Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Best Laid Plans and Denver's New Honduran Food Truck

This past Friday I had in mind to visit one of my most beloved food corners in Aurora: Montview and Nome. It is a relatively busy, culturally diverse and urban-feeling crossroads in the middle of an otherwise residential neighborhood. It is here that I fell hard for Grandma's, a Korean comfort diner where grandma herself lovingly prepared her food despite an always empty dining room. And a decent taqueria that had one big draw: a Taco Discada, which was full of chorizo, ham, bacon and ground beef.


Both restaurants are closed now, but I was headed back into the heart of Aurora this afternoon to try Thai Landing, a place that my wife and I visited years ago, and is still standing strong. I don't remember the food very well, but the friendly owners and quirky dining room had this place on my list for another visit. The plan was simple: drive to Aurora, get some take out and speed back to Denver before it all got too cold.

Everything changed when I pulled into the Thai Landing parking lot and spied this truck: Antojitos Hondureños.


I hoped my family would be in the mood for beans and cheese as there was really no way I was eating anywhere else that night.


I've never had Honduran food before. The closest I have been is Nicaragua, and a Honduran friend that I hung out with a lot in Costa Rica. The most I knew was that baleadas were pretty common--just a simple tortilla with melted cheese and beans.

It turned out I didn't need to know much about Honduran food as there were really only five menu choices, and two were baleadas (spelled baliadas here, but I'm pretty sure that's not right). I ordered the other two main plates: a carne asada and chicken with tajadas (sliced and fried plantain).


After I paid I did my best to peer into the truck where two older women who looked like they knew their way around a kitchen were busy pounding out masa dough, frying meat and generally putting together one enormous meal.

As I was driving home, the aroma of refried beans, warm tortillas and melted cheese was almost too much too bear. But I figured the only thing worse than coming home with something so completely the opposite of Thai food would be to come home with half-eaten baleadas--or worse no food at all. I was at this point very, very hungry.

I did make it home without eating all the food as I always manage to do when getting take-out from far-away places (it's one reason my marriage has lasted so long). And its good I didn't come home empty-handed as my equally-as-hungry wife was struggling to get our two screaming-for-food-boys into their high chairs for dinner as I triumphantly arrived.


I quickly quelled the situation by starting to feed my boys bits of still-warm, thick flour tortilla from the baleada. Then I took a bite and was equally smitten with the soft, freshly-made tortilla, the creamy beans and even the tremendously salty cheese.

My wife was surprised at the cuisine choice, but she goes well with the flow (on second thought that is more of the reason our marriage has lasted so long), and started in on the baleada with carne asada. The carne asada was a thin-but-sizable cut of grilled steak, and although a little dry as these cuts of meat often over-cooked in much of Latin America, it made a very good baleada even better.


My wife liked the baleadas as well but was not so excited about the cheese. I admit it was exquisitely salty, but the beans were not, nor was the tortilla--I imagine on purpose--so that it all balanced out quite well. This cheese was not unlike a Mexican cotija, but whereas cotija is often sprinkled sparingly on food, there were copious amounts of this saliferous cheese in each bite. (I'm not sure if this cheese was from Honduras but I am glad that I didn't give any to my babies after reading this hilarious post about the state of Honduran cheese.)

The next dish we tried was the chicken and tajadas. The chicken was deep-fried and covered in a wonderful crisp, thick breading. The problem was that it was already getting cold (though it was still quite moist) so that it was not nearly as good as it could have been. It's too bad, as the rest of the chicken dish was amazing.


Under the chicken was a bed of tajadas, or green plantain that was sliced thinly (but not overly so like a chip) and fried. It was part sweet, part savory and married well with the Honduran-style slaw of cabbage and radishes that covered everything. Sprinkled over the top were beautiful pickled purple onions that made the whole dish pop with color and added yet another layer of flavor. Again, it is just too bad the chicken was not hot. Lesson learned: next time I will have to eat this in the car.


The carne asada plate was the same overcooked meat found in the baleada. Again, this is standard practice in many countries South of the US, and although it was dry, it was flavorful and had a nice sear. There were more glorious beans, some fluffy white rice, a slice of avocado, some more of that cheese and the pickled onions. It was a re-hashing of most of the night's other ingredients, and while I enjoyed it, I'd probably skip this next time for a chance to try that chicken when it was still hot.

