Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Highlands lowdown

A tip from my pal Joey (author/coauthor of local dining guides Rise & Dine & The Gyros Journey) led me to 44th & Lowell, where this joint


is hopping anew (& not just with spooky ghosts like the one in the lower corner)—the way it used to back in the day, I guess, judging from the hilarious snapshots on the bathroom walls, all beehives & cat-eyes against a backdrop of wood paneling & smoke curling from ashtrays. The space, fronted by a long covered patio, is deceptive; the dining area’s actually pretty tight, if cozy with its desert roadside vibe. By 5 the parking lot’s full & the bar virtually SRO.

Befitting the atmo, Billy’s Inn’s all about burgers & beer on the one hand, tacos & tequila on the other. But a casual, simple menu does not necessarily a slacker kitchen mean. Given deviled eggs & buttermilk-fried chicken wings, housemade sangrita for añejo aficionados & habanero-lime coolers for virgins, I’m sensing high spirits & integrity to boot from the crew; though my stop was brief, a 1/2 order of peel & eat shrimp provided some confirmation—not only boiled just so with ginger & red pepper, mustard seeds & herbs but also accompanied by horseradish-addled cocktail sauce:


Pretty critter!

Thus do I anticipate returning forthwith. Meanwhile, not far to the southwest on Tennyson, Brasserie Felix looks near completion



though whether it’ll be worthy of the name—i.e. open all hours to serve up beaucoup moules frites & roast chicken & oysters & sausages & floods of suds & so on—remains to be seen.

Across the street, DJ’s Berkeley Cafe has reopened following renovations, which isn’t to say it’s all agleam with charms, though the bullethole in the window’s kinda nice.


Mi Casa no es mi casa (Breckenridge)

As you may have gathered from this post, I toodled (like Chaplin, all the way) up to Breckenridge with a pal the other day. Having heard Mi Casa was a local fave, we checked it out.

Girl can’t help it, she’s a total sucker for the whole ¡fiesta-en-la-hacienda! vibe, which this place has got down to una ciencia, door to nook:

MiCasadoor –> MiCasanook

That said, I’m not such a shoulder-padded, headband-wearing, Frosty-the-Snowman-lapel-pin-at-Christmas-pinning, ‘rita-swilling Cathy or Kathie


(image swiped from this guy’s Flickr set)

that I’d equate the charmingly corny decor (decorn?) with winning comida. On the contrary, don’t we loyal self-styled chowhounds err on the side of equating austerity with authenticity (putting aside the vexed definition of the word)? Then again, don’t we promptly, as even more fiercely determined chowhounds, remind ourselves upon erring to shelve our preconceived notions for the nonce? In short I went & sat & chewed physically & chewed mentally.

Verdict: Eh. Así así.

First of all, speaking of ‘ritas, the house marg didn’t have a thing going for it, being light on the tequila & heavy on a sweet-&-sour mix that wasn’t even close to housemade. It wasn’t even in the same town. The trio of salsas, which was, wasn’t bad—especially, surprisingly enough, the mildest one, which contained a touch of oil that gave it some body to separate it from pico de gallo—though the chips they accompanied were straight from the bag.

You have to pay for the good chips, chimayo-dusted flour-tortilla wedges with a nifty little puff to them,


which come with the El Favorito de Todos alongside avocado dip—way too creamy for genuine guac, it must’ve been cut with sour cream or something—


& the far better but no less crappy (if you get me) pulled duck quesadilla smeared with some sort of creamy-sweet junk that was supposedly the house mango-chile sauce. Hey, I like a sheer mess of gooey-crispy carbs & fat as much as the next guy. Maybe not the guy after that (he’s huge!), but at least the 1 guy.


Queso fundido rounded out the combo:


Beneath that sludge of Monterey Jack was actually some pretty decent, slightly spicy, loose-packed crumbled chorizo, all its grease pooled for sopping up with still-warm albeit prepackaged flour tortillas.

Pan-seared trout was fair enough—properly cooked if undercrusted with crushed almonds, pecans & pepitas so that it was tough to distinguish 1 nut crumb from another.


Conversely, the chiles rellenos were overeverything: overbreaded, oversauced, oversmothered & overstuffed with undistinguished queso, which the Anaheims—offering no flavor of their own—basically just sheathed like thankless green condoms.


The beans compensated slightly, rich & cooked to a soft bite. But black beans don’t apparently replace white bread around here.

