NoNo's Cafe just celebrated its third birthday, and although the restaurant is growing up, it hasn't grown away from its family-friendly roots.
From the start, despite its location in a strip mall, owners Brian and Sonda Brewster wanted to make their cute little eatery feel like a home, complete with bric-a-brac from their own house, booths made from church pews, a name that's Louisiana slang for "grandfather," and their children on hand to help out. And they served up down-home food, focusing on favorites from their native New Orleans ("To Grandfather's House We Go," June 20, 1996).
These days, NoNo's is a little too busy for kids to be underfoot; instead, a regular crew of staffers keeps things running smoothly. But the place has managed to retain its neighborhood feel and expand its kitchen offerings at the same time. NoNo's now has seven menus that rotate every two weeks, so diners can eat here regularly and never tire of the value-priced food.
And that food has continued to improve, with options that now include more international fare. Although NoNo's is still not the place to go for fancy French sauces or funky fusion, it's just the spot for such comfort foods as crabmeat au gratin ($5.99). Also available as an entree for $9.99, the mixture of real crab with onions, celery, breadcrumbs and cheddar--with a sprinkling of NoNo's "secret" seasonings--was a warm, gooey mess, ideal for spreading on slices of French bread and so well-melded that my kids didn't even notice the onions.
In fact, warm and gooey describes about half of the things on NoNo's menu, including the macaroni and cheese ($4.49), which is more than enough for an adult as an entree; I have yet to see anyone under the age of fourteen finish the kid-sized portion ($3.49). The delish dish is a brick of penne pasta layered with cheddar and baked until it becomes one solid mass of mac, with each bite requiring several turns of the fork to bring all of the cheese strands under control.
Even more adult-oriented meals have the same satisfying appeal. The daube and red gravy ($8.99) is a Southern take on the French classic of beef braised with red wine and vegetables; NoNo's pot roast was so tender that the steam coming off it was enough to make the meat fall apart just as the plate was set down. And the flavorful sauce was thin enough that the angel hair pasta beneath the meat--an addition that usually sends me into a tizzy, because angel hair is too thin a noodle to withstand much more than a broth--wasn't drowned out.
Another pasta dish, the spaghetti and meat sauce ($7.99), is one of the handful of NoNo's standards available all the time, and with good reason. The meat sauce, more like a ragout--a thick, concentrated stew--than a marinara, was packed with seasoned meat that I swear tasted like a good-quality ham loaf, it was so rich and flavorful. And I've never missed with any of the rotating items, either: the intensely flavored, densely packed pie of spinach, sausage and cheese ($7.49); the mildly spiced blackened catfish smothered in an also-mellow Cajun-spiced shrimp sauce ($14.99); and the ham steak coated in an addictively super-sweet raisin sauce ($7.99) were all mmm, mmm good.
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Many, but not all, of the entrees come with salads--greens, tomatoes, croutons--and I've sampled several of NoNo's long list of homemade dressings (each of which, like most of the other items on the menu, bears the name of the person who donated the recipe to the Brewsters). So far, my favorites are the creamy, cheese-packed bleu cheese and the creamy bacon avocado.
Don't get so carried away by the main courses that you forget to save room for dessert, though, because like everything else at NoNo's, the finales are filling, delicious and generously portioned. Three of us fought over a slice of lemon icebox pie ($3.49) that was so good, we ordered another. The best dessert, however, is still the sweet-potato crunch ($3.49), which is like eating a bowl of brown sugar melted in butter.
Fortunately, NoNo's takes reservations, because it can get pretty crowded--especially on Sunday nights, when anyone with any sense takes the whole family there for supper.
The only thing constant at Denver restaurants is change. In 2nd Helping, Kyle Wagner will occasionally return to the scene of previous reviews to find out what's now cooking in their kitchens.