I’ve been writing since before I could tie my shoes (first short story, age 4: “The king and the qween got marred. The end.”) But that food writing in particular was my destiny wasn’t clear to me until one night in my mid-20s, after a huge red-sauce Italian dinner out with my then-boyfriend (we’ll call him, oh, Bluto). As we waddled, groaning, out of the restaurant, I spied a new eatery across the street and headed over to peruse the menu posted in the window—much to Bluto’s dismay. “How,” he demanded to know, “can you even think about more food right now?” Huh, good question, I admitted. Never was the phrase “food for thought” more apt.
I’ve been thinking and writing about it ever since—and, just as important, cultivating relationships personal and professional with like-minded, like-bellied individuals (bye bye, Bluto) from coast to coast. In the course of missing my old drinking-and-dining buddies back in Boston and discovering new ones here in Denver, it occurred to me to gather some of them together in cyberspace and turn my recent monologue on the two cities’ respective culinary profiles into a conversation.
Welcome, then, my distinguished panel: from the East Coast, we have the dapper MC Slim JB, a contributor to Boston Magazine and the Boston Phoenix, among other publications, with a black belt in all things bar-related; from the Rocky Mountain region, here’s Claire Walter—author of Culinary Colorado (both book and blog) as well as of numerous tomes on snowsports—and Joey Porcelli, enviable world traveler, author of Rise and Dine: Breakfast in Denver and Boulder and co-author (with Clay Fong) of The Gyros Journey: Affordable Ethnic Eateries Along the Front Range.
Denveater: Tell us about one ingredient and/or dish you think tastes better in your city/region than anywhere else in the world.
Slim: North Atlantic seafood: Gulf of Maine shrimp—never frozen, with only brief seasonal availability; steamer clams; countneck and littleneck clams; stuffed quahogs; raw Wellfleet oysters; pan-roasted or boiled Maine lobster. That’s not really a single dish, so I’ll nominate the New England clam boil, which combines many of these beautifully, and adds in elements of the Yankee boiled dinner: onions, root vegetables, cheap meat (frankfurters and/or Portuguese linguiça and chouriço), and lots of broth. Green Street in Cambridge offers a fine one-dish version in warmer weather.
Claire: I haven’t been all over the world, so keep that in mind. [But] Colorado lamb is first-rate. I don’t eat much red meat anymore—I’m in Boulder, after all—but when I do, it’s usually local lamb. Western Slope stone fruit (peaches, apricots, cherries, sometimes plums) is also outstanding.
Joey: The one ingredient I think [Coloradans] excel at is green chile. You can find these smoky peppers roasting outside many local restaurants; Jack-N-Grill on Federal does an outstanding job in its parking lot. They’re not like the slimy green bits you buy in little cans at the grocery store—in fact there’s nothing quite like a batch of freshly roasted green chile on top of a just-off-the-grill flour tortilla. My nephew flies here from Seattle expressly to buy them.
Denveater: Tell us about one dish or type of cuisine you think your city/region excels at unbeknownst to most.
Joey: As an Italian Midwesterner (now there’s an oxymoron) who grew up on pot roast, Jell-O, and mashed potatoes along with eggplant parmigiana and lasagna, I was surprised, when I moved to Denver 30 years ago, at how many quality ethnic restaurants we have here. Some even rival the coasts. Probably the most unexpected for me were the Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants dotting the city. The hummus at Ali Baba in my hometown of Golden is by far the best I have ever eaten—creamy, tasty and floating in olive oil.
We also have a hidden gem in Indian chef Biju Thomas, who is now knocking ’em dead with his new menu at Swimclub 32 in the Highlands neighborhood. Biju—a bike-racing stand-up comic turned chef—makes curry that ranks up there with Vij’s in Vancouver. And that’s the highest compliment I can give!
Claire: While Colorado’s Chinese food is, by and large, mediocre, many of its Japanese and Southeast Asian—Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian—restaurants are excellent. Most of the pho retaurants (Pho 88, Pho 99, Pho 88, Pho Fusion) do wonderful versions of this Southeast Asian comfort food. Chez Thuy in Denver is a recently renovated Vietnamese classic with lots of Chinese specialties too. I haven’t been there for some time, but did like the curries and soups. It has been getting mixed reviews lately for both food and service. Westminster is Vietnam Central. For Thai food, Chada Thai and maybe Swing Thai or US Thai. Maybe I also should have suggest the Himalayan/Tibetan restaurants here—Sherpa’s in Boulder and Tibet House in Louisville. Food is simple and hearty—as can be expected from mountain folk.
