What's a Belgian cafe doing on Colfax? Serving very good food.
The first time I saw the Cheeky Monk, I thought to myself, "Well, that's going to last about five minutes." An upscale Belgian beer cafe on one of the weirdest, wildest stretches of Colfax? It would be a nice idea somewhere else — like, say, Portland or Antwerp. But as I walked on past the Cheeky Monk, I saw an intemperate fella asleep in the back booth of the Roslyn, his T-shirt riding up over his enormous white belly, then almost got hit by a cop car screeching around the corner in pursuit of ghosts. I figured I could probably make a nice nickel or two laying down a death-pool bet on how long this Monk was going to last. Ten minutes seemed like a safe bet, but I would've been willing to go down to five if the odds were right.
That was two years ago.
The first time I stepped inside the Cheeky Monk, several months after it opened, the acres of polished hardwood flooring were being trod by almost no one except a few dedicated drinkers at the bar and one or two tables on the floor. I was there with another writer, and we joked about the place, inventing back stories for the people there — how this one had gotten lost on his way downtown for a board meeting and was afraid to leave, how that couple considered themselves brave urban pioneers living on the edge: four blocks from the Capitol, drinking only at the Monk (not the Roslyn, certainly) and driving sixty minutes to find a suburban Albertson's rather than shopping at the bodega next door. We had a few drinks (Carlsberg lager, the easiest to pronounce) and then I retired to Tom's Diner across the street, where I re-read the best bits of Down and Out in Paris and London and watched the door of the Cheeky Monk go mostly unused by the nodding drunks and drug dealers, the Roslyn and Nob Hill regulars and night creatures who still populated this stretch of Colfax despite all attempts at gentrification. I wondered how the Monk could possibly attract enough yuppies to keep the lights on, Chads and Buffys willing to brave the neighborhood and mangle the pronunciation of Koningshoeven Quadrupel and Duchesse de Bourgogne and eat sauerkraut. I enjoyed the irony of sitting in an American diner eating crappy french fries while looking at the Belgian restaurant I'd just left.
Here are some things I know about the Belgians:
They invented french fries and waffles — two vital food groups — but the French stole both of them. Every other country in the world has had its national foods co-opted by the French, but for some reason, the Belgians never got over this. I'm fairly sure they fought wars over it. And if they didn't, they should have.
The entire country looks like a film set for some massive historical costume drama. Belgium boasts more castles than any other place on earth, and Belgians earn most of their money by charging tourists to walk up those tall towers — and then amuse themselves by making fun of the fat, exhausted bastards. Of course, they once had a king named Clovis, so I'm pretty sure those bastards have been making fun of Belgians for that (and other things) forever. One of the funniest movies I've seen in years was filmed in Belgium. The reason In Bruges was so funny? It was full of jokes about Belgium and Belgians. It also had angry midgets, and there's nothing funnier than a pissed-off midget.
Belgians make a lot of chocolate. Some people think it is the best chocolate in the world. Those people are idiots.
Belgians also make a lot of beer. A lot of beer. And some people think that the Trappist ales coming out of Belgium are the best beers in the world. Those people are not idiots. Unless they also believe the chocolate thing, in which case they are idiots but probably won't buy you beers if you call them such.
Belgians also invented oil paints, control a large portion of the world diamond trade and have a road system that can be seen from space. But, really? It's the stolen frites that truly have their pantalettes in a bunch.
The first time I actually ate at the Cheeky Monk, I ordered beer and sausages and soft pretzels, but no frites. I thought it was funny to snub the national dish of Belgium, but the kitchen got the last laugh, because what food I did get was really good. The sausage platter came with hunks of cheese (whose national origin I can no longer recall), bits of baguette and a grilled chicken-and-apple sausage that had the loose consistency and snappy skin of something artisan and handmade. The pretzels were buttery and topped with mustard seeds and garlic and coarse salt that made them much better than anything served at one of those pretzel places in the mall. They came with mustard or aioli, which was also invented by the Belgians — and then was promptly stolen by the French. I went with the mustard.
The Cheeky Monk's menu is full of odd little diversions like soft pretzels and charcuterie, as well as apps and entrees, soups and salads and sandwiches, and a half-dozen mussels preparations, all served with frites. Moules et frites is another one of Belgium's national dishes, even if no Belgian would recognize the bacon-and-blue-cheese or the chorizo-and-chipotle-corn-salsa versions served here. Most of the plates, though, are surprisingly traditional — a brave move on the part of the owners, offering Flemish specialties and waffles, crepes and waterzooi seafood soup in a city where even German restaurants can barely compete. And every single plate is listed along with a suggested beer pairing: Chimay Red for the bacon-and-blue-cheese moules et frites, Lindemans Pomme with the fish and chips. Every single plate but those served at a late breakfast — and really, lambics, one of the beers invented by Belgians and served at the Monk, would do just fine then, because they're really just alcoholic fruit juices.
