I've never understood the draw of gummy Chicago deep-dish, and I loathe those smart-ass nouveau California cracker-crust abominations. I'll choke down a cornmeal-dusted New York thinny if no other options are available, though, and have been known to flirt coquettishly with an occasional buttery New England pan pie the same way I occasionally tiptoe around my schizoid Catholic-Protestant-Lutheran upbringing.
But my loyalty to the New York thin-crust pizza -- that perfect wedding of crust and sauce and cheese and grease as very nearly achieved at Famous Pizza (see review) -- is unwavering. Most folks have strong opinions about their pies. People who couldn't care less about French versus Israeli foie gras or the proper orientation of a perfect hand roll will go to the wall to defend their pizza preferences.
Choosing your preferred pie is a lot like picking a religious affiliation. Sometimes you're born into it and never question the faith of your forebears; other times it takes research and a lot of soul-searching before you hit on that perfect combination of elements to satisfy all your mortal cravings. And, as with religion, once you do find that little slice of heaven that suits you just so, that's it. The search is over, the decision binding. Once you've picked your team, it's not just that people on other teams have different opinions; it's that they're stupid, possibly brain-damaged, certainly misguided, and are likely to have made other lifestyle choices that are highly suspect. A Catholic will look at a Protestant (or a Baptist, or a Buddhist, or, really, anyone who's not consulting directly with the Pope on everything from abortion to which salad dressing to buy) and wonder how this poor soul before him became so mixed up in his faith. Conversely, a Protestant will look at a Catholic and think about blowing up his car.
When someone who professes a deep and abiding love for Chicago-style pies prattles on for an hour about the perceived merits of his choice, I'll just stand there staring at him like his hair is on fire. "Okay," I'll say, when he's finally done proselytizing. "That's all well and good. But you do understand that New York style is better, right?"
In the course of human history, wars have been started for many reasons less vital than the thick-versus-thin-crust debate. The political maneuvering of the Plantagenet family in the Wars of the Roses, Napoleon's wanting to prove that a midget could rule the world. Hell, the Franco-Prussian war, which resulted in the loss of 20,000 lives, was started over a bathtub tiff between Otto von Bismarck and a French ambassador when some shady character with the highly unlikely name of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen refused to sit in the proper chair (that chair being the throne of Spain, but still...) -- and that, to me, anyway, is far less important than what kind of pizza I'm ordering.
But last week, it was without any thoughts of sectarian violence that I visited another Colorado pizza chain which, like Famous, has been doing its thing for over thirty years. Beau Jo's has been slinging Mile High mountain pies since 1973, when owner Chip Bair opened his eighteen-seat storefront in Idaho Springs and worked like a one-man army, flipping, rolling, topping and baking nearly every 'za that Beau Jo's put out.
Of course, that was then. Today Beau Jo's boasts six Front Range addresses and 300-some employees. The Idaho Springs restaurant now occupies a sprawling complex on Miner Street with seating for 700 -- which, for the record, is approximately a third of the population of Idaho Springs in total.
Beau Jo's pizzas are about as far from the New York thin of my dreams as you can get while still technically remaining in the same culinary genus. Where my ideal crust is thin, mild and stiff -- single-ply cardboard or thinner, but thicker than a sheet of construction paper -- Beau Jo's is fat, honey-sweetened and puffy. While I prefer the single-finger bone -- no wider than an inch, and barely risen at all -- Beau Jo's goes for the rip-curl, rolled crust, developed (according to the history of the place) as an "engineered pizza containment system" in order to fence in sauce that's generously ladled in and toppings added with a heavy hand.
Finally, there's the pie's taste. The pride of Idaho Springs goes for the sledgehammer effect, using as its standard sauce a spicy red that's a standard of Southwest pie joints trying to work with natives weaned on chiles, Tabasco and crushed red-pepper flakes. Top this with mounds of meat, veggies and cheese, and what you have is something that I -- with all my bias and prejudice -- can barely even recognize as a pizza. Just one piece is a meal, a bread-bottomed casserole or some kind of thick, savory tart. In the truest of definitions, Beau Jo's pizza is a pie, no doubt about that. And looking at it that way, as a derivative of the form for which the New York slice is the ultimate avatar, I can enjoy this particular pizza guilt-free, without feeling like I'm betraying my faith.
Beau Jo's does a few things really well. It uses whole-milk mozzarella as its basic cheese, but will blend up to four different varieties so that just for the asking, you can have a mozz-Monterey Jack-ricotta pie. The kitchen employs Hatch green chiles for its chicken-and-chile pie (which I developed a taste for while still slumming it down in New Mexico). And as for offering honey so that you can dip the bones? That's genius. That's the kind of thing that Nobel Prizes should be awarded for.
