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Bite Me

Many Happy Returns

Before I moved to Denver a year ago, I'd taken a few turns through Colorado while satisfying my interstate lust. Many of my travels took me through Boulder, and every time I hit that city, Juanita's (see review) was the first place I stopped.

But until December 31, 1997, I could have saved myself some miles and stopped at Juanita's Uptown (1700 Vine Street). From December 1986 -- just three years after the original Juanita's opened on the Pearl Street Mall -- until the end of 1997, Uptown did for Denver what the namesake joint had done for Boulder: provide a casual Mexican retreat and cheap, cold cerveza for folks who didn't want to refinance their mortgage just for an order of fish tacos.

"We had a great run there," says Juanita's general manager Ed Bigg, who's been with the company since the day the Denver location opened its doors. "There was a Berardi's in the space to the east. Then there was Juanita's where the Rhino Roomis now, and in the back was Juanita's 8-Ball. Anywhere you went on a Friday night, the place was packed." An early outpost in LoDo, Berardi & Sonshad moved uptown from its space at 1525 Blake Street (which is now occupied by the Rio Grande) and changed its name to Mike Berardi's; the original restaurant was started by Mike Berardi, part of the Mike Berardi/Michael Kretz partnership that still owns Juanita's in Boulder.

Unfortunately, as all good things must, Berardi's and Juanita's Uptown came to an end. "The landlord of the space didn't want to renew our ten-year lease because he wanted to open his own restaurant," Bigg explains. "We wanted to stay. Things were going good." The partnership even went to court to fight for the right to keep the space, he continues, "but in the end, we lost and went home to lick our wounds." While Juanita's retrenched in Boulder, the restaurant that took its Denver space, Carlo's on Park, "lasted about six months," according to Bigg.

After that, the spot at the corner of 17th Avenue and Vine became home to the Skydiner Cafe, then the Rhino. And on July 15, it will again be transformed, this time into the Galaxy Grill. The space next door will keep the Rhino name -- and the bar and pool tables.

And by the way, Juanita's isn't the only restaurant I return to time and again. When I'm not eating for work, when I don't have to critique or compare, there are a half-dozen other restaurants on my list of regular stops that put the loud, sticky taco joint in some pretty good company. Clair de Lune (1313 East Sixth Avenue), Breakfast King (300 West Mississippi Avenue) and Maruti Narayan's (12200 East Cornell Avenue in Aurora) have nothing in common -- except my frequent patronage. The moules provençal and lardons sandwich at Le Central (112 East Eighth Avenue) are my comfort foods, while the restaurant itself is my church -- the place I go to cleanse both the soul and the palate. And in Boulder, I like Kim's Food to Go(1325 Broadway) -- the little shack that shares nothing with Juanita's except a nice, funky and very un-Boulder Third World vibe.

My list of favorite haunts grows daily -- as does my waistline.

What's cooking?I don't usually write about recipes, for a couple of very good reasons. One, they're usually bad. Two, they rarely work. And three, while every chef worth his whites keeps a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook, maybe Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and a few other favorites on his desk alongside the hoarded saffron, spare side towels and grease-stained English edition of the Larousse Gastronomique, it's rare to actually see a recipe being used on the line. Good cookbooks are like porno for chefs. They keep them tucked away, flip through them when in need of escape or inspiration, and often fantasize about being able to make a consommé printanier with chicken quenelles when they're stuck rolling burritos or carving prime in one of those ridiculous stovepipe toques at some hellish brunch buffet.

But they don't use them. Not often, anyhow. And if they ever find themselves stuck for an idea, they certainly don't admit to their bosses, underlings or customers that the fine-herbes omelette they came up with on the fly was straight out of Jacques Pepin's newest tome.

There's an exception to this rule, though. Working in the bowels of any good kitchen are an unsung bunch of cooks without whom no place would be able to operate. These are the pantry cooks, and their primary duty -- the principal reason for their existence -- is to dredge through the top shelves and dark corners of a kitchen's walk-in coolers and pantries and make something fantastic out of the odds and ends that the chef and his line crew can't use.

Ever go into a swank joint on a Sunday afternoon and find an incongruous "seafood frittata" listed as the lunch special? That's the work of an industrious pantry cook making good use of the leftover salmon and garlic prawns from the previous night's dinner menu. Sure, pantry cooks also handle a lot of the grunt work -- dicing shallots, chopping parsley and babysitting stocks -- but they're really there to make the chef look good. Without these guys, food costs would go through the roof, every slab of meatloaf would cost seventeen dollars, and the brigade system would collapse under the top-heavy weight of all the sauciers, grillardins and what-have-you.

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