Before I moved to Denver a year ago, I'd taken a few turns through Colorado while satisfying my interstate lust. Many of my travels took me through Boulder, and every time I hit that city, Juanita's (see review) was the first place I stopped.
But until December 31, 1997, I could have saved myself some miles and stopped at Juanita's Uptown (1700 Vine Street). From December 1986 -- just three years after the original Juanita's opened on the Pearl Street Mall -- until the end of 1997, Uptown did for Denver what the namesake joint had done for Boulder: provide a casual Mexican retreat and cheap, cold cerveza for folks who didn't want to refinance their mortgage just for an order of fish tacos.
"We had a great run there," says Juanita's general manager Ed Bigg, who's been with the company since the day the Denver location opened its doors. "There was a Berardi's in the space to the east. Then there was Juanita's where the Rhino Room is now, and in the back was Juanita's 8-Ball. Anywhere you went on a Friday night, the place was packed." An early outpost in LoDo, Berardi & Sons had moved uptown from its space at 1525 Blake Street (which is now occupied by the Rio Grande) and changed its name to Mike Berardi's; the original restaurant was started by Mike Berardi, part of the Mike Berardi/Michael Kretz partnership that still owns Juanita's in Boulder.
Unfortunately, as all good things must, Berardi's and Juanita's Uptown came to an end. "The landlord of the space didn't want to renew our ten-year lease because he wanted to open his own restaurant," Bigg explains. "We wanted to stay. Things were going good." The partnership even went to court to fight for the right to keep the space, he continues, "but in the end, we lost and went home to lick our wounds." While Juanita's retrenched in Boulder, the restaurant that took its Denver space, Carlo's on Park, "lasted about six months," according to Bigg.
After that, the spot at the corner of 17th Avenue and Vine became home to the Skydiner Cafe, then the Rhino. And on July 15, it will again be transformed, this time into the Galaxy Grill. The space next door will keep the Rhino name -- and the bar and pool tables.
And by the way, Juanita's isn't the only restaurant I return to time and again. When I'm not eating for work, when I don't have to critique or compare, there are a half-dozen other restaurants on my list of regular stops that put the loud, sticky taco joint in some pretty good company. Clair de Lune (1313 East Sixth Avenue), Breakfast King (300 West Mississippi Avenue) and Maruti Narayan's (12200 East Cornell Avenue in Aurora) have nothing in common -- except my frequent patronage. The moules provençal and lardons sandwich at Le Central (112 East Eighth Avenue) are my comfort foods, while the restaurant itself is my church -- the place I go to cleanse both the soul and the palate. And in Boulder, I like Kim's Food to Go (1325 Broadway) -- the little shack that shares nothing with Juanita's except a nice, funky and very un-Boulder Third World vibe.
My list of favorite haunts grows daily -- as does my waistline.
What's cooking? I don't usually write about recipes, for a couple of very good reasons. One, they're usually bad. Two, they rarely work. And three, while every chef worth his whites keeps a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook, maybe Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and a few other favorites on his desk alongside the hoarded saffron, spare side towels and grease-stained English edition of the Larousse Gastronomique, it's rare to actually see a recipe being used on the line. Good cookbooks are like porno for chefs. They keep them tucked away, flip through them when in need of escape or inspiration, and often fantasize about being able to make a consommé printanier with chicken quenelles when they're stuck rolling burritos or carving prime in one of those ridiculous stovepipe toques at some hellish brunch buffet.
But they don't use them. Not often, anyhow. And if they ever find themselves stuck for an idea, they certainly don't admit to their bosses, underlings or customers that the fine-herbes omelette they came up with on the fly was straight out of Jacques Pepin's newest tome.
There's an exception to this rule, though. Working in the bowels of any good kitchen are an unsung bunch of cooks without whom no place would be able to operate. These are the pantry cooks, and their primary duty -- the principal reason for their existence -- is to dredge through the top shelves and dark corners of a kitchen's walk-in coolers and pantries and make something fantastic out of the odds and ends that the chef and his line crew can't use.
