Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Drunk Dining: The Pizza Problem & The Syrian Solution

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” wrote Blake, giving me one good reason to live. “Sucky bread is sucky—you can quote me on that,” said my pal yumyum21 once, & so I have done ever since.

By extension, sucky crust is really, really sucky—a lesson I think I finally learned the hard way with 3 pizzas in a row that ranged from pathetic to merely mediocre.

In theory, I’m not a pizza snob. There’s a time & a place for all kinds of pie, from a classically simple margherita to the most outrageous vehicle for cognac-marinated lobster & champagne-macerated caviar to the greasiest, floppiest takeaway. The latter’s time & place is, of course, a late-night, boozy haze (the kind that might, say, obscure the filth of the cutting board you’re using as a backdrop for the slices you got to go *after* a long session at Lou’s Food Bar).

But in practice, shining examples of the corner-joint ideal are few & far between. Even as I bought the below slices from Famous Pizza, I slurred to myself, Wow, those pepperoni disks look like Shrinky Dinks.

And that’s exactly what they tasted like. Stuck on cheese that tasted in turn like it was shredded with the plastic it came in. Amid sausage crumbles that didn’t taste like anything—how is that even possible? Atop a crust so bland & chewy it was like old gum. The slice on the right was a slight improvement if you disregarded the feta’s weird texture, like dried toothpaste.

That description may be harsh, but not as harsh as the experience of eating it—one I have no intention of repeating. After all, I’ve made the same mistake over & over with Pasquini’s—but this time was the last. Pleased as I was to see a generous sprinkling of whole roasted garlic cloves & toasted pine nuts on my pizzetta, it was undermined by rubber chicken chunks, pallid crust, & inexplicable blandness overall—I actually added salt.

By comparison to the above, combo slices from Joyce’s Famous Pizza were halfway decent. The crust was no less stale, but the pepperoni at least had enough juice to yield droplets of spicy grease, while the cheese, sauce & veggies actually resembled themselves. Not platonic versions of themselves, but themselves nonetheless.

Still, halfway decent isn’t even an eighth-of-the way great. On the scale of true greatness, it wouldn’t register incrementally, especially not after the deduction in points that must occur when the guy behind the counter hawks a loogie into the trashcan right before taking your order. True story.

Which brings me to the fatteh from Ya Hala Grill. If the homely photo doesn’t inspire confidence, that’s because, never having had the dish before, I didn’t know I probably should have mixed it up first for a truer picture.

Middle Eastern fatteh, much like Indian papri chaat, is a mélange of toasted flatbread (here pita) chips & yogurt sauce, along with an array of variable ingredients—in this case chickpeas, garlic, tahini, olive oil & parsley. The result is earthy, smoky, salty & tart; creamy, crunchy & messy—perfect, in short, for boozy grubbing. Before you take that long pizzeria-lined road all the way home, consider this shortcut to edible enlightenment.

A Dish a Day: Wild Mushroom Pizza at Kaos

New posts on Denveater will be fewer & further between for the next couple of weeks while I go through dietary detox, following an epic Boston splurge made excruciatingly clear by my Dirty Laundry List of eats: 70-plus dishes in 6 days. Oof, oops, ow.

But the night before I left, the Director & I went to town on our favorite pie from Kaos Pizzeria: the Wild Mushroom

with provolone, mozz, pesto, caramelized onions & shallots. It’s rich yet fresh, green yet earthy, with just enough saltiness & wood-fired chew for comfort’s sake. This low-key Old South Pearl parlor just does its thing well, sans hoopla. Continued kudos, Kaos.

This Is The Last Time I Write This Review: John Holly’s Asian Bistro

A long time ago, an old friend of mine whom my thoughts are always with & who remains my favorite living poet, Chelsey Minnis, wrote a poem that began with the line “This is the last time I write about the moon.”

That will probably be the most interesting thing I say in this blogpost, & the recommendation that you read her work will be the most satisfying recommendation I make.

Because how many times can I get delivery from some pan-Asian joint I know is going to be so-so to begin with, find it to be so-so indeed, & write a so-so review about it? We’ll see, I guess. For now, I’m saying no more times. Oh good, it’s 5 o’clock.

