I’m not always thrilled with Ya Hala, but when this institution delivers, it really delivers, pun totally intended. The croquettes known as kibbeh—stuffed with browned ground lamb, cracked wheat (or maybe bulgur, who can tell), pinenuts & onions—are shockingly spot-on. The exterior is fresh, crunchy, lightly seasoned, & greaseless; the interior is moist, not so much rich as deep, & nutty. The rice, too, is expertly cooked & fragrant in that Eastern Mediterranean way, whereby you’re transported to some ancient juncture of sea & desert & crumbling city…
“An excruciatingly hot curry, more pain & sweat than flavor. For our customers who do this on a dare, we will require you to state a verbal disclaimer not holding us liable for any physical or emotional damage after eating this. If you do manage to finish your serving, a bottle of beer is on us.”
Wish they’d said it as well to my face, but since I ordered delivery from d-dish, I received neither aid nor ale. And you bet they owe me a brew, because even though it’s totally unpleasant, phall is also intensely, physically addictive; I always manage to polish it off.
My own suggestion is to order it with mild, spongy cubes of the fresh cheese known as paneer, which at least provide milliseconds of respite from the lip-blistering, throat-searing curry. Forget balance; there are no salty, sweet, or sour notes—just a chili pall cast over all. But since it seems to lift within a few moments, you’re left with an endorphin rush that keeps you going back for more.
I say “seems” because a couple of hours afterward, your gut tells you in no uncertain terms the chili hasn’t dissipated at all. At that point it’s pretty much hacking away at your intestinal lining with a flaming machete.
Guaranteed, however, that months from now, I’ll have forgotten all that misery & I’ll order it yet again.
***Yesterday’s ode to the King Combo at Mecca Grill brought the below post to mind, originally published on the website of Denver Magazine earlier this year.***
On January 31, the USDA revised its dietary guidelines to recommend that Americans up their intake of produce, whole grains, plant-based proteins, & good fats even more while further reducing their intake of meat & saturated fats. In short, duh, but it served as a reminder to yours truly that I should throw vegetarians a bone (so to speak) more often.
While the new food diagram looks a lot like that of the Western Mediterranean diet as popularized in the 1990s, Eastern Mediterranean cuisine is no less vegetarian-friendly & heart-healthy. So I decided to try the meatless combo platters offered by two of Denver’s most beloved Middle Eastern joints—Jerusalem Restaurant & Ya Hala Grill—side by side to see how they stacked up.
To start with the items the combos had in common:
Falafel. Jerusalem’s boasted a golden-brown crust as cracklingly thin as the surface of crème brulée—but the interior of these fried, mashed-chickpea croquettes was moist, nutty & smoky with cumin & lots of herbs. Ya Hala’s was too crunchy throughout, on the dry side. Winner: Jerusalem.
Stuffed grape leaves. Expertly rolled, Jerusalem’s were as tight as cigars, packed with aromatic jasmine rice. By contrast, Ya Hala’s rice filling was plain, interesting rather for its texture: almost pudding-like inside remarkably tender, olive oil–slicked grape leaves. Winner: Toss-up. Jerusalem’s are technically correct, but I enjoyed the unusual softness of Ya Hala’s.
Hummus. Compared to Ya Hala’s blandly one-note fluff, Jerusalem’s chickpea purée is textbook—lightly creamy, spiked with lemon juice and tahini in equilibrium. Winner: Jerusalem. (Ya Hala does, however, have a garbanzo-based winner in fatteh.)
Tabbouleh. Proportion was also the key to Jerusalem’s finely chopped, simply dressed parsley-&-bulgur salad with tomatoes & onions, whereas Ya Hala’s was especially lemony. Winner: Another toss-up. Jerusalem’s showed better balance, but Ya Hala’s had more juice, in every sense of the word.
Baba ghanoush. Only after reviewing the menu did I realize that one of the three whitish dips on Ya Hala’s combo was even supposed to be baba ghanoush; none had any eggplant flavor at all. Jerusalem’s was more like it—nice & tangy, with an airy consistency almost like whipped cream. Winner: Definitely Jerusalem.
