Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Around the World in 10 Dishes: Flatbread Edition at Eater Denver

After nearly a year(!), I’ll be returning to this space from time to time to show off a thing or two.

For starters, I’m working on an occasional series over at Eater, Around the World in 10 Dishes, where I’ll be exploring the glorious riches of Denver’s international kitchens in thematic, systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic fashion. First up: flatbreads.

Behold the companion photo gallery to the article, which you should read the crap out of right here!

Manaeesh with za’atar at Amira Bakery

Kulcha at Azitra

Taftoon at Babajoon’s Kabobs

Scallion pancake at Dae Gee

Injera with molokhia at Elsa’s Ethiopian Restaurant

Focaccia al formaggio di Recco at Lo Stella

Huarache con bistec y nopal at Los Carboncitos

Roti canai at Makan Malaysian Cafe

Tlacoyo with grilled chicken at Paxia

Frybread stuffed with shredded bison at Tocabe

 

Gem alert: Palace Nigerian & American Cuisine (+ cheesesteaks!)

Soul-food scholar Adrian Miller is forever dropping urgent knowledge on me, but a recent guided trip to this strip-mall treasure at the edge of Aurora may just take the cake (or pounded yam product, as the case may be).

Though it’s home to a one-man staff by the name of Prince Michael, you’d better believe the name is otherwise adorably inapt—this joint is so not palatial that even “bare bones” is an understatement. The dining room is, in fact, entirely boneless but for 2 flatscreens showing soccer: conference-room furnishings, industrial carpet, white walls.

The menu, however, is as colorful as could possibly be (click to enlarge), featuring-so-soulful-indeed Nigerian specialties supplemented, go figure, by Philly cheesesteaks—

even when the results don’t look it.

Homely as that pepper soup with bone-in goat chunks may be, & as basic as the recipe surely is, the broth was addictively savory, with enough pepper—more black than red of any type, it seemed—to elicit bouts of delighted coughing.

But my entree was both gorgeous & wondrous. Behold amala with fish stew.

Yam being Nigeria’s staple crop, it’s at the center of most meals as rice is in much of East Asia; amala (pictured right) is a yam-flour porridge, darker & stickier than the better-known fufu but still solid enough to use for scooping. The flavor is subtle (some might say nonexistent), but the startling, playful texture is all-important.

As for the stew itself—I’m as speechless as it was eloquent.

From 1 of 4 bases—okra, spinach, a leaf similar to spinach called ewedu, & the unspecified beans called gbegiri—I chose the latter, & their incorporation as a smooth, earthy puree into a combination of tomatoes, herbs & nutty-flavored palm oil resulted in sensations of such layered depth…I’ve never tasted anything quite like it, especially as it began to mingle with flaked bits of the unexpectedly rich, skin-on fish filet (Adrian claimed it was tilapia—if so, perhaps it’s an unusually flavorful subspecies I’m unfamiliar with).

Spread out in a pool of palm oil, the spinach-&-melon seed mélange beneath Adrian’s goat was nearly its expressive equal, reminding me of similar dishes I’d had at the sadly defunct Hessini Roots; the fufu it came with, which is simply labeled “pounded yam,” is a bit more cleanly doughy than amala.

Finally, the jollof rice that came on Rebecca (From Argentina with Love) Caro’s plate of fish & plantains was terrifically evocative too; clearly there was a touch of tomato in there, though I couldn’t put my finger on the spices, & Prince Michael wasn’t telling.

If you hit this joint—& I urge you to do so, like, now—keep in mind that the solo show isn’t a speedy one. Patience will be rewarded with one hell of a marvelous performance.

Palace Nigerian & American Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Hands-On at Palais Casablanca

Said Benjelloun is the sort of host who will have you eating out of his hands—literally.

Once you’re seated, shoes off, on a cushion at one of the low tables under the sumptuous red-&-blue tent that drapes the dining room,

the gregarious, Fez-born chef-owner of Palais Casablanca may just plop right down next to you with a conical silver tagine full of just-baked bread. He’ll describe the Moroccan custom of making a wish on the first bite, silently, over one’s shoulder. Bringing over your salad course, he may demonstrate native dining etiquette by tearing off a chunk of that bread with his own fingers and dipping it in a baba ghanoush–like mound of zaalouk for you to try. At meal’s end, he’ll sprinkle your palms (& face, & scalp) with rosewater & orange flower water from a pair of slender silver pitchers, then hug you goodbye.