***

Now I have a glass of wine, & I’m going to try to pull this off in the sudden haze of melancholy. There don’t appear to be many pro reviews of John Holly’s Asian Bistro; the fact that Warren Byrne supposedly liked it 8 years ago means next to nothing to me. Then again, the fact that there aren’t many pro reviews means next to nothing to me; we all have our moments when we just need someone to feed us hassle-free in our own homes, & the majority of eateries that provide such door-to-door service are the ones whose so-so-ness is a given. So if no one else is going to bother, I might as well; while quality matters less than convenience in said moments, it’s still nice to know which dishes might taste a little better than which others.

This is the filling for the lettuce-wrapped chicken. The lettuce isn’t pictured, since I assume you know what lettuce looks like. I’d have taken a picture if it had been wilted or rusted or otherwise deficient, but it wasn’t.

JHchickenlettucewraps
It’s listed as hot & spicy on the menu; it’s neither hot nor spicy (not that I’m sure what the difference is). But it isn’t bland either, or worse, too sweet; it’s a standard brown sauce marked by a touch of sweet chili smothering ground chicken, peas, red peppers & onion.

Speaking of things I’m not sure about…well, I could go on forever, but I was definitely curious as to how much lobster could possibly be included in a $3 lobster spring roll. I’m still not sure. Somewhere between “not very much” & “a tad more than not very much. Or not.” Could be a krabsticky version of lobster, or a mixture of real lobster & krab. In any case it isn’t pure lobster meat.

JHlobsterroll JHlobsterroll2

Which isn’t, again, to say it’s bad; given a warm, crispy-crunchy shell shiny with just enough grease & brain-clearing hot mustard as foils for the mildly sweet whatever, how could it be?

Its clear superior, however, is the steamed roll with beef.

JHbeefroll
To be clear, while the roll as a whole is steamed, the strips of beef inside are nice & fried with chunks of egg, cabbage, whole green beans & onion. I could make a meal of a few of these. Granted, I could make that same meal at home, but so what? The point is it’s nice not to have to.

Holly’s Lamb, according to the menu, is “sliced top round lamb…stirfried with low-sodium oyster sauce & a pinch of black pepper & cumin seed.” I like salt. Lots of salt. When I was little I’d pour a mound onto my palm & lick it off. I drink pickle juice. Etc. But I was pleasantly surprised by this dish,

JHlamb

which isn’t salt-free, rest assured; the sauce is richly savory, & the chunks of meat, red onion, red pepper & snowpeas generous.

As for the sushi, even keeping in mind that I was not in the hands of a master itamae here but chefs of the pile-&-stuff-&-pile-some-more school of American maki, I still thought the rolls I ordered were too much. Granted, I ordered ’em; but that’s the kind of sucker for umeboshi (pickled plum) & shiso leaf I am: the roll on the left is the Kimberly, filled with salmon, avocado & asparagus, topped with seared albacore, & supposedly the ume was in there somewhere too. The roll on the top right is the Osaka, filled with spicy tuna & avocado & topped with mackerel, egg, & shiso. (On the lower right is Japanese squash.)

JHsushi
I definitely didn’t see, nor did I taste, all of the listed ingredients, & the fact that I don’t know whether that’s because the combos were just too busy or some things were actually left off is the whole problem. As it was the rolls were coming apart a bit at the seams.

JHsushi2
In sum: Not great, not bad, okay for weeknight delivery, like 100 other places I’ve covered.

John Holly's Bistro on Urbanspoon

The Absolute Magnitude of Star Kitchen

Lest you slept through Astronomy 101, absolute magnitude is the measure of a star’s intrinsic brightness, in contrast to apparent magnitude, which measures a star’s brightness as seen by an earthling.

As seen by a Denverite, Star Kitchen doesn’t look like much—which is, of course, neither here nor there; decor is no more reliable a way to gauge quality than visible shine is for gauging actual luminosity, especially below a certain price point. Decor, however, isn’t quite the same thing as ambiance, which goes beyond layout & furniture & lighting & such, even beyond the visible.

And sure enough, Star Kitchen has got ambiance in abundance, at least by my standards. Consider that:

1. The 1st time I went in, I was the lone gwailo (gwaila?) of about 20 customers; the 2nd time, I was 1 of only 4 in a roomful of roughly 50. Though demographics are also not total guarantees of quality—bad taste is hardly exclusive to white America—they’re a start; without introducing the vexed notion of authenticity, we can certainly say in general that those who grew up with cuisine X are more likely to know better where to go for cuisine X and what to order there than are those raised on cuisine Y, especially when there are language obstacles to negotiate.

2. The 2nd time I was there, the TV in the corner was airing a Chinese-language soap opera, complete with wacky gumball-colored ads; the speakers were blaring a Cantonese cover of Jefferson Starship’s god-awful Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now so awesomely bad it put the original to shame; & my sake came in a makeshift bain-marie.

