Sunday, October 27, 2013

Life's Little Pleasures: Handmade Noodles at Parker's Dancing Noodle

Being the father of two toddlers, my definition of pleasure has changed quite dramatically from my days as a bachelor in Capitol Hill or even my pre-kid married life where I could still stay up late, curse like a sailor and never once have to come in close contact the poop of another human being. As an example of my current pleasure-reference these days, last year on my birthday all I wanted was to be left alone for a few hours so I could read a book and sip a whiskey without disruption. You want more pitiful? Not too long ago I took a work-related trip without my family: I sat in the middle seat on a crammed Southwest flight, and those two hours were among the most relaxing and peaceful times I have had in recent memory.

It shouldn't surprise you then when I tell you that as a person who likes to eat food then write about it on the internet, one of my greatest pleasures of all comes from stumbling across a restaurant in some out-of-the-way location that I have never heard of--much less seen-- before. It happened a little while back, when my family and I, trying to avoid I-25 traffic coming back to Denver from Colorado Springs, stumbled our way upon the Dancing Noodle in Parker, CO.

The fact that I haven't heard of a new restaurant is nothing shocking, as I have always seemed to repel anything cool, trendy or hip.  Given that, I suppose that me and Parker, CO have a lot in common-- but Dancing Noodle on the other hand has been written up multiple times by Denver's own Westword, including a Best Thai Food award a few years back.

Dancing Noodle's Parker strip mall location, however, is the definition of out-of-the-way and suburban. I'd be surprised if the many of the Westword readers even know where to find Parker on a map (you can reference mine above), much less made the journey out to this suburban oasis.

However sterile and suburban it looks from the outside, inside Dancing Noodle is a refreshing hodgepodge of casual dining mixed with a genuine family feel. We were there on the early side of weekend dining--even for the extreme suburbs-- and walked in to an empty restaurant where we were greeted by a friendly man working on his laptop in the back of the restaurant. He was speaking fluent Thai to a woman whom I took to be his wife, and turned around to speak fluent English to their daughter who was working on her homework.

Our waiter was also incredibly friendly and attentive. He could have come straight out of the Leave it To Beaver Show, with a mop of blond hair and a big cheery smile, but he was able to answer all of our food-related questions quite well, showing a good working knowledge of the menu and cuisine. After I fumbled through our order using my best Thai pronunciation, he very politely repeated it back to me in a way that sounded much, much better. 

The first thing we ordered was this fried tofu. It was delicate and super soft, with a wonderful thin crispy layer all around each piece. The flavor was subtle but the dipping sauce packed a ton of flavor. I forget how much I really love good tofu. Good, plain and simple tofu: fried and delicious. 

My plate of Phat Se-Ew with its incredibly lovely handmade noodles would have been a great pleasure even back when my pleasure-threshold was much higher. The noodles were thick, wide and cooked to perfection. The sweet marinade balanced well with the beautiful char on each piece of broccoli and shrimp. It might just have been the best single plate of Thai food that I have ever had in this town. My only complaint is that I asked for it at the spiciest level and while it did indeed pack substantial heat, this was definitely a US suburban heat. Still, it was probably for the best as all the simple flavors really popped and those noodles... what I wouldn't do for a bowl of those noodles every night.  

My wife got a lovely filet in a rich red curry sauce. Though deep fried, the fish was delicate-- and though I forget what the fish was, it probably doesn't matter because according to this story, most restaurants and chefs don't know either. What does matter is that the fish tasted fresh and the curry was incredible. My wife ordered a level down from the spiciest, but hers seemed to pack more heat than mine, so maybe they got the two confused. I taunted her (lovingly) as she sweated through the last bites, her inner Mexican pride not letting her back down from this spice-challenge. Plus, it was really that good. 

We took dessert to go and shared it across the highway in what appeared to be downtown Parker. This ball of coconut ice cream was not enough for a family of four, especially because it was so delectably creamy and smooth; with a refreshing not-too-strong flavor of pure coconut. Like the rest of the meal, it was absolutely amazing. 

The only plates that were not outstanding were our kid's fried rice (it was fine, but how good can fried rice be compared handmade noodles and that coconut ice cream?) and our other dessert of mango sticky rice, which suffered from a not-that-sweet mango.

I really can't say enough good things about Dancing Noodle; and while my pleasure-threshold is certainly as low as it's ever been in my entire adult life, I'd like to think I still get out to eat enough so as to have some good perspective on food. Parker, CO might not be your first choice for dining out (or your second, or third, or fourth for that matter) -- no you might have never, ever in a million years thought that driving to Parker, CO to eat dinner would be worth your while. Well, in my first Parker experience, it most definitely was.

