Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Around the World in 10 Dishes: Salad Edition at Eater Denver

Bonus pics! Read my story on salads around the world here, feast your eyes on a few examples below.

Salpicón at Chili Verde

Glass noodle salad at Suvipa Thai

Tsukemono at Tokio

Goi sua thom thit at Saigon Bowl

Gado gado at Jaya Asian Grill

OK, it isn’t gorgeous, but the dine-in version isn’t much prettier.

Poke at Ace Eat Serve

This, however, is much prettier when you dine in. But if you live around the corner from Ace like I do, you end up getting takeout a lot. Because a) crowds and b) laziness.

Around the World in 10 Dishes: Flatbread Edition at Eater Denver

After nearly a year(!), I’ll be returning to this space from time to time to show off a thing or two.

For starters, I’m working on an occasional series over at Eater, Around the World in 10 Dishes, where I’ll be exploring the glorious riches of Denver’s international kitchens in thematic, systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic fashion. First up: flatbreads.

Behold the companion photo gallery to the article, which you should read the crap out of right here!

Manaeesh with za’atar at Amira Bakery

Kulcha at Azitra

Taftoon at Babajoon’s Kabobs

Scallion pancake at Dae Gee

Injera with molokhia at Elsa’s Ethiopian Restaurant

Focaccia al formaggio di Recco at Lo Stella

Huarache con bistec y nopal at Los Carboncitos

Roti canai at Makan Malaysian Cafe

Tlacoyo with grilled chicken at Paxia

Frybread stuffed with shredded bison at Tocabe


Dish of the Week: Manaeesh at Amira Bakery

The name for these Eastern Mediterranean quasi-pizzas can be spelled about 1001 ways—but it all adds up to deliciousness, any way you slice it. The easygoing Lebanese counter joint near DU that turns them out from its traditional ovens with such aplomb, Amira Bakery, offers a full range of Levantine staples, including shawarma, hummus, baba ghanoush & more, much of which comes with terrific, puffy, toothy, fresh-from-the-oven pita—I had to snap a pic on my car seat before it deflated.

And the falafel’s damn fine too. Though they need to update the posted menu to reflect price changes—everything’s a couple bucks more than listed—they also give you a little extra, so it all evens out in the end. These puppies are moist, crunchy-fluffy rather than flour-dense, with lots of parsley as well as chickpeas—so they’ve got an herbaceous zing that barely needs dressing (that said, a side of tahini sauce beyond the meager dribbling on top would’ve been a plus).

Still, the pies are Amira’s ace in the hole. Of 14 different kinds, I’ve tried 3 & adored them all: the lahmbajeen (from the Armenian lahmajoon), topped with a robust, juicy mixture of ground lamb & beef, bits of pepper & pinenuts;

the za’atar, named for its strongly aromatic, earthy-tart spice blend of thyme, sesame seeds, sumac & more, enhanced by a drizzle of olive oil;

& the chef’s special, which combines lebni, kashkawan (aka kashkaval) & a goodly pour of honey for the sticky-gooey, sweet-salty win.

The lebni they use is so thick & smooth it’s almost like cream cheese; the cheese is a cousin to mozzarella. For all I know you could replace both with Kraft’s finest & get the same results. What a guilty, finger-licking pleasure all the same.

Amira Bakery on Urbanspoon

How Do You Drop a Benjamin at Phoenician Kabob?

Very, very carefully.

First, you & the Director arrange to meet Denver on a Spit (DOAS), Mantonat, & their blushing brides for a late lunch at this Lebanese sleeper on Colfax; then, you hardly eat all morning, to ensure you’ll be nice & saber-toothed by the appointed meeting time; meanwhile, you chip away at some looming deadline, so that hunger & work stress will swirl into a perfect storm of determined debauchery, a play-by-play of which, complete with full dish descriptions, you’ll find right here at DOAS.