SKsake
So far, so shiny happy. But with ambiance ultimately a matter of apparent magnitude, the only true measure of Star Kitchen’s absolute magnitude can, of course, be the food. That & the size of my belly after a couple of take-out blowouts,* itself now absolutely magnitudinous.

So, having sampled a fair number (if not a broad array**) of dishes, I can promise you that if this Hong Kongese/Cantonese joint isn’t quite a Cygnus OB2-12, it’s at least an Eta Carinae. In short, it’s pretty brilliant. (**For work purposes, I stuck mainly with dumplings & buns—& have deliberately left out a couple of my favorites here in order to profile them elsewhere later. Keep your eyes peeled.)

Lightness of touch is a hallmark of the kitchen; yeast doughs are light & fluffy, wrappers thin.

SKscallopdumplings SKshrimpdumpling

Honestly, I’m not quite clear as to whether the scallop dumplings (on the left) should be wrapped more tightly or whether this is simply a lesser-known style—though I’ve seen open, end-pinched envelopes a few times before, acquaintances in the know suggest it’s a no-no. That said, I personally don’t care, so long as they hold together, & these did; above all, they were luscious, with thick slices of sea scallop & a sprinkle of tobiko topping a mound of chopped shrimp, carrots & scallions. The shrimp dumplings, meanwhile, were little engineering wonders—note the high number of pleats & the stuffed-to-bursting plumpness.

And though char siu bao, baked or (as below) steamed, is the standard-bearer,

SKsteamedbuns
I actually preferred SK’s chicken filling (below left) to the barbecued pork, whose moderate gumminess had me imagining there was grape or strawberry jelly in the sauce. The chicken, meanwhile, chopped with mushrooms & (probably) cabbage, made for a fresher savory contrast to the very slightly sweet bun.

SKchickenbun SKporkbun

Firm, cabbage-&-onion-juicy baked pork-vegetable bao appear below left; better still, on the right, are deep-fried, twist-tied pouch–shaped, wonton-like dumplings such as I’d never seen before. Shatteringly crunchy on the outside, each contained an entire fat shrimp, perfectly cooked. They came with mayo, which they hardly needed, but which I can hardly pretend I didn’t use—although I also dunked them, like doughnuts in coffee, into the broth for the wonton soup.

SKpanfriedporkbun SKfriedshrimpdumplings

No need, I presume, for a photo of the broth, which I actually didn’t care for in & of itself—too starchy—but the array of goodies to drop therein (below left) was lovely: not only squirting pork-&-shrimp wontons but whole shrimp, slices of barbecued pork (much better without the aforementioned sauce), chunks of steamed chicken, straw mushrooms, carrots & still-snappy sugar snap peas.

As for the “sizzling” beef rib with eggplant in black pepper sauce (right)—

SKwontons SKrib

of course it was no longer sizzling by the time I got to it, but I fear the sauce would’ve been on the gloppy, off-seasoned side (too much salt & sugar, not enough pepper) in any case; the rib, meanwhile, was rather chewy, but there was plenty of it, both on & off the bone, & the eggplant spears were just as I like them—glistening & silken.

And the best may be yet to come; the sweet-&-sour swills & blahs with blahcoli that dominate more compromising, Americanized repertoires are very few & far between on Star Kitchen’s menu, which instead features hot pots, clay pot rice casseroles, & major faves like salt & pepper shrimp in the shell & salty fish & chicken fried rice, making no bones along the way about its use of frog’s legs, duck’s tongue, tripe, lotus leaves, bamboo pith, bitter melon, sea cucumber & so on—as well it shouldn’t (though I do wish eel were an option). And who knows what secrets the “special late-dinner menu” may contain—but rest assured I’ll return soon to find out, hopefully to the tune of Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me.”

*Take-out again, you ask, with a justifiable air of skepticism? Aren’t you distorting the dining experience, not to mention short-shrifting the food—risking its degradation over time & distance? Truthfully, yes. But even I couldn’t eat all that by myself, & the Director had films to screen here at home. No excuse, just a fact of our dinner-&-a-movie lifestyle.

Star Kitchen on Urbanspoon

New Saigon: Don’t Go for the Goi, but Stay for the Chay

Call me a heretic, defame my name, chop me up & throw my parts in boiling oil, I’m going to stand by my opinion that, while house of local worship New Saigon is solid, it’s no better than Dong Khanh/Saigon Bowl, at least with respect to the standards.