Ever go into a swank joint on a Sunday afternoon and find an incongruous "seafood frittata" listed as the lunch special? That's the work of an industrious pantry cook making good use of the leftover salmon and garlic prawns from the previous night's dinner menu. Sure, pantry cooks also handle a lot of the grunt work -- dicing shallots, chopping parsley and babysitting stocks -- but they're really there to make the chef look good. Without these guys, food costs would go through the roof, every slab of meatloaf would cost seventeen dollars, and the brigade system would collapse under the top-heavy weight of all the sauciers, grillardins and what-have-you.
Back in the day, I was a pantry cook and loved it. Yes, it was a low-man-on-the-totem-pole kind of gig. Yes, the pressure of coming up with three different lunch specials a day, every day, and always being under the gun to get them all prepped and ready by the start of the 11 a.m. rush was murder. And yes, it meant showing up at 5 a.m. to work in some septic basement with substandard product. But it was also the purest extension of the cook's art: making something wonderful out of nothing.
I recently got to take a little walk down memory lane with Reyn Bayard, another kitchen guy who remembers his days as a pantry cook as fondly as I remember mine. A veteran of such Denver institutions as Brendles and the Duesenberg and a self-professed old fart at 53, Bayard talked about growing old in a business now mostly dominated by kids and about his time on the RMS Queen Mary, where he "had to join the seafarers' union just to walk up six flights of steps to Sir Winston's restaurant to do tableside au poivres, mealymouth steak Dianes, jubilees and post-prandial café diablos -- which were a true pain in the ass." He talked about chef Mary Clark, his mentor at Brendles, a groundbreaking restaurant on Market Street in the early '80s, and I talked about several guys who'd filled that role for me. We chatted about the various joys and heartbreaks of the business, and both decided that if we had to pick one period in our careers that just rocked us, rolled us and taught us more in less time than any other station, it would have to be our time in the pantry.
"You have a few shallots, some greens, whatever you want from the bar, some stock, maybe a chicken -- now go make three specials in five hours, right?" Bayard remembered. "It was wild." And I agreed. It was.
Which got me to thinking: Cooking like a pro looks nice and easy when someone's doing it on TV. But notice how those Food Network chefs never seem to run out of anything? How each item is exactly what they need and is always close at hand? The robo never jams. The spinach is never wilted. And you never see Emeril Lagasse running around the set with a butcher's saber in his meaty paw, screaming about how he's going to skewer the bastard who stole the last of his escarole.
So Bayard came up with a list of ingredients that was fairly indicative of what could be found at dawn Thursday in an average high-end galley, and I came up with the challenge: Write a recipe using only these ingredients and nothing more. Assume access to all of the regular pro kitchen equipment you need, but understand that half of it will probably be broken or held together with duct tape and frill picks. The recipe should be simple, something that can be assembled from prep in under three minutes on the line and under fire. Bonus points for using everything on the list. Double bonus points if you come up with three dishes and a dessert. Now, the list:
1) Chickens, whole, boned-out and day-old
2) Any herbs or spices, any rice, any stock
3) Anything from the bar
4) Broccoli, slightly limp, whole clove garlic, shallots, onions. The line used up all the carrots and celery the night before, so you don't have any.
5) Heavy cream, buttermilk, fraîche
6) Olives, green and black
7) Sugar, flour and whatever dry stock you can steal before the bakers show up for work.
8) Balsamic vinegar, unsalted butter, oil, lemons.
That's it. Send your entries here to Bite Me HQ at email@example.com, and I'll print the good ones as I get them.
Best entry wins something. Nastiest creation wins something, too.
What, me worry? Nearly a year has passed since an August 2002 opening date was first floated for Cielo, the upscale Mexican eatery owned by Curt Sims and Pam Savage (who'd already brought us Lime in Larimer Square) that would be taking over the old home of the Denver Buffalo Company, at 1109 Lincoln Street. The intervening months have been filled with rumors, delays, staff changes and contracting gripes. But at last, Cielo's big invitation-only bash came off without a hitch on June 21, and a hard opening date was announced. Everyone knew that Cielo would finally open to the public on Thursday, June 26.
