The in-laws were in town again recently. It was just a quick visit, a few very busy days of catching up and shooting the breeze, punctuated (of course) by meals. Lots and lots of meals. That's the thing about visiting me and Mrs. Critic -- no matter who you are or how long you stay, you can guarantee that three out of every five conversations will center on where we're going to eat, where we just ate or what we would eat if we could, if the best green-chile cheeseburger on earth wasn't 500 miles away (the original Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico) and our favorite place for drinking a high-test Mai Tai in the rain almost 2,000 (China Garden in Rochester, New York).
While they were with us, Laura and I did get a few tastes of home. Her mother served cheap-and-dirty cheesesteaks made with Steak-Umms, supermarket hoagie rolls and individually wrapped cheese slices; she also cooked up chicken supremes, a murderously good family recipe lifted from one of the original Julia Child cookbooks, made with chicken breast in a vermouth cream sauce that packs about thirty pounds of butterfat per square inch. (The closest you come to this dish locally is Bob's Favorite at Cafe Jordano in Lakewood, which nearly killed me when I first encountered it.) Meanwhile, Ellis, my father-in-law, brought in a stock of Philly soft pretzels -- muling them like a brick of black-tar heroin through security, wrapped in plastic and folded up among the T-shirts in his carry-on. And while I usually prefer mine with plain old French's yellow, I've found that the pretzels also go quite nicely with local favorite Maidy's beer mustard, the spicy-sour Killians blend helping to alleviate the cottonmouth you get after sacking out on the couch and scarfing down three or four of the figure-eight twists while watching an Alton Brown Good Eats marathon on the Food Network.
But man cannot live on soft pretzels and chicken supremes alone (not for long, at least), and what we all really wanted was some good Italian. I don't mean good like Luca d'Italia, which is fantastic, and not even good like Parisi, which is significantly less white-tablecloth but has a dangerous deli attached at its new location. Given my deli-centric impulse-control problems, allowing myself to go within even a block of Parisi is like dropping a recovering alcoholic into the middle of Oktoberfest. Bad things are bound to happen.
No, what we wanted was cafe Italian: street-corner, mom-and-pop, brick-and-lambrusco, trattoria-style rustica with Frank (Sinatra, not Bonanno) on the Muzak and candlesticks stuck in old wine bottles. We wanted Italian done the way Italian is done back East, which is to say cheap and right and everywhere. Where we're from (the Philly suburbs for Laura, upstate New York for me), you can't swing a salami on the street around dinnertime without whomping someone who's rushing home with a bag full of takeout spaghetti and a box of cannoli. There are neighborhoods where the fastest way to clear out a bar is to stick your head in the door and yell, "Hey, Tony! Your Camaro's on fire!" Back East, finding a good little Italian restaurant is as easy as closing your eyes and walking a hundred feet in any direction. There, such joints are as ubiquitous as mountain-bike shops and Vietnamese nail salons are here, with at least one in every plaza, and often two or three.
Good Italian of this breed may be tough to find in Denver, but it does exist. There's Anthony's ("A Cut Above," February 5), a homegrown mini-chain of pie-and-pasta joints scattered across the city that makes a worthy 'za and also delivers. If you're looking for something a bit more substantial, though, my new fave is Armando's -- in particular, the Armando's of Cherry Creek in Aurora, at 16611 East Smoky Hill Road, just a few blocks south of my normal pho and bulgogi stomping grounds.
This place...man, it has it all. A dozen-odd varieties of truly Italiano, buffalo mozzarella, thin-crust and deep-dish Sicilian pies; a sapore di mare appetizer with wine-poached clams, mussels and shrimp that's like the best linguine with white clam you ever tasted (it also comes with red sauce); homemade spaghetti, homemade manicotti, homemade gnocchi di patate in a simple red gravy with melted mozz and just a slight twinge of oregano acidity. The kitchen's authentic Italian sausage is porkerific, the shrimp alla Romana an evil tango of milky veal parm and prosciutto-wrapped shrimp so good it ought to be illegal. And the puttanesca? I've only had one better -- from Tyler Wiard at Mel's Restaurant and Bar (Bite Me, June 10) -- but his was only an amuse, and Armando's went on forever.
For an ex-pat like me -- someone who runs screaming from dinner at the Macaroni Grill and is cursed with a wanton need for the occasional take-away box of rolettini or a carbonara made with actual pancetta, not Jimmy Dean Bacon Nuggets -- Armando's is a little slice of back-East heaven.
Fry me to the moon: And speaking of treats from the East, I must make a painful confession: I have become addicted to Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
I know, I know. It's a chain; it's as bad as Starbucks, what with driving all the little independent doughnut shops out of business, and Colorado already has its own doughnut monopoly with the transplanted LaMar's, but I can't help it. These are some great goddamn doughnuts.
