Double Jeopardy

The sign outside the modest Lancer Lounge promised Salvadoran and Japanese food, a combination so unusual we couldn't resist popping in for a multicultural bite to eat. Never mind that we were overdressed (one member of our group was wearing a suit, something the Lancer probably hasn't seen since they were of the leisure variety--he looked like he'd taken a wrong turn trying to reach Aubergine Cafe next door). Never mind that inside this joint appears to be the lounge that time (and Denver, with the exception of a few interesting neighborhood characters, with the emphasis on characters) forgot. And most of all, never mind that we knew from experience that two cuisines on a menu can be too many.

Then we learned that there was exactly one Salvadoran item on the menu.
The family running the kitchen for Lancer owner Ron Nathan--who bought the bar twenty years ago but isn't sure how old the place is, saying, "Oh, hell, it was here when I worked for IBM in the early Sixties"--is Salvadoran. They don't seem entirely certain why they're making Japanese food, either. "We just taught ourselves," says Eric Alvarez, whose parents, Julio and Julie, run the kitchen, which they "sort of sublease" from Nathan. "Roughly, okay?" Nathan says when I ask about the arrangement. "Roughly, I would say they're sort of subleasing."

Whatever they're doing, the Alvarezes are roughly responsible for putting out dishes billed as "Japanese-Express Fast Food." The menu, however, offers quite a few Chinese standards--egg-drop soup, crabmeat wontons, sweet-and-sour chicken, moo shu roll--along with teriyaki bowls, sushi (!) and pupusas, the sole Salvadoran item that wound up listed under "Sandwiches, etc." When I mention the odd assortment to Nathan, he replies, "Well, I'd say then that the menu is more Indonesian." Huh?

Eric says he and his parents plan to add a few more Salvadoran dishes, but he doesn't know when, and he doesn't know why the Lancer put up a sign advertising Salvadoran food when the Alvarez family took over the kitchen a year ago. Nathan says he wanted people to know that the lounge was no longer doing the kind of food it had been doing, which apparently was more American than Indonesian. "Oh, hell," Nathan says. "There have been so many people through the kitchen here, I don't know what they're serving half the time."

Well, at the moment they're serving pu pu--not to be confused with pupusas--platters ($4.25 per person). Although this starter frequently appears on Chinese-restaurant menus in this country, "pu pu" is actually a Hawaiian term for hot and cold appetizers, which on the islands normally translates to macadamias, wontons, fresh pineapple and coconut, and barbecued meats. I have yet to find a good explanation for why Chinese restaurants appropriated the pu pu concept (often calling it "bo bo"), but by this stage of our Lancer experience, all rational thought had gone out the tiny windows, anyway. The lazy Susan here featured several of the quintessential pu pu components: two greasy egg rolls that had had the "oh, hell" fried out of them, two previously frozen fantail shrimp, two crabmeat wontons, two chicken wings that tasted like a cereal box, and two semi-tasty beefs-on-a-skewer, which flanked the flaming hibachi. Just to be on the safe side, I put everything into the fire, even my California roll ($3.50 for eight), which contained mayonnaise along with thin slivers of avocado and cucumber. If there was imitation crabmeat, I never found it; these rolls were rife with rice and little else.

A large load of rice also weighed down the bottom of the beef bowl teriyaki jumbo ($4.25), what the suited guy accurately described as a Japanese version of open-faced hot roast beef. The meat itself was fine, but it didn't look or taste as though it had been marinated. Instead, a thick, brown, gravylike liquid shiny with sugar sat heavy on top. The portion was indeed jumbo, though, and the diner who took home the leftovers reported that they solidified into one big, sticky mass that made for excellent finger food in the office the next day. The yakisoba combo ($6.75) wasn't precisely Japanese, but it did come fast; the large nest of blandly seasoned lo mein noodles was studded here and there with a few small shrimp, a shred or two of chicken and tiny bits of shaved pork that were hardly worth the search.

The best items we tried were the gyoza ($3.25), Japanese dumplings that came steamed, as we'd requested, and the pupusas ($2.40). The two Salvadoran potato pancakes were filled with shredded pork and small bits of vegetables; they arrived with an unusual dipping sauce, a spicy tomato-soupy concoction that was delicious with them. The Alvarezes would do well to forget the "Indonesian" stuff and concentrate on cooking their native cuisine.

Although the new owners of Rocco's in Lakewood haven't done away with Italian offerings entirely, they're wisely shifting the emphasis to Thai. After Kim Pannotayan sold her half of Pad Thai on Wadsworth a year ago, she and her husband, Pornlert, and her brother, Chadchavan, bought vividly painted Rocco's. "I wanted to keep the Italian because of the deli we have and because of some of the customers," Kim says. "The former owners taught my brother and husband how to make the sauces and everything, so we keep them going."

Thai is the cuisine of choice here, though. As at Pad Thai, the Pannotayans are putting out some excellent home cooking that's an equally good value. For starters, there was the tod mun pla ($4.95), six deep-fried spicy fish cakes that came with a fish sauce for dipping and typical Asian garnishes of fresh carrots, lettuce and bean sprouts. The Thai egg rolls ($3.25) were wonderful, too, just greasy enough for flavor and packed with shrimp, ground pork, noodles and mild seasonings. But the best appetizer was the stuffed squid ($4.95), a portion that looked big enough for two until the two found out how exquisite the dish was: The cephalopod had been crammed with egg-roll stuffing generously enhanced with garlic, then coated in a thin batter and fried.

Worlds collided when our two Italian entrees arrived with a thin Asian soup, its egg-drop base swimming with rice noodles, peas and carrots. The soup was fine, but it didn't go well with either the lasagne ($7.75) or cheese ravioli ($6.50). Then again, they didn't do well on their own merits, either. The lasagne contained too much mozzarella and not enough flavor; its sauce was an ordinary red. The accompanying sausage was worth the extra $1.25, however, since its pungent filling had been made on the premises, as had the spongy, spicy meatball we paid another $1.25 for to accompany the ravioli. The sauce on the ravioli was a thinned-out version of the one on the lasagne, and it left the pasta--stuffed with an herbed ricotta cheese--naked and vulnerable.

But our Thai entrees ruled. The tom kha gai ($4.95) was a stew of a soup, with large slices of galangal, whose flavor permeated the chicken, just enough lemon grass to add tang, and the ideal balance of coconut milk to chiles. Coconut milk also provided the foundation for the Thai curry ($5.75), a simple gathering of zucchini, bamboo shoots, basil leaves and pork, all of which had been imbued with the chef's own turmeric-heavy blend of curry spices. The sauce on the pad kra phow noodle dish ($5.25) was also exceptional, a sweet-and-spicy mixture that coated the rice noodles. And there were plenty of those, interspersed with a lot of bean sprouts, carrots and large basil leaves. The portion was so large that I took half of it home. That way, I still could taste the homemade Thai custard ($1.25) and coconut ice cream (95 cents).

Although Rocco's and the Lancer Lounge have nothing in common besides their uncommon mix of cuisines, both illustrate some native truths: In the kitchen, chefs do well to stick with what they know.

Japanese-Express Fast Food at the Lancer Lounge, 233 East Seventh Avenue, 832-3790. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Sunday.

Rocco's, 5924 South Kipling, Lakewood, 973-1079. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.


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