Though I waited in front of Antojitos Hondureños mostly alone, by the time I got my food, there were quite a few Honduran ex-pats filling up the parking lot. The truck, as it happens, had only been open for five days, meaning that this was the first weekend. I imagine this truck's presence created quite a stir in the Denver Honduran community, and with good reason: They make comfort food that I'm sure any Honduran living in Denver would crave. And for the rest of us, it is most certainly worth the drive into Aurora. I know I will be back, and next time I will sample the fifth menu item: pastelitos de carne, a corn masa fired empanada filled with ground beef.

Visit Antojitos Hondureños in Aurora on the corner of Montview and Nome. Based on the notorious ephemeral nature of the food truck, call first: 720-628-0522.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Filipino Feast at Mesa: Modern(e) Crispchon and Mor(e)

During my recent trip to the Philippines there wasn't that much time to be a tourist. That was fine, of course, as I was able to spend quality time with not only my father, but the dozens--if not hundreds--of people that we consider our relatives, which is to say most of the occupants of the town in which my father was born and raised. I was also, however, able to slip out one night for a meal with some first cousins, and they whisked me away from the rooted tradition of my ancestral home into the most modern part of Manila, Makati City.

Among all the towering skyscrapers and bustling evening street life we headed to a mall. Of course we did. Malls have replaced plazas, parks and the picturesque waterfront as the gathering place of choice for urban-dwelling Filipinos (but that is another topic altogether). But shopping wasn't on the agenda that night, rather they were taking me to the hip, crowded Mesa restaurant in the admittedly stunning Greenbelt 5 mall (yes it is the fifth mall in the same location-- and yes, the other four are still open).

Even the lights looked good enough to eat

Mesa describes itself as a modern Filipino restaurant (actually technically they use "moderne" but I'll stick with the "e"-less version) and the interior was indeed sleek and minimalist. But then I sat down and opened the extensive menu randomly to this page:


This gorgeous and gleaming young swine centerfold was all I needed to see to know that I would like this nouveau cuisine. (I realize that in the Philippines it is not all that exciting or unusual to see lechón but for us Filipinos and half-Filipinos living in decidedly non-Filipino places like Denver, each pig-on-a-stick sighting triggers more photos than sunset on Manila Bay or posing with Rizal at Luneta Park--combined.)


"You want that?" My cousin astutely inquired, seeing my jittery hands and shit-faced grin as I stared at the picture of "Crispchon"--that is,  lechón that instead of being roasted is deep fried to a crisp. He proceeded to order that and so much more, in what would be a disgustingly decadent spread of Filipino flavor.

I just about peed on myself (for joy) when our 17-year-old (at most) server quickly re-appeared with the freshly deep fried hind quarter of a suckling pig. He placed it on a small butcher's block and began to chop it into bite-sized chunks. Its still-steaming meat and hot glistening skin was making me more than a little rabid. Then, suddenly, another server came out and grabbed the whole leg bone and disappeared back into the kitchen.


"Nooooo!" I whispered to myself. From my seat at the wrong end of a six-person booth I was helpless to stop him. I was also physically unable to speed up our young butcher who after chopping for what seemed like hours, was now rolling up pieces of the meat with crackly pig skin, cucumbers, cilantro and leeks into small pandan crepes--basically a fresh lumpia wrapper.


I appreciated the effort and the style of our table side demo but  lechón is best when eaten piping hot. So it was with some sadness that I watched the steam dissipate from the sliced meat. And where the hell was that pig leg?

Then I became distracted by the simultaneous arrival all of our food. First to hit the table was a huge plate of grilled meats: skewered and marinated pork, fatty ribs, mussels and plump prawns. And while it was all quite good, my mind was still on that quartered pig.


The next dish I sampled was a creative plate of deep fried tilapia. The fillet was cubed and fried separately from the body so as to be light and crunchy like popcorn--but still wonderfully moist. But the best pieces were on the body itself  (the head and cheeks to be specific) which was also fried and presented in a way that looked as if the two fish were still swimming circles in the ocean around each other (as they probably were the day before).


More plates: baby octopus, stir-fried vegetables, a delicate seafood soup and an incredible green mango dish served with diced tomato and onion, garnished with Bagoong Alamang, or Filipino shrimp paste.


