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Bite Me

I've put some strange things in my mouth -- rats and worms and hooves and eyeballs -- but there's other stuff, purely pedestrian by comparison, that I won't touch. Not even for money.

Brussels sprouts, for example. Blech. Brussels sprouts are nothing but foul little cabbages with none of a cabbage's goodness and all of its funky, dirt-tasting evil concentrated in one mouthful.

Celery salt is wonderful, and a welcome friend in my kitchen, but celery itself? Forget it. Many otherwise phenomenal egg- and chicken-salad sandwiches have been ruined by the blind addition of celery. This vegetable deserves a place of shame in Satan's mise en place.

I've had penis before -- as the topper to a very rustic cassoulet -- but I have trouble eating testicles. I tried them once, but never again. Let's just say it's a guy thing and leave it at that.

My blacklist goes on: movie-theater hot dogs, black trumpet mushrooms, Southern Comfort, water chestnuts, kimchi. Most of these are simply matters of personal preference -- or self-preservation, in the case of the movie wieners -- but there's a story behind my ban on kimchi.

About midway through my kitchen career, I realized that I made a much better sous chef than head chef. There were a lot of reasons for this -- I'm more adept at pledging loyalty than inspiring it, for one, and then there's my rather loose relationship with such grim business realities as bill-paying and staff management -- but the most important reason was also the most basic. I was good at being a sous chef. An executive chef is like a general in a busy kitchen. He sees the big picture and plans in advance, orchestrating force deployment and the delivery of men and materials with an eye toward what will be happening hours, sometimes days, in the future. A sous chef, on the other hand, is more like the wizened lieutenant in every good war movie. He's down in the trenches with his grunts, pitching in beside them and passing on the orders that come down from above. If the chef is a good one, and experienced, then his sous can trust that those orders will be smart and rational. But if the chef is bad or weak or drunk or crazy -- like Kurtz lounging bloated beneath his mosquito netting at the head of the Nung River -- then his sous becomes more like a haruspex, reading signs and portents in the pig's blood and trying to untangle the good orders from the bad ones, the brilliant from the suicidally stupid. It's an unenviable, but sometimes immensely entertaining, position to be in.

I was in that sort of spot -- commanding a very good line being pulled to pieces by a chef in the final stages of terminal meltdown -- when I had my kimchi experience. Guys were walking out on me left and right, talking treason over missing shipments of side towels (which the chef was hoarding in his office, doling them out like gold ingots in an attempt to keep linen costs down) and rotten shipments of produce signed for because the chef could get them at B-grade prices. I'd taken to hiring indiscriminately, bringing on board anyone who could sign his name and knew which end of a knife was the pointy one, because I knew that by the time his paperwork cleared, I'd inevitably be in desperate need of a body -- any body -- to fill space as a commis, busboy or dishwasher.

This was when Johnny, a Korean banquet captain who'd stuck it out for months, told me he had a brother (or cousin, I was never sure) who'd just walked out of the family restaurant where Johnny had worked and needed a job. Johnny said his brother (or cousin) "would do anything." I loved Johnny, because he was always smiling and, in a pinch, could cook when he wasn't out on the floor serving B-grade squash soup and watered-down mimosas to a businessmen's brunch. So I hired the guy sight unseen, telling Johnny to bring him in on Friday.

Friday came, and it was a disaster. I had three guys (myself included) working a line that needed eight, and one dishwasher -- Johnny's brother (or cousin) -- where there should have been three. And as much as I'd like to say he pulled off his dishwasher's jacket the minute things got rough and showed us the scarlet S on his Underoos, instead he was hopelessly buried, slammed by rack after rack of the wretched refuse of the restaurant industry. After we finished service at 11 p.m., my crew and I wiped down, and then I pitched in to help the new dishwasher. We were finished by 1:30 a.m., thanks to some last-minute assistance from Johnny. And then the brothers (or cousins) brought out their dinner...and the kimchi.

