Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Donut Tartare & Other Delights at D Bar Desserts

D Bar Desserts is not, frankly, my kind of place. Having a taste neither for sweets nor for the generally girlie aesthetic of specialists thereof—as exemplified here by baby-blue walls that match the frosting of the signature cupcake—

I just never bothered to put this Uptown favorite anywhere near the top of my list, Keegan Gerhard or no Keegan Gerhard.

My chocolate-crazed pal Beth, however, feels otherwise. And on the eve of her departure for a 12-month tour of as many US cities, a girl gets what a girl wants. As for me, I got far more out of the bargain than I ever dreamed.

Including my pick for Dish of the Week. Unlike Crave’s notorious Luther Burger, D Bar’s take on the doughnut sandwich is startlingly savory right down to the unsweetened yeast dough of the bomboloni (Italian-style doughnuts)—no glaze here. Instead they’re stuffed with beef tartare, topped with tomatillo jam & a serrano-chile sliver, & set atop a schmear of ultra-garlicky “decret sauce,” much like Lebanese toum. (Whether “decret” sauce is a portmanteau of “D Bar” & “secret sauce” or just a typo, seeing as how “D” is next to “S” on the keyboard, is hard to figure. Cutesy names are a hallmark of the menu for better or worse; in the case of the apricot créme brulèe someone saw fit to call “crapricot,” I’d have to say worse.) Execution lacked a little; the pastry was too dry, the tartare underseasoned & therefore unable to stand up to the pungent sauces. But the concept tickled me enough to warrant the nod.

The pizza salad sandwich, however, knocked me out. D Bar makes, of all things, a mean salad, crisp & slicked with strong vinaigrette. It makes a pizza dough like a pastry shop (as opposed to a pie parlor) should—tender & buttery—as well as excellent, unctuous yet tangy pesto. And it doesn’t skimp on the nicely textured cheese, both gooey mozzarella & crumbled goat.

An equally good mix of four cheeses, plus meaty, spiced pepperoni & cherry tomatoes that were warm but still uncooked enough to pop, meant that Beth practically couldn’t get a bite of her own pizza in edgewise. (Sorry about that, B, sorta.)

Said mean salad—sprinkled with toasted pinenuts & shaved parmesan & flanked with lusciously, perfectly ripe sliced avocado—is a keeper as well.

I didn’t try Mo’s mac & cheese, but the fact that it comes gratinéed with panko crumbs &, right on, Cheese Nips, bodes well (maybe she’ll weigh in). I did try the lobster tempura (offered as a supplemental special), & though the breading was thick enough that aragosta fritta might have been a more accurate moniker, it wasn’t too heavy—a judicious combo of salty crunch & sea-sweet flesh.

Rebecca’s steak frites was lovely too, not least for the fact that the beef topped the fries rather than sitting beneath or next to them (as is more common). So all those umami juices mingled with the shreds of parmesan to soak the spud sticks in a way that caused joyous flashbacks to Chilean chorrillana.

Finally, yeah. I may not actively crave dessert, but that doesn’t mean I don’t rise to the freaking occasion. My chocolate-cheesecake brownie, topped with a quenelle of pure chocolate, was dense & intense & the very stuff of teen romance novels. To this day I remember the description of a kiss in one I read when I was 12, before I’d had a real kiss of my own, so it stuck: “like chocolate, slow & warm & sweet & good.”

As for Rebecca’s signature cake & shake,

Beth’s special—wherein bananas Foster collided with French toast—

& Mo’s chocolate-caramel tart with caramel ice cream & Godiva affogato

they were all, needless to say, comme il faut, so far as my overwhelmed palate could tell. Same goes for that moist cupcake—neither the génoise nor the buttercream sugary but just sweet enough—which I snarfed the second I got home. Damn you, D Bar! You’ll give me a sweet tooth yet.

P.S. Did I mention the terrific selection of wines by the glass, including this kickass, earthy Pinot Meunier? Consider it mentioned.

D Bar Desserts on Urbanspoon

Island Hopping at Jaya Asian Grill

We Denverites may be landlocked, but our mouths are free to set sail. Whisk them off to Jaya Asian Grill for a whirlwind cruise of Southeast Asia’s island nations—namely Malaysia, Indonesia, & Singapore, complete with a northward detour into Thailand & the southern tip of China—and you’ll see what I mean. Then do it again. And again.

