The Name Game
Bad enough that Chris Douglas and his crew had to take on the sorry history of the 250 Josephine Street address when they opened Tula there (see review). Bad enough that they have to deal with a crowd of diners who have long memories (when Ian Kleinman was cooking there, he'd sometimes get requests that his kitchen try to copy some of former chef-owner Radek Cerny's impossible-to-reproduce spécialités de la maison from guests still openly lamenting the closing of Papillon in 2002); a market already overcrowded with high-end, Mexican-influenced menus; and a lot of niggling architectural details (unusual bathrooms, narrow patio and those planters that run the length of the front windows, deliberately built to screen any view into the dining room from the street) that have plagued the space for a decade.
Bad enough that Douglas also has to worry about the food, the head counts and all the other crushing stresses that come from being a rookie owner with a hot project in a hard neighborhood.
But then his troubles were multiplied by a letter from Richard Sandoval's legal thugs demanding that Tula change its name.
Not the "Tula" part; that's apparently okay. What irked Sandoval -- chef-owner of Tamayo and Zengo, as well as properties in New York, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco and Dubai -- was that Douglas, in his press materials and advertising, was calling the place "Tula Modern Mexican." And as you know (or would, if you read the March 30 Second Helping on Tamayo), "Modern Mexican" is the wholly inappropriate catchphrase that Sandoval uses to describe the five-year-old menu still being flogged to the Larimer Square tourists who wander into Tamayo.
"Yeah, I got the letter," Douglas tells me, laughing even though it no doubt bugged him. "They asked us not to use the words 'Modern Mexican,' so we changed it to 'Fine Mexican,' which means...I don't know. It means fine cuisine or whatever."
Actually, if you look at Tula's newest ads, you'll know exactly what "fine" means, because Douglas offers a list of about twenty synonyms -- everything from "excellent," "choice" and "dandy" to "wicked" and "aces" -- and caps off the definition of "fine" with "anything but modern," a purposeful dig at the ridiculousness of trying to claim ownership of a phrase.
For Sandoval, that's one down and -- according to a Google search for the phrase "Modern Mexican" - another 117,998 to go. The first two hits for the phrase actually lead to Sandoval's own website, modernmexican.com, but the rest led to everything from the Prickly Pear restaurant in Mooresville, North Carolina, to Rick Bayless's Frontera in Chicago, Palmilla in Cabo San Lucas and modern Mexican artist Leonardo Nierman.
Sandoval and his legal team had better get cracking.
On the run: Come May 21, I'll be far from the official Colfax Marathon, with all those tiny pairs of shorts and bad cases of jock itch. Seriously, I haven't voluntarily run anywhere in longer than I can remember, and I'm not about to start now.
But last week, using feet and car, I created my own private Colfax Marathon. First stop: Great Wall Chinese Restaurant, at 440 East Colfax Avenue, a dependable neighborhood delivery joint with occasionally legendary crab-and-cheese wontons. It's now offering hot wings and rib tips, too, which sounds weird, but I've seen Chinese restaurants serve calamari, cannoli, burritos and barbecue. There's a place over by my house where I can get shredded pork in that red barbecue sauce topped with cabbage, as well as an ice cream sundae for dessert. With all the equipment that's required to prepare a normal Chinese menu, the kitchen can turn out nearly anything else. And most Chinese-restaurant owners are willing to have their kitchens do just that, if they think chicken wings, tacos, sushi plates or Boston cream pie will bring in a few more bucks.
At Great Wall, these border crossings seem to be working. As I left, I saw a couple of people check out the construction-paper signs taped up in the windows promising chicken and ribs, then go inside and order.
By then I was already moving on and peeking through the windows of 338 East Colfax, the former home of the Walnut Cafe. Although the Walnut bailed out of the neighborhood only a couple of weeks ago (after holding down this corner for 22 years), the dusty, dim, empty space looks as though it's been abandoned for years. I heard that a lease fight finally put an end to the long lunches and pancake breakfasts at the Walnut, and that's no real surprise. These blocks are becoming valuable property, what with all the talk about gentrifying Colfax and turning it into another high-tone retail/restaurant corridor. But in the meantime, where am I going to get my fucking pancakes?
At Tom's Diner, at 601 East Colfax, I guess -- perennial fall-back position for the terminally restless and flapjack-addicted. I don't go to Pete's Kitchen anymore; fighting my way through all the club kids and drunks and drag queens and rock stars has become more of a hassle than a Pete's breakfast burrito is worth. Tom's, on the other hand, remains a 24/7/365 roller coaster of the human experience, a shot of street life and nightlife and highlife and lowlife all rolled into one insomniac bitch-slap. On its best nights, Tom's can be more fun than a room full of chimps and liquor. On its worst, it's a nightmare straight out of Stanley Kubrick's Hello Kitty dream journal.