 

At the time, what little I knew about Korean cuisine came almost entirely from M*A*S*H reruns. But I did know the traditional method for preparing kimchi: You start with cabbage, preferably Chinese (or Napa), salt the hell out of it for a few days, pack it into a glass or pottery jar with some ginger root, garlic, green onions, a little sugar, maybe some sesame oil, raw white vinegar, rock salt and all the red chiles you can get your hands on. When all of the ingredients are sealed together in an airtight, waterproof, leak-proof receptacle, you bury said container like a land mine in an unmarked hole in your back yard. Then you move -- preferably to another province. Entire towns can be effectively depopulated during kimchi-burying season, with generations of new people moving in, wondering what in the hell that godawful smell is, then moving on again without ever figuring it out.

Eventually -- like once every twenty years -- some Korean dad gets sick and friggin' tired of that stink in his back yard and starts digging around until he unearths the original kimchi vessel. He knows immediately what it is, and certainly knows better than to open it. Instead, he wraps it up carefully, heads over to the local Fed Ex, and ships the container off to those uppity relations who picked up and moved to the States twenty years before. He includes a note explaining his gift of "a little taste of the old country" -- or the Korean equivalent thereof -- and laughs himself to sleep for a month thinking of the looks on the uppity relations' faces when they open the package.

And thus does the traditional kimchi become the Korean equivalent of the traditional American fruitcake.

The stuff that Johnny and his brother (or cousin) presented that night was undoubtedly the real thing, passed on to them as a going-away present by whatever relative ran that family restaurant. First, it had the authentic smell -- of something evil that had died and been left to ripen. Then there was the texture -- mushy and soft, but still strangely, sickeningly crunchy. And finally, the flavor: spicy, sour and warm, with that combination of vinegar, salt, fermentation and chile heat that triggered every alarm bell of the autonomic system as my body desperately tried to warn me that I'd eaten poison -- something bad, vile and rotten.

As Johnny and his brother (or cousin) tucked in rather happily, I swallowed -- very reluctantly -- my first bite of kimchi and vowed never to touch it again. It was a vow that held firm until just last week.

My exploration of Aurora's ethnic triangle included many more stops than Han Kang (see review, page 69). I cruised through cafes, markets and strip malls along Havana, stopping in for boba tea at Ko-Mart, drinks at the Havana Cafe (where I was turned away because of a private party) and bulgogi at Korea Palace (3179 South Peoria Court). And it was at Korea Palace -- an excellent Korean barbecue joint shoehorned into what used to be one of those massive McDonald's with the kid aquarium full of hamster tubes in front -- that kimchi passed through these lips for the first time in almost a decade.

While I waited for my order in the dining room (which, aside from the removal of the playground equipment, has been changed little by the new tenants), I was thinking about Johnny and his brother (or cousin), about M*A*S*H* and fermentation and kimchi. And about McDonald's. I thought it was great that a place that had failed in its mission to make obesity and adult-onset diabetes a way of life in America was now being used as a delivery vector for fried octopus and bi bim bop.

And then the bulgogi arrived, and there it was: kimchi, sitting in one of a half-dozen bowls that came on the side. The sliced rib-eye was great, marinated in soy and sesame, then cooked with caramelized onions, and I had a whole heaping plate of it in front of me, along with rice, red-chile paste and enough crisp, damp lettuce leaves to make a meal for three, so I didn't need anything else to eat, but the kimchi was there. If it'd had eyes (and in my mind, where all foods have personality, it did), it would have been looking at me, daring me to try it.

I ate the bulgogi with gusto, picking at the dressed greens and the excellent apple-nut-and-raisin potato salad, slapping shredded daikon on all my little leaf rolls. And the kimchi was still there, taunting me. I've eaten bull penis, fer chrissakes. Flying-fish eggs. Raw gator. And none of that killed me. But food memories are powerful things, and aversions picked up in youth can hang on doggedly for a lifetime. I'll never drink Southern Comfort again, because it was the first liquor I ever got sick on. I can't eat kettle corn because of a bad experience as a six-year-old.