After all, there’s a lot of ground (& sea) to cover here: stews & stirfries, curries & noodles, fish & poultry dishes. A mishmash of Chinese & Indian as well as indigenous influences, the fairly similar, seafood-heavy cuisines of Southeast Asia are distinguished by the prevalence of coconut milk & shrimp paste, fish sauce & lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilies, & tamarind, as well as other tropical fruits & nuts. With one bite, you can almost picture those tastebuds of yours wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, smoke rising from the hawker stalls.

Me, I discovered this strip-mall oasis on South Colorado shortly after moving here from Boston three years ago, when I found myself with a raging jones for the assam ikan bilis—tiny anchovies fried with onions, chilies, and tamarind—I used to cure the late-winter blues with back east. I didn’t find it at Jaya, but I couldn’t & can’t get enough of the stuff I did encounter courtesy of native Singaporean chef David Yea. What follows is an itinerary for your first tasting tour.

Malaysia. Revel in roti canai, featuring wedges of flatbread not unlike naan, only thinner (& denser, due to the inclusion of clarified butter, or ghee, in the dough). They’re commonly served with a side of chicken or lentil curry, though here the dip is a rich chicken broth gently jazzed up with ginger & chilies.

Singapore. Try the aromatic but not-too-spicy curry laksa, a coconut milk–based soup chock-full of spaghetti-sized rice noodles & mixed seafood—scallops, shrimp, mussels—as well as chopped hard-cooked egg. (Laksa essentially means “lots and lots,” alluding to the multitude of ingredients the dish contains—although Yea dispenses with the traditional tofu puffs.)

Indonesia. Bone-in, crispy-skinned, deep, dark and luscious, bebek panggang is Indonesia’s answer to Peking duck—and it’s a snappy one, punctuated by a garnish of chili-flecked cabbage.

Hainan. Eschew the menu’s Cantonese compromises—you can settle for those anywhere—in favor of Hainanese chicken, named for China’s southernmost island province. Its pleasures are purely combinatory: the tender chunks of poached white meat serve primarily as vehicles for two vibrant, extremely fresh dipping sauces—green ginger-scallion & orange ginger-chile—while their juices infuse a mound of fragrant coconut rice.

Of course, alternative routes abound. For instance, you could go on a tear through the islands’ greatest hits, sampling gado gado (a cooked vegetable salad with tofu, egg, & peanut sauce), beef rendang (a gravy-like curry), & nasi goreng (fried rice with bits of salted fish) along the way.

And so on. In short, just let your gullet be your intrepid travel guide.

Jaya Asian Grill on Urbanspoon

Hands-On at Palais Casablanca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palais Casablanca authentic moroccan cuisine on Urbanspoon

Chili Verde’s Pueblan Pleasures

Though Eder Yañez-Mota moved to Denver in 1999, his brother Hanzel and father Andreas are much more recent transplants from Puebla, an hour southeast of Mexico City. Together the trio and their crew recreate old family recipes at Chili Verde, which has electrified the corner of a quiet residential block in the Highlands with its bright green trim outside & in—and its superb regional Mexican repertoire.

What distinguishes Pueblan cuisine is its French influence, according to Eder; after all, he points out, Cinco de Mayo does not celebrate Mexico’s independence from Spain, as many Americans believe, but from the Napoleonic empire. Hence the presence on the menu of crêpes—and hence, in his view, the unusual incorporation of fruit (raisins, peaches, plantains, apples) into the ground beef that fills the signature chile relleno (relleno, of course, means “stuffed”).

Perish the thought of anything even remotely like a jalapeño popper, which Tex Mex–style chiles rellenos tend to resemble. This dish is complex, elegant, and devoid of the thick breading in which your average sports bar coats and deep-fries the poor things. “Where we’re from,” Eder explains, “it’s quite expensive because it’s a seasonal dish, served from October to December.” Even here, where it’s served year round, the kitchen sometimes runs out of the pomegranates whose seeds are usually sprinkled on top; then, he admits, “we have to use red berries just to give it some color.”

