Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Grandma's Korean is No More

My friends and family do not come to me to find the latest and greatest of anything, and if you've read this blog for any length of time you are well aware that this is not where you come for the latest and hippest food spots or openings. No, I gave up long ago trying to be cool or following any of the latest trends, food or otherwise. I believe it started sometime in the third grade when I had to get half-inch-thick glasses with equally thick brown frames. And despite that in previous posts I have oft liked to wax on about my likeness to the great LDP, I am and always have been unfortunately much more like Cory Haim when he starred in the classic film Lucas.

That is why only now, several weeks and possibly even months after the fact, I am here to report that Grandma's Korean BBQ has closed its doors for good.

If you read my post or ever stepped foot into Grandma's this news would come as no surprise. Grandma's was never, ever bustling with business, no matter how good her home-cooking was or how well it was priced. No, Grandma's joins a too-long list of little-known Denver-area restaurants that have shut their respective doors not because of bad food or service, but rather the inability to draw customers.

It's too bad when so many restaurants get away with serving mediocre-to-bad food at much higher prices and with much more attitude. But such is our world. Maybe it was for the best. Grandma and her husband had retired once, and hopefully now they will be able to enjoy their retirement, collecting vintage stock certificates or flying Korean fighter kites. Or maybe just getting back to nature, as the now re-vamped kimchee.com website seems to suggest.

In it's place is another ambitious venture that will try and defy the odds of being located in possibly one of the worst restaurant locations ever. It is a Thai outfit touting "Street Cooking". Sounds intriguing. You'll be the first to know if I try it.

If you were one of the lucky few to stop in a taste some of Grandma's cooking, you might want to send her an email and thank her. Good luck, Grandma, we'll miss you. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

El Boricua at the Puerto Rican Festival in Stapleton

Last weekend, for all things Puerto Rican in Denver, one had to travel to of all places, Stapleton. I can't say for sure, but I somehow doubt that Denver's newest neighborhood has an overwhelmingly high census of puertorriqueños. And just for that reason, it was good to see the streets around Stapleton's Central Park full of boricuas and people of all different backgrounds coming together to celebrate the lovely Isla del Encanto.

Officially called A Taste of Puerto Rico Festival, this Puerto Rican-centric party is held on the second weekend of June to coincide with National Puerto Rican Day. It was all centered around a stage with live salsa music and dancing, but also included a spattering of vendors, musicians and other entertainment including this circle of congas:

It put me in such a boricua state of mind that I was tempted to buy something with the Puerto Rican flag on it, but I just couldn't decide between the mesh or plain cotton sleeveless t-shirt. In addition to being able to buy the Puerto Rican flag emblazoned on everything from tank tops to key chains to bikinis, there was a tent with a barber who would, for a nominal fee, shave it into your head. Enticing as all of that was, I was, as you may have expected, on the lookout for some comida puertorriqueña.

There are no Puerto Rican restaurants in Denver as far as I know, which is a shame. Puerto Rican food is for the most part delicious, simple and I imagine it would appeal to many more than just homesick puertorriqueños. While rice and beans, or arroz con habichuelas, as it is called on the island, is a ubiquitous staple, there is a lot more to the cuisine. I am no expert, but from what I know, there is a lot of use a lot of plantains and other tropical fruits, as well as unique variants of dishes found in other Latin American countries -- and then of course there is the famous lechón.

As a half-Filipino, where roast pig-on-a-spit is also called lechón, any cuisine that features a crisp-skinned suckling pig slow cooked over fire on a spit is a cuisine I am going to like. I didn't expect to find a lechón asado roasting at the festival that day, so I wasn't disappointed when I got there and didn't see one. But what was surprising was that upon arriving to the self-proclaimed "Taste of Puerto Rico" festival, was that I couldn't immediayely see a Puerto Rican food stall. There was one easily spied stall called "Spicy Mexican Food", and another boldly advertising "Sno Cones and Lemonade", but it was a nameless tent tucked behind a Puerto Rican souvenir stall (everything, for that matter, was tucked behind a Puerto Rican souvenir stall) that held the festival's only comida puertorriqueña.

