By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
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Good homestyle cooking. Friendly atmosphere. Reasonable prices. Sounds like an advertisement for one of those chain restaurants that bills itself as your neighborhood eatery, doesn't it? Yeah, your neighborhood and the neighborhoods of three dozen other cities across the country.
But what if those words accurately describe a real neighborhood joint, one that cuts across all trends, a true mom-and-pop place? Say hello to NoNo's Cafe, a two-month-old restaurant that seems too good to be true--but really exists in a Littleton plaza. NoNo's makes everything it possibly can from scratch, changes its menu weekly to keep folks interested, and charges no more than $9 for an entree (and usually between $6 and $8). The portions are smaller than what you'll find at a place like Claim Jumper, which loads up the plates so it can jack up the prices, but the ingredients are better.
We need more restaurants like NoNo's.
And we'd have them, too, if diners would stop frequenting those cookie-cutter chain eateries, whose prices might be comparable to or even lower than NoNo's but whose straight-from-a-can quality leaves something to be desired--like flavor. And we'd have more of them still if independent restaurateurs would stop trying so hard to wow us with their brilliant concepts and overblown food and instead just cook and serve decent, honest meals in family-style settings.
3005 W. County Line
Littleton, CO 80122
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Even NoNo's name rings with family ties. It's Louisiana slang for grandfather, and as far as the children of Brian and Sonda Brewster, NoNo's owners, are concerned, their grandfather back in New Orleans is one of the best cooks going. "Their NoNo is a firefighter, and firefighters are often known for their cooking," says Brian. "So when we decided to open our own restaurant, we got a lot of recipes from him."
And it was family that brought the Brewsters to Colorado three years ago: Brian's brother runs a landscaping business here. "We came out to visit him one summer," Brian says. "And let me tell you, when you come to Denver in the summertime and then go back to New Orleans, well, I think you can figure out what happened there. We just fell in love with it and the weather."
But Brian didn't love the weather as much when he was out working in it as a landscaper, so he started working in restaurants instead, including such chains as Applebee's and the Black-Eyed Pea. "I learned a lot from both of those," he says. "What to do, what not to do."
It shows. What the Brewsters did was put Sonda in charge of the kitchen--where she shares cooking duties with her brother, Tre Pechon--while Brian runs the front of the house.
NoNo's dining room even feels like it belongs in a house. Tidy and slightly countrified, it's been carefully decorated with bric-a-brac from the Brewsters' past: a black metal manual typewriter, a slew of farm tools, some photos and memorabilia from Brian's days as a New Orleans Saints cheerleader. Oldies play in the background, and the booths have been crafted from church pews sawed in half. And when we happened past the restaurant's office on our way to the restrooms, the open door revealed toy-strewn, child-sized bunk beds, where eight-year-old Caleb and three-year-old Caroline can nap when the duties of host and hostess, which they both perform quite well, get tiresome.
The kids also have contributed a few things to the menus, of which there are six. The menus get switched around every few days, but they all include recipes from the Brewsters' families and friends, who get full credit for each dish (along with a mention of their hometowns), and there's some overlap of sides and desserts.
Those are what NoNo's does best, as we discovered right away during our first visit, for lunch. Not that there was anything wrong with our entree of country steak and brown gravy ($7.99), however. Spicy brown gravy cloaked egg noodles and several pieces of flank steak that were so tender they fell apart before our fork even touched them; this delicious pile came with fresh string beans, barely sauteed and slick with butter. That side was so good we decided to make an entire meal out of what other restaurants consider afterthoughts. The corn maque choux ($1.25), for example, proved itself deserving of top billing. This is a quintessential Cajun dish, one for which every family in New Orleans has its own special recipe, but basically it's fresh or frozen corn cooked almost the way you make risotto: slowly braising the kernels with stock and usually adding onions, sugar, milk and cayenne, cooking the corn until everything caramelizes, then adding eggs to give it a frothy texture. NoNo's version was less frothy than most, probably because it's time-consuming to make this to order, but the dish was exemplary, swollen with soft but not mushy corn and filled with sweet and spicy flavors. Also wonderful was the side of creamed potatoes ($1.25), largely because the kitchen used the right sort of potatoes. (Many restaurants would have used boiling spuds--the kind suited for mashing rather than baking--instead, and they would have disintegrated into a blobby paste when creamed.) These salty, seasoned spuds had a rich quality but weren't overly creamy. We also tried Mayme's macaroni and cheese ($2.49) from the four-item children's menu and fought like kids over the big mound of ziti absolutely smothered with melted, oil-oozing cheddar cheese.
And our desserts had us bouncing around like six-year-olds badly in need of our next dose of Ritalin. Although the sweet-potato crunch ($1.25) is also available as a side dish, its unbelievable sugary sweetness--compounded by the natural sweetness of the cooked-to-pudding-consistency sweet potatoes and the crumbly, buttery topping--might make it impossible to continue with the rest of a meal. But as a dessert it was so good that we found it difficult to focus on the chocolate fudge cake ($2.99)--which Brian proudly told us was a blue-ribbon winner in a contest back home--and the chocolate eclair ($2.49), which Sonda makes entirely from scratch. Both were deserving of our attention, the sort of confections that had us groaning with ecstasy and longing for more.
But since we'd already stuffed ourselves to the limit, we had no choice but to wait for our return visit to give NoNo's another taste test. This time the place was a lot busier, which slowed the kitchen down, and our waitress seemed to have a tough time handling our party of eight. But the food held up. We started with the maque crawfish dip ($4.49), a hot, dribbly mess of onions, bell peppers, garlic and cheese served with Town House crackers. The dip was so messy that the crackers weren't an ideal choice, but our main complaint was that we'd received only eight of them, hardly enough to handle the dip. We almost had to send up a flare in order to get our busy waitress to secure some more, and by the time the extra crackers arrived, the dip had cooled. Our drinks weren't replenished until after we had passed the point of irritation, and the timing between courses was a little off.
But the courses themselves were not. We started with a cup of concentrated oyster-and-artichoke soup ($1.99) and a standard salad ($2.49) that came with a far from standard, impressively rich blue-cheese dressing. The lasagne ($8.49) was a real standout, a large rectangle of lasagne noodles sandwiching whipped ricotta cheese flecked with basil and oregano, all of it coated with NoNo's spicy, meat-based red sauce (a vegetarian version is also offered) and covered with melted mozzarella. The excellent blackened fish ($8.99) turned out to be catfish--information the waitress should have provided--and this cat got our tongues in a big way with its freshness and fiery seasonings. Mellow dirty rice and tomatoes vinaigrette, with slices of the love apple drenched in a mild dressing and sprinkled with fresh herbs, rounded out the plate. Two other entrees were good, if not quite as heavenly. The flank steak Terese ($8.45) carried a little too much salty soy, but the meat had been nicely cooked and came with those exceptional creamed potatoes and a side of fresh green peas. And the jambalaya ($7.49), while an admirable combination of good-quality sausage, chicken and rice, was on the dry side--not so dry, though, that we didn't scrape our dish clean.
The only dessert offered that night that we hadn't already tried was the carrot cake ($2.95)--yet another delicious interpretation.
More chains? No.
NoNo's Cafe, 311 East County Line Road, Littleton, 738-8330.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.