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Dog Days

A round noon, my phone rings.

"Is this Jason Sheehan?"

"Yes."

"You're the restaurant guy?"

"That's me. What can I do for you?"

"Man, I don't know if you've been there yet, but I've got to tell you about this..."

About this new sushi restaurant, about this little Mexican place that makes the greatest tamales, about the best meal, about the worst meal, about the most mediocre meal ever -- I get these calls a lot. Every day, someone wants to tell me about his brother-in-law who just opened a new bar in Nederland or about getting thrown out of Los Cabos for trying to ride the llama or about this dog she just saw that looked like Richard Nixon. Some of these calls from my hundreds-strong unofficial Bite Me World HQ posse provide useful tips. For example, that new place Sketch, which Sean Yontz and Jesse Morreale are opening in the old Le Delice space? Yeah, one of my boys sussed out that project before anyone, while wandering hung over through the Creek one morning. He looked in through the windows, saw all the cigarette butts and cans of PBR left behind from one of their private parties, figured out Yontz had to be involved and immediately punched my digits.

I listen when I get these calls. I take notes. And when calls and e-mails all referencing one place start to stack up, I know there's a cook out there who's really struck a nerve. That's what happened with Sushi Sasa, which I wrote about in the September 15 Bite Me. And last week, another perfect storm of communication descended on my desk -- only this time swirling around the unlikeliest of food operations: a hot-dog cart.

And not just any hot-dog cart. Specifically, the cart often parked at 17th and Arapahoe streets that belongs to Jim Pittenger, who is -- as far as I know -- Denver's only purveyor of authentic Alaskan reindeer sausage. And German white-veal brats. And wild-pheasant sausage. And boar. And while several places in town sling the occasional buffalo sausage, I'm pretty sure no one is serving that sausage studded with jalapeños and slicked down with Vietnamese Sriracha.

Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs -- that's the sign hanging from the cart, complete with a laughing, bandanna-wrapped skull just to give it a little outlaw flavor. The cart is a beauty, too: lots of stainless steel and polished aluminum, twin umbrellas, full grill and warm wells and work space. Biker Jim works with his radio playing, surrounded by coolers full of soda and cute, fluffy animals all turned into sausage links. He works in the sun and in the cold. He shows up early and stays late. He gives away free samples to passersby who stop, stunned, when they catch a glimpse of his menu of woodland critters.

"How 'bout a taste of buffalo sausage?" he asks a bunch of girls waiting for the light to change. When I say things like that, I get threatened with restraining orders. Biker Jim gets loyal customers.

"You wanna try a bite of reindeer sausage?" he asks a passing businessman. The businessman says sure, then stays when he sees the white-veal brats on offer. He tells Jim he spent time in Germany and has never found a brat like those he lived on overseas. Jim then offers up the entire history of veal brats, talking about his supplier, who imports them right from Germany, about how the company that makes them prides itself on their authenticity. He keeps his spiel going for a full five minutes -- as long as it takes to finish off the brat on the grill and lay it out on the bun. Unfortunately, he has no horseradish -- which is the traditional accompaniment for veal sausage, according to the businessman.

Jim shrugs, apologizes. "Someday, man," he says. "Right now, I've gotta be cooking for the masses, you know?"

Right now, the masses are across the street or down the street or 'round the corner getting their Sabretts, their Hebrew Nationals, their dirty-water dogs in steam-damp buns. But Jim is doing all right. One after another, customers come up to his cart, and more often than not, they're coming in twos and threes -- adventurous eaters returning with friends, insisting that they try the boar, the reindeer, the buffalo.

I've always wondered whether -- when people finally get sick of me trashing their favorite restaurants and making dick jokes all the time -- a hot-dog cart might be a viable career option, so I ask Jim how he ended up pimping Alaskan reindeer dogs and cream-cheese-packed Louisiana red hots to the street trade. "I wanted to be in the restaurant business," he explains. "I wanted to do something. And if you don't have -- what -- fifty, a hundred thousand dollars to open a restaurant? Well, for like ten, you can get one of these." He runs a hand along the edge of his cart. "It might not be a restaurant, but I get to do my own thing."

 

Originally from Alaska, Jim came here to go to journalism school. He did his time, met a girl and, though he wanted to be a writer, ended up in the family repo business, which is where he stayed for about twenty years. Still, he had friends who worked in restaurants. He knew a lot of food-service guys and had even done a little cooking himself. Plus, he'd eaten reindeer and had a line on a place that could turn Dasher, Dancer and Rudolph into delicious sausage products, so I guess the hot-dog cart was a natural.

Jim's been working his corner for only a month (which makes all the notice he's received from my faithful grub scouts very impressive), and already he's on the make for new opportunities. He's hassling his bread supplier to get him a special kind of bun that will better fit the short, fat sausages and brats. He's spending his weekends banging out cheesecakes, because he thinks there might be a market for his handcrafted cakes beyond the cooler where he keeps them and the street where he sells them -- cold and by the slice. He has a plan: lunch carts, coffee shops, grocery stores. All he needs is the time and the space, the money, the supplies, the ovens, the luck.

