Monday, August 27, 2012

Not Burned Down Anymore: El Paisa of Aurora is Open For Business Again

Over my blogging tenure, I have reported on so many small, niche and out-of-the-way restaurants that it is inevitable that some would end up closed. I try to find out when I can so that in the odd case that someone happens to try a restaurant based on my recommendation, they don't arrive only to find it shuttered. Over the years, none of the restaurants I have reviewed have closed quite as dramatically as El Paisa, one of my favorite little Aurora Panaderias, which burned to the ground in March of 2010.

While I have been known to get sentimental about the closings of my beloved eateries (good thing you can't see my tears as I type, that would be horribly uncomfortable for the both of us), I have never had the pleasure of seeing one re-open (tears of joy are just as salty). Where I'm going with this: two-and-a-half years later El Paisa is back and badder than ever (bad meaning good, of course).

While the digs are new, the pan dulce might be even better: I sampled my favorite, the anis-flavored cochinito, and it was flakier and more moist than before. It also looks like they have cleaned up the operation a little. For example, no longer is the back door to the bakery propped open for the pigeons to wander in and out as they please.

So for all you readers out there that have been waiting for the past two years or so to get back into El Paisa, grab your tray and tongs and get to it. Hooray!

  El Paisa on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 20, 2012

Dining Out with Denveater at Zengo's Next Door Neighbor: Al Lado

For a couple years now Denveater and I have been bantering back and forth about restaurants we visit together with our respective significant others in tow. If you don't know her blog or her writing, then you owe it to yourself to check her out. If there is someone in Denver I consider a go-to for food recommendations and general knowledge, it is her. The other night we found ourselves once again with drink in hand and food on table at the opening of Richard Sandoval's latest (and almost certainly not last) restaurant foray in our fair town. 

When I heard about Al Lado opening, I said to myself: "Another Richard Sandoval restaurant? This guy has more restaurants than all the Food Network stars combined." I like some of his Denver ventures very much, while at others the quality seems to waiver.  What are your thoughts on this restaurant mogul's Denver footprint? 

Here's my feeling: a chef with imperial aspirations had better be a damned inspiring teacher and employer if his worldly outposts are going to succeed in his absence. I've never known a one to expand beyond four or five restaurants in multiple cities without some risk to the reputation for quality that allowed him or her to expand in the first place. For me, Todd English is the ultimate cautionary tale, almost single-handedly putting the Boston dining scene on the map back in the 1990s with Olives and Figs before getting too big for his chef's whites and becoming a kitchenware-hawking, bride-jilting, rent-ducking tabloid joke. 

Sandoval doesn't appear to have been bitten by the fame bug to the extent English was; he seems to be a stand-up guy with a work ethic that, as I understand it, keeps him on the road most of the time, doing quality control at his operations all over the globe—I believe there are about 30 from Denver to Dubai. Even so, any given restaurant is only as good as its chef de cuisine, and the really good ones tend to move on quickly with ambitions of their own (case in point: Troy GuardTK got his start with Sandoval). I've had decent but never memorable meals at Tamayo. I've had absolutely swoony experiences at Zengo—and utterly disappointing ones. The one time I was at Venga Venga in Snowmass, the food was killer—but Sandoval was on-site; whether the kitchen is as deft when he isn't I can't say. (Haven't been to La Sandía.) Ultimately I consider Zengo the most stimulating and distinctive of the bunch; it's his statement on Latin-Asian fusion that's definitive, I think.

After finally getting a chance to meet him he seemed like a genuinely likable guy and a consummate restaurant professional. You did an interview with him a couple years back. What was that like? Where can we find it? 

Yeah, I included him in the Meals That Made Them series that I do with a longtime Boston colleague, Louisa Kasdon, for Zester Daily. That interview, which took place on the terrace of Venga Venga, was super-easy—he was very gracious, relaxed and yet focused, which I appreciated. It was nice to get a glimpse of him as a kid growing up with a formidable-sounding abuela in Mexico, and to hear firsthand his genuine passion for the cuisine of his homeland. 

