Exceptional eateries spring up in the most unlikely places.
Most visitors to Golden stick to the main drag of Washington Street, the Boettcher Mansion and anything within walking distance of the Coors Brewery. But it's time for the town to mark more landmarks in its tourist guide, including the small strip mall that's home to Ali Baba Grill.
This tidy, sparsely decorated spot serves the best Middle Eastern food in the area (and received a Best of Denver 2002 award two weeks ago to note just that). Owner/chef Fayad Aoutabachi was one of the owners of the now-defunct La Zeez (its former home at 2594 South Colorado Boulevard is currently occupied by another Middle Eastern eatery, Aladdin). A native of Syria, he spent a decade working as a chef at a large restaurant in Saudi Arabia, and his winning dishes reflect both his family background and his cooking experiences. Aoutabachi's partner in Ali Baba, Mahmoud Dukmak, worked at La Zeez, as well as several other Middle Eastern eateries along the Front Range; born in Lebanon, he lived for a while in Syria, and it was there that he learned the art of hospitality.
And Ali Baba is one very hospitable place. When I dropped by one evening to pick up some takeout, Dukmak not only served me fabulous mint tea -- the restaurant keeps a pot brewing at all times -- but also handed me a plate of just-made, sticky-sweet baklava to enjoy while I waited for my order. When I complimented the delicious, made-from-scratch confection, Aoutabachi came flying out of the kitchen. "Would you like some to take home for your family, too, on me?" he asked. Although I declined to take any more dessert, I did take away a very favorable impression of the place.
A subsequent meal at the restaurant only heightened my good opinion; every dish was a wonder. For starters, the baba ghanouj was a sweeter-than-usual take on the eggplant dip, puréed to the consistency of frosting; its caramel-like quality and rounded depth indicated that the eggplant had been flame-charred instead of oven-roasted. And Aoutabachi had used tahini sparingly, which kept the dip from becoming too thick and gummy. His hummus had a texture similar to that of the baba ghanouj and boasted just enough garlic and lemon juice to make it taste like much, much more than bland chickpeas.
This attention to detail was evident in the other appetizers, too. For dolmades, the grape leaves had been stuffed not just with rice, but with bits of ripe tomato whose sweet tang played off the lemon juice and olive oil that had been poured over the leaves. And while the kibbeh was fried -- very few Americans are willing to try the raw version of what is essentially Lebanon's national dish -- it was still noteworthy. The ground sirloin had been wrapped around a filling of seasoned bulghur wheat and pine nuts, then shaped like an egg (three mini-loaves came to an order) and fried in olive oil until the outside turned into a shell that held in the moist, steamy meat.
Salads are a good test of the quality of Middle Eastern eateries, and Ali Baba passed with flying colors -- specifically, the fresh, vibrant colors of tabbouleh. This was another dish made with bulghur (wheat kernels that have been steamed, well dried until crackly, and crushed), even though Ali Baba's menu called it "cracked wheat" (which really refers to whole, unprocessed wheat berries broken into pieces). The bulghur had been soaked until soft and then mixed with fresh parsley and tomatoes, along with onions, lemon juice and just the right amount of olive oil to keep things moist and add a faintly nutty touch.
As good as our starters were, Ali Baba's meats were the real treat. Technically, the chicken shawarma should have been a sandwich; instead, we got big chunks of tender, rotisserie-broiled chicken breasts with charred edges. Slathered with a garlic paste, the bird had a smell and taste that hit right in the pits of our stomachs. A Meat Lovers combo brought more chicken, this time charbroiled in a kabob, as well as an equally tender beef kabob. The third part of the combo was kafta -- sometimes spelled "kofta," it refers to meat or rice, or both, ground and pressed into a dense shape that's boiled in a broth and often cooked over high heat. In this case, the kafta had been shaped long and thin; it contained quality meat, as did the gyros, made from rotisserie-broiled lamb and beef rather than just beef, which many joints use to cut costs. And the shrimp done "scampi" style took the Italian classic to a new level, covering the crustaceans in chopped green onions and bell peppers, then drowning them in garlicky butter and a splash of chile-spiked, coconut-sweetened curry sauce.
