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"On your travels, have you ever offended someone because you don't eat meat?" I ask Dave.
"Offended anyone?" He cocks his head, then says simply, "No."
I ask him this question because before he, my wife, Michelle, and I opened Osa Mariposa, a travel hostel in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, he spent five years traveling the globe. Not the REI khaki zip-off pants, collapsible trekking poles in Nepal, photos in front of Angel Falls, eco-tourist kind of travel the globe, but the live on ten dollars a day, ingratiate yourself in the community by learning the language, sleep with local girls and work under the table kind of way. He's had a book published about his two-and-a-half-year journey from Los Angeles to Tierra del Fuego, called Walk (www.frederickpublishing.com); another book is coming out about his travels through India, Thailand, Japan and more. After all his travels, his Facebook friends page looks like a casting-call list for a Benetton commercial.
5850 W. 25th Ave.
Edgewater, CO 80214
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: West Denver Suburbs
The abuelito who works the market food stall asks what we would like to eat. For me, it's easy: flor de calabasas stuffed with queso Oaxacana. Even though the dish is vegetarian, the sweet little grandmother cooking the food does not seem offended at all. But Dave's a vegan, and now his ordering dance begins: Tú tienes comida sin carne, sin queso? (Do you have food without meat or cheese?) I have witnessed this dance a hundred times before with Dave, and the response is always the same: Si, tenemos comida con pollo o pescado. (Yes, we have dishes with chicken or fish.) Then Dave's patent reply: Gracias, pero sin pollo y sin pescado. (Thank you, but without chicken or fish.) The grandmother gets a little concerned at this point: No carne, no queso, no pollo y no pescado? she asks. Sí, perfecto, solamente verduras, only vegetables, Dave concludes.
In all the times I've witnessed these exchanges, I have never seen the grandmothers take offense. Quite the contrary: There's invariably a tenderness and a grandmotherly smile. I imagine her saying to herself, Pobrecito, él no es más grande que un pito de abeja. The poor child is as skinny as a bee's dick.
The grandmother's long silver hair is braided with colorful ribbons and tied around her head like a wreath. Her small body moves efficiently in the compact kitchen as she pulls ingredients from ceramic bowls and cooks on a simple propane burner. She shuffles over to another stall to borrow an ingredient and then returns to the cooking. The food arrives at our table. My plate is beautiful: huge yellow squash blossoms stuffed with a gamey white cheese and fried in an egg-and-flour batter, then topped with a piquant green salsa and served with the ubiquitous black beans and corn tortillas. What she presents Dave with is even more magnificent: a plate-sized tlayuda, a popular Oaxacan dish that's like a large tostada. The crisp corn tortilla is topped with black beans, sautéed mushrooms, nopales (cactus), lettuce, avocado and tomatoes. Solamente verduras. Then she sets down a bowl of smoky salsa that has such kick it should be applied with a steady hand, and wishes us buen provecho: good appetite.
The afternoon turns to night as we continue to get mezcalized, a clean fade that leaves you in control of your faculties and, if you don't mix in any other type of alcohol, sin hangover. We move on to Los Danzantes, a restaurant where we hook up with Horacio, a local bartender who invented the canallegra, a mezcal cocktail with cinnamon sticks and citrus. Around the corner from Los Danzantes is a tiny mezcalería where Juan Pedro tours us on different types of mezcal — from sweet and smoky to strong and earthy — and between varieties has us sniff coffee beans to clear our senses. Hungry again, we have dinner at Biznaga, where I scrape my plate clean of the succulent mole tamarindo. By midnight we are at a club dancing salsa to a ten-piece Cuban band with Lucia, Salvador, Maria and Santiago.
Through my travels, as a vegetarian and not, I am becoming a citizen of the world. I do my very best to never offend a host, and, minus a non-food-related incident on the Amalfi Coast, don't think I ever have. Anthony Bourdain's "fucking vegetarians" comment, while an obvious crowd-pleaser, was naive, implying that foreign countries have a homogeneous culture that can be offended by one particular act. In every country, in every city, in every town, there are a variety of cultures. There is the dominant one and then there are the glorious and varied subcultures. In my travels, I seek the subcultures. The subcultures are where I thrive, where I spend my time, and by running two vegetarian restaurants and a vegan bakery in Denver, they are where I make my money.
I am very proud of Denver's culture of strong beer and strong whiskey, but if you don't drink, don't worry: I won't be offended. We'll find something else to share.
While we look for a new restaurant reviewer, Westword is publishing essays and features on the food scene by writers and restaurateurs, including this piece by Dan Landes, owner of WaterCourse Foods and City, O' City. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.