In the interim, you’ll have savored the stuff of ancient empires & epic legends, flavors that conjure sun-drenched souks & dusty hookah dens from the Mediterranean to the Sahara. It is, of course, the characteristically heady spicing that lends Moroccan cuisine its evocative power: cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, paprika, & so on abound, sometimes in a blend known as ras-el-hanout; saffron, ginger, & honey are also prevalent. An array of tagines—stews slow-cooked in the iconic aforementioned pots, usually clay, for which they’re named—comprise the vast majority of entrées offered by Benjelloun & his wife Kaoutar (along with brochettes, i.e., kebabs). They exemplify another, related hallmark of North African–Arab cookery, namely a balance between savoriness & sweetness achieved by the incorporation of dried and otherwise preserved fruits—apricots, prunes, raisins, lemons—into the mélanges of meat or fish, veggies, nuts, &/or olives.

But lesser-known b’stella (to use one of many transliterations) takes that contrast to a enchanting extreme.

According to Benjelloun, it’s traditionally served as an appetizer as weddings, but I could easily make a regular meal of the circular pastry, composed of phyllo dough stuffed with all kinds of goodies: here, the b’stella royal contains shredded chicken with scrambled eggs, ground almonds, & artichoke hearts. Then it’s covered in cinnamon and powdered sugar, which combine with the cooking juices to soak the bottom layer of phyllo—& the fingers with which you scoop it up—in syrupy goodness.

I’m also partial to the bissara—a fava bean purée seasoned with olive oil, cumin, & paprika that’s offered only at lunch—

and to the pungent, cinnamon-&-rosewater-sprinkled cold sliced beets on the salad platter.

A couple of caveats: though it’s listed on the menu, Palais Casablanca does not in fact serve wine, only juice & customary pots of sweet mint tea. It also does not serve à la carte dinners on Fridays & Saturdays, presenting instead a four-course prix fixe. So avid tipplers are in for a long night—but at least the belly dancers provide some measure of intoxication, and Benjelloun’s hospitality the warm afterglow.

Palais Casablanca authentic moroccan cuisine on Urbanspoon

African Heart & Soul at Hessini Roots International Café

No offense to my live-in love, but I developed a crush on Ifiok Etuk the moment he emerged from the kitchen of Hessini Roots International Café in Aurora to greet me & a mutual friend of ours with a broad, pearly, lasting smile. My affection only deepened when I caught a glimpse of that same smile on the cover of the self-help book propped up on the counter: titled A Romance Truth, it was written, as Etuk explains charmingly, after “I had worked on myself to become a better person, to make myself a man instead of a boy.” But the final spell was cast when I tasted his food.

Born in Calabar, Nigeria, Etuk was 13 when he came to Denver to live with his aunt and uncle in 1987. By age 25, he had worked his way up the corporate ladder to a management position at Taco Bell; when he got laid off, he says, “It hurt me, & I decided I won’t work for someone else anymore.” So he bought a cooler & started hawking burritos to downtown clubgoers in the wee hours. That led to the acquisition of a van from which he sold hot plates; finally, in 2009, he opened his brick-&-mortar location to offer a heartwarming, belly-filling hodgepodge of African & American soul specialties, with a little Mexican fare thrown in for good measure. We’re talking everything from unusually light, greaseless, cornmeal-fried catifsh nuggets & stewed collard greens laced with shredded, smoked turkey to pepper soup with goat & thick, luscious, golden-brown strips of fried plantain. (And, yes, there are burritos too, distinguished by a stew of tomatoes and onions that oozes around the beef, beans, & rice.)

Just as Ethiopian food is served with the spongy flatbread known as injera, torn into pieces that are used as scoops in lieu of utensils, so the Nigerian plate (like that of other West & Central African cuisines) revolves around fufu—a sticky, fluffy, bunlike mound of boiled, mashed yam.

We pulled off chunks to mop up two chunky, deeply earthy stews. Afang is based on the dark, edible leaf of its namesake vine, with a beefy, iron-tinged flavor much like collards; nutty egusi, meanwhile, combines ground melon seeds with palm oil, onions, tomatoes, & a touch of habañero pepper. The coconut rice they come with likewise contains just enough habañero to add a little color. In short, blasts of capsaicin are the exception to the rule of Etuk’s repertoire, negating his concern that “people might think [Nigerian] food is too spicy.”

If you’re a fire-fearer yourself, however, I suggest you ease into your meal with an order of chin chin.

This everyday snack is made from a dough of flour, milk, eggs, sugar, & nutmeg, which is cut into nuggets & fried; the result is reminiscent of graham crackers or even Cap’n Crunch. It’s sweet enough to double as dessert, although Etuk plans to offer some traditional Nigerian desserts in the future as well—courtesy of his dear “auntie.”

I think I’m in love—& I haven’t even tried the cow’s feet yet.

Hessini Roots International Café: 2044 Clinton St., Aurora; 303.317.6531; Lunch and early dinner Mon.-Sat.; $1.99–$11.99.