentious-talk for "I like films a lot". It also is code for "not rich or famous film fest-goers", as it is the cheapest pass that one can buy and still hope to see any respectable amount of films. (We saw ten for the record, and were in town for a total of 70 hours.) But I will spare you from my film tastes or the dirty details of the TFF and stick to what I know best: Tacos al Pastor.

Now if you are like I was a couple weeks ago, you would think the following: "What the hell does Telluride have to do with tacos al pastor?" Well it seems that once again my food fate has brought me full circle to be face-to-face with another spit of roasted meat, and like most things in my life, I never saw it coming.

There is a lesson to be learned here about destiny, I think, and it goes like this: It acts, and you just go about your life as impulsively and carelessly as possible. This night, our first of the film fest, unfolded more or less like that. My wife and I found ourselves in a situation that we would become our standard operating procedure for most of the rest of the fest: 30 minutes until film time and hungry. This night we happened upon the Llama.


We buzzed in without really knowing the name of the place and for the opposite reason one would normally pick a restaurant--it was empty. We glanced down at the menus, film passes dangling from our necks importantly and our whole aura was that of obsessed movie-goers in a hurry. Immediately I saw it on the menu and paused, awestruck by those three magic words with spine-tingling resonance: tacos al pastor. On a rotisserie, or if you prefer, a spit.


Despite the rush I did a double-take. If I had a beer in my hand and was being filmed, it would have been a first-cut worthy spit take. Even after reading the words I was in a state of disbelief, and flagged down the host to make him show me the spit itself. He kindly obliged by escorting me to the back of the restaurant; where just as advertised there was a spit of marinated pork.


It was absolutely the smallest and saddest spit of pastor I'd ever seen, and it almost made me laugh, but we know from previous posts that spit-size truly doesn't matter. Unfortunately there were also spits of chicken and beef, and while that in itself is not a crime, those meats don't belong next to the word "pastor" as they were on the Llama menu. That's like chicken gyros or even soy bacon-- just wrong. I'll forgive them that violation as being isolated in a box canyon all year distorts reality in ways you and I can only imagine. And to make up for their transgressions they had a pineapple on top of the spit of pork, something many taquerias in Denver don't even bother to include.

Something else Denver taquerias don't offer is a chef in his whites slicing up your pastor straight from the spit. That being said, he did slice a big hunk of meat from the spit and then proceeded to cut it in small square-like pieces as opposed to thin slices--but it was still satisfying to watch him operate (and no disrespect intended, but he could pick up a think or two from this guy).


The Llama obviously hasn't got the finer points of pastor down, nor do they probably much care. Allow me, dear reader, to take a moment to write from a top my high horse, as they say. Authentic pastor is comprised of small, individually marinated loins that are stacked and shaped on the spit. As the outside cooks, thin slices are cut off so that the meat is at once perfectly charred and wonderfully tender. In this case, a big chunk of meat was stuck on the spit and cooked through--this results in dry meat with less flavor.


The flavor of the taco as a whole was actually pretty good. I think it was the fresh pineapple that helped to give it some moisture and authenticity. The catch is that I paid $14 for three small tacos. I kept reminding myself that this was Telluride, and if these tacos cost $1.50 each I would have been worried that they were made from roadkill squirrel. I also got some plain rice and beans, so I should probably shut up and be happy about it. And how did the Llama do? Certainly they get an A for effort, and points for the pineapple and experience. Pricing aside (when you spend what I did to see 10 movies, $14 tacos are just a drop in the bucket that is my growing debt), it was an OK taco al pastor.

We made our movie and spent the rest of the long weekend watching some amazing films, soaking in the views of what may be my favorite mountain town and eating overpriced but mostly good food. If I have some time on my hands--something that has been rare this month--I will put fingers to keyboard and write about a couple more. Until then, stay tuned as I get back to eating in Denver.

Llama on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cooking up Korean at Grandma's Korean BBQ

Grandma's Korean BBQ is probably the closest I'll ever get to having a Korean grandmother that showers me with attention in the form of homemade spicy Kimchee and Pork Bul-gool-gi. But upon arriving at this East Montview eatery, even though Grandma is full of smiles and aims to please, I realized it was not to be. I went the first time with my loosely defined Asian Crew. Out of all of us present that night (representing five distinct nationalities), Grandma immediately honed in on the Korean among us, and basically offered to cook him anything he liked--even if it wasn't on the menu. I'm not one to be jealous, nor am I in anyway lacking, because I actually have a Filipina grandmother and a team of aunts who did the same for me when I was growing up, but still it would be nice. (OK, maybe I am a little jealous because my friend Carlos has a pair of adopted grandparents over at Lao Wang's as well and I'm starting to feel a little left out.)

