Sunday, August 28, 2011

Willy's Buffalo Style Hot Wings in Morrison

My mom was born and raised in Buffalo, NY. Just like being born in South Florida makes one versed in all aspects of the Cuban sandwich (no matter what nationality you are), being born in Buffalo makes my mom a de facto expert on Buffalo wings. Never mind that she hates spicy food, or that she probably hasn't a Buffalo wing in Buffalo in at least thirty years--that is just the way it goes.

During my formative years I spent countless summers in the Queen City (OK, maybe two or three, but one summer in Buffalo is plenty for any kid), but I am far from an authority on their wings. In fact, even though I like them just fine, I don't go seeking out Buffalo wings much, and at the moment I can't recall any memorable wings I have had in recent years.

Likely for any Buffalo-nian, any wing from any place outside of Eire County-- or maybe upstate New York-- will never be good enough. I, for one (no offense Uncles, I am mostly kidding--it's a great city), will take the trade-off of living many thousands of miles away from New York's second most populous city for living in Denver and eating wings at which Buffalo natives would almost certainly turn up their noses.

(Excuse the photo quality, camera died and this is what our phone can do)

It is with that long and rambling disclaimer that I introduce Willy's Buffalo Style Hot Wings in Morrison, Colorado. The first things one is likely to notice about Willy's are the things I adore about it: the lovely patio under the rocky crags of Morrison as well as the no-nonsense service, decor and all-fried menu. And every time I go to the mountains to do something that burns calories (this time it was walking in the woods while carrying babies on back), I love to go somewhere that can not only replace those calories, but add on some extra for all the effort it takes to get there in the first place--and for the babies.


I hadn't been to Willy's in at least five years so I was interested to see how it was doing. Everything looked exactly the same although I imagine the layers of grease coating the walls and haphazardly framed sports posters was just a little bit thicker. We ordered 20 wings-- "X-hot", a family order of fries and two big Cokes.


The wings came out drenched in the customary bright-red Buffalo sauce. Putting the "X" in "X-Hot" were the chile seeds, coating everything and floating in all the spaces in between. One bite and everything came back to me. These are great wings. They were big, meaty and fried until the skin had a subtle crisp. Inside they mostly stayed juicy although there were a few that were a little overcooked, a common problem in the Buffalo wing world as far as I know.


The sauce is in the tradition of its Buffalo roots: it is tangy, buttery, runny, simple and in the "X-Hot" version, just enough spice to gather up a few beads of sweat on the neck and have a lingering burn on the lips. They were served with the traditional cooling side of celery and ranch dressing.


The fries were good enough to run through the copious amount of extra sauce that was left over in the bottom of our wing basket. Towards the end of the meal my mouth had a hard time distinguishing flavors other than hot sauce or cool ranch, so just the fact that the fries were another vehicle for more Buffalo sauce was good enough.

We sat back for a few minutes after inhaling our order and sipped on our extra large Styrofoam cups each full of a individualized soda medley from the fountain. We both looked up and each met the respective gaze of one of the twins, who were still in their car seats staring back at us with a look that made it clear they had never seen two people eat quite so ravenously. Actually I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't even recognize the act of gluttony they just witnessed eating at all. But true to their thankfully mellow nature, they eventually just started to smile.

I can say without hesitation that Willy's Wings is my favorite wing-stop in the Denver area but as I mentioned above, I don't eat wings all that often and haven't really tried wings from any other Denver-area restaurant that prides itself on wing-making. I'm not sure where Willy's lies when held up to the gold-standard of Buffalo wings. I won't even pretend to know if they're the best in Denver, but it is a classic wing with a great sauce that ought to satisfy most--and maybe even a few Buffalo ex-pats.

Willy's Wings on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The 2011 Pastor List

In preparation for my two year anniversary and the 2011 list, I spent the summer re-visiting many of my favorite taco al pastor restaurants. As you may well know (whether you care or not is another thing altogether) finding tacos al pastor roasted on a spit is still much more difficult than it should be in Denver. Because of this I travel any and everywhere around the metro area in order to satiate my longing for this marinated meat. In doing so I have had some great and some borderline terrible tacos, and if nothing else I have learned that Denver's small taco al pastor world is littered with inconsistency.


