For more than a year, Mark Antonation ate his way up Federal Boulevard. With that journey done, he'll now explore different cuisines from around the globe right here in metro Denver, one month at a time, in Ethniche.
This is not a story about Hawaiian food. This is a story about Colorado spring weather and food trends and trying to track down a good meal despite a string of minor bad luck. It's a story that includes a couple of pints of beer and some serendipitous tacos al pastor and a good deal of driving in heavy city traffic, in sudden thunderstorms, and without a clear ending in sight. What began as a simple mission to eat Hawaiian fare from the Pacific Bonsai food truck at Station 26 Brewing Company may have eventually resulted in musubi, Hawaiian barbecue and even a scoop of creamy macaroni salad, but the journey illustrated more about Denver than the destination.
When it comes to culinary trends, no two capture Denver's attention -- both positive and negative -- like craft beer and food trucks. As a city, we support a vast armada of mobile kitchens with creative and unique offerings. But various forces -- Mother Nature, city regulations, the whim of the public -- make building a following and earning a living a tricky business. No sooner does excitement build around Mexican-Chinese fusion tacos or gluten-free Filipino empanadas than we hear about the demise of our favorite barbecue truck or Taiwanese sao bing flatbread sandwich vendor. Similarly, microbreweries in warehouses, strip malls or re-purposed firehouses erupt like billowing thunderheads across the Front Range. Beer drinkers swarm to the new places even as naysayers decry the craft-beer movement -- along with food trucks -- as hipster mimicry, overblown fads or passing DIY folly with no economic staying power.
I'm a skeptic, but I'm also a food lover, so despite doubts I say bring it on. The more creative energy and positive community that surge around the beer and food scenes, the better for us consumers -- as long as we stay educated as to what's good and keep our dollars flowing in the general direction of quality, value and talent. With that in mind, I headed out on a Wednesday evening early in May to catch up to Pacific Bonsai, which, on Facebook and Twitter, mentioned Station 26 as its regular mid-week parking spot for serving up traditional Hawaiian plate lunches and not-so-traditional versions in taco form. But the moment I hit the road, a light rain started and the temperature dropped into the upper 50s. By the time I arrived at the brewery, it was evident that the rain, while barely a drizzle, would be sticking around for the rest of the night. The food truck had already cut its losses and gone home, so I assuaged my disappointment with a pint of rich, inky foreign stout surrounded by the gleaming tile of the former fire station from which the brew house derived its name.
Exactly a week later, my plan was the same but this time a punishing cold kept me bedridden and far from interested in a long drive, fried Spam or hoppy ales. My third attempt, amidst funnel clouds, hail ranging in size from shumai to sesame balls, and street flooding in many neighborhoods brought me to Station 26, but with Pacific Bonsai once again throwing in the towel. Amy and I stayed for pints of classic IPA and red ale pleasantly smoked with cherry wood, but hunger soon pulled us off the comfortable bar stools and into the calm and crisp evening. The Rocky Mountain Chili Bowl, a Stapleton outpost of what started as a food truck itself, was close by, so we crossed from Park Hill to sample its best bowl of green. Five minutes to closing, though, is seldom a good time to experience a restaurant or its staff at their best, and we left unsatisfied despite wolfing green chili (its spelling) cheese fries and a smothered tamale.
It just didn't seem to be our night and I was resigned to going home to a late evening fried-egg sandwich, but our neighborhood taco stand, Tacos El Sampa at the corner of Evans and Zuni, had managed to hoist its blue tarp and crank up its grill despite the earlier thunderstorms. Tacos El Sampa has been stepping up its game over the past year, improving its carne al pastor and eliminating some questionable menu items. We took a plate of tacos al pastor and a barbacoa torta home and, Hawaiian delicacies forgotten, happily stuffed ourselves with rich bits of pork and beef spiked with red and green salsa ladled into plastic cups from El Sampa's sink-sized molcajetes. Keep reading for more on the search for Pacific Bonsai.
And yes, almost as an afterthought, I finally caught up to Pacific Bonsai at its new location in Civic Center Park as part of the Tuesday round of Civic Center Eats (which also features a different mix of trucks and carts on Thursdays). The Japanese-Hawaiian fusion menu features quite a few of the standards I've been noshing on all month at other restaurants; I grabbed a Spam musubi, some barbecued pork in corn tortillas (because at this point, why the hell not?) and a side of macaroni salad. Although a little pricey compared to L & L or Aloha, the musubi featured a hefty slab of Spam improved by a salty teriyaki dipping sauce. The shredded pork was a little on the sweet side due to a generous squirt of Hawaiian barbecue sauce (next time I'll ask for the sauce on the side) but the taco format was surprisingly satisfying, wrapped in a double layer of griddled tortillas and topped with pineapple.
In my May hunt for Hawaiian plate lunches, the mobile kitchen caused me the most trouble, leading me around town with 141-character Twitter clues, Facebook breadcrumbs and the barest Internet hints of other possible sightings. Like Bigfoot or unicorns, I was beginning to think the truck was a myth concocted to appeal to my gullible side. The truth is far more mundane: Food trucks must surely have a hard time committing to set schedules in firm locations due to Denver's bipolar weather moods, the fleeting trends that make any given neighborhood or microbrewery an iffy proposition, and even the city's mercurial enforcement of where trucks can or can't park to serve food.
But summer's upon us with longer, calmer, warmer days. It's time to make sticky rice while the sun shines. I'm moving on from Hawaiian cuisine, but you can find it served, at least once a week, at Civic Center Park, and at the three other permanent locations in the far corners of Littleton, Aurora and Thornton. Let us know if you spot any new or hidden loco moco or lau lau pork elsewhere in the metro area. Oh, and Mahalo.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.