What are your first three food and drink related visits when you head to your childhood hometown? What do you order? Fried Clams from Kelly's? Supreme Sauce from Raynor's? A slice from Joe's? A take out order of a green-chili cheeseburger from The Owl Cafe? Maybe it's that hot dog from Pink's or those sticky ribs from Thelma's. Or do you head home for a bowl of Mom's chicken soup and brisket?
That's what the Steuben's website wants to know. When they were working on the concept for their new restaurant, Josh Wolkon, Matt Selby and sous chef Brandon Biederman were determined to find out what food diners know like their own blood, crave like Christmas morning, need like breath. And most important, where did diners go to get it when they were in their home town?
"Me, Matty and Brandon went to Boston," Wolkon tells me. "Because that's where I'm from. That's my home town. And we went to Kelly's, Legal Sea Foods -- like a dozen places looking for lobster rolls. Steamers? We're still working on the steamers, actually." He laughs. "I don't know if we'll ever get the steamers right."
One of the guys from Vesta Dipping Grill, the (in retrospect) groundbreaking restaurant Wolkon opened almost ten years ago, was sent to Albuquerque's Owl Cafe, to get the green-chile cheeseburger and green-chile stew recipes right. And though I don't think Steuben's has the cheeseburger down (for starters, their spy should have gone to the original Owl in San Antonio, New Mexico), Selby -- who's hanging over Wolkon's shoulder during the call -- says that's a work in progress, too. He's not happy with the consistency of the Hatch chiles he's been getting. One batch is too hot, the next almost flavorless. The kitchen's been cutting the mix with Anaheims for consistency, but it's not there yet.
"We've done a lot of research," Wolkon explains, "and you know, [buying chiles] is kind of like buying futures: You put in your order before they're grown so you can guarantee some consistency year to year. We didn't know that."
The guys went to Pink's in L.A. and the Wieners Circle in Chicago to taste some serious hot-dog contenders, then decided to serve their Vienna all-beefs steamed (the way God intended) -- but got so many complaints from people who wanted them charbroiled that now the kitchen offers them both ways. The lobster salad for the lobster rolls is straight from the kitchen at Kelly's (Steuben's brings in 500 pounds of live Maine lobster every week), but even Wolkon's own brother isn't satisfied: "He says, 'The lobster roll is awesome, but it's not as good as at Kelly's,' and I have to tell him, of course it's not as good as at Kelly's. Because you're not eating it at Kelly's. You're not sitting there looking out at the ocean. But if someone wants to say we've got the second-best lobster roll behind Kelly's? Well, that's okay with me."
When I get to talking about my lobster-roll preference, Wolkon is stunned. This man has eaten a lot of lobster rolls, and he's never heard of one done the way I remember. "See?" he says. "This is how it goes. Everyone has something different they remember. But what we're doing? If it brings you somewhere close to that? That's what we're trying to do."
I ask Wolkon if he has these kind of conversations a lot, and he just laughs. "What do you think?" he asks. "Yeah. Oh, yeah. It's non-stop. It's absolutely every day. And I tell people, if you've got something better, if you want to bring in a recipe or if you want to bring in your macaroni and cheese, go for it. We'll check it out."
The lobster bisque has already been taken off the menu because it was causing sectarian violence in the dining room. "People were either loving it or sending it back like it's the worst thing they'd ever had in their life," Wolkon says. "They were yelling about it." And the deviled eggs? The house sells more deviled eggs than anything else on the appetizer menu. And probably hears more complaints about them than anything else.
It took months of back-and-forth with the staff, months of testing pickles, porks and rolls, before they could decide on a design for the Cuban sandwich. The final inspiration came from Cafe Habana in New York, and Wolkon stands by it. The pan-roasted chicken with vegetables comes from Aubergine; Wolkon would walk into Sean Kelly's restaurant on a Sunday night and see an entire dining room filled with people who'd come only to eat the special.
"You know, this is a totally different animal than Vesta," Wolkon says of the LoDo restaurant that's been under the command of sous Wade Kirwan while Selby has been watching over Steuben's. "I mean, does it make it harder because we have Vesta? Yeah. There's a certain expectation. But it's also just different because there aren't these fights, these debates. Like the sweet-chile ginger tuna. No one's saying that Vesta's sweet-chile ginger tuna doesn't taste like their mom's sweet-chile ginger tuna, because that's ours. There's no argument."
The Steuben's menu is in a state of flux -- and probably always will be. The crab boil I tried isn't selling well, so it's on the chopping block. The cioppino isn't selling that well, either, but they hope it will in the colder weather. The lobster bisque was replaced by a tomato soup (as if that's going to cause fewer problems), a lamb shank just went on the menu, and the kitchen still has a couple dozen more recipes waiting in the wings. Then there's that regular who comes in demanding that the bar start stocking cans of Schlitz...
"We're starting to figure things out," Wolkon says. "We're finding our groove."