Grandma is the former owner of Seoul Food on 6th Ave and Washington. When she sold it seven years ago, she tried retiring from the restaurant world, but after a few years of travelling, she decided to get back into it by re-locating herself to a storefront on East Montview near Nome in Aurora. Of course the location certainly has caused her business to suffer, but she seems happy and free in her new space, and continues to take meticulous care for her ingredients and her cooking, making everything from scratch just like, well, Grandma would do it.

It is also a place for her to proudly display her collectibles, which among other more kitschy and grandmotherly items include an extensive collection of "Vintage Stock Certificates".


The certificates are also scanned and organized on her website, www.Kimchee.com, along with instructions on how to make a Korean fighter kite. The website is run by the friendly Grandpa, who spends his free time (which he admits to have more of now that they have moved shop to Aurora) teaching himself code and staying up-to-date on all the latest web technology. And though humble, he also knows what a cool domain name he swiped when he got Kimchee.com.

But back to the restaurant. It's not exactly Korean BBQ like you might think of it--despite the large lettering on the awning out front--as there are no grills on the table, and everything comes out cooked. The website refers to Grandma and her Korean Grill, which seems a more apt description.


One night we started with the pan-fried vegetable-and-beef dumplings that were good but a little underwhelming. It whetted the appetite, but it's not something I would consider travelling to Aurora to eat.


The mediocrity ended there, however, when out came the seafood pancake, or pajeon, made with calamari, shrimp, crab meat and vegetables. Held together by a fluffy, eggy batter, it was delicious.


Then came the out-pouring of Banchan, or the infamous and plentiful traditional Korean side-dishes. Among it was one of the better kimchees I've had in Denver, even getting the nod from our Korean friend, as "Korean spicy". In fact almost all of it was spicy -- runny-nose-sweat-on-the-nape-of-the-neck spicy -- and excellent. I learned on a later visit that Grandma goes to Pueblo to pick her own chiles, which she dries herself, grind into powder and uses for her potent dishes.


Both the pork and beef bool-go-gi were excellent, though the pork gets the nod as the better of the two. Served with grilled zucchini on a sizzling platter, the meat was succulent, well-flavored and tender--as it should be, as one night we left to the loud banging sounds of Grandpa tenderizing a fresh batch.


Another favorite of mine was the simple miso soup. My wife and I had it twice as a side dish and both times thought that it stole the show with its subtle, yet rich and complex, flavor. Grandma starts all her broths and soups from a homemade stock that she makes with seaweed, anchovies and onion. The miso is finished with the standard tofu, green onions and bits of seaweed, and is one of the better miso soups I've had in a long time.


The kimchee fried rice was also excellent, mostly because the kimchee is so good here. Add it to fried rice and vegetables and it becomes even better--though it was a little oily.


One of the best main plates I had with the Asian crew was a grilled fish. I think we ended up with tilapia, though my memory is hazy on this point. Whatever the case it was a simple spice-rubbed fish served over a bed of fried rice that immediately transported everyone at the table back to Asia--the way that aromas, flavors and lovingly cooked meals can bring to life otherwise forgotten nostalgic moments of the past. "This tastes like Asia," one of us blurted out when she took a bite.


Another night, when my wife and I were the sole diners, I did get my moment of Grandmotherly attention, even if it was brief. Grandma came out to check on us (as she does for all her customers), and when she saw that my bowl of ramen was a little low on broth, she brought me some extra broth because she was worried that I would run out. She motioned with her hands for me to eat more, and was smiling from ear-to-ear. I smiled back, basking in my fleeting moment of grandmotherly doting. The ramen was good as well, and although advertised as vegetable ramen, it came out loaded with mussels and shrimp which was a bonus. 


Throwing in a handful of seafood on a $6 ramen is a screaming deal, and Grandma's Korean BBQ is full of value from top-to-bottom. The night we went as large party we were astonished when the check came out to a measly $68 for eight people. It may have been the first time in the history of the group check that every single person overpaid. We left it all anyway as a generous tip, not only for the friendly, efficient service, but because we want this place to be around in a few months when we all decide to come back together. Grandma's is worth the trip out to Aurora any time for the prices alone. Throw on top of the doting service and made-from-scratch Korean meals from Grandma herself and it becomes a regular on my East Aurora circuit.