By the time your companions arrive, you’ll both be on your 2nd of 3 glasses of Château Kafraya‘s red blend from the Bakaa Valley of Lebanon, & you’ll have polished off much of the 1st of 2 orders of your favorite, most vengeful of garlic dips with pita fresh from the oven.

Then DOAS—otherwise known as the only soul in all of Denver who can eat as much as you–will suggest you start with the pizza-like specialty known as manaqish (or, sometimes, lahmacun) heavily sprinkled with the region’s famed, earthy, slightly bitter spice mixture, za’atar, & dotted with, all of things, cornichons & Japanese-style pickles (aka tsukemono).

The fact that, being wonderfully airy but slightly dry, it doesn’t quite beat your favorite local version, that of Amira Bakery,

which also makes a killer pie topped with ground lamb,

will not keep you from digging in whole-heartedly.

DOAS will also suggest an order of fatayer filled with lamb, onions & pine nuts,

unusual to me for being open-faced rather than turnover-like, which as far as I know is more common. The pastry’s flaky, almost puff-like, but also slightly on the dry side (perhaps that’s a point in favor of encasing the filling completely, so the dough soaks up the meat juices)? Still, nothing a little tzatziki can’t fix.

Of course, you & the Director will have ordered separate combo patters: yours vegetarian with falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouleh, dolmas, rice & the richest of yogurt dips, lebne, 

his topped further with chopped gyro & chicken.

(Meanwhile, one member of your party will order a daily special, comprised of enough saffron rice, beef & potatoes, along with more tzatziki, to feed a whole bunch of normal people.)

By now, not even you can stomach the thought of dessert, much as you adore baklava, kunafa, & the like. Coffee that’s nearly thick as fudge batter will have to do.

If, like me, you dig Arabic, Cuban & all the other coffee styles that are at once intensely bitter & well sweetened, you’l be set, but DOAS warns: “I hate sweet coffee & love strong, black coffee, so I was torn, though I appreciated the copious amounts of sludge on the bottom of my mini-cup (I think I got extra sludge & really did like it). And 3 or 4 pours had me going the rest of the day.”

And that, folks, is how you blow stacks of cash at Phoenician Kabob, & how you’ll no doubt do it again someday soon.

Phoenician Kabob on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Ya Hala Grill’s Kibbeh Akrass

I’m not always thrilled with Ya Hala, but when this institution delivers, it really delivers, pun totally intended. The croquettes known as kibbeh—stuffed with browned ground lamb, cracked wheat (or maybe bulgur, who can tell), pinenuts & onions—are shockingly spot-on. The exterior is fresh, crunchy, lightly seasoned, & greaseless; the interior is moist, not so much rich as deep, & nutty. The rice, too, is expertly cooked & fragrant in that Eastern Mediterranean way, whereby you’re transported to some ancient juncture of sea & desert & crumbling city…

Jerusalem Restaurant vs. Ya Hala Grill: A Tale of Two Vegetarian Combos

***Yesterday’s ode to the King Combo at Mecca Grill brought the below post to mind, originally published on the website of Denver Magazine earlier this year.***

On January 31, the USDA revised its dietary guidelines to recommend that Americans up their intake of produce, whole grains, plant-based proteins, & good fats even more while further reducing their intake of meat & saturated fats. In short, duh, but it served as a reminder to yours truly that I should throw vegetarians a bone (so to speak) more often.

While the new food diagram looks a lot like that of the Western Mediterranean diet as popularized in the 1990s, Eastern Mediterranean cuisine is no less vegetarian-friendly & heart-healthy. So I decided to try the meatless combo platters offered by two of Denver’s most beloved Middle Eastern joints—Jerusalem Restaurant & Ya Hala Grill—side by side to see how they stacked up.


Ya Hala

To start with the items the combos had in common:

Falafel. Jerusalem’s boasted a golden-brown crust as cracklingly thin as the surface of crème brulée—but the interior of these fried, mashed-chickpea croquettes was moist, nutty & smoky with cumin & lots of herbs. Ya Hala’s was too crunchy throughout, on the dry side. Winner: Jerusalem.