In fact, when it comes to salads (goi in Vietnamese), I give the edge to the latter.

SBsalad2

Saigon Bowl’s shrimp & pork salad (goi tom thit)

NSsquidsalad New Saigon’s squid salad (goi muc)

You can tell by looking that Saigon Bowl’s goi is more closely tended to—the veggies more carefully chopped & balanced, the peanuts chopped coarser for more interesting texture. You can’t tell by looking that the dressing is better as well: both are nuoc cham–like with fish sauce, acid (presumably lime juice) & sugar, but Saigon Bowl’s is a bit lighter, tarter & spicier with a daub of chili, whereas New Saigon’s errs a little too far on the merely sweet side. And the squid was a bit tough & scrappy; bigger pieces like so would not only have been prettier but less likely to overcook.

Granted, between the enormity of the menu & the constant crowd in the dining room, the prep cooks here would have to be superhuman, morphing & teleporting all over the place, to execute with both speed & precision 100% of the time. As it is, 2 different takeout orders of bun (noodles) at 2 different times can make 2 very different impressions: on a busy Saturday night, the bun tom quet with, supposedly, rice-paper-wrapped, deep-fried shrimp paste

NSshrimppastenoodles

was sloppy & dull, offering scant chopped peanuts, fried & green onions, herbs & such for the glut of rice noodles, bland with or without the one-note (sweet) nuoc cham. As for the “shrimp paste,” it was like no shrimp paste I’ve ever seen; instead, it appeared to be a very flat chopped shrimp omelet. Though the highlight of the dish, it was nonetheless a head-scratcher.

In any case, compare to the bun with grilled pork & egg roll we got on a sleepy Tuesday night.

NSporknoodles
Boasting a much better ratio of toppings, including sufficient cilantro & mint, to noodles, it was also covered in almost jerkylike (in a pleasant way, really), thoroughly sweet-soy-marinated & grilled pork as well as chopped pork egg roll.

Consider, however, that the roll was pretty clunky, & it all adds up to the fact that for the freshest, crispest, brightest Vietnamese basics—your bun, your pho, your stirfries—my, erm, dong’s still on Dong Khanh. It’s for the jackpot of less common regional specialties that I’ll keep betting on New Saigon.

Among them is the Indian-influenced, coconut milk–based South Vietnamese ca ri (curry), served in its own pot over an open flame. The ca ri chay with tofu recently got the nod from Westword’s Lori Midson,

NStofucurry

& I myself preferred it to the ca ri tom dac biet with shrimp.

NSshrimpcurry

While the shrimp themselves were excellent—giant, firm & sweet—I’d be willing to bet they got that way by separate cooking or a last-minute add, meaning that they didn’t really have time to adapt to their environment or lend any character to it in turn; they didn’t blend into the whole, whereas the tofu did. It’s nonetheless an interesting dish, rustic in style, thick & mild with huge chunks of both white & sweet potato as well as carrot & acorn squash. But when our server volunteered his own recipe—”it’s more hotter. I cut up whole chicken, whole duck. We eat everything”—I couldn’t help but wish for a side-by-side taste test.

Do chay dac biet looked like every other Asian veggie stirfry I’ve ever had,

NSveggies
but the sauce of coconut milk–black bean sauce, creamy but with that slight funk of fermentation, really distinguished it. The veggies & tofu were neither here nor there, the former a little overdone, in fact; I wound up pouring the sauce over the accompanying rice & eating that instead, happily poking around for the scattered split beans. To what extent this is a typical preparation, by the by, is something I’m still trying to determine via this Chowhound thread; though coconut milk & black beans make for a traditional dessert, the combination is new to me in a savory context.

The same goes for the use of grape leaves in a dish of frogs’ legs (though it’s likely a byproduct of colonialism, as it was the French, bien sûr, who planted vineyards in Vietnam). Stirred up as I was by the sight of it on the menu, I was subsequently crushed to learn it’s no longer available. Settling instead for the frogs’ legs stirfried with lemongrass & onion, I expected something light & zesty; what I got was pretty oily &, again, sweeter than I’d hoped, though balanced well enough by chili & garlic.

NSfroglegs2

The meat itself was beautifully cooked, moist & tender, slipping clean & easy from the bone. For all the squawk about frogs’ legs tasting like chicken, they’re at least as evocative of a flaky, firm white fish such as cod.