Grandma's Korean BBQ on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 6, 2010

Home Sweet Home at Chicago's Maxwell Street

Since moving away from Chicago almost ten years ago, I still get all big-city nostalgic for a few things, one of which is the Maxwell Street Sunday Market. Maxwell Street is a street in the southwest edges of downtown Chicago famous not only for its long-standing outdoor market, but also for being credited as the birthplace of Chicago Blues. The area has also played host to just about every immigrant population the city has seen, and still is home to the Hull House, a “settlement house” co-founded by  Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889 to help newly landed immigrants not only adjust, but flourish in their new home. Although the Jane Addams Hull House Association still serves the Chicago community, the original Hull House—now a museum—has been taken over by the ever-expanding University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).

It should come as no surprise that UIC has also displaced the market itself (twice) from its long-standing original location to another nearby though not-nearly-as-great location at Des Plaines and Roosevelt. It should also come as no surprise that the Maxwell St Market vendors continue to be made up of a lot of recent immigrants, in this case mostly Mexicans.    


The Maxwell Street Market in Chicago has long been the standard to which outdoor markets in this country have been held to. It has been around since at least the 1871 Chicago Fire, and has hosted all varieties of cultures, but in recent memory it has been like walking into a large Mexican outdoor market, complete with everything you may need to everything you never knew you needed until you saw it used and at a discount: socks, wrenches, toys, CDs, car parts, bikes, home appliances and just about everything else, including of course, tacos. And if you’re really lucky or on the in, maybe someone will even slip you a can of Tecate.

10 yr old cell phone, flask, antlers, iron, matching large calculators, portable CD player. All in one trip! 

This trip I went with another friend of mine who embodies the cultural mix that makes our country so great: a red-haired and bearded pale-faced man of Irish descent who, based on a combination of his unique upbringing and lifestyle choices, oozes Mexican from all his pores. We pulled into a parking lot near the market and before he could say anything the attendant started talking to him in Spanish. I figured he knew the guy. Nope. "That happens to me all the time," he said, shrugging his shoulders. The funny thing is that it really does.

Pretty much as soon as we got out of the car the rain started, though it was refreshing since the previous days were hot and humid by my dry-air Denver standards. Our mission was two-fold: find a guy that my friend owed eight dollars to (for a bike he bought his son recently), and eat as many tacos as we could.

Our first stop was Lencho’s. Lencho’s is at the northern end of the market and on this rainy day sat almost alone under the shadow of the Sears Tower (I know it’s the Willis tower now, just doesn’t sound right). Lencho serves a mean taco de carne asada. Under a plastic canopy tent with the cool morning rain starting to pick up, it was a nice warm and spicy start to the day. Even better, however, was the lengua: moist and rich with flavor like any good tongue should be, I quickly devoured it after my steak one.


Then we started wandering the market, stopping pretty often to greet one of my friend’s market-stall amigos. With the rain and cool wind, the overall atmosphere that day was relatively quiet and reserved. There was still loud music bumping everywhere, but no Corona’s were being passed under the tables and the crowd was a little thin. Nevertheless we were able to track down the guy he owed money to, and from there went on to eat some more tacos.



But first we stopped at a Churro truck and got some vanilla and strawberry-filled fried delights before attacking the row of pastor stalls. There were several taco stalls with glowing-red spits of stacked pork loins, and we stopped at Manolo’s first. I ordered two tacos al pastor along with a quesadilla with flor de calabaza. It deviates from the original mission, but it isn’t that often that I come across zucchini flower-filled quesadilla in the US, so I had to try it. It was a lovely version in a sweet tomato sauce, thick with oozing cheese and wrapped in a hearty homemade corn tortilla.


Manolo’s turned out to be a major hurdle in the taco hunt, as each taco came out two or three times the size of what I expected. On the homemade thick corn tortillas it was almost like a taco arabe (pastor tacos in places like Puebla) but with a thicker tortilla made of corn. Whatever it was, it was delicious. The pastor marinade was flavorful though a little too salty and the pieces of pork were nicely charred as well.


Here is Manolo's spit, almost lost among the fan, Beatles poster and other necessary miscellany of what is essentially a portable taco stand.


I had to make one more stop even though I was more than full from Manolo’s, Lencho’s, the churro truck and the previous several days of gluttony that always mark my Chicago visits. I was glad I did stop at La Flor de Mexico, because it was the best taco of the day. Thinly sliced and beautifully charred, dotted with pineapple (albeit canned) and also in a homemade tortilla—though of a more reasonable size. 


And here is their spit. Well-used that day and a little sad looking. But, if we've learned anything together on this blog, it is that a well-manicured spit doesn't always yield the best taco al pastor


It was a great day at Maxwell St. thanks to Lencho, Manolo and La Flor. It's good to see that Maxwell St. continues to survive and adapt with all the changes over years, and let's all hope that it will be there for years to come.

You can visit La Flor anytime in Pilsen. Lencho's and Manolo's are Maxwell St exclusives. 
La Flor de Mexico Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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