Joey: For Thai food, I love Erawan. Personal service, great pad Thai and mango rice pudding that melts in your mouth. Ask for Arthur to get the history of the place. Tell him I sent ya.
Slim: [New England’s] hidden center of excellence: Portuguese and related cuisines. Our fisheries were long manned by immigrants from Portugal, the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands and Brazil, and that culinary influence is everywhere. Nobody shows off our great local seafood better in their cooking. We have great small restaurants reflecting the cuisines of each of these Portuguese-speaking communities, with excellent bakeries, pastry shops, and sausage-makers. On a single quarter-mile stretch of East Cambridge, you can get a superb Bahian moqueca, mainland Portuguese-style pork and clams, and a fine Portuguese-American chouriço sub, while Dorchester has a couple of great Cape Verdean restaurants.
Denveater: Imagine that you relocated cross-country—you, Slim, to the Southwest; Claire & Joey, to New England. What do you think you would miss most, foodwise? What would you anticipate most?
Slim: What I’d miss most: the handful of bars here that feature great, modestly priced cooking along with superb cocktail making: the Franklin Cafe, B-Side Lounge, Audubon Circle, Green Street, Silvertone, Alchemist, etc., where I’ve built up “regular” status. Not only do I expect such places to be in shorter supply elsewhere, but I’d be starting from zero again in building up those relationships. As someone who is practically required to try every new place that comes along, I like to remind people that it’s as important to cultivate regular status at a few favorites, and so enjoy the very different class of service that such patrons get.
What I’d anticipate: real Southwestern (AZ/NM) style cooking—which effectively doesn’t exist in Boston—and greater access to authentic Mexican cookery with some regional diversity, which Boston still sorely lacks.
Joey: If I moved to New England, I would eat seafood 24 hours a day. Lobster rolls and linguini with vongole in white wine sauce would almost make me forget the chicken enchiladas and chile rellenos from the Mexican restaurants here. (I think the best Mexican meal in Denver is at Taqueria Patzcuaro on 32nd. Their guacamole is amazing; their grilled shrimp with homemade tortillas, beans and rice is a huge bargain. In Boulder, it is La Gonzales Carniceria, a little out of the way grocery, that makes tacos with every type of meat imaginable. Cheeky.) I would also seek out great Italian restaurants that know how to make sauce without sugar in it.
But I would really miss dinner at Frasca
. Just the thought of the homemade gnocchi and coconut gelato sends me into raptures. And hosts Bobby and Danette epitomize the word hospitality.
Claire: I’d miss the good hole-in-the-wall taquerias like Pupusas in Boulder for Mexican/Salvadoran tacos-plus. Cheap and good.
I’d know what to expect in New England since that’s where I grew up: boiled or steamed lobster that the restaurant did not feel obligated to open up, because New Englanders already know how to do it.
Claire and Joey, how would you cure Slim’s homesickness for the sort of simple, intimate contemporary supper lounges he frequents in Boston? Me, I’d take him to Deluxe, a twinkly little nook that passes my neighborhood place test with flying colors.
Claire: If Corridor 44 has a good chef right now (they have, on and off), I’d take him there on Larimer Square. Tahona Tequila Bistro in Boulder has fantastic tequilas and tequila-based mixed drinks, a dynamite happy hour and good food. If he was in the mood for a Manhattan, we might just have to look elsewhere.
Denveater: Check it out, Slim—happy hour’s alive and totally kicking here in Denver! (Not so in Boston, where allegiance to many a blue law is as staunch as it is stupid.)
And you just might find that Manhattan at classic downtown luxury hotel bars like The Brown Palace or the Oxford’s Cruise Room.
Joey: I’d take him to Zengo for a fantastic mojito, while my husband would take him to My Brother’s Bar for a beer—it’s got a nice neighborhood feel, baskets of fries, and a spicy turkey sandwich.
Denveater: I hear it’s also got one of the city’s best burgers, no?
Denveater: Slim, you & I know very well about Boston’s wealth of vera cucina italiana. If Joey came to town with her beautifully simple request for genuine, sugar-free red sauce and/or linguine alle vongole, where would you take her? And if Claire arrived with a hankering for her beloved lamb, where would you take her for a dish she might not be able to find in Denver?
Slim: Ricardo’s, Vinny’s at Night, Antico Forno or Massimino’s.