Wine Poem 1, with notes on a bottle of Dominio de Eguren Protocolo 2007

The Christian Siriano ringer who runs Divino—the only wine store in Denver to replace, in all its exquisite funk, Boston’s Wine Bottega (which sold me my first bottle of Brachetto d’Acqui, a sparkling red that goes down like sheer cherry cola) in my heart of boozy hearts—told me this 8-buck Spaniard,


made entirely from Tempranillo, was as close to a red as a rosé gets. Indeed it had some body & plenty of zip, a touch of spice.


Some years back I wrote a series of poems, each generated by a different wine experience. Since wine criticism has never been my forté—since it seemed beyond me to capture in words exactly what the vintner had in the bottle—I thought perhaps I could obey Dickinson’s dictum to tell it slant. Though I don’t recall the original inspiration for this one, the Protocolo evoked it.


The pearl is merciless and fast-acting when dropped into the goblet of my exilarch.
It could as lief be aphrodisiac as poison. Once was my prophecy fair
when my object was dark. But he was born with a rare form

of profil perdu that lately obscures my success.

His countenance alters if at all
as a tortoise crosses shifting sands for as far as eye can see.
Will this creature never stumble, underbelly sunward,
would darkness offer afterimages if images left nothing
to be desired?
Motionless all afternoon
beneath the silver
at my end of the dining
hall, I feel it—
like Cleopatra in her
dotage atop the wrong barge
until sunset, the harbor
clearing of feluccas
whose unmooring moves her
so, mind bobbing
softly in its slip. And I
want to go hunting and fishing.
Other mouths fade in and
out. It’s as though I were doing
the voices, reading aloud
from some suppressed text
or other,
hidebound and bordered with
whiplash curves.
My highness doesn’t turn
around. He is so heirless,
silhouetted against an
almond-shaped glory of light. I have the scars to prove it.
Tonight the dosage of jewel
pills increases.
Wine, music! I have scars
to prove.

Dieter does Denver

I wish I meant Mike Myers’ character from Sprockets was real & I’d be his mile-high hostess, foxtrotting him off to Lannie’s & the Double Daughter’s & what not.


But no, sadly, I mean that I’ve had my fill for a spell. I aim to lose 8-10 pounds by the day the worlds of the living & the dead collide. Well, not quite Election Day, but close—Halloween.

Don’t, however, turn that dial, oh faithful if imaginary reader, for here’s the kicker—I plan to succeed by not really doing anything differently! Not much, anyway. Maybe I’ll just detonate a few fewer gut bombs like the only dish I dug at Big Dross Bar-B-Q, namely the rib tips with mayo-&-vinegar-based Alabama white sauce


(though even they’re sloppy seconds, literally, compared to the voluptuous beauties at M & D’s I tipped the hat that is my wide-brimmed belly to awhile back—admittedly drenched but all the better to wipe dry with your mouth) & lovingly tend a few more lush gut gardens, dotted with glittering fountains & koi ponds—i.e. salads, soups & seafood.

& considering what passes for a salad these days—like my lunch at Breckenridge’s Kenosha Steakhouse this afternoon—


this should be a cinch. At least in some sense of the word.

Oh, yeah, & I’ll probably swill a lot more suave cocktails, just like this svelte damsel in an old Seagram’s promotional booklet I scored at Finders Keepers on Antique Row last weekend.


Point being, if I can do it, you can too. If I can’t—oh well.

I’ll make occasional offhand notes on my progress &, for the record, I’m attaching (she writes with no small trepidation, knowing the angle is a tad more flattering than it could be) a before pic. After pic, presumably, to come.

Photo 20

Zengo away, come again some other day

Whoever said 3rd time’s a charm just got roundly shushed by the crew at Zengo, who, per the website’s translation of the name, gave as good as they took the 1st couple of times I was there but last night seemed fuzzy on the tacit terms of our little transaction, namely that they would extract from me a fat wad of cash in gracious (key qualifier, that) exchange for such morsels as I would deem nearly, not even necessarily exactly but nearly, worth said fat wad.

Nothing we had was bad; it all just happened to pale in comparison to similar dishes we’d had elsewhere recently. & if there’s one thing Latin-Asian fusion shouldn’t do, it’s pale. What with the chiles & the tropical citrus & the hard-acquired tastes (e.g., huitlacoche, natto), it should err on the side of garishness for sure.

It was mainly a matter of texture throwing flavor for a loop.

