Sunday, March 25, 2012

La Casita Food Cart in the Winter: Art and Tacos

Nothing goes better before, during or after art-viewing than shredded, slow-cooked pork served on warm hand-made corn tortillas. Or in more general terms: pork tacos make everything in life better. Either way, my wife and I were pleased to see a small food cart parked on the corner of 12th and Acoma outside the Denver Art Museum a few weeks ago on a Sunday.

The cart was actually a trailer called "La Casita". Not associated with the famous Denver Tamales By La Casita empire, this La Casista was rather a humble portable food stand manned by a single cook. The menu was simple: tacos, burritos, tortas and a spattering of other typical taco-truck fare.

It was just getting set up when we got to the museum, so unfortunately we didn't actually get to enjoy art and tacos exactly at the same time (nor would the museum likely approve of such indulgences). It was on the way out that we stopped and ordered: pork tacos and smothered steak burrito.

It was a little cold out and our babies were not happy in the wind, so we headed to our car parked nearby to eat. We put the babies in their seats, shoved bottles in their respective mouths and dug in.

Our babies, busy sucking away on their milk and gazing out the windows had no idea what they were missing. Each taco in our order of two came con copia, or with two tortillas, and enough lovely pulled pork so that we easily made four tacos. As I said, the pork was indeed lovely: simple and slow-cooked, tender and flavorful. And the tortillas seemed hand-made and fresh. They were very good tacos. I was impressed.

The burrito was next. It came all smothered in green chile on a thin paper plate. Needless to say, it was challenging to eat in the car with a single plastic fork, but somehow we managed like we always do. The green chile was good, not particularly meaty or spicy, but with a nice flavor. The shredded beef was a little chewy, and the rest of the fillings (rice, beans, cheese, etc) standard. It was an average smothered burrito. There are many, many other worse things than that.

There aren't many great options around the museum unless you like salad, but it is hard to fuel up sufficiently for a museum day on rabbit food, so it is nice to see a portable option serving up above average tacos and a decent smothered burrito.

Thinking back a year or two, I did once have some portable food from the Deluxe truck outside the museum, but we all know how that went, so hopefully La Casita will continue the art+food+wheels tradition and more will follow. Our kids love the art museum--which means we love it even more now--so I doubt that will be my last meal at La Casita food cart.

Note: I have been back to the museum twice since this post on the weekend and have yet to see La Casita again. If you really want to find them, they make the farmer's market rounds in the summer and can be found on the world wide web:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lunch at Ali Baba Grill, Babies and All

As I've said before, come lunchtime at work, I have very little time to do things like eat, much less the opportunity to actually leave my work-time premises to do so. There are those rare times, however, that the stars align and I find myself in a restaurant during the noon weekday hours like I imagine so many much-more-normal people tend to do on a regular basis.

This lunch story starts on recent a day off where I decided that it would for some reason be a good idea to stay home alone with my two 13-month-old twin boys. It was a frigid, blustery Monday that started before six, and after being stuck indoors all morning, about ten o'clock I was calling my wife begging for help. There might have even been a little crying involved--but I won't say who it was.

My wife, who was diligently bringing home our bacon that day, took control of the situation and instructed me to load up the boys and meet her down by her office for lunch. There she would be able to save me by evening out the ever-important adult-to-child ratio.

Being that she works in the Denver Technological Center, we met at the relatively new location of the Golden-based Ali Baba Grill in the Landmark plaza in Greenwood Village. Now if you read this blog regularly then you will remember that I had some sarcastic words to share about the culinary (and otherwise) diversity in the township of Greenwood Village. (Since the chances are you do not read this regularly, here is the link.) Suffice to say I recognized the irony of my own words as I sat down for my second Middle Eastern meal in this fair suburb.

We sat in a corner booth that immediately became a hit with the boys. It was wide and padded with soft cushions; the perfect place for a toddler to go relatively apeshit but yet not hurt himself all that easily. We ordered and were served quickly. The first plate out was a lovely platter of hummus accompanied by housemade pita, which was thin and more like a flatbread. It had perfect bits of little char and was still warm. It did get a little chewy as it cooled, but those first pieces were fantastic.

