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 Week on Gorging Global: Pac Merc with the Notorious Andrew Novick

Here’s what you gotta do:

1) check out this week’s post on Pacific Mercantile to bask in the glories of Asian groceries galore. (More on personal Pac Merc faves like lettuce pickled in flour sauce here.)

Love me some quail eggs

Squid guts not so much

2) Revel in words of wisdom from the amazing Andrew Novick, whose name you may recognize if you’re supercool enough to have ever a) seen a Warlock Pinchers show; b) shopped at Gimme Gimme Pillow Toast; c) attended the 2009 exhibition at the erstwhile Lab at Belmar, “The Astounding Problem of Andrew Novick”; &/or d) followed the Peeps trial in Boulder this summer. (If not, you’re about to be.)

3) Leave a comment for a chance to put your stamp on a new type of G.G. post, in which we’ll talk to your, yes your, favorite local chef about his/her go-tos for ethnic eats.

Hop to it!

Dish of the Week & I’m Not Kidding: Gazpacho à la Guadalajara from Whole Foods


Here's what's in it: tomato juice, corn, cucumber, avocado, lime juice, garlic, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, sea salt. That's it & that's all. It's a lovely soup: chunky but not too pico de gallo–like, spicy but not merely salsa-esque, deriving a little creaminess from the avocado. Of course I could've made something like it myself, but I didn't have to. 

Dish of the Week: Tomasso Bussola Amarone della Valpolciella Classico 2003 (+ Wine Poem 2)

Yes, another liquid dish. Amarone was the first wine I ever fell in love with; evaluating this one in my International Wine Guild certification class today—as happens every time I get to taste it (which isn’t often since they average $45-$60)—I swooned all over again. Made in the Veneto from grapes dried on straw mats, they’re naturally powerfully redolent of dark fruit; this one (available at Total Beverage)


was all figs, except where it was mushrooms.

One sip always takes me back to a poem I wrote years ago with Amarone in mind; I think I’ve posted it here before, but what the hell, it conveys my thoughts on Amarone better than I can (“the poem is smarter than you are,” my old pal Matt Rohrer once claimed).

Wine Poem 2

When the last corpse was drained and jarred he took me to wife,
whisking me over the pain threshold and into the honeymoon dungeon.
The hook used to extract the brain doubled as a corkscrew.
The test tubes bubbled over with champagne.
We dabbed our eyes with scar tissue as we played our song

and drank like plunging knife and fork, clashing blade and prong,
and drank like dart and arrow through each lung,
and drank like pharoahs with our hearts removed
to make room for more wine. And then that sound

fell headlong down the stairs.
We felt the shadow spill across the floor above our heads
the way a flashlight washes over treasure,
smearing gleam throughout the tomb.
The still lifes froze and the statues wanted down.

Before the mirror of creation stood reaction with a hood.
It was there reflection lay, stunned, may still lie.
As the darkness stopped before our portraits,
we popped the corks below and drank our brains out.

Some wine you let breathe, some you’ve got to smother.
We kissed deepest when we kept our distance, then we deeper slept.

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.

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.

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,


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.)

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.

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

John Holly's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Husted Collection Curios: The Wall Street Cookbook, 1966—Now That’s Market Hysteria!

***Part of a semiregular series about my findings at the Margaret Husted Culinary Collection—a remarkable, undersung cookbook archive, curated by the ever-helpful Steven Fisher, whose 1000s of specimens run the gamut from serious historical finds to freakouts like this.***

Well, it was the sixties, after all. Given how delusional Wall Street is now, can’t you just imagine what it was like in the hallucinogenic era of Vietnam? Only instead of shoving subprime derivatives down our throats, they were trying to shove…let’s see…jellied vegetable salad made with lemon-flavored Jello & mustard.

And by “they,” I mean economist C. M. Flumiani, according to Google a very real person, & so-called “cuisine master” Christopher Alexander—judging by his absence from Google & the similarity in “their” writing styles very likely Flumiani’s alterego—who, “together,” penned The Wall Street Cookbook, a highlarious compendium of grandiose self-congratulation, the incomprehensible juxtaposition of recipes & stock-market jargon, & grotesque stick-figure illustrations. Oh, & typos.

To get a taste of what is “unquestionably the best, most palatable cookbook [then] available”—screw that Julia Child on the cover of Time in its year of publication—just click on the image (as with any above or below) to read the foreword in its entirety. Do it.

Think Flumiani exaggerates? Then just ask Alexander, whose intro assures us that we can’t put a price on prandial perfection—or a muzzle on high-falutin’ rhetoric. Let them eat cake, indeed!




Or at least The Syndicate’s Cabbage Soup—you see, each dish is named for a stock market term, belabored incongruity be damned—with spareribs, “carrotts” & “aregano.” Note the stunningly accurate portrait of investment bankers.


Or Venetian Zuppa di Pesce à la Unlisted Trading Privileges. Can I get a side of insider tips with that?

Or Suckling Pig à la Spanish Wall Street, because “all streets in Spain have meaningful walls.” WTF? At least “truss pig in kneeling position” makes sense, because if there’s one order Wall Streeters can take, it surely involves hamstringing.


Or Stuffed Pepper Treat à la Direct Tax,

which unfortunately omits the illustrated part where you saw through somebody’s guts. Therein lies the secret ingredient, perhaps? Wall Streeters should know.

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.

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,

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.


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


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.

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,


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


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,

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.


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:


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

Dish of the Week: Why, It’s Urchrüter, St. Kilian’s Cheese Shop!

Just yesterday I woohooed this wonderstuff.


Today I’m turning around to give it the weekly grand prize, because no other eligible edible I’ve encountered over the past 7 days can compare. In fact, with a couple of modest exceptions, the past 2 weeks have rather lacked in lipsmacking luster: in case you missed it, for the 1st time since launching the series last fall, I awarded no Dish of the Week last week.

Rare as it is that I don’t stuff down something worth shouting about every few days, my feeling was, why give it up for crap just for the sake of continuity? Now, if I doled out medals for mediocrity, last week would’ve been a humdinger. On the bronze podium, McCormick’s stuffed mushrooms with a way-too-high ratio of crumbs to crab & shrimp (although the herbed butter sauce made a decent bread dip).

Taking the silver, Hapa Sushi & its cutely named but completely bland Green Eggs & Ham roll


with quasi-wasabi-flavored tobiko & mushy hamachi.

But the low-grade gold would’ve had to go to Brooklyn’s downright frightening chicken fingers, like the thawed & deep-fried spawn of the Xenomorph, their mechanized alien nature undisguised by the fig leaf of that poor piece of lettuce.


Better luck next week, eh?