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Good Morning, America

From Aurora to Boulder and Back

As I left Vietnam House (see review), I was briefly sexually assaulted in the parking lot by a small pockmarked fellow who -- overcome by the beat pounding out into the cool night air -- grabbed me and rubbed up against my junk. Stunned and a little drunk, still wired on Sriracha and lemongrass, the sting of the stage lights and the sight of the security guards' guns, I had no idea what to do with that. It wasn't even the weirdest thing about the night. I'd been rocked and rolled, blown away by the Vegas-meets-Saigon countercultural weirdness of watching the Vietnamese Elvis kick out the jams under the mirror ball while the gangsters danced and the ladies dripped diamonds into the soup.

When I finally laid down long after midnight, I had a head full of beer, a heart full of Vietnamese love songs and a feeling of having truly seen something, even if only from the periphery. And once the couch stopped spinning, I slept, content in the knowledge that all over the city -- in the basement clubs and karaoke bars, the all-night diners, the after-hours joints and the cowboy saloons -- night people and fun hogs of all description were carrying on without me.

Twelve hours later, I was in Boulder with Laura, walking through the park where the mobs were celebrating El Grito. Under the bandshell, the mariachis were blasting away with crisp horns and fat-bodied guitars. The beautiful, dark-haired dancers stomped their feet, twirling in rainbow-colored dresses and heavy eye makeup. Everything smelled like cheap cologne and tamales and rain in the mountains.

We were hungry, and just across the way from the Dushanbe Teahouse, which was packed to capacity on a Sunday afternoon. So we put our name on the list, ducked into the shade of the arbor and waited. We could hear the music coming from the park. All around us, other stalled brunchers were speaking in Russian and Spanish and Mandarin, thumbing paper menus. When our turn finally came, we ordered hibiscus tea and fresh orange juice and French-pressed Ethiopian arabica, tried to sound out the Cyrillic lettering worked into the tiles above the bar, contemplated the menu and listened to the hum of voices and the burble of the koi in the fish pond in the center of the restaurant.

It occurred to me then that I'd experienced a rare thing these past twelve, thirteen hours. There was probably nowhere else in the world where I could have moved from a Vietnamese nightclub to a Mexican lawn fete to a Tajik teahouse with such speed and accidental grace, without planning or expectation, just a big, dumb kid stumbling from one sensation to the next. The Denver/Boulder area, this strange cultural blender cupped in the palm of the mountains, is so rich with wild strangeness and commotion that even without being a skier, a cowboy or a Broncos fan, I can find fun in almost any direction I turn. Like a food shark who will die if he stops eating, I can swim and swim and never run short of chum.

Laura and I ate stuffed olives and hummus; fat, rustic blueberry pancakes served with a thick slice of ham; and a surprisingly bland breakfast burrito that was big but not much else. We flipped through the tea bible (countless varieties, culled from growing regions all over the world, and canonized here the way wine is at Frascaor Mel's) and then shared the single best plate on the entire menu: a double wedge of architecturally arranged gingerbread soaked down with a sweet, thin and powerful orange tea sauce, topped with handmade Chinese five-spice whipped cream. On the plate, it looked like a Libeskind fantasy, a scale model of the new DAM addition rendered in gingerbread. It was so rich that two of us couldn't finish a single serving.

The Dushanbe Teahouse was given to the city of Boulder in 1989 -- a gift between sister cities, shipped in lots and lots of pieces all the way from Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Nine years later, under the guiding hands of Sara and Lenny Martinelli (who also own Aji in Boulder, reviewed in "Beyond Borders," in the August 10 issue), it finally opened, and has been serving ever since.

Still, when then-Boulder mayor Linda Jourgensen shook hands with then-Dushanbe mayor Maksud Ikramov and declared the two cities sisters way back in 1987, the agreement called for an exchange of gifts: the teahouse for a Boulder-style cafe or restaurant that would be erected in Dushanbe. Two years later, Ikramov made good on his end of the bargain. As yet, Boulder has not, which is really kinda embarrassing.

But plans are finally in the works to seal the deal, and make us look a little less like the cheap bastards we are. The sister-city crew in Boulder has proposed giving Dushanbe an environmentally friendly coffeehouse/cyber-cafe and has hired architect David Barrett to create it. Now all they need to do is raise money for the gift. Lots of money -- close to a million of the $1.3 million overall budget. Boulder itself has agreed to loan $350,000 (under rather stringent requirements), with the remaining cash coming in the more traditional manner: through begging.

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