 

But finally, I did try the kimchi. In the end, it came down to plain cussedness. I didn't like the fact that some food -- tried once ten years before -- had such a power over me. So even as I recoiled in subconscious disgust -- actually leaning back from the table as I reached forward with my chopsticks -- I snapped off a tiny portion of kimchi and shoved it in my mouth.

Like wanting my dishwasher to turn into Superman, I'd love to say that I am now a convert to kimchi. But I'm not. Those split-second transformations are rare, and while I'm as open to culinary epiphany as the next guy -- okay, probably more open than the next three guys -- it didn't happen for me here. The kimchi was okay. I can say that. And considering the mental baggage I'd brought to the table at Korea Palace, my thinking it was okay probably means it was the best damn kimchi ever to be dug up. But while I won't cringe the next time kimchi hits my table, I'm not about to go digging up my Korean neighbor's back yard, either.

Market watch: If you must have some kimchi with your Wheaties, you can get your fill of pickled veggies at Ko-Mart (2000 South Havana in Aurora), which has probably a dozen varieties in sizes ranging from teacup to oil drum. Pickled water chestnuts are available, too, as are carrot and daikon mixes with kimchi spices.

For the rest of you wok-cooking devotees still rightly creeped out by the otherworldly funk of real kimchi, Ko-Mart has everything else you could possibly need for outfitting your kitchen and pantry. Looking for jackfruit juice? Ko-Mart's got it. Whole dried pink shrimp? Smoked anchovy? Pork neck? Octopus tentacles? No problem. The front of the market is dominated by a series of concessions selling everything from ready-made sushi and boba "bubble" tea (fruit teas filled with tiny tapioca balls), to bone-marrow soup, housewares and videos. Lining the market shelves are a hundred different kinds of rice, a zillion types of mushrooms -- canned, bagged, dried, pickled, candied, what have you -- and more brands of soy sauce than you can shake a smoked squid at. Ko-Mart also has one of the freshest, most diverse and most beautiful displays of fresh produce in the city, with what seems like an army of employees constantly stacking and restacking the melons, Korean peaches, lemongrass, ginger root, Chinese cabbage and mountain potatoes, always on the lookout for bruises or discolorations that would warrant a fruit or vegetable's being pulled immediately out of commerce.

And this is all well and good for the wandering gourmand out for some Far East culinary kicks, but for me, the true measure of any Asian grocery is its selection of grab-and-go grub. I'm talking ramen (which Ko-Mart has in spades); Hello Boss coffee drink and cans of "white soda" (carbonated milk that tastes like the stuff left at the bottom of a bowl of Fruity Pebbles); freaky bags of rice candy decorated with cartoon giraffes and big-headed children playing under a lysergic-acid rainbow; boxes of Pocky (chocolate-covered cookie sticks); bags of jujubes (not the movie candy, but the sugared balls of tropical fruit from which the movie candy stole its name); Ting-Ting Jahe ginger candies; Yan-Yan (sesame sticks with a chocolate putty for dippin'); and sick bears. I don't know what sick bears are actually called, but they're little cookie koalas filled with pink strawberry goo so that when you bite their heads off, it looks like koala guts inside -- hence my name for them. Ko-Mart is well stocked with all of these necessities, and the only things it's missing are durian fruit and candy cigarettes (Asian markets are the only place - besides Candy Heaven - that you can find this most un-PC treat). Other than that, Ko-Mart rocks.

Leftovers: Just a couple of miles and half a world away, another Russian market has opened in Aurora. Elite Deli (15413 East Hampden Avenue) caters to the area's Old Sov and Eastern European immigrant population -- with nearly everything on the shelves sporting a Cyrillic label. Although there's not a large selection of produce, at the deli counter you'll find smoked volba, chubb and sprats, herb-studded chicken sausage, great dry salami, lox, lots of hand-cut slab bacon, and enough rye and black bread to satisfy your deepest, darkest Dostoyevsky fetish. Plus, it sells sweet sour cream (which is tough to find elsewhere) to go with the frozen pelmeni dumplings, and big bags of vodka-filled chocolate candies.