Dancing Noodle Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Pied Piper of Piccolo's: the Ticorito and More

When you think of American food what comes to mind? Or maybe the better question is, what is American food? And I'm not talking about the larger America that would technically include our neighbors to the north and south, but rather the United States of America, of the Americas. 

Italian and Mexican cuisines are two cuisines deeply integrated into our American persona. Italian-American food is such a part of our "American culture" that we forget that Italian immigrants were once marginalized and hated just like newer immigrant groups are marginalized and hated now. And even though Mexicans were living in parts of the US long before those parts were even US territories, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans are still going through the same struggles other immigrant groups have gone through over the centuries here in the US-- and around the world, for that matter. But Mexican food? I could wax for pages and pages about how integral Mexican influence is on food in our society but other people have done a much better job than I could have ever hoped, so you are safe from my arguments, however full of common sense they might be. Suffice to say: everyone loves Mexican food. 

Nowhere is this more clear than in a restaurant like Piccolo's, a bit of a unknown Denver institution that prides itself on not only featuring Italian and Mexican-American food--which is nothing unique--but blending the two together in one-and-only ways. 

Walking into Piccolo's understated corner stripmall storefront is like walking into a slice of middle America. A 9/11 "Never Forget" poster hangs besides family photos. On this Saturday night the dining room is mostly full of families and older couples while at the small bar a few locals watch the CSU football game. It is busy but easy to get a seat. The servers are mostly teenagers. Almost instantly a thin man with gray hair, a skinny tie, and a youthful ear-to-ear grin sidles up to our table to greet us. It's Vincent Canino, one of the three brothers who own and operate Piccolo's. His father, he explains, owned a restaurant in Denver in the 1950's called Tico Taco, so featuring Mexican-like food on the menu was a no brainer.

The menu at Piccolo's is largely typical Italian-American and Mexican-American, or better, Mexican-Colorado food. For the most part the Shrimp Scampi and Eggplant Parmigiano stay on one page and the burritos and enchiladas on another. Still there other some unique cultural clashes that stand out like the Jalapeno ravioli and garnachas with Italian dressing. Sounds gimmicky, I know, but keep reading and see if you don't want to eat what I did that night. 


The Mex-Italian-American evening started off innocently enough with a bowl of dinner rolls resting on top of a bed of freshly fried tortilla chips. The salsa was unfortunately so tomato heavy and under-spiced that it might have actually just been a watery marinara sauce-- in either case it wasn't really worth putting on the nicely fried tortilla chips. But my toddler's loved it, so that's worth something to me.

As I perused the extensive menu, my eyes stopped on the first item in the "Mexican" section where I found a dish I couldn't resist: the Mexican Canoli. The Mexican Canoli is something few restaurants would dare to put on a menu even if they were insane enough to dream it up. It is comprised of a pair of jalapeno cheddar bratwurst freshly baked into a tubular bread dough, or "canoli".

The green chile was actually a quite good, part gravy-style and part stew-like, with large chunks of pork and a modest kick. Also inside was a strip of roasted jalapeno (below) which ran the length of the brat and provided another little kick along with a wonderful smoky flavor. All in all it was a great sandwich, or canoli, or bread burrito, or whatever the hell you want to call it. 

My wife ordered a Ticorito (not to be confused with the Tacorito, RIP), a shout to Vincent's father's long past days in the Denver taco business. The Ticorito is the pride and joy of Piccolo's, or at least it should be. It made my two full-sized sausage sandwiches look like a pair of those little appetizer hot dogs. I whimpered when I saw it placed in front of my petite wife, the sheer weight of the plate seemed to tip the whole table just slightly towards her. Over a pound of ground beef mixed with rice, beans and onions-- all smothered with chile of your choosing (red or green) and yellow cheese. It was behemoth, but my never-say-never wife, who at the time was training for a marathon or some other form of grueling test of physical endurance (opposites attract) attacked it with ferocity.

The beef in the Ticorito tasted almost like a lasagna filling, and the red chile was a little sweet--but also robust, smoky and somewhat spicy. It was, in short, a very good smothered burrito. And my wife mowed it down.

Many people seemed to come for the pizza, which my kids ate along with a kid's chicken taco the size of a small burrito. The pie? It was decent, though nothing special. 

There may never be a day when we as a collective society will ever learn from our own recent history. There will be a day, and I hope to live to see it, when Mexican-Americans and other, more recently marginalized groups will be as commonly accepted as the Irish, Italians, and the long list of other ethnic groups that have been outcast while they tried to survive in our country. Maybe one day we will live in a society that will even welcome ethnic changes in our country-- or better yet, one day the typical American will be so blended with different ethnicities and backgrounds that we won't even notice. Whatever the case, we can all agree to disagree over a plate of Mexican food. 

Piccolo's on Urbanspoon


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