Most of the reason the pita was so good was that it was being dipped in a perfect hummus. Smooth and creamy, nutty and garbanzo-y; it was topped with a generous pour of olive oil and sprinkled with paprika. We all loved it. My babies even stood quietly and attentively until every last bit was gone. Those moments of peace were worth the whole trip down. It's humbling to know that hummus is much better babysitter than I.

I ordered a gyro sandwich with fries. The gyro meat was tender, thick cut and flavorful. The tzatziki sauce (another baby queller) was also very good. All together on the fresh-made pita it was quite a nice sandwich. Certainly worlds better than my typical dry bologna sandwich that I inhale while typing, checking messages or trying to put out a fire of some kind. The fries aren't worth too many words: standard diner-style plain fries--but they were plentiful, hit the spot and I ate more than necessary.

My wife's chicken shawarama was also rolled up in that delectable flatbread but was not nearly as good as my gyro. The chicken was tender enough, but it did not have any grilled or spit-roasted flavor. All the flavor, in fact, came from the mildly spicy red sauce which was nothing special. The average fries to me were the good part about her plate.

We ate and paid in what seemed to be way too short of a time thanks to the efficient (and friendly) lunchtime service. Before I knew it I was back in my car with two babies, waving goodbye to their mother. I'm not exactly sure what else we did that day, but the fact that I am writing this is evidence that I survived. So here's to another weekday lunch out, I hope the next one worth writing about is not too far away.

Ali Baba Grill - DTC on Urbanspoon

Monday, March 12, 2012

El Chalate on East Colfax: More Than Just Pupusas

Pulling up to El Chalate on a chilly Friday night my wife and I were forced with a decision. We had two babies asleep in the back seat and the thought of waking them seemed like asking for the worst kind of trouble. On the other hand, if we ordered take out, it would be yet another night eating lukewarm food out of Styrofoam standing at our kitchen counter while trying to keep our one-year-olds from killing each other (or themselves).

While not exactly the most intamate setting, the warm yellow-orange glow from the El Chalate windows (and the faint smell of frying corn masa) on this particularly dark section of East Colfax was too much to resist. We took respective deep breaths, yanked the babies out of their peaceful dream-states and triumphantly entered into the relative chaos of El Chalate where happily, there were more than a few rambunctious kids running circles around the place.

No longer are rowdy rugrats a negative for our restaurant choice (though they never really were). I have quickly learned that the best way to make it seem like I know how to properly parent my kids is going somewhere where there are much more obnoxious children already creating mayhem. But it really wasn't all that bad--just a typical scene for a family-friendly restaurant--and while there was a lot of running, there wasn't any screaming. We settled in to the far corner and immediately got to work ordering.

I don't know much about El Salvador as a country save what I learned in undergraduate Latin American Studies classes (think a failed US-backed-government-turned-decade-long-civil-war--sound familiar?). I didn't know, for example, that El Chalate is short for Chalatenango, a municipality in the northern part of El Salvador. I also learned from looking up on the plaque situated above our table that in the Chalatenango municipality is at least one somewhat nice-looking place to swim, on a river named Tamulasco.

What I don't know or have forgotten about El Salvador's history and geography, I more than make up for by a passionate love for its pupusas.

Pupusas are one of the earth's really good foods, and I love everything about them: fried dough stuffed with beautiful chicharrones, or beans, or zucchini-- and of course cheese. And while the fried and chicharron parts are certainly the main reasons I love pupusas, it is the succulent Salvadorean slaw that balances all that gooey cheese and greasy masa, really making the dish stand out. Add in the sweet, runny salsa to cut through more of that good old grease and you will see why there is little you wouldn't do for a plate of pupusas.

The pupusas at El Chalate--at least on that particular winter night--were good, but not great. The dough was nicely cooked, with little burnt edges and a nice crispy outer layer while staying soft and chewy on the inside. The slaw and the salsa were equally up to par. It was the fillings I wasn't feeling--even the chicharrones. Everything tasted a little old.

Moving on. Fried yuca is a Salvadorean staple and I was thrilled to see it on the menu, not only in its standard form, but also covered in little fried fish. At El Chalate they called these fish "chambolitas". I am not sure what those are exactly (anyone that can clarify please help) but a friend from El Salvador said they probably mean "chimbolos", which I understood to be small minnow-like fish a lot like "charales" of Mexico's Lake Patzcuaro. But that friend also said another name for "chimbolo" is "pepesca", which are little sardines. So confusing.