So while, for example, these Thai chicken-&-Oaxaca cheese empanadas with mango salsa, set in a pool of what I’d have sworn upon a waterboard studded with nails was peanut sauce despite no mention thereof on the menu (which did, however, reference indetectable poblano rajas), clearly had a lot going on,


the precise nature of that lot wasn’t so sparklingly clear—was in fact denatured by flimsy masa pockets that went soggy quick. It all just squished together like a face about to cry.

Compare to the beef empanadas at Buenos Aires Grill, accompanied by chimichurri that, despite its red color (due I was told to the presence of red-wine vinegar), is green in flavor with herbs (mainly parsley) & garlic & olive oil enough to warrant positive identification without pain of torture:



Simplicity itself, these are every bit as crunchy as they are juicy. If they’re not the very picture of structural integrity, I don’t know what is.

I know it’s not this. Here we have seared foie gras with oxtail marmalade & poached mango & some sort of flame-retardant. Maybe they accidentally scorched the corn fritter & had to put it out—which would explain why it failed to make the appearance the menu promised.


The 1st time I had this dish, it was pretty darn exquisite. This time, the lobe was rubbery, the oxtail, even in the form of those tiny nuggets, too chewy. Granting that it’s not terribly fair to compare a whole seared lobe to a pâté, I can only retort that it’s better to excel at a lesser recipe than ruin a loftier one. Table 6 makes a potted foie so smooth you wish you could keep it in your pantry & eat it from the jar with your fingers standing up when you’re glum & insomniac in your underwear:


cf. Nanni Moretti with the giant jar of Nutella in Bianca:

Bianca nutella

Stuffed with crabmeat, topped with seared salmon & dotted with sesame-chipotle aioli & sesame seeds, this is called the volcano roll. They must’ve left out the word “dormant”—it’s quite an attraction but hardly on the verge of explosion. In the muddle I suspected the crabmeat was not fresh-picked. If it was, it might as well not have been for all I could tell, which is even worse.


The one thing that did rock hard was on the happy-hour* menu, namely the beef taco duo, piled high with richly spiced shredded beef & chunks of avocado. Apparently some aliens picked up the image on their satellites, hence all the excited static. See, we’re not so different after all. Maybe the war of the worlds will end with a fiesta.


If so, it won’t be staffed by Zengo’s waitresses, who don’t seem the type to get all into character & wear sombreros & yell ¡Arriba! & knock back tequila shots with the crowd.

In short, if I’m going to get a complimentary side of sullenness with my beef tacos (see gracious exchange), I’d just as soon be at El Taco de Mexico, where at least I’ll also get beans, rice, & salsa in a molcajete from which smoke practically rises.


*Zengo, FYI, calls it “feng shui hour.” Maybe that explains it—I just ordered wrong; instead of cocktails & apps I should have asked for the water & air special.
Except I’d just had that the night before, in my own home, for free.

Dinner (sort of) & a Movie 2: Taxidermia & Buckhorn Exchange

The Starz Film Center’s Movies That Missed Us series wraps this Wednesday at 7 with Hungarian filmmaker Gyorgy Palfi’s Taxidermia, a celebration of the comic-grotesque populated by speed-eating champs & starving “wildlife artists,” which I don’t see why I can’t mention in the same breath with Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.


Far be it from me, given the theme, to suggest you go anywhere other than Buckhorn Exchange afterward for drinks to take the huge, ragged edge that I assure you’ll be on off, oh-so-gradually relaxing in the relatively mild company of various stuffed parts of buffalo & gazelle, ibex & impala, trout & at least 1 herd of deer.


Farther it be from me, seeing as how the film features more bodily ejecta per frame than just about any I can (or can stand to) think of besides Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, to suggest ingesta of any sort, especially not these elk tips brutally smothered in some sort of viscous brown salt they call gravy,


which are hard enough to stomach when you’re not flashing back to a cinematic climax involving assorted post-Technicolor acts of disembowelment.

Which, come to think of it, makes the Buckhorn Exchange, fast becoming my favorite place to not eat dinner, all the more apropos as recommendations go.


Ick, been in Berlin (er, the Cafe)

Ha! Sorry you had to read that.

