Monday, May 30, 2011

Deluxe Burger: Remembering Your Loved Ones With Meat

Memorial Day is upon us, and for us North Americans between Canada and Mexico it usually signals the beginning of the summer season. Maybe it is this reason that all over the internet (and I assume places like daytime TV and the Food Network) are articles, video clips and tips about "Memorial Day Grilling." And the favorite topic of this concentrated media blitz of "top-ten lists" and "tips from the pros" is, as far as I can tell, the burger.

It could be (and probably has been) argued that the hamburger is an iconic American food. Maybe this is why grilling one has somehow become synonymous with what once was a patriotic holiday that originated with the idea of honoring those who died serving our country. Of course it is harder and harder to find people who remember what this holiday was created for 153 years ago, and because of that there are those that would like nothing more than to relive the olden days when it was called Decoration Day by having everyone be a little more solemn and practice a little "proper flag etiquette."

Not proper flag etiquette, I imagine.
(from Grub Street)

Wherever you fall on the Memorial Day solemnity scale, one thing you can agree with me is that it is turning out to be a less-than-ideal grilling weekend in Denver (although of course as I am finishing this Sunday afternoon has turned into a perfect day for grilling). In fact this Spring in Denver has been more like summer in San Francisco and I surely grilled more in January and February than I have yet in May. With summer grilling season still not quite there, we should be thankful for the increased attention that has been paid to the burger all over Denver, from the burger battle that is just around the corner again, to the numerous burger-centric restaurants that have of late popped up like cupcake shops did in 2008 and 2009.

By chance I ate last week at Deluxe Burger on East Colfax. This was my first time in Deluxe Burger although last summer I visited the mostly-mobile Deluxe food truck and joked about how often I would see it parked ironically in front of its stationary, sit-down counterparts. This night the food truck was nowhere to be seen as my wife and I pulled up to park in front of the trademark orange logo.

Deluxe just may be the only burger shop anywhere to share space with a designer furniture store. It's not a bad combination, as we were able to browse some over-priced used designer furniture while we waited for our burgers. Although I will blame the inordinately long wait for what otherwise is essentially a fast food experience for allowing my wife sufficient time to turn our $20 meal into a $70 shopping trip.

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. I ordered the Denver burger, which was a mash of green chiles and a fresh, poignant pico de gallo of wonderfully ripe tomatoes, red onions and cilantro. Over that was drizzled an excellent jalapeño aioli while melted cheddar oozed everywhere.

We got our food to go and I inhaled this burger before starting the car but only after stuffing on it a bunch of the house fries, that are thickly hand cut and sprinkled with thyme and garlic.

I had eaten these fries before at the Deluxe truck and will have to say while they were great layered on my burger, they were not as good as I remember them. I think on this trip they were the major part of our extended wait time as they came out scorching hot from the fryer and slightly undercooked. On top of that they were a little plain. Next time I will have to try the truffle fries.

I didn't try the truffle fries mainly because they have cheese on them and due to some breast-feeding baby-dietary-changes my wife is not eating any dairy. That also made her burger-experience less-than-optimal, as no one in the kitchen knew if the buns had dairy. I must say, however, that they did their best to find out and came up with the solution of sandwiching her burger between some lettuce halves. In the end, my wife was pleased and although it doesn't look that great to me, it will let you see the Deluxe burger au natural:

And it was a good thing she didn't order the bun, because regardless of the dairy content inside, on the underside it was slathered in butter and grilled to perfection. Here is a close-up of my outstanding burger again, so we don't go out on such a plain note:

Deluxe Burger is a perfect place to get a satisfying and great-tasting greasy, gut-bomb-of-a-burger. I would go back without hesitation when I'm in the mood for a fast burger that is not at all like fast food, although next time I think I'll go back well after Mod Livin' closes.

Deluxe Burger on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Chicago Louie's of Denver: A Sausage by Any Other Name Would Smell Much Sweeter

As my last post describes in detail, a few weeks back I found myself amidst the crowd and chaos of the First Friday Santa Fe Art Walk. And although there was surely plenty of art to be seen, my family and I were perfectly content to simply stroll and take in this rare and refreshing slice of true Denver urbanity. Oh, and we wanted to eat some tacos. But we didn't stop at tacos that night. No, we ventured on another half-block from what was a divine taco haven and came face to face with this:

Now as you may know if you have read this blog before, I hail from the city of Big Shoulders. Generally speaking things that have the word "Chicago" in them grab my attention immediately, although I realize by no means does using the name of my native city imply any sort of guarantee of quality. Take for example the band of the same name and a local chain of restaurants that are not really "old" and try way too hard to be "Chicago-y". 