Ounce for ounce, Jerusalem was coming out way ahead—especially considering that its combo was $4 cheaper than Ya Hala’s ($8.95 versus $12.99), yet offered two falafel & stuffed grape leaves to the latter’s one. But that was only half the battle. In fact, the remaining items on Jerusalem’s platter were less impressive, from the pale, limp french fries to the fattoush, an oily mixture of chopped green pepper, winter tomatoes, onions & herbs that was completely devoid of the key ingredient, toasted pita chips. Ya Hala, meanwhile, offered up starkly pungent garlic dip & soothing cucumber-yogurt sauce in counterbalance; the earthy mixture of lentils & rice known as moujaddara; a well-spiced wedge of spinach-feta pie (though the phyllo was slightly stale); & unfortunately tinny-tasting green beans stewed with tomatoes, as well as a few chunks of decent feta.
Final verdict: Ya Hala’s vegetarian combo was more diverse, but Jerusalem’s was better overall—indicating why the decades-old Denver University hangout is such a mainstay.
Jerusalem Restaurant: 1890 E. Evans Ave.; 303.777.8828; Lunch and dinner daily; $3.50–$12.95.Ya Hala Grill: 2100 S. Colorado Blvd.; 303.758.9376; Lunch and dinner daily; $3.50–$13.99.
Countless times I’ve admitted to the mistake of delivery sushi—antithetical to the organic, immediate, intimate sushi bar experience, hence unfair to both the purveyor & the consumer thereof. Countless times I’ve ordered it anyway, because I’m lazy like that. But after a recent order from Taki Sushi, the Director finally, officially revoked my sushi-delivery privileges—his nigiri & the California roll we got for free (standard with a purchase over $25, mind you, not something we’d ever actively choose) being, he griped, flaccid & tasteless.
I got luckier; my nigiri—spicy scallop, black tobiko (flying fish roe) & wasabi-infused tobiko—were just fine, tightly rolled, eggs a-popping, shellfish firm yet luscious. (I also appreciated the fact that they could be ordered by the piece rather than by the more common pair.)
But what I really dug, she admits sheepishly, was the Pearl Roll (at bottom).
My excuse for snarfing such an abomination of Japanese tradition: look, it’s summer, & I pine for the days I spent traipsing up & down the Massachusetts shoreline to get my fill of breaded, deep-fried bivalves at seasonal landmarks like The Clam Box. And here they were, crispy breaded oysters whose flavor wasn’t totally lost amid the rice & seaweed topped with salmon & avocado in a more-sweet-than-spicy chili mayo. Pretty good for being so bad.
Granted, 1 glance at the loose rice in the Cali roll above it justifies the Director’s complaints—& I wasn’t too keen on the miso eggplant either. Recipes can vary, & a sauce as thick & sweet as this isn’t necessarily wrong. But it seemed to have just been slopped on top, not broiled with the eggplant to integrate the flavors. So it evoked a sort of eggplant-pudding parfait. Rather disconcerting.
Still, there was enough I liked about Taki at a disadvantage to want to try it in the presumably more flattering light of an actual visit.
Since the ban on takeout/delivery applies only to Japanese food, I’ve been taking advantage of the Director’s falafel fetish to get my fill of Mecca Grill. It’s actually a cute place, humble but colorful & cozy, in its little strip mall on Downing—but see “lazy like that.” I’m also boozy like that; Mecca’s dry, & my house isn’t.
We’ve ordered 3 King Combos in the past week or so, all of them slightly different—I suspect the kitchen adds whichever meats are at its immediate disposal. We’ve seen chunks of beef, lamb & chicken kebab, chicken shawarma, kofta, &, once, though it’s not even listed as an option, thin coins of the superb, literally melt-in-your-mouth spiced lamb-&-beef sausage otherwise used for sandwiches. To a piece, they’ve been moist & tender—even the chicken!—as well as nicely charred & seasoned.
The vegetarian items haven’t changed: there’s the baba ghanouj I just named Dish of the Week; stuffed grape leaves whose luscious near-gooeyness contrasts with their hyper-lemony tang; tabbouleh with a surprising paprika kick, whether due to its mixture with other items or its own recipe; crunchy, nutty falafel from which the scent of herbs actually wafts; & just-right rice. The uncharacteristically bland hummus isn’t quite up to the rest, & I seriously doubt the claim on the menu that the pita is housemade. But overall the combo rocks.