Squid excepted, then, between the shrimp, the frog & the pork, I’m thinking meat/fish cookery might be the kitchen’s forte. It even dries beef with pizzazz:

NSjerky

That there is sesame-cashew jerky ($22/lb.; I got $8 worth) & it’s snazzy—soft, slow-burningly spicy & fruity too. (Fruit’s a common Asian jerky flavoring; this guy says it’s usually strawberry jam, despite labels that simply list fruit punch concentrate, like the one on the bag I got a while back at Pacific Mercantile.)

In the end, I don’t intend to join the New Saigon congregation. But I’ll certainly show up for services now & then—namely when seeking enlightenment in the form of snails & duck feet or an answer to the mysteries of suon non ram man & suon no xao thom; according to a friend, the servers discourage whiteys who ask about them (the menu offers no description of either), though Google indicates suon non are simply pork spareribs. Hmm. Anyway, the point is I’m not so much a heretic as a searcher, still holding out for not just good but transcendent Vietnamese food in Denver.

New Saigon on Urbanspoon

Greeks Gone Wild Gone Reasonable

I was obviously pretty sure back in May, before it debuted, that Greeks Gone Wild would mean nothing to me beyond an opportunity to make merciless fun of a terrible name. The implicit cross between Dionysiac cultic orgies & coed porn seemed a totally stupid one for a nondescript gyros-&-wings joint on DU’s campus corner to bear.

Since its opening, that post has received a surprising number of hits, suggesting that a lot of locals actually do want to know what the place has to offer. Either that or they’re looking for hot girl-on-girl-on-rotisserie action. In any case, I figured it was my responsibility to at least interrupt my stream of mockery with a good-faith wade through the menu.

I still say the name bites; I still say this is not the kind of place that will ever appear on my radar unless I’m right on its doorstep & struck for the 1st time in 20 years by a craving for fast food (hence the categorization under Eateries I Just Can’t Get Worked Up About). But I will say that, as hyphenated-American take-out grubberies go, it doesn’t suck, at least not flat out. Really.

While I wouldn’t recommend eating in if you’re over 25—it’s bright, it’s plastic, it’s blaring & filled with people under 25—I would actually recommend the wings.

GGWwings

No boneless or breaded bastards, they were truly fried right, crackly on the outside & extra-juicy within, & coated but not buried in a medium, well-balanced buffalo sauce—not too peppery, not too vinegary, not too buttery. (There are also mild, hot, Greek & 1 or 2 other options.)

I’m also surprising myself  by recommending the dip platter with pita.

GGWdips

The bread was unexpectedly fresh-grilled, & perhaps even brushed with a little butter? And the tzatziki had great texture—thick & creamy—though a little more garlic would’ve made it even better. You can skip the rest; come to think of it, I suppose you can skip the whole thing & simply order sides of pita & tzatziki. I was impressed just to see htipiti—a lesser-known roasted red pepper–feta spread—& pleased it had a peppery kick, but it also had a salty kick, too hard. Meanwhile nothing about the thin hummus impressed, the flavor being all chickpea, not a whit of tahini, garlic, lemon, or even olive oil.

As for the souvlaki & gyro plates—

GGWgyros GGWsouvlaki

They were fine. Not great, the meat perhaps a little underseasoned, but moist. Fine. The Greek dressing a little underpowering, but the salad fine. Adequate. Fine. The best part was still this,

GGWpita

but, you know, overall, fine! Can’t complain. Let’s not go wild ourselves & word it any more effusively than that.

Greeks Gone Wild on Urbanspoon

How much more crap can I take (out)? Spicy Thai vs. my vote for the best of the meh: Thai Basil

I think I’ve now tried every Thai takeout joint within a few miles of my southeast Denver hovel: Thai Basil. Spicy Basil. Spicy Thai. Thai Green Chile. Swing Thai. Jason’s Thai Bistro. Thai This. Thai That. Sucky Noodle. Pad Crud. For the most part they’re as interchangable as their names.

I’ve acknowledged that a) takeout is itself a crapshoot (so to speak) & b) there are a few local joints I’ve yet to hit that do get the love from writers I trust, e.g. Lori Midson, above all US Thai, Thai House, & Chada Thai. (You might also trawl Chowhound for recs like this from lotuseedpaste, who knows her stuff too.) But those are clearly the exceptions to a citywide rule. If I overstate the case, by all means, give me hell & tell me what I’m missing. Otherwise heed my warning & order in from the above, with the possible exception of Thai Basil, only if you’re really lonely & your sole human contact for the eve will be the 2 min. you spend chatting with the delivery guy at the door—who’s sure, to offer another apparent truism about Denver Thai, to be exceedingly gracious & kind. One could do worse in one’s relationships.