Now that is what I call "Old Chicago"

Nevertheless I zeroed in on Chicago Louie's less for the name and more because I had heard good things about it and its sausages. Of course having a food truck with a Chicago theme that is then nick-named the "Paddy Wagon" and has a gangster-looking type as the logo is a lot like opening a Mexican restaurant and throwing up a sign with the image of a sombrero-and-serape-clad paisano with a mustache napping under a cactus. In fact this astute Westword reader reminds us that "Paddy Wagon" may have been coined because the vehicle was often used to round up drunks in the Irish part of town (by the stereotypical Irish cops). (Of course it could be a pun on sausage "patty", but that would be much, much worse.)

Once you get past the cheesy and borderline offensive logo and marketing pitch of Louie's there is the menu. It is possible that in order to revive the long-buried Italian and Irish-American stereotypes and tensions that Chicago has always been known for, the folks behind Chicago Louie's decided to balance the jabs at alcoholic Irishmen by naming their sandwiches after infamous Italian-American mobsters. And not only does it raise the level of cheesiness, it makes it freaking annoying to read the menu. Have you ever longed for a "Salvatore 'Lucky' Luciano"? Of course you haven't-- unless you wanted to get beat repeatedly over the head with a bat or wanted to be extorted in some way. The "Lucky" is actually a grilled bone-in pork chop with sweet onions, peppers and yellow mustard. Now that sounds rather appetizing. 

As is well established, I am not one for fancy naming. But while I cringed at the menu, I also became intrigued, as lost behind the horrible name choices is some great looking food that features several Denver-made Il Mondo Vecchio sausages. Yum.

In the end I settled for the Italian beef. Actually it wasn't a hard decision once I deciphered that ordering a sandwich named after the convicted murderer, Paul Ricca, actually referred to a Chicago-style Italian beef, one of my absolute favorite sandwiches.

The beef at Chicago Louie's was very good, and though few of you reading this likely care, you might now that I have been combing Denver for a good Italian beef off and on for the last year. This one came out a little dry but when I sent it back for more "beef juice" there was no hesitation as they happily poured on a generous ladle-full, properly sopping the bread to point of just-about-falling-apart. The beef was tender and the excellent giardiniera was spicy and tasted house-made. It was a beef worthy of the Chicago name on the side of the truck.

My wife, apparently full from the four tacos she ate just moments earlier ordered just one slider made from Chorizo sausage and topped with green chiles and refried beans. It was packed full of bold flavor and it was delicious. Too bad it was named after the Mexican drug lord Felix Gallardo. As I write this thousands of innocent people are being victimized by senseless drug violence across our southern borders and Chicago Louie's decides it's a good idea to honor the "Godfather" of Mexican drug lords with a sandwich? And where does that fit with the whole Chicago-stereotyping theme?

As far as I can tell from what I sampled Chicago Louie's seems to be making some great food. And just like the ridiculous naming doesn't add anything to the experience for me, it probably won't keep me away either, as good beef and sausage are things that transcend gimmicks and foolish marketing pitches. Somewhere on that truck are written the words: "Gourmet Sausage Truck". Now that is something all Chicagoans (and Denverites more importantly) can get behind, from the criminals purported on Louie's menu to the saps like me that just love good food. And good food is good food, so when the Gourmet Sausage Truck also known as Chicago Louie's is parked on a street near you, do yourself a favor and get over there. 

Chicago Louie's Paddy Wagon on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Denver al Pastor Take 11: El Divino, the Toluca Mexican Restaurant Roadshow

If you just started reading this blog over the past month you might think I was a paid staff member of the Toluca Mexican Restaurant in Westminster as three of my last five posts have had something to do with this taco-al-pastor refuge. This couldn't be farther from the truth, however, and the proof would be that in the hypothetical situation that I was a paid employee of Toluca, I would have long ago been fired for taking large bites directly from their beautiful spits of pastor. Also, before a couple weeks ago, I think the most time I have spent in Westminster is the time it takes to drive through it on highway 36. But that's not to say anything bad about our neighbors to the northwest-- in fact quite the contrary-- they might just lay the claim to fame of having the greater Denver metropolitan area's best taco al pastor.

As I was saying, I dined at Toluca a few weeks ago for the first time and was blown away by owner Victor's culinary repertoire and of course his superb tacos al pastor. I got word of this potential pastor goldmine via some pictures I was sent of a Toluca-made spit outside of the Museo de las Americas for April's First Friday Santa Fe art walk. So it seemed only logical that when the next first Friday came around that I should be there-- because if there is anything that can make tacos al pastor even better, it is eating them on the street.