Fourth time's a charm: Last month, Windows Cafe took over a space at 12200 East Cornell Avenue in Aurora, an address that's seen the death of not one, not two, but three very different restaurants just in the four years I've lived in the area. Maruti Narayan's, Denver Woodlands and Boudreaux's Bayou Buffet have all come and gone, and now -- as if opening a plain old restaurant in a space chock-full of ghosts weren't tough enough -- Dr. Phil Nguyen has put an all-vegetarian, pan-Asian restaurant in a location where an all-vegetarian, pan-Indian restaurant and an all-Cajun, pan-Creole buffet have failed. So from the start, Dr. Phil looks like he's a few patients short of a practice.
But the revamped space is undeniably beautiful -- warm and cozy, with hardwood floors and an Asian design scheme that looks more LoDo than Aurora. And the menu looks great. I've always said the key to making vegetarian cuisine edible is to glorify vegetables rather than simply vilify and replace meat. Vegetarian meatloaf is an abomination, an insult against all that is fine and good and decent in this world. Indian samosas, on the other hand, are one of my favorite foods -- and they're totally vegetarian (unless, like me, you sometimes wrap the leftovers in bacon). Fortunately, Windows seems to be leaning in the right direction, and its pan-Asian orientation should be a big advantage, since many (okay, most) of the best vegetable-centric dishes originated in the Mysterious East.
The menu includes Vietnamese spring rolls and fried egg rolls, golden tofu laced with ginger sauce, Vietnamese vegetable stew with coconut milk and star anise, rice crepes filled with mushroom-and-onion stir-fry, and Singapore rice noodles with yellow curry. And while Windows does offer the occasional mung-bean-and-seitan preparation, it also serves fried bananas, mango lassis, durian milkshakes and grilled eggplant in scallion oil over rice, which is one of the simplest and most elegant vegetarian presentations I've seen in a long time. So who knows? Maybe Dr. Phil will manage to break the curse on this space.
Meanwhile, out in Castle Pines Village, Kannan Alagappan -- the former owner of Denver Woodlands -- has made it through the grand opening of his new place, Chutney's. Chef (and partner) Ravi Chandra has put together a surprisingly deep menu, featuring the dosas that were such a draw at Woodlands, some non-vegetarian dishes from the south of India, Mughlai preparations from the north and specialties from Bangalore. Chandra has quite a resumé: He turned down an engineering scholarship in favor of a stint at the Sathya Sai catering school, followed by years of restaurant work in and around India. He came to the United States in 2001, working first at Dakshin in Chicago and then in New York City. He developed his own versions of Indian flavors there, then broke with tradition again to make the jump to Colorado.
Chandra plans to add to the Chutney's board whenever he can. And while I can't say I'm happy about having to drive all the way to Castle Pines to have a go at his cuisine, I'm excited to see what this guy can do.
Leftovers: Over at 338 East Colfax Avenue, the former Walnut Cafe space is finally getting a makeover. Come mid-October, Sergio Rodriguez will open the place as Emilio's Super Chef.
Why the strange name? That's a pretty cool story. Rodriguez has a little lunch truck that he's had parked at Third and Bryant for some time; he calls it "Little Emilio," after his son. He'd always intended on naming his first actual restaurant after the boy as well, and "Emilio's" was the name scrawled on the temporary paper sign blocking the windows. But in the process of tearing down the old Walnut Cafe sign to make room for a neon Emilio's sign, Rodriguez noticed something behind the plywood backing.
"I saw something that looked like a hand," he explained when I got him on the phone last week. "It looked like a little bunny rabbit or something, actually." When he pulled off the plywood, what he found was a hand making an "Okay" sign (so you can see why he might have been thinking bunny rabbit, right?) and the name "Super Chef."
"My sign guy, he says it's probably from the '50s, or maybe from sometime between the '50s and '60s," Rodriguez said. "He says he's seen some other ones that old around, but not many. And right away, people started coming, taking pictures. So I knew I had something."
What he had was the future Emilio's Super Chef.
Rodriguez -- the son-in-law of Benny Armas, who owns the ever-popular Benny's,at 301 East Seventh Avenue -- plans to do a lot of takeout business from his Colfax location. "I'm setting it up like a Chipotle or a Baja Fresh," he said. "You know, because people like that now. They know that kind of business." And so he's going to be starting with no waitresses on the floor, just counter service where you order at one end of the rail and pick up your finished food on the other. "But if you want to sit down, you can sit down," he insisted. "I've got plenty of chairs. I'm going to make the dining room really comfortable."
The menu will be Mexican, with everything made fresh to order -- just like Rodriguez has been doing at Little Emilio's. He'll be offering delivery service from the start, and hopes to be able to expand into the empty space next door. "I'm moving up," he said. "Little by little, we're moving up. This is our first real place now. And it's not going to be the last."
I loved Pizzeria Mundo when I reviewed it ("A World of Discovery," July 27), and I love John Pool's place at 1312 17th Street even more now that it has beer and wine (and a happy hour from 9 to 11 p.m.). So many people love Mona's, 2364 15th Street, that co-owner Garen Austin reports the popular spot is now serving dinner every day but Tuesday, which means the onetime breakfast bar is now a three-a-day operation.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.