As human beings, we are built for adaptation. On both a micro and macro scale, this knack for going with the flow, for finding solutions, for reading prevailing trends and riding them into the ground is what has elevated us above all the llamas and spore molds and ocelots and dinosaurs who couldn't recognize a good thing when they saw it coming.
In the beginning, there was the whole notion of coming down out of the trees -- first accomplished, no doubt, by some hairy proto-human who fell off a low branch while trying to impress a girl, then had to act like the ground was where he'd wanted to be in the first place. After that, it was walking upright like all the cool Neanderthals ("Look, Bob, Larry walk upright. Larry eat woolly mammoth steaks on Friday night. Why you not more like Larry?"), then binocular vision, then the invention of fire, pants and cell phones. According to an article I read recently, the human index finger has long been the dominant digit -- the one we use for pointing, performing fine tasks, picking our noses, whatever. But now, what with the advent of text messaging, PDAs and the PlayStation, the thumb -- once the thing that made us better than those uppity dolphins and chipmunks, evolutionarily speaking -- has become the finger that kids use for everything except expressing their displeasure at the way some people drive. And in the current issue of Newsweek, there's an article about librarians -- long in a funk over the decline in reading for pleasure among both kids and adults -- who've begun stocking graphic novels on their shelves as a way to bring people back to the stacks. The theory is that people like pictures. Words? Not so much. But words and pictures together? Well, that's the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of the literary world. And all of a sudden, the libraries are full of more than just child molesters and sleeping old people drooling on back issues of the Utne Reader.
It's all part of human adaptation. And if Bob can learn to walk upright and librarians can embrace comic books, and a device like the PlayStation 2 (which seems expressly designed to make me miss deadlines) can overcome generations of index-finger predominance, then we -- as intelligent, adaptable and not at all stick-in-the-mud-ish gastronauts and foodistas -- must come to terms with the roadside shopping plaza as the next great development in the restaurant game.
Sue Smith is a strip-mall survivor, having cemented a double-fronted position in Aurora twenty years ago and never backing down. Hers are not the oldest shoppette restaurants in Denver, but New Orient alone has lasted longer than Indigo, Vega, Clair de Lune, Bistro Vendome (under its original owners) and Adega combined. And together, New Orient and Viaggio (see review) present a unified Italo-Vietnamese axis in a neighborhood that has long been a petri dish of gastronomy -- a rich medium for the development of both cooks and cuisine.
This is the power of the strip mall, the ethnic enclave, in a big city. With manageable rents, workable spaces and few zoning complications, these spots allow a (relatively) easy entry into the business for small-time operators and provide a thin cushion against instantaneous failure with their anchor properties, ample parking and good traffic flow. At your average shoppette mom-and-pop, 200-cover Saturdays are not an absolute requirement for survivability. As a matter of fact, a 200-cover Saturday would kill just about any of them except Cafe Jordano (11068 West Jewell Avenue in Lakewood), which has grown up to be able to handle such a crush.
Then again, extinction has always been a necessary event in the strip-mall life cycle. Regatta Plaza is a flashpoint in the culinary border wars, a stretch of cement and blacktop where Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants have shared the same kitchen, where Mexican carnicerías and Indian groceries and Cajun buffets have crouched shoulder-to-shoulder, offering the athletic diner the ability to make a meal of dosa, followed by pho, followed by burritos and capped off with tamarind candies and mango juice for dessert. In this particular mall, the 12200 East Cornell address has rolled over three times in recent memory, going from Maruti Narayan's (one of the best Indian restaurants in the city) to Denver Woodlands (which wound up a proof-of-concept experiment for an operation that will soon reopen in greener pastures in Castle Pines), then Boudreaux's Bayou Buffet, which closed after only a couple of months.
Across Aurora's Asian triangle formed by Parker, Iliff and Havana, these small dramas are played out almost daily. Places like Dozens and Johnny's Diner are the rare, freestanding points of stability in a neighborhood where great Korean restaurants (Han Kang) huddle up against old-world meat markets (Sir Loin Meat & Fresh Seafood) and do trade alongside piano bars, Vietnamese pho joints where no English is spoken and Japanese karaoke spots where I'm not welcome even if I walk in with hundies clenched in my teeth. On Leetsdale, in and around Russian Plaza (ground zero for piroshki, serious vodka drinking and DVD copies of The Godfather dubbed in Russian), the Koreans have lost a toehold with the closure of A Gu Rang Guk Soo Rang, but Old Siam, formerly Pearl of Siam, offers Thai, Chinese and Japanese food, plus a full sushi bar; the backstreet markets are thriving, and places like Les Delices de Paris keep jamming themselves into dark, skinny spaces between the liquor stores and vacuum-repair shops, surviving on word of mouth, wonderful service and killer pastries.
East of here, there are stretches of cracked parking lot where a man so inclined can get doughnuts, veal, biryani and a gun all in a single mile-long stretch. Or sushi, tacos, chicken wings and a mail-order bride. Or bastilla, Turkish coffee, kimchi, saag, cheeseburgers and his ass kicked for looking the wrong way at another fella's girl at last call.
