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Back in the day, I would have moved mountains to live near a Thai Basil.
Sushi will probably never be as big in western Pennsylvania as it is in Denver, but that's okay -- it means more fish for us. And a good place to catch some is right next door to Thai Basil, at Fontana Sushi. The first time I drove by the place, I thought it looked like the Japanese equivalent of Mr. Steak: cheap and scary. But after a few meals there, I give Fontana prime-grade status.
540 E. Alameda Ave.
Denver, CO 80209
Region: South Denver
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Sushi (happy hour): $1
Sushi (regular price): $1.75-4.50
Dragon roll: $8.50
Manhattan roll: $11
Miso soup: $1.50
Beef teriyaki: $7.50
Yaki udon: $7.95
Shrimp tempura: $11.50
Although the sushi isn't low-end in terms of quality, it's a real bargain during the buck-a-piece "happy hour," which runs from 6 to 10 p.m. weekdays and 7 p.m. to midnight on weekends. We sampled as much as we could, always sniffing and poking, and found nothing but top-notch seafood, from salmon to mackerel, octopus to eel, tuna to yellowtail. The sushi chefs can be a little slow -- especially when more than three tables are occupied -- and the rest of the servers excruciatingly so. (Our water glasses were refilled only after we flagged someone down; on several occasions I had to remind our waiter to bring dishes we'd ordered, and sometimes the waitstaff simply disappeared for fifteen minutes at a time.) But Fontana's setting is comfortable, as befits a true neighborhood joint, without all the ultra-chic, heavy-metal accents that so many sushi spots sport these days. And the happy-hour scene is so casual that employees' kids can often be found behind the bar, begging for a tamago here, a salmon roe there.
Good choices, both. The thinly sliced tamago was light on the sweetness and very, very fresh. The salmon roe wasn't flawless -- the nori wrapped around the rice beneath the eggs was crooked and looked like a link in one of those chains that kindergartners loop together to decorate Christmas trees -- but for a buck, I'll take my sushi crooked.
The rolls and handrolls weren't totally tidy, either, even though their prices were more standard, but they were totally tasty. While the dragon roll looked like something out of Lord of the Rings, its combination of eel, cucumber, avocado, salmon roe and enoki worked, with the avocado adding a nice richness to the other bold flavors. And the Manhattan roll was superb, with more smooth avocado fitting right in with the smooth tuna, and both playing off a chewy center of spicy octopus.
The cooked dishes were just as delicious as the raw goods. This was no hole-in-the-wall Asian, all cabbage and brown sauces, but worthy Japanese fare. Fontana's regular menu includes edamame that arrived hot and well-coated with salt (which made the little soybean pods an even more enticing snack), as well as an excellent miso soup with tiny silken tofu cubes and plenty of wakame flakes afloat. An order of beef teriyaki cloaked the strips of beef with sauce blessedly free of cloying sugar; a bowl of yaki udon arrived piping hot, teeming with small bits of soft chicken and large pieces of shiitake mushroom. The real surprise, though, was Fontana's shrimp tempura, an exemplary version that wrapped tender, barely cooked shrimp in a thick crust of batter so light, each piece was like an air sculpture.
Growing up does have its advantages -- much better ethnic food, for example. If either of these eateries wants to move into my neighborhood, I'll roll out the welcome mat.
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