And then it didn't. Gas leak: That was the newest rumor. Nothing major, and everything would be in line for Cielo to open the next day.
And then it didn't. Sure, last Friday there were people inside -- but they were all staff members who'd been brought in for their first night of actual service, only to discover that, once again, things were a no-go. "It was awful," says Cielo consultant and floor manager Marco Colantonio. "I had the whole staff there, waiting to hear if we were going to be able to open." They all sat, watching the front door and listening for the phone, until 5 p.m. -- when the word came down that the doors would have to remain locked. "I bought dinner and drinks for the staff, then took everyone for cocktails at the Hornet," Colantonio explains. "It was the worst day, having to send 55 people home. But I talked with them, explained what was happening, and they're all hanging in there. Their enthusiasm is incredible."
So what was happening? As it turns out, a last-minute problem with Cielo's liquor license was serious enough to keep the whole joint shuttered through the weekend. According to Colantonio, there was some confusion over the modification of the premises -- namely, the big outdoor patio that's a focal point of the restaurant's new design -- and the current license didn't cover that addition. There were also issues with the way the paperwork had been filed, listing Sims as the landlord for the space. Suddenly it looked like Cielo had no owner, and that made the City's Department of Excise and Licenses suspicious, Colantonio says.
"I won't lie to you: It was nice to have a Saturday off," he continues. "But there are people here who've been out of work for three weeks, waiting. People who left other jobs to come work here -- and having to send them home was tough. Even though I'm only an employee, this is my name that's on the line here. Sometimes I sit down and wish I wasn't doing day-to-day restaurant work anymore. I'm a creative person. I much prefer opening restaurants and developing concepts. But when you're involved with just one place, all of a sudden you have to worry about the busboy who didn't show up or the manager who just called in sick."
But as of this past Monday, at least he doesn't have to worry about when Cielo can start serving. On June 30, the restaurant did finally open -- with the patio still off limits. But some butts in the seats are definitely better than no butts in the seats, and -- with a little luck and a lot more headaches -- Colantonio says they hope to have the patio open this weekend.
I'll drink to that.
Leftovers: The holy spirit may fill the Sunday gospel brunches at Pierre's Supper Club (2157 Downing Street), but Lawrence J. Pierre himself is no longer in the house. In January, Pierre sold the venerable nightspot -- which has been around since 1947 -- to John Lewis, who's trying to get some fresh action going without interfering with any of the joint's historic charms (for more on the gospel brunch, see Night & Day). But other than the name on the dotted line, not much else has changed at Pierre's. The kitchen still sends plenty of great catfish out to the muted upstairs dining room, and the downstairs bars are still dimly lit and cool. The decor in all of the rooms is that same combination of rounded, earth-tone '40s hip and jazz-club swank, modernized only by the occasional flier for some local DJ throwdown and a sign in the lobby prohibiting customers from coming in flying gang colors. And pictures of the former owner are everywhere -- including on every bottle of Pierre's signature hot sauce. That sauce will never change, I've been assured.
But in case you're the cautious type and want to guarantee your own private stash, you can buy the stuff retail at Pierre's spice shop, now called The Spicy Shop and apparently sharing its space at 3445 East 28th Avenue with a Save A Dollar discount store.
That's where I found Pierre last week. Even without his flagship restaurant, he has quite a little enterprise going, with Pierre's Food Products -- still based at the 2157 Downing address-- selling hot sauce and spice mix over the Internet. And if you'd rather let someone else do the cooking, there's always Pierre's on Madison (3435 East 28th Avenue), which serves up that same catfish and barbecue, and another eatery outpost -- Pierre's in Luling -- down in Louisiana.
Sadly, there's no more MexiDan's. The little storefront at 2101 Larimer Street closed abruptly on June 27, leaving behind only a note from Dan thanking his patrons of the past 25 years and offering tamales at $5 per dozen if interested parties would just drop a note through the bars that now block the eatery's entrance.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.