By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
A round noon, my phone rings.
"Is this Jason Sheehan?"
Denver Metro Area
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Downtown Denver
"You're the restaurant guy?"
"That's me. What can I do for you?"
"Man, I don't know if you've been there yet, but I've got to tell you about this..."
About this new sushi restaurant, about this little Mexican place that makes the greatest tamales, about the best meal, about the worst meal, about the most mediocre meal ever -- I get these calls a lot. Every day, someone wants to tell me about his brother-in-law who just opened a new bar in Nederland or about getting thrown out of Los Cabos for trying to ride the llama or about this dog she just saw that looked like Richard Nixon. Some of these calls from my hundreds-strong unofficial Bite Me World HQposse provide useful tips. For example, that new place Sketch, which Sean Yontz and Jesse Morreale are opening in the old Le Delicespace? Yeah, one of my boys sussed out that project before anyone, while wandering hung over through the Creek one morning. He looked in through the windows, saw all the cigarette butts and cans of PBR left behind from one of their private parties, figured out Yontz had to be involved and immediately punched my digits.
I listen when I get these calls. I take notes. And when calls and e-mails all referencing one place start to stack up, I know there's a cook out there who's really struck a nerve. That's what happened with Sushi Sasa, which I wrote about in the September 15 Bite Me. And last week, another perfect storm of communication descended on my desk -- only this time swirling around the unlikeliest of food operations: a hot-dog cart.
And not just any hot-dog cart. Specifically, the cart often parked at 17th and Arapahoe streets that belongs to Jim Pittenger, who is -- as far as I know -- Denver's only purveyor of authentic Alaskan reindeer sausage. And German white-veal brats. And wild-pheasant sausage. And boar. And while several places in town sling the occasional buffalo sausage, I'm pretty sure no one is serving that sausage studded with jalapeños and slicked down with Vietnamese Sriracha.
Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs -- that's the sign hanging from the cart, complete with a laughing, bandanna-wrapped skull just to give it a little outlaw flavor. The cart is a beauty, too: lots of stainless steel and polished aluminum, twin umbrellas, full grill and warm wells and work space. Biker Jim works with his radio playing, surrounded by coolers full of soda and cute, fluffy animals all turned into sausage links. He works in the sun and in the cold. He shows up early and stays late. He gives away free samples to passersby who stop, stunned, when they catch a glimpse of his menu of woodland critters.
"How 'bout a taste of buffalo sausage?" he asks a bunch of girls waiting for the light to change. When I say things like that, I get threatened with restraining orders. Biker Jim gets loyal customers.
"You wanna try a bite of reindeer sausage?" he asks a passing businessman. The businessman says sure, then stays when he sees the white-veal brats on offer. He tells Jim he spent time in Germany and has never found a brat like those he lived on overseas. Jim then offers up the entire history of veal brats, talking about his supplier, who imports them right from Germany, about how the company that makes them prides itself on their authenticity. He keeps his spiel going for a full five minutes -- as long as it takes to finish off the brat on the grill and lay it out on the bun. Unfortunately, he has no horseradish -- which is the traditional accompaniment for veal sausage, according to the businessman.
Jim shrugs, apologizes. "Someday, man," he says. "Right now, I've gotta be cooking for the masses, you know?"
Right now, the masses are across the street or down the street or 'round the corner getting their Sabretts, their Hebrew Nationals, their dirty-water dogs in steam-damp buns. But Jim is doing all right. One after another, customers come up to his cart, and more often than not, they're coming in twos and threes -- adventurous eaters returning with friends, insisting that they try the boar, the reindeer, the buffalo.
I've always wondered whether -- when people finally get sick of me trashing their favorite restaurants and making dick jokes all the time -- a hot-dog cart might be a viable career option, so I ask Jim how he ended up pimping Alaskan reindeer dogs and cream-cheese-packed Louisiana red hots to the street trade. "I wanted to be in the restaurant business," he explains. "I wanted to do something. And if you don't have -- what -- fifty, a hundred thousand dollars to open a restaurant? Well, for like ten, you can get one of these." He runs a hand along the edge of his cart. "It might not be a restaurant, but I get to do my own thing."
Originally from Alaska, Jim came here to go to journalism school. He did his time, met a girl and, though he wanted to be a writer, ended up in the family repo business, which is where he stayed for about twenty years. Still, he had friends who worked in restaurants. He knew a lot of food-service guys and had even done a little cooking himself. Plus, he'd eaten reindeer and had a line on a place that could turn Dasher, Dancer and Rudolph into delicious sausage products, so I guess the hot-dog cart was a natural.