Actually, when I had it recently, there was no fruit topping at all. But the fact that it didn’t therefore fly all the colors of the Mexican flag—green, white and red, as is traditional—didn’t make it any less emblematic of the regional cookery. As striking as the filling is, it’s the creamy nut sauce that’s most novel for those used to a smothering of chile, cheese, and little else. Tasting it, I had a strange vision of carrot cake, convinced I detected nutmeg. Wrong, Eder corrects me: it contains “Mexican sour cream, sugar, and nuts” (primarily walnuts). That’s it. And clearly, that’s enough.

You can also get the chile filled with asadero cheese—“like mozzarella,” says Eder—instead of beef. But whatever you do, don’t ignore the chips and salsa that arrive at your table first thing. They’re no token gesture; the salsa macha in particular (below right) is wonderful.

“It’s pretty much olive oil and straight-up roasted serrano peppers. We make it every day—it’s a pain,” Eder laughs. Maybe for him; for me, it’s blistering bliss on a tortilla triangle.

Mexican ceviche or cebiche (citrus-marinated fish/shellfish) tends to be chopped a lot finer than the chunky Peruvian version (which may or may not contain corn &/or sweet potato, a nifty twist). That’s neither here nor there in terms of quality; I like it all so long as it’s cold & tangy, with fresh/firm seafood & a little spice.

Confessedly, I am not a fish taco aficionado—I dunno, too much mild whiteness, they just kinda bore me. But as they go, these are A-OK, with ripe avocado & a drizzle of chile aioli, a proper dollop of curtido, & the best part, excellent refritos with a sprinkle of queso mexicano.

In a word, encantador.

Chili Verde: 3700 Tejon St.; 303.477.1377; Lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat.; $7-$13.

Chili Verde on Urbanspoon

Stick-to-itiveness at EDGE Restaurant & Bar

Every morning, I jump out of bed raring to start a low-carb diet, & every evening, it all dissolves in wine & tears. But I bet if I lived at EDGE Restaurant & Bar—the Four Seasons Denver’s signature steakhouse, which now seems to be on solid ground after what I felt was a somewhat shaky start—I could commit. ImagineI Every day a seafood Cobb salad

or grilled scallops and veggies—maybe topped with butter-poached lobster if I’m feeling fine!—for lunch; truffled mushroom soup & bone-in buffalo ribeye or trout in lemony brown butter for dinner; & to kick it all off, something like this.

That it’s made of whites rather than whole eggs doesn’t mean it’s dry or boringly “lite”; chock-full of chicken chorizo crumbles, oozing pepper jack cheese, & topped with fresh avocado & smoky salsa, it’s all flavor all the time, with a heck of a kick from a slew of chopped chiles.

And then, once I got super-svelte, I could tangle with the pile of fried onions atop the salad of rare seared steak with blue cheese dressing.

Or tackle a lamb burger with tzatziki & superb, tangy-sweet cured tomatoes on a housemade sesame bun,

or this hefty slab of rare ahi on tender focaccia, slathered with aioli & sprinkled with bright pickled red onion, shiitakes & arugula,

perhaps followed by pastry chef Christopher Jordan’s adorably memorable cheesecake & panna cotta in a jar, with a graham-cracker crust & a layer of blood orange gelée worth digging deep for, plus an ultra-refreshing scoop of tart blood orange sorbet alongside a dried orange “chip” on top.

And then I’d probably have to start all over again with the self-recrimination & sheepish resolve. C’est la vie at the Four Seasons.

Edge Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Satchel’s on 6th: A Family Affair

***This sneak preview originally appeared on the Denver Magazine blog; I’ve reworked it slightly below.***

“He’s super-excited,” said Andrew Casalini of his six-year-old son, the namesake of Satchel’s on 6th, the week before it opened. “He feels like this is his restaurant.”

It’s a sentiment Casalini’s customers are bound to share. After all, from the 50-seat space (70 if you count the patio) to the 10-dish dinner menu (13 including desserts), it’s clear that he & chef Jared Brant intend to cater to a highly selective, hyperlocal audience. As he puts it, “We’re not trying to serve a million people. We’re trying to serve a few and do a good job.”

