Sunday, July 31, 2011

Denver al Pastor Take 12: Los Gallitos

However much I love the smell of taco grease after it has saturated my clothing, hair and wife; I learned not too long ago that there is something simply wrong about having two babies that smell like the stale grease of a taco meal past. And although my aversion to baby taco-stench is strong, it certainly is not enough to dissuade me from dragging my babies along on more family taco adventures. And that brings us to the next installment of my adventures with taco al pastor.

It was approaching dusk but the late afternoon light only intensified the radiance of the loud yellow paint covering Los Gallitos on West Alameda. The spit of pastor curbside was so big and lovely that when approaching from the East it was almost easier to spot (and certainly more pleasant to gaze upon) than the bright, almost glowing building itself. I pulled a sharp left and wheeled into the parking lot, eyes fixed on the wonderful stacks of pork loins shimmering in the late-day sun.

The taquero manning the spit was proud and gleaming, like any good taquero should be. And why not? Under his control was an enormous and well-manicured dark-red spit of carefully stacked-then-shaped pork loins. We approached his post before entering to snap some photos and admire the meat. He posed and smiled , probably wondering to himself why more people didn't stop by just to take his picture next to this magnificent spinning top of pork.

Also before entering we checked out the backside of the restaurant, drawn by the signs touting 99 cent tacos available from a drive-thru service window. The drive-thru taqueriais rarer than it should be in our town, and coupled with the pastor spit, needless to say my early impression of Los Gallitos was favorable. (Although the restaurant could have been burning to the ground and shooting flames while people screamed and ran in every direction and I would have still had a positive outlook as long as that lovely hunk of meat was out front.)

When we finally entered we ordered immediately from the pretty standard taqueria menu full of the usual suspects. In addition to the pastor, we also ordered between us a pair of gorditas, one with chorizo, the other with chicharron. They didn't give us a ticket to take outside, so we sat by the window and I kept alternating my gaze between the kitchen and the spit outside, waiting to see when someone was going to get my taco from the taquero who was surely making it now. I didn't want to miss a thing. And I didn't.

I am sad to say that Los Gallitos is an example of tacos al pastor in the US gone wrong. Outside is a brilliant, well-groomed and lovely (I said that already) spit of meat under the careful watch of a seaseond taquero. It looks divine as it rotates, smells perfect as it cooks and sounds like a sweet lullaby when it is sliced off (pff, pff, pff). Then the nightmare begins. Instead of being served al fresco, it is all stacked in a large container, dragged back into the kitchen and then fried in old grease until it resembles nothing more than withered, defeated, broken meat.

OK, it still looks pretty good, even if not like pastor

OK, it wasn't quite as bad as I just made it sound, but it is just so tragic that it might as well be. In the end it was a greasy taco of grilled pork and there is a certain saving grace to that fact. There was a very faint hint of sweetness but any complexity the original marinade may have had was grilled into submission on the flat-top. There were even small chunks of (canned) pineapple in there that were identifiable only by sight (and foraging) and not by taste, as they too had soaked up more grease than Squeaky-Voiced Teen after working a double shift at Krusty Burger.

It is of course another sad story that results from the hyper-hygienic health regulators that legislate raw outdoor meats and cooking. This might seem like a good thing, what protecting us from the occasional bit of raw pork flesh, but since admittedly bad things like trichinosis are virtually eradicated now in the US by hygienic pig-farming and trendy restaurants all over town serve there pork pink in the middle, it is sad that these taco places feel the need to over-cook their pastor.

The good news is everything else we had was pretty good. It wasn't the freshest, or the most original. In fact it wasn't that special in any way (expect that spit outside), but it was another decent taqueria with 99 cent tacos that would satisfy a simple taco urge. And it has a drive thru. And while I may never, ever (really, never) make use of their drive-thru service, somehow the world seems a little better just knowing it is there.

Moving on. Here is a steak taco (with cheese) had by my sister-in-law.

