Monday, September 19, 2011

Denver al Pastor Take 13: Finally! A Taqueria El Fogon in Denver (and Ice Cream Next Door)

El Fogon. It is a classic name for a taqueria. It is strong, bold and simple. Depending on where you are it can mean "campfire", or "wood burning stove", or "stove burner", or any number of flame-related nouns, so its name on a restaurant sign is often accompanied by a logo of fire. It rolls off the tongue beautifully in its native Spanish (there is an accent on the second "o") and at the same time is hard to butcher too badly in English. Every town in Mexico (maybe even every neighborhood) has a restaurant named "El Fogon" (this one in Playa del Carmen is where my fantastic pastor recipe comes from)--hell, almost every city in the US with any respectable amount of Mexican fare has one too (a quick google search even finds one in Cuyahoga Falls, OH).

Denver, on the other hand has only had one for a little less than a year. Maybe there was one before, and you old-timer Denverites please let me know, but it is about time there is a taco shop here named El Fogon. It is appropriate that El Fogon opened up its doors on South Federal. I've said before that in this economy it takes some cojones to open up a taco shop in the middle of Denver's tacolandia, but if anyone can do it, it will be a restaurant with a name like Fogon. And even with the plethora of Mexican restaurants lining this boulevard of tacos, it somehow seems all-the-more complete with a sign sporting a flame and the words: El Fogon.

I was tipped to Fogon just after the publication of this year's Pastor list by the savvy Examiner reporter Mark Antonation. Well, it didn't take me long to get myself over there (it has taken me a while to write about it) after I got word, because as I mentioned in the aforementioned list, there are just not enough spits of meat serving pastor in this town.

El Fogon, besides its unforgettable name and spit of pastor, looks about like any other taqueria you might have walked into in your life: Simple decorations; sparse, utilitarian tables and chairs; brightly painted walls; bootleg CDs and DVDs for sale; and a menu on the wall with all the usual suspects. It may be a little cleaner than the average taqueria, maybe because of its newness, and unfortunately despite being Friday night, it was empty.

I think El Fogon had been around since about March of this year, so it is a little sad to see it empty on a weekend. Although for my wife and I, who now travel with two babies and all the bags of gear that go along with that, it was nice, as we were able to spread out over two tables and six chairs without feeling even a bit bad.

The spit of meat was there behind the counter although it looked nothing like it does in this Westword picture (above). I suppose when Westword comes you break out the good stuff. (When I come, however, you try to lock the door and flip the sign over to "Closed" when you see me pull up to the curb.) Tonight's was shorter--much, much shorter--a little lopsided and not nearly as well-charred as that lovely picture. But of course we all know that it is not the size of the spit that matters.

We ordered some pastor and some tacos de Birria. I'll start with the birria because it was different from other birria I've had. What I am used to as birria is a rich stew full of tender chunks of goat. This was simply a taco of shredded beef. But the beef had a wonderful and rich flavor that was slow-cooked in I imagine some sort of broth or marinade similar to what goes into the goat stew I am accustomed to. They were incredible: soft and tender, rich with flavor.

The pastor was a little chunky (versus the preferable thin slices) but it was well-charred from its second cooking on the grill and not too overdone as many are in the US. The flavor was good and the pineapples were real, although they too were grilled in grease and I prefer them fresh or just lightly charred with flame only.

They were served con copia, or that is, with two tortillas, but they weren't exactly overflowing with meat, so I ditched the second tortilla in the end. Overall I really liked the pastor here. It was a lot like the Carboncitos pastor, which for a Denver-area pastor, is pretty good. Here is a close-up:

For some reason we also ordered a gigantic smothered steak burrito. Besides being slightly taken aback by its intimidating size, my first impression was that of awe, as it came out smothered not only in green chile but in freshly fried chicarrones.

So fresh were they fried, in fact, that they were still popping grease from their bubbly, crackling skin.

Excited from the excellent birria and above-average pastor, we dug in with a fury. The green chile was decent and the chicarrones were exquisite, but the contents of overcooked chopped steak, greasy beans and sticky rice were bland and old-tasting. It was really bad. It was still meat and cheese and beans for the most part, and we ate a lot of it, but the flavor was off. We ended up picking away at the chicarrones and going back in for a scoop of burrito-fill, but it never got any better. Not sure what happened and I probably don't want to know.

Chicharrones? Yes. Rest of it? Ick. 

After leaving with the nasty burrito taste in our mouths, we were persuaded to get some ice cream next door by a friendly man who opened the door for us and almost pushed us inside. Luckily it was hot and dry out, because according to the sign on the door, the good folks at Paleteria Chihuahua shorten up their hours some on cold days, and even more on rainy ones.

We scanned the wide array of cold and sweet treats while my poor twins sat happily on the floor in their car seats, still oblivious to the pleasures of ice cream. More compelling than the ice cream and paletas, however, were the multitude of frozen fruits and candies dipped in chocolate. I ended up with a couple of balls of frozen yogurt dipped in chocalate--with sprinkles. They were a wonderful way to erase the gustatory gaffe that was that burrito.

