I feel like I just got rid of the weight I packed on during last year's Best of Denver exertions, and here we are again. The credit card is warmed up, I have my gastronomic Baker Street Irregulars on speed-dial, and I'm wearing my heavy-duty fat pants. Paramedics are standing by with the stomach pump and my sausage-gravy IV, and I've already put myself on the waiting list at University Hospital for a liver transplant, just in case. I'm as ready as I'll ever be.
Already, this is shaping up to be one weird year. Many of last year's big winners have gone dark over the past few months. We've lost Brasserie Rouge, which took Best New Restaurant honors (among others), and with chef John Broening now squeezing panini for Udi the Sandwich Man, the French and charcuterie categories are wide open. Best Chef winner Sean Kelly has removed himself from contention by stepping down from his one-man post at the now-defunct Clair de Lune and moving into the front of the house at its successor, Somethin' Else.
Cielo won top honors for Best BBQ Ribs as well as Best Chile Sauce, but Cielo est´ muerto, so those hunts are back on. So is my quest for the Best Fish Taco, since Jalapeño Mexican Grill, last year's winner, shut down; its former home on Leetsdale now holds another link in the Santiago's chain. And while Santiago's does some things very well (great refritosand barbacoa), it doesn't do fish tacos the way Jalapeño did. MG's Barbecue and Grill looked like a major contender for 2005's barbecue award, but Mary Grace Roaquin's Filipino 'cue joint didn't survive 2004. While rumors keep circulating that she's looking for a new space, the clock is ticking.
Which is why I'm eating as fast as I can. If you have any suggestions for the best eats in town, flip to page 57 in this issue and fill out the Best of Denver 2005 Readers' Poll. As always, may the best man, woman or cheeseburger win.
Super Size me: Chances are good that the winning cheeseburger won't be from a drive-thru -- but that never stops people from stuffing the Best Of ballot box with nominations for fast-food chains. Despite the overwhelming Mexican bounty available in Denver, apparently some brain-dead diners actually believe that Taco Bell produces the best hard shells in town.
But hey, I am nothing if not egalitarian in my tastes. I'm not one of those snooty, ascot-wearing critics who dismisses out of hand anything that appeals to the masses. No matter what Larry Herz thinks. Last week I was talking to the owner of Go Fish Grille -- currently appealing to those masses to the tune of 200-plus covers a day -- and he was equating restaurant critics and their obsessive love of the haute and complicated to film critics who gush over a movie like The English Patient while turning up their noses at, say, Die Hard. Specifically, he was complaining about how we -- as in me and my comrades-in-eats over at the dailies -- loved his former restaurant, Indigo, even though we were the only ones eating there, but we've not been as thrilled by Go Fish, where any of us would have difficulty getting a table, even on a Tuesday.
His complaint has some weight. Maggiano's Little Italy, for example, is packed every night. And on any given day, Burger King is serving something on the order of a gazillion pounds of ground beef. But they're certainly not serving it to me. So do I speak for the masses? I guess not.
But what I can do -- as a guy who both loved The English Patient and will watch Die Hard every time it's on TV -- is try to speak to them. And to that end, I spent a couple of days this week eating at nothing but fast-food places: Wendy's, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Arby's, Burger King and Good Times.
Although McDonald's french fries have won the Best of Denver Readers' Poll twenty years running, there aren't many people trying to shill for the burgers made by Ronald McDonald or his bastard brother, his highness the Burger King; those who do (mostly kids, mental patients and college students stoned half out of their gourds on the hippie lettuce) are pretty easy to spot because they fill out their polls in crayon. Still, in the interest of fairness, I paid a visit to McDonald's (roughly 30,000 locations in 119 countries serving 47 million -- yeah, million -- customers a day) and ordered a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder with Cheese (a QPC in the current, ad-driven lingua franca of the drive-thru), both of which I ate with little enthusiasm and then carried around like a brick in my belly for the next six hours. At Burger King (11,200 restaurants in 61 countries and sales somewhere in the neighborhood of $11.1 billion in fiscal 2003), I went for the classic Whopper, which I threw out after two bites because it tasted like a warm sponge soaked in Liquid Smoke. But I also tried the newish (to me, anyhow) Angus Steak Burger, which wasn't half bad: The lettuce and tomato were surprisingly fresh, the Signature Sauce an inoffensive A-1 knockoff, and while the "fire grilled onions" had the consistency of cold worms, the "100% Certified Angus Beef" was pretty good.
A lot of Angus burgers have been showing up on fast-food menus lately: Burger King has them, Hardee's has them, and there could be others. But at last count, there were something like two dozen or more CAB certifying bodies operating in the United States -- and no universal standards for what is and what isn't Angus beef. Some use genetic testing (with standards as low as 50 percent Angus DNA qualifying); others use fat marbling or hump measurement (my favorite) to determine whether or not Bessie makes the grade. If this trend continues, I'll be able to get my Norwegian Forest Cat, Jack, certified as 100 percent Angus in a couple years.
And while I'm not implying that the King is doing anything sneaky with his beef, I am saying that the Angus label -- like the "organic," "fat free" and "all natural" labels -- is not all it's cracked up to be.