And a very good sope that my suegra ate:

My suegro was completely satisfied with his assortment of tacos, especially the lengua, which I did not get a picture of; but here is one of our gorditas, all sloppy and greasy in a good way:

We left Los Gallitos as an entire extended family thoroughly coated--almost visibly so-- with taco grease. But it is not this that had me disheartened, no it was what they did to those tacos al pastor. In Denver (and most of the US) where finding an outdoor taco spit rotating with pastor meat is rare (although becoming more common) there is nothing as disappointing as finding a place that messes it up so badly.

And while I have found some real gems over the years, my search to thoroughly scour the metro area for pastor continues. If you have any suggestions not on my blog please let me know. And if you are extra-bored this August, then prepare yourself for some mild amusement as my annual taco al pastor rankings are due out soon.

Los Gallitos on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Leaving the House Without Kids: A Perfect Two-and-a-Half Hours at Denver's Domo

In our still relatively new life with twin boys, my wife and I have reached for the time being a tenuous homeostasis between fatigue, love, sleep, shit on our clothes, smiles, crying, going crazy and having fun. In that time I have somehow managed to work full time, be as fatherly (and husband-ly) as I can and still find time to eat and then write about one restaurant per week on average. Eating at this many places usually means dragging along two sometimes happy and other times not-so-happy little boys which makes most of our going-out-to-eat experiences if nothing else, not boring.

The other night, however, thanks to family that is in town, my wife and I finally were able to leave the house without our babies in order to dine in a restaurant like we used to so many months-that-seem-like-years-ago. And of all the myriad options we had before us in Denver's continually burgeoning restaurant world, we chose one that has years and years on the scene yet still manages to be one of Denver's most unique, romantic and inspiring eating experiences: Domo.

Just the fact that we chose Domo for our first date in six months should tell you how fond I am of the place, and most of you reading this post are probably quite familiar with this Japanese-Denver institution. For those of you that are not, Domo is the definition of a hidden gem. Sandwiched between a construction company and an empty lot just south of Colfax, and across the street from DHA housing, crossing the threshold of Domo one very literally enters a completely different world. While the outside has touches of Japanese decor, the mostly non-descript square white building and gravel lot is in stark contrast to the wonderfully warm, intimate and traditionally decorated Japanese interior.

Domo is not only a restaurant serving incredible country-style Japanese cuisine, but it is also houses a small museum, an Aikido dojo and a Japanese garden. Every square inch of the place, from the thatched ceilings, to the slab tables to the pristine garden is carefully decorated and meticulously cared for.

Most of you likely know a lot about Domo, so I won't say much more except that if you don't know Domo then I hope you decide to go sometime soon. Otherwise let me share some more photos and tell you a little about what we ate. Enjoy.

We started out with a small plate of gyoza. These garlic-laden steamed-then-pan-fried dumplings were certainly not the star of the night, but they were a good way to line my stomach with some booze-absorbing starch for my potent tea-based cocktails.

We then chose an assortment of Wanko Sushi, named for the small plates they are served on (and then Trademarked which is pretty silly I must admit) according to the Domo website . They have ten different kinds of fish and the selection as far as I can tell never changes.

The sushi is served sliced over rice and with the sauce or "topping" of your choice. You are then given clear and direct instructions as to how you are expected to eat said sushi: pick up the bowl, scoop in mouth and don't even think about adding any soy sauce (which you won't find on your table anyway).

Of course, being told how to eat your food is usually always a good sign, and for even more information
on Western society's overuse of soy sauce (which I liken to our overuse of ketchup) you can explore Domo's website to see just how deep the passion of anti-soy-sauce-excess runs.

Of all the pieces we ordered, my absolute favorite was the Ika (squid) covered in smelt roe. The bright orange roe copiously covered the delectable slices of squid. The intense flavors were just what we were craving in our first sushi meal since my wife was pregnant over a year ago.

