If the first rule of creating a successful restaurant is location, location, location, the second is to come up with a marketable menu. Ogden Cafe owners Jin and Mercy Lee had the location thing locked when they settled into the old home of Footers, located in the heart of Capitol Hill, and they apparently decided not to take any chances with the menu, either. Diners here have their choice of American, Asian, Italian and Mexican dishes.
In fact, the kitchen covers so much territory that I didn't have much hope for the food--no one could do that much that well. And with the Ogden's truly American, very neighborhood-eatery-style decor of fat padded booths and vinyl tablecloths, I wasn't anticipating a great ethnic experience, either.
Which leads me to the first rule of reviewing restaurants: Never make too many assumptions. Because while the Ogden Cafe may not be the place for an incredible gourmet repast, it puts out really good food at really good prices.
Two meals into this pleasant surprise, I called Jin Lee and asked why he decided to go with such an ambitiously varied menu. "When I moved here from Korea six years ago, I noticed that the burrito was very popular in Denver," he says. "Most people have a good experience with the burrito. But I noticed that it was too fat; it is not healthy. So I started playing around with it, trying to get the fat out. And then I found out about other Mexican food." That discovery led to the Lees' House of Burritos, a small, fast-food-type store they ran in the same plaza that now houses the Ogden Cafe.
"Customers came in the House of Burritos and asked me about Oriental food," says Jin, whose wife is Filipino. "So I started making a little bit of that. And then we took over Footers, and it was Italian, so we have a little bit of that, too."
But Jin's strong suit remains Mexican. "I try to use hardly no fat at all," he says. "The refried beans, they are vegetarian. This makes the customers happy." And making the customers happy seems important to the Lees, as evidenced by the fact that each of my tabs at the Ogden wound up even cheaper than I expected: Whenever the kitchen was out of an item or the service was poor, the restaurant started giving things away. (Which could have the Lees running afoul of the third rule of successful restaurateuring: Don't give away too much free stuff.)
Even without the free food, though, our dinner for two would have come in under $35--and that included an appetizer (most of them are variations on a Mexican theme), one soup, one salad, huge entrees, two drinks and two espressos. For starters, we tried the fritas ($2.49), a seemingly innocent order of deep-fried flour tortillas cut into quarters. The slightly greasy, flavorful triangles came with a sensational, freshly made salsa--thin but not watery, with a touch of cilantro and enough kick to keep things lively without knocking out our tastebuds--and perfect guacamole that seemed to have been made for our order. Well-mashed yet intact chunks of avocado had been mixed with a few tomato pieces and mere hints of garlic and lemon; the ingredients were absolutely fresh, with none of the chill that comes from a wait in the refrigerator.
When we mentioned this to our waiter, he proudly told us that everything in the restaurant is made from scratch. The menu backed up his claim and, with one notable exception (more on that later), so did the food. The soup that day was cream of spinach, and the simple blending of vegetable, milk and little more resulted in a hearty, comforting bowl that fit in well with the Ogden's home-away-from-home atmosphere. A choice of soup or salad comes with the restaurant's Italian entrees, which mix four pastas and four sauces. We opted for the Alfredo with linguini ($6.99); ten minutes out of the kitchen, the tricky Alfredo still had the correct, ungummy consistency. One of the reasons for this was that the sauce was light on cheese (I would have liked more), but some parmesan sprinkled over the top helped make this a respectable version of the dish.
The Mexican hamburger ($5.99) was more than respectable--it was fantastic, thanks to that unusual hamburger helper, green chile. A flat piece of very lean ground beef had been grilled, then wrapped in a flour tortilla, sprinkled with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses and smothered in a chile that not only packed a hot-pepper bite but also real flavor. On the side sat a mound of semi-smooth refried beans ("No lard! No meat!" Jin exclaims) and a pile of tomato-sauce-tinged rice. We had ordered a house salad ($1.99), but when the waiter forgot to bring it until our entrees had arrived, we got it gratis. This was fortunate, because I'm not sure I would have been happy paying for dull chopped iceberg and two tomato wedges barely livened up by a runny honey-garlic dressing.