All of the entrees came with pitas, steamed rice, a small Greek-style salad of romaine, tomatoes, onions, and a mild vinegar-and-oil dressing, plus a scoop of hummus. Also included was a hefty helping of charm from the two owners, who made a point of visiting every table to offer information and nibbles of unfamiliar dishes.
Another winning combination of good food and friendliness is your reward for navigating a busy Golden business park to reach Rocky Mountain Barbecue & Catering. Nothing about the somber, dark-gray blocks of granite filled with real estate companies and investment firms hints at the warm, welcoming barbecue joint tucked in alongside. But there it is, and it serves top-notch 'cue, including the town's best pulled pork.
Rocky Mountain does a lot more catering than retail business, and the eatery portion of the enterprise consists of a half-dozen tables along a window, near a simple display case and counter. But what's behind that counter is what counts: several big smokers packed with applewood and mounds of meat. The pit master is Mike Katich, who owned the Rib Crib in Evergreen for thirteen years. (His old place won the Best of Denver 2002 Best Ribs award; his current spot snagged Best Pulled Pork.) Although the Rib Crib and Rocky Mountain use many of the same ingredients, including a rub that makes the meat so richly flavored, there are some key variations to the cooking. "We try to do a few things differently so that we're not the same place," Katich explains. "It also depends on the batch and the length of time we smoke the meats."
At Rocky Mountain, the ribs get ten to twelve hours in the smoker, depending on the cut, while the pork and brisket can cook anywhere from twelve to sixteen hours. And they're smoking over applewood, which imparts a sweet smokiness that's lighter and less intrusive than, say, hickory or mesquite. "I like to say that we 'roast' the meat in applewood," says Katich. "That way, people understand that it's not as overbearing as something like hickory, and it doesn't have that super-smoky taste that just takes over."
Instead, the meat gets to speak for itself -- and it speaks volumes about Katich's cooking ability. His juicy pulled pork, with its burnt ends and faintly smoky charred bits, had been roasted so deeply that the pieces couldn't hold together; they came apart in shreds. The juice-dripping brisket, with its strong beef flavor and slight saltiness, was falling-apart tender, too. The ribs, which had been dry-rubbed with those secret spices, came in a St. Louis cut (minus the brisket bone, revealing the cartilage on the brisket-bone side, as well as the skirt meat) that soaked up every bit of those tangy spices; Katich's Kansas City-style sauce (read: brown sugar, a little vinegar, ketchup, mustard, a touch of cayenne) added still more zest. The rub's seasoning also oozed out of the baby backs, which come from the blade and center section of a pig's loin, with plenty of succulent "finger meat" in between. And Katich's half chicken was the juiciest barbecued bird ever, with finger-lickin' skin on the outside and plenty of smoky flesh inside.
Diners can get the meats whole on the bone or in sandwiches, and can take them out or eat their meals at one of the tables along the window.
Rocky Mountain makes all of its sides from scratch, including a wet potato salad studded with pieces of hard-boiled egg and a sugar-sweetened cole slaw. The unusual baked beans were an unsettling pinkish-gray color with a cornstarchy sheen; containing no molasses sweetness or discernible spice, they may be an acquired taste. But we fell fast and hard for the sweet corn bread, huge chunks of comfort food at its finest. Head cook Dave Kardos follows his grandmother's recipe to make the Texas sheet cake; the result was an addictive slab of chocolatey, sugary goodness that had us begging for the recipe. Instead, Kardos handed over a few free slices for the road. "I like to see people enjoying our food," he told us.
It's not easy to track down these Golden opportunities. But lucky finders will quickly realize that both restaurants are keepers.
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