Sunday, November 28, 2010

Out With the New, In With the Old: La Cascada Taco Truck

In the world of breaking taco news, shops and trucks pop-up out of nowhere and then disappear just as quickly. This is one reason that I have made a point to not get caught up in keeping current with any food trends, openings or general hoopla associated with the food world (the other reasons are that no one tells me and I don't get out enough). My news for this post is that a new taco truck that I reported on this summer has since moved, closed or was possibly bought out by a taco-truck corporate giant.

While "taco-truck" and "corporate giant" might be a paradox (though as this food truck boom continues to explode don't be surprised to see a Wack Arnolds truck rolling up to your office building sooner than later), there is one player in the Denver taco truck scene that is omnipresent. As far as I can tell La Cascada started out as a single sparsely decorated truck (and apparently a bad one at that), and somehow has managed to explode into a slickly painted mega-fleet. Over the years I've counted at least four around the city--mostly on the East side-- and it looks like I can add one more to the list.


Yes, the feeble yet decent La Chapina on the corner of 17th and Peoria has been replaced. The scenario I imagine involves some SUV-driving thugs hired by Cascada making La Chapina one of those offers they couldn't refuse. It is, after all, located on a prime piece of late-night taco real estate on the lot of the windowless bar (those are the sketchiest kind) Shepes's (sic) Rincon. And true to the deep pockets that I imagine La Cascada has, they even included lighting under the panels so the nocturnal eaters spilling out of the Rincon can easily put fingers to taco and taco to mouth.


This is all speculation of course. To be fair, even though they all operate under one waterfall logo, I believe the Cascada trucks are individually owned. For all I know La Chapina didn't make it for other reasons and La Cascada just hovered around like a vulture and set up shop after all the remains were swept away. There were signs that La Chapina was operating on a tight budget. Take for example the use of duct tape on the menu, something the efficient La Cascada machine would not allow.


La Casacada is no longer toxic as suggested by this 2005 review (by the true authority on Denver's taco trucks). I ordered an asada and a carnitas. They were generously filled with flavorful meat, topped with a pico de gallo (that is what "con todo" gets you) and served con copia (two tortillas--corn of course). My friend also had some barbacoa. They were good meaty and greasy tacos of generous proportions that would become irresistible when stumbling drunk out of a bar.


The red salsa was a little sweet, I would guess it was made with canned tomatoes. The green tomatillo and the avocado-based green were better, though neither had too much bite. All the salsas were encased behind plexi-glass doors with the rest of the fixin's-- this place is really quite fancy.


If you go outside at all and have ever seen a taco truck in this town then it is likely you have seen a truck from La Cascada. It is good, but a taco truck to me speaks to individuality and a unique experience-- not uniformity-- so there is something about an apparent monopoly of food trucks that is ironic and unappealing. That being said, there was nothing wrong with La Cascada's tacos. In fact they were hearty, greasy and flavorful; and with the amount of tacos I eat in this town it is inevitable that I will be there at some point again. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tortas en el Norte: Teleras of Thornton

Friday afternoon is no time to be going to the dentist, but I had been putting off my oral hygiene for far too long. The reality is that while my pearly whites are probably better described as "off-pearly-white", my teeth-- through no fault of my own--are generally healthy. In fact on this fine afternoon I was scheduled to have only my third filling ever, something that I am rather proud of considering my relatively advanced age-- but something that also leaves me very ill-prepared for my infrequent dental visits.

After what seemed like hours squirming in the dental chair, mouth packed with gauze, traumatized by the high-pitched whirring of the drill and listening to my dentist wax on to his assistant about, among other things, his intense loathing of pine nuts (who hates pine nuts this much and why is he jamming a drill down my throat?), he very causally informed me that I would not be able to eat for at least two hours.

Two hours? It was 5:30 pm when I was unshackled from the chair. I had essentially skipped lunch, planning the whole day to gorge my gluttonous appetite at a new torta spot in our fair and kind-of-far-away neighbor up north, Thornton.