The Angus wasn't even my favorite drive-thru burger. That honor went to Good Times, a homegrown chain with fifty locations in just one country and in just two states: 49 in Colorado and one, inexplicably, in Boise, Idaho. The Good Times Big Daddy Super-Duper Double Monster Bacon Cheeseburger Sam'ich (which may not, in actuality, be the correct name of the burger I ate) was an excellent marriage of real bacon, real Coleman Natural beef, real fresh lettuce and tomatoes and onions and whatever else I wanted, all slapped down on a bun capable of holding everything together without instantly falling to pieces as soon as I removed it from the wax paper. Wendy's had nothing on Good Times. Carl's Jr. ? Forget it. The only drive-thrus in town that came close to matching up were Griff's over on South Broadway and Crown Burger on South Colorado, and I love these two mostly for their strangeness and their longevity.
The first fast-food taco I tried was one served at my local Taco Bell (out of 6,780 restaurants operating in a handful of countries with approximately $5 billion in sales), and it was so revolting that I gave up right there. This is the American West, ferchrissakes. You can't turn around in some neighborhoods here without tripping over a guy selling tamales out of the back seat of his Nissan Sentra, and there are taquerias on most street corners in the inner city. So why in the hell would anyone -- and I mean anyone this time, children, retards and stoners included -- give money to this franchise? Why did I have to sit in line at the drive-thru behind no fewer than six cars just so I could try a steak soft taco and a couple of caramel-apple empanadas? Certainly all of those cars weren't full of food writers doing the same experiment I was.
The empanadas, at least, weren't bad. They tasted like the hot apple pies I remember getting at McDonald's back when I was just a wee young critic -- you know, before McDonald's decided to make them all healthy and stuff. But that taco was abysmal, and if it's not already what the Devil is serving on hell's hot- lunch line, then Ol' Nick should seriously look into opening a franchise.
On to fries. Readers be damned, I immediately disqualified Mickey D's and Burger King because the things they call fries are about as far from an actual french fry as you can get without abandoning the use of potatoes entirely. Coming from the vast potato factories of the Midwest, where millions of pounds of potatoes are peeled, cut, blanched and frozen every day, then fried to order in some proprietary oil mixture where more than half of the chemical ingredients are trade secrets lumped under the ingredient heading "Natural and Artificial Flavors," these are FrankenFries and therefore below my notice. Besides, I just plain don't like them.
I did like the "Wild Fries" at Good Times, though, as well as those curly fries at Arby's (3,400 locations worldwide) for which I have always been an inveterate sucker. Why? Because they taste good. Because if I'm going eat fake french fries, I'm going to eat the ones I like. And in the end, I liked the curly fries best, because they also stood the test of time -- a measurement whereby I leave the fries sitting out on the counter for a half-hour to simulate my having forgotten them in the car and not remembering them until they've gone all cold and nasty. Arby's curly fries were still tasty after thirty minutes of neglect. Good Times fries suffered badly by comparison, going from yummy-licious to cold, limp slugs in about five.
Here's the creepy thing, though. Take that same order of Arby's curly fries and -- in an experiment reminiscent of the one done with McDonald's fries in the movie Super Size Me -- leave them out for 24 hours. Then pick one up and eat it. Remarkably, it will still taste the same. I was frightened to let the fries go any longer than that, but I suspect that if I sealed an order of them in a time capsule, left it buried under a rock for twenty years, then ate a fry, it would taste no different than it had a half-hour after I ordered them. Hooray for chemical preservatives and shelf-stabilizers! Hooray for super-science...
But Arby's shouldn't rest too easy. Frankly, the best spuds I found were at Sonic (2,900 locations in the U.S. and a market capitalization topping $1.5 billion) -- and it's not too late to introduce a Best Tater Tot division.
Leftovers: Cross your fingers that the abrupt closing of Cafe Cero is temporary, as the answering machine of the mutt Italo-Mediterranean house/restaurant at 1446 South Broadway suggests. After "minor renovations," the message promises, Cafe Cero will reopen at the end of the month. In other SoBo news, Genroku has reopened in a new location at 2901 South Broadway in Englewood, after failing to make it on South Colorado Boulevard. This restaurant is a one-stop shop for all your Japanese food needs, with sushi (both by the piece and as boat dinners), tempura, katsu and teriyaki dishes, as well as a full bar.
Say so long to the Tom Tom Room, formerly Tommy Tsunami's, at 1432 Market Street, which will be retooled by the Larimer Group to work better with Larimer Square's hot-hot restaurant grouping; the Tivoli Deer up in Kittredge, the Scandinavian eatery that's folded its gravlax after two decades; and Heavenly Daze, the never-great brewpub at 208 South Kalamath Street. But no matter how bad the restaurant environment seems, new places keep opening. Last week, the Niwot Tavern debuted in the former Flanagan's space at 7960 Niwot Road in Niwot; and Bob's Steakhouse, brought to Denver out of Texas by owner Bob Sambol, rolled out the red carpet in the Clayton Lane development.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.