Also a close second was the Unagi (freshwater eel) covered with chopped avocado.

The rest of the sushi was of course good as well: a simple Maguro and Saba along with a beautifully steamed surf clam with grated ginger.  

We also picked at a large plate of teriyaki with grilled calamari, scallops and shrimp tempura. It was simple and delicately seasoned so that the subtle notes of the scallop and calamari were not lost. The tempura was perfectly battered and fried--crisp, light and wonderful.

And of course no night is complete at Domo without sampling the seven sides that are served to each table. Tonight there was everything from a light, cold bean salad and airy tempura vegetables to a more hearty pork stew and small meatballs.

Domo is a wonderful, reassuring constant in the ever-changing restaurant world. And with the latest trends of chefs trying there hardest to be seasonal and local (both good things no doubt) Domo is refreshingly non-seasonal and exotic. And despite the relatively stagnant menu, it continues to execute well, take great care in its ingredients, value the aesthetic of its presentation and simply be one of Denver's great restaurant experiences.

Domo doesn't take reservations so if you want to eat in their stunning, tranquil garden get there early or be prepared to wait. While you wait (you will almost definitely wait) you can see if you can verify what we first noticed this night after dining at Domo now regularly for years: All the female servers have name tags with names of flowers. (I haven't see a coincidence like that since the end of a long night at a bachelor party in Reno.) But however mildly creepy that is, there is nothing but good still coming from the Domo kitchen, and that is what matters in the end. 

Dōmo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Amira Middle Eastern Bakery: Sweets, Pizza and Shawarma

I like to imagine that after the discovery of fire several 100,000 years ago or so, man (and woman) was quick to recognize the delicious benefits of spit-roasting his meats. It seems only natural after stalking then impaling the likes of saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths with long wooden spears that our Paleolithic predecessors would take that same stick, prop it up on some other sticks and slowly rotate it as it roasted over an open flame.

Although well-documented on the Flintstones, I imagine the debate over when humans started spit roasting meat is a hotly contested archaeological topic. I'm not aware of any published studies that lean one way or another on the matter, so I'm not sure we'll ever know for sure, but as always television and/ or my vivid imagination are both much more historically fun-- if  not factual-- than any archaeological dig.

What I do know without a doubt is that in the Middle East they have been vertically roasting their meats with an open flame for a long time, and their culinary innovation has inspired a world-over of spit-cooked meats including my first love, tacos al pastor. And whenever I get a chance I absolutely love to get in touch with the roots of this marinated Mexican meat and therefore make my way to any number of area Middle Eastern joints.

But let's face it; while we have a number of respectable Middle Eastern restaurants in Denver it is hard to find a truly great one. It is also harder than it should be to come across a worthy shawarma sandwich.

Amira bakery has been slinging shawarma for some time now, but only recently have they moved from the obscurity of southeast Aurora into the part of town that showcases the most Middle Eastern restaurants per capita in our city: Colorado and Evans.

The new location, however more central it may be, is still somewhat obscure. It is located in a lonely East Evans strip mall next to the Park-and-Ride lot in what I think used to be (ironically I might add, depending on your point of view of Middle East politics) the Jerusalem Market.

Whatever the case, Amira is open for business in Denver and that is a very good thing. Being a bakery, they feature all sorts of Middle Eastern sweets, most of which are unknown to me. I did end up sampling a piece of Baklava while I waited for my tab to be counted up, and it was good, but I was not here to satiate my sweet tooth, but rather chow down on some spit roasted meat.

Another reason I had very little taste for anything sweet by the end of the meal is because I decided it would be fun to try the English-made super-sweet soda that has apparently become very popular all over the Middle East: Vimto. Purportedly there are some raspberries and currants in there but it is all overwhelmed by the intense, sugary syrup that dominates the drink. Still, I was thirsty so I drank it, but every lip-puckering sip was unbelievably sweet that I think it even out-does its Venezuelan bubble-gum counterpart, Frescolita.

