By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
I ran out of books on Father's Day. I read fast, so this happens a lot, but like a drunk who always keeps a fresh bottle on hand for when his current one runs low, I like to have another book in the pipeline before I hit the last chapter. This time, though, I just didn't plan ahead. So I went to the bookshelves and picked something worth a second read.
I chose Junky, William Burroughs's quasi-autobiographical account of a life spent banging morphine, and took it with me to Johnny's Diner for my Sunday-afternoon meditation. Usually I go where I can have a couple of pots of coffee and smoke a few cigarettes -- Breakfast King, Tom's Diner, even Village Inn -- but Johnny's makes a good, greasy bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, and even though I can't smoke there, one of those monsters and a bright-pink cherry shake is worth the sacrifice.
On Father's Day, the place was a madhouse. Shell-shocked dads who'd obviously been awakened at some godawful hour by their screeching brood were staggering around the crowded plastic-and-Americana dining room, ferrying trays of cheeseburgers and Denver omelettes between the pass-through window and the tables. Over-excited children were barfing milkshakes in the aisles. I saw one dad wandering zombie-like toward the doors, a kid in each arm, still wearing a cardboard cut-out tie on a string around his neck with HAPPY FATHERS DAY written on it in glitter paint and macaroni; another dad sat staring wistfully out the window at the gleaming, candy-apple-red classic 'Vette parked by the front door while his daughter tried to cram a breakfast burrito up her nose.
Spicy crab soup:
Bi bim bop: $7.99
And then there was me, tucked into a corner booth, quietly eating my sandwich and reading about the perils of morphine addiction. I spend a lot of time now in shirts and ties nibbling escargot and ahi and microgreens, and while I love every minute, it sometimes feels like a rejection of my baloney-on-white-bread upbringing. Places like Johnny's are where I go to reconnect, to recharge the memory cells of a hundred family meals eaten at places just like this. And Burroughs? Well, he's a touchstone to a different part of my past.
According to Wild Bill: "As the geologist looking for oil is guided by certain outcroppings of rock, so certain signs indicate the near presence of junk. Junk is often found adjacent to ambiguous or transitional districts...stores selling artificial limbs, wig-makers, dental mechanics, loft manufacturers of perfume, pomades, novelties, essential oils. A point where dubious business enterprise touches Skid Row."
Sure, he's talking about scoring M, which he had a legendary dowser's sense for finding. These days, though, I go through the same process trying to discover great restaurants. I look in similar places for my kick of choice, and, like Bill, sometimes I get lucky and sometimes I don't. Edge neighborhoods - such as this triangular slice of Aurora, from Mexico to Parker, bounded by Havana and then over to the I-225 interchange -- breed little ethnic joints like a petri dish does bacteria. The rents are cheap, space is plentiful, and while there might not be many tooth mechanics or wig-makers, there are plenty of after-market car shops, comic-book stores and acupuncture clinics -- the modern equivalent.
Those six or seven square blocks hold probably fifty restaurants that run the gamut from Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese to Indian, Mexican, Irish and Eastern European. At Havana and Iliff is an American enclave, centered by Johnny's (and there's nothing quite so wholly and obsessively American as a late breakfast at Johnny's), with Dozens and Jus Cookin's visible from its parking lot. And that was another reason I'd come to Johnny's for breakfast: I wanted to start in the center before I went off looking for something a little to the left of it.
I ended up at Han Kang, which sits in a strip mall near the point of the triangle at the corner of Havana and Jewell, next to a piano lounge and attached to the flank of Sir Loin's Meat Shop. Han Kang is to Johnny's as the Cocteau Twins are to Lynyrd Skynyrd: polar opposites. The nearly two-year-old Korean family eatery was cool, quiet and, if not exactly dignified, then certainly muffled by comparison. The smiling servers were soft-footed, the giant TV kept to a murmur. The noisiest thing about the place was the food -- everything bubbling and sloshing -- and the splashy mural of an impressionistic Denver skyline that ran the length of one wall. The other three walls were papered with dozens of sheets of colored construction paper carefully filled with blocky Korean writing. Specials, I'm guessing, since there were prices on some of them, but I couldn't be sure. Hung everywhere -- on walls, in windows, from the service bar and soda machine -- they looked like poetry to me, written in an alien language I didn't understand.
Han Kang's menu was completely Korean, with all the native specialties. There was non-threatening bulgogi, soy-sweet and sugary beef piled on top of caramelized onions with a strong dose of sesame oil. Bi bim bop--as much fun to eat as it is to say -- was like a tiny Korean buffet muddled up on one plate, with carrots and daikon, vinegar-brined greens, bean sprouts and shreds of marinated beef topped off with a fried egg and served with rice. The bi bim nengmyun-- vermicelli noodles with sliced rib-eye, slivered radish, green squash and half-moons of cucumber -- was similar to a Vietnamese noodle bowl, but leaning more to the sweet side.