Sunday, June 24, 2012

Torta Grill On Not-Too-East Colfax

There are plenty of great tortas to be had around Denver. On the East and West sides of town there is Las Tortugas, the first Mexico City-style torta shop around and now a true Denver institution. There is Teleras up north in Thorton, a Tortugas replica with a few original twists that is worthy in its own right. And just outside of Cherry Creek on lovely Leetsdale is the amazing Guadalajara-style Las Tortas, home to a fine torta ahogada. There was even for a time Leobardo's, who would make the most Mexico City of Mexico City sandwiches, the torta de tamal. Yes, tortas--really good tortas--abound compared to other Mexican dishes in Denver, but like so many other good, inexpensive Mexican fare, one usually has to travel well outside Central Denver to partake.

I never mind driving for good food. Between my wife and I--from Mexico City and Chicago respectively, there is seldom traffic in Denver that we can rightly call traffic (very much part of the reason we love it here), so in one day it would not be rare to find us lunching on North Federal then dining down in Southeast Aurora. That being said, if I don't have to spend time in a car I'd rather not, so when I heard that Torta Grill opened up just 18 short blocks from our state's capitol on Colfax and Williams, I headed over as soon as I could.

As much as I have learned to like the Denver strip mall (for its seemingly limitless number of cheap, culturally diverse eats) I love that Torta Grill is on the curb-- and what's more, on the curb of Colfax next to a liquor store and just a few steps down from the lovely Squire Lounge. It is on the corner with the alley between Williams and High that you will find Torta Grill in a small space sporting five stools inside, and a four-seat plastic table out on the sidewalk. It has little sliding windows that open from the register to the street as well, so that food and cash can be exchanged right from the pavement.

While many tortas in Mexico City are made on carts, the more permanent vendors might operate from a shop not unlike Torta Grill. And without a doubt tortas are best enjoyed sitting on plastic chairs or standing on a busy street with throngs of people walking by. In this sense Torta Grill has chosen the perfect location.

Yes, it seems like a well-conceived plan by the husband and wife team who have opened Torta Grill. The former, Steve, or as he calls himself, "El Guero Tortero", can be found working the line; proudly flipping your torta meats. His wife, Ardeni, a Mexico City native, was also there that day to ring up our order then pass it out the window with a big smile. 

My wife ordered the Jose, which in addition to all the torta basics (avocado, mayo, beans, onion, tomato, etc.) came layered with ham, chorizo, eggs and cheese.

That's a  fine-looking torta

It was an excellent torta made with fresh ingredients all around. Even the beans--smeared across the bottom loaf of bread--stood out. They were creamy and flavorful; and when a seemingly background ingredient stands out, it makes me think that much care and thought has gone into the preparation of not only the sandwich, but the entire restaurant. I could be wrong (I often am), but by the taste of those beans it also seems like the Guero Tortero is not afraid to make use of the lard. Well done.

Inside La Jose

The Arturo is what I ordered: pork, ham, eggs and cheese. It was exactly as delicious as it looks in the photo below, and note those beautiful black beans peeping out on the bottom layer. In my carefree bachelor days that found me more than once at the Squire Lounge just down the street, oh how I wish this sandwich was there as I stumbled home. 

Of course what would a torta shop be without aguas frescas? The question is mostly rhetorical, but for those not familiar with a typical torta-shop set-up, the answer is that it would be hard to even consider that a torteria in a place like Mexico City. The fact is that greasy tortas and fresh-made fruit and vegetable drinks are the yin and yang of Mexico City street food. There are very few things that are likely as unhealthy as bread slathered in butter stuffed with several kinds of greasy, grilled meats, cheese, mayo and all the other sorts of calorie-laden, cholesterol-raising fillings. Therefore it makes sense that a healthy, freshly made jugo like the one I had at Torta Grill-- made with strawberries, apple, pineapple, orange and lemon--are the perfect companion to the torta.

Sipping a giant freshly made jugo after downing a torta is like waking up early to go to the gym after eating a big meal the night before-- but without the waking up early or going to the gym. What could be better than that?