So sure, I can accept that people like Beau Jo's pies (and with 700 seats to fill in one location alone, people had better like them a lot). I have come to terms with the fact that not everyone out there in Hotcakesland goes as ga-ga over New York-style slices as I do. I can even carve out a small niche in the pizza pantheon for Bair and his mountain pie, because thirty years is a long time to work toward perfecting something that, in essence, is a bastardization of a thing that was already perfect to start.
I can appreciate all of this -- the loyalty of the Beau Jo's fans, the quality of the pies themselves, the heretical nature of their design -- provided we all get one thing straight. You understand that New York style is still better, right?
Leftovers: Three weeks ago, I noted that Pho 2000 had recently dropped Monday service, pointing out that this is always a sign of more bad news to come in the restaurant world. Unfortunately, I was more right than I knew, because last week, Pho 2000 and the noodle shop it shared a kitchen with were seized by the City of Aurora for roughly six grand in back taxes. Both places are closed, the lights off, the chairs stacked -- and I'm looking into a moonlight gig with the Psychic Friends Network.
Here's a shocker, though: Sparrow, the new restaurant going into the old home of Vega at 410 East Seventh Avenue), is actually going to hit its opening date of September 3. For any of you who've tracked the sometimes comical series of announcements and retractions of restaurant opening dates in this column, it should come as no surprise that, more often than not, a "proposed" date for anything from a press party to a grand opening is a pretty nebulous thing. Dates get changed, pushed back and canceled entirely, so for a new eatery to actually come in on schedule -- especially when the schedule was laid out months ago -- is a rare achievement. Good for Sparrow, good for owner Nancy Scruggs, and good for the rest of us who've been waiting to see if someone, anyone, can actually make a restaurant work in this space that's gobbled up some good ones. Getting the doors open on schedule is a propitious start.
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Randolph's restaurant, in the Warwick Hotel, has a couple of new menus on the board for the end of summer -- the equivalent of fine-dining Happy Meals for adults. To ease the strain on customers' wallets, Randolph's has put together both a three-course and a four-course prix fixe spread with a few choices of starters, soups, salads, entrees and desserts. For example, you can have smoked trout pâté with poblano marmalade, blackened ahi tuna over avocado mashers with a sweet-corn-and-truffle coulis, and a strawberry napoleon for just 29 bucks plus tax and tip (booze not included). Or how about brie and strawberry bruschetta with balsamic vinegar, a salad of goat cheese, roasted peppers and pine nuts over fresh spinach, an Asian-spiced flatiron steak with coconut curry sauce, and homemade chocolate pot de crème for $35? Sounds like a good deal. And while the Asian influence in fine dining is getting more than a little tired, Randolph's seasonal menu works with a "New West" bent -- combining ingredients from the Western states with traditional French and Italian techniques and international flavors -- that leaves the kitchen wide open for experimentation.
Meanwhile, the West End Tavern in Boulder, which is owned by Dave Query and bossed by chef Chris Blackwood (formerly of Jax, another Query stronghold), has also added some end-of-summer dishes. But rather than go in Randolph's direction, West End is doing the old throwback, retro thing. For example, it's now serving church-picnic deviled eggs (the mere mention of which is enough to make me hungry for my mom's kitchen and summer block parties), as well as shaved-pork sandwiches, grasshopper pie (a treat straight out of the Better Homes and Gardens back catalogue, circa 1957) and banana-wafer pudding. For dinner, there's blackened catfish with sweet potato and rock-shrimp hash, simple steaks, stroganoff, pasta -- all the basics. The tavern is serving lunch and dinner now, plus Sunday breakfast.
New York on 17th, a commendable deli at 837 East 17th Avenue, will transform itself into Rizaggio's, an Italian restaurant, over the next few weeks. The owners won't be changing, though, and they plan to stay open in the interim. Closing for good are both locations of 2 Boys Baking Company -- the original at 3278 South Wadsworth Boulevard in Lakewood, and the second branch on Sixth Avenue, sharing both a wall and the fate of the doomed Clair De Lune next door. The loss of 2 Boys is more bad news for Denver, but the customers just weren't there. "They hate the grocery-store bread," says Bart Johnson, "but then they'll complain that ours costs fifty cents more." The stores will stay open through Labor Day weekend, and then Johnson will "take a break," he says, "and re-create the wheel."