Friday, April 27, 2012

Around the Table at Phoenician Kabob

I first dined at Phoenician Kabob in 2009, not too long after it had opened its doors. I enjoyed it and returned a few times but I thought they took too many shortcuts for the prices they charged and I hated the fact that the pita was of the store-bought variety. Then recently I stopped in for a falafel sandwich to-go, opened it and found it surprisingly wrapped in a delicate, house made pita. I was intrigued by the pita upgrade and convinced the prolific Denveater (DV) as well as my most recent food-loving chum, Mantonat (M), to join me for a full meal. What follows is our two cents on what I am calling "the new and improved" Phoenecian Kabob. And for more lovely photos, please visit Denveater

We ate a lot that day, what was your favorite?
M - The stuffed grape leaves seemed to have been pan roasted, which gave them added dimensions of flavor and texture. This dish can tend toward mushy, slimy, and tinny, but these were tightly rolled, firm, and compact like little cigars. 

DOAS - Those were unique, and I am partial to the slimier version, but I can never get enough of stuffed grape leaves. My favorite was the Manakeish Bizzatar—the bubbly, pizza-like flatbread absolutely covered in thyme and sesame seeds and dotted with wonderful fresh pickles. I don't know if they changed how they make it but I remember it as clearly better than the last time I had it there. 

DV - I haven't met the garlic dip I didn't like, but this one's special. It bites you first and tingles all the way down, but it's also silky, ribboned with olive oil and brightened with parsley—and, of course, it comes with those rounds of pita, puffed like sopapillas, straight from the oven. And totally agreed about the grape leaves—they were clearly housemade, which isn’t often the case, and the exterior was unusual, almost crisp.

Did you not like anything?
DV - The hummus isn't my favorite; PK's style emphasizes ground chickpeas, whereas I like it creamy and distinctly laced with lemon juice and tahini.
DOAS – I actually didn’t care for my wife’s dish, makloubeh, I think it was called. It was saffron rice with chunks of beef and potatoes. It was just too plain and way too starchy. At first I was jealous when I saw the heaping plate, but I much preferred my meaty combo.

Anything else worth mentioning?
M - My order of beef shawarma was tender and well-seasoned. I don't eat this dish often enough to know the subtleties of preparation from region to region or chef to chef, but the combination of spicy beef, garlic dip (which also came with the shawarma dish), and fresh pita was well worth the lunch-special price.
DV- A close second to the garlic dip was the airy, naturally tangy-smoky baba ghanoush. I liked the manaqish too, but I prefer Amira Bakery’s, which is more luscious, whether with za’atar or a blanket of spiced ground lamb; they’re pretty liberal with the olive oil
DOAS – I agree with the baba ghanoush. It is my favorite in all of Denver. And true, Amira makes the best that I know of around town. But I was very happy with my lamb shawarma, which had a nice grilled char on the outside but was left just shy of well-done so that it was still nice and tender.

Top to bottom: chicken, lamb, kafta kabobs

When I first wrote about PK I wrote about the irony of the pita bread being clearly store-bought when literally across the street is a pita bakery. The fact that the pita is made in house now and so delicate and fluffy, with perfect little burn marks made me ecstatic. I love it when a restaurant gets better, which is what happened with PK for me since I was last there a couple years ago. Is PK the best Middle Eastern restaurant in Denver? If not, what is? 
M- I was impressed with the service here as well as the food. Our young waiter was polite, knowledgeable, and attentive and kept his smile and good attitude despite how long we stayed and how long the check sat there untouched before we finally paid. I have to give a restaurant credit when they get both right.
DV - It's certainly one of them, in my view; I also really like Amira Bakery, Mecca Grill , and House of Kabob. And I have soft spots for Ya Hala and Jerusalem too.  
DOAS – Yes, I suppose it does depend, but for a sit down table service Middle Eastern place—from service to ambiance to food—it is becoming my top choice.

And on that same theme- what is your "most improved" restaurant? 
M- Bistro Vendome has recently gone from good to great. I've always enjoyed the atmosphere, the drinks list, and the glazed French fries, but last time we ate there I was blown away by the attention to detail and the depth of flavor in everything I tried. With improved service and soulful cooking, I think it has finally become more than just a Larimer Street tourist spot.
DOAS – Good to know, my thrifty nature is always drawn to one thing there: $9 weekday mussels and frites.
DV - The transformations happened some time ago, but I’d vote for The Village Cork since Samir Mohammad came on board and Root Down since Justin Cucci brought in Daniel Asher; both found their culinary identity under those talents. Will Cisa's also brightly polished The Corner Office's edges.

