Tuesday, July 31, 2012

El Olvido, Gone But Not Olvidado

Doomed from the start by the horrible location, El Olvido has finally shut its doors. True to its name, El Olvido was in restaurant oblivion, made worse by the constant Broadway construction so that even if you could identify it through the orange traffic cones, construction dust and seemingly always-idle construction equipment it made accessing it more than a little annoying. Coming from the north and hoping to make a left into El Olvido on a weekday afternoon? Olvidalo.

Pre-construction. That didn't last long. 

I ate there only once, with Denveater, and while it was eerily empty (forebodingly so) save our party, I was mostly impressed with the food and service if not by the decor and location. Still, a lesser restaurant would have given up long ago, and I hope the minds behind El Olvido are scheming up another plan, this time with a better location. Because where else in Denver are you going for carne en su jugo? 

Seriously, where else do people go? If you know another place in town to slurp down this Tepito classic, please email me or leave a comment below. All this talk about El Olvido is making me hungry. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Finally: Frijoles Colorado Cuban Cafe

I once wrote about a small Cuban joint in Sunnyside and mused, among other things, on how I secretly hoped it was owned by a Cuban family with recipes passed down over generations. I also was hoping it was home to a worthy Cuban sandwich. In the end I was disappointed--not because it was owned by some non-Cubans--but because for the first time in my life I didn't care all that much for my Cuban sandwich.

Fast forward two-and-a-half years, a few dozen Cuban sandwiches later and enter Frijoles Colorado Cuban Cafe in far Western Lakewood. Frijoles Colorado is owned by the Negrin family-- a family of Cuban descent not-too-far-removed from their most recent home, Miami. I have heard nothing but good things about their food (starting with this great Westword review) and by opening their doors in Denver earlier this year they have filled a niche long-vacant in Denver: A casual, Cuban-owned Cuban Cafe making Cuban food from scratch.

As it has been a while since my last serious Cuban foray, let me keep my new readers up to date by reiterating my stance on this pork-filled sandwich: I love it. When done right there are few sandwiches that come close. I think I once referred to it as a "minor obsession", but I think that it has only slowly become "minor" over my eleven years in Denver out of necessity. I have reduced my Cuban intake dramatically since moving to Cuban-sparse Denver from the relatively more Cuban-dense Chicago, based on simple supply and demand. There is one Cuban I really like in town, and while I do go back with some regularity--and it stays consistently good--I need variety in order to keep any of my food-related obsessions going.

That brings me back to the Negrin family opening up a Cuban cafe in Colorado. Allow me to clarify my stance on this event: I couldn't be happier.

The Frijoles Colorado family sedan

The Denver On a Spit family finally happened upon Frijoles Colorado after spending a long morning in the nearby foothills outside of Genesee. Our babies were tired and it was a risky call dragging them out of their cozy car seats, but I did like any good dad would do, and I couldn't rightly let them miss out on their first Cuban meal. "Trust me," I told them as they were rubbing their eyes from fatigue, not understanding any words coming out of mouth, "You'll thank me for this later."

Frijoles is decidedly casual, with its counter service and informal dining room. It is also incredibly welcoming and refreshingly busy. The vibe is friendly and the Negrin family is endlessly bantering with its customers (many of whom seem to be regulars already), sharing their passion for the cuisine, and patiently--even enthusiastically--explaining any and everything on the menu to anyone who asks. And while the space is small, the menu is relatively extensive; offering an impressive variety of sandwiches and main plates along with a special or two. They also have a full assortment of fresh-made Cuban baked goods and desserts.

While a lot looked really good--especially the arroz con pollo special that seemed to be on every table that afternoon-- I was here to complete a mission and have myself a much-anticpated (and needed) Cuban sandwich.