Surrounded by ceramic bric-a-brac & Kirchner imitations, served by a goofy-as-hell but sweet-as-pie Aryan youth straight out of Goebbels’ wet dreams, sipping from a great big goblet of Riesling while my friend MO (whom you last met at Big Mess Bar-B-Q) worked her way around a beer sampler that was more like a beer hose-it-down-her-throater,


Warsteiner Pils, Paulaner Oktoberfest, Paulaner Munich Lager, Paulaner Hefewiezen, Paulaner Dopplebock, in some order or other

I was sufficiently charmed by Cafe Berlin to hope the indifferent bread basket, lined with a napkin that was trimmed with more crust than the factory-sliced bread it contained & accompanied by ice-cold foil-wrapped butter pats, was a fluke.

It wasn’t.

While my throwback garden salad was palatable enough thanks to a zesty if oddly orange & not especially mustardy mustard vinaigrette, MO’s gurkensalat wasn’t even close, suffocating almost audibly under a deluge of sour cream no less plain for being dilled.




the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, in which nearly 2 dozen people drowned after a rum-distillery tank burst near Boston Harbor, just like those poor floppy cuke disks

Lo, though, a ray of hope shone briefly but brightly in the form of this wurstteller,


combining coins of 3 types of bratwurst—all rich & tender, especially the palest variety—with vinaigrette-slicked tomato wedges over warm, deeply caramelized sauerkraut.

Then came the cloud that was my rouladen, obscuring all in the darkness of sloppy execution.


Even creamed, the beef was dry & tough. The bacon & sauteed onions supposedly wrapped thereup were scant if that; only the presence of the dill spear—yes, the beef is stuffed with an intact pickle—was obvious, not to say vaguely obscene. The dumplings were nothing but gummy. The pickled red cabbage was just fine, as was the bewilderingly incongruous salad of papaya, green apple & grapes, but I didn’t come to a German joint to get my RDA of fruits & veggies, dammit, I came for frischfleisch.

MO fared better with jagerschnitzel—the cutlet fairly tender & breaded gently enough, the mushroom-cream sauce a bit gloppy but plenty mushroom-creamy. Fried potatoes were no better or worse than they would be at your average truck stop. The spaetzle, however, was a shame, clearly storebought. Like gnocchi, spaetzle’s just got to be homemade; its virtues—a sweet lumpy shape & a doughy bite—are such that it’s pointless otherwise.


& so, I fear, would be another evening at Cafe Berlin, where even complimentary parting shots of apple schnapps, lovely though they were, couldn’t quite dull the bitter taste of disappointment. (Though someday, when it’s finally dissolved, I may take my chances with the lunch menu, as I also fear, deeply, that I’m a sucker for currywurst.)

Cafe Berlin on Urbanspoon

Dinner & a Movie 1: The Isle + Sushi Sasa

Kim ki-Duk’s gorgeously gross The Isle screens tomorrow as part of the Starz Film Center’s Movies That Missed Us series. It’s about some fishermen, & some other things.

(pic swiped from here)

Go see it, then go here & kick it over some omakase like so. (Except not too like so—omakase at Sasa is a) successive, not simultaneous, and b) way wackier & more wondrous than all this.)


Anyway, mmmm-hmmm. Trust me on this one.

Tidbits: Arada, Rodney’s, Pints Pub, M & D’s

There’s nothing at Arada that isn’t just a touch more wonderfully pungent than it would be a lesser Ethiopian joint, from the admirably elastic & chewy injera with its that-much-sourer tinge to the vibrant tomato salads to the firm-curded, salty freshness of the fetalike ayib to the smoky spice of the mitmita-laced kitfo, as near-raw as you could hope for (having always had it raw, I’m a little wary of ordering it thus whenever I’m asked how I want it cooked, lest the question indicate that the kitchen doesn’t order a grade of beef one might be inclined to scoop out & ingest straight from the cow) & as juicy as all get-out.



The likelihood that the folks behind Rodney’s went into the resto biz for at least some of the right reasons—because they possessed hospitality to spare, say—is particularly apparent in the phenomenon that is the prime rib special, so tender you wonder if “prime rib” might be black-market slang for “human baby,” & all of a Jackson.



Named for the British brand of gravy they’re doused in, the hand-cut, swiss-smothered, curry-spiked Bisto chips at Pints Pub are all the funkier with a few shakes of the greenish, Worcestershire-based sauce on the tables that for me brings to blissful mind Lizano, a tangy Costa Rican condiment I adore but rarely come across stateside.



Judiciously battered in peppered cornmeal, the fried green tomatoes at M & D’s Cafe actually taste like firm, fresh, unripe & plenty tart tomatoes, not like dough with some seeds stuck in it.



