Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Dish of the Week: Ceviche en Crema de Rocoto at Pisco Sour

Ceviche is a category unto itself in Peru; there, variations on the dish we tend to think of simply as citrus-marinated fish with maybe some chiles & onions are near-endless, & the inclusion of starchy veggies is fairly common.

The use of a sauce like crema de rocoto, however, was new to me. The rocoto is a type of pepper that’s generally pretty spicy, but the ratio of mayo to chile paste in this sea bass ceviche—mounded atop a hefty chunk of sweet potato & sprinkled with toasted corn kernels—tempered the heat considerably. Bite for bite, the mixture was startlingly like a cold seafood casserole—& I loved how the delicate yet firm chunks of fish held up to the creamy, crunchy, & earthy-sweet elements.

But there were numerous runners-up for Dish of the Week last night, when a group of us gathered at Pisco Sour Restaurant & Lounge for dinner amid the celebrants of what appeared to be a baby shower & a handful of raucous soccer fans catching a match on the big screen. Pal A’s aji de gallina, for instance. This traditional stew, based on chicken & potatoes in a parmesan-&-walnut sauce—wait, do I need to say anything else? “Cheese-&-nut sauce” is the #1 synonym for delicious.

The all-around comfort-food theme continued with causa rellena—mashed potatoes layered with a mixture of more chicken, more mayo & more awesomeness.

But wait, there’s still more spud! The papa rellena‘s a potato croquette stuffed with ground beef, tomatoes & raisins & accompanied by a couple of hot sauces (pictured in the photo below it)—one smooth, green & rather salty, the other chunky & tongue-searing. Good thing our gregarious waiter, who I suspect may have been the owner, was so determined to ply us with multiple rounds of the frothy, cooling namesake cocktail.

Mantonat’s anticucho platter included marinated beef heart & what the menu described as pork belly, but was clearly tripe, of which I am ashamed to say I’m not a fan. However, the heart was tender & stellar; if you’ve never had it, rest assured its bloody, iron-y tones aren’t quite as strong as they are in, say, liver. Behind that, pal T’s classic ceviche mixto.

And as for the roast chicken Denver on a Spit split with his kiddos, I’m sure he’ll have a word or 2 to say about that on his own blog, so keep your eyes peeled. I know he’d agree with me overall that this extremely warm & welcoming place is doing Peruvian cuisine a solid, complete with complimentary dishes of puffy, soft corn nuts mixed with plantain chips that they should really sell in bulk to make a mint off the likes of me.

Pisco Sour Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon

Pisco, Pino, & Pastel, ¡Ay Mio!: Sabor Latino

I don’t care what your politics are; if you’re a chowhound, the benefits of immigration are not to be sniffed at—just blissfully inhaled. From pho to falafel & curry to cannoli, diversity begets deliciousness, the broader the better. Case in point: the little piece of South America in the Highlands that is Sabor Latino.

Opened in its original location by a mom-&-pop team from Mexico and Chile, respectively, some 20 years ago, this sunny, colorful café has long brightened the corner of 35th and Tennyson under the ownership of Robert Luevano & his sister Marie Jimenez, along with her husband Dan Jimenez. The Colorado-born siblings grew up in the restaurant business; their own pop, who hailed from Guadalajara, ran North Denver’s now-defunct La Nueva Poblana for decades. Meanwhile, current chef Gabriel Tapia is Sonoran. Needless to say, the menu doesn’t lack for Mexican staples. But what sets Sabor Latino apart is an array of South Cone specialties whose likes you don’t often encounter stateside. Compared to that of Brazil and Argentina, Colombian and Peruvian cuisine isn’t widely available even in the biggest US cities—while Chilean food is almost unheard of. Hence my excitement at the sight of pastel de choclo among the platos especiales, not weeks after returning from the first of what I hope will be many trips to the land of Carménère & superb seafood (both of which are also offered here—the latter in the form of fine ceviche, the cold citrus-marinated seafood snack beloved throughout Latin America).