The same could be said of Mecca Grill in general. The only thing I won’t be ordering again is the fatoush. Though abounding in vividly crisp, ripe veggies, it was also swimming in the oil of a dressing that, given the expert condimenting of everything else, was a disappointment. If it did indeed contain olive rather than vegetable oil, it wasn’t extra or even plain or even born-again virgin, & the advertised flavor of mint went undetected. After a few bites I just picked out all the pita chips before they got soggy & left it at that.
Meanwhile, though they required a bit of knife action (roughage is a bitch), the cabbage rolls—a family recipe, we were told—were wonderfully stuffed with rice & ground lamb cooked in a bit of tomato sauce, redolent of cumin & a touch of cinnamon. So soft & soothingly homey.
You’ll often see the dish below listed as foul moudammas (or some variant spelling thereof); you might also, as here, see the name translated simply as fava beans. Which they are—mature, dried favas that are nothing like the flattish, fresh, green ones you see in their pods at the market in season but rather evoke smoky, meaty pintos.
In any case, the garnish of juicy diced tomatoes & sliced pickle adds a layer of zing to the beans, popping just so in your mouth.
At this point, I’m half-tempted to stop whining about wine & stop in for a feast, washed down with a banana milk “cocktail.””
Mecca Grill excels at a lot of things (full review to come), but the baba ghanouj in particular is among the best I’ve ever had.
You see how it’s a little granular?
My guess is that’s because they don’t puree it but mash it by hand. And you see how it’s a little grayish? That, I bet, is due to the addition of pomegranate juice or syrup (the menu calls it “sauce”)—just a touch to bring out the sweetness of the eggplant, while lending depth to the tartness of the lemon juice.
A hit of smoke, a hint of garlic, a smack of nutty tahini, a drizzle of olive oil & a sprinkle of what tasted like sumac rather than paprika—it all added up to a strikingly prismatic variant on the classic.
Early on a Sunday evening, Larkburger was packed—just, I suppose, like every other burger-flipping fast-food joint in the whole wide world. It’s a cultural phenomenon that never ceases to confound me, & thus to underscore the fundamental sense of outsiderliness I developed as a child in family-friendly, meat-&-potatoes Oklahoma & have yet to quite shake. My own family wasn’t particularly family-friendly or meat-&-potatoes; my mom & dad loved me lots, of course, but for them that meant teaching me early on to appreciate a wide variety of adult foods in adult environments rather than indulging immature tastes. So while I like a good burger just fine, its status as an icon among culinary icons, a thing to be craved & consumed near-daily amid plastic shapes, cartoon colors & screeching voices—that I still can’t fathom. And though Larkburger’s reclaimed wood paneling is nice & all, the otherwise typical setting—all easy-to-clean surfaces, dispensible (albeit eco-friendly) products, raucous kiddies & harried parents with understandably faraway looks in their eyes—just depresses me to no end.
Which is a roundabout way of saying I got my food to go, zipping quickly home so the Director & I could wash it down with wine & Scotch, the way any god worth believing in intended.
Here’s the other thing about burgers: they’re insufficient fodder for detailed reviews, being pretty well summed up by 2 words: “good” or “bad.” And the word on Larkburger’s signature has been out long enough to make my chime-in almost pointless. Is the patty juicy, flavorful & cooked to order? You bet, semantics notwithstanding—”medium-rare” is not technically an option, though it’s what plenty pink “medium” turns out to be a euphemism for. Whatever. Does the buttered bun taste fresh, slightly sweet & fluffy as all good white bread should? Of course. Are the veggies crisp? Naturally. How’s the house sauce? Nice—an extra-tangy aioli.
Truffle-parmesan fries are pretty much the new regular fries, having long since passed from novelty to standard. (Okay, not literally; Larkburger serves plain fries too, all of the thin, crisp-tender variety.) Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not anti-truffle oil, however ubiquitous it may be, so long as it’s judiciously applied to be aromatic but not overwhelming—and such is the case here. The parmesan, parsley & sea salt, however, are sprinkled on so heavily as to actually clump here & there—& that, in my book, is a really good thing.
The turkey burger, unfortunately, isn’t likely to change skeptics’ minds about turkey burgers. Though made in good faith with lots of herbs & spices, it remains on the dry side—unlike the lettuce I got mine wrapped in. I was curious to see how the low-carb alternative would hold up, & the answer is: it doesn’t. The aioli quickly liquefies, soaking the leaves & making a mess you can’t eat without a fork. (Well, you can, but you’ll have to do it like this.)
