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Mouthing Off

Consider the alternatives: You're downtown at lunchtime and feel the cream-cheesy pull of the Cheesecake Factory. What to do? How about trying one of these locally owned spots that serve better food--and without a wait to get it.

Like the Factory's pastas? The selection at City Spirit Cafe (1434 Blake Street) is smaller--there's one standard option and usually a few offered on the list of specials--but the proportion of ingredients to noodles is exceptional, and the combinations work. The Mediterranean, a menu standard, is anything but standard: artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, red onions, tomatoes, pine nuts and parmesan, all in a pungent roasted-garlic broth.

If you're seeking a lowly sandwich in an upscale setting, head to Trinity Grill (1801 Broadway is the official address, although the entrance is on Tremont). The sandwiches there are comfortably hefty, but you can still get your mouth around them, and the burger is one of the best in town. And you can get any of them with the Trinity's oh-so-healthy but still tasty coleslaw.

If you don't care about fancy surroundings, the Speedy Gourmet (1430 Arapahoe Street) is getting raves for the $5 meals it hands over in minutes. A fiver gets you a huge sandwich, fries and a drink, a meal that you can eat in or take out. (Pastas and desserts are also available.) Or drop by Mangia Subs (1730 Glenarm Place) for immense subs made with nitrite-free meats.

Pan-Asian fare like the Factory's egg rolls can be had at Tommy Tsunami's (1432 Market Street), which features the same hip energy as well as super pot stickers. For more authentic Asian fare, there's Mori (2019 Market Street) and Sonoda's (1620 Market Street).

All of those places, of course, are just for starters. But if diners don't start going to them instead of the Cheesecake Factory, some of our homegrown restaurants will be goners.

A fond farewell: It was a who's who of Denver restaurant people at the memorial mass for Jess Roybal, the Fourth Story executive chef killed by lightning last month.

The memorial took place on a beautiful, clear, sunny day--in stark contrast to the storm that hit the golf course where Roybal, 27, and his friend, Pamela Jaffe, sought shelter under a tree on July 30. Not surprisingly, the irony had everyone asking, "Why?"

"He knew better," one mourner said. "It must have just happened so fast."
Jaffe, whose parents own Beacon Grill (303 16th Street), where she and Roybal first met years ago, is still in a coma.

The main thing friends and co-workers wanted people to know about Roybal was that he was a good person. "He'd give anything to any of his friends," said best friend Michael Cotton. "No matter what time of day, you could call him and he'd be there for you."

But it was as a chef that more people knew him. And in the kitchen, Roybal, who was born and bred in Denver and graduated from Manual High School, had a reputation for being fair, extremely creative and a perfectionist. His credits included Wolfgang Puck's Postrio in San Francisco (Roybal's first job out of the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona) and here in Denver at the now-defunct Zenith, Cache Cache and Napa Cafe, as well as the going-strong Barolo Grill, Beacon Grill and, of course, the Fourth Story, which he had turned around in a remarkable way.

Roybal wasn't afraid to take risks with his food or his staff. Michelle Leslie says Roybal hired her for the Fourth Story based on her passion for food and cooking. "He told me his kitchen was a learning kitchen," she says. "And he was wonderful to work for. He made you respect him in a quiet kind of way. He never demanded it. Even when it was crazy in there, he never screamed or threw things like so many chefs do."

Golf was Roybal's way of unwinding from the pressures of the restaurant business. Stan Soto, Napa's general manager when Roybal was there, remembers covering for Roybal and head chef Tyler Wiard when they went golfing during work hours. "Jess had this eye problem at one time, but we just kept it going," Soto says of their hijinks at Napa. "Cliff [Young] would say, 'Why did Tyler have to go with Jess to the doctor?' And I'd say, 'Because Jess won't be able to drive. He's getting his eye worked on.'"

Cliff Young says Roybal, who started as pastry chef at Napa and was its head chef when the restaurant closed, always treated him well. "I knew what they were doing," Young says of the golf outings. "If Jess hadn't been doing such an incredible job, then we would have had a problem."

Anyone who ate Roybal's food remembers every bit of those meals. But at the memorial service, people named three things over and over: the red-chile cheesecake, the creme brulee, and the jalapenos that Roybal pickled himself.

"He chased his dream down," Cotton says. "He had it by the tail."

--Kyle Wagner

 
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