When Toluca goes out on the road to cater they call themselves El Divino. This evening they were set up under a big white taco-tent in front of el Museo, bright red spit of pastor calling to me through the crowd, drawing me in like a moth towards a porch light on an otherwise dark street.

I said a lot of good things about the Toluca taco al pastor last post, and yes the taco al pastor outdoors at El Divino is even better than the restaurant version. Being that it is the same exact recipe and marinade, it offers more or less irrefutable scientific proof that the mere act of eating tacos on a crowded city street makes them better.

The asada on the other hand was average, though its flavor too was enhanced by the bustling Santa Fe First Friday pedestrian traffic. It was so crowded in fact that it was hard at times to even move (especially with a double stroller). With tacos in hand I found a spot of wall to lean on and watched the crowd push by. In spurts came vendors, tourists, freaks, propogandists, protesters, stilt people and of course taco lovers. The din of urban chaos was fantastic. Along with the familiar taste of marinated pork and pineapple in my mouth I felt I could have been on some bustling alameda in Mexico City.

Then the cops showed up. Not the riot police (if you were there that night, that was later), but the regular boys in blue, and just like that my little Mexico-urban-daydream came to a halt. I saw them out of the corner of my eye strolling down towards the tent looking way too bored. A bored cop can only mean trouble, and sure enough they puffed-up their chests and sauntered over to the back of the tent to have words with the man in charge. A jolt of reality reminding me we were still stateside: Turns out El Divino was a little too far onto the sidewalk.

Luckily El Divino wasn't shut down for the night--though they were scolded for an inordinate amount of time-- and after the boys in blue finally split, I stood there and watched the men and women under the tent for a good while longer before setting out down the street in hopes of glimpsing some piece of art that would match that perfect upside-down cone of marinated meat. It wasn't to be, though I was able to sample some more excellent food which I will hopefully get around to writing about soon.

El Divino, it turns out, is a perfectly appropriate name for an outfit that serves pastor this good. Victor and his Westminster-based family-crew are on the way to cornering the pastor market as far as I can tell in this town with a mobile outdoor set-up like this. If this tradition continues outside of El Museo it will continue to be one of Denver's most authentic taco al pastor settings. And what's more, Victor purports that he will start carving up tacos al pastor outside of his Westminster locations on the weekends all summer, so if you can't find El Divino out on the street, make a trip up north to Toluca-- it'll be worth your while.

Toluca Mexican on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Denver al Pastor Take 10: Toluca Mexican Restaurant in Westminster

You know that taco smell? Not the enticing aroma of chopped meat sizzling over grill, but rather the odor that lingers on your clothes and hair-- that seems to ooze from every pore of your body--after you spend any amount of time in any respectable taqueria. It is the smell you carry into your office after a taco-lunch at which your co-workers jealously sniff in the air as you pass. It is the smell in your lovely wife's hair as you snuggle up and fall into a restless taco sleep after a late-night taco run; and it is the smell that you still have on your jeans when you go to put them on the next day. And although I don't dislike this clingy olfactory residuum on my clothes, breath and wife; I must say that it is not the most agreeable smell on a baby.

I learned this a couple weeks ago when my wife and I dined out for the first time with our babies at Toluca Mexican Restaurant in Westminster-- and even though the righteous taco-smell we left with forced us to  change and sponge down our babies once home, Toluca is much more than a taqueria. In fact they have a full bar and a large, though minimalist, and mostly pictorial menu that includes a wide variety of Mexican specialties. But it wasn't carne asada or menudo that we were here for. No, I dragged my family all the way up to Lowell and 92nd specifically for some tacos al pastor thanks to some some enticing photos sent to me a few weeks back.

Tacos al pastor are, of course, my raison d'etre (if you remember, they even made their way into my wedding) so when someone shows me pictures like that it doesn't take long for me to track down their source (although it takes me longer these days that ever before). When we arrived at the out-of-the-way strip mall from whence aforementioned spit originated I immediately asked to see the meat-stack they had going that night; and when I asked if I could take a picture, they invited me right back into the kitchen to check it out.

The staff at Toluca is incredibly friendly and inviting. They seem to do their best to take care of each and every customer, and for people like me that show a particularly keen interest in the going-ons of the kitchen, they are especially cordial. In fact after I had snapped a few photos it wasn't long before Victor, the affable patriarch of Toluca came out to talk with us himself.

By this time we had before us heaping plates of tacos al pastor and tacos de pescado. He introduced himself and immediately we began talking pastor. The first thing he did was apologize for the small size of the current spit, which as we all know is meaningless when it comes to taste, but nonetheless Victor was right: more pastor is better. When he sensed that I was more than a casual eater of tacos al pastor he disappeared into the kitchen and emerged seconds later with his secret spice rub for me to sniff.