They don't even care.

I'm not keeping count, but South Federal really must have the largest concentration of taquerias in Denver, so to be new and survive one really needs to stand out. Good pastor on a spit, in my opinion, is the perfect place to start, and Fogon seems to have that. In fact, with the other spits that I've had around there: Tacos y Salsas, Los Gallitos and Tijuana, it is clearly the standout. And with the draw of ice cream (and random frozen treats dipped in chocolate) next door, it is a tempting stop on the street where tacos reign. Let's hope it can stay open.

Tacos El Fogon on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 12, 2011

Park Burger on a Bench Across From Park Burger

Despite the unfortunate closing of Deluxe Burger last month, there are, thanks to the mini-boom of burger joints in our fair city over the last few years, many other options for the burger-seeking general public. The other day my family and I found ourselves (read: I dragged them along on an errand) in the Platte Park area--hungry, but with a short window of eating opportunity. To me a meal of burger and fries is the definition of a quick meal, and I figured that any place that serves burgers exclusively would be perfect given our time constraints.

Hence, we ended up at Park Burger, which as it turns out is not in any way a fast option—at least not on a beautiful summer Friday evening. Located on the southern end of the South Pearl business district in this family-filled, foot-friendly neighborhood, the crowds there tell me that the folks behind Park Burger filled a long-standing neighborhood need: a casual, family friendly restaurant with an accessible menu of regular food at regular prices (either that or you can’t pack enough restaurants into this neighborhood).

The short of it was that Park Burger was packed. Forty-five minutes for a table? Good for the Park Burger investors, but even if we had the time, waiting that long with twin infants in the densely packed atrium would have been like dragging nails across the proverbial chalkboard for the duration. But we were really hungry, and going through the rest of our plans for that night (while trying to look after our twins) without proper nourishment (read: fatty meat and greasy carbs) would have been just as painful. Partly from my new-parent mindset and partly from my true vagabond nature, a light bulb went off when I spied a few empty benches across the street: I quickly placed an order to go.

The hostess was friendly and relatively collected amongst the chaos of waiting customers clogging the entrance, orders going in and out, phones ringing and all the other hubbub of a busy operation. Within fifteen minutes I placed and received my order. I walked across the street, baby in one arm and in the other a white paper bag, partially see-through with grease spots and surprisingly heavy with only two burgers and an order of fries. (The only thing missing was another brown paper bag with a cold bottle of beer inside.)

What was so heavy was the extra order of fries that she had mistakenly included in my order (and that I paid for-- I checked) likely because it was hard to hear much over the din of diners and drinkers. My wife and I are not ones to complain about extra fried potatoes, but if I was going to get two orders, I would have made one regular fries instead of two sweet potatoes.

Oh well. We were here for the burgers anyway. I ordered the Chef's special: a green chile burger, medium rare. Unlike other burger joints (Deluxe), Park burger lets one choose the doneness of one’s burger, something I appreciate. My burger was cooked just as I ordered and had a wonderful kick from the surprisingly spicy chiles that was well-balanced by the creamy, cheesy sauce. I'm not sure how a Denver burger joint doesn't have a green chile burger on the menu all the time, but I was glad to be here when it was. 

I almost always get sweet potato fries over regular fries when I can. At Park Burger, the sweet potato fries were pretty standard, which is to say I ravenously devoured mine. Thin cut, salted, a little crispy-- but a little floppy with grease-- they were solid fries to go along with my stand-up burger.

For my wife I ordered a Chilango burger. Chilango is of course a word used to describe those from Mexico City. In retrospect, neither my Chilanga wife nor I are aware of any particular requirements that need to be fufilled in order for a burger to carry the name Chilango, but either way I thought she should have it. They only thing that made it really all that Mexican were jalapeños and guacamole. The cheddar cheese? Not so much. 

My wife didn’t love it. She felt like the guacamole wasn't all that great and did not go well with the other, more "traditional" burger adornments. I liked it fine, and she liked it enough that she finished it all herself rather than accepting my offer to eat the rest of it for her. I might be mistaken, but I think Park Burger won the Denver Burger Battle in 2010 with this burger. A winner is a winner, but from my sampling, I think they would be better off swapping out the Chilango for my green chile burger on both the menu and the next Burger Battle.

In the end it was a thoroughly enjoyable meal on the bench across the street from Park Burger. I’m actually surprised that no one else had thought to do the same. Next to the patio of Park Burger itself, this was probably the best place to enjoy a burger on the corner of Pearl and Jewell on that pleasant summer evening. And with a squirming twin in each of our respective arms, it was certainly better for us and the rest of the Park Burger faithful. 

From my very small sample, Park Burger makes some average to very good burgers but is nothing spectacular. That being said, I suppose I am not really a "burger guy" and very rarely is a burger spectacular in my opinion. Regardless of that, however, I do think that every neighborhood would be a little better with a burger joint like this (and Mayfair is a little worse off for losing Deluxe). But Park Burger is not so much of a “joint” as it is a restaurant. With this in mind you can choose to have your burger cooked in something other than well-done-- and get table service; but you have to wait to be seated and it is not the best option for grabbing a quick bite—unless you are willing to grab a seat on the bench across the street. 

