One of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurants -- past winner of a Best of Denver award -- is nine-year-old Damascus, at 2276 South Colorado Boulevard. Unlike Sahara Restaurant (see review this issue), which has a Lebanese focus, Damascus emphasizes Syrian cooking, which translates into more cabbage, more pickled items, some delectable little Syrian sausages, and homemade pitas. Owner Mahmoud Kassir recently opened a second Damascus in Arvada, at 6550 Wadsworth Boulevard, and he's making the pitas from scratch there, too. And what pitas they are: thin and light, with a toasty smell and a faintly nutty flavor.
But Damascus is no longer the only place in town making its own pitas: Sami Kraydie is also giving us our daily bread, and darn good bread at that. Last month Kraydie bowed out of Sinbad, 2236 South Colorado Boulevard (it's still owned by former Kraydie partner Hassam Essmail, who also owns La Zeez, at 2495 South Colorado); a few weeks later he opened Pita Jungle, at 2017 South University Boulevard. In addition to transforming the inside -- which had been home to the filthy and unappealing Keefan Middle Eastern seemingly forever, until briefly housing another Middle Eastern joint, Luxor -- Kraydie added some tables outside and set up an awning. And he bought a pizza oven so that he, too, could turn out beautiful breads. (One of my few complaints about Kraydie's food at Sinbad was that the pitas sucked.) He's also expanded his broad Lebanese repertoire to include such American items as hamburgers, cheesesteaks and cold-cut sandwiches, and he's putting in a juice bar. If you ever had the misfortune to dine at Keefan, you'd never recognize the place , in looks or in taste.
Meanwhile, back at Sinbad, remaining owner Essmail isn't particularly interested in talking about his Kraydie-less eatery. When asked if the menu is the same as it had been, he responds: "Same." When asked if he's planning to change anything, Essmail responds: "No. Same." Of course, what Essmail doesn't want to talk about is that Kraydie did all of the cooking at Sinbad, and so the place can't really be the "same."
But not for lack of trying. And what is it with all of these Middle Eastern joints opening within a pita's throw of each other, not to mention the granddaddy of them all? The Jerusalem, at 1890 East Evans Avenue, marks its twentieth anniversary this year and is still going strong -- with big tastes, big crowds and big weekend hours, when it's open 24 hours a day.
A bit farther afield is Phoenicia Grille, at 727 Colorado Boulevard, which I raved about last summer ("The Pita Principle," July 22, 1999). Although the Phoenicia was sold earlier this year, new owner Jim Kher has coaxed even better food out of the kitchen, and the culinary-school training of chef Mustafa Awada shows.
Open-and-shut cases: Mon dieu! Civilization as we know it is about to end, because come mid-month, The Normandy, at 1515 Madison Street, will shut its doors for good. But just because the restaurant is closing doesn't mean that longtime owner, gadfly and gadabout Pierre Wolfe will close his mouth. He'll continue to talk about all things gustatorial -- on the radio and in person -- but just not from a seat at the Normandy, where he's reigned for over forty years. (The announcement of the closing came when Wolfe was out of town, which meant his wife, Jean, finally was able to get a word in edgewise.) The last evening to eat at this Denver institution is June 17; most of the parties that had been booked there for later in the summer are being picked up by Tante Louise, 4900 East Colfax Avenue. But that's only fair, since Tante Louise occupies the Normandy's original home, where Wolfe and his cousin, Heinz Gerstle, first opened their doors in 1958.
The Wolfes are selling the Normandy's current home to Tom and Rose Casabona, owners of Rose's Cafe, a modest, seventeen-year-old eatery at 731 Quebec that features an ambitious lineup of Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian and American fare. By moving to 1515 Madison, the Casabonas can triple Rose's size -- but will that also mean triple the countries whose cuisines are featured?
A mile or so toward the Capitol, Taki's, at 341 East Colfax Avenue, promises to be up and running by the end of this week. A fire last summer devastated the place, and the repair job took much longer than originally anticipated. Soyheads should get in line now for the cheapest and tastiest edamame in town.
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