Some weird geopolitical analogies about the shifting influences of power and turf can be applied to Denver's ever-changing restaurant scene. Not so much by the big openings and closings and the movements of recognizable chefs and restaurateurs, but by the constant shift and wiggle of the little guys. Ethnic eateries rise and fall quickly in these parts, some of them noticed only by transient neighbors, others duly recorded for all history by geographical dunderheads like myself who go out looking for a pair of sunglasses at the Aurora Mall and somehow end up, five or ten hours later, doing shots of slivovitz with Serbian expats in the cellar of an abandoned nightclub or playing a bad hand of no-limit pai-gow with a one-eyed Chinese dwarf.
We recently lost the inestimable Astoria Restaurant to the forces of low-rent gentrification, and Restaurant National now occupies the space that had been a one-of-a-kind restaurant. "Step through these doors," I said in my review of the place ("From Russia With Love," February 27, 2003) "and it's like you accidentally took an Alice in Wonderland wrong turn that landed you at the Hyman Wyskowski bar mitzvah in the basement ballroom of a Decatur, Illinois, Holiday Inn circa 1978.... In the corner nearest the kitchen door, four middle-aged men sit playing cards and backgammon; the sharp clatter of the dice, the slap of aces on the tabletop and their muttered cursing play in counterpoint to the smooth drawl of Russian satellite news and the screeching of foreign cartoons on the TV above the bar. As near as I can tell, these men are part of the decor. I've visited Astoria three times, at assorted hours of the day and night, and all three times, they were there, always in the same seats, always at the same games, and always welcoming in a gruff, Slavic kind of way -- nodding their heads at me, then barking words toward the kitchen that I didn't understand but imagined went something like, 'Sergey! Get out here! That weird American guy is back again.'"
Those guys were no doubt sorely troubled by the closing of their clubhouse, but I figured they'd only have to walk (or stagger, as the case may be) up the street a little and settle in by the bar at Russia House, 1108 Leetsdale Drive. This address has gone through some changes in the past couple of years, too. First it was a sort of Russian nightclub with a name written in Cyrillic that I couldn't read, a lot of European luxury cars out front on Friday nights and a pair of large, thick-necked flatheads always standing by the front door. It was John LeCarré spooky and Ian Fleming kitsch at the same time, but before I got a chance to check it out, it suddenly brightened up and became Russia House, with lunch specials and sandwich-board advertising in English on the curb. This was much less interesting to me, but the kitchen did turn out good kabobs. And Russia House also served the girly blue bottles of Baltika 3 that I like.
At one point, the left flank of the Russia House was given over to a pizza place called Andrey's Pizzeria that closed faster than I could blink. And now, Russia House itself is gone. In a bold move with the potential for massive political repercussions on a worldwide scale, the Koreans have up and taken over the joint, expanding out from the Korea-town section of southeast Aurora and carving out a little chunk of what was formerly solidly Eastern European territory. The space at 1108 Leetsdale is now the Korean Noodle Factory -- which I fervently hope is better than the only American place I can compare it to, the Old Spaghetti Factory in LoDo.
The Russian neighborhoods around Leetsdale and Oneida were already suffering through a geopolitical squeeze, with Indian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants moving into every vacant storefront. And if the health of a community's restaurants are any indication of the health of the community as a whole, then I think it might be time for the generals and elder statesmen of that particular enclave to start looking for vacation properties in Elba.
Or maybe just farther out into Aurora's hinterlands, where, on a recent Friday night spent drinking coffee at the Tower Road Village Inn, the only language being spoken in the smoking section was Russian. Have you ever seen a table full of Russian teenagers trying to order crepes and dinosaur fries in broken English from a Pakistani waiter training a new hostess from India? It's a small world after all.
Leftovers: The Cajuns are also making inroads in Aurora, with Back Home now open at 1780 Buckley Road. Owner Terrell Clark, from Shreveport, Louisiana, is a master's graduate of the California Culinary Academy, and he makes his Cajun and soul food the way his grandma taught him. "A dash of this, a pinch of that," says Clark. "That's my background. My grandma was always in the kitchen."
Meanwhile, New Mexico continues its conquest of central Denver. Little Anita's -- the thirty-year-old New Mexico-based chain of quick-service chile shacks -- has opened a second location at 1050 West Colfax Avenue, joining the original outpost at 1550 South Colorado Boulevard. In the Land of Enchantment, Little Anita's is generally considered a destination of last resort for foodies in the know -- well-respected because of its longevity and fine traditional fare, but generally the place to stop if you want to kill an afternoon making fun of the tourists or need a fast lunch on the run. But in Denver, where authentic New Mexican fare is harder to find than a virgin bride in Albuquerque, Little Anita's is an avatar of proper green chile, sloppy breakfast burritos, and all things quick and 'Burque. It isn't the best food in the world, but it's the real deal.
Even better is the New Mexican fare at Jack-n-Grill, which is doing a booming business in its expanded space at 2524 Federal Boulevard. And on weekend nights, tucked into a corner of the new bar area, you'll now find one Augustine Velasquez (Auggie, to his friends and fans), who's been tinkling the ivories on his portable keyboard for a couple of months now.
"This guy, he's this little Hispanic guy, about seventy years old. He came in and wanted to see if we'd be interested in having him play," says owner Jack Martinez. "So I said, 'Yeah, let's hear you audition,' and he set up his thing and started playing. I liked what I heard, so I said sure. He plays Friday and Saturday nights, seven to nine. Just for a couple hours. But the people really seem to like it."
The only problem? Two months in and it seems that Auggie's repertoire is a bit limited. "What he plays is damn good," says Martinez, "but I tell him, man, you're going to have to learn some new tunes!" So that's just what the old piano man is doing, brushing up on his jazz classics and also offering a little Tex-Mex for Jack-n-Grill's Mex-and-match crowds.
Martinez has big expansion dreams, too, but he isn't resting on his laurels -- or corn-in-a-cups -- at his original restaurant. Among other innovations, he's considering hosting Hispanic stand-up comedy nights.
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