Turns out the owners aren't just brave, but smart. The Cheeky Monk was started by James and Tina Pachorek, the folks who opened the Royal Hilltop in the middle of an Aurora strip mall six years ago, back when that particular neighborhood wasn't a neighborhood at all. The Royal Hilltop quickly became that non-neighborhood's neighborhood bar, drawing big crowds who came for its proper twenty-ounce pints and beer flights and stayed for the fish fries and bangers-and-mash. I liked it despite (or maybe because of) its novelty: a British pub surrounded by taquerías and big-box movie theaters and Chinese restaurants so weird that even I wouldn't go into them.
Dropping a Belgian cafe in the middle of Denver's poverty row was just as daring, just as uniquely American. And against all odds, it worked.
The last time I stopped by the Cheeky Monk, it was a wet, snowy night, and I was looking for somewhere to warm myself along Colfax's long stretch of resistantly wicked geography. The ragged end of October has always put me in a romantic frame of mind, has made me want to wear roll-neck sweaters and wander lonely across chill moors or between the shadows of ancient keeps. The foods of the low countries, the cuisine of the Benelux, seemed just about perfect for my mood.
I settled into a booth in the bar area and ordered a tall, curvy glass of Carlsberg. And cheese croquettes — wads of Gouda, fontina and Emmentaler, breaded in panko and deep-fried — that were like the best cheese sticks ever, presented in a mock-cast-iron bucket that was puddled with oil by the time I was done, and accompanied by a sauce (not listed on the menu) that was a near-perfect copy of a nameless sauce I've been craving for years.
When I was a kid and my parents would throw the occasional dinner party, my mom had one go-to culinary move guaranteed to hold her guests until the casseroles came out of the oven. She would buy a Hickory Farms beef stick, cut it into chunks, stick a toothpick in each one and then make a sauce out of port wine jelly melted over low heat — the recipe no doubt culled from one of the innumerable little hand-bound, mimeographed Women's League and church-group cookbooks tucked away in her pantry — that was just about the best thing I'd ever tasted. Of course, I wasn't allowed to touch the food: the beef log was for guests, the sauce always about the temperature of lava, simmering on the stove top. This was an absolute rule, because my mother knew full well that if she turned her back on me for even a minute, I would eat the entire plate of sausage nuggets, toothpicks and all, and chase them with the sauce, guzzled straight out of the pan. But every once in a while, there would be some scraps of sausage, some thickened drops of sauce left over after the party was done. And those leftovers were all mine.
The memory of that sauce is one of my culinary birthrights — a tiny piece of what turned me into the gastronomic animal I am today. Like chicken French, white hots and Genny Cream Ale, it was one of those particular mysteries of the Rochester foodscape that never made it outside the 14617 zip code. I'd never encountered anything resembling that melted-jelly-and-pixie-dust concoction until I ordered the cheese croquettes at the Cheeky Monk. And I was so happy to find that taste again that even after all the fried cheese was gone, I kept right on eating the sauce — dunking in my fork at first, then just giving up and using my fingers.
When, finally, I surrendered the cheese bucket and sauce bowl to my server, she brought me authentic Belgian (by way of Colorado) frites with a lemon-garlic aioli and a plate of Belgian bangers and mash. The bangers (sausages) had been split and grilled over licking flames, then sided with delicious garlic stoemp (whipped potatoes, more or less, threaded with bits of cabbage and spiked with garlic) and handmade sauerkraut, studded with bits of bacon, that was the best I've ever had. I can say this with confidence, because I hate sauerkraut and have never eaten more than a bite or two at a sitting (and even then, only when paid to do so). But at the Monk, I ate an entire plate's worth and nearly asked for an extra side, along with some more stoemp, just because it was so good — house braised, the sour and savory in perfect balance, the cabbage softened by long cooking and the bacon fat tying everything together. For some cook in the kitchen to have taken such care, given such love to what is normally an un-lovely and un-cared-for side dish was impressive. And to have turned something I instinctively loathed into something I instantly craved was no small trick.
But then, the Cheeky Monk has a strange magic that's helped it beat the odds and survive in this space. I had a nice time sitting there listening to the regulars talk about beers and baseball with the fill-in bartender, eating my cheese, my sauerkraut, waiting on my server to deliver an authentic Belgian waffle with sugary icing and cinnamon sauce and wondering when I would be able to make it back for some fish and chips, more fried cheese, more unpronounceable beers and beignets. And though I love the Monk's neighborhood for all its endemic weirdness and odd juxtapositions, for its come-ons from the small-time pushers, flashing cop lights, midnight fistfights and dives of all description, for a moment — looking out the window at the wind-blown snow and damp freaks stalking the sidewalks — I never wanted to leave.
See more of the Cheeky Monk at westword. com.
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