As Luevano describes it, pastel de choclo is “basically a pot pie layered with pino & shredded chicken, topped with a creamed corn mixture & then baked.” As I describe it, pastel de choclo is awesome. It’s the pino that distinguishes this cornbread casserole from the stuff of heartland potlucks; the mixture of ground beef, onions, raisins, and olives (and sometimes, though not in this case, chopped egg) is ubiquitous in Chile. Also used as a filling for the empanadas on the appetizer sampler, it’s rich, savory-sweet, & a bit smoky, kicked up with garlic, chili powder & other spices Luevano wouldn’t name out of respect for the proprietary recipes of Doña Maria, as he affectionately calls the baker who has been with them since day one. She also makes the tamales Colombianos, wrapped in banana leaves rather than the corn husks typically found further north. Admittely, I favor bandeja paisa, mainly because the Colombian dish of shredded beef, black beans & rice topped with a fried egg includes luscious fried plantains & arepas, flat cornmeal cakes stuffed with queso fresco à la gorditas & pupusas—pictured here on the appetizer sampler with more plantains but inadequate empañadas, simply not the height of freshness.

That said, you really can’t go too wrong here. Unless, that is, you fail to start with a round of pisco sours made the traditional way, with egg whites—talk about sabor latino.

Sabor Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Welcome to El Cuscatleco. No, Really…

Be it pictures on the walls or flowers on the tables, a warm greeting from the host or the clatter & chatter of regulars, welcome signs take many forms—any & all of them welcome in turn to the chowhound on the doorstep of a potential discovery. After months of passing El Cuscatleco, a barely-there Salvadoran strip-mall joint on Federal, with a curious eye, I finally crossed its threshold one midday with a willing pal in tow—only to be met by the equivalent of the sound of crickets.

But for a telenovela blaring on the flatscreen TV, the dining room was threadbare & empty, the scent of cleaning products stronger than any cooking aroma. We stood there confused for a moment, wondering if the place was closed at the peak of the lunch hour; when a lone figure emerged from the kitchen, she, too, seemed a little confused by our presence before leading us wordlessly tableward. And though the menus she handed us were filled with terms I didn’t recognize—always a thrill—her inability to define them either to me or to my Spanish-speaking companion struck me as yet another warning rather than welcome sign, especially when she admitted she hadn’t tried much of the food. By the time she started listing all the things they were out of, I was mentally halfway out the door even as I placed my order.

But then she said: “Do you want flour tortillas or homemade corn tortillas with that?” Ah. Finally, my kind of bienvenidos. Long story short: as introductions to Salvadoran cuisine go, El Cuscatleco may not be the smoothest or most obliging. But for the intrepid culinary explorer, it is absolutely worthwhile.

Start with pupusas, the stuffed, thick tortillas that are El Salvador’s signature version of Mexican gorditas &/or Venezuelan arepas. Mine arrived warm & practically oozing with chicharrón—not in this case merely the skin of fried pork but also spiced, shredded meat—alongside a terrific dipping sauce flavored with tomatoes, chiles, garlic, & parsley. (That is in turn accompanied by a bowl of curtido, a traditional cabbage concoction that you might say marks the midpoint between coleslaw & kimchi; El Cuscatleco’s recipe lacked much vinegar tang, though flecks of chile compensated.)

Then move on to the mariscos (seafood): being (like all Central American nations) coastal, El Salvador is blessed with an abundance.

Excited by the menu’s lengthy selection, I zeroed in on what looked like a house specialty—a seafood soup called mariscadas Salvadoreña—until I saw the $20 price tag. Perhaps it was for two or more? Our server assured me it was not. Of course, given her performance thus far, I should have trusted my own instincts: I was soon confronted by a giant bowl chockablock with crab legs, shelled mussels, plump shrimp, & chunks of octopus & whitefish along with potatoes, onions, & carrots. It was a feast not least for the heady broth, based on tomatoes & what the menu calls “sour cream”—more likely the sort of blend of whipping & sour cream known in many south-of-the-border countries as crema.

