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MOUTHING OFF

To market, to market: Back in 1989, Alfalfa's Market, the granddaddy of Denver's organic groceries, introduced hot-and-cold food lines at its original Boulder store. Since then, the array of offerings has expanded considerably. On a recent visit to the Littleton store, at 5910 S. University, I tried a sushi sampler ($7.50), which was bland; spanakopita ($1.79 per piece), which was dry and chewy; and barbecued chicken ($3.99 for half a bird), which was drier and chewier still, after having been perched in the case far too long. Alfalfa's salads held up better: The orzo with olives, red peppers, green onions and cilantro and the curried rice noodles (both $4.99 a pound) were flavorful and not too mushy. And the sun-dried-tomato sauce on penne pasta ($5.99), while an unbelievably small serving for the price, was big on taste. The sauce was pungent and garlic-heavy, and it came with a slice of garlic bread saturated with still more of the bulb. The sandwiches, though, were a disappointment. The Old Town ($2.95 for half) showcased wonderful Coleman Ranch roast beef, but the Swiss cheese was dried out and badly in need of the missing-in-action horseradish. And the Sicilian ($3.25 for a half), which had promised roasted eggplant and red peppers with pesto, capers and goat cheese, delivered two measly slices of each vegetable and hardly any cheese.

But at least Alfalfa's knows shiitake from shinola. While mainstream "super" markets have made some culinary progress--spurred, no doubt, by the success of such organic-health-gourmet alternatives as Alfalfa's and Wild Oats (see Cafe, previous page)--they still have a way to go. One recent visit to a Denver King Soopers found me in a no-win conversation about radicchio that started with the checkout clerk (sorry, cash-register representative) asking me about the odd vegetable, then showing it to the baggers, er, courtesy clerks. "Hey, did you see this?" she asked, holding it like a softball. "This woman says this is radicchio." "What's radicchio?" another asked. I made the mistake of telling them it was a type of chicory, which started the process all over again. Then the first clerk asked me what I was going to do with it, her tone implying that maybe I was going to use it as, say, a marital aid, because certainly this thing wasn't edible.

I've fared just as badly at the Parker Safeway, where I once spent half an hour trying to track down capers. Three clerks had never heard of them, one said she was sure they carried them in the Mexican food section, and finally, an assistant manager said, rather snidely, that of course capers were in the salad section next to the dressings, because "that's what everybody uses capers for, because it goes so well with iceberg lettuce." That may come as a big surprise to those cooks who've been using the pickled flower buds from a Mediterranean bush for sauces all this time.

I've learned to shop elsewhere when I'm making anything more gourmet than meatloaf or macaroni and cheese.

For Asian ingredients, Indochina Enterprises, at 1045 South Federal, packs an amazing array into a small space. (Don't wear a backpack; you'll never be able to turn around.) There's the usual Asian freezer case full of God knows what; fresh basil in bunches big enough to make a batch of pesto and wallpaper the kitchen for just a buck (instead of the $2 for a half-ounce you pay at the big stores); soy sauce, sesame oil and various sauces that come in gallon containers for cheap; and a wide selection of nuts (I once found a five-pound bag of raw peanuts for $3.95). And don't be alarmed if you're not Asian like everyone else there--the owners are friendly and immensely helpful.

The same goes for the people at the International Market, at 2020 South Parker Road, who may even kill the fatted lamb upon your arrival. In addition to fresh lamb parts, they also have such exotic items as goat liver and oxtails, as well as an astounding selection of beans, peas, lentils and just about everything Middle Eastern, Indian and African. When an Italian meal is in order, I head for Deli Italia, at 1990 Wadsworth, which offers more than a hundred types of dry pasta along with top-quality prosciutto and pancetta; the Deli also sells a starter kit for making fresh mozzarella at home. For any other cheese, though, my favorite place is the Cheese Company, 735 South Colorado Boulevard, where the samples flow freely, everything is fresh (the Camembert is out of this world), and you can occasionally secure such hard-to-find cheeses as fresh Caerphilly.

The only thing I've had trouble tracking down in Denver is duck liver. No one offers it regularly, although I've gotten lucky at the esteemed Oliver's Meat Market, at 1312 East Sixth Avenue (next to Greens Market, another good organic-produce place). The butcher there told me that he can't find a regular supplier but that he gets requests all the time for the livers from people who, like myself, are pate animals.

Photo finish: Also missing in action is that Forties-era photograph of Hollywood stars--everyone from Jimmy Durante to Ava Gardner--that once resided between the phones downstairs at McCormick's Fish House & Bar at 17th and Wazee. The picture disappeared during one of the Oxford Hotel's increasingly packed nights, and the folks there want it back--no questions asked.

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