The manifestations of this intimately neighborly vision are everywhere. Take the tight squeeze of a kitchen — “a one-man, one-woman show,” according to Brant, whose costar, sous chef Lindsay Woodcock, has worked at New York’s Momofuku as well as Ototo & The Kitchen (Brant himself honed his chops under Frank Bonanno at Mizuna & Bones). Or consider the coffee bar Brant’s own sister Caitlin,

newly arrived from their hometown of Indianapolis, will be setting up on weekday mornings as an “offering to the community,” per Casalini, where she’ll serve a limited daily selection of her own baked goods — think muffins accompanied by crème fraîche rather than butter or savory “puttanesca scones” with olives & red pepper jelly.

And then there’s the wine program. “The secret here is going to be the bottle list,” says Casalini, who plans to “open high-end wines on busy nights & pour them by the ounce” for what he calls that “mwah!” taste sensation without the “ouch!” price point.

But above all, watch for the implementation of “shift meal.” Following dinner service Thursday through Saturday, Brant and Woodcock will be serving late-night specials — off-menu “test items,” in Casalini’s words, “because back there in the kitchen, chefs are always thinking, ‘What’s next?’” And so are their colleagues, both back & front of the house, across town: “When industry people are getting off work, we’ll say, ‘Go ahead and close, come on in.’” Adds Brant, “I hope all these guys down the road, from Fruition & Mizuna & Bones,” stop by after hours for a bite & a glass of wine from “whatever nice bottles we’ve opened that night.” Of course, their welcome extends to the general public. But I suggest you hold out for shift meal only if you count yourselves among a specific public — namely those who are open to dining according to the chef’s whim.

Otherwise, the regular dinner menu, small as it is, has plenty to offer — as I discovered during a tasting that came together so quickly the chef himself had had yet to sample all he served me. Of course I offered to share — which is, after all, what his plates are designed for. “To encourage people to sit at the bar,” Brant’s preparing nibbles like roasted garlic and marinated olives for $4 a pop. Rounding out the appetizers pictured below are such entrées as meatloaf that’s “almost like a short-rib terrine”; a signature play on steak frites featuring julienned, fried calamari and spinach-mascarpone cream; herbed sole gratinée based, says Brant, on “a Swedish dish I learned from my girlfriend”; & fresh orecchiette with wild mushrooms (“we’re always going to have a vegetarian option,” he assures me). For dessert, there’s a seasonal cobbler (strawberry-rhubarb for starters) & a handmade truffle sampler. And the weekend “punch brunch,” featuring the likes of fried chicken in beer-cheddar gravy & pancakes with hickory syrup, is sure to revive the “cult following” garnered by the original Satchel’s Market on Park Hill, of whose success the new, larger venue is a necessary outgrowth.

It’s a cult I’ll be joining if the dishes I tasted are any indication of things to come. Starting with al dente asparagus—bright with a bite—this spring salad featured a liquid-centered poached egg, shavings of fresh ricotta (whose source was a secret) & ham shaved so fine I thought it was a sprinkling of bread crumbs until I tasted it, all highlighted by a touch of fruity olive oil.

The name “wedge salad” does a disservice to Brant’s improvement on the steakhouse standard: a cylindrical disk of iceberg topped with chunks of excellent thick-cut bacon & blue cheese I could smell without leaning over; slivers of pickled onion; & dollops of thick, peppery yogurt dressing.

Accompanied by soft scrambled eggs & Texas toast, roasted veal marrow got a cute diner-style makeover.

Conversely, a refreshing scoop of cool, tangy celery root rémoulade added a touch of elegance to Brant’s otherwise downhome brunch signature, the pork belly croissant (PBC).

Still, the hashbrown topped with crème fraîche stole its thunder—so simple, the crunch of the buttery crust yielding to an almost creamy interior that tasted of nothing but fresh, warm potato.

The restaurant may be named for Satchel, but that side dish has my moniker all over it from here on out.

Satchel's on 6th on Urbanspoon

Socorro’s Super Tortas & the Best Green Chile You Haven’t Tried

***This post originally appeared in my Gorging Global column for Denver Magazine. So far as I know, I’m not beholden to any confidentiality agreement following its demise, which means THE TRUTH CAN BE TOLD: I was all set to single out Socorro’s green chile as the best you haven’t tried in an upcoming issue.