One hour and fifty-five arduous minutes later my wife and I were pulling into the parking lot of Teleras Deli Mexicana on 88th and Washington in the Southwest corner of the Rancho Liborio supermercado lot. We had been here a few weeks earlier just after Teleras opened its doors and I was impressed with my torta D.F.: strips of fried steak, chopped carnitas and a fat slice of ham. It was a solid, well-built torta with a ton of flavor.


Teleras Deli Mexicana is around thanks to the passion and hard work of its owner and proprietor JuanCarlos and his family. A native of Mexico, JuanCarlos has always dreamed of opening a place that could serve his take on this Mexican classic, and he has poured countless hours into the place building everything from the functional sneeze guard to the artful wall-hangings.


I was hungry enough when we arrived that I might have dared order what is Teleras' largest creation: La Mamalona. A step up from the Cubana, the Mamalona simply has "TODO", or that is, everything.  You may think I'm exaggerating again, but there it is on the bottom of the chalkboard menu (of which my picture did not come out so well). For double the price of a standard torta, you can enjoy every single food item in this restaurant stuffed and stacked between two slices of buttered and grilled bread. Not a bad deal really. That is, until you eat it and try to walk out the door. This is the kind of sandwich left for TV personalities, hell-bent on making us gawk at their gluttony. When they keel over from a massive coronary infarction, there's plenty more lining up behind them to take their place. Me? I've got a loving wife at home and already endanger my lipid-levels and arterial passageways enough with my food-adventures without daring to eat this thing. Still, I would tune in if it ever makes it on one of those shows.

What I did have in mind for this visit was la Torta Poblana, which features chunks of chicken bathed in a house-made mole. It was absolutely delicious.


It turns out that another side effect of minor dental surgery is a numb mouth. Never mind that it made me sound like a creepy drunk-- that is, as they say, par for the course (which I believe is golf-speak for you must be drunk to enjoy golf). What I did mind was that it makes consuming a sloppy torta de mole even sloppier. That was a minor setback, however. I took big, deliberate bites, sloshing them over to my left cheek to avoid repeatedly biting my right one. It did make me slow down a bit, and in doing so I savored each bite of this wonderful, layered mole.

The toasty pan telera sopped up the mole perfectly, and the fresh tomato, onion and avocado were a bright splash of cool contrast to the dark and rich sauce. The simple queso fresco added some of that "torta" feel without stealing the show like gobs of melted cheese would have. This is in many ways a perfect sandwich. This is not the dental drugs talking: I loved this sandwich.


There are of course other things at Teleras. My wife has ordered elote a couple times. The first time she tried it "en vaso", which means it comes in a cup with the traditional generous portions of mayo, butter, grated queso and powdered chile (piquin). The first batch tasted canned (which has since changed), so my wife tried the elote on the cob the second time around. This has the same basic ingredients only they are lathered on a roasted ear of corn. This indoor version of a traditional Mexican street food was good, but something was still not quite there for us-- I think the corn itself could have been better.


The other tortas we tried were very good as well. The ingredients are fresh and laid on thick. The aguas frescas are good as well. The strawberry was especially refreshing post-dental appointment, and $3 for a huge Styrofoam cup full of freshly blended berries is a screaming deal. Teleras is good, there is no doubt about it.

Thornton, your torteros have arrived, I hope you go take advantage. Denver, I know that leaving our familiar confines can be a little daunting at times, but it is well worth your while to get up the hill and eat this torta poblana and sample the rest of their solid menu. I wish Teleras the best as it sets out on the journey as a new restaurant. I hope it's there the next time I need a fix of that mole.

TELERAS Mexican Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Westword Web Award? Who me?

"If something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing." Homer Simpson


The other night (Thursday, November 18th to be exact) I found myself in that hip and warehouse-y part of downtown that I usually find myself in only by accident or when trying to park for free during a Rockies game. Last time I was over here was for a Hush dinner-- and then there was the foggy night when I ended up dancing for hours at the club Tracks during lesbian night, but that story is for another day and probably for a different kind of blog.

Tonight I was in Casselman's, a bar and self-proclaimed "venue", which in the grand scheme of simple, descriptive and non-pretentious naming is right up there with "Eat Bar". I was here for none other than the first annual Westword Web Awards, and in particular as a nominee for Best Food Blog. Now this nomination came as a total shock to me. I know there are some "followers" of this blog because I see your little icons on the sidebar, and I have noticed that the email list was starting to grow to names I didn't recognize (that is, beyond my mom and closest friends)-- but I honestly never thought that anyone took me that seriously.


