Singing the blues: The music was great at last weekend's Denver Blues and Bones Festival, but many barbecue fans have a bone to pick with the organizers. Although the event included a two-day barbecue championship, with contestants ranging from mom-and-pop joints to backyard cooks and the final round of judging (in the "other" category) set for 6 p.m. Saturday, by then the competitors had nothing left for the hungry crowds to buy. No chicken, no brisket, no ribs, no other. (And the announcements of the winners made from the stage that evening were so garbled you couldn't figure out whose stuff you'd want to try--if, that is, they had any to sell you.)
All of which meant that if you wanted to eat, your only option was to stand in long, long lines (over an hour, in some cases) for non-contest barbecue cooked up by such authentic, downhome types as The Denver Buffalo Company (the real restaurant is at 1109 Lincoln Street) and Dick's Last Resort (1909 Blake Street). And while the beer lines were blessedly short, that created another problem: The Porta Potti lines were also endless.
There was only one thing to do: Leave and head for Ilios, the Mediterranean restaurant just outside the event's entrance (and still within earshot of the music), at 1201 Broadway. Since it would be impolite to use the bathroom without sampling some of Ilios's food, we quickly downed several orders of the fabulous "spicy barbecued lamb ribs" tapas. Just $4.25 bought a plate of meaty, tender ribs covered with a sweet, citrusy barbecue sauce that tasted almost as good on the fingers as it did on the lamb. We have a winner!
Another welcome sight: The cheerful, nearby Pints Pub, at 221 West 13th Avenue, just the place Saturday night to sit and enjoy a microbrew or two or three, toast the blues festival's popularity--and pray for more bathrooms next year.
New kids on the block: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away--say, twenty years ago in what would turn into LoDo--brave diners had only a handful of restaurant choices. Of that handful, a few still survive: Mori Japanese Restaurant, at 2019 Market Street; the Old Spaghetti Factory, at 1215 18th Street (as always, a big downtown draw for suburbanites); and the Wazee Supper Club, at 1600 15th Street (who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks--the Wazee's now open on Sundays!). Today, of course, these eateries share their once-lonely neighborhood with more restaurants than you can imagine--certainly more restaurants than you can imagine all attracting enough of a crowd to stay in business.
The 1500 block of Blake Street, for example, now holds six restaurants. At lunch last Friday, Lim's Chinese Kitchen (1530 Blake), the Egg Shell (1520 Blake) and Delhi Darbar (1514 Blake) all had seats to spare, but there was a real Mexican standoff for tables at the block's three--count 'em, three--Mexican restaurants. The least glitzy and most authentic is Las Delicias (1530 Blake), the third in a homegrown chain that started over twenty years ago in a tiny spot at 19th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street; it's gratifying to see an oldster like this keep up with the youngsters. Across the street, at 1521 Blake, Wahoo's Fish Taco was swimming with customers. But the real crunch was at the new kid on the block: The Rio Grande, which opened last month at 1525 Blake, in the old home of the Firehouse. Like Las Delicias, the Rio Grande is part of a Colorado chain, but this one stretches as far north as Fort Collins and Greeley.
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The Rio Grande made its reputation with its killer three-shots-of-tequila margaritas--but that doesn't explain the thirty-minute wait for a table at lunch (unless Fridays are getting more casual than is generally credited, that is). The lines at dinner can get even longer, which helps explains the restaurant's policy that prohibits those who are just snacking and sipping from sitting in the dining room. (You can get a full dinner in the bar, however.) But the reason for those lines is less clear: Six Mexican-food aficionados who ate there last Monday night dubbed the fare Casa Bonita meets Blue Bonnet. It's serviceable, but nothing special--and more expensive than a meal across the street at Las D. Still, after two of those margs (there's a three-drink limit), the chair leg would have tasted just fine.
Around the corner, at 1415 15th Street, is P.F. Chang's, which was the new kid just a few months ago. Although it's still attracting a sizable lunch business, at 12:45 p.m. we managed to snag a table right away. Our window-side seats proved the perfect venue for spying on other LoDo action. The most interesting development is the reappearance of Fettoush, once again occupying the space at 1448 Market Street that the owners had tried filling--briefly, and unsuccessfully--with a sushi joint. Fettoush is a much better idea; after all, while the sushi-serving Tommy Tsunami is just down the street at 1432 Market, there's no other place in the area where you can be fed eastern Mediterranean fare.
You can never have too many good coffee spots, though. And that's why the second home of Common Grounds, now serving java and hospitality at 1601 17th Street, deserves a warm welcome to the neighborhood. And the coffee's always on at the LoDo Cafe Express, now open at 1612 Wazee (it's next to the LoDo Inn), which serves not just a good cup of joe but also full breakfasts--try the $3 special--every morning.
Pizza the action: The June 3 column comparing a few pizza spots provoked heated reactions--and prompted several recommendations. The Dew Drop Inn in Pueblo sounds interesting, as do several closer-to-home suggestions. As for the very best pizza in Denver? Be here next week.