In all fairness, then, to the lovely gentleman who recently brought us dinner from Spicy Thai, I’ll admit up front that we only tried 4 dishes. But the fact that each was as ho-hum as the last means I won’t be trying any more, at least not any time soon.

The shumai were doughy & dull;

SpicyThaishumai

the lamb curry bland,

SpicyThailambcurry

the drunken noodles utterly without finesse, too soupy & spiced way down.

SpicyThaidrunkennoodle

Without a picture to remind me I’d have forgotten about the soggy but otherwise characterless seaweed salad entirely. The line between a good seaweed salad & a bad one is thin but distinct; I asked for examples on Chowhound & got some smart replies.

STseaweed

It all made a subsequent order from the aforementioned Thai Basil, mostly merely adequate, seem downright dazzling by comparison.

Above all, the crispy duck was even richer & tenderer than the 1st time we had it, & the portion for the price, $12.50, popped the eyes.

TBduck2

It came with surprisingly good peanut sauce, less thick & more vinegary than the majority. That may primarily be why I also liked mild red “curry chicken in peanut sauce.” Sounded confusing, tasted mellow & creamy, indeed simply combining the two sauces in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever come across before, though a search suggests it’s common.

TBchickencurry

Should’ve known better than to order Szechuan eggplant rather than Thai eggplant from a Thai place; it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t spicy or sesame-tinged in the least. I’d also have preferred the ratio of eggplant to other veggies be higher, given that that’s what I ordered. Still, it was colorful & tangy & well textured.

TBeggplant

Seared scallops in an almost brothy sweet chili sauce didn’t engage my tongue much, but the sheer number of critters for the price, the same as that of the duck, was once again impressive.

TBscallops
Bottom line: if you’re stuck at home in southeast Denver & a craving for Thai strikes, get over it. If you just can’t get over it, then call Thai Basil & keep your expectations modest.

Unless, that is, you’re one of the 28.8 folks who’ve given Spicy Thai two thumbs up on Urbanspoon, in which case go right ahead & order up a storm.

Spicy Thai on Urbanspoon

Halfway House of Kabob (via By Jeeves)

Having acknowledged ad nauseum that a meal ordered in is a culinary experience once removed—you can’t possibly get the same feel for the kitchen as you do when you’re within feet of it—the fact of the matter is most of us rely on delivery from time to time, & a comparison of your options under those circumstances is no less valuable than a comparison of your options for dining out.

Granted, it would be more valuable if the deliveries from any given place were themselves consistent. Since House of Kabob’s just aren’t, what can I say except good luck? Sometimes it’ll be a score, sometimes a wash.

Of all the Middle Eastern restaurants on By Jeeves’ list, I was partial toward HOK insofar as the menu, though laden with familiar staples, doesn’t dumb its specials down—think lamb’s tongue soup & fesenjan (walnut-&-pomegranate flavored chicken stew). That said, the basics are always a good place to start, since the quality of the foundation obviously determines the extent to which it can be built upon with any confidence or style.

Here’s where this House’s foundation proves shoddy.

HOKshawarma
chicken shawarma pita w/ fries

Iceberg has its place in a shawarma, but it’s not supposed to have it to itself. Not that the wan shreds of chicken that were hiding in the corners were worth outing; meanwhile, what was glaring were the ungrilled pita & limp fries.

HOKfattoush

By comparison, the pita croutons in the fattoush were nice and crispy, the veggies bright & crisp. Still, they, like the sandwich, were underdressed beyond a squirt of lemon juice—virtually olive oil–less as near as I could tell.

Adding insult to that drab injury was the fact that I’d ordered a side of creamy garlic sauce for the very sake of having a little extra dressing to play with—& for $2.95, this is what I got:

HOKsauce

So that’s what, a buck a tablespoon? And that’s what, thawed paste? It wasn’t bad, admittedly—you can’t argue with raw garlic & salt—but you can argue with the description “creamy sauce.”

Fool mudammas, too, lacked oomph.

HOKfool

Beans are beautiful things when properly seasoned; when not, they’re just nubs of starch. Three words: garlic, lemon, garlic. In that order.

All that said, here’s where the House’s foundation proves solid.