Finally our boy-server plopped down our platter of rolled-up lechón  in the center of our table.


Although only luke-warm my first bite was entirely satisfying. The skin was still crisp (it was deep fried after all) and the meat was tender like a young pig's flesh should be. The vegetables added another layer of crispy texture but also cut the fatty, fried meat nicely. Three sauces adorned the platter, but I needed none other than the traditional pork liver lechon sauce. Again, it could have been hotter (temperature-wise) and it would have been better, but it was still the best thing I have eaten in a long, long time.


And then I noticed someone had snuck the leg bone back onto our table-- now chopped into hand-sized chunks and stacked rather haphazardly (in contrast to our carefully prepared lechon rolls) on a single small plate. When they were passed my way I gnawed at several crunchy, meaty, fatty pieces and even sucked on the foot itself in homage to my dear wife (she loves her some pig feet) who, unable to come, was at that moment probably just starting to stir in bed to the crescendo-ing cries of two one-year-old babies.

Crying babies? Or fried pig leg? Tough choice.

It was, as I said, an enormous meal-- just the type of indulgence required for a reunion of three cousins (and their families) living on three different continents. I don't get enough Filipino food anymore to distinguish the good from the great, as just the dishes themselves, the flavors even-- rich liver sauce, crisp pork skin, fishy shrimp paste, acidic green mango, fresh seafood-- are enough to get my taste buds giddy and keep me food-happy for weeks, if not months, afterwards. So I'm sure some purists have criticized Mesa, and no, everything was not executed perfectly well, but in the end this is the type of experience-- sharing good food with dear family-- that reinvigorate my passion for all food. And with that inspiration I am back in Denver and looking for my next great meal.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Culinary Three-Way: Axios, Axios and more Axios

Years ago, in times when my wife and I could travel freely throughout the world without worries, we spent a week or so visiting some dear friends in Astoria, Queens. Astoria is a great example of New York's incredible diversity, and has always been known as its Greek Oasis.  


Needless to say, Greek restaurants abounded in Astoria, but there was one in particular that my wife and I stopped in over and over again during that trip. We would pass by it walking home from the train and on some nights we would stop in for a nightcap of some perfectly executed Greek delicacy--not because we were hungry, but just because it was that good. At the time it made me realize how much I missed well-prepared, fresh Greek food and it made me a little sad to think that back in Denver were mostly diner-style Greek options--some good Gyros--but nothing truly great. 


So it was with great anticipation that I awaited a meal at Denver's newest Greek option, Axios Estiatorio, after making plans to eat there with Denveater and the infamous Mantonat--along with all our significant others. What follows is a part one of a two-part post of our three takes on a fun night at Axios. For part two, visit Denveater's blog. Ready, set, go!


Dish 1: Kalamari
Mantonat: I haven't eaten calamari in a restaurant in ages, mostly because of the lack of variety and originality in the presentation: flavorless, chewy deep-fried rings with a dipping sauce just have limited appeal. These were delicious though; tender and tasting of the ocean and covered in a beautifully complex broth rather than a layer of oily breading.

Denveater: I could've slurped down that broth even without the squid; containing both white wine and sherry, olives and capers, garlic and onions (as well as tomatoes and spinach), it had unusual vibrancy depth of flavor.

DOAS: My wife loves calamari almost as much as she loves pickled pig’s feet (I'm happy to say that I make her top five most days, depending on her mood). I wasn't all that excited to see it drenched in so much broth, but although it was too salty in my opinion, it did have a nice, rich flavor, and the calamari was well cooked.


Dish 2: Kolokithikeftedes
Denveater: From the description, "zucchini and feta fritters," I expected pungent little breaded and deep-fried orbs, not light, tender mini-latke-like objects that were all about their vegetal flavor, enhanced by tzatziki that was especially chunky with cucumber. In short, what I thought would be guilty pleasures turned out to be borderline healthful, which actually made them that much more pleasurable.

Mantonat: Yes, this was another dish I expected to be deep-fried. Instead, they were delicate pancakes with a tangy yogurt sauce. A nice appetizer with a starting beer—but I wish restaurants would just skip the pale winter tomatoes.

DOAS As you both commented, this was a pleasant surprise for not being a deep-fried greasy patty—although when I write that, I think to myself: "A deep-fried patty dripping with oil sounds pretty damn good." I agree that they were fresh and light—borderline healthy with all that vegetable flavor.