A far more pleasant surprise is what I’d call Larkburger’s dark horse: the chili.
As served, it’s a well-integrated, spicy-sweet stew of ground beef, black & kidney beans, & fat hominy kernels swimming in juicy tomatoes & lots of diced red onion as well as fresh cilantro. As reserved for leftovers, eaten cold the next day, it’s thicker but no less balanced.
She says, wiping stray beads of orange oil from her lips after a fine breakfast.
***This review originally appeared on the website of now-defunct Denver Magazine; I’m posting it here as was—hence the wintertime references—along with an update.***
I’ve tried just about every Thai joint within a 5-mile radius of my house on the south side of town, & I’ve been disappointed by all of them. Let’s face it, the vast majority follow a generic formula that blurs regional distinctions & shifts the cuisine’s celebrated balance of spicy to salty to sour to sweet in favor of the latter to appeal to the American taste for sugar.
So I didn’t get my hopes up for Thai Pan. I’d peeked into the strip-mall storefront at the corner of South Colorado & East Mississippi once, & was vaguely amused by the mishmash of decorative elements so typical of such holes in the wall—a display of jewelry for sale here, a framed photo of the king of Thailand there, carved depictions of elephants (the national symbol) everywhere. But it was closed at the time, & I didn’t consider it again until last week, when the cold snap kept me home in my pajamas, delivery menus at the ready. Although Thai Pan’s menu was laden with the usual stirfries, curries, & noodle dishes, it also listed haw mok—a curried seafood custard rarely found in the repertoire of your average pad Thai peddler. So I went for it, steeling myself for a letdown.
Traditionally, the custard is well set, steamed and served in a “cup” of banana leaves. The container that arrived at my house was loosely set, even soupy. (Owner Panjama Cheewapramong tells me they serve it in a bowl even in-house.) But it was also chock-full of an array of fresh shellfish: huge green-lipped mussels, squid tentacles, firm bay scallops, plump shrimp. The aroma was wonderful, alerting me to the presence of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, basil, mint, & chilies. And so was the first bite (& all the bites after that): the rich coconut-milk curry, invigorating whole-leaf herbs, soft egg, & slightly sour shredded cabbage all set off the shellfish in fine balance.
So as not to incinerate its delicate flesh, I ordered the dish medium-hot, & I’m glad I did—because the spicy stuff I requested over the course of not just one but three delivery orders were sweat-inducing indeed. That includes the larb, an Isan (or Isaan, i.e., northeastern Thai) specialty. Eaten as a salad, it’s a mixture of ground meat, sliced onion, & herbs (namely mint & basil) that’s dressed with lime juice & red chili flakes & tossed with toasted rice powder for just a bit of crunch. I tried it with both pork and chicken, preferring the former for its juiciness.
In Thailand, larb is commonly served with sticky rice—an effective palate-soother, to be sure. But I got mine in the form of dessert. Sweetened with sugar, mixed with coconut milk, & served warm, black sticky rice forms a porridge that’s every bit as soulful as Indian kheer, British hasty pudding, its cornmeal-based American equivalent, or any other version made around the world—&, with its dramatic purple hue, a lot prettier.
As I curled up on my couch to polish it off, I realized with a grin that I’d finally found what I was looking for: a neighborhood go-to for comfort food, Thai-style.
***UPDATE: Months later, the Director & I have ordered from Thai Pan again & again, experiencing only the rare disappointment. For instance, I’ve found the lard na (not pictured)—wide rice noodles, more commonly transliterated as rad na, in a brown gravy—to be a bit overcooked & bland, & the som tum—Thailand’s classic green papaya salad—desultory to say the least.
But tod mun (fried whitefish cakes) are hot, fat, fresh & crunchy.
Conversely ,the spring rolls are cold, fat, fresh & punchy; I got a side of peanut sauce to supplement the usual sweet chili dipping sauce, & was pleased to find it thick with crushed nuts, not starchy.
Finally, the kitchen generally makes a mean stirfry; both the Mongolian with onion, scallions & crispy noodles & the pad phrik with peppers, onions, bamboo shoots, carrots, kaffir lime leaves & curry paste have left us sweating & swooning.