HOKeggplant

Persian eggplant is described as containing tomatoes, which it obviously did, garlic, which it did—& eggs, which I guess it did, as some sort of binder? There are enough similar recipes online to indicate that’s probably the case. At any rate, it was the roasted eggplant itself that mattered, maintaining just enough of its bitterness to give it an edge, a smoky bite.

The same went for its better-known counterpart, the unusually airy baba ghanoush that came on both the Sultan combo

HOKmeatcombo

& the veggie combo,

HOKvegcombo

which not only looked something like a Delaunay

Delaunay-robert-rhythm-joie-de-vivre-2410112

but tasted as vibrant, too. Moistness was the key asset of virtually every item on both, from the way creamy hummus (I prefer mine more lemony, but sufficient tahini compensated), and the fluffy rice to the peppery falafel & the charred but juicy, if sparse, chunks of lamb, beef & chicken. Only the grape leaves left something to be desired—namely flavor, apparently squeezed out by the too-thick & -tight wrapping. But a little sprinkle of paprika to infuse the surface oil was a neat touch.

If I can’t say I’ve been overwhelmingly impressed thus far—don’t even ask if the pita’s housemade—nor can I say I’m washing my hands of HOK. There’s still feta-filled sambousek, lahmacun-like arayes, & beef-&-cracked-wheat kibbeh left to gobble down before I give up—or, she says optimistically, move on up to that lamb’s tongue soup.

House of Kabob on Urbanspoon

By Jeeves, I think India Oven’s Got It

Given the good 1st impression By Jeeves made on us a few weeks ago even as Hapa Sushi was making a rather poor one, & considering how much we like our couch, the Director & I recently delved into delivery discovery again by ordering via the online/phone service from India Oven. It’s a place I’d often wondered about, tucked into its little corner at the south end of the University Hills Plaza, but I could just never overcome my intense fear of nearby Tuesday Morning to make it through the front door.

Well, color me pink with pleasure. Not only was the By Jeeves ordering process once again easy as pie—or at least doodhi halvah (teehee)!—but the order itself was delish enough to repeat the whole transaction a few days later, to only slightly diminished delight.

For one thing, if skimping on takeout/delivery is (at least in my perhaps cynicism-skewed experience) a bit more likely than not, the folks at India Oven buck the norm by adding a few nicely spiced pieces of pappadum to every order along with 3-count-’em-3 dipping sauces: mint chutney, tamarind chutney & raita that, in a new-to-me twist, comes laced with julienned carrots. With our 2nd meal, they even threw in 2 containers of rice: 1 plain basmati, the other saffron, both properly fluffy & aromatic.

IOrice

For another thing, the salmon saag is a thing of beauty.

IOsalmonsaag

A, there’s no skimping on the firm, moist, almost sweet-fleshed fish. B, there’s no telling exactly what’s in the saag that makes its flavor so complexly rich—but I’d swear it’s a touch more than its share of ghee.

Though he ordered it hot, the Director’s daal tarka wasn’t simply chilefied—it was earthy & gingery too. Or, in his words, “fuckin’ scrumptious.” (That’s garlic naan on the side;

IOlentils

me, I really dig the kabuli naan,

IOnaan

evenly but not overly studded with dates & nuts to prove lightly sweet, not dessert-pizzalike.)

I forgot to snap the kadai paneer, but it looked a lot like this blogger’s, whose handsome photo I’ve swiped. Full of tomatoes, onions & green peppers—the latter bordering on al dente—it was lighter & fresher-tasting than most curries, & gently scented with cinnamon. I suspect, in short, that it was a very fine example of the dish, if slightly less to my personal taste than its deeper, richer counterparts.

Kadhai_paneer1

Lamb vindaloo, for example, usually is to my taste, provided it doesn’t obliterate my ability to taste anything beyond the first bite—but the Director’s was oversalted & the meat tough, making for the only real disappointment of the bunch.

IOvindaloo

Still, overall, India Oven is already 2nd only to India’s Pearl (on which you’ll find much here) in my official book. Guess I’d better get over my nervousness around Mammy Dolls & Family Legacy Bibles & whatnot & check the place out in person.