Dish 3: Dolmades
DOAS: This was my favorite. Dolmades of any kind are one of my many food loves. There is something about those slimy, slippery green leaves that I can't get enough of. These were the two biggest dolmades that I have ever eaten, which is something noteworthy in my personal stuffed-grape-leaf-eating life, but they were also excellent—both on their own and with the creamy, velvety lemon sauce.

Denveater: Agreed—a distinctive, elegant variation on the traditional version, thanks both to the wine-steeped and pinenut-studded rice filling and that rich splash of lemon cream.


Dish 4: Lamb Giouvetsi
DOAS: I don't say this too often about lamb dishes, but I didn't like this plate very much at all. The tomato sauce was way too much for me and overall it just wasn't, well, all that good. It was too bad as the orzo was nice, the lamb was falling off the bone and luscious, but that sauce literally drowned it all out.

Denveater: I only tasted the orzo in roasted tomato sauce enriched with lamb drippings, and for me it was just right—robust, tangy, nutty from the grain. The Director sided with you completely, however.

So there you have it, half of our meal from Axios. I must say that I had some wildly high hopes for Axios, and while it wasn't a perfect meal for me, it was still very good and the service was excellent, the atmosphere welcoming and there was Greek wine aplenty. For more on all that, read part two of this post on Denveater's blog.

Axios Estiatorio on Urbanspoon

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Press "1" For Awesome: Food of the Philippines

Besides all my usual reasons, I have been very tardy in posting recently because of a whirlwind trip to the Philippines. The premise was a sad one, as a dear, dear loved one has passed, but the result was gathering together with family at our ancestral home just outside of Manila in Cavite. And as I learned during my first Filipino wake, times of Filipino mourning are just as filled with food as times of celebration.

The food in this house has been prepared by a woman named Rita who has worked for the family for as long as many of us can remember--at least the last twenty years. She is a masterful cook and she was in top form for the entire week, whipping up meal after elaborate meal for dozens of hungry neighbors, distant cousins and travel-weary visitors at a time.

Press "1"! Press it!

My favorite time was breakfast, when it was usually just a handful of us immediate family-- and maybe a few faithful churchgoers, stopping by after mass to continue the devotions. A typical morning meal that week looked a lot like this:


I always started by getting my hands on some quesillo (which I saw spelled Kaysilo at a local market). Quesillo is Cavite's version of Kesong Puti. It is a fresh, unpasturized and glorious cheese made from the milk of a carabao.



The carabao, if you don't know is the Asian Water Buffalo and native to Southeast Asia. It is an enormous and cumbersome beast while the cheese, in contrast, is delicate and light. It is just firm enough to stay together when sliding out of the banana leaf in which it is wrapped, but soft enough to fall apart with the gentle tug of a spoon.


Its creamy texture and fresh taste make it the perfect spread for a freshly baked pandesal (the Filipino salty bread roll) though it is even better with a bite of a sweet, sticky longganisa sausage dripping with fat.


Also on that plate above with both a sweet and a garlic-laden longganisa is a subtly sweet tube of sticky rice, Sumang Malagkit. It too came wrapped in a banana leaf.


And another version of it was flavored (and colored) with ube, the ubiquitous purple tuber of the Philippines. Everything is better with ube.


Despite how I talked up Rita at the beginning of the post, in retrospect much of this particular meal was bought at the local market. But just so it's clear that she is an awesome cook (press "1"), here is a picture of lunch later in the week. Her version of Arroz a la Cubana.


This Latin-inspired Filipino dish consists of ground pork, peas, carrots, potatoes and raisins all mixed up in a red sweet-but-savory tomato sauce. That sounds good enough as is, but also thrown in there are big chunks of fried banana--Saba to be specific. Saba is a small cooking banana with a taste not unlike a plantain, though it is sweeter. The dish is typically served with a fried egg, but Rita--who was cooking buffet-style and had no time to be frying eggs to order--instead hard-boiled quail eggs and tossed them in with everything else. Brilliant.


That is a taste (or at least a look) of what I've been up to lately. It's too bad Denver doesn't have Filipino food this good but then again the Philippilines doesn't have good Greek or Salvadorean cuisine either--just two of the themes of upcoming posts I'm working on now-- if I can just find the time to get it all done.

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