When I wrote this post for the now-defunct Denver Magazine food blog back in January, I was sitting at a café in my old neighborhood in Boston, sipping a cappuccino & watching the world go by: black-clad grandfolks ambling toward St. Leonard’s, shopkeepers unleashing torrents of Sicilian dialect, tourists clutching bags of cannoli. They’re all part of daily life in the historic, ever-picturesque North End, as the city’s Little Italy is called. And when I get a yen for a mound of linguine alle vongole or a giant arancino oozing ragù—which is often here in Colorado—I miss it terribly.
It’s not that I can’t get red sauce in Denver; it’s the sheer concentration of Italian-American joints in the North End, and the ambiance they collectively exude, that I crave. Located on a nondescript stretch of South Broadway, Gennaro’s Cafe Italiano doesn’t boast much ambiance at all, let alone the steretopyical charm of red-checked tablecloths & rough frescoes. While the adjacent dive bar at least has garish red walls & a jukebox, the dining room is completely bare-bones. But something about the retro signage out front—not least that neon martini glass—assured me, when I first glimpsed it after moving here in 2007, that Gennaro’s was a place where I might find a taste of home (even if the vibe made me want to get it to go).
Then, it was still owned by the Gennaro family, as it had been since 1951. Now, it’s run by Tanya Tiscanni & Irene Herrera; though the menu is largely the same, except for the addition of a coffee bar, the recipes they use are their own. And they’re just what il medico ordered to cure this Beantown buff’s frequent homesickness.
The lasagna is a stand-out:
giant, pillowy squares from which mozzarella & ricotta, ground beef & sausage spill into a pool of rich, thick, herbed marinara sauce. Said sausage comes from the 85-year-old local institution that is Polidori—and it’s rightly showcased in a number of other preparations as well, including, of course, the aptly named sausage & peppers.
In this simple, Sicilian-style comfort dish, disks of Italian link sausage are sauteed with sweet sliced green bell pepper & red onion, then bathed in the aforementioned, oregano-redolent marinara.
Meanwhile, Polidori’s distinctly spicy, coarse-ground sausage features prominently atop the Tiscanni, a mozzarella-based white pizza scattered with dollops of sweet, fresh ricotta & chopped, roasted red pepper. Look closely, and you’ll also spot a sprinkling of dried oregano, minced garlic, and fennel seeds.
It all makes for what would be a model pie if the bubbly, chewy crust had just a bit more char; if you, like me, are big on the blackened bits, you’d do well to make a special request. Still, the solace I seek in red sauce—“when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn”—is easy to come by here.
Gennaro’s Cafe Italiano: 2598 S. Broadway, Denver; 303.722.1044; Lunch and dinner daily; $6–$19.
I’m writing from Des Moines, whose Italian population is more established than that of Denver & whose red-sauce joints & pizza parlors are, therefore, better than Denver’s, pound for pound. I’m willing to go on record with that. Just last night we downed a couple of pies from Bordenaro’s, strewn with excellent capicola, crumbled sausage & chopped banana peppers, that beat the hell out of recent deliveries from Colore Pizzeria Moderna & even Kaos, which I usually like a lot—never mind the myriad disasters by the slice I faced a couple of months ago.
The fact that the delivery guy from Colore appeared on our doorstep not 15 minutes after we called—that’s no exaggeration, even though the place a good 7 or 8 minutes away as the car drives—was the 1st bad sign. The 2nd was the appearance of the crust.
You could tell by looking it would taste uniformly leaden & stale, presumably prebaked & then finished in such a way that, far from being black-&-blond, crackling & chewy & airy by turns, it was more like a hard unsalted pretzel.
Speaking of salt, the white sauce on the Vegetale in the top photo sounded terrific, a blend of ricotta, parmesan, garlic & olive oil. But it tasted bland & rubbery. The freshness of the namesake mixed vegetables—eggplant, tomato, mushroom, zucchini, spinach—was the saving grace. (The Director’s sausage & onion pizza was marginally better, perhaps because the flavor of the topping leeched into the iffy mozzarella.)
Our order from Kaos—the garlic-based BLT, a monthly special—also arrived within 15 minutes; though it’s only a couple of blocks away, that’s still not enough time to make a pizza—as should be obvious from the photo.
