I learned several things at last night's Denver Adventurous Eaters Club dinner at Parallel Seventeen:
1) Pig uterus is absolutely lovely and should appear on menus everywhere. 2) Parallel Seventeen chef/owner Mary Nguyen is one badass chef, who has the ability to cook just about anything, "bizarre" or otherwise, and turn it into edible gold. Ozzy Osbourne: Eat your guts out. 3) Andrew Zimmern is the anti-celebrity chef who doesn't want to be an asshole.
Nguyen, who closed her restaurant yesterday to prepare for last night's powwow, which was butt-to-butt with local chefs, gutsy gastronauts, curiosity seekers, a film crew and a pushy reporter from Westword (whom Zimmern called, at one point, "random woman number five"), spent a portion of her weekend with Zimmern, who arrived in Denver on Sunday to shoot footage for an upcoming episode of Bizarre Foods America, which will air next March. And Nguyen's absolutely brilliant menu, stamped with ant larvae, duck tongue, jellyfish, Silkie chicken, goat, pig uterus, fermented soybean (which Nguyen admits has the "texture of snot" -- only she ensured that it didn't), chicken beaks and feet and caterpillars, far surpassed that silly tarantula I ate a decade ago.
Zimmern and Nguyen palled around on Sunday, hitting up local Vietnamese markets and sharing a communal lunch at Nguyen's parents' house. He also went pheasant and jackrabbit hunting in Nunn, using a falcon to catch his prey, which he then ate; he enjoyed a family meal with Tsogo Magid, a local Mongolian artist, where he sunk his jaws into a roasted sheep paired with "wonderful milky side dishes"; he journeyed to Bruce's Bar in Severance and shoved buffalo nuts down his gullet (Zimmern confesses to an obsession with bull testicles); and he did what any self-respecting television host does when he descends upon Denver: He got a taste of the homegrown verde at the original Chubby's on 38th, followed by trio of tacos at El Taco de Mexico.
"Chubby's is definitely stoner food," he says, adding that it was "exactly what he expected" from Denver's iconic grub house of green chile. As for El Taco de Mexico, Zimmern admits he could go there every day for lunch. Of course, some of us already do.
His show, now in its seventh year, is one of the most-watched on the Travel Channel, where it airs, and it's clear that he's still remarkably passionate -- and grateful -- for the privilege to wander around the globe, his crew of fourteen in tow, and bring to viewers more than just canned mouthfuls of trite glib that requires (these days) little more than spiked hair, overused soundbites and wisecracks and the ability to mug for the cameras.
"When we first did the show, we had no idea what the hell we were doing, but now it's an award-winning show, a blue-