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Mouthing Off

'Tis the season to eat tacos: Speaking of old favorites, a busboy (busman? busdude?) called to say that his employer, the Mexico City Lounge, at 2115 Larimer Street, is now open until 4 p.m. daily--and that means Mondays, too, when the place used to be closed. That also means that after I've digested a lunch of steak tacos, I can return in the late afternoon for more steak tacos. That is good news.

Z-news: It's been open for only a little over a month, but Z'Tejas Grill (8345 Park Meadows Center Drive in Littleton, at Park Meadows) has already managed to make a name for itself. Poor Z-Teca, the Colorado-grown "fresh Mexican grill" that had to change its name from Zuma when it went national last year to avoid confusion with another company of the same name: Z-Teca and Z'Tejas sound very similar. Their food isn't, though. Z-Teca serves enormous, inexpensive, freshly assembled burritos; Z'Tejas serves normal-sized, medium-priced portions of catfish beignets, seared ahi loin and gumbo. Viva Z difference.

Open-and-shut cases: Mediterra, at 1475 Lawrence Street, has opened its floodgates to the Mediterranean. The latest concept from the Momo family's Teresa II corporation--which has brought us, among other places, Pizza Colore, Cucina Colore and Teresa's Cafe, the restaurant that previously occupied Mediterra's space--Mediterra is distancing itself somewhat from its eatery siblings. "I'm running this show," says Mediterra general manager Salvatore Galati, who moved to the U.S. five months ago from Venice. "Along with chef Scott Anderson, we've assembled a menu of dishes from all 21 countries that surround the Mediterranean." And so, of course, the menu includes tapas. You can never have enough tapas in a town, eh?

A few weeks ago, Allison Cantrall decided to improve her neighborhood by opening the West City Perk coffeehouse at 1426 East 22nd Avenue. "We took over a grungy T-shirt shop and renovated it," Cantrall says. "This area has been ignored economically, so we thought it would be good to put something positive in." Already, Cantrall says, there's been a noticeable decline in the amount of drug trafficking in the area right around the coffee shop. "It's been interesting introducing coffee to an inner-city neighborhood," she adds. "And so far, no one's used the chess tables." But Cantrall's specialty would be rare in any neighborhood: It's millionaire shortbread, with a toffee center and chocolate top, made according to her mom's recipe from Scotland. "It's not even common there," Cantrall says. "And my mom thinks it's pretty exclusive to Denver." In addition to the usual coffee drinks, the Perk also offers Cantrall's homemade cheesecake, cinnamon rolls and scones.

In a much swankier area, Ginza Express opened recently at 140 Steele Street in Cherry Creek, where it offers a roster of healthy Japanese fast foods; the buzz is good on this one. I haven't heard anything yet about the new Marrakesh (1951 South Havana in Aurora), but the menu looks promising: a blend of Berber, Arabic, Jewish and European ingredients, with an admirable children's menu of beef brochette and kefta.

Happy fourteenth anniversary to the Pearl Street Grill, at 1477 South Pearl Street, which will celebrate by throwing a New Year's Eve party. Call 778-6475 for information.

More holiday stuff: Heading for the mountains this coming week? The Garden Room, Keystone Ranch, the Ski Tip Lodge, the Alpenglow Stube and Der Fondue Chessel (a really cool place to get raclette, by the way), all at Keystone Resort, will offer special meals on Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year's Eve, as will the Game Creek Club at Vail Resort. For reservations, call 970-496-4386--and call immediately. Ditto for Winter Park Resort, which will serve holiday dinners every night from December 24 to 31 at the Lodge at Sunspot; call 970-726-1446.

Still searching for last-minute gift ideas? Rock Bottom Restaurants again offers its "gift card," a gift certificate in the form of a credit card. Gift-givers "charge" the card with the amount, and the recipient then uses it down to the last penny for food at any Rock Bottom, Walnut Brewery or Old Chicago location, or at the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery and Sing Sing (both at 1735 19th Street).