While there was no sign advertising the business (a good sign), there were a few small signs laying out the day's menu options, all with some variation on rice, beans, pork and plantain. There were also empanadillas, which is Puerto Rican for empanada--not to be confused with the breaded steak you will get when ordering an empanada while there.

We did order a few empanadillas, which were filled with beef, deep fried and absolutely fantastic. I imagine most people can imagine how good crisp-fried dough filled with juicy ground beef tastes, so here, in lieu of a description, is a picture:

Besides the empanadillas, there were really only two dishes not "X'd" off the menu board, so we got those. Both dishes featured pernil, which if there is no lechón, is in all likelihood the next best thing. Pernil is slow-cooked pork seasoned with a Puerto Rican adobo, which as far as I can tell has things like garlic, vinegar, oregano and maybe something citrus-y. This pernil was succulent and flavorful, with a deep flavor that comes from careful preparation and slow, slow cooking.

Dish 1

Both dishes had tostones, which are smashed and fried, or fried and smashed, plantains. Actually I think the proper order is fry, smash and then fry again. Either way when there are plantains involved with frying, the results are generally good, and these tostones were no exception.

Dish 2

And of course there were the rice and beans. On one plate was the aforementioned arroz con habichuelas (dish 2), and the other plate featured pigeon peas, or gandules. I am a great aficionado of simple foods like rice and beans, and I appreciate when they are not just thrown on the side of plate as an afterthought. Therefore I thoroughly enjoyed my Puerto Rican beans and rice from this nameless stall, which obviously took pride in their execution.

We did end up going back over and asking what the place was called, and after some discussion amongst the vendors, we were told "El Boricua", with a giggle. So it is. Be on the lookout for El Boricua at Denver street festivals this summer for a rare slice of Puerto Rico in Denver that won't disappoint. If you don't find it this year, then make sure to block your calander for next year's Puerto Rican Festival in Stapleton's Central Park.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

El Estilo Jalisco Has Arrived in Denver: Carne en su Jugo at El Olvido with Denveater

El Olvido, which translates literally to "oblivion", is the newest business to occupy the building at 2200 South Broadway. You wouldn't be amiss to think this eatery was named for the restaurant-swallowing hole that this building has become over the years--maybe in an attempt to take on the jinx head on--and while that may be part of the intention, El Olvido comes from the line to a song Ella by the famous Mariachi singer Jose Alfredo Jimenez: "Quise hayar el olvido al estilo Jalisco" (I wanted to reach oblivion Jalisco-style). Indeed El Olvido is homage to great things from the state of Jalisco, of which three of the most notorious are tequila, mariachi and carne en su jugo.

My wife and I met Denveater and her beau a couple weeks back at El Olvido, tempted by the first restaurant I know of in Denver to feature this great regional dish which translates literally to "meat in its juices" (a wonderful name by the way). Being that I have two 4-month old boys whose mother would rather not have me show them my tequila-face just yet, and since Denveater and the Director had big plans of painting their house that day, we abstained from the tequila (though we did enjoy some lovely micheladas). And as far as the third Jalisco specialty, mariachis, it was only noon on a Saturday and there were none to be found.

In fact sadly enough, there was no one at all to be found in El Olvido save a server, a cook and a couple of kids running around on the patio. Let's hope that chef and owner Jorge Pingarron can be more sucessful than his predecessors and that Denver will come to embrace his carne en su jugo.

Here's what Denveater had to say about our day there, and for my words, go to her blog here.

Me: What was your first impression of El Olvido?
DV: In a word, hesitant. First of all, it seems to me an opportunity to redecorate has been missed; the dining room's as nondescript as it was under previous ownership. Given the revolving-door curse that's been on this space for the past few years, with restaurants coming and going, you'd think they'd want to inject some new mojo, give it some life. Second,  but for us, it was totally empty the entire time we were there. Third, what was with the opera screening on the two mounted TVs? At least a telenovela would've been more fitting. But I felt a little better upon sitting down to find that they'd started you off with chips and a giant helping of refried beans studded with corn kernels rather than the usual salsa. The stuff wasn't attractive, but it was good. 

Me: Yes, opera on TV and salsa music overhead was a strange and novel combination. I'd like to know why no mariachi?