Take for example my number one pick for last year: Taco Veloz. I went here a few times before I branded it number one in 2010 yet a friend of mine with a refined pastor palate had been there before and was not as impressed. Then a few months ago he told me how right I was. I went back shortly after that and I didn't even finish my taco it was so bad.

I feel like a schmuck (more than usual) that someone might have gone to Taco Veloz and ate a crappy taco because I brazenly wrote that my top picks from last year "serve an amazing taco al pastor". So into this year's rankings has now entered the idea of consistency. I will still judge everything on overall taste-- and I still think that my top five will not disappoint-- but I suppose that you never know what can happen on any given night in the tumultuous world that is the taco al pastor in Denver.


As a reminder, to make this list the meat must be cooked on and carved from a spit. I also finally have a top ten list (although as a spoiler I wouldn't really recommend that last two) so it feels much more like an official list this year. Here it is.

1. Toluca Mexican Restaurant
I have written three posts about Toluca just this summer so that should give you an idea of how much I like it. Besides the very good marinade, what sets Toluca apart are the final slices and presentation. Each slice is paper-thin and broad; both juicy and well-charred. With the fresh chunks of pineapple on top it is as close to Mexico-city style as one can find in Denver as far as I know. And what's more, they have a catering service called El Divino where they serve their awesome pastor curbside like it was meant to be (most notably outside the Museo de las Americas on First Fridays). How is the consistency? This summer has been flawless, but as the business is new it is hard to say. For the moment they are getting everything so right that it is worthy of a number one ranking.


2. (The tent next to) La Flor de Michoacan
When you approach the tent next to the Carniceria y Taqueria La Flor de Michoacan on it's quiet and lonely corner in Thornton after dark you would not be crazy to think for a few moments you were at the entrance to  some incredible (albeit slightly sketchy) night market in Mexico. La Flor serves a good taco al pastor carved from a beautiful spit (although sliced too thick for my taste) and topped with fresh pineapple. The consistency of both taste and presentation is decent. What gives it the two-spot, however, is the ambiance.


3. Tacos Junior 
I have always really liked Tacos Junior although I still think that the pastor marinade is a little sweet. That being said it is sliced relatively thin (not paper) and cooked perfectly to be both at once juicy and crispy. It is also one of the only places in Denver where you can get a taco Arabe-- a thin pita-like flour tortilla tightly rolled around a thick filling of pastor meat. And as a bonus the tables and floors are usually spotless for those out there that care about those things. But what really bumps them up this year is its consistency. Although there are just three Denver locations, it has the operational feel of a professionally managed chain restaurant--albeit one that serves a great taco al pastor from the spit with fresh pineapple.

4. Carboncitos
Carboncitos on 38th and Pecos has been around for a while and every single time gets it right. In addition to the taco, they pay proper homage to their Mexico City roots with incredible huaraches de pastor. They do slice their meat from a spit in the kitchen but in small little chunks that get a little too cooked on the grill. The taste, however, is still excellent, the tortillas are house-made and it is one of the most accessible taquerias on my list for the non-Spanish speaking. The downer is that the pineapple is canned.

5. Acapulco Tacos y Pupusas
It's easy to love Acapulco Tacos y Pupusas for it's amazing pupusas, but these Salvadoreños also serve a mean taco al pastor from a spit. I have been here on days when the pineapple looked like hardened hummus (at least it wasn't canned) and others when the pastor was overcooked (hence the drop from #2) but for the most part they stay relatively consistent.

6. Taco Mex
What's not to like about Taco Mex? This was the first place I came to in Denver for off-the-spit pastor and I fell in love. I imagine just the act of finding such a place outside of Mexico enamored me too much because in subsequent trips I was never as impressed with the pastor. Like many places they grill a little too much after slicing it from the spit, and the taqueros don't seem to have any good strategy for their slicing-- alternating big chunks with tiny ones-- hardly ever getting them perfectly thin. Also a negative is the big vat of canned pineapple next to the grill. That being said I still come here quite a bit and the consistency is acceptable. It is also a great place for the first-time pastor eater because of the friendly staff and the excellent outdoor eating experience.