A couple of lamb ideas: Union Bar & Grille for roast rack of lamb (not especially novel, but a lovely version of a classic) or Brookline Family Restaurant for hunkar begendi (Sultan’s Delight), a subtly spiced lamb stew over a featherweight eggplant puree (like most dishes here, kind of swoony).
Denveater: Man oh man, do I miss Antico Forno’s baked pastas—mascarpone, sausage and plum tomatoes, oh my—and BFR’s lahmacun.
Denveater: Bonus round! What if the 2007 World Series had been played by chefs? Who would represent the Sox, who the Rox?
THE SOX LINEUP PER SLIM
Josh Beckett: the young staff ace. Added new pitches to his searing fastball to round out his game and achieve dominance.
Ken Oringer (Clio et al.)
David Ortiz: the veteran slugger, a gentle giant, much beloved, does only one thing but does it better than just about anybody.
Gordon Hamersley (Hamersley’s Bistro
Manny Ramirez: an eccentric genius, hard-working with great consistency and formidable skills.
Jamie Bissonnette (KO Prime)
J.D. Drew: overpaid, not exactly lovable, but has the tools and occasionally hits a big home run.
Barbara Lynch (No. 9 Park et al.)
Jonathan Papelbon: young, crazy, goofy, relentless, with undeniable talent.
Jason Santos (Gargoyles on the Square)
Daisuke Matsuzaka: the pricey exotic import, incredibly talented but still adjusting, great upside.
Tim Cushman (o ya)
Curt Schilling: once a game-changer, now mostly bluster and ego, but still worth having around.
Michael Schlow (Via Matta et al.)
Tim Wakefield: aging, won’t blow you away, but crafty, prolific, workmanlike and reliable.
Seth Woods (Aquitaine et al.)
Dustin Pedroia: lacks headline-grabbing gifts, but compensates with old-fashioned guts—a key future building block.
Peter Sueltenfuss (Green Street)
Jason Varitek: a wise old student of the game, a bit past his prime, but with great leadership skills.
Lydia Shire (Locke-Ober et al.)
Kevin Youkilis: unflashy, versatile, modest, bargain-priced, a superb everyday player—what every team needs more of.
Zamir Kociaj (Trattoria Toscana)
Mike Lowell: the MVP, well-liked, well-respected, well-rounded, and delivers in the clutch.
Ana Sortun (Oleana)
Jacoby Ellsbury: the future superstar, a five-tool player with brains as well as enormous talent.
Jeff Fournier (51 Lincoln et al.)
Hideki Okajima: the sleeper foreign import, a gifted prodigy that no one saw coming.
Angela Atenco Lopez (Angela’s Café)
Nomar Garciaparra: became a superstar here, but no one much misses him now that he’s moved on.
Todd English (Olives et al.)
THE ROX LINEUP PER CLAIRE
Lachlan McKinnon-Patterson (Frasca) as the team captain.
Bradford Heap (Colterra
Frank Bonnano (Mizuna
, Osteria Marco
Jennifer Jasinski (Rioja
, Bistro Vendome
Bertrand Bouquin (Broadmoor
in Colorado Springs)
Thomas Salamunovich (Larkspur
in Vail, Larkburger
Mark Fischer (Restaurant Six89
and Phat Thai
Chad Scothorn (Cosmopolitan
in Telluride and Durango)
And because every team now needs a Japanese player, Gaku Homma (Domo). If I had answered this just a few days ago, before my long-overdue first time there, I would not have nominated him, but I was knocked out by the food.
The Rox alas traded away Adam Mali (now playing for some California team), Bryan Moscatello (Washington Capitols) and Charles Dale (Atlanta Braves).
THE ROX LINEUP PER JOEY
My team is going to be in a league of its own. I will call them the Roxettes, with all-female chefs. (My apologies to Matt Holliday fans.)
The starting lineup includes Panzano chef Elise Wiggins—who understands how to cook calamari—and Aix chefs Cyd Anderson and Rachel Woolcott, who bake brioche and buy local produce for their rustic French fare. And, since there’s no crying in baseball, the only tears shed at these two restaurants are ones of joy with every bite.
Denveater: Wow. What a game that would be, if plays were dishes! Jasinski making a double play with that cardamom-spiced pork belly in fresh garbanzo puree and that goat cheese & artichoke mousse-stuffed tortelloni. Santos coming out of left field with pollen-crusted scallops with boar bacon and Tabasco-soaked cherries. Hamersley pinch hitting with his roast chicken. The Aix team heading for home with their truffles to go.
And the fans the real winners, exiting the park fat & happy!