Atop the underdone crust was a fairly stingy, uneven sprinkling of bacon.
Sigh. The quest continues.
This is how lazy & stupid I am: I’ll wait an extra 15 minutes (at least) & spend an extra $5 (at least) to order delivery from a place I could drive to for take-out in 3 minutes tops. So when I saw that GrubHub, newly launched in Denver, included East Asia Garden—which I fell hard for while covering it for the now-defunct Denver Magazine a few months back—among its options, I promptly got a jones for northeastern Chinese food & set about placing an order, though the joint’s just around the corner. Funny thing, though: the phone number listed was EAG’s own. Confused, I contacted customer service online to ask: if I’m calling the restaurant directly, how do you know what to deliver? Answer: we don’t; they deliver it. In short, GrubHub basically acts as a menu clearinghouse, kinda useless in the case of restaurants that have websites—but helpful with respect to those, like EAG, that don’t.
Anyway, between my visits there, run by an adorably sweet family, & the delivery guy’s visits here, I can count the myriad ways I’m so glad this place is in my hood, & why you should support it too, sketchy appearance along an ugly stretch of South Broadway notwithstanding.
1. Though much of the menu consists of your standardized Chinese-American stuff, there are a few sections boasting regional specialties you’ll rarely if ever find the likes of between the coasts—Cold Dishes, Cross Bridge Noodles, & Traditional Northeast China Flavor (the latter does not appear on the take-out menu, only on the dine-in menu, which luckily is the one shown on GrubHub)—as well as a selection of buns & dumplings (baozi & jiaozi). Here you’ll encounter…
2. An array of “hot & spicy”—more accurately “room temperature & spicy”—preparations including julienned seaweed & potato (aka “silk”), sliced cucumber & tofu skin, alone or in a combo,
as well as beef shank.
Any & all are a must—smeared with chili-reddened & garlic-electric yet lightly sweet-&-sour marinade, they’re nonetheless cooling.
3. EAG’s buns are sometimes superb & sometimes not quite, but the odds are good that you’ll get a heap of tender, gleaming, silky-smooth pouches oozing with the savory juices of the pork/shrimp/cabbage inside, best doused in the accompanying black vinegar.
Though the filling’s every bit as moist & flavorful, EAG’s dumplings aren’t quite as successful. The 1st time I ordered them, they arrived steamed, a surprise since the menu noted “steamed also available,” which led me to assume pan-fried prep was the default. In any case, they were a bit on the thick, sticky side.
The 2nd time, I specified that I wanted them fried, again assuming they’d be pan-fried; instead, they were deep-fried.
Interesting, if a little underdone. Still, I’ll stick with Lao Wang’s potstickers from now on.
4. The traditional homestyle dishes are richly sauced, but not in the gloppy, cloying fashion of so much sweet-&-sour slop; rather, they’re all about a nice umami balance—soy, fermented bean pastes, rice wine, etc.—with the main ingredients that still shine through, from the sliced potatoes, tomatoes & bell peppers in the Three Earth Fresh
to the eggplant braised with onions, carrots & peppers in a soy-based sauce (with cornstarch, clearly, but not too much, lending silkiness)
to more eggplant in broad bean sauce, showing a completely different profile—darker, deeper & funkier,
to hairtail filets (bone-in) braised à la the first eggplant dish—fleshy, pungent, & not for those who don’t like fish that tastes like fish,
to firm yet fluffy, omelet-like wedges of tofu with more onions, peppers & carrots.
Granted, all of the above entrees are fairly similar in the comfort they offer; if you want the hard stuff—though you may have to do a bit of wheedling if you’re pale-faced—there’s fried pig liver, cold pig ear with cucumber & creamy, luscious tofu with black eggs, which cracked my 2010 Top 10 list.
Does EAG really deserve 5 stars? Obviously, the trio of Urbanspoon users who’ve reviewed it as of this writing don’t think so. So let me put it this way: the benefit of the doubt goes to the kitchen for caring & daring to do things a little differently, to broaden the horizons of a neighborhood in which the “ethnic” options are mostly mediocre (with a few exceptions, the Kizaki brothers’ empire included). That despite the odds it succeeds more often than not warms my cockles. And hope, rare as it is for a cynic like me, warrants at least a star or 2.