Sunday, February 24, 2013

Filling the Void With El Rico Dicho Menuderia y Taqueria, For Now

As a food blogger who has chosen to write mainly about out-of-the-way and at times little-known places, it is the bitter irony of my online existence that I am by nature sentimental and nostalgic, for it is inevitable that many of the eateries I frequent will close, no matter how good the food (or the story) might have been. Yet despite all the heartbreak, I persevere undeterred, like Hugh Grant after Sandra Bullock in one of their 18 movies together after he realizes that he really can't go on living without her. Except for me Sandra Bullock is a new menuderia y taqueria on Havana and 6th and I knew I wanted her (it) all along.

"Taqueria, please just let me explain."

Such as it were I was in the former home of Tao Tao Noodle Bar sizing up a new wall menu full of Mexican standards. Looking back, I did try and go to Tao Tao not all that long ago, but it was, you guessed it, closed. Even though I'd never slurped back one of their famed xiao long bao, I was still a little sad to see it shuttered so suddenly. And when I saw that it was going to become a menudaria and taqueria, I had to make it back as quickly as I could, if for nothing else than to help it not turn into a cursed restaurant-swallowing hole.

Despite its tagline, I didn't come to El Rico Dicho Menuderia y Taqueria for menudo, as this spicy tripe broth is not as appealing on a Wednesday night as, say, a bleary-eyed Saturday crudo-nursing morning. But Rico Dicho is more than just menudo and tacos, and is a step up in decor and ambiance from your typical taqueria, even if that "step up" means a very literal dedication to the greatness of El Chapulin Colorado.

I met a couple of friends there and we ordered a spread of food that filled every corner of the table. Among the consensus favorites was a rich broth of carne seca. Carne seca translates to "dried meat", and that is exactly what you get. But the Rico Dicho Northern Mexico-inspired version is far from your typical jerky. We were comped a plate of these house made meat strips which we devoured along with a squirt of Tapatio and twist of lime: thin and crispy, yet surprisingly flavorful and not the least-bit chewy.

As for the broth? It was a rich beef broth filled with chunks of now-not-so-seca carne, and was balanced nicely by an assortment of chunky potatoes, carrots, onions and peppers. It was a decadent and hearty dish.

Rico Dicho also serves another typical Northern Mexico plate, called discada. Discada is named for the large disk-like wok it is usually cooked in, and is made up of a medley of chopped meats and veggies. It is much like a Mexico City alambre, but this discada of chorizo, carne asada, salchicha (hot dogs) was worlds better than any alambre I have had in Denver.

Speaking of chorizo (as I often do), it, like the carne seca, was made in house. For that reason we also got a plate of tacos de chorizo and were universally smitten with our choice. Mexican chorizo is like bacon in that one can add to about anything and that thing becomes better. And homemade chorizo on a warm corn tortilla makes for a can't miss taco. We also got an order of barbacoa tacos, in this case, beef cheek. Steamed and shredded beef cheek is a wonderfully rich and silky-smooth way to enjoy a cow, and simply spiced and served on a plain corn tortilla, this version absolutely killed.

I liked El Rico Dicho enough that I dragged my family back there a few days later for breakfast. My kids wolfed down their eggs, ham and beans; and I made my way through an enormous portion of an only average plate of chilaquiles made with too-thin tortilla chips that got overly soggy in what otherwise was a nice and spicy tomatillo salsa.

My wife ordered huevos de machaca, or scrambled eggs with carne seca. The carne seca was liberally proportioned with the egg, so that it might well have been called carne seca con huevo, and just like a few days before, this delicate and delicious dried meat was again the star of the meal.

I was impressed with almost everything I had at El Rico Dicho, save the lack of liquor liscense (it's coming) and the so-called huarache. The masa was way too thick and the size far too small, the carnitas dry and flavorless and the toppings (jack cheese and green chile included) would have been more at home on a smothered burrito.

El Rico Dicho has a large menu like many taquerias do, and just like many taquerias, it is likely that not everything is stellar. It seems like the Northern Mexican dishes are their specialty, but in addition to all the other regional Mexican dishes they offered, they also had a full menu of Colorado specialties including a Mexican hamburger.