 

Keeping with the Russian theme, Red Square Euro Bistro (1512 Larimer Street) is set to open by the end of the month. Owner and Irishman Steve Ryan (of the late Little Russian Cafe, Denver) has teamed with chef and St. Petersburg native Maxim Ionikh (of the late Little Russian Cafe, Boulder) to bring this Euro-Russo-themed eatery to life. Think goulash and vareniki, stroganoff and mushroom-brandy sauce. Think art-deco design, but with a fireplace and armchairs. And while you're at it, keep in mind that Ionikh has trained with Eric Aubriot in Chicago, Michel Roux (of Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn) in London and Marco Pierre White, who wrote one of the greatest books ever about cooking -- White Heat - and stunned the entire foodie world by having a picture of himself smoking a cigarette on the dust jacket. Should be interesting to see how that translates in Denver.

Cook Street School of Fine Cooking (1937 Market Street) is now taking reservations for a three-month intensive course that will begin in August. In the meantime, a six-month series of night classes begins on July 7. According to the school, these classes are "great for anyone contemplating opening a restaurant or bakery, working as a personal chef, building a catering business, becoming a food stylist, working in hotel or restaurant management, owning an inn or B&B, or becoming a restaurant critic or food writer." I'll agree with everything but those last five words. Anyone who wants this gig will have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming, and don't think that diploma is going to protect you...

Cielo (1109 Lincoln Street) opened its doors last Saturday for a big party, and lets the public in starting June 26. If you didn't make the scene, here's a peek at the menu: For starters, quesadillas espinacas filled with sautéed spinach, asadero and Menonita cheese and topped with chipotle-lime crema. Then there's sabana del norte (pounded beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms, guajillo chiles and avocado butter), a Gulf seafood sampler with red snapper, mussels, shrimp and calamari, and costillas (pork or boar ribs) with chiles, piloncillo and chipotle BBQ.

This ain't your abuelita's Mexican food.

It ain't your abuelita's dining room, either. With the help of Marco Colantonio, owners Curt Sims and Pam Savage have cut the old Denver Buffalo Company space in half and turned the corner into a cool, trendy room with both intimate and open dining spaces, along with a fabulous enclosed patio outside. (The future of the remaining space has yet to be determined.) This summer, that patio should be just the spot for sipping an azul margarita -- which is, of course, Tarantula azul, blue Curaçao, agave nectar and fresh lime juice, served on the rocks or not.

Sad news: After the Cielo party, a few revelers headed over to Dazzle (930 Lincoln Street), where they were lucky enough to see Doug Fleischmann, co-owner of Mizuna (225 East Seventh Avenue) and the four-month-old Luca D'Italia (711 Grant Street), who'd dropped by Dazzle after work and was bubbling over about what a good night his nearby restaurants had enjoyed.

Less than an hour later, Fleischmann was dead. As he drove along 17th Avenue, a car coming south on Lafayette Street ran a stop sign; Fleischmann's Jeep Cherokee broadsided the other car, then rolled. Fleischmann died at the scene; the other driver, a 22-year-old woman, was arrested for investigation of vehicular homicide and driving under the influence, and is currently out on a $50,000 bond.

Fleischmann is survived by his business partner and best friend Frank Bonanno, a big family (whose members request that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to his three favorite nonprofits: Project Angelheart, the Art Students League of Denver and the Colorado AIDS Project), his crews at both Mizuna and Luca, and many, many friends and fans. I didn't know Fleischmann well, but to know him at all was to be bowled over by his charming demeanor, overcharged dedication to his profession and caring attitude. The restaurant scene in this town is poorer for the loss.

Mizuna and Luca closed on June 25 and will remain closed on June 26. That's when a service commemorating Fleischmann's life will be held at the Pinnacle Club, 555 17th Street, at 10 a.m. For the restaurants' schedules after that, call 303-832-4778.


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