He hands over a slice while we're talking, and I dig in. It's good cheesecake -- creamy, New York-style with a simple crust and just the right amount of sourness; heavy and solid, sweet as anything. Maybe not the best I've had, but up there. And certainly the best I've had from a cooler by a cart, as a capper to a lunch of wild-game sausage.

"Yeah," says Jim. "This cart'll make me a living, but it's the cheesecake that's going to make me famous."

The breakfast club: Last week's mention of salt bagels started yet another flood of correspondence from New York and New Jersey transplants who -- like me -- have been searching for that holy grail of one-hole cuisine ever since coming West, into the land of the breakfast burrito.

Here's how things have shaken out thus far. For the most part, people agree that Whole Foods makes a decent (if somewhat damp) version of the Upper West Side classic. Beggars can't be choosers, right? Then again, we have many choices for barbecue in this town, so it's my duty to report that the Paradise Barbecue outpost inside the Tamarac Whole Foods has gone downhill precipitously. The last two times I was there, the brisket was awful -- tough, tinny and just plain inedible -- and when I made the mistake of complimenting one of the cooks on how good the pork looked, he turned to another cook, laughed and asked him how many buttons on the microwave he'd had to press to make it taste so good. Not a good sign.

Anyway, back to bagel options. Jenni says the salt bagels done by Bruegger's (specifically, the location at 17th and Stout streets) are her favorite. Jeff says the New York Bagel Cafe, at 2764 South Wadsworth, does the best salt bagels he's found yet. And Leanne, a self-professed Jersey Girl, has become so desperate that she's considering Einstein Bros. for her fix. That's ugly.

Meanwhile, I'm pissed at Whole Foods for botching the 'cue, so bagels or no bagels, I don't know when I'll get back there. This leaves me once again with a big, salt-bagel-shaped hole in my diet. Any more suggestions? You know where to send 'em.

Leftovers: Big news at 1024 South Gaylord Street, where Devil's Food -- one of my favorite breakfast spots, which lately had been struggling as a three-a-day operation -- has lost both a chef (longtime fine-dining veteran Michael Degenhart and dinner service.

But before anyone starts predicting doom in the chicken bones, let me tell you how this is a good thing. Better yet, I'll let owner Gerald Shorey have his say. I called him up last week to ask him about the end of dinners and whether that portended trouble, and he was surprisingly candid. "No, thank God," he said, giggling into the phone. "I haven't been this happy since the place opened. Being open for dinner was almost stifling, you know? It was no fun. People were walking around saying, ŒOh, Gerald's been in such a bad mood. Oh, Gerald's such a dick.' I was always so tired, and it seemed like no matter how much I slept, I was still all fuzzy. But this, it's nice. It actually gives me time to do all those things I originally wanted to."

 

For example, the return to straight breakfast and lunch service allowed him to include a spread of homemade chocolates (previously impossible because of the stress of dinner prep and the fact that the kitchen was always too hot for a chocolatier to work his magic), as well as homemade marshmallows, candied nuts and pies. "I'm still working a twelve-hour day, at least," he adds, "but now the last four hours of it, I'm alone in the kitchen. I get to do what I love doing. And I do love this business. I wouldn't be doing it otherwise."

Devil's Food still has its liquor license and is serving wine and beer at lunch (duck confit, forest-mushroom penne) -- along with high tea by appointment. "We want to keep it real neighborhoody," Shorey insists. "I'm not making any chimichurri or anything." But what truly killed dinner was the fact that no matter how much press the place got (and it's gotten a lot of press), nighttime service just never picked up. "On the last day that Michael was working, I think we had six tables for dinner," he says. "People in the neighborhood come here for breakfast. I think they just didn't want to come back for dinner."

And where is Degenhart?

"It's funny," Shorey says. "He kinda went from the dark to the light -- from working here at Devil's Food to the Denver Seminary."

Unfortunately, Brooks Smokehouse, my favorite barbecue joint in the city (which also happened to be my favorite place for 'gator and homemade root beer), has not met such an angelic fate. The doors of the joint at 2856 Fairfax Street are locked and covered with papers with nasty words like "Tax Seizure" all over them. I'm hoping that owners Ronald and Louella Brooks can find a way to reopen somewhere else, but I have yet to hear any good news.

Finally, a couple of quick corrections. Apparently I was so excited over the imminent opening of Duo that I got one of the owner's names wrong. The husband-and-wife team are Stephanie Bonin (which I got right) and Keith Arnold (whom I gave his wife's last name). Stephanie thought this was great. Keith was not amused. But Duo did make it open last week. Not opening this week is Aqua; construction delays have pushed the target date of J. Chadrom's oyster bar and lounge in the corner of the Beauvallon until late next month. And at Los Cabos II, the family name is Ruiz, not Reese. My mistakes, folks, and my humble apologies. In the future, I promise to replace my hearing-aid batteries more regularly.

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