Ultimately, good food is the only welcome sign that matters; I can’t wait to return for some atole de elote (a milky corn puree)—& many more of those gorgeous tortillas.

El Cuscatleco: 1550 S. Federal Blvd., Denver; 303.936.0866; Lunch and dinner daily; $2.50-$20.

Cuscatleco on Urbanspoon

Red Tango: A He-Said, She-Said Review with Denver on a Spit

Red Tango gets a lotta love from a lotta people, & Denver on a Spit & I are people, so we figured the odds were solid that we’d love it too.

Good thing we didn’t actually bet on it, as you’ll see. For what my 1st impression’s worth: with the possible exception of the arepas, the pan-Latin American food here doesn’t measure up to that the relatively nearby Sabor Latino. Which isn’t to say we didn’t have fun—up to & including the hungover recapping we conducted afterward via mutual Q&As.

For my perspective on the meal, check out Denver on a Spit’s blog; for his, read on.

Denveater: So tell me about this newfound holiday tradition of yours.

Denver on a Spit: The Arvada lights show. It is something else. There is nothing more American to do for the holidays than drive a long distance only to never get out of the car, pop open cans of alcohol (in this case it did happen to be champagne) and watch thousands of kilowatts of non-renewable energy be burned in perfect rhythm to the world’s worst Christmas music. I’m glad you and the Director appreciated it for all its holiday excess. I think it set the tone nicely for the rest of the night.

[Indeed. Don't miss the nutso video on the abovelinked post!]

D: Thinking back to our post about good signs & bad signs, seems to me the signs at Red Tango were mixed: affable staff—good; ham-pineapple special—bad. What aspects of the place made you go hmmm?

DOAS: I too was surprised (not in the suprise-it’s-your-birthday good way) to see the ham and pineapple “Hawaiian” special in this purported South American restaurant. On the other hand I was happy to hear the Chilean accents of the men at the bar when I got lost looking for the bathroom. Overall I got a good, friendly vibe from Red Tango.

D: Your favorite dish was the beef empanada. Why?

DOAS: That empanada was perfect. It was baked and the filling was like a rich beef stew. It reminded me of an empanada shop that my wife and I went to in Buenos Aires that featured baked-style empanadas from the Northern part of the country (and a little of the Bolivian Saltaeñas that they used to serve in that place on 6th Ave that is now sadly Lime XS). I am so sorry that I pretty much ate the whole thing and you both didn’t get to try it. Must have been all that holiday champagne that left me so uninhibited. Also great were the cheese arepas and for that matter the ceviche. All those first small plates were terrific.

D: Ha, that’s right, you did! That’s OK, we polished off its cheese-filled companion. After that, what happened with your entree? It didn’t go swimmingly at first.

DOAS: Yes, I made a switch at the last minute because the server made the pork adobado sound so good. It was three big chunks of pork that by themselves had very little taste and were a little dry, although they were pink going on red on the inside. Then I realized the bacon that wrapped them had fallen off. Once I figured out the bacon thing it was passable but underwhelming, and I didn’t finish it, which is a rarity. Then there was the salad: it was hot probably from the plate and it was all vinegar and salt. Raw but warm spinach in a bath of vinegar is never a good thing.

D: Still, we both felt there were some nice touches throughout the meal…

DOAS: I agree with the Director that the waiter’s attempts at Spanish were amusing at best, but he was very friendly and somehow we got a wine upgrade on our Carménère and then were charged less than the original price for two of the new bottles. That was very nice. Also the Chef’s split pea soup was excellent, as was the garlic-laden unique chimichurri-type sauce that was served with the bread.

D: After the meal you ordered flan. First of all, what did you think of it? Second, we were already stuffed! My philosophy is that I only order dessert if the meal is exceptional & I don’t want it to end, or if it’s totally unsatisfying & I don’t want to end on a sour note. Yours?