Now, that’s not necessarily intended to be a factual statement as much as a deliberately provocative one, meant to shed deserved light on a dark horse contender. Still, I became convinced I wasn’t far off the mark after watching the Director—who remains fiercely loyal to El Taco de Mexico after 20 years spent scouring this town’s trucks and taco huts—basically do the butter dance with one bite. Relatively thin, with a richness that derives not from adulterating cornstarch but visible chunks of pork fat, it’s speckled with, of all things, bits of carrot—which only highlight the purity of the whole, roasty, electrically vegetal, &, yes, cough-inducingly spicy.

Onto the post.***

“Why aren’t you open?!” reads the graffiti on the door of Socorro’s. It’s a fair question: after a year in business, the tiny New Mexican–themed snackeria just off South Broadway in the Baker District still seems to be working out some logistical kinks. An ink-&-paper sign displays revised winter hours. Prices on the blackboard show an increase from the take-out menu I picked up only a couple of months ago. Don’t get your heart set on a particular agua fresca: the flavor you choose may or may not be available at any given time. And if you take the claim that the bread for the tortas, the Mexican sandwiches I came for, is “baked fresh daily” to mean that it’s made in house, well, you know what they say about assuming. It isn’t.

Despite or because of its slapdash operating procedures, however, I can’t help but get a kick out of Socorro’s. With all of 9 stools lining the counters, the space is bright & cheery, its red & yellow walls bedecked with license plates & road signs from the Land of Enchantment. Beneath them, a lone employee with a moustache as shiny as his gold teeth keeps asking me questions in Spanglish I can’t understand. No matter. The grin on his face is permanent & gentle, and his movements are mesmerizing; I’ve never seen sandwiches assembled with such forethought. He even uses two different knives to halve them: one to make the initial cut, the other to complete it.

The care he puts into them is, of course, inversely proportional to their all-out sloppiness — but it shows in their total deliciousness.

After it’s buttered and grilled, the bread is slathered with mayo & refried beans, then piled with admirably fresh, parsley-&-jalapeno-spiked pico de gallo; chopped iceberg; & your choice of six fillings. The slow-roasted, coarse-chopped beef (barbacoa), for example, is moist and & simply but deeply flavorful; the marinated, cumin-scented chunks of pork spilling from the torta al pastor (a/k/a “The 505,” named for New Mexico’s area code) are mixed with juicy chunks of fresh pineapple. At some point I realized I was squeezing the whole mess the way a child would a rag doll: with extra-stupid love.

At $7.25 apiece, Socorro’s tortas are relatively expensive (as are its other specialties: street-style tacos go for $2 a pop, & a deluxe burrito will run you as much as $7). But I say they’re worth it — especially since they come with a broad, sweet smile.

Socorro's Street Tacos on Urbanspoon

Intrigue—Culinary & Otherwise—at Cracovia

In the photograph I’m holding, it’s 1982. A young, bearded man stands alone in a parking lot, looking for all the world like a bon vivant in slim pants and boots.

“That was all my belongings,” Lester Rodzen tells me.
“The clothes on your back?” I ask.
“Well, I had a pack of cigarettes & a bottle of vodka.”

Thus was the figure in the photo equipped to escape his Communist-run homeland with less than 24 hours’ notice after being identified as the printer of an underground newspaper. Spending a year in an Italian refugee camp while the United Nations processed his paperwork, Rodzen eventually made his way to New Jersey; from there, he planned to join some friends in San Diego, but “my car was broken in Denver & I stayed for the next 26 years.” Now the former petroleum chemist is the owner of Westminster Polish restaurant Cracovia.

You think all that’s exciting? Try the food.

Okay, Polish cuisine isn’t really known for its pizzazz; rather, its hallmark is homestyle comfort, all meat & potatoes, dumplings & root vegetables, boiled this & pickled that. But if you’ve got a taste for such substantial stuff, then exhilarating it most certainly is. And while the likes of pierogi & kielbasa are celebrated worldwide, it’s the lesser-known kiszka that gives me a thrill.

Put gently, kiszka is black pork sausage; put bluntly, it’s blood sausage. Compared to much of its firmly packed ilk, the forcemeat (that is, the ground, spiced mixture inside the casing) is loose & grainy. And though well-seasoned, kiszka is surprisingly mild—nutty with whole kernels of barley & devoid of the iron-tinged aftertaste you might expect.

