Although you won't find a Sambuca Jazz Café -- yet -- there are plenty of other chain options after you work up an appetite while Christmas shopping at Park Meadows. And some of those chains are even homegrown, which makes them real gifts to the Denver dining scene. For example, as one reader of my November 18 column on sake correctly pointed out, there's a third Sonoda's outlet very close to Park Meadows (it's actually in Centennial Promenade, which is anchored by REI, Toys R Us and American Furniture Warehouse). But since this Sonoda's closes between lunch and dinner, for a recent mid-afternoon shopping repast, I headed over to Walnut Brewery (9627 East County Line Road). This suburban version serves the same wonderful fish and chips ($2.95 on the kids' menu) that you get at the Boulder original, and salmon is the surprise swimmer inside the beery batter. While my girls cleaned their plates, I got to suck down a couple of microbrews (the sweet Devil's Back stout, $3.50 a pint, is worth checking out) that helped me forget the sight of two grown men fighting over a parking space. Ahhh, the holidays.
Although Bella Ristorante, another hometown eatery, has a second outlet at Park Meadows that serves the same good pasta you get at the LoDo incarnation, I've found the service down south pretty lame. A better option is the Pub at Nordstrom, a joint with national origins but local chef Jim Begbie making fancy fare for a good price and serving it up in an atmosphere evocative of an upscale British pub. Also at Park Meadows, I'd skip the California Café (in fact, I do: Aren't we over that food yet?), but folks with kids can't go wrong at another national chain choice, Alcatraz Brewing Co. Alcatraz has a good kid's menu, treats families very well and brews up some good beers.
In the Promenade area, you'll find Jason's Deli (9525 East County Line Road), where overgrown teenagers offer slightly better service than you get at the typical McDonald's, and the food tastes cheaper. For a sandwich or a salad, cross the parking lot to J. Alexander's (9709 East County Line Road), which offers an enormous seared ahi tuna salad ($11) with wasabe vinaigrette. Or get some soup and a smoothie a few storefronts away at Jamba Juice. There's a Juice Stop, too, down closer to Barnes & Noble at 8353 South Willow Street. (And that reminds me: If you've stopped by your favorite Juice Stop in the last month only to find it's been changed to a Juice Kitchen, that's because the company that started the Juice Stops wanted to distinguish the outlets it owns from the ones it franchises. So it changed the names of the four company-owned locations -- 700 Colorado Boulevard, 4940 South Yosemite in Englewood, and the Littleton stores at 7545 South University Boulevard and 8294 West Bowles Avenue -- and dropped all but the four most popular of the 32 juice drinks the franchise Juice Stops continue to offer. The four Juice Kitchens are also doing the healthy thing with soups and Odwalla bars.)
Meanwhile, back at Park Meadows, P.F. Chang's (8325 Park Meadows Center Drive) isn't a bad choice -- if you can get in. Z'Tejas, a stand-alone that borders the mall itself, is fine for grazing so long as you don't stray from the appetizer portion of the menu. And Wahoo's Fish Taco (9617 East County Line Road) and Rubio's Baja Grill (9447 Park Meadows Drive) continue to hang in there despite the fact that they both serve up fish tacos. If I had to go with one over the other, it would be Wahoo's, partly because I don't like Rubio's heavy tortillas, but also because Rubio's sits in a weird space behind the United Artists theaters. Also back there is Mimi's Cafe (9155 Park Meadows Drive), which a friend says is only slightly less annoying than a Gunther Toody's.
I'll take her word for it.
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Getting my kicks: I received several responses to my November 25 Mouthing Off column on Sambuca's public-relations person, Lori Midson, who also serves as restaurant critic for 5280 magazine -- although no one called in her defense. But any question of conflicts of interest is currently on hold: Midson is now on maternity leave from the restaurant. One of the restaurants that Midson listed in the magazine as currently needing a kick in the butt was Mel's Bar and Grill (235 Fillmore). On a recent Saturday night, I found the place alive and kicking, with a barful of fortysomething men longing for companionship and a dining room packed with important-looking folks (was that the Post's Bill Husted eating nothing but a salad?).
My companion and I shared some stunning food, including a dish of sinful risotto soaked with white truffle oil and liberally garnished with black truffle shavings ($8.95), a Napoleon of ahi tuna ($9.25) swabbed with a mango coulis and wasabi crème fraiche, a decadent slab of foie gras with sake-braised leeks and a papaya salsa ($12.95), and an indescribably rich and innovative lobster macaroni and cheese ($9.95), which used mascarpone in place of cheddar and contained enough butter to sauté a cow. We paired all of that with an interesting champagne that was listed on the menu as a "best value," and we were treated to savvy, smiling service. Kick in the butt, my ass.
What's in a name? What had been the Stir Crazy Cafe at 290 South Downing Street is now the Crazy Asian; owners and menu remain the same. While one employee told me over the phone that the name was changed because people thought it was a coffee shop, there's a chain by the same name in Chicago that might have stirred things up, too. Either way, Crazy Asian seems like a crazy choice -- but is it any crazier than the name of a new sports bar in the Parker area? Head right over to 17785 Cottonwood Drive for Funugyz!