I like wine well engouh (though I am much more of a beer and whiskey person) and Al Lado certainly seems to have picked some winners on its list. I had a Tempranillo that was silky smooth and a Rioja that was, well, very good. Good and smooth are about the breadth of my wine-modifying adjectives. Please drop some knowledge on us regarding the wines you had and what you liked (or didn't) about that wine list.

Ha. Well, like you, I appreciate the fact that it's succinct and conceptually appropriate, in terms both of its dedication to Spanish and South American bottles—only 2 of 20 bottles are otherwise—and its format, with all offerings by the half- and full pour as well as the bottle. I also think that it's sufficiently progressive, taking some chances with lesser-known varietals like Viura and Montrasell (at prices befitting a tapas bar to boot).  

The menu is tapa-like. Some in a traditional Spanish way, others in the broad sense of being a small plate of food. What worked for you? What didn't?
It's fun to compare my reaction to your response—we totally agree about the bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed dates, which may be ubiquitous, but they don't always stand out. These were especially luscious due to the quality of each ingredient, starting with those fat dates. However, I really liked the patatas bravas, all the more for being kinda weird; I'd have sworn they were tater tots, and only now that I look back at the photo I see they weren't! Just unusually soft and fluffy somehow. To me they didn't seem underseasoned, though the chorizo-crumbled chipotle romesco certainly enhanced them. Even weirder, I don't even remember eating lamb meatballs! Did I like them?

Everyone likes lamb meatballs, so yes. After four glasses of wine and a cocktail, however, anything can be amazing and then completely forgotten. (But these were a standout.)
My favorite thing, though, was the fluke crudo with rhubarb, strawberry, and pickled garlic vinaigrette. Crudo preparations are often too gingerly; I understand that you don't want to impinge on the delicacy of the fish, but you're not doing it any favors by showcasing it against a bland backdrop either. This had some oomph without seeing any less pristine.
Will you go back? And if you had to choose: Ondo's or Al Lado? 
I'll definitely return for some of the funkier-sounding plates we didn't try, like the anchovy, quail egg, white bean, and peppadew panzanella or the short rib en cazuela with parsnips and olives. And Al Lado is much sexier than rather homely Ondo's. Whether the output will prove as special or memorable remains to be seen, but I suspect there's room for both.  

Yes, Ondo's is stuck with a most unfortunate location but I wouldn't call it homely. For my spin on Ondo's, Al Lado and more, please visit Denveater's site where she was brave enough to post my thoughts on this new restaurant. 

Al Lado on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Biker Jim, Pomfreet and the Food Truck Party at the Denver County Fair

What would summer be for a food blogger without posting about a food truck? I'm not talking about the food truck in the traditional sense that serves really good, cheap Mexican fare-- but the new, still-somehow-booming fleet of flashy, mobile super-kitchens that continue to swarm Denver's streets. Just like it's hard to throw a baseball and not hit the side of a barn (though not for Rockies pitchers), it is hard to walk downtown  and not spot a food truck--but just like you don't throw stones in glass houses, don't throw balls near food truck parties as you might crack a screen on an LCD display.

My latest foray with a food truck came at the end of a long day wandering around the Denver County Fair. It wasn't exactly a large gathering of food trucks-- five or six were corralled around the Southeast patio of the National Western Complex-- but it was packed with people like me--hungry after staring at so many delicious-looking chickens and goats and oh-so-glad to not have to eat at one of the Stock Show lunch counters or choke down another giant, dry turkey leg.

"Off the Streets and Into Your Mouth" is of course the tag line and main logo on Biker Jim's upscale version of his original food cart. It is a very literal name (which I enjoy immensely) though it might err on the too-literal side of things. It might be more appealing as "Off the Streets, Cleaned Thoroughly, Cooked and Then Into Your Mouth". Or maybe a different preposition would have cleared things up more: "From" The Streets? "Near" the Streets? I'm not sure why he didn't emblazon a large "Biker Jim" across the front, as that name in itself is synonymous with great Denver street food for anyone who has spent any time in Denver.

In the end it was a Biker Jim sausage through and through, complete with his signature cream cheese and caramelized onion toppings. I had the elk cheddar brat and it was fantastic as always--a true sweet meat. Though I still prefer the original Biker Jim grill on the mall from a simple cart, I suppose if anyone has earned the right to put his feet up and his menu on an LCD display it is him.

