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Like a good neighbor, Frank's Kitchen is there

Dina and Frank Berta have made Frank's Kitchen part of the Whittier neighborhood.

He'll have the spaghetti and meatballs, because he always gets the spaghetti and meatballs. I think I'll have the cheesesteak tonight, though. I haven't had one of those in a while." The thirty-something woman and her husband were standing in Frank's Kitchen discussing their dinner options. They didn't need to look at the old Coca-Cola menu board — built with those plastic letters you have to slide into place one at a time — or pick up one of the folded yellow paper menus on the counter; they were definitely Frank's regulars.

And after they'd ordered, they stayed standing, chatting with the co-owner, Dina Berta, about their date night and describing the recent activities of their absent children. When Dina got off her stool to go make some milkshakes, the couple finally snagged one of the six tables in the tiny space — but they were soon bantering with Frank, the chef and Dina's husband, who'd popped out from behind the kitchen equipment to grab something from a shelf. Frank told them about a trade he'd just orchestrated with a nearby business, swapping food for advertising in a good-neighbor quid pro quo.

Frank's Kitchen is definitely a good neighbor. This was my first visit, and I was amazed at how well the place already fit into the Whittier neighborhood, an older part of town west of City Park that's known for its racial diversity — and a recent rise in young, professional residents. If I'd just stumbled in off the street, I might have thought that Frank's had held down this corner forever, dispensing shakes and burgers to generations of Denverites.

But I knew better: Frank's has actually only been open since May, in the small piece of real estate that used to hold Far East Restaurant. Frank and Dina, once a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News and then a writer with Nation's Restaurant News, had been thinking about getting a food truck and were looking for a space for a commercial kitchen — but when they asked the landlord about this storefront, she said she was looking for a new restaurant tenant. They liked the spot — the Bertas live nearby, and the constant parade of people walking their dogs and riding their bikes made the corner a good fit for a restaurant, Dina says — so they inked a deal, inheriting that Coca-Cola sign and some McDonald's-like seating, which they sold on Craigslist and replaced with wooden tables and chairs. They also gave the place a deep cleaning and a paint job, adding a few photographs and paintings to the orange walls.

Dina knew the business from the reporting end, and Frank has had a lifelong obsession with food and cooking that began, he says, at his grandmother's knee. He and Dina also cooked frequently for their church, planning menus and running the kitchen. Still, this was Frank's first crack at making his hobby a career: He'd previously owned a contracting business.

But the eclectic menu reflects Frank's lengthy interest in cooking: It's a timeless list of largely unrelated dishes, seemingly added over the years simply because the chef cooked something one day that worked out well enough to keep making it. There are diner classics, such as griddled sandwiches, burgers and fries, and spaghetti and meatballs. There are more exotic dinner dishes, including jerk chicken and banh mi, a whim that Frank says he worked to perfect before adding it to the board. There are hot dogs, an entire section of them, with the Chicago dog a specialty, since Frank is from Illinois. Every Friday, Frank's throws a fish fry; every Wednesday, it offers a family-style feast. And Frank is constantly tinkering in the kitchen, inviting diners to come in for tacos, brisket or other experimental meals.

The mixed offerings make the menu almost impossible to categorize. It's not really Americana, not really soul food — more like food for the soul. Everything about Frank's feeds the soul, from the cooking to the easy, unpretentious atmosphere to the Bertas' welcoming presence.

As we sat there that first night, my boyfriend and I listened to Frank and Dina's conversations with their regulars. It's impossible not to eavesdrop, since the distance from the door to the counter that separates the dining area from the kitchen is probably all of fifteen feet; you're practically sitting at the dinner table with every other guest at Frank's. And before long, Dina called over to us to come up for our food, passing over a paper-lined basket and a Styrofoam plate while we grabbed plastic silverware and napkins.

Back at our table, we squabbled over the Crested Butte, but I won rights to the first bite. The towering sandwich was stacked with a few thin slices of pastrami, a crispy bed of hash browns, gooey melted Swiss cheese and two fried eggs; one slice of the rye bread (of course) had been slathered with garlic mayonnaise, for added zip. It came with a massive mound of sweet-potato fries that must have been double-fried, since they were bubbly and crispy on the outside and positively feathery within. I imagine that this gut bomb would be epic at curing a hangover, especially if you ordered extra pastrami and didn't skimp on the fries.

While I tackled the mountain of bread and meat, Rob wasn't complaining about his consolation prize. The jerk chicken had been rubbed with earthy spice and roasted over allspice wood, so that the smoke would permeate the skin and meat. While the leg was succulent, the breast was verging on dry — but we still managed to pick the bones clean, and we polished off every bit of the sides: a scoop of rice laced with sweet coconut milk and tart-bitter lime zest, as well as caramelized slices of plantain. Frank's doesn't serve alcohol, so I'd ordered an icy strawberry milkshake — which proved to be the ideal dessert.

As we cleared our table, the Bertas engaged us in a last round of conversation, asking how we'd found the place, where we lived, what we did — all part of the canon of questions you ask new friends. We chatted for a minute, then said our goodbyes and waddled out the door.

I soon returned, though: I'd seen the spaghetti and meatballs come out of the kitchen that night, and I wanted to try that dish as soon as possible.

Frank got the recipe for his all-beef meatballs from his Italian grandmother, and the densely packed ground meat is loaded with garlic and oregano, as well as other spices that give it a hearty pungency. You can get the meatballs in a sandwich, but I was after that platter of pasta. Spaghetti with meatballs has always been my ultimate comfort food, an easy meal that satisfies in a way that few other dishes do — and I like the non-fancified versions best. Other pastas are for showing off noodle-making skills and delicate sauces; spaghetti is about filling the belly.

And the spaghetti at Frank's hit the spot. A tangle of noodles had been topped with three meatballs and a thick, tangy sauce seasoned with more garlic and oregano as well as dried chile flakes, which added a lip-tingling heat that built as I twirled up forkful after forkful. It came with a little lettuce-and-tomato salad and a roll swiped with butter, which were just as down-home as the spaghetti.

Rob had ordered the banh mi, because he was curious to see what Frank's would do with the Vietnamese sandwich. I'd gathered it wouldn't be a traditional version as soon as Frank started detailing the differences between the rib-eye and chicken; we'd opted for the chicken, whose preparation included the racy Chinese five-spice. Stacked on the Vietnamese equivalent of a French baguette, the chicken had both heat and a definite cinnamon undercurrent, which was delightful against the crisp carrots and radish. I would have liked those vegetables pickled, as is customary in Vietnam: Despite the five-spice, this sandwich was a little dull. Not so dull, though, that we didn't finish every bite.

Fat and happy, we lingered for a moment as we said our goodbyes to Frank and Dina.

"Good to see you again," they said, and waved as we walked out the door.

We'd become part of the neighborhood.

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