7. Taco Veloz
This was my number one last year, but after my last experience I left with a feeling not dissimilar to discovering your girlfriend has been cheating on you with your best friend: really bummed out. My taco was almost inedible last time I went: dripping with grease, big chunks of overcooked meat, minuscule bits of pineapple (although still fresh). And it tasted as if it had been sitting out for hours and re-heated even though I saw them come out and slice it from the spit. The great salsa bar was still there and the taste of the marinade left me with some flashbacks to the tacos I used to love getting here, but it just wasn't that good. That being said, chances are next time it might be great again but simply for that inconsistency they don't deserve to be at the top.

8. Tacos y Salsas
I have never been a big fan of the pastor from Tacos y Salsas even though I usually get and eat one every time I am there. It is a good taco of some chunky, spit-roasted pork in some sort of red marinade-- and consistent as it is, it just doesn't taste that much like pastor to me. That being said, most everything else I have had from there is very good. Of its several locations I recommend avoiding the East Colfax one and heading down to South Federal instead. Also look for my review of their new 16th Street Mall outlet in the coming months.

9. Los Gallitos
This was my most recent review and likely my most disappointing as well. The spit outside looks so good I could have cried. Then I almost did cry when they brought the lovely meat into the kitchen and grilled it until it lost all of its flavor. The thing that kept them out of the last spot was that last week by chance I ate at another of their outlets on Wadsworth near Mississippi and although it was not great, it was quite a bit better than the central Alameda location. As far as consistency? I probably won't go back enough to find out, but being inconsistent (like forgetting to take it into the kitchen) might be this taqueria's only chance of getting it right.


10. Tacos Tijuana
It is a little unfair to keep Tijuana on the bottom because my first experience there with pastor was so disappointing that I never went back. Not only did the marinade not have a lot of flavor and the taquero over-cooked my large chunks on his grill, but they didn't have any pineapple--and then they looked at me like I was crazy when I asked for some. Apart from that though, everything else I had there was pretty good including an excellent alambre.
 
That is the list. Thanks for checking in again on what is two years to the day of me babbling on about the food I eat. Hopefully you will continue to read as I search for more pastor and whatever lies in between. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

All Bubbles Burst: Denver's Deluxe Truck is Dead

The time has come when Denver's food truck boom has hit critical mass, and as I alluded to in my original post about the self-proclaimed Orange Rocket, it was only a matter of time before some of these trucks had to go. What I was wrong about was that the boom would be complete by the end of last summer. Clearly, however, the excess of portable food was only just getting started and all winter long chefs and entrepreneurs alike were working very hard to usher in an unprecedented number of mobile eateries for the summer of 2011.


As reported by Lori Midson in the Westword, the Deluxe food truck is dead. I liked the Deluxe-mobile OK. Not nearly as much as its stationary alter-ego burger joint on Colfax, but it served pretty decent grub at relatively reasonable prices. I suppose now that the newly "discovered" act ("discovered" in the way that Columbus "discovered" America) of eating good food curbside (most of the rest of the world has been doing it for centuries) has worn off on the Denver "food scene" and as a result I would expect more casualties in the food truck world soon.


I think I read somewhere on Westword that there were eighty-some food trucks circulating Denver's streets. I long ago stopped (or better I never started) trying to track the happenings of this new food truck world, partly because I can barely stay current on things like who is president or what country we are at war with, much less the dozens upon dozens of truck launches that have occurred over the past year. Plus, I prefer the original Denver food trucks much more, and when the dust settles I have confidence that the tried and true food trucks, AKA the loncherias, will remain rolling.