Park Burger on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 9, 2011

More Bubbles Burst: Deluxe Burger... and Leobardo's Too?

Bad News Part 1--Pop!
While nothing like the food truck boom, over the past several years--much like the cupcake-- burger joints have been popping up all over Denver to sate-then-eventually-flood burger fans with options. On the same day I wrote about the closing of their portable food vending service, I was informed of the unfortunate news that Deluxe Burger itself has shuttered its East Colfax doors (and I assume its annexing doors to Mod Living furniture store).

I really liked Deluxe Burger. It was a great, greasy burger shop in a part of town that actually seemed to need a burger shop. What a month or two for Chef Dylan Moore: losing an orange truck and an orange burger joint. Bye-bye Deluxe Burger, you will be missed.

More Bad News:
A new taqueria on South Federal is not exactly part of any bubble, but opening one in this area where for years the streets have been practically running with taco grease takes some cojones, as they say. That or you better have something no one else has and do it well. Leobardo's taco shop had the latter for sure, and I was originally drawn to it because of its signs advertising tortas de tamal--the only place I have seen in Denver offering this Mexico City specialty. Unfortunately it has been dark for at least several weeks now--ominously so on a recent Friday evening that I was driving by. I will have to stop in again and confirm, but it's not looking good for this tamal-slinging taqueria.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Almost Masterful Masterpiece Delicatessen Cuban Sandwich

It is likely that more than enough good has been said about the Masterpiece Delicatessen in the Highlands, and in the grand scheme of things that is the Denver food world, what I am about to write probably matters very little (although that could be said about everything I write). But in revisiting one of my ongoing quests in Denver to find the "best of" certain dishes, I found myself at the Masterpiece Deli one summer afternoon not too long ago-- and in front of me was a Cuban sandwich.

The Cuban sandwich, like the Italian beef, is a minor obsession of mine (my foremost fetish, of course being the taco al pastor). The Cuban, with its succulent layers of ham and pork layered between buttery, grilled-pressed bread is one of the world's finer sandwiches, and done right it is nothing short of, well, a masterpiece.

It was a hot Saturday afternoon at Masterpiece and the place was packed. Even the boiling hot sun-drenched parts of the patio had people chowing down on their breakfast bagels and sandwiches, seemingly undaunted by the intense summer sun. And although half of them were looking thoroughly hungover, they all seemed to manage a smile when their sandwich came-- and continue smiling while eating.

Good sign I noted, not that it would have mattered. My wife's entire family was already inside ordering while I tried to maneuver the stroller onto the patio. It wouldn't fit in any reasonable way, so taking a lesson learned earlier this summer, I parked it out front. But there was no way my babies were going to sit in that hot sun, so I hovered over a table in the shade that seemed like it was finishing up--and the three of us tried not to drool too much over their breakfast (with somewhat limited success).

The Cuban I ordered was stuffed with a thick and tender slow-roasted slice of pork and on that were stacked layers of Black Forest ham. The roasted pork was wonderfully moist and worthy of a proper Cuban. Also in the tradition of the Cuban was the yellow mustard and sliced pickles. Apparently there was also a garlic aioli as well, and although I didn't really notice it, I suppose for that reason it worked. The bread was the only thing holding this Cuban back from being a great:

For an otherwise wonderful sandwich, the thin, airy hamburger-bun-like roll was just not right. Fair enough, as nowhere does Masterpiece purport anything about trying to replicate every last detail of a proper Cuban. At the same time, given how good everything else was that I tried, if they decided to replicate the lard-filled white bread that traditionally adorns a Cuban, I bet they could do it well.

What I also tried included a version of another classic: the Mexican Torta. Served on a baguette (which as far as substitute bread choices go is a good one--even this Mexican place does it), it was stuffed with a carnita-like pork filling and gobs of avocado. It had melted cheese, mayo, tomatoes and all the other usual torta suspects. It was a worthy take on its Mexican counterpart.

Another sandwich worth mentioning from that day was the fantastic Italian stuffed with copious layers of cured and spiced meats (from NYC's famous Salumeria Biellese); zingy, fresh arugula and surrounded on both sides with light, airy ciabatta.

I wasn't looking for an "authentic" Cuban that day (although who even knows what "authentic" means anymore) and I didn't find one-- though I did have a great sandwich. After all, we all know you don't have to be Cuban to make a Cuban sandwich (although being from South Florida certainly helps). I'm not sure where the masterminds behind Masterpiece hail from, but they just about nailed this classic. Almost.

It is always good to see that a place that could easily live on it's reputation and prior accolades--especially one that seems to turn over customers and tables at the rate they do here-- still puts out a bunch of good, well-crafted sandwiches. It took me far too long to get here, and while I might not be back just for the Cuban, I will definitely be back.

Masterpiece Delicatessen on Urbanspoon


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