Wake-Up Call

Even as I was checking a few last details for my review of Snooze , owner Jon Schlegel was making changes to his menu. "It's an evolving process," he said when I got him on the phone last week. "You know, I've seen these breakfast places with like forty, fifty items on their menu, and the kitchens just get overwhelmed. I figured if we could have just ten things on the menu and do them really well, that would be a better way to start."

Which would be fine, as long as the ten things aren't as bland as the stuff I tried at Snooze and the "evolving process" moves fast enough that fans of the place don't get bored before the next change comes through. And, c'mon, a breakfast joint without eggs Benny? That's ridiculous.

Schlegel and I talked about that, and about his new pancake and omelette offerings, and about what he's going to do to make the lunch menu less dull. For starters, he's instituting a seasonal bump to his board, with the first one set to take effect mid-July and other changes coming with shifts in the weather. "The thing is, those menus are all written," he said. "They're all waiting. And now that my kitchen and my crew have gotten comfortable with the business, they're like, 'Come on. We're ready for the challenge.'"

According to Schlegel, he and chef/partner Brenda Buenviaje traveled and tested extensively before rolling out Snooze's original menu. But I think they could have learned plenty without ever leaving Denver. Between places like Davies Chuck Wagon Diner ("Nothing Could Be Finer," June 8), Pete's Kitchen, Mama's Cafe, the Breakfast King, Zaidy's (see Second Helping) and now Lucile's, Denver has a fine and upstanding tradition of great breakfast joints. We have good real diners and good retro diners, early-morning ethnic spots and nouvelle hipsterias full of facial piercings and arugula. And if Schlegel and Buenviaje were really looking for a little culinary inspiration, they didn't need to go any farther than 12 East Eleventh Avenue, where Metro Kitchen + Bar opened last year in the former home of Fat Daddy and today serves a bill of fare perfectly balanced in all the ways that Snooze's isn't (yet).

Now, I don't much like Metro. During the day, it's often desolate and looks like a temporary cafeteria thrown up inside a building that really wants to be a small, exclusive nightclub, and on the weekends, it's all hat boys and skank as far as the eye can see. But I do like the menu -- a balanced, thoughtful, creative and generally well-executed list of breakfast and lunch dishes that's smart enough to deserve a better location and traditional enough to be comforting despite the room in which it's served. With Mexi-Greek-American influences, it's a diverse lineup that goes easy on the complicated stuff (there's no sauce more intricate than the plain green chile on the breakfast burrito, no ingredient that isn't instantly recognizable to anyone who's eaten out in Denver over the last ten years, as long as at least one of those meals has involved avgolemono soup). The more solid entrees are accented by such lighthearted items as triple-decker PB&J sandwiches (which Snooze should start serving immediately) and chili cheese dogs.

Metro's kitchen is capable of doing pancakes and French toast at the same time without suffering any sort of existential crisis, and it also makes decent French fries (even if the mustard potato salad tastes exactly like the kind you find in the King Soopers deli case). And finally, the signature Metro cheeseburger is one of my favorite burgers in town, mounting a good, mid-rare patty on a sesame bun, then topping that with sliced gyros meat, a fried egg, cheddar cheese and tzatziki sauce. It's basically a big burger with an entire Greek breakfast plate dumped on top of it, and it's amazing.

I hope Schlegel's next menu is good. I really do. And if it isn't? Well, I know exactly where he should go to start planning for next season.

Leftovers: Speaking of new menus, Udi's Bread Bistro in Stapleton (Second Helping, March 9) has a fresh summer board as well, which I wouldn't mention at all except that it looks so freakin' good. Chickpea ravioli with summer tomato sauce and asparagus? Pork chops with creamed corn, collard greens and romesco? Or how about made-to-order hummus, served warm with housemade pickles, fresh bread, olives and tomatoes? This place just continues to surprise me -- pleasantly.

Kevin Taylor's Boulder rendition of Prima opens July 10 at One Boulder Plaza (at the corner of 13th and Walnut streets), and the summer dinner menu (which has been introduced at the Prima in downtown Denver, too) looks interesting and very, very Italian, with a lineup of crudo (most notably a raw diver scallop with preserved lemon and tomato water), antipasti, primi and secondi items, as well as four gourmet pizzas for snackers. Like Luca d'Italia, Prima features app-sized pastas -- such traditional plates as beef-cheek ravioli with prosciutto, gnocchi with sage and walnuts, and squid-ink linguini -- in hopes of getting folks to eat their way through four full courses, including a main of such dishes as striped sea bass with mussel ragout or veal Milanese with porcini risotto and lemon brown butter. The coolest thing about the new menu? It tops out around twenty bucks, and fully half of the plates go for ten dollars or less.  

Los Cabos II (1525 Champa Street) just introduced a $15 Peruvian brunch buffet that runs from noon until 5 p.m. on Sundays, and has new blood in the kitchen with chef Aldo Castanogla. I called Victoria Lopez last week to get the skinny, and she sounded both excited and exhausted. "We've just been full; we've been slammed all the time," she said. On Father's Day, they were on a wait -- and that was with more tables recently added to the floor. Now, with the buffet, "It's going to be crazy."