And it still might be that people don't take me seriously (you shouldn't really), but either way I was even more shocked that when the awards got going, the name of my blog was announced. And it wasn't like at the Oscars (or the Latin Grammys) where they announce all the candidates and then pick a winner-- no, I actually won.

Yes, this was the most surprising part of all. I have won a couple things over the years based on pure luck or sheer chance, but never have I won anything that I've worked at since I was 11 and won a runners-up trophy in a soccer tournament. And the beauty of this is all I have done is go about my life eating the best food I can find and telling stories about it on this blog. There is a good lesson in there somewhere about following your passion-- or not trying too hard--but I can't figure it out. Either way, check out this warm and fuzzy trophy:


In the end all that I can attribute it to is you (and of course Westword and its discerning judges). Whoever you all are that decide to click on my email blasts or type my url into your search bar, thanks. I truly appreciate your clicks, visits, tweets, other internet-related things and mostly kind words. I think this post turns out to be #103, a monumental milestone I suppose, considering that I started knowing little about what a blog even was, and still have trouble navigating all the ends of the internet. Here is to at least another 100 or so.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Films, Books, Music and Encore

If you read my post on the Starz Denver Film Festival then you will know that I am quite pleased that the Denver Film Society is moving its operations to East Colfax next to the green carpets of Tattered Cover and the endless aisles of CDs and vinyl at Twist and Shout. This despite the fact that both these stores have been responsible for garnering a substantial portion of my wages for close to a decade now. You would also learn by reading that post that I save money by sneaking my food into the movies-- so now in this cultural complex  I find a harmonious Yin-and-Yang-like balance of personal economic output and inflow. The fact is that these two stores along with a trip to the movies provides my wife and I so much entertainment in our otherwise thrilling life that I am happy to throw my hard-earned money around here and support these local businesses. What would make the whole experience complete would be of course a restaurant tailored to our liking, and that is why we found ourselves at the appropriately named Encore.


Our first trip was for brunch during the final farmer's market at East High. I was tempted to cross the street for some delicious arepas, but with two Encore DINR coupons burning a hole in my pocket, we stuck to the plan. I can't believe I had yet to set foot inside Encore, what with the lovely musical din and kitchen emanations wafting through the always ajar glass doors that loosely separate it from Tattered Cover's magazine area (here too I save money on magazine subscriptions). It was a chilly fall day and we huddled down in a booth under old Lowenstein Theater lettering from the building's historic past.


We scanned the menu and granted that it might have been one of those mornings where hunger clouds judgment (it usually is for me), everything looked good. I settled on the breakfast burrito and my wife a scramble with a side of fries. The scramble was classic omelet flavors: Swiss, tomato, spinach, mushroom-- the ingredients fresh and the eggs not overcooked. Pretty basic, and nothing too exciting, but the famous fries that came on the side were indeed good. To live up to their reputation as one of Denver's best plates of fries, however, you must love mustard and mayo. They come drenched in house-made blend of spicy mustard and mayonnaise, and while I did think the fries were excellent, my wife didn't love all that mustard-like-substance smothered all over, preferring it on the side.

Great fries-to-egg ratio

What we both did love smothered was the green chile all over my plate . For a place with cloth napkins and table service, Enocre puts together a respectable green chile. The tomatillo-based chile was classic and simple, the only drawback being that it was entirely without spice.


The burrito itself was filled with thick bacon, scrambled eggs, fresh avocado and big chunks of skin-on potatoes. The shredded lettuce looked nice, but just got it the way. All in all it was a worthy breakfast burrito that I would order again.


Impressed enough with our brunch visit, we returned one night in between films at the Denver Film Fest. This time around we were ready to try the much-hyped Encore burger. The Encore burger is often touted as one of Denver's better burgers (see here, and here) by burger lovers, and even if it were to disappoint, at least we got to order more of those fries.