In the end it seems like a case of, "You say chambolita, I say chimbolo." Semantics aside, these little whole-fried fish are wonderfully crunchy, fishy and along with the ubiquitous slaw and a sweet tomatillo salsa--were perfect with the starchy, thick-cut yuca which soaked up all the flavors well.

We also had a simple beef caldo that is worth mentioning because of its richly flavored broth and the welcome warmth of its steam and the soft vegetables on that frigid night. We slurped it all down between my wife and I and even sucked on a few of the bones.

The real winner of the night, however, were the banana empanadas. Fried banana desserts are a favorite of mine, mainly because of turon, or Filipino banana lumpia. I can write what I am about to write only because I have the objectivity of a mere half-Filipino: these are better.

These little deep-fried dessert balls were unbelievable. The filling was thick with pure banana mush and the breading was donut-like in its texture and taste. The whole thing was coated in sugar. It was pure joy to eat and reason alone to come back to El Chalate. 

In the end pupusas are pupusas and they all got eaten, but it was the other Salvadorean specialties that will have me coming back for more. 

El Chalate on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The King of Pizzas? Cooking With Durian

Durian is a fruit native to Southeast Asia. Its penetrating odor is repulsive to some and yet so revered by others that it is known all over Southeast Asia as the "King of Fruits". To me the initial aroma has fermented though sweet and lemony--almost nutty--characteristics. Over time, however, the scent grows stronger and stronger so that Tupperware, plastic bags--even refrigerators--do little to slow its creeping fragrance and tough the smell hasn't worsened, it is more than a little overwhelming for the casual durian-eater (me). This encroaching quality of the durian, however beloved it may be, is what has caused it to be commonly banned in places all over Southeast Asia.

The texture of the durian is a lot like a soft cheese or custard, and maybe it is because of this sticky, cheese-like trait that some claim it smells like a pungent French cheese. In Singapore, it is up there with smoking and flammable materials as "no-nos" on public transport. For some, I suppose, being set on fire and smelling someone else's durian are on par for their undesirability.

The other night some friends came over to make and eat pizza. My friend Carlos was one of them. (You may remember him from such posts as this one, as the adopted grandchild/ busboy/ cash-register-operator at Lao Wang's Noodle House.) Carlos likes to do funny things. He was just back from a two-month trip to durian-loving places like Thailand and Malaysia, and when I asked our guests to bring over pizza toppings, can tell where this is going.

A durian from Carlos' trip

I can't say for sure, but I am willing to bet good money that durian has never made its way onto a pizza before. And not without good reason. Not everything is good on pizza. (I once made a pizza with pastor meat. Surprisingly, I didn't like it.) But durian? With its soft, creamy texture and pungent sweetness--it sort of made sense.

The first pizza we made had pesto, durian, Chinese sausage and bits of fresh mozzarella. The durian lost almost all of its tart taste and piercing odor in the 500 degree oven, so that it ended up mostly sweet--but still powerfully sour. Baked like this it really did have the texture of cheese, but something with the pesto-durian combo didn't have me going in for a second piece.

Based on how sweet the first pie was, I thought using it like pineapple might work. So the next pizza had tomato sauce, mozzarella, diced Black Forest ham and of course durian. If the pineapple-ham pizza is the Hawaiian, then this most certainly can be called the Malaysian. The durian was, dare I say, a great substitute for pineapple--and maybe even better-- as the durian is so much more complex in flavor, goes so well with cheese and is not as acidic.

It wasn't a hit for everyone at our little party. Of the eight people to try it, there were only three of us to really eat it. The odor of the leftover durian, meanwhile, was strong and slowly began to take over the kitchen. Even now, hours after everyone has left, the smell of durian lingers all the way into my upstairs bedroom. It really is that intense.

"I wish I lived in a country where eating durian wasn't weird," says Carlos. He says all kinds of funny stuff like that, but it's true. Americans as a rule don't like things like durian, but there is no doubt our country would be much better if more people liked more foods like durian. But we do like our pizza, so if there is any way that the durian would ever be accepted in the US it would have to be on something else like a pizza. Or maybe deep fried in a twinkie. Hmmm. Now that's a thought.

Durian can be found in the frozen foods section of places like H-Mart. If you are food-curious, buy it, sniff it, slurp it, and maybe even put it on your pizza. 


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