But of course I was not there to taste the carbonated fruit beverages either. No, my eyes and stomach were set on the vertically roasting spits of meat that sat just behind the back wall of the counter. My pictures of the spits all came out poorly thanks to a slowly dying camera with a lens that only partially opens at times. Here is a "Where's Waldo?" picture of the beef spit, delicately framed in the faux-stone arch in the sparsely decorated bakery.

"Where's the Spit?" is much more fun than finding Waldo

What I did get pictures of is the all-important end-product: a freshly baked thin tortilla-like pita surrounding charred chunks of beautifully cooked beef and chicken. In it as well were copious amounts of chopped fresh parsley, tomatoes, a pair of pickles and a thin but flavorful tahini sauce.

The beef was excellent: well-charred, relatively tender and not at all dry. I have never had a shawarma with such a tortilla-like pita, but I liked the taco-like feel of the sandwich and can see the direct influence of the Middle East on such dishes as the Pueblan taco arabe.

I rarely say this about restaurants but here it comes: the chicken was better than the beef. The chicken had even more char-flavor than the beef and was particularly juicy that day. It was absolutely the best shawarma I have had in the Denver-area.

Although the Shawarma will not disappoint, my favorite dish of the day was the Lebanese pizza. I ordered a Lambahjeen pizza (with cheese) to go: a mix of ground lamb, tomatoes, onions and a sweet-savory spice mix (think Allspice, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper among others). I watched as they quickly fired this traditional Lebanese delight in their open-flame oven. As is the case with most of my to-go food, it smelled and looked so good that I couldn't bear to wait until later. I ate most of it right there in the parking lot.

The dough was fantastic and would make any Italian pizza traditionalist think twice about the perfect slice. It was thin and crispy but not dry-- and had that subtle yeasty undertone yet was strong with the aromas and flavors of the Middle Eastern spices.

Amira Bakery is a standout in the cluttered Denver's Middle Eastern restaurant world surrounding Colorado and Evans. From the spit-roasted shawarma to the unique, carefully prepared pizza and, of course, the dozens of freshly baked sweets that I didn't even have time or room for, Amira Bakery is a must-visit for anyone searching for a great Middle Eastern meal in this town.

Amira Bakery on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 10, 2011

CJs Beef and Dogs in Evergreen: Finally, a Taste of Home

The other day my family and I decided it would be a good idea to go to Evergreen and take our boys on their first hike. When we were approaching town-- and the turn-off that would lead us to our day in the woods-- we were diverted by a roadblock and forced to go in the completely opposite direction. Then there was traffic. And lots of people dressed in cowboy hats and riding horses. Twenty minutes later we parked on the side of the road and followed the masses down to the main highway. Turns out it was parade day in Evergreen. We don't go to Evergreen all that often, so it is a little comical that for the second time in as many years our plans there were thwarted by the town's annual parade.

The parade in Evergreen is a sight to behold. Well over 100 floats make their way down the main drag and the street is packed with rowdy spectators of all kinds. And when I say all kinds I mean bikers, old hippies and people dressed as cowboys. As far as I can tell, the parade actually consists of half of the town dressing up in cowboy suits and marching down Evergreen's main drag while the other half of the town lines the streets to drink and watch them. There is also some heckling, lots of water fights and did I mention drinking? But of course I exaggerate: not everyone is drunk, and not exactly everyone is dressed up as a cowboy or cowgirl. In fact, my favorite float this year, though not the winner of the much-coveted "Crowd Pleaser Award", was from the Evergreen Public Library and featured Xtreme Librarians doing semi-choreographed tricks with rolling book carts.

Obviously not everyone in Evergreen loves libraries as much as I do. Though one thing that most Evergreen-ians and I seem to enjoy are hot dogs (and barbecue), as evidenced by the long lines at a stand that was giving away free ones. But I didn't want to fill up on these roadside freebies, because part two of my Evergreen plans for that day had not been affected by the parade: Eat at CJ's Chicago Dogs.