Thank you very much, I’m well aware the gado gado I made using Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe—a fairly classic version of the Indonesian salad that contains cauliflower, cucumber, cabbage, carrots, in short basically any vegetable that starts with “c,” bean sprouts, new potatoes, green beans & hard-cooked eggs—would be more appetizing if the homemade peanut sauce didn’t look like something out of the Archie McPhee catalog,


which isn’t to say I’d turn up my sniffer at the likes of a little gummy haggis.


Dear Bistro One: my bad.

Hey, remember how I razzed you a ways back for all those misspellings & malaprops on your website, insinuating links between linguistic & culinary carelessness? Well, smart as my mouth was then, it’s all the smarter now, the day after a meal that taught it a thing or 2 about the brains & brawn your kitchen crew actually possesses. So, you know, sorry about that, & thanks for all the grub.

Which in this case sorta means anything but, as our waiter, the kind of guy who clearly spends an inordinate amount of time making his own sunshine, indicated by reeling off all the nongrubby things chefs Olav Peterson (formerly of 1515, which I’ve never been to) & Travis Lorton (formerly, according to Westword, of Chicago’s Blackbird, which I have been to & deeply dig) are making in house: bread, bacon, charcuterie, pasta, pickles, ice cream; &, not so much in house as on it, they’re growing rooftop herbs & veggies.

Under the circumstances, then, how could we say no to the evening’s special, a charcuterie plate complete with duck pate, pork terrine, bacon brittle, 1 sunny-side-up egg, just-picked cress, pickled baby carrots, warm grilled bread & red-wine syrup?


We couldn’t, that’s how, & were all the gladder for that once we got a load of the layer of pure bacon fat atop the pate & the dollop of candied mustard seeds gracing the terrine. Though, due to the excess of salt exhibited by both meat products, it didn’t earn more than a B for execution, the phrase “A for effort” was made for dishes of its ilk. & the brittle was a kick in the teeth.

This, by the by, followed a basket of the delicious bread du jour, caramelized onion & parmesan—whose satisfyingly tight crumb bordered on that of pound cake—along with a dish of the infused oil du jour, roasted garlic, which our eager little beaver poured & peppered for us.


It preceded escargots in potato cups that had, we were told, been confited, i.e. I assume basically kept for a spell, in butter.


Snails have always struck me as the shapeshifters, or rather flavorshifters, of the molluscian world; these tasted of nothing so much as portobellos. The tarragon aioli was as heavily herb-perfumed as a pothead in a cloud of patchouli, only much more nicely so.

A crazy thing happened after that: I ordered chicken. You know, who besides Cherry Creek sleekazoids & the GI-dysfunctional ever orders chicken? But it sounded swell, all gussied up like my plate was the prom in mustard & balsamic & champagne cream atop a ham-&-swiss risotto cake. Better yet, it was, being crunchy & luscious in all the right places—just salty & tangy & rich enough. I have hereby rendered its goodness photographically, by applying some sort of artistic filter—”diffuse glow,” I believe, fittingly enough.


Lacking an equally compelling aura, unfortunately, was the dull, muddied vegetable pot pie, which contained mainly potatoes & mushrooms, devoid of any brighter bits—a few carrot coins, broccoli florets or peas would have added some oomph. It’s not like it’s the dead of winter on the Eurasian steppe where we nomads are foraging for the last remaining roots. (Then again, chicken & bacon would help too. Come on now, there’s nothing about the noun phrase “pot pie,” in all its stout-hearted charm, to warrant its yoking to such a meager adjective as “vegetarian,” is there?) The sharply mustardy dressing on the frisee was lovely, however.


The pie wasn’t the only letdown; I was also roundly bummed about the dessert special, a lemon–olive oil cake accompanied by candied kalamata olives. But that was a matter not of its inferiority but of its failure to get in my belly altogether; the Director was too full to split it & I was too full not to. With memories of a brilliant chilled soup of candied kalamatas I used to slurp up back in Boston burning in my brain, I settled for an admittedly dandy scoop of cream-cheese ice cream, refreshingly reminiscent of ice milk in texture & tinged with tartness.


Additional kudos for a shrewd wine list that includes the quirky likes of what happen to be some of my own fave quaffs—e.g., Emilio Bulfon’s Piculit Neri and Zamba Malbec—& excludes anything over $40. (Equally streamlined is the space, minimalist but comfy in cream & chocolate tones.)

A single shining kudo, too, goes to whoever finally spell-checked the menu. Details, details.