Stuffed grape leaves. Expertly rolled, Jerusalem’s were as tight as cigars, packed with aromatic jasmine rice. By contrast, Ya Hala’s rice filling was plain, interesting rather for its texture: almost pudding-like inside remarkably tender, olive oil–slicked grape leaves. Winner: Toss-up. Jerusalem’s are technically correct, but I enjoyed the unusual softness of Ya Hala’s.

Hummus. Compared to Ya Hala’s blandly one-note fluff, Jerusalem’s chickpea purée is textbook—lightly creamy, spiked with lemon juice and tahini in equilibrium. Winner: Jerusalem. (Ya Hala does, however, have a garbanzo-based winner in fatteh.)

Tabbouleh. Proportion was also the key to Jerusalem’s finely chopped, simply dressed parsley-&-bulgur salad with tomatoes & onions, whereas Ya Hala’s was especially lemony. Winner: Another toss-up. Jerusalem’s showed better balance, but Ya Hala’s had more juice, in every sense of the word.

Baba ghanoush. Only after reviewing the menu did I realize that one of the three whitish dips on Ya Hala’s combo was even supposed to be baba ghanoush; none had any eggplant flavor at all. Jerusalem’s was more like it—nice & tangy, with an airy consistency almost like whipped cream. Winner: Definitely Jerusalem.

Ounce for ounce, Jerusalem was coming out way ahead—especially considering that its combo was $4 cheaper than Ya Hala’s ($8.95 versus $12.99), yet offered two falafel & stuffed grape leaves to the latter’s one. But that was only half the battle. In fact, the remaining items on Jerusalem’s platter were less impressive, from the pale, limp french fries to the fattoush, an oily mixture of chopped green pepper, winter tomatoes, onions & herbs that was completely devoid of the key ingredient, toasted pita chips. Ya Hala, meanwhile, offered up starkly pungent garlic dip & soothing cucumber-yogurt sauce in counterbalance; the earthy mixture of lentils & rice known as moujaddara; a well-spiced wedge of spinach-feta pie (though the phyllo was slightly stale); & unfortunately tinny-tasting green beans stewed with tomatoes, as well as a few chunks of decent feta.

Final verdict: Ya Hala’s vegetarian combo was more diverse, but Jerusalem’s was better overall—indicating why the decades-old Denver University hangout is such a mainstay.

Jerusalem Restaurant: 1890 E. Evans Ave.; 303.777.8828; Lunch and dinner daily; $3.50–$12.95.Ya Hala Grill: 2100 S. Colorado Blvd.; 303.758.9376; Lunch and dinner daily; $3.50–$13.99.

Taki Sushi, Mecca Grill, & a Sofa Spud

Countless times I’ve admitted to the mistake of delivery sushi—antithetical to the organic, immediate, intimate sushi bar experience, hence unfair to both the purveyor & the consumer thereof. Countless times I’ve ordered it anyway, because I’m lazy like that. But after a recent order from Taki Sushi, the Director finally, officially revoked my sushi-delivery privileges—his nigiri & the California roll we got for free (standard with a purchase over $25, mind you, not something we’d ever actively choose) being, he griped, flaccid & tasteless.

I got luckier; my nigiri—spicy scallop, black tobiko (flying fish roe) & wasabi-infused tobiko—were just fine, tightly rolled, eggs a-popping, shellfish firm yet luscious. (I also appreciated the fact that they could be ordered by the piece rather than by the more common pair.)

But what I really dug, she admits sheepishly, was the Pearl Roll (at bottom).

My excuse for snarfing such an abomination of Japanese tradition: look, it’s summer, & I pine for the days I spent traipsing up & down the Massachusetts shoreline to get my fill of breaded, deep-fried bivalves at seasonal landmarks like The Clam Box. And here they were, crispy breaded oysters whose flavor wasn’t totally lost amid the rice & seaweed topped with salmon & avocado in a more-sweet-than-spicy chili mayo. Pretty good for being so bad.