It comes with mashed potatoes & warm sauerkraut—which is strikingly sour indeed, but also richly brothy & studded with caraway seeds. It does not, however, come with the homemade mustard that Rodzen pairs with his white sausage—understandably, since the almost orange, tangy sweet-hot condiment could easily overpower its own delicate flavor. But I request a side of it anyway to polish off (no homonym intended) with a spoon. It’s that good.

Also pictured are zupa ogórkowa & mizeria, both bound to be acquired tastes for many Americans. The former is described as “pickle soup with potatoes”; more accurately, it’s potato soup with shredded pickles—milky on the one hand, sharply sour on the other. Being staunchly pro-pickle myself, I get a kick out of it, though skeptics aren’t likely to be swayed. The same goes for mizeria, the classic salad—which is more like a cold soup—of sliced cucumbers in sour cream, seasoned simply with salt, pepper, & dill. Though refreshing, the ratio of dairy to veggie might come as a shock to leaf-eaters.

Then again, such specialties just go to show that Rodzen & his co-owner, wife Maria, aren’t dumbing their cookery down a whit for the uninitiated. This is a very good thing. Go in with an open mind and you’ll be rewarded with a delightfully expanded belly.

Cracovia: 8121 W. 94th Ave., Westminster; 303.484.9388; Lunch and dinner daily; $7.95-$20.95.

Cracovia Polish-American Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Ono Kine Grindz at Da Hawaiian Kitchen

Just as craft-cocktail conoisseurs are abuzz these days with the renaissance of tiki bars, Hawaiian cuisine is once again on the tip of many a chowhound’s tongue. But while the former group is going retro with fogcutters and Singapore slings, foodies are eschewing the pupu platters of the midcentury Trader Vic’s era for that staple of what islanders simply call “local food”: the plate lunch.

Grounded in the traditions of the Polynesian natives, local food also reflects the cookery of the myriad peoples who have settled in Hawaii over the past couple of centuries—primarily Asians from Japan, Korea, China, & the Philippines, along with Portuguese and even Puerto Rican immigrants. If that sounds like quite a mishmash—well, it is. On the menu at any given plate lunch joint here in greater Denver (& there are quite a few, most links in multi-state chains), you’ll find Korean short ribs (kalbi) side by side with Japanese cutlets (katsu), Portuguese sausages, & good old American hamburger patties topped with gravy & fried eggs in a dish called loco moco. Any of these (& more) may be featured on a typical plate lunch, accompanied almost invariably by scoops of island-style sticky rice & macaroni salad. But it’s kalua pig, the quintessential pit-smoked centerpiece of luaus, that packs the biggest Hawaiian punch.

Tucked away in an Aurora strip-mall sports bar called the Oasis Grill, Da Hawaiian Kitchen does not have an imu (as the aforementioned pit is known) at its disposal. But chefs Eric Semingsen & Kalani Kamanu, who grew up together in Kailua, replicate the classic masterfully nonetheless—rubbing the pork with native sea salt, wrapping it in ti leaves, & oven-cooking it “on Hawaiian time,” in Semingsen’s words (that is, very slowly). The result, mixed with cabbage for contrast, is mouthwatering—tender & richly savory. It comes with macaroni salad that’s actually seasoned well enough to be flavorful, a rarity. It also comes with the ultra-soft white roll known as “sweet bread,” an adorable orchid-blossom garnish—&, if you’re lucky enough to be there when it’s available, kimchi-fried rice speckled with bits of Spam.

That’s right, Spam—the notorious canned pork loaf that achieved lasting popularity in Hawaii during World War II due to a surplus from military rations. It makes all kinds of cameo appearances on plate-lunch menus, perhaps most surprisingly in the sushi-inspired snack known as Spam musubi.

Though Da Hawaiian Kitchen offers them too, the pictured rolls come from Hawaiian Hut BBQ in Golden, whose backstory alone warrants it a mention. First of all, it’s inexplicably set on the premises of an indoor flea market called the Home Décor Outlet—separated from the huge, tchotchke-cluttered showfloor by little more than some strung leis and paper cutouts of tiki gods. And second, its owner, Paul Ho, just so happens to be a cousin of Don Ho, the late ukelele-slinging crooner of “Tiny Bubbles” and “Pearly Shells.” In short, it may just be the most fortuitous amalgam of kitsch this side of Casa Bonita.

African Heart & Soul at Hessini Roots International Café

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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