For more immediate gratification, cookie fans can't help but appreciate a gift from the Colorado Cookie Company (1525 Market Street), which makes incredible cookies (the butterscotch white chocolate is soooo sweet) and wraps them up in gift baskets--if you can stand to give them away, that is. The coolest wrapping scheme is the cookie rose box ($17.95), a long-stem-sized box filled with cookies. The store will deliver, too; call 436-9726.

The best way to satisfy someone's sweet tooth, however, is to send them a one-pound box of Enstrom Candies' almond toffee ($11.50, plus $4.50 for shipping), which the company has been making in Grand Junction since 1929. If you've never tried this stuff, get ready: It's the butteriest toffee ever, sweet and nutty, and it'll drive you nutty if it's sitting in the refrigerator. (Especially if you haven't eaten anything in a while and consuming a pound of almond toffee suddenly seems like a really good idea. Trust me--I've been there.) Since we're getting close to Christmas, stop by the Denver store, at 201 University Boulevard, and pick some up. It makes a great hostess present.

As does a basket of dried soup mixes, salsa seasonings and chile and cornbread mixes from the Women's Bean Project, which has a store at 3201 Curtis Street. The Project employs women who have had a tough time of it, enabling them to stay off welfare and support their families. Shopping there is a nice opportunity to do some good in the true Christmas spirit.

Or go for spirits. My two favorite wine shops--City Wine, at 347 South Colorado Boulevard, and Wines Off Wynkoop, at 1610 16th Street--both have some great sale prices for holiday imbibing. City Wine has a fabulous selection hand-picked by owners Fuad Jezzini and Jack Vesey. Their motto: "We've tasted it. We sell it because we like it. If you don't, bring it back." Their collection covers all price ranges and wine-producing countries, and these guys can tell you everything about every wine in the place. Wines Off Wynkoop is simply a fun, laid-back store, with no pretentiousness and surprisingly good prices, especially considering the LoDo location. There's a tasting there every Wednesday, too.

Beer fanciers might be happier with a copy of Discovering Colorado's Brewpubs ($12.95), which I missed in last week's roundup of locally published cookbooks. Written by Tony Todd and Craig Jones, the guide features 59 brewpubs, their beers and their menus, plus directions on how to get to them. Also brought to my attention: Shalom on the Range ($21.95), a compilation of Jewish recipes and traditions from the friends of Shalom Park senior residences in Aurora. It's a beautiful book full of established and contemporary takes on Jewish food. And from a Boulderite comes Secrets of Fat-Free Chinese Cooking ($20), by Ying Chang Compestine, who has become nationally known for her healthy Chinese recipes.

Lastly, help your vegan friends start the New Year off right, with the Vegetarian Dining Guide Colorado, a free pamphlet that gives brief listings of local eateries that offer at least five vegetarian dishes on their menus, with special designations for vegan dishes. The guide can be obtained by writing to the Vegetarian Society of Colorado, P.O. Box 6773, Denver, CO 80206. Also, vegetarians looking for people with whom to veg can call 777-4828 for information on the society's monthly potluck.

Easy as pie: Pies are relatively cruelty-free, except maybe for the people who have to judge the Fourth Annual National Pie Championships, scheduled for January 17 and 18 at the Hotel Boulderado, 2115 13th Street in Boulder. Sponsored by the American Pie Council--the head of which is John Lehndorff, food writer for the Daily Camera in Boulder--the competition is open to amateurs and commercial pie makers across the U.S. The deadline for registration is January 17, and there's an entry fee for all contestants. Cash and prizes will be awarded to winners in each of the following categories: fruit/berry, cream/custard, traditional apple (two-crust), nut and open. Call Renee Paulen at the Boulder Convention & Visitors Bureau at 442-2911 for more information, or visit the Pie Council online at www.piecouncil.com.

People are always surprised to learn that there is a national council on pie, but there's another council in existence that I think proves we're about to run out of jobs for all the people crowding this planet. The USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council (yeah, you read it right) has a whole staff responsible for promoting the annual National Split Pea Week, which you probably didn't pause to honor back in November. The council--which also has a Web site, at pulse@ pea-lentil.com--sends out helpful four-color brochures titled "What is a lentil?" and is based in Idaho. I gather they're a little bored there.

--Wagner

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