Not only that, but the Krispy Kreme pushers are enablers of the worst stripe. They do everything possible to make themselves irresistible to lazy, insomniac sugar junkies like me. The location on the corner of Mississippi and Chambers in Aurora (the one damnably on my way home from the office) has a drive-thru, will gleefully take my credit card for just two originals and a coffee, and, worst of all, is open 24 hours a day. Which means that now I will sometimes wake at four in the morning with a hankering for a cream-filled, see that evil red neon sign -- Hot Doughnuts Now -- burning in my mind and have to find my pants in the dark and go. I am weak. I am powerless to resist. And I am thankful as hell.
Doughnuts used to be a big part of my life when I lived in New York. As a young man, I frequented a spot called the All-Star Donut Shop, which, along the lines of the Mos Eisley Cantina, was a classic "hive of scum and villainy" and the perfect place for a lad of questionable midnight morals to land long after the streetlights had come on.
I learned how to boost cars at the All-Star, the skills handed down to me by Black Tony (so differentiated because there was also a White Tony who frequented the joint) for the price of a cup of coffee and a couple of crullers. He was the only retired criminal I've ever met -- a professional fellow, then in his golden years, always dressed in a thrift-store three-piece and a porkpie hat. He taught me about stealing cars out of boredom, I imagine, but also in case I ever needed a fall-back career to kitchen work. There were other secrets to be learned at the All-Star, a place standing like a moonlit cornucopia of forbidden knowledge, and it was also there that I likely developed my weakness for night-shift waitresses. But I digress.
The All-Star had really awful coffee and great doughnuts, the fryers running full-bore all night, turning out pastries that I remember being light as clouds and sweet as kisses. The simple glazed, the bear claws, the puffy Boston creams -- these existed at the center point of a miasma of crime and sex and caffeine that likely spoiled my chances of ever living a totally straight life, but served as a wonderful prep school. I learned the trick of staying up all night alone there, how to make book on boxing matches, all sorts of valuable lessons. And I became a doughnut snob, wanting only the best, ruined forever for the cheap, stale, glassy crap served elsewhere.
After the All-Star closed down, I had a few years of Dunkin' Donuts to keep me satiated, then a string of mom-and-pop (or, more appropriately, matr and papa, in recognition of their almost exclusively ex-Soviet-bloc operators) shops where the doughnuts were passable, if pale, imitations of the Apollonian ideal. But then I moved to Albuquerque and went into doughnut exile. Nothing was good enough. Nothing even came close. I had a brief and obsessive fling with Indian fry bread and sopaipillas with honey, but it wasn't the same. Frankly, it felt a little like cheating on my one pure love.
But now Krispy Kreme has civilized the West. Believe it or not, I'd never had a Krispy Kreme until a couple of months ago. I'd seen reports on new store openings, the block-long lines, the goofy paper hats. I'd laughed derisively at all the rubes who swore by the glossy, bulging jelly-filleds and too-perfect original glazed. And then, after just a single visit to Krispy Kreme -- instigated by desperation and convenience -- I got it. You wanna know why the rubes line up that way? Why the opening of any new small-town Krispy Kreme outlet is met with the kind of pomp and circumstance once reserved for presidential whistle-stop visits? Because these are doughnuts the way doughnuts were meant to be, served hot and fresh, and they taste almost exactly like what I used to get at the All-Star -- all sugar and ethereal lightness, shiny, lustrous and beautiful to behold.
And while the odds are long that you'll find some old coot slouching in a back corner at Krispy Kreme fiddling with the brim of his porkpie and explaining to some wrong-way kid the intricacies of ignition-switch cut-offs or how to handicap an undercard Cuban flyweight bout, that's okay. These are still great goddamn doughnuts.
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Leftovers: Although Spicy Basil Asian Grill may occupy the most doomed address in the city, at 1 Broadway, there's a close runner-up at 2637 West 26th Avenue. The original location of La Loma, this black hole has seen an assortment of Asian and Mexican spots come and go, as well as the late, lamented Indonesian eatery Bali Island, and the International, arguably the oddest restaurant in Denver's culinary history. It's been dark since its last tenant, Z-Ribs, moved on a few years ago (the rib joint's now located at 8590 West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood). But finally, there are signs of life in the space, which someday soon will be the Shooting Star Cafe. Here's hoping this Star doesn't burn out too fast.
Coos Bay Bistro, in the University of Denver neighborhood, finally gave up the ghost after running hot and cold through management and ownership changes for ten years. Gasho of Japan -- a Japanese steakhouse and part of a small chain that attempted to bring the joys of hibachi cuisine to such far-flung corners of the food world as St. Louis and Ridgefield Park, New Jersey -- has shut down its Denver Tech Center location, leaving one strangely anachronistic gasho-style piece of quasi-Japanese architecture for some unfortunate real estate agent to try and fill. My guess? The place'll be another buck-a-roll sushi joint inside of a month.
And there's evidently been a changing of the palace guard at Russian Palace, whose old address at 1800 Glenarm Place now belongs to the new Romanoff Restaurant, which is offering classic Euro-Continental and old-world Russian dishes for the discriminating grubnik.