This is a most unusual from my experiences in my wife's native Mexico City, where pastor recipes are guarded with ferocity and debate rages on not only about which taqueria has the best, but who invented it in the first place. But Victor is from a small town in the state of Puebla, so I guess he is more relaxed about those things, and it's not like he told me all the details-- but a whiff of the rub mix was strong with cumin and garlic.

It turns out that Victor is really passionate about his cooking. A few minutes later he emerged from the kitchen with a mole that he had just made from scratch. "No Doña Maria in there," he told us, referring to the ubiquitous (and remarkably decent) grocery-store jarred mole. "Mole Poblano," he proudly told us again. Made from scratch. Making mole from scratch is a tedious and delicate process and his did have the complex taste of a well-crafted version: smoky heat, bitter, earthy and rich. I was becoming more and more impressed with Victor and his little Westminster outpost.

It turns out he has always had a penchant for food. He started out years ago making carnitas at home and slinging them from his car by the kilo all over Denver and Aurora. He then did the same with tacos and as his business grew he took over Toluca Mexican restaurant a year ago.

At this point I had not had a chance to take more than a couple bites of my pastor, and as happy as I was to talk food with this man, my first bites of pastor were so good that I was practically drooling over my plate as he talked to us. Indeed these tacos al pastor are among the best I have had in Denver, and I can see how outside over open flame sliced right onto a taco (how Victor does it when he caters outside) it could be unrivaled in the metro area.

Besides the almost perfect taste, my favorite part were the absolutely perfect slices: thin, delicate and slightly charred; crispy but with plenty of marbled layers of gooey fat. Exactly how pastor should be sliced. Fresh pineapple balanced the bold flavor of the marinade and I'll say it yet again because it bears repeating: a superb taco al pastor.

The slice of pastor is ever-so important and I appreciate the efforts that Victor and his taquero go through to make every slice so thin and delicate. Too many taquerias take a great marinade and just about ruin it by carelessly hacking away at the meat, resulting in big, uneven chunks. In the US this has become all too commonplace and I let it slide because options are few and far between, but in Mexico City, the arguable home of pastor, these places wouldn't last a week with hack knife-jobs like that. In fact in the DF they take it to another level altogether and slice so quickly and deftly that the slice literally flies through the air and is caught on the tortilla-- never once touching a hand or plate.

It wasn't too long before I had mowed my way through the huge taco plate and ordered two more small tacos al pastor. It was at this time that Victor engaged us in a conversation about another hard-to-find Mexican specialty, Chiles en Nogada. This seasonal dish is served in conjunction with Mexican Independence Day in September and is a gloriously patriotic plate of a stuffed roasted chile (green) topped with a cold sauce of walnuts and goat cheese (white) and sprinkled (red) seeds of a pomegranate. He wanted my wife in particular to sample his sauce as this is one of her absolute favorites, and while his sauce had more of a heavy sour-cream taste (versus delicate goat cheese), it was still quite good and is another item that will keep us on the hook to return soon.

Before I forget, my wife's fish tacos were also very good. A mixture of shrimp and grilled fish, they were fresh and the fish was not over-cooked. It was no taco al pastor, and I can't imagine a scenario that would have me ordering those tacos while that spit of meat was roasting so close by. Nevertheless, if fish tacos are your thing, I would venture to say you would like these tacos.

I got my second round of tacos and as I was going to take my first bite Victor signaled to me as he was coming out of the kitchen. Beaming, he tilted the plate in his hand so I could see the perfect Mojarra Frita he was about to serve. He gave me a look like, "You know you want this." I did, but I was too full of pastor.

Before leaving I did something that I almost never do. I told Victor what I do in my spare time and told him I would like a picture for my piece. He responded the way most taqueria-owners do when I tell them: "A blog?" Then a look that either says: "What the hell is that?" or "What's wrong with you?" But true to his amiable ways he consented with a big smile even though I'm not sure he understood exactly what I wanted to do with this picture, and brought me back into the kitchen so that his family and cook could pose as well.

Toluca Mexican Restuarant is home to some great tacos al pastor but I also saw--and sampled-- a lot more. Victor and his mostly family-led crew are attentive hosts and purveyors of excellent Mexican food from tacos to regional specialties like his mole poblano and chiles en nogada. And in addition to being a family-friendly restaurant they do have that full bar along the back wall (which always makes family-time much more fun). So I encourage you to head on up to 92nd and Lowell in Westminster to visit Victor and company for some of Denver's finest pastor.

Toluca Mexican on Urbanspoon


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