Going on a strenuous hike (all hikes are strenuous to me now that I only eat and write in my spare time) with an extra 16 lbs strapped to one's chest is the perfect precursor to stuffing one's face with hot dogs, Italian beefs and other Chicago delights.

I was made aware of CJ's after writing a somewhat whiny review about the sad state of the Italian Beef at the infamous Chicago restaurant on West Colfax. Sine then I have come across some decent to pretty good beefs and a twitter-friend turned me on to CJ's last year. I suppose I could have made it over sooner had I visited their much closer-to-home Arvada location, but I wanted to try it at its original location--and who doesn't like a little trip to Evergreen?

My first impression of the small, cramped and decidedly un-flashy CJs was that of nostalgia and comfort. If it weren't for the fact that it was located under a stunning rock formation and surrounded by gorgeous rolling hills, pine trees and other mountain-town miscellany, it would have felt quite a lot like walking into any old Chicago-area hot dog stand.

Even the family working the counter was pleasantly full of dry humor, friendly sarcasm, no-nonsense work ethic and (maybe for my benefit) even engaged in a little Chicago-style family bickering. I felt right at home, especially when I started talking to the guy who was dipping my Italian beef roll in and out of the beef juice with great care. I told him that I still hadn't had a great beef in Colorado. In a fading but never-to-die Chicago accent he looked me in the eye and said: "We'll fix you up."

And fix me up he did. With one splendid-looking beef and an equally enticing Chicago-style dog. The beef was good, and so far the best beef I have had in Colorado. The bread was sopping with juices after taking several plunges into the hot beef juice container, and the beef itself was standard Vienna Italian Beef (they even sell the beef kit) topped with hot peppers of course. In Chicago it might be considered average, but here in the foothills of the Rockies, it was more than enough to satisfy my beef jones.

The hot dog was perfect. A natural casing dog with all the Chicago fixings from the bright yellow mustard to the neon-green relish. Each bite was a luscious crunch of pickles, peppers and tomatoes to compliment the soft poppy seed bun and meaty dog. And there was no ketchup to be found anywhere. 

Ketchup on hot dogs, as I have explained before is blasphemous in Chicago. Chicago-style restaurants in Colorado do their best to educate the Colorado consumer about the proper uses of ketchup which pretty much only include a dip for French fries, an ingredient in meat loaf and as fake blood. Of all the Chicago-style restaurants I have visited in Colorado, I like CJ's educational pamphlet best. On the wall next to the tub with little dusty ketchup packets is written out the scene from Dirty Harry where Clint Eastwood himself goes ape-shit on his dweeb partner about putting ketchup on hot dogs.

CJ's of Evergreen serves a solid beef that should satisfy the hunger pangs of any Chicago ex-pat and also serve as a worthy beef ambassador to anyone new to the Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich. The hot dog by itself is almost worth the trip, though it's good to know that there is a closer-to-home Front Range location in Arvada.

C J's Chicago Dogs on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 4, 2011

Empanada Express Grill in Denver!

I originally wrote about the Empanada Express Grill in Golden a couple years back and I gave a somewhat sarcastic and Denver-centric view of our far western neighbors that might have given the impression that I don't think much about Golden when it comes to making plans to eat out. Since that time I have had two good friends move their families to Golden, and Empanada Express Grill (which you may also know as Empanada Grill or Empanada Express or Empanada Express at Empanada Grill) has been at the center of some vague plans in my attempts to stay in touch with these friends by making the effort to drive all the way across town and dine with them. Well, those lame attempts at staying connected are about to get lamer, as Empanda Express Grill has opened another location much closer to my home in Denver.

