Bite Me

After my secondhand trip to Lebanon (see review), I headed south of the border. Jack Martinez, owner of Jack-n-Grill (2524 Federal Boulevard) has some new menu items he's very excited about, and when Martinez gets excited, I get excited. I love Jack-n-Grill; there's no other place in town that does the sit-down, carry-out, chile-roasting, chips-and-salsa, margarita-slurping, transplant-New Mexican thing as well. I loved what was on the menu before I heard about the new inclusions, and once Martinez got himself whipped into a lather talking about the coastal grilled shrimp enchiladas, the beef and potato burritos, the carne adobada tacos and his new granddaughter, Anna, who was the inspiration for the Baby Anna enchiladas, I knew I had to check things out.

Even on a Wednesday afternoon, the joint was jumping. I'd called my order in, intending to grab a few styros and run, maybe eat on a bench somewhere in the sun, and -- in one of those all-too-frequent moments of incidental, impersonal cruelty -- I could see my order sitting behind the bar when I arrived, all bagged up and ready to go, but I couldn't get anyone to fetch it for me. Vaquero tacos, cheese enchiladas, shrimp enchiladas, some potatoes -- all of it right there, so close and yet so out of reach. I cleared my throat; I tried to make eye contact. I thought about putting a twenty in each hand and flapping them around like an air-traffic controller trying to guide in a plane on a foggy night. And then, just when I'd resigned myself to getting down into a Vince Lombardi three-point stance and laying a submarine tackle on the next waitron to go zipping by, finally someone noticed me.

"You waiting for a takeout order?"

Could she not see the way my eyes were rolling back like a shark getting ready to bite? Could she not see the beads of sweat? Hear the sound of grinding teeth? I wanted to say, "My dear young lady, those are tacos in that bag! And right now, you are standing between me and them. Do you not understand how that's the most dangerous place in the world?"

What I actually said was, "Yeah. Takeout for Jason?" (I'm one of those guys who comes off a lot more interesting on paper than in person.)

And after all that waiting, all that anticipation, it turned out the house had fucked up my to-go order (and not for the first time, either). The receipt was correct (which means they got it right over the phone). The slip that came out of the kitchen printer was right. And I paid for what I'd ordered, so the house got my green. But what I'd ordered somehow never found its way into the bag. So it could be a while yet before I taste that new menu...

A boring load of plain shrimp quesadillas (no potatoes, no fancy enchiladas) beside me, I decided to hit the drive-thru at Viva Burrito Co. There are three of them, all of which I dig, although the one at 6990 South Leetsdale Drive is my favorite. It's got zero decor, zero ambience (unless you're really turned on by cement) and is basically just a little red box with a kitchen in it -- the only Mexican joint in town with even less ornamentation than your average Santiago's. But the food is fantastic. Obviously not white-tablecloth fantastic, but plastic-silverware-and-paper-napkin fantastic. There's a serious "Gimme twenty bucks and I'll show you the real Mexico" vibe to Viva Burrito, especially after the sun goes down, double especially around the time the sun is thinking about rising again (all locations are open all day and all night, every day and night). On weekends, come two, maybe three o'clock in the morning, the line at the drive-thru starts winding out into the street ,and the crowds spill into the parking lot. It's breakfast-burrito pandemonium, a friggin' Benetton ad for Denver's booziest middle demographic.

You want fast? There are plenty of Taco Bells open till the wee hours. You want good? Get in line at Viva.

Viva actually handles the early-morning crowds pretty well. But it was another story when I stopped by the Leetsdale outpost in the middle of the day last Friday. My order was simple enough: fish taco, beef taco (because Viva makes really good fried tacos, all crisp and greasy and stuffed to about the weight of a hand grenade) and carnitas torta. But when a voice through the speaker read it back to me, it was a fish taco and a carnitas burrito. Didn't matter how many times I repeated myself. Didn't matter how many times my bungled order was repeated back to me. The speaker and I were at a dialectic impasse.

Finally, the girl working the drive-thru apparently decided to throw one of everything I could possibly have ordered in the bag, then came up with some totally random amount to charge me. So I drove away with a pork torta, a burrito, a fish taco, a beef taco, some nachos, a dozen little plastic cups of salsa and a bucket of soda big enough for both my cats to bathe in -- for which I was charged about eight dollars.

The torta was the best one I've had since leaving New Mexico. The bread was greasy, grilled, lardishly crisp and chewy at the same time, smeared with a simple avo-and-salt guac thick enough to glue together the shredded lettuce and chunks of shredded pork. It was so good that, had I another twenty minutes to kill that I wanted to spend arguing linguistics with a speaker pole, I would've immediately turned around and ordered a second.

Erring on the side of gluttony: That's the lesson to be learned here. I could've left Viva pissed off, feeling disappointed and wronged by the burrito gods. But instead, I drove off blessing that dear, sweet drive-thru worker for her understanding of the dietary habits of big, hungry boys like me. And that night? I was right back in line.

Leftovers: Six months ago in this column, I lavished a thousand words on the joys of a perfect sandwich ("Ham on Wry," October 28, 2004). I wrote about how the sandwich is the perfect vehicle for a chef's expression -- simple enough that its construction encompasses near-infinite variation, yet complex enough that all of a chef's myriad skills must be brought to bear. And I confessed that my dream gig would be to run a sandwich joint that strived to present every sandwich available -- from Vietnamese bun to open-faced Russian sandwiches to the simplest ham on rye -- prepared by a rotating cadre of local chefs who would come to cook on my line as a form of therapy, retreat, what-have-you.

Now it seems like my idea of having high-end chefs devote their time and talent to the craft of sandwich-making wasn't so ridiculous. First, chef John Broening -- late of the doomed Brasserie Rouge -- threw in his lot with Udi Baron of Udi the Sandwich Man fame at Udi's new joint, Udi's Bakery and Cafe, at 7000 Broadway. Not only does Udi's do its baking here -- which means great bread to go -- but there's also a pleasant cafe and patio where you can sample pastries and lunch fare cooked up by Broening. The best of this collaboration, and more, will be featured at Udi's at Stapleton, slated to open in July.

And come April 20, we'll have another chef-driven sandwich shop just a few blocks away, in Park Hill. Amy Vitale, who commanded the brigade at Strings for years, recently left that kitchen so she (along with partner Dustin Barrett, whom she met in the kitchen at Strings) could open their own little New American sandwich joint and cafe, to be called Tables. Meanwhile, back at Strings, Ed Kent -- ex of 240 Union -- has already taken over Vitale's former post.


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