Crazy for the kitchen, too. The buffet spread includes about forty dishes, each of them "very typical, very, very Peruvian," Lopez said. What's more, most of them are off-menu, and the lineup will change every week. "We like to surprise people," she explained. "We want to give them something new."

And the city will get more Peruvian food when Limon, the new venture by Cafe Bisque chef/owner Alex Gurevich, opens to the public at 1618 East 17th Avenue on July 13. Is Gurevich going to hit that date? "Yeah," he said last week. "It's hectic, but it's exciting. I haven't gotten any sleep. We really should be opening in, like, two months, but instead it's two weeks."

Limon will feature Novoandino cuisine, a modern fusion from out of the Andes that draws on Peru's rich immigrant history and combines traditional Andean grains and ingredients with Spanish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese influences. The result is a borderless, globe-trotting menu that's a dream for chefs because it gives them a method and a canon in which to experiment with fusions that might not otherwise be possible. "It's an amazing culture, an amazing ingredient list," Gurevich explained, telling me about his repeated trips down to Lima and beyond to visit friends and research the menu. But no matter how amazing that ingredient list is, it's going to be tough to cook without any food in the house -- and when I talked with him, Gurevich's first palette of supplies from Peru was still languishing in a warehouse somewhere in Texas, hung up somehow in the shipping process.

At the time, he still had eight days until a charity party, nine until the first test dinner, fourteen before the grand opening. "If I can't get the stuff out of Texas, there's another distributor in California I can call," he promised. "I'll figure it out."

The space is small -- just sixty seats -- but the menu (which should top out somewhere around $15) is ambitious. And the bar will be well-stocked, leaning heavily on the alcoholic traditions of South America: caipirinhas, pisco sours, mojitos and a solid South American and Spanish wine list featuring twenty bottles priced at twenty bucks or less. Chris Lambert (late of the Fourth Story) is in the galley as Gurevich's chef de cuisine, and a lot of other staffers from the Fourth are filling out positions on the floor and in the kitchen.

When Limon opens, Denver will boast a half-dozen Peruvian places, including Piscos and Machu Picchu. But Cowbobas, a new joint at 2991 West Evans Avenue (formerly a Wholly Guacamole), is definitely a first, a cross-cultural, culinary mash-up concept never before seen in Denver: a cheap, casual, Vietnamese/cowboy steak and boba smoothie restaurant. The menu is a dream of melting-pot weirdness, pitting strip steaks and corn dogs against Vietnamese coffee and flan and durian smoothies. And the concept is just crazy enough that Cowbobas might work.

For those of you not down with the current gustatory oddities, boba (or bubble) tea came out of Taiwan and China in the early '90s, blanketed Asia, and is now popping up everywhere in this country, where "boba" is a catch-all term used to describe a flavored beverage spiked with little balls of tapioca. Pho restaurants serve the stuff. Chinese restaurants and some Indonesian restaurants serve it. Shops stuck in unpopular corners of strip malls all over the city -- bright and slightly freaky places, decorated in the style of a Day-Glo, lysergic-acid nightmare -- serve nothing but boba to a seemingly endless stream of thirteen-year-old Asian girls.  

The prices at Cowbobas are frighteningly low (a 22-ounce Porterhouse runs $13.50, $8.25 for a New York strip, and an order of mashed potatoes with gravy will set you back just 75 cents), and the boba smoothie selection is admirably large. The thirty varieties include everything from the aforementioned durian (the single-most terrifying fruit on God's green earth, with a taste like onion custard and a smell like good cheese smeared on a rotten foot), to less challenging flavors like strawberry, banana and honeydew, to truly authentic Asian offerings like red bean, taro, lychee and the original boba: milk tea.

I can't wait to check this place out.

I also have a hankering to stop by Boca Room (formerly Lounge), at 1509 Marion Street. If you grew up in or around New York City in the '70s, you'll remember Crazy Eddie -- the guy with the stereo and electronics shops who had the commercials where he'd scream into the camera, shouting, "At Crazy Eddie's, the prices are so low, they're INSANE!" That's exactly what I thought when I saw Boca's new menu, which lists a $5 Wednesday-night steak special (it's a four-ounce filet, which is about the size of a baby's fist), pork chops for $8.95, cheeseburgers for under four bucks, PBR in the can for a dollar and (I love this) "Awesome Chicken Tid Bits on a Tub of pan fried potatoes in olive oil for $3.95 for the health conscious."

Here's a tip: Any menu reference to a "Tub" of anything should not be followed by a reference to health-consciousness. Still, you have to admire Boca Room for being one of the first joints to hype its patio as "smoker friendly." In the coming weeks, I'm sure we'll see lots of other places jumping on that bandwagon.

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2262 Larimer St.
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