Granted, 1 glance at the loose rice in the Cali roll above it justifies the Director’s complaints—& I wasn’t too keen on the miso eggplant either. Recipes can vary, & a sauce as thick & sweet as this isn’t necessarily wrong. But it seemed to have just been slopped on top, not broiled with the eggplant to integrate the flavors. So it evoked a sort of eggplant-pudding parfait. Rather disconcerting.

Still, there was enough I liked about Taki at a disadvantage to want to try it in the presumably more flattering light of an actual visit.

Since the ban on takeout/delivery applies only to Japanese food, I’ve been taking advantage of the Director’s falafel fetish to get my fill of Mecca Grill. It’s actually a cute place, humble but colorful & cozy, in its little strip mall on Downing—but see “lazy like that.” I’m also boozy like that; Mecca’s dry, & my house isn’t.

We’ve ordered 3 King Combos in the past week or so, all of them slightly different—I suspect the kitchen adds whichever meats are at its immediate disposal. We’ve seen chunks of beef, lamb & chicken kebab, chicken shawarma, kofta, &, once, though it’s not even listed as an option, thin coins of the superb, literally melt-in-your-mouth spiced lamb-&-beef sausage otherwise used for sandwiches. To a piece, they’ve been moist & tender—even the chicken!—as well as nicely charred & seasoned.

The vegetarian items haven’t changed: there’s the baba ghanouj I just named Dish of the Week; stuffed grape leaves whose luscious near-gooeyness contrasts with their hyper-lemony tang; tabbouleh with a surprising paprika kick, whether due to its mixture with other items or its own recipe; crunchy, nutty falafel from which the scent of herbs actually wafts; & just-right rice. The uncharacteristically bland hummus isn’t quite up to the rest, & I seriously doubt the claim on the menu that the pita is housemade. But overall the combo rocks.

The same could be said of Mecca Grill in general. The only thing I won’t be ordering again is the fatoush. Though abounding in vividly crisp, ripe veggies, it was also swimming in the oil of a dressing that, given the expert condimenting of everything else, was a disappointment. If it did indeed contain olive rather than vegetable oil, it wasn’t extra or even plain or even born-again virgin, & the advertised flavor of mint went undetected. After a few bites I just picked out all the pita chips before they got soggy & left it at that.

Meanwhile, though they required a bit of knife action (roughage is a bitch), the cabbage rolls—a family recipe, we were told—were wonderfully stuffed with rice & ground lamb cooked in a bit of tomato sauce, redolent of cumin & a touch of cinnamon. So soft & soothingly homey.

You’ll often see the dish below listed as foul moudammas (or some variant spelling thereof); you might also, as here, see the name translated simply as fava beans. Which they are—mature, dried favas that are nothing like the flattish, fresh, green ones you see in their pods at the market in season but rather evoke smoky, meaty pintos.

In any case, the garnish of juicy diced tomatoes & sliced pickle adds a layer of zing to the beans, popping just so in your mouth.

At this point, I’m half-tempted to stop whining about wine & stop in for a feast, washed down with a banana milk “cocktail.””

Taki Sushi on Urbanspoon

Mecca Grill on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Baba Ghanouj at Mecca Grill

Mecca Grill excels at a lot of things (full review to come), but the baba ghanouj in particular is among the best I’ve ever had.

You see how it’s a little granular?

My guess is that’s because they don’t puree it but mash it by hand. And you see how it’s a little grayish? That, I bet, is due to the addition of pomegranate juice or syrup (the menu calls it “sauce”)—just a touch to bring out the sweetness of the eggplant, while lending depth to the tartness of the lemon juice.

A hit of smoke, a hint of garlic, a smack of nutty tahini, a drizzle of olive oil & a sprinkle of what tasted like sumac rather than paprika—it all added up to a strikingly prismatic variant on the classic.

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.

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.

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.


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:


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.


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.


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


& the veggie combo,


which not only looked something like a Delaunay


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