Even though our entree portions were huge, we were game for dessert--particularly since our waiter had been talking up the mud pie, the only dessert made on the premises. By the time we got around to ordering it, though, the kitchen was out. To soothe our disappointment, the waiter gave us double instead of single espressos for the same $1.50 price and threw in a Coke as well.
To avoid missing the mud pie on my second visit, I ordered two servings the second we sat down. I also immediately ordered one of the Ogden's margaritas ($2), since I had fond memories of the one I'd downed during my first meal there. Then we got down to serious eating, starting with the oddly priced appetizer quesadilla ($3.09). Two large flour tortillas sandwiched cheddar cheese, green peppers, onions and jalapenos; more of that super salsa, a blob of sour cream and a dab of guacamole made this Mexican pizza a taste sensation.
One companion's Oriental salad arrived next. A full cup of sweetened soy sauce trying to pass for dressing sat in the bottom of the bowl; in it floated shreds of iceberg, two sorry tomato wedges and several paper-thin slices of carrot. Although the salad failed to meet our expectations, the galbi ($7.29), or Korean-style barbecued short ribs that it came with, were wonderful. The three meaty ribs had been marinated in a tangy-sweet sauce and grilled to a sublime succulence. We paid an extra 50 cents for fried rice rather than steamed and were rewarded with a helping big enough for a family of four. Also included in this order was a somewhat overfried egg roll, pungent with cabbage, green onions and carrots; the melding of those ingredients indicated they'd been mixed together beforehand--not a bad idea, since it gives the cabbage time to mellow.
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Another sound marriage came in the form of my Creole soup ($1.50), a cup of chunky, tomato-based liquid teeming with celery, onions and more celery, along with imitation crab meat that had been in the broth so long it had turned a deep red on the side where it normally is white. Copious, but not unpleasant, amounts of black pepper gave the soup its sting and brought the flavors together. I followed the soup with chile rellenos ($5.99), two overbattered Anaheims stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese, paired with rice and beans--and blessedly well blanketed with more of that green chile. And the spaghetti with meat sauce ($6.99) featured a healthy ratio of topping to pasta. The meat was cut into tiny pieces, but it gave big flavor to a red sauce filled with onions and carrots, which undercut the acidity of the tomatoes and gave the sauce a sweet quality. The dish was further enhanced by fresh parsley and a nice shaking of grated parmesan.
Once again, the servings were enormous--but we held back for the mud pie. It wasn't worth the sacrifice. Two salad bowls arrived filled with graham-cracker crust, coffee ice cream, a whole can's worth of chilled fudge topping and a mound of whipped cream. These weren't mud pies, they were swamp pies, and only a chocolate-addicted sugar freak could make it through one. I stopped a busboy to ask what kind of chocolate had been used; he told me to ask our waiter. When the busboy stopped by again twenty minutes later, he inquired as to the answer. "I don't know," I said. "I haven't seen our waiter for about a half-hour--or my cappuccino." Minutes later the waiter appeared, apologizing up and down (it was a busy Friday night); needless to say, the cappuccino and a hot tea were on the house. Then I finally got to ask about the chocolate: "Is this Hershey's hot-fudge topping chilled on top of this?" "Exactly," he replied, giggling a bit. So much for making the dessert from scratch.
But the mud pie was our only true disappointment in two meals filled with something for everyone. "You know, sometimes one person wants spaghetti, another wants a stir-fry," Jin says. "I have customers telling me, `Jin, you have to have a specialty.' But I think the different things we have, that is a specialty, too. And I think it's gonna work out. Isn't that what the United States is? A big mix of everything, and it works out."
Well, sort of. But not as well as the food at the Ogden Cafe.