Already, this is shaping up to be one weird year. Many of last year's big winners have gone dark over the past few months. We've lost Brasserie Rouge, which took Best New Restaurant honors (among others), and with chef John Broening now squeezing panini for Udi the Sandwich Man, the French and charcuterie categories are wide open. Best Chef winner Sean Kelly has removed himself from contention by stepping down from his one-man post at the now-defunct Clair de Lune and moving into the front of the house at its successor, Somethin' Else.
Cielo won top honors for Best BBQ Ribs as well as Best Chile Sauce, but Cielo est´ muerto, so those hunts are back on. So is my quest for the Best Fish Taco, since Jalapeño Mexican Grill, last year's winner, shut down; its former home on Leetsdale now holds another link in the Santiago's chain. And while Santiago's does some things very well (great refritos and barbacoa), it doesn't do fish tacos the way Jalapeño did. MG's Barbecue and Grill looked like a major contender for 2005's barbecue award, but Mary Grace Roaquin's Filipino 'cue joint didn't survive 2004. While rumors keep circulating that she's looking for a new space, the clock is ticking.
Which is why I'm eating as fast as I can. If you have any suggestions for the best eats in town, flip to page 57 in this issue and fill out the Best of Denver 2005 Readers' Poll. As always, may the best man, woman or cheeseburger win.
Super Size me: Chances are good that the winning cheeseburger won't be from a drive-thru -- but that never stops people from stuffing the Best Of ballot box with nominations for fast-food chains. Despite the overwhelming Mexican bounty available in Denver, apparently some brain-dead diners actually believe that Taco Bell produces the best hard shells in town.
But hey, I am nothing if not egalitarian in my tastes. I'm not one of those snooty, ascot-wearing critics who dismisses out of hand anything that appeals to the masses. No matter what Larry Herz thinks. Last week I was talking to the owner of Go Fish Grille -- currently appealing to those masses to the tune of 200-plus covers a day -- and he was equating restaurant critics and their obsessive love of the haute and complicated to film critics who gush over a movie like The English Patient while turning up their noses at, say, Die Hard. Specifically, he was complaining about how we -- as in me and my comrades-in-eats over at the dailies -- loved his former restaurant, Indigo, even though we were the only ones eating there, but we've not been as thrilled by Go Fish, where any of us would have difficulty getting a table, even on a Tuesday.
His complaint has some weight. Maggiano's Little Italy, for example, is packed every night. And on any given day, Burger King is serving something on the order of a gazillion pounds of ground beef. But they're certainly not serving it to me. So do I speak for the masses? I guess not.
But what I can do -- as a guy who both loved The English Patient and will watch Die Hard every time it's on TV -- is try to speak to them. And to that end, I spent a couple of days this week eating at nothing but fast-food places: Wendy's, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Arby's, Burger King and Good Times.
Although McDonald's french fries have won the Best of Denver Readers' Poll twenty years running, there aren't many people trying to shill for the burgers made by Ronald McDonald or his bastard brother, his highness the Burger King; those who do (mostly kids, mental patients and college students stoned half out of their gourds on the hippie lettuce) are pretty easy to spot because they fill out their polls in crayon. Still, in the interest of fairness, I paid a visit to McDonald's (roughly 30,000 locations in 119 countries serving 47 million -- yeah, million -- customers a day) and ordered a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder with Cheese (a QPC in the current, ad-driven lingua franca of the drive-thru), both of which I ate with little enthusiasm and then carried around like a brick in my belly for the next six hours. At Burger King (11,200 restaurants in 61 countries and sales somewhere in the neighborhood of $11.1 billion in fiscal 2003), I went for the classic Whopper, which I threw out after two bites because it tasted like a warm sponge soaked in Liquid Smoke. But I also tried the newish (to me, anyhow) Angus Steak Burger, which wasn't half bad: The lettuce and tomato were surprisingly fresh, the Signature Sauce an inoffensive A-1 knockoff, and while the "fire grilled onions" had the consistency of cold worms, the "100% Certified Angus Beef" was pretty good.