In the meantime, good luck to the rest of you mobile eateries, as yours is a fine cause. In spite of what may come across as cynicism towards the newfound trendiness of eating food while standing in the street, I think it is decidedly a good thing and I do it often. On the upside, if you are a bold business entrepreneur and maybe even a little nuts, then I think there is a going to be a growing market of decked-out kitchens on wheels (really there is--check here) with owners that are desperate to sell. Good Luck!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Picture's Worth At Least a Few More Words: Another Afternoon at Toluca

I realize that the high concentration of posts about Toluca Mexican Restaurant is unusual, if not just plain silly. Starting my blog almost two years ago was an opportunity for my wife and I to break our happy-though-stagnant restaurant routine and get out and explore Denver's relatively diverse restaurant world. Since then it has become rare to find myself in the same restaurant twice, much less three times in three months as has been the case with Toluca.


Besides having maybe the best taco al pastor in Denver, Toluca has another attractive quality to me now that I am a proud father of two baby boys: location. You see, Toluca Mexican Restaurant is located just a few blocks from the Babies R Us that is closest to my house. I tried to fight shopping at this mega-chain baby warehouse but I must admit, if not inevitable, it is truly very hard to avoid once babies come. And since shopping and/ or doing anything with twins means forgetting to do other things like eat, it is a minor miracle in my life that Toluca is so close to said baby store. It is a wonderful, convenient and delicious excuse to chow down on some tacos al pastor while en route to spend the rest of my paycheck on diapers, formula and extraneous--but admittedly cute--baby miscellany.

This time around I was in the mood for something other than tacos for some reason and was tempted by the numerous images on the pictorial menu at Toluca. When thinking of good and bad signs, I would venture to say that more than half of the time places with pictures of food on the menu don't serve great food (the next level of that being plastic versions of the dishes in display cases but that is a whole other post altogether). They may serve reliable and acceptable fare, but rarely is it carefully prepared, feature unique variations or have any touch of creativity.


Gladly at Toluca the latter applies, and at once a testimony to the washed-out, unappetizing menu photos and to the quality of the presentation of the actual food-- the plates look nothing like the pictures.

Take, for instance, the chilaquiles. In laminated, ageing photo-form they gave the appearance of a moldy blob of something not unlike a regurgitated burrito. Actually I'm not even sure if it was on the menu, but if it was, you can imagine how a pile of fried tortillas covered in salsa, cheese, eggs and onions would look like a vomited burrito in a discolored, vintage-style menu picture.

Instead what came out of the kitchen was a stack of freshly fried, thick-cut tortilla strips smothered in a deep red, smoky guajillo salsa with big chunks of white onion, fresh avocado and grated queso cotija. Also mixed in were scrambled eggs instead of the preferable egg over easy (that runs gooey yolk over it all). Despite this unfortunate oversight it was an excellent plate of chilaquiles of which the absolute star was the insanely good salsa.


The filet of grilled fish on the other hand did look alarmingly like its Technicolor menu representation, and although I didn't try it and so can't make a comment, my father-in-law thought it was moist, fresh and gave it the thumbs up despite the grated cheddar-jack that was sprinkled over everything.


I've commented before on molcajetes, and I do generally think that things served in culinary vessels that they were not made in are pretty stupid. But this molcajete was the absolute highlight of my day (remember I was on my way to the baby store). Like a good molcajete, it was so damn hot (to temperature) that it acted as second cooking vessel.

It came out, as I was saying, sizzling hot and literally hopping with fresh-grilled steak, chorizo and shrimp. Also in the hot, bubbling cauldron were big luxurious chunks of nopales and fresh radishes. The brothy salsa base was not unlike my chilaquile salsa, but that was fine by all of us as I doubt I would tire from it's smoky, rich, spicy and tangy flavor if it came out of my faucets as drinking water.


Being that it was only 3 pm on a Saturday the kitchen was especially sharp. It was nothing less than an excellent meal (though I can't vouch for that fish); a testament perhaps, to the high standard of quality at Toluca imparted by the passionate owner, Victor (whom I wrote about in another post). And as they continue to grow their spit-catering business as Victor has alluded to, hopefully it will remain that way.

It's hard not to stop at Toluca when nearby, which for better or worse is my reality these days, so I would expect to have another dispatch sometime soon.

Toluca Mexican on Urbanspoon

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