Sunday, January 15, 2012

From Russia (and Arvada) With Pastries (and Sausage)

Life with babies is one random adventure after another. Such it was that we were in Arvada a few weeks ago with the goal of buying used children's clothing (nothing's too good for my little guys). As we pulled up to another mostly-empty suburban strip mall parking lot in our station wagon that every day looks alarmingly more and more like the Griswold's Wagon Queen Family Truckster, I killed the engine and we felt instantly odd. It took a minute to process the unfamiliar vibe we were sensing. It was silence. Both boys were fast asleep in the back. As my wife ventured in to shop I was charged with staying in the car, as apparently, unlike their canine counterparts, it's not considered kosher (or legal) to leave human babies alone in the car--even if you crack the window a bit and leave them some water.

You think you hate it now? Wait 'til you drive it.

So I stayed put, as I am not your ordinary, everyday fool. I fumbled with the radio and mostly twiddled my thumbs, then started noticing that most of the traffic in this lonely out-of-the-way shopping strip was funneling in and out of the business next door. I craned my neck to see what lucky business was able to maintain a steady flow of clientele in this location. It was a Russian grocery store.

When all the clothes were bought and the babies awake we wandered into the small store to browse the unfamiliar aisles of undecipherable but familiar enough sodas, candies and canned goods. The friendly proprietor of European Delicious motioned us up to the counter and showed us his dazzling array of smoked and cured meats behind the glass where he stood. He talked me into buying a 3lb link of Keilbasa. It wasn't all that hard.

As far as I know (I don't really know) much of Denver's Russian community is concentrated in Southeast Denver and neighboring Aurora, but as I learned from the proprietor of European Delicious there are a handful of Russian churches in Arvada that keep his aisles bustling with expats.

I also grabbed some peach pastries off the counter. He warned me that I might find them a little dry (by design apparently), and that just a few doors down there was a great Russian bakery owned by two young women. We thanked him and headed immediately over there.

Kavkaz Bakery turned out to be a pleasant little shop featuring loads of fresh-baked Russian and Eastern European delights. It was hard to resist choosing from their dazzling selection of expertly decorated cakes, but I restrained myself and stuck with the smaller sweets.

The flaky, empanada-like sweet pastry stuffed with a sweet ricotta-like cheese filling was my absolute favorite. The friendly young lady who co-owns the bakery told me its name--at least three times--but being over a month later it escapes me. 

Another highlight was this crunchy donut-shaped cookie covered in shaved almonds. It was a delicious dunk into my morning brew and I only wish I had brought home several more. 

Also delightful was this strudel-like fruit-filled pastry. The layered dough was buttery and flaky; and the filling was sweet--but not overly so--letting the fruit flavor really stand out.

The next morning I polished off what was left of the pastries from Kavkaz Bakery with mug of black coffee. I picked at the peach pies all week--they were indeed dry--but good enough with morning coffee. Also lasting at least a week was that lovely Keilbasa. It felt like I had it at almost every meal: Sliced cold with mustard on sourdough, pan fried with eggs, grilled on a bun with sauerkraut. It was a little much, but I'm not complaining.

Thanks to my babies, I found a wonderful slice of Russia in a far-away pocket of Arvada. Here's to many more new experiences in the year to come.

Kavkaz Bakery on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy Holidays With Al's Beef: Christmas In Chicago

I've written before that Chicagoans are known for their ability to eat. Imagine then, if you will, how it goes down during the most gluttonous time of the year. Yes, no trip to Chicago around the holidays would be complete without stuffing one's face, and while I did it in many ways--from our traditional Filipino Feast festivities to sickening amounts of shawarma--I can think of few better ways for the Chicago ex-pat to get in the spirit of the season than by eating a beef with hot.

It was Christmas Eve Eve, and the family and I were wading through the hoards of last minute shoppers and camera-toting tourists, surrounded by the sounds of Salvation Army bells, the howling Loop wind and the incessant, rhythmic pounding of some Chicago Bucket Boys. We had just finished checking out some pathetic Christmas windows at the State Street Macy's (formerly Marshall Fields) and needing some serious cheering up. Luckily right around the corner--on Wabash and Jackson to be exact--is a much lovelier window:

Yes, after staring at "Christmas" windows that were just product placements for mostly evil celebrities, it was a relief to see the window of Al's Beef , which didn't need to disguise itself behind glitter and Christmas lights. We stepped out of the frigid winds and in to the welcoming warmth of Al's. The air heavy with the aroma of steamy beef: Think roasting chestnuts but with beef juice and hot peppers. In the spirit of the holidays I up-sized to a large Italian beef with hot peppers though my wife stuck with a regular. Also in the name of Christmas and all things holy, I got us a large order cheddar fries.

Downstairs in the downtown location is all stand-up counter dining--complete with a life-size photo (and detailed instructions) of a fat guy demonstrating how Al's wants you to eat your beef. This is all well and good, but not possible while shouldering a squirming infant, so we headed up to sit and dine like the tourists that we now are.

Eat too many beefs the right or wrong way, 
you will end up looking like this guy

If you have been chronicling my beef adventures (OK, I know you haven't so I'll catch you up) then you will know that while I've had some decent beefs over the years I haven't had a really good one. Al's Beef, in case you are wondering, is a really good one.

The large seemed just right as one whiff of that steaming shaved beef--one look at those lovely hot peppers--made me imagine that I would not be able to get enough beef that day (I was wrong--I got enough). I twisted my baby off to one side and went in with one hand. I managed to get most of what I wanted in my mouth, and while fending off very determined baby hands I did my best to savor each tender, juicy and spicy bite.

After several overly enthusiastic mouthfuls I turned my attention to the copious cheddar cheese sauce slopped all over Al's excellent fries. It was insanely rich and just the type of holiday overindulgence that I was hoping to get into on this trip.

And overindulge I did. This meal marked the start of six days of frenzied and non-stop eating. And while my stomach was not exactly pleased by about day four, I am hoping this marks the start of a new holiday tradition: Al's Christmas Beef.

Happy New Year, and thanks for reading.

Al's Beef on Urbanspoon


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