Me: The name for El Olvido comes from the lyrics a classic Mariachi tune. In typical Mariachi style, it is mostly about drowning one’s sorrows in tequila (Jalisco-style) while pining over an unrequited love. Not exactly Saturday brunch material. Maybe that is why it was so empty. We should go back in the evening sometime, sidle up to the bar and open up a bottle of Herradurra. Then we might have a different impression of the place. You in? 

DV: Um, yes. We're in. Besides, I bet evening light softens the starkness of the interior.

Hopefully not a sign of things to come...

Me: The menu was interesting. Relatively short but rather diverse in Mexican regional specialties with random moments of fusion. What did you think? And how were the wings? 

DV: Clearly, the kitchen's far less concerned with being all things to all people, offering something for everyone, than it is with getting a few things right for a specific set of customers: those who appreciate the opportunity to experience something new, to learn something about Mexican culinary traditions that aren't well known in these parts. That's what excites and impresses me most about the place so far. I can get burritos and tacos anywhere; not so the dishes on El Olvido's short menu. 

The wings were good—not great, but solid. Well-seasoned, though something about the texture made me wonder if they'd been precooked and reheated. They weren't served with the advertised avocado sauce, though there was already some on the table, so that was an acceptable oversight.

Me: The obvious draw of this Jalisco-themed restaurant is the Carne en Su Jugo. Did it live up to your expectations? 

DV: Well, I really didn't know what to expect. With the hindsight of online research, I  see that preparations can vary from soupy to chunky, more stewlike; ours was the former, but I think I'd prefer the latter, simply because it gets pretty messy, spooning soup into tortillas and then adding more liquids in the form of three side sauces. That said, I loved the overall effect of all those ingredients together—the mixture of broth-simmered beef and beans with the two excellent salsas, one based on vinegar and red chiles and the other on avocado and green chiles, as well as cooling, creamy ranch and a squirt of fresh lime juice.

Me: Our friendly server had improbably long eyelashes. Gravity-defying, mesmerizing and elegant eyelashes. You don’t have to say anything about that, I just thought it was worth mentioning again. 

DV: Ha. Yes it is.

Me: This is basically like a neighborhood restaurant for you and the director. You’ve seen places come and go at this location over the years. Will El Olvido make it onto your regular list? Will it make it at all? 

DV: I'd like to go back at least once to try the fish platter with the chile poblano con crema; if that's at least as good as the things we tried, I could see us stopping by now and then. Whether we'd become regulars is a different matter—although if we did, who knows what other, lesser known specialties we might discover that the chef makes off-menu?

Me: Me too, and I will say that both the red snapper tacos and the enormous Ceasar salad were very good. 

The salad, of course, being that it was invented in Tijuana was the more "traditional" Mexican dish of the two: 

One last question. You said something about painting your house that afternoon. How did carne en su jugo and micheladas affect those plans?

DV: Oh yeah! We went to Home Depot right after lunch, loaded up on supplies, got home, and decided it was pointless—too close to happy hour. So that was that. We are not very domestically ambitious.

El Olvido on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Best Filipino Food in Colorado

The title of this post, while probably true, is horribly deceptive and for that I apologize. The Filipino food I am referring to cannot be found in any restaurant, but rather is the end product of the loving hands of a woman named Cora. Not the Cora featured in the children's book Cora Cooks Pancit (which I have been reading to my boys regularly), but rather my Auntie Cora who paid a visit just last week.

This Cora Cooks Pancit, 
but I bet my Aunt Cora cooks it better

While my now four-month-old twins have been mostly a hindrance to my food-eating experiences, this is one instance in which my twins brought the food to me. You see my Auntie Cora from Chicago (via the Philippines) has a son in Boulder, and while I've visited her there a couple of times, never has she had a reason to come see me in Denver. Twins, however, provide an enormous amount of relative-drawing power (in fact it is useless to try and stop it). And on top of that people generally assume (correctly, I might add) that my wife and I have little time for cooking a proper meal. What this meant for us was that my aunt not only came to visit, but brought with her copious amounts of pancit, bags and bags full of frozen hand-rolled lumpia and dozens of adobo chicken wings.

We had several days of pure Filipino joy. Thanks again Auntie Cora!


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