Our food was out shortly and the short of it was that my Cuban was wonderful. The bread, which is baked in house was perfectly crisp, yet soft and dense on the inside. Layered between them was thick-sliced ham and a thin grilled pork loin. Melted Swiss, pickles and yellow mustard--all smashed together by the grill press--rounded off this rather impressive Frijoles Cuban.

As much as I loved my sandwich, my wife's pulled pork was even better. Shredded, slow-roasted pork between the same great bread. It was a pefect example of how the most simple foods--when done right-- are often the best.

Next up were empanadas and coffee. I love a strong shot of espresso (I even don't mind chewing on coffee sludge) but I am not one to ever put sugar in my coffee (or milk for that matter). Being full aware of this inevitability when I ordered my cafe at a Cuban restaurant, I was prepared to begrudingly sip my little cup--because I really needed a cup of coffee. Nothing magical happened. I didn't suddenly love sweet coffee. But I could see how if you like your coffee sweet this would probably stand out as a very good cup of coffee. I kinda liked it.

The empanada desserts, however, were another story. I love my dessert and especially anything in the pastry family. These sugary, but not-too-sweet, flaky pastries full of guava and cheese were absolutely delightful.

I would like to mention that my boys did not cry once while inside Frijoles--mostly thanks to the large TV (they don't really get to watch TV at home) they sat under showing a baseball game (this place really is Cuban)--but also thanks to the excellent moros-- black beans and rice-- and papas fritas that had them stuffing their chubby little cheeks the entire time. It turned out that father did know best for once in their 16-month existence. If I can keep that up until they leave my house that means I might be right about something 15 or 16 times over the next 20 years. I'd call that a success, but then again, I like to aim high.

The Negrin family has brought Denver exactly what it needs by dishing out Cuban comfort food--in a comfortable atmosphere-- with tremendous respect for the cuisine and care for its preparation. With daily specials like paella, picadillo, arroz con pollo, ropa vieja-- and standbys like lechón and the classic Cuban; Frijoles Colorado has quite literally blown the Cuban doors right off of Denver's Cuban dining scene. Or better, it has allowed us to begin to proudly say that there is a Cuban food scene worth talking about in our town.

Frijoles Colorado Cuban Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Red Claw of Denver, When You Don't Want to Go to Red Lobster

Recently it was my wife's birthday and she had been dropping subtle hints for months prior about how badly she wanted to go to Red Lobster to celebrate. She would say things like, "Did you see that Red Lobster ad? Didn't it look good?" Or driving past some godforsaken suburban mall she would comment: "Look, there's a Red Lobster. I bet they have good shellfish" She might have even said on more than one occasion: "Take me to Red Lobster for my birthday."

I'll give it to the Red Lobster for their TV ads, which capture the moment of squeezing lemon onto a steaming lobster tail in such up-close slow-motion really does make their food look appetizing; and they had my wife hooked like Homer Simpson to the Frying Dutchman. The problem being that those sailors that eventually dragged Homer out of the Dutchman (Season IV, Episode 8) would have to find me and drag me in to a Red Lobster.

'Tis no man. 'Tis a remorseless eatin' machine!

But I mostly jest. At times there is something wholly comforting in the uniform, predictable and familiar chain restaurant (though my wife hadn't grown up near a Red Lobster nor ever been in her life, so familiarity wasn't it). And although my blog features eateries very much on the opposite spectrum of Red Lobster, if that is where the love of my life really wanted to go, I would-- I really would-- take her there. 

And my poor wife from Mexico misses her seafood so --especially shellfish. But as smitten as she was by those entrancing drops of citrus floating slowly across the TV screen toward glowing red crustacean, in the end I decided that what she was really telling me was: "Take me to eat some fabulous shellfish in this dry, far-from-the-ocean town you dragged me to." I crossed my fingers and made a reservation for us and 12 of our close friends at Denver's own The Red Claw.