Next up was the Pomfreet truck: simple name for simple fare. The truck deals exclusively in fries and sauces to dip them in.

We ordered the freedom fries for the boys, which were the standard fries. I could be wrong but I think freedom fries are what uber-patriots called French fries after France did something in the W-Bush-era global reign of terror that uber-patriots didn't like (I think it was not blindly supporting the unilateral invasion of a Middle Eastern country for no legitimate reason or something like that). Maybe it was a purposeful shot of irony (which goes well with any fried food) to name the truck after the original French (Belgian) name of Pomme Frites, and then the first menu item after good ol' fashioned French-hating Americans.

The fries (I cringe at writing freedom fries--even in parenthesis--though I am going to start calling my sauerkraut liberty cabbage again) were excellent by themselves and outlandishly good with the garlic aioli dip. Our babies love their garlic and their fries--and with their new-found love of adult-sized plastic forks-- they were so happily occupied that the Pomfreet truck would serve well as our new babysitter.

Mom and dad ordered the green chile-smothered "Poutine". The green chile was simply chunks of mild Hatch chiles instead of a green chile sauce, and all the the smothering was done by a not-too-cheesy, creamy cheese sauce. I suppose it should be called a cheese-gravy as that is the only thing that would make it poutine-like instead of just good-old chile-cheese-fries. And there is nothing wrong with that. It was a fantastic and perfect with my sausage. Biker Jim and Pomfreet should always park next to one another.

The last bit of blog-worthy irony of the night was that the last food truck to open its higher-than-thou window to the masses of the County Fair folks was one serving "Caveman Food". Of course cavemen food, or the paleolithic diet, argues that we should eat as our pre-historic hunter and gatherer anscestors did. Gathering and hunting, of course, is much easier these days with a truck and a gun, so I'm not sure exactly what the delay was about, unless all the chopping and prep work was done with stones and spears.

The best part of the truck-eating experience for our family now are the trucks themselves. Our boys love--and I mean love--trucks. Despite a relatively gender-neutral upbringing, they gravitate towards large, motorized vehicles like a moth and its porch light on a dark summer night. Maybe that is the appeal of the food truck. Don't we all (at least many of my male readers) have more toddler in us than we would like to admit?

Food trucks like these are here to stay without a doubt. I just still can't believe that there are still so many and the prices that some of them charge. Despite this cynicism-laced post, I had a good meal that day from Biker Jim and Pomfreet, all for an arguably reasonable price, so maybe the market is taking control of food truck prices at last--or maybe we are all just used to it now. And even though I can't help think about all the "other" food trucks out there full of true and tested street-worthy fare, it is still just fun to sit on a curb-- or in our case the steps of the Stock show grounds-- and chow down.

Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs (Food Truck) on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Oscar's of Broomfield: Sometimes Far is Good

It was a sweltering summer weekend afternoon and my offspring were acting slightly crazier than usual. In no mood to cook--not to mention clean up afterwards--while chasing two tired, tantrum-ready toddlers around the house, my wife and I decided the best thing to do was to strap our lovely little ones down in the car, take a long drive (code for baby-nap for you non-parent types) and end up somewhere to eat that wouldn't care if we were relatively unkempt and with toddlers.

Not exactly the most appealing introduction for the restaurant I picked (read: far-away and with unseemly folk like myself), but really what we were looking for was something casual, quiet and friendly. And far. And with hummus. (Even in the pickiest of moods, almost without exception my boys will eat hummus--and with it anything that can be used as its vehicle--eggs, potatoes, cheese--even soup. Not kidding, we have mixed hummus in soup to get them to eat it.) Oscar's of Broomfield fit the bill.

I have had Oscar's on my radar for some time but usually the drive up to Broomfield feels like just a little too much. When we eventually pulled up we parked on the North side of the building, and if not for the large sign by the road featuring one of Oscar's grandchildren, it could be mistaken for someone's backyard. 