While making my way up and down Colfax last week trolling for news, I saw a guy passed out in the back of the parking lot at Tom's with his dick still hanging out of his pants. I assumed that he probably went down for the count while trying to take a leak out of sight of the Colfax traffic -- but that's mostly because all the other possibilities that came to mind were just too gross. Or grotesque. But what was undeniably great about finding an unconscious man with his tackle hanging out lying in a puddle of his own piss in a Colfax parking lot was that it wasn't three in the morning when I saw him. It was more like three in the afternoon. So, yeah. Gentrify that.
At 911 East Colfax (former home of 911 Hot Wings, Gabriella's Catering and Gabriella's Cafe, among others), Pita Grill and Hookah has been open for just a month and change. The joint, which is owned by a tangle of partners who also have interests in Damascus on Colorado Boulevard and Pita Jungle on South University, is doing Mediterranean food for vampires: gyros, falafel, shawarma and the like, all served until three in the morning, seven days a week. And it's doing good trade, too. I talked to one of the managers, who said they're thinking about extending their weekend hours until four.
tHERe Coffee Bar & Lounge now occupies the former Oh My Goddess space at 1526 East Colfax and is very proud of both its lesbian orientation and its coffee. Partners Jody B and Kathleen are all over the website, and there's a big LavAzza sign by the front door. It's tough to miss either. And down at 1618 East Colfax, within sprinting distance of the #15 bus stop, Bourbon Grill still serves one of the best deals in town: a to-go box of Bourbon chicken -- whole breasts cooked on a smoky, char-black grill, then pulled off, assaulted with a cleaver, doused in sauce and thrown down over a mound of rice -- for a grand total of $2.99. Bourbon Grill also cooks up egg rolls, chicken wings, barbecue sandwiches, cheesesteaks and, for all I know, unicorn burgers, kim chee, cotton candy and authentic Philly soft pretzels. To be honest, I never walk away from the place with anything but the namesake chicken, but that's all a boy like me ever needs.
Further east, at Colfax and York, longtime occupant Sushi Heights is gone, replaced by Nohana Sushi. At 3015 East Colfax, partners Jesse Morreale and Sean Yontz are working to get Perry's back open to the public at their hotel, the All-Inn. Not far away, at 3525 East Colfax, Steve's Snappin' Dogs has a full lot and people walking from blocks around just to get a bite of Steve and Linda Ballas's two-month-old contribution to the Colfax street scene.
Linda is the daughter of Denver's own Blinky the Clown, which is why the place tries to move a bunch of Blinky-centric paraphernalia across the counter, but that does not explain why the sound system was blaring the soundtrack to Oliver when I visited. On that day, Steve's kitchen crew didn't have the fryers turned up hot enough, so the fries were soggy and the deep-fried green beans and carrot sticks were really just hot, greasy and crusted with salt.
The service was friendly, though, and the dogs were fine -- if overpriced. Steve's uses Thurman's hot dogs, which come in from New Jersey and have that distinctive snap of a well-prepared, stiff-skinned dog. But what's piled on top of those dogs can be scary. A friend from Chicago tried the "Chicago Dog" and was horrified by the use of spicy mustard. Another friend from Texas couldn't figure out why the "Dallas Dog" came smothered in out-of-the-can chili con carne and cheese. The "Jersey Dog" had red onions and bacon for no reason I could figure. And the "Denver Burrito Dog" was smothered in chili-with-an-I becausewhy? It's not like green chile is tough to find in these parts. Take it from a pro: A good dog laced with a couple strips of Hatch and some cheese -- or even cheez-with-a-z -- is a wonder to behold.
Naming conventions and fryer temps aside, it cost me $31 for three dogs, three sides and three drinks, which was too much by about half. If I'm paying 31 bucks for hot dogs, I expect them to come with a baseball game to watch and maybe a chance at catching a home-run ball. Here my 31 bucks bought me a view of a used-car lot and a giant billboard recently put up by the folks from Heidi's Brooklyn Deli, which announces: "Great News For Hot Dog Lovers," reminding all and sundry (but particularly New Yorkers) that Heidi's has dogs, too, and uses Nathan's Famous brand weiners.
Leftovers: Last week, news came down that chef Tyler Wiard is jumping across the Creek from Mel's Restaurant and Bar to Elway's, and that Charles Schwerd, Elway's former chef, is bumping up to corporate chef, which means the folks behind Elway's (including Big John himself and Tim Schmidt) could be thinking outside the Denver box.
"The reality is that Tim Schmidt owns three other -- soon to be five other -- Hacienda Colorados," says Tom Moxcey, manager of Elway's. The original three are in the metro area, but the others will likely be outside the market. And all of those Hacienda Colorados, though not in need of day-to-day oversight by a corporate chef, will need some menu planning and direction from an off-site executive.
Which is handy, because Schwerd is looking at moving to Arizona.
"Charles will be able to work with them, but not be here on a day-to-day basis," Moxcey adds.
As for Elway's, while Moxcey concedes that an expansion of that concept is a "possibility," he says there's been no serious discussion yet. For the Cherry Creek mainstay, Wiard will write a new menu that follows the protein-steak-seafood model that's already proven so successful, and this menu will "continue to evolve," Moxcey tells me. "What we always said was that we wanted to open one really good restaurant. And we're not there yet, but we're getting there."
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