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The Name Game

Modern Mexican standoff

Bad enough that Chris Douglas and his crew had to take on the sorry history of the 250 Josephine Street address when they opened Tula there (see review). Bad enough that they have to deal with a crowd of diners who have long memories (when Ian Kleinman was cooking there, he'd sometimes get requests that his kitchen try to copy some of former chef-owner Radek Cerny's impossible-to-reproduce spécialités de la maison from guests still openly lamenting the closing of Papillon in 2002); a market already overcrowded with high-end, Mexican-influenced menus; and a lot of niggling architectural details (unusual bathrooms, narrow patio and those planters that run the length of the front windows, deliberately built to screen any view into the dining room from the street) that have plagued the space for a decade.

Bad enough that Douglas also has to worry about the food, the head counts and all the other crushing stresses that come from being a rookie owner with a hot project in a hard neighborhood.

But then his troubles were multiplied by a letter from Richard Sandoval's legal thugs demanding that Tula change its name.

Not the "Tula" part; that's apparently okay. What irked Sandoval -- chef-owner of Tamayo and Zengo, as well as properties in New York, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco and Dubai -- was that Douglas, in his press materials and advertising, was calling the place "Tula Modern Mexican." And as you know (or would, if you read the March 30 Second Helping on Tamayo), "Modern Mexican" is the wholly inappropriate catchphrase that Sandoval uses to describe the five-year-old menu still being flogged to the Larimer Square tourists who wander into Tamayo.

"Yeah, I got the letter," Douglas tells me, laughing even though it no doubt bugged him. "They asked us not to use the words 'Modern Mexican,' so we changed it to 'Fine Mexican,' which means...I don't know. It means fine cuisine or whatever."

Actually, if you look at Tula's newest ads, you'll know exactly what "fine" means, because Douglas offers a list of about twenty synonyms -- everything from "excellent," "choice" and "dandy" to "wicked" and "aces" -- and caps off the definition of "fine" with "anything but modern," a purposeful dig at the ridiculousness of trying to claim ownership of a phrase.

For Sandoval, that's one down and -- according to a Google search for the phrase "Modern Mexican" - another 117,998 to go. The first two hits for the phrase actually lead to Sandoval's own website, modernmexican.com, but the rest led to everything from the Prickly Pearrestaurant in Mooresville, North Carolina, to Rick Bayless's Frontera in Chicago, Palmilla in Cabo San Lucas and modern Mexican artist Leonardo Nierman.

Sandoval and his legal team had better get cracking.

On the run: Come May 21, I'll be far from the official Colfax Marathon, with all those tiny pairs of shorts and bad cases of jock itch. Seriously, I haven't voluntarily run anywhere in longer than I can remember, and I'm not about to start now.

But last week, using feet and car, I created my own private Colfax Marathon. First stop: Great Wall Chinese Restaurant, at 440 East Colfax Avenue, a dependable neighborhood delivery joint with occasionally legendary crab-and-cheese wontons. It's now offering hot wings and rib tips, too, which sounds weird, but I've seen Chinese restaurants serve calamari, cannoli, burritos and barbecue. There's a place over by my house where I can get shredded pork in that red barbecue sauce topped with cabbage, as well as an ice cream sundae for dessert. With all the equipment that's required to prepare a normal Chinese menu, the kitchen can turn out nearly anything else. And most Chinese-restaurant owners are willing to have their kitchens do just that, if they think chicken wings, tacos, sushi plates or Boston cream pie will bring in a few more bucks.

At Great Wall, these border crossings seem to be working. As I left, I saw a couple of people check out the construction-paper signs taped up in the windows promising chicken and ribs, then go inside and order.

By then I was already moving on and peeking through the windows of 338 East Colfax, the former home of the Walnut Cafe. Although the Walnut bailed out of the neighborhood only a couple of weeks ago (after holding down this corner for 22 years), the dusty, dim, empty space looks as though it's been abandoned for years. I heard that a lease fight finally put an end to the long lunches and pancake breakfasts at the Walnut, and that's no real surprise. These blocks are becoming valuable property, what with all the talk about gentrifying Colfax and turning it into another high-tone retail/restaurant corridor. But in the meantime, where am I going to get my fucking pancakes?

At Tom's Diner, at 601 East Colfax, I guess -- perennial fall-back position for the terminally restless and flapjack-addicted. I don't go to Pete's Kitchenanymore; fighting my way through all the club kids and drunks and drag queens and rock stars has become more of a hassle than a Pete's breakfast burrito is worth. Tom's, on the other hand, remains a 24/7/365 roller coaster of the human experience, a shot of street life and nightlife and highlife and lowlife all rolled into one insomniac bitch-slap. On its best nights, Tom's can be more fun than a room full of chimps and liquor. On its worst, it's a nightmare straight out of Stanley Kubrick's Hello Kitty dream journal.

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