I got out of the car to stretch, babies still fast asleep, and immediately received a warm reception from Oscar himself. He invited me in with a firm handshake and a warm smile. It all felt so comfortable, that even though I had never been here, it felt like I was coming back to Oscar's for the 100th time.

For 10 years Oscar's of Broomfield has been serving mom-and-pop-style Middle Eastern fare from this home-like restaurant. And not only was Oscar himself so genuinely friendly and his restaurant so wholly comforting, but the rural feel of the surroundings made us all loosen up a bit and feel that much more relaxed.

I realize that for folks living outside of an urban area will probably not recognize view from the front door of Oscar's as all that rural. It is largely industrial, and it can probably be argued to be more abandoned-looking than rural; but the run-down farmhouse decaying in the empty field in front of the railroad tracks silouheted by the late afternoon sun is about as country as I get these days. Either way, being on a dead-end street in a business district of Broomfield on a Saturday evening was if nothing else quiet.

The sepia tone makes it look much more rural

I have heard that Oscar's packs them in for lunch all week, and the one page menu complete with food-photos (good sign) advises one to "call ahead for reservations". You probably don't need to do this on Saturday night. Until the end of our meal we were the only ones in the restaurant, and while the home-like interior is inviting, it is also hot, so after ordering we quickly moved back out to the patio.

It really was a quite lovely patio. The centerpiece being a sprinkling fountain surrounded by four umbrella-covered tables each with seating for six. Trees lined the South and East fences, and a simple waist-high chain link fence to the North gave it even more backyard, homey feel. The back of the kitchen exits onto the patio--where I first was greeted by Oscar-- and also where our food came out.

Hummus and baba ganoush was our first plate. They pretty much were adorned in the same way-- with decadent amounts of olive oil, dried parsely and paprika. They were both excellent and not just because our babies literally spooned it into their mouths greedily--ignoring the customary space-filling pita-- but because of what I tasted in my few measly bites: silky smooth hummus; earthy, hearty-yet-creamy baba ganoush.

We ordered the so-called "Italian fries" simply because the picture on the menu was clearly a pizza. I didn't get into the "why" with Oscar concerning the name (some things are better left as is--and I do appreciate the randomness of it) but I did get a hearty endorsement--with a promise I would love it. It was a house invention and a specialty, I was told. 

It was fantastic-- a simple cheese pizza though with particularly airy and light crust that kept us all happily munching until it disappeared. It was even somehow good dipped in the accompanying ranch dressing. Go figure. 

I ordered the gyros. It was a relatively large sandwich and being slightly full from so much pizza it was probably a little much. The meat was the standard processed spit kind (which I enjoy immensely) but in the end it was not all that impressive as gyros go. The watery tzatziki was underflavored and therefore so was each bite. There was nothing bad about it--and as always I ate it all-- but it wasn't something I would order again. 

This kafta-like Kabob, simply called the "Beef Kabob" on the menu, was what my wife ordered. These hand-made skewers were on display in the glass refrigerator when we walked in, so it seemed pretty clear this was one of Oscar's specialties. It was indeed wonderfully spiced and cooked. The result was a juicy, flavor-filled log of meat (which are the best kind of meat logs) that even my babies readily ate even though they generally don't have a taste for beef. 

I didn't get to taste the chicken kabob ordered by my wife's 17 year-old sister, but I did get a thumbs up and a, "It's good," from her. I think that qualifies as a ringing endorsement from the not-so-easily impressed youth of today. Anyway it looked pretty good. 

We also ordered a baklava that didn't even last long enough for a photo op. It was one of the better baklavas I have had in recent memory. That being said, my "recent" memory is counted in hours now instead of weeks or months. Regardless it was good, and as good as gone as soon as it hit the table. 

We did enough pre-dinner nap driving in the area to notice the plethora of vacant businesses and the signs announcing the new thouroughfare on 120th near 36, whose construction will begin soon. I asked Oscar about that and though he will be forced to vacate, from what I could gather, he plans move in a year or so to a new location just a bit further south. Good thing. But just in case it doesn't re-open, or changes in any way, I encourage you to visit him soon. Places like Oscar's are becoming less and less common and I would hate for you to miss out. 

Oscars Kabob & Gyros on Urbanspoon


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