Where does Las Tortas stand among the torta greats of Denver? It is early still, but I was most definitely impressed with what I had, and unless something changes (I'll let you know if it does), it will be on the top of my torta rotation from here on out. Do yourself a favor and get there.

The Torta Grill is calling your name. You can call them at 720.420.0964 for delivery or just go pay a visit at 1818 E. Colfax. 

Torta Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day

Normally on a Sunday afternoon or night I spend a few hours writing and publishing my food-related rants. I hope that come Monday morning it at least gives my readers one more distraction to help ease them into the work week. Today, however, is Father's Day, and after spending a busy day with the family I am instead going to enjoy my thoughtful Father's Day gifts.

Yes, I am headed to the porch to sip on some lovely Stranahan's and turn the pages of what promises to be a great book: "The Art of Fielding", by Chad Harbach. Happy Father's day to all the dads out there and I hope you get some time today equivalent of my whiskey-and-reading time to yourselves today.

On a food-blog related note, I realize that it has been a slow, unproductive June, but I just ate some Cuban food in Lakewood and some amazing Mexican food on--where else--Colfax. So stay tuned, I'll be back next by next Sunday at the latest with more food talk.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ian Kleinman at Studio F Part II: Divine Deconstructed Desserts

In my last post I explained the details of how and why someone like me ended up at Studio F eating plate after plate of spectacular food made by Colorado's own cooking chemist, Ian Kleinman. In fact I ranted and raved so much that I decided to break it up into two posts, because though I realize my average reader's attention span and literacy level is likely much better than mine, I didn't want these desserts to get lost at the bottom of what turned out to be a very long post about a very good meal.

To summarize, Studio F (for Fun) is the new concept in the old Mise en Place cooking school. Studio F is all about entertainment through cooking (and eating) and one of its goals is to play host to guest chefs who create unique menus and cook their fare in front of the guests--even on big screen TVs. Chef Kleinman of The Inventing Room was recently there for about 10 days doing his thing with his full lab set of cooking tools, including his ubiquitous Nitrogen tank.

After a stunning meal, the first dessert we delved into that night was an apple pie, artfully deconstructed and wonderfully presented in true Kleinman style. On one side there was a small edible cup of a silky smooth vanilla ice cream, delicious and perfect like all of Kleinman's frozen treats. Smeared across the middle of the plate was a tart green apple, in the form of a warm gel. To use the Chef's description, "Crème fraîche streusel", was dotted over the gel, which made for a rich, creamy and crunchy transition (in both flavor and temperature) to the main attraction on the plate: That which most closely resembled an actual slice of pie.

Thinly sliced, slow-cooked apples (cooked for 20 hours) sandwiched between buttery, light wafers. Each bite was decadent on its own and heavenly with a smear of gel or a spoonful of ice cream.

The apple pie was my favorite of the two desserts for its classic flavor and playful presentation. My wife preferred the carrot cake, a much freer interpretation than the apple pie in flavor. The plate highlighted just how creative Chef Kleinman can be. It was a classic slice of carrot cake--moist and well-executed--but the icing was heavy with vanilla and on top was a creamy dollop of more Kleinman ice cream. Off to the side were crunchy bits of orange-flavored cream cheese, sticky caramel and lovely sweet chunks of almonds and honey.

Chef Kleinman put together a hell of a meal that night and I enjoyed seeing him cooking and creating up close once again. He looks like a man doing exactly what he wants to be doing and I admire how he interacts with his guests, showing a genuine interest in sharing his passion for his naturally interactive cooking techniques. His run at Studio F is over for now, but look out for him and do what you can to eat with him in the future.

Mazzio, proprietor of the forward-thinking Studio F, has brought to Denver a fun concept in an incredible space that I hope is here to stay. When he is not hosting evening meals or private events, he keeps it real all week long with Red Star Deli up front. It is open during the weekdays for breakfast and lunch and the menu looks attractive. With Mazzio's culinary chops behind the menu, needless to say it is on my short list of new places to check out. Studio F on Urbanspoon


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