India Oven on Urbanspoon

Hapa Sushi via Delivery by Jeeves: not worth the non-trouble

Let’s leave aside the disclaimer that no washoku connoisseur has any
business ordering sushi in—that content is & should be
inseparable from context in this case, the food from the
experience of engaging with & eating according to the
expertise of your itamae. A,
I’m no connoisseur, & B, to get all poetic on you, one could
equally argue that there are no ideas (i.e. mental processing, i.e. experiencing) but
in things
: if, as I suggested in the above-linked Chowhound
thread, delivery sushi is akin to poetry in translation—i.e.,
something other than the real thing—it’s still a thing you can
gauge on its own merits. So, for instance, if nigiri brought in
from Sushi
Den
is inferior to nigiri consumed at Sushi Den, it’s
nonetheless inarguably superior to nigiri ordered in from, oh,
say, Hapa
Sushi Grill & Sake Bar
, the batch of which I had recently
was so insipid as to make the thought of an in-house taste
test—though eventually necessary & only fair—altogether too
dispiriting for the nonce.

In Japanese, happa, 2
Ps, means “leaf,”
including the ganja, or maybe “explosion.” A Google search
yielded conflicting translations, though it did help confirm that
hapa, 1 P, doesn’t mean anything in
Japanese. It’s actually a Hawaiian word, which per Hapa’s website
describes “a harmonious blend of Asian and American cultures” but
per Urban Dictionary is derogatory slang for a half-breed. Guess which
source I trust more.

Actually, the menu explicitly pledges allegiance to a Hawaiian
influence or 2, which is kind of cool, but what clinched an order
from me 1 night when I didn’t feel like cooking & the
Director didn’t feel like getting off the couch was the listing
for umeshiso maki. So far as I’ve searched, no one else in Denver
serves the rolls filled with pickled plum paste & shiso leaf
that I thought were a given in US sushi bars. (If any of you are
aware of other local purveyors, please send word!)

Though I’d looked into using By Jeeves before, this was my first
experience with the delivery service, & I was quite pleased
with the process. The “phone waiter” was very nice &
efficient (if not exactly a whiz in Japanese pronunication—for
one of many instances, hotate nigiri, or ho-TAH-tay nih-GIH-ree, became
HO-tayt ni-ZHEE-ree.
Kinda cute, actually). The delivery dude arrived only a few min.
past the hour allotted, & the service fees were already added
in. In short, the whole affair was fairly hassle-free.

Not so the yaki onigiri.

Hapayakionigiri

Being unfamiliar with these “grilled balls of rice served with
teriyaki sauce,” I was intrigued, imagining a sort of naked Asian
version of Sicilian arancini; what I got was a clump of plain rice,
somehow sticky & dried-out at the same time, except for the
quarter-inch bottom layer that was saturated with cloying goo
(the inclusion of which was altogether an Americanization
according to my fellow Chowhounds, who also assured me the
interior should be almost melting).

The sauteed edamame was fine if a bit messy beneath its
smattering of “Hapa’s seasonings”—a not-so-proprietary blend of
garlic & sesame.

Hapaedamame

And some of my sushi was just fine too. I was indeed delighted to
be reunited with my sour-salty

Hapaumeshiso Hapaoshinko
umeshiso maki, & I’m always down with punchy oshinko (pickled
daikon) rolls.

HapaM&MrollI’ll
sheepishly cop as well to getting a kick out of the Mork &
Mindy roll with white tuna (presumably albacore?), salmon, chives
& a bit of mandarin orange—not surprisingly a nice combo,
given the easy affinity between fish & citrus, though what it
has to do with the goofy old sitcom is beyond me (any ideas?).

But the nigiri was flat-out flavorless.

Hapatuna Hapasalmon Hapahotate Hapamackerel

From the yellowtail & the salmon to the grilled scallop (i.e.
the aforementioned hotate, which the Director chose over raw on a
lark) & even the mackerel (not an easy fish to defang), what
should have been the sparkling centerpieces seemed like
storebought afterthoughts. Granted, my bad for not just assuming
that Hapa would have it all ass-backwards once I saw the way the
menu was categorized—whereby the “beginner” rolls are very
simple, just raw fish & veggies, while the “advanced” rolls
are mostly abominations of baked cream cheese, fried smoked
salmon & garlic-basil butter, bearing names as tacky as their
ingredients. To willingly request the Climax or the Booty Call is
to just ask for it in every sense of the phrase. I’m not
objecting to the inclusion of such concoctions on the menu, mind
you; again, I’m no purist. What gives me hives is the
oh-so-American & no-so-Japanese equation of novelty with
sophistication. The difference, it seems, is in knowing the difference. That
culinary experimentation is, at least in my book, a good thing
does not automatically mean the results thereof are too.

Hapa, you got me up on my soapbox, where I tend to be
particularly awkward (hey, does this platform make me look fat?).
For that reason alone, I damn thee.


Hapa Sushi (Cherry Creek) on Urbanspoon