My wife somehow tricked me into ordering the lamb burger, while she ordered the traditional Encore burger. The ground Colorado lamb was tender and packed with flavor. It was sandwiched between two pieces of flatbread, lathered in an excellent tzatziki sauce and padded with crisp lettuce and cool cucumbers. It was delicious.


As you can see in the picture above, my plate is noticeably without fries. My wife was feeling particularly devious that evening, and also hoodwinked me into getting the apple slaw instead of the fries, promising me she would hardly eat her fries so I could have "most" of them. Against my better judgment I consented, and while the apple slaw is decidedly not fried, it was quite refreshing against the strong, heavy flavors of my lamb burger.

I did get my hand on some fries after all, and also enjoyed two enormous bites of her Encore burger. This indeed is a very good burger. It was slightly charred but moist and well-cooked. The burger sauce is the hook-- an upscale bacon and bleu-cheese topping. An aside: trying to improve a classic burger topping like bacon and bleu cheese makes me skeptical at best. I am not a fan of fancy wording for simple dishes, and putting the words "compote" and "burger" together sounds like a slippery slope into a lifetime of pretension. But Encore has done well to improve upon the classic, and the creamy, rich compote, mixed with little chunks of bacon is delicious. Like the fries, no other condiments are offered. And none are needed.


Over 50 years ago, as you probably know, the Lowenstein Theater was one of Denver's hubs for theater and arts. It is nice to see it now fully revived and full of cultural-y things like books, music, film-- and well-crafted food. The execution on everything we sampled at Encore was spot-on, the service friendly and the atmosphere inviting. It is a shame that I waited so long to eat at Encore, and with the little I sampled earlier this year at a Harvest Week event, I shouldn't have been surprised at how good the whole package was. It won't be long until I return. Next on my list is that flatbread pizza with figs and prosciutto.

Encore on Colfax on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 8, 2010

Los Farolitos of Aurora Part II: The Buffet

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about some of the best Barbacoa you are likely to find on this side of the Mexican border. Or, since I'm no authority on what goes on in other states, I can more rightly conclude that it is as good as it gets in Colorado. In fact, to ensure you that I am working to harbor my propensity to exaggerate, at least it is the best barbacoa you will have in Denver, or that is, Aurora. And with the amount of good Mexican food in our fair and not-too-far-away Eastern suburb, that is actually saying something. I think the word I used to describe this barbacoa that sums it up best was "masterful". There may be better somewhere, but when it is this good, there is really no need to keep looking. The place I am referring to is Los Farolitos, tucked away in another forgotten, out-of-the-way strip mall on North Peoria--which as a single street I will argue has as much good food lining its blocks as any other Denver-area street, save for maybe South Federal.


In fact the barbacoa was so great--and the rest of the menu so promising--that after eating it on Friday night, I was compelled to return the very next morning. The rays of sunshine were barely creeping over the horizon when I was snoring away in dreamland envisioning the bounty that the Farolitos buffet would offer me. Yes, the heavy and rich barbacoa had me sleeping like a baby, but when I did crawl out of bed at the respectable hour of a quarter past ten, had a shower, made some coffee, sipped it slowly while sitting in the sun-- I was raring to go.


The buffet, besides being proudly advertised outside, occupies the entire entry room of Los Farolitos. When leaving the night before, it was nothing more than empty metal trays, unlit burners and dark shadows; in the light of the day, it was overflowing with Mexican goodies of all kinds.


There were a lot of options that day and the kitchen kept rotating out the trays with different dishes, so it was really a non-stop morning-turned-afternoon of joyful eating bliss. There was one buffet table full of savory Mexican delights, another table with three different hot soups, a third table with dressings and condiments, and a fourth-- clearly neglected table-- with things like fruit and granola. Ha.

Needless to say, I hovered over tables one, two and three for the next couple of hours. Instead of trying to go through each tray, let's take a look at my first plate of food.

1

This mountain of food was topped with a tamal, which was moist and delicious. Under it were some excellent albondigas (meat balls) that were sitting in a watery tomato broth. They were moist and tender, packed with homemade comfort. The rice was good, but with a spread like this it is only good for sopping up sauces and drippings (which it did quite well). The vegetable medley of zucchini, and the other with green beans were also good. Refried beans made it on the plate because that is like the milk on your cereal that is the Mexican buffet-- you just must have them.