Closer to town, at 942 South Monaco, the best bagels in the city are being made at a solidly Jewish shop (the Bagel Store) with zero visibility and Greeks just around the corner at the Monaco Inn. In the 2000 block of South Colorado, you can choose from Turkish, Persian, Lebanese and mixed-grill Middle Eastern cuisine in the space of a few hundred feet, and then -- if you're willing to hoof it a couple of blocks -- expand your options and get new-style sushi, fried chicken, cheesesteaks, cheeseburgers and kabobs until 4 a.m. at Ya Hala Grill, plus a venereal disease from an off-duty stripper prowling the area for a coffee place open all night.
At 1 Broadway, you can go from Italian coffee to Chicago-style pizza to Thai curry all in the same plaza, then walk a block and have Czech food at Sobo 151.
Heading west, the plaza at 30th and Zuni (home to Zuni Kitchen, Taquería El Calle and a Korean convenience store) is a bellwether for a changing neighborhood, with Lola, Z Cuisine, Duo and Sushi Sasa just stumbling distance away. And along South Federal? More bubbling, seething Mexican and Southeast Asian weirdness is being concocted in the restaurants and cafes that spring up every 25 feet than can even be tracked. Last week, I stopped in at Ha Noi Pho (which opened in the former Pho Hoa space at 1036 South Federal, a couple doors down from Ba Le Sandwich, a block from Da Lat, and walking distance from New Saigon Market, where Asian and Mexican families and fry cooks all converge to buy everything from whole durian fruit to stew meat to Chiclets) and was served no fewer than five things I'd never before encountered in a Denver restaurant. I'd ordered bun bo Hue, a spicy noodle soup native to Hue City with a slick of chile oil floating on top, and received the traditional plate of condiments: the basil and lime, sliced jalapeño and bean sprouts. But tucked in amid the greenery were brown curls of shaved banana flower; little pigtail twists of some kind of root or tuber that even the owner couldn't identify; pointy Vietnamese coriander; flat, green, leafy fishscale mint that tasted like cardboard soaked with aquarium water, and a tiny smear of incredibly potent brown fish paste -- the base ingredient for all the fiery, vinegary fish sauces served everywhere else. The fish paste alone was like being offered a thimble of black-tar heroin rather than a scrip for codeine by your doctor, and when I dug into the soup, I found it packed with fat black cubes of gelatinous, coagulated pig's blood -- which is far less gamy than duck's blood and tastes much better than it sounds.
For one place to stump me (and the crowd of champion eaters I was dining with) so many times in one meal was impressive, and while I have no illusion that pig's blood or anchovy paste will be making an appearance on the menus at Prima, Luca d'Italia or Frasca anytime soon, those banana flowers just might.
Adaptability. Vigorous experimentation, ruthless Darwinian survival of the fittest and acclimatization to strange latitudes. Want to see where the newest and weirdest restaurant ideas are coming from? Then forget everything you thought you knew about strip malls and suburban dining and start really looking at those places forging inroads in your neighborhood.
Adapt, foodies, or be lost. Be brave. Get out there and make your own adventures. And while you're at it, how about doing a little legwork for yours truly? The biggest obstacle to finding out-of-the-way strip-mall gems is that most people only know the ones in their own neighborhoods. So if you've got a favorite -- a great single spot, a weird combination of places, a friggin' United Nations of restaurants hiding in your neck of the woods -- e-mail me at email@example.com. I promise to check out all suggestions, carefully weigh their merits, then act like I discovered all of them myself.
Leftovers: Word came last week from the Mezcal camp that the much-anticipated mobile taco delivery unit designed by Jesse Morreale and Sean Yontz is almost complete. This monster packs a six-burner stove and full ventilation hood, a six-foot-tall painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, tinted windows, chromed wheels, a giant Mezcal logo on the top so that people can see it coming from their high-rise offices downtown, and a portrait of a Mexican wrestler on the side. The only thing that's missing is a horn that plays "La Cucaracha" -- and Morreale is still trying to find one of those.
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"I love it, man. It's so badass," Morreale insists. "And his name -- his name -- is ŒEl Mariachi.'"
El Mariachi should be ready to roll by Memorial Day weekend, and will be, well, everywhere. "We'll be in Cherry Creek," Morreale promises. "Downtown, Colfax, at the farmers' markets. I want people to be able to flag us down like little kids chasing after the ice cream truck, except it's eleven o'clock at night and they want tacos."
Meanwhile, Yontz and Morreale's newest venture -- Perry's at the All-Inn -- passed its licensing hearing unopposed. That's no small trick for that part of Colfax -- or for that property, a former hot spot for all manner of illicit activity that's already under a nuisance abatement. It helped -- a lot -- that, before the hearing, Morreale was able to get a vote of 66 to 1 in favor of Perry's from representatives of the South City Park and Congress Park neighborhood associations, two groups that usually couldn't come to a near-unanimous agreement on the color of the sky if you spotted them two colors and let the blind ones abstain.
There's no solid date for the debut of Perry's, but Morreale insists they'd open the place tomorrow if they could.