Whatever the case, it is undoubtedly worth your while to get over to El Rico Dicho Menuderia y Taqueria on 6th just West of Havana and check them out for yourself. If you want a sure thing, focus on anything that uses the house made carne seca or chorizo (and steer clear of the carnitas), but I am sure there are other great options on that menu as well. They haven't been open long, and I'll hope when I roll back up this spring or summer I'll be able to take advantage of their soon-to-come liquor license on their currently closed patio. If not, it will be yet another terrible heartbreak, and I don't know how many more I can take even though I know there are many more to come.

El Rico Dicho Menuderia y Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Celebrating Three Kings Day with Rosca de Reyes from El Paisa

Christmas has been over for a while I understand, but this blog is not known for its up-to-dateness, and given that the Christmas holiday starts so long (so, very, very long) before the actual day, I think I am allowed some leeway in getting around to writing about it. So bear with me if you care to reminisce on this Christmas past. I have mixed feelings about the day, for no matter how much I love kicking back with my family on Christmas, it's hard to get away from the chaotic spree of corporate-driven consumerism that shapes our holiday world from sometime after Halloween all the way through the end of the year. And then imagine you are one of the forgotten folks that don't even celebrate the day: it must be either extremely amusing or endlessly frustrating to look in on our imposing madness.

I did have a pleasant Christmas as I usually do, but my twins are only two, and I hope the day doesn't come when one of them (or both of them, that is always worse) ends up in a tantrum on the floor because of a present he didn't happen to get. I know much of this will probably have to do with how good a job I do raising them (which is why I am even more worried), but it's hard to deny the expectations that our Christmas culture gives to kids. That is why, I am all about Three Kings Day, and have been making the lobby in my house to make it even more exciting than Christmas.

Three Kings Day is January 6, and is called so because it was the day Jesus was supposedly visited by the three magi (don't worry, I too forget that our modern Christmas holiday has anything to do with a story about a man born 2000 years ago that preached a life of poverty and sacrifice). It is also called the Epiphany--or was that the name of the South Park episode where Jesus and Santa finally made peace? I can't remember.

Anyway, there is a tradition of leaving one's shoes out and waking up to find them filled and/ or surrounded by presents, left by the three kings. No trees, no lights, or lawn reindeer needed--just an old pair of your clodhoppers. My wife celebrated in this way, in leiu of Christmas, for much of her youth, or that is, until the great white Santa invaded Mexico as well. My dad, too, celebrated this way in the Philippines. It's still gift giving I realize, but without nearly as many expectations. It's just a few old dudes on horses after all--not the wizard-like CEO of the world's biggest sweatshop.

That was my long and preachy way to get at this: every Three Kings day in Mexico revolves around a special cake, or rosca, a large ring of pan dulce adorned with gummy worm-type candy and loads of sugar. In it are stuffed any number of little plastic baby Jesuses. Tradition goes that whoever cuts into the cake and gets a plastic Jesus brings the tamales to the next holy party on February 2nd.

We got our Rosca from the still-not-burned-down-again El Paisa bakery on East Colfax--which has since its fortunate resurrection once again become my go-to panaderia. The rosca was large though we picked out the medium, and we threw down on this surgary Jesus-loaf in a very non-Christ-like gluttonous manner. It was great. I recommend picking up on this tradition as well, if for no other reason but to enjoy your own rosca.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Eating World Class Vigaron in Nicaragua

I was fortunate enough to recently travel to Nicaragua again, a truly wonderful country that seems primed for a tourist explosion as the country's long history of violence fades from the memories of nationals and foreigners alike. But I'm not here to wax prosaic about the tragic story of Nicaragua's not-too-distant suffering under the boot of Reagan's imperialist paranoia, but rather to talk about food.

It's hard to talk about Nicaragua, however, without making mention of its decades of war and its notorious rank near the top of the poorest countries on this side of the globe. And when talking about the cuisine it's hard not to think about the rationing they went on in their tumultuous past. It is in that context that I introduce what is often considered Nicaragua's national dish, vigaron.