DOAS: I usually order dessert. Also I didn’t want the conversation to end. I don’t have too many philosophies, but I guess if I did the one that would apply to this situation would be that if I am sitting at a table in a restaurant for more than thirty minutes without eating, I feel strange, no matter how full I am. I think we were there for a good hour after our meal ended, so ordering flan was just a good way to keep the night going. If my warm salad hadn’t been taken away, I probably would have started picking at it again just because it was there.

D: So how was the flan? Who makes the best flan in town?

DOAS: The one at Red Tango was good. It was very eggy, thick and not too sweet. I absolutely love the flan—or as they call it in Venezuela, quesillo—at Empanada Express Grill in Golden.

D: Overall, how would you describe the atmosphere and character of the restaurant? What do you think they did best and what do they need to work on the most?

DOAS: I liked Red Tango, in spite of my entree. It’s hard to say what happened with our entrees, the creamy blackened chicken and bean ravioli was not executed well (though I love the idea of bean ravioli) and the Director’s arepa came up short with sauce on the mechada (which was basically the entire dish). Maybe we were there on an off night, but with the relatively short menu you think they would have the execution wired on each dish no matter what the hour.

On the other hand it was unpretentious with extremely friendly service. There is a comfortable family feel to it without being corny. It is also wildly popular, as evidenced by the full parking lot and the packed house when we arrived, so they must be doing something right for a lot of people.

D: Hear, hear…

Red Tango on Urbanspoon

This Week (& Last) on Gorging Global: Viejo Domingo & Sushi Tora

In case you missed it in all the turkey-feathered chaos, last week’s column over at Denver Magazine’s The Mouthful featured Sushi Tora in Boulder, where new chef Ray Srisamer is taking the traditional Japanese repertoire in contemporary directions, as with this shiitake, oyster mushroom & shiso leaf tempura accompanied by green tea salt for dipping:

This week, I turn to Argentine cuisine, stuffing my face with beef at the few-month-old Viejo Domingo on 38th, this garlicky beef empanada being just the beginning:

Check ‘em out, answer the Questions of the Week, and join my quest to discover Denver’s globe-spanning gastronomical wonders!

This Week in Gorging Global: A Fire in the Blood for El Cuscatleco

Just as flames of passion leapt across the flatscreen throughout my meal at this Salvadoran joint on Federal—which happened to coincide with an especially wacky, mariachi-&-ranchero-filled episode of the telenovela Fuego en el Sangre—so I burned with love for a bowl of seafood soup, or mariscada, that I was told served 1.

Compare the size of the spoon to the size of the vessel. At least 12 cups in there. That’s inching toward a gallon. Es loco!

Read all about it, as well as El Cuscatleco’s pupusas, over at The Mouthful!

I Want You! To Tell Me: What’s Your Favorite Plato Latino?

In this week’s Gorging Global post for Denver Magazine’s food blog The Mouthful, I get drenched in pisco at the lovely Sabor Latino & ingest corn in just about every form imaginable, including arepas, below right (on the appetizer platter with empanadas de pino & fried plantains).

SLappetizers

Click here to read all about this South American sanctuary, & answer the Question of the Week for the chance to write your very own Question of the Week. Woohoo! Let’s collaborate, you & I!

Dish of the Week: Lechon con chimichurri via From Argentina with Love

I don’t often bother to suggest you click on the pic for a closer look, but now’d be an excellent time to do so.

Lechon1

How’s that for a pile of pig—skin, feet & all? I’ll tell you how—fantastic. For a holiday dinner party the Director & I  were lucky enough to score an invite to before heading to ABQ, Rebecca Caro of From Argentina With Love marinated & roasted a whole suckling pig (i.e., an unweaned piglet less than 6 weeks old) in her fabulously super-sour chimichurri—sometimes she makes it with red wine vinegar, but this time she used pure lemon juice, giving the meat a tanginess to offset its baby-fatty savor.