I'm not sure what sign the Golden location has now, but it seems that in moving to Denver, the owner has settled on one of two names: Empanda Grill or Empanada Express Grill.  I found myself there as my wife, twins and I were headed out for another First Friday art walk, although this month instead of the crowded and rowdy Santa Fe we chose the decidedly more family-oriented and mellow Tennyson version.

However, before setting out on another double stroller adventure we needed to fuel up, as negotiating the four-wheeled monstrosity that is a stroller-for-two over rough, broken sidewalks, curbs, stairs, grass and the occasional drunken, over-friendly pedestrian calls for some serious calories. And what better calorie-laden cuisine than house-made empanadas and arepas from Denver's premier Venezuelan eating institution: Empanada Grill. 

The interior of the new Empanada Grill on 44th and Tennyson is as angular and odd-shaped as the far-away Golden hub making one wonder if this is by chance or if there is something in an awkwardly tapering trapezoid that just seems right to the owners. The shape of the restaurant, however visually appealing and culinarily (that may not be a word) inspiring it may be to the ownership, makes it rather challenging to maneuver and park a double stroller, as leaving it near the entrance means obstructing crucial restaurant operations and pushing it to the back causes it to act like a cork, bottling up access to the back tables. In retrospect, as I learn there is proper stroller etiquette in times like these (i.e. leave it outside asshole) I could have, well, left it outside. But being that there was only one other table occupied I didn't think it would matter.

It didn't. At least to the friendly server, who became instantly enamored with our twins as she herself was one. Although I have heard complaints about the service, for us, like in our previous experience it was-- if not fast by any stretch of the imagination-- at least friendly and inviting.

Last time I ate here I was impressed with the quality of everything I ate, from the empanadas and arepas to the myriad Venezuelan specialties like the tequeños y cachapas.

This time around I ordered a platter of Venezuelan specialties first and foremost of which was La Criolla arepa. This traditional circular corn masa delight is stuffed with a mix of shredded beef, black beans, fried plantain and queso blanco. The masa dough was wonderfully crisp on the outside and perfectly done yet pleasingly mushy on the inside. I think I read on the menu that these were baked. If that is the case I wish all my baked goods could taste this fried.

I also had empanada stuffed with carnitas. The Mexican-style carnitas were neither fully Mexican nor Venezuelan, but they were wonderfully tender and full of slow-cooked flavor. My wife ordered one with a fish filling, that was absolutely incredible and maybe my favorite bite of the night. Like the arepa, the empanada masa itself--although certainly fried--was a perfect balance of crisp and soft. And both masas were better than I remember them being before.



We also tried a few Hallacas, or Venezuelan Tamales.

They were cooked in plantain leaves and filled with things like olives, raisins, capers and a generous helping of ground beef. The slightly sweet and strongly savory was balanced well by the rich masa dough and made for an absolutely delicious tamale.

I also had a few of the aforementioned tequeños y cachapas. The cachapa, or mashed and fried sweet corn cake topped with the ubiquitous "white cheese" was as I remember it. I am not a huge lover of this slightly-too-sweet mash and it was the only thing left on my plate by the end of the meal. The tequeños, on the other hand, like the arepas and empanadas were even better then I remember them. It is hard to go wrong with a fried stick of cheese, but this dough was light, fluffy and slightly sweet--almost like a donut. A donut, that is, stuffed with cheese. Need I say more? 

Tequeño on top, cachapa underneath

While I was pleased with what I ate the first time at Empanada Express Grill this last time--as I've now mentioned several times-- I thought was even better. I'm not sure if they changed their masa recipe or the way they cook it. Maybe I was in Golden on an "off" night (though it was still quite good), or maybe this night was a particularly good night for the kitchen. It could be that just eating empanadas that much closer to my house made them taste that much better. Whatever the case, if there is any chance of you getting a traditional Venezuelan meal like we had that night, you should make your way on over to the Empanada Express Grill as soon as you can.

Empanada Express on Urbanspoon


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