Vigaron is a delightfuly simple dish consisting of cheap and readily available ingredients. Some might call it "peasant food," but I tend to prefer less paternalistic terms, so let's just say its something that bridges all class divisions. The point is, there is nothing fancy to vigaron: a bed of boiled yuca covered by shards of chicharrones and topped with a cabbage and vinegar salad.

The one I had also had a fresh tomato and shredded carrots, but the main plate is so utterly simple--and most importantly--delicious. The soft, tasteless tuber is a perfect bed to sop up the flavor of the slaw, and the contrast of the crunchy pig skin is a perfect compliment. Each paired combination of the three main ingredients is good, but scooping slaw and yuca onto a mouth-sized chunk of chicharron is truly great.

Nicaragua is many things and food is not the first thing that pops into my mind when I am going there. But every country or culture has its own simple, universally loved foods, and in that category, vigaron is world class.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Trains Trains Trains! Breakfast Inn and Dinner Too

Having kids changes life quite a bit, and it is easy to find solace in the mass produced and repetitious. It's hard not to shop at the big baby chains and it's almost impossible to find toys not branded by some famous cartoon character or other, but it is not all that hard to keep eating well and expose kids to a wide variety of foods. That is why I was so disappointed to read a list of Ten Great Denver Restaurants for Kids posted by our own website that, while it has one or two good picks, embarrassingly directs would-be visitors away from our dynamic and diverse local food scene to several national chains and one truly awful place no being capable of exercising free will should be dragged to more than once.

Not to worry, I am not going to turn this blog into into a toddler-focused eating guide, nor even bother to create a list of my own, but so numerous are Denver's family-friendly eateries that I only have to mention one of the last places we ate as a family: the Breakfast Inn and Dinner Too.

The Breakfast Inn is everything you would expect out of a tried and true, classic diner. It serves all three squares any time of the day. It has a crew of über-profressional no-nonsense servers and its menu is everything you would expect (and maybe a little bit more) from a classic Colorado Diner. I say "Colorado" because as you may not realize if you are from Colorado, not every diner across the US has green chile on its menu, or for that matter a wide array of Mexican dishes.

Breakfast Inn, of course, does have green chile and serves it three ways: vegetarian, mild and spicy. I got the spicy, smothered over a breakfast burrito of eggs and potatoes with a side of bright, fresh, cilantro-heavy (in a good way) red salsa. The burrito was a mess of eggs and potatoes--hard to go wrong. The green chile was the star and it was pretty damn good: Colorado gravy-style and respectably spicy.

My wife had cheese blintzes which she absolutely loved. They were more like cheese-filled donuts, but I loved seeing this Eastern European-inspired dish on the same menu as my green chile. The next logical step of course would be to offer them smothered in green chile--I can't imagine too many restaurants are doing that these days.

Oh, and as far as the whole kid-thing goes, it was great. Because there was a train. There is nothing more exciting right now in my sons' lives than trains. At the Breakfast Inn, there is a model train looping the entire East dining room. Each time it came around (after they had stopped craning their necks to see it all the way around) was a squeal of delight and sometimes even applause. My wife and I were actually able to chew our food, breathe between bites and even carry on a little conversation.

I loved the Breakfast Inn. Partly because I don't get to enough diners these days and so it was almost a novel experience. Partly because the name is in the category of simple, descriptive no-nonsense names. (I can almost imagine the day they decided to add dinner to the menu and weighed the new name options with the cost of a new sign.) But in the end I loved it because my kids loved it and I still got to eat good food. I don't know if I would recommend it to a visiting out-of-towner, but I certainly wouldn't send them to the Cheesplace Chain. They don't have a model train and more importantly I bet they don't serve green chile. So,, it would be nice to dig a little deeper next time you make a list like that.

In my opinion there are very few Denver restaurants that are not friendly to kids, though some certainly have more to offer. Just off the top of my head, we have had great experiences over the years at Hi-Rise, Ernie's Pizza, Empanada Express Grill, Frijoles Colorado, Buenos Aires Pizzeria, Vine St. Pub, Highland Tap, Second Home, and almost without exception, each and every family-run Mexican joint, because in Mexican culture, kids are king.

Having kids sure changes life a lot, but one thing that doesn't need to change is eating good food. Breakfast Inn/Dinner Too on Urbanspoon


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