While doing some last-second research on the Best of Denver 2008, I discovered that Slayton & Corine's, a strange little lunch-only carry-out soul-food restaurant that had opened in the McKinley Mansion, at 950 Logan Street (Bite Me, July 7, 2007), was no more.
This sucked, because Slayton and Corine Evans had made some fiercely good fried tilapia that was just perfect for eating with your fingers on a hot summer afternoon. But the loss of this spot wasn't even the worst news on the soul-food scene this past year. In January, after 37 years in business, Ethel's House of Soul finally went dark when septuagenarian Ethel Allen decided it was finally time to retire.
But Ethel's former home at 2622 Welton Street didn't stay dark for long: Coleman's Soul Food is now up and running in that same space. Owner Henry Coleman, a former lunchwagon cook out of Detroit, and his niece Tyawne Williams switched on the open sign just last month, and while neither of them knew Ethel Allen, they're certainly keeping up her soul-food tradition, getting good reviews for their chicken, ribs, brisket and smothered pork chops. When I called the place last week, I made the mistake of doing so during the lunch rush (my fault — I should've known better), and Williams hustled me off the phone. But a couple of hours later, when I called back, she apologized sweetly and told me she'd just been real busy. "It's Henry and me," she said. "All day, every day."
Day by day: For the past few weeks, chef Duy Pham has put me on hold for what he thought was going to be his new gig — working his magic at Sage Hospitality's new luxury hotel in Portland, Oregon, called The Nines. Unfortunately, the hotel has had some trouble: construction delays, overshot budgets (a planned cost of about $118 million has risen into the $130-to-$135 million range) and a restructuring of the two restaurants that will be part of the project where Pham had hoped to be executive chef.
But when Sage decided to hire someone for the Nines with more hotel experience, Pham's position devolved into what he describes as a "chef de cuisine gig" at the Asian-themed Departures lounge — and the opening of that spot was delayed (again) until sometime next year. "And I'm not going to wait around a year to be chef de cuisine at an Asian restaurant," Pham told me. Not even one destined to be as slick as the multimillion-dollar Departures.
Meanwhile, there's another job Pham won't be doing: standing as chef at Aqua, his buddy Jay Chadrom's oyster bar and lounge at 925 Lincoln Street. Pham's last day behind the bar-slash-kitchen there was a couple weeks ago, and he insists that he and Chadrom parted ways amicably. Again. (Pham was Chadrom's opening chef at Aqua, and before that was one of the original partners at 0pal, Chadrom's restaurant across the street at 100 East Ninth Avenue.) "There was only so much I could do," Pham said, explaining that his taking the gig (which came with a partnership interest) had been as much a favor to Chadrom as Chadrom's offering him the chef's job had been a favor to Pham. At the time, Pham had needed work (and money), and Chadrom had desperately needed a chef to help turn the place around. "But I get a big salary," Pham continued. "And the business didn't justify my salary. I can only do so much."
Still, he said he left Aqua in good shape. The crowds have come back, the weekend business is good, and Fridays are killer. But at its best, Aqua is a very simple oyster bar and fresh-seafood joint — and a chef with Pham's training and background really is wasted on boiling peel-and-eats and popping the hinges on Kumamotos all night.
So this leaves Pham without a job, right? Wrong. The kid is a hustler, and when I spoke with him late last week, he was headed out the door to Charlie Huang's new restaurant, Jing, at 5370 Greenwood Plaza Boulevard in Greenwood Village, where he'd picked up some work consulting on the dessert menu. He was also talking with the bosses of the Thai Basil chain about maybe helping out with another overhaul of the space they own at 1312 East Sixth Avenue. It started out as Thai Thai Hibachi, became Hue Asian Bistro after the hibachi idea blew up, and is still struggling to make a name for itself among the super-hot properties along that stretch.
But Pham didn't say whether he had anything in mind for the space — or even if anything was going to come of his discussions. "We're just talking," he told me, and then he had to go — off to another meeting, and then to Jing. "I'll call you if anything happens."
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Leftovers: Just as the Best of Denver was going to press, the finalists for this year's James Beard Awards were announced, and Colorado did pretty well. Frasca came in with two nominations — one for co-owner Bobby Stuckey for being a kick-ass wine guy, another for co-owner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson as the Best Chef Southwest, where he's competing against another Coloradan, Ryan Hardy of Montagna in Aspen.
And yes, I'm one of three finalists in the Restaurant Review category, which drew entries from every newspaper and magazine out there, from the New York Times to the Modesto Bee, from Food Arts magazine to the newsletter of the Cranberry Defense League. Five years ago, when only newspapers competed in a version of this category, I actually won it.
Still, just being nominated this year means a great deal to me, because if I somehow manage to squeak out an against-all-odds win against the likes of Colman Andrews from Gourmet and Brad Johnson from Angeleno, that will make me the first guy ever to take home a medal from the Beard House for a piece of writing that used the phrase "elf pussy."
My mom would be so proud.