Just in time for the New Year, click here to get her recipe for lechon—the raw material, so to speak, for which she purchased at Carniceria Guadalajara—& give yourself & your guests a little taste of prosperity in 2010 (pork symbolizes progress, per Epicurious, although I imagine the poor pig would beg to differ).

Sorta-Samba Room

I don’t do the samba, but I know it’s an Afro-Brazilian dance. I’ve done the
Samba Room only once, but once was enough to know it’s no Afro-Brazilian disco of authentic delights. It’s more like some office holiday party of attempts at smooth South
American–fusion moves. You know? Like some diligent corporate lackey came up with a festive theme & went all out decorating the lunchroom & sending a link to step-by-step instructional videos on You Tube, but it’s still just the lunchroom, & every other coworker watched the rumba video instead, & the fun only ever starts when everyone gets loaded.

That probably sounds like an insult, & it is, but only insofar as the phrase
“corporate lackey” signifies. Ethnoculinary authenticity being
the bugaboo that it is in a postpostmodern, multi-if-not-postcultural,
globally-thinking-locally-acting (or at least collectively pretending to) society like ours, there’s much to be said for
home-grown, even small regional chain–grown, approaches to the cuisines of
the world. But when a menu is shaped less by some passionate restaurateur’s personal experience & extensive research than by the P &
L statements & memos with the word “branding” in the subject line
& etc. his or her hired feasibility-study guns shoot off—as appeared to mine
both eye & palate to be the case—then there’s still much to be said, but
not as nicely.

Consider
the fact that it references just about every place in the world but Brazil
& its African relations: Colombia, Peru, Cuba, Argentina, Japan,
France, Maryland, New Orleans, even Hawaii in the form of “island sweet rolls.” Where’s
the ximxim, the vatapá, the moqueca & so on to which the name de jure if not
de facto alludes?

& for that matter, where’s the salt?

Why, right there, in the shaker just behind your 4-foot gladiolus of
ceviche & plantain chips, you might point out.

SRceviche

& right you are; in fact, I used that very shaker to season the visibly peppered but noticeably undersalted signature app, “made using the freshest available seafood & shellfish,” aka tuna. Hey, nada wrong with atún, other than the Spanish getting the letters backwards; it’s just that the implication of the description (oh, why can’t words just mean what we want them to mean when we want them to mean it?) is that we can expect an assortment of finfish & crustaceans. Still, lush chunks of mango & crisp bits of red pepper & celery, plus trace amounts of jalapeno, melded in swell fashion with the cubes of tuna—firm yet juicy, being so thoroughly marinated they could function as their own lime wedges—& in short it was really quite good beyond its misrepresentation by the menu & want for salt, the latter exacerbated by a heavy sprinkling of sugar on the plantain chips that was not merely unnecessary but in fact distracting, except perhaps to American restaurant franchise consultants acting on the assumption that their consumer base will demand bananalike sweetness from bananalike objects.

Likewise undersalted was the avocado-lime dressing on the house version of a Cobb; though nice & creamy, it thus couldn’t quite stabilize the jumble of chopped smoked turkey, mango, tomato & egg with manchego, blue cheese & black beans. Though not exactly bland, it didn’t pop as it otherwise might have.

SRcobbsalad

Whether or not my companion’s vaguely Asian-influenced pile of greens with wonton strips & ginger-mustard dressing was equally bereft of flavor enhancement, it was, she assured me, no model study in textures, the grilled chicken being as “dry & tough” & the strips as underfried as they look.

SRchickensalad

Less in disarray was the interior design, balanced appealingly between Latin vibrancy & urban gleam. I’d be down with happy hour at the bar sometime, but the odds I’d pair my pisco sours with arepas or empanadas on the potentially buzzkilling dare that they’d be made of sturdier stuff soulwise than the above are pretty small.