2

Plate two was more albondigas, and some incredible pork bits in a fantastic tomatillo salsa/mole. Behind them were some beef short ribs in a thick and smoky red chile (guajillo?) sauce. Tucked in the back there was a very good chile relleno doused in a traditional tomato sauce and sprinkled with queso.

Close up of 2

Then it was time for thirds.

3

As you can tell from this picture, the beef ribs and pork were my favorites. I also picked up some chicharrones in salsa verde just as they were being brought out from the kitchen. The latter is one of my all-time favorite dishes. Chicharrones, if you don't know, are pieces of fried pork skin. That is good enough on its own, but when bathed in a tomatillo salsa until they are soft again, it is truly a treat. I like to make little tacos--which I did with a few of the warm tortillas from the buffet.

I also hit the soup line and had some pozole. There really wasn't much in the broth (no hominy, some bony pieces of meat), but like the borrego broth from the night before, it was another excellent homemade comfort broth turned out by this kitchen. The following photo is a good indication of my slowly declining vertical position by meal's end.

2.5

My wife was absolutely enamored because of the tray of pig's feet. They were not pickled and served on a tostada how she prefers them, but they were the feet of a pig nonetheless and she was happy. I have to say that while I don't much care for the pickled version, this boiled pata served with salsa was indeed quite good.


Ten years ago on a good day I could have caused Los Farolitos to close early with a buffet like this. Now older, wiser and with certainly less stretch-room in the stomach, three plates, a bowl of pozole and a horrible plate of bread pudding later (didn't want to scare you with the picture and I can't believe I ate the whole plate), I was ready to get right back in bed.

If you haven't eaten at Los Farolitos after my first post then hopefully this will get you there. It is well worth the trip and full of great food and friendly people.

El Farolito on Urbanspoon

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Old, Bad News: El Gordo is Gone, Tambien also Closes

If you are reading this sentence after reading the title of this post, then you must be a true fan of my blog and I thank you. I've never made the claim that I would ever stay up-to-date with any food news, and this time around proves to be no exception.

Part one of the news is that one of Cherry Creek's last fun, semi-ethnic(y) and questionably diverse restaurants has officially closed. I am, of course, referring to Tambien, which has locked its basement-level doors for good and put all of its Mexican-like energy into the mega-eatery El Diablo, which I just reviewed a few weeks ago.

In my original post on Tambien I mourned the loss of economic, cultural and food-related diversity in Cherry Creek and unfortunately the trend continues. Hopefully after the diversity-wrecking ball of homogeneity strikes Tambien they will at least spare this fantastic stained glass masterpiece.


Much more tragic in my little food world is the sudden disappearance of Tacos el Gordo in Globeville. I was alerted to this tragedy back in September, but just managed to make my way over the other day. It was a little hard to tell from the outside, as El Gordo has always been fortified like a bomb shelter--replete with metal screens and a thick iron front door-- but the foreboding metal entryway was locked, and a small "For Rent" sign was hanging lamely over the entrance. 


If you read this blog way back in May, then you know I was elated to run across el Gordo, when it was a mere five months old. Despite its young age, it even made it onto my Taco al Pastor list as having one of the best tacos al pastor sliced from a spit in Denver. Sadly, my already short list of Denver's finest taquerias serving spit-roasted pork just got shorter. I am only glad that I was able to sample the fruits of El Gordo's labor for as long as I did. Like the butterfly--or the desert rose--El Gordo was beautiful, but transient. But maybe like the delicate migratory songbird, El Gordo will return next spring and play his siren song to me. Somehow I doubt it, but if he does I will let you know. 

But not all is lost. The same person that alerted me to the closure of El Gordo pointed out that down the street on the corner of Washington and 45th is Diamante Negro, who did have an empty spit sitting out in their parking lot when I passed by the other night. I went in and found that they were planning to fill it with stacked pork later that night as part of their "Noche Romantica". And although that is exactly what I think of when I think of romance, my wife had other plans for us, so I will be back hopefully soon for some late-night romance-- that is, eating tacos al pastor. 

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