What's up with the Sriracha in a Middle Eastern restaurant? For that matter, what's up with Sriracha everywhere? 
DV- It's the new ketchup. Personally, I could put Chinese black vinegar on anything and everything.
M- Are the Middle Eastern restaurants just responding to demand from customers or does Sriracha actually enhance the flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine? Seems like the heat and sweetness would overwhelm the subtle and complex spices of some of the dishes. I'm all for condiments, but with all the great sauces and dips - like that tangy yogurt-based sauce that came with the stuffed grape leaves - I don't feel the need for the additional cultural pilfering.
DOAS - I burned out on the stuff in college, though I am thankful for its subsistence when the groceries were otherwise scarce--it is surprisingly tasty (and filling) on a plain Saltine.

Having a couple drinks with lunch on a Saturday used to mean a nice nap or a long, long night. Seeing as how I can do neither anymore, did you either of you indulge in these coveted activities? Do tell, much of my enjoyment these days is vicarious. 
DV - We totally napped! But mostly we groaned.
M- I had a glass of arak over ice and a Lebanese beer (Almaza), which may have been one too many considering that we had to return home to finish painting our kitchen. Arak is the Lebanese version of the typical Mediterranean anise-flavored spirit. It's intensely herbal and the oils from the botanicals turn the drink cloudy when cold water or ice are added. I could actually see the oils form a film on the side of the glass. I would recommend it only for the most avid anise fans.
DOAS –  OK, that puts it in perspective. I would have much rather chased my kids around than paint my kitchen. 

We were late because we got distracted by the antique store across the street that is worth checking out. I ended up with an old Michele Shocked LP which was a lot more country than I remember and has left me creepily singing "When I grow up I want to be an Old Woman" all day at work on Monday. Did you end up going? 
M- That was a great little antique store. I think the owner was trying to sell us on an old hospital gurney, but we walked out empty handed. 

We also had some powerful coffee, visit Denveater's site for more on that as well as many more mouth-watering photos. 

Phoenician Kabob on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Denver al Pastor Take 14: Come for the Pastor, Stay for the Carne Asada at Tacos el Sampa

This March and April have been unusually warm, and while that might be some ominous sign of the devastating global climate havoc yet to come, an early and warm spring provides plenty of short-sighted happiness to keep one otherwise distracted from any future apocalyptic scenarios; a longer taco-truck season, for example; and for that who can really complain? Although by no means a taco-truck fair-weather fan, when warm weather comes so does a spike in my outdoor taco consumption (before it levels off to a respectable if-not-heart-healthy rate come summertime). I took the liberty to illustrate my 2012 outdoor-taco-consumption projections graphically:

It also means I can take my babies out taco-hunting without fear of frost bitten toes (though that would be a good story for them to tell their own kids one day). Such that it was that I found myself with my wife and boys under the hot March sun in a mostly empty parking lot on the Southwest corner of Zuni and Evans.

We were here to meet the notorious Mantonat, who came through yet again with another spying of a spit stacked with pork loins dripping with pastor marinade. This pastor was being slung from a food cart called "Tacos el Sampa",

There are not as many things that make me smile as much in my Denver food bubble as finding a new spit of pastor--especially one in the open air--and El Sampa's spit was indeed glorious. Save for the missing pineapple sitting atop its skewer, it would stand proudly among its Mexico City cousins.

Although there was no pineapple to be found roasting on top, there were fresh slices spread on the tacos themselves. The meat, as US hyper-hygiene standards require, was not cooked directly on the spit but rather on the neighboring grill, which I suppose is better than being cooked both places. And because of the obligatory grill-pass the taquero hacked off meat in large careless chunks, not needing to take the care to shave off only the outer cooked layer. But even with the uneven thickness of the meat cuts, it ended up being well-charred and not overcooked.

The flavor of the pastor was a little subtle and might have benefited from a longer soaking, or a more concentrated marinade. The salsas, however, were excellent--both the red and the green had that homemade casera taste--and packed a respectable amount of heat.

While the pastor in itself was worth coming back for, the carne asada was superb. By far the best I've had in recent memory anywhere in Denver. It is so often overcooked and dry, but this grilled and chopped steak was terrifically tender and flavorful.

The Tacos el Sampa folks hail from Puebla, a city known for its Tacos Arabes. There are many, many different ways to cook tacos arabes as I have learned since talking with the Sampa taquero, but as far as I can tell no real consensus save that they should be spit-roasted and served tightly-wrapped in a thin flour tortilla.

When we were questioning the taquero about the tacos arabes at El Sampa, there was quite a bit of confusion in our back-and-forth despite the fact that we both spoke Spanish. It wasn't clear, for example, what kind of meat they were using. He kept saying "carne blanca", or "white meat", which I would then try and clarify by saying, "pork." Thought instead of nodding he just kept saying "carne blanca" and never really verified that it was actually from a pig. Now usually unidentified meat is a "bad sign" and my general rule would be that if the guy making your tacos isn't crystal clear as to what meat he is using then you probably don't want to hang around his taco stand long enough to be the one trying to figure it out.