Normally for a husband to take a wife's very clear and literal words and try and interpret them otherwise in order to avoid something he definitely didn't want to do--on her birthday-- would be like getting her the proverbial bowling ball (once the Simpson's analogies start, I can't stop). I admit, it was a bold move. But I had to. Friends--not to mention spouses--don't let each other eat at Red Lobster if they want really good seafood and have never been to Red Lobster so aren't going for the nostalgic factor. Especially when places like Red Claw are around.

The Red Claw is very much on the opposite speccturm of mass-produced and commonplace. If Red Lobster is Kenny G being played in a hotel elevator, then The Red Claw is the Gorilla Biscuits playing at CBGBs in the 80s. A mix of the spicy hot Vietnamese and Cajun-style cuisines, The Red Claw is a unique concept that I have been meaning to try for some time.

The idea of mixing Vietnamese and Cajun cuisines makes sense and it isn't a new one. With enough Vietnamese putting down their roots in our country's South, it was only a matter of time before they started cooking the food from that region. The propieter of The Red Claw is a first-generation Vietnamese man from Arkansas who learned to cook Cajun in New Orleans. He moved to Denver not long ago and with him brought this new tradition.

We kept it pretty simple being our first time there and started with some grilled mussels. This typical Vietnamese dish was a little dry but flavored nicely with things like spring onions and lemongrass. It had a subtle flavor that allowed the mussel flavor to stand out.

Next up was a plate of Vietnamese spring rolls. In addition to typical meats like chicken, shrimp and beef was a delectable and respectable serving of deep-fried softshell crab.

These do-it-yourself rolls were good with that lovely crab, though were missing the fish-sauce dipping bowl that I am used to from the neighboring restaurants like New Saigon and Saigon Bowl. Still, once I rolled up that rice paper around mint, lettuce, carrots, cucumber, rice noodles and blue crab it didn't matter so much--but it would have made these good rolls great. And if I learned anything in college, it was how to roll a fat, tight--but not too tight-- er, spring roll. 

There wasn't lobster on the extensive Red Claw menu that I remember, but there were other, lovely clawed, only minutes-before-alive animals to crush and then eat. The next of those we tried were freshly steamed blue crab.

I believe we got ours with the house cajun blend. We eventually tried four or five of the six flavor options and they were all good. What really mattered was that this crab was amazing, and amazingly well-priced at $2.95 per crab.

At this point, I will say, my wife was beaming with happiness as she sucked succulent flesh from claw, and gutted her poor, delicious crab until it was nothing more than a shell. We were all feeling quite gluttonous, what with our plastic lobster bibs and feast of meal. And I, for some reason sitting at the head of the table, felt like a king, especially given that the nights main course was set down very literally at my feet: two large buckets of freshly boiled crawfish.

The crawfish were the highlight of the night. The crawfish tail is remarkably flavorful; and there is nothing quite like sucking out whatever encephalonilike miscellany comes out of the head. In a word they were amazing, and their limp shells piled up with amazing quickness on my plate.

By the end of the meal I was dripping in sweat. Not only because the sickly AC unit in one far-away corner did little to cool this west-facing building on another 100-degree afternoon; and not just because of the fire-hot cajun blend--no, I was still waiting to hear my wife's words of approval for bringing her to the Red Claw instead of the much plainer Red Lobster.

And of course I did get it (or I wouldn't be writing this today). And in the end she really just wanted to crack claws and suck flesh from shells. And she did, much more deliciously than she could have at Red Lobster. The Red Claw proved to be excellent in every way--from the friendly, helpful servers to the fabulous food. We will be back again and again to work our way through their extensive menu--especially the interesting and inviting "Drinking Food" section.

The proverbial melting pot of the great United States does not always turn out well, but The Red Claw and its broader concept reinforces the idea that two far away cultures can come together very easily and work together very well. And just like that a new tradition is born. Authenticity is re-defined. I love this country. Happy belated Independence Day. Hope you celebrate with something as uniquely American as The Red Claw.

The Red Claw Seafood and Wings on Urbanspoon


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