Top of the Rockies: Denver wasn't the only town inundated with tapas in 1997. The trend has spread nationwide--which makes Denver uncharacteristically hip for a change. Analyzing the fad a few months ago, the New York Times noted that restaurants have Americanized tapas in two divergent, but typically American, ways. This country's tapas places are either "supersizing" the portions to meet our "bigger is better" philosophy, thereby turning tapas into full-blown appetizers (for an example of that in Denver, visit Ilios, at 1201 Broadway), or they're charging big bucks for a little plate of olives because it's listed under "tapas." Keep that up and tapas joints will disappear faster than you can say "lentil burgers."
This isn't Denver's first go-round with tapas, of course. In the mid-Eighties, Transalpin introduced the concept at 410 East Seventh Avenue, in the space now filled by J.V.'s The Cork. (An earlier tenant, Pinot's, disappeared last fall; its chef, Theo Roe, has resurfaced at Dazzle, opening this week in the old Fuji En, at 930 Lincoln.) And tapas also had a starring role at Majorca, the lovely but doomed Mediterranean spot that briefly occupied the 711 East 17th Avenue address that's now home to Taj Mahal (with about a gazillion ill-fated ventures in between).
Ten blocks farther east on 17th Avenue, two more vestiges of the Eighties--sibling restaurants--bowed out on New Year's Eve. After years of fighting to extend their lease on the building at the corner of 17th and Vine (the landlord, a former partner, demanded that he have rights to the booted restaurants' names, among other things), Juanita's Uptown and Mike Berardi's have called it quits at that location; the owners say they hope to find a new home for the restaurants soon. The 17th Avenue space wasn't the first incarnation for either one: The original Juanita's is still doing big business in Boulder, and Berardi & Sons was at 1525 Blake Street in LoDo before there was a LoDo. That space is now the home of Firehouse Grill (by way of Hog Heaven).
Just down the street at 1434 Blake, City Spirit Cafe remains closed; part-owner Mickey Zeppelin says the deal that seemed so close a few weeks ago has fallen through, and while a couple of interested parties have emerged in the days since, none of them are near signing. The trouble with Zeppelin--and, oh, how I applaud this--is that he has some integrity: He refuses to let the spirit of City Spirit die. "When people buy a restaurant from you, they want to put their mark on it," Zeppelin explains. "But the problem is, some of these business proposals we've been handed are, frankly, just laughable." He's not saying the place has to be exactly the same as City Spirit, Zeppelin adds, but he'd at least like to know that the Cheesecake Factory won't be taking it over. "It's a big-boys' market right now," he says.
That's why chef Mark Gordon--apparently one of the few people in the world who amicably parted ways with Sonny Rando at Santino's (1939 Blake Street)--decided to go to Boulder with his first restaurant, Modena, at 2690 East Baseline Road. He took with him a few former Santino's employees, and they're helping him serve dinner six nights a week (the place is closed Mondays). The menu is Italian, with a variety of pastas, pizzas, veal and seafood dishes, and the motto is "Modena: Where all entrees feed two or more." Hmmm...where have we heard that before? At Santino's, perhaps, or at Carmine's on Penn (92 South Pennsylvania Street, to be exact), where Rando was once chef. Since most of Modena's entree prices hover around $20, though, that's not a bad deal, especially in Boulder. Check out the Key lime cannoli with a coconut shell.
Also recently opened is another location of a Boulder original, Moe's Broadway Bagel. This one's at 745 Colorado Boulevard in Denver, an address shared with an offshoot of another Colorado original, Chipotle Mexican Grill. That makes four for the five-year-old Moe's concept. And Chipotle, which is about the same age, is about to hit a dozen outlets.
Mistaken identity: There's only one La Popular, though. And in an industry fraught with failures, this restaurant/wholesaler stands out as one of Denver's original success stories, having made tamales and other Mexican foods for more than thirty years--most of those at 2012 Larimer, before the business moved its operation to 2033 Lawrence Street last year. Soon after, another Mexican-foods purveyor, Chelos, took over the Larimer space; it's run by Hugo Delatorre, whose family sold off La Popular several years ago.
Now La Popular's customers are complaining that Chelos is misrepresenting itself, telling them it's an offshoot of La Popular and then taking their orders, according to La Popular owner Jesse Herrera. "It got so bad, we had to take an ad out in the papers explaining to people where we are and what our phone number is," Herrera says. "They've been telling people that they bought us out, which isn't true. We just sold the space to them and moved." Herrera says he's gotten as many as forty phone calls in one day from people who called Chelos and were confused. "At first we were giving Chelos the benefit of the doubt, thinking it was because of the old phone books," he adds. "But after all this time, I don't know."
A Chelos employee denies Herrera's accusations. "If people are confused," he says, "that is their problem, not ours."
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More problems: Yeah, yeah, we know that Il Fornaio opened its doors at 1637 Wazee Street to huge crowds in December--but that doesn't excuse service that's a little too casual for the restaurant's serious prices. On New Year's Eve day, a contingent from my office went over for lunch; after ordering, one diner was belatedly informed that the kitchen was already out of the chicken focaccia special. She replaced it with pasta al forno--a relatively simple, and presumably quick, assemblage of shells, tomato sauce and cheese, this version with eggplant added. After depositing this dish along with the other entrees, the waiter promptly disappeared without bothering to ask if the food was all right. Most was, but the replacement dish wasn't.
It took fifteen minutes to find the waiter (the Menendez brother look-alike might have been outside pumping his meter, since that's where the diners later ran into him) and ask him if the dish was supposed to have the pliancy of plywood. That's because the cheese on top was baked, he replied, ignoring the fact that much of the crunchy pasta had never come close to the cheese. He did, however, offer to replace the entree with something else. The disappointed diner declined, since her companions had already finished their meals.
The pasta's $9.95 tab remained on the check--and that's a lot to pay for something that has the consistency of twice-reheated Kraft mac and cheese. (My colleagues smuggled out a few shells of the offending pasta so they could get my opinion on its preparation; they say they'll return the napkin.)