But seeing as how I'm not that picky (I'm pretty sure I have unknowingly eaten my share of both canine and equine meat in my travels) and I really wanted to try his version of tacos arabes, I went with it. The first thing I did when he handed me my taco was to unfurl it to examine the meat. You would think that when I saw that it was clearly not white I would have returned it, tossed it in the trash or in some other way question my taquero's general competence or lack thereof. But no, my curiosity and consistent knack for making bad decisions was such that I took a big bite.

As I was saying: it was not white, nor was it all that pork-like as far as I could tell. I didn't have the time to examine it all that closely (I was holding an impatient, squirming toddler in one arm), but I concluded that it had the color and consistency of steak and let's leave it at that. It was covered in a dark red-brown sauce that tasted like a sweet barbecue sauce. It was a little peppery and tangy but it was not spicy. It was good. The thin flour tortilla, one of the best parts about the taco arabe, was both crispy and soft. It is like a mini-burrito without all the extraneous lettuce, rice and other fillers. It is all meat. What meat exactly remains to be discovered, but meat it was.

I jest of course and in no way mean to imply that Tacos el Sampa is serving anything other than USDA-inspected meat from a commonly consumed farm animal. I'm sure that there was just some confusion on my part (there still is), and please don't let my sarcasm deter you from sampling any and everything on the El Sampa menu. That being said, if anyone else wants to weigh in on the "what's that meat" debate please leave a comment or send me an email. And even if I made the taco arabe unappealing (though I'll restate for the record: I liked it a lot) the carne asada and pastor are ready for you to join them for some spring and summer outdoor taco fun.

Taco el Sampa is located on the corner of Evans and Zuni in Denver, CO. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mussels and Frites and Beer Oh My! Bistro Vendome On a Weekday

There are some meals and restaurant experiences that I never write about. Sometimes it is just a mediocre meal and I don't feel inspired one way or the other; other times it is a place that I liked well enough but it has more than enough publicity already (and in the end who really cares what one more blogger thinks?); and still others I didn't like but didn't feel like writing a bad review based on one meal. And then there are those times (like I wrote about recently here) that I go out with my wife just to eat and enjoy--and don't bring along a camera at all.

One of those places over the years has been Bistro Vendome. Though we've never formally dined there--that is, a multi-course meal off the dinner menu--we do enjoy their weekday special: $9 Mussels and Frites and $3 Fischer Amber. This is one of our favorite meal-deals in all of Denver, and we try to go whenever we can, whether it is to sit on the idyllic patio, or in colder weather at the bar where the friendly barkeep is sure to entertain.

A couple weeks ago when my wife's friend was visiting from Mexico, we took her to Bistro Vendome during a 70-degree March evening in order to show her one of Denver's finest patios. She happened to bring her camera and out of habit I grabbed it and started snapping photos.

The mussels are cooked perfectly every time. Each luscious, meaty belly glistens in the delightful,  buttery broth, and beckons to be pulled from its dark shell. Besides copious amounts of butter the broth is flavored with thyme, garlic and white wine. Soaking it up with the toasted and sliced bread is just as good as slurping down the mussels themselves.

The fries are among my favorites in Denver: light, crispy, savory and sweet. They are coated in a champagne vinaigrette and dusted with herbs de Provence. In addition to being excellent on their own, they also make an ideal vehicle for soaking up more butter-sauce. Although I started by delicately dipping my fries into my remaining sauces (I was trying my best not to embarrass my wife yet again), I quickly followed my wife's lead when I saw her happily and without shame letting her fries soak in her mussel-broth before picking them out all sloppy and wonderful with a fork.

We also ordered the cheese and charcuterie plates. They were good but busy in presentation and I thought uninspired. Three small slices of cheese adorned the cheese platter, and while I appreciate the thoughtful stacking of breadsticks, the carefully sculptured sliced meats and the artistically fanned fruits, it was really just a few bites of cheese and a mouthful of meat.

The meats were better--the duck pate was wonderful with the fruit glaze spread and especially good with the house-made marmalade on the cheese plate. The house-cured thick bacon was also tasty, but created an awkward pause as it was meant to be slurped by one person (me) but instead had to be shared between the three of us.

The Bistro Vendome patio, on a pleasant late afternoon or evening is hard to beat. My Fischer Ambers went down beautifully with my buttery meal under the darkening sky of a 70-degree March day. It was another evening well-spent in the cozy confines of Bistro Vendome. One day we might venture there for a full meal but without a doubt we will be back for weekday mussels and frites--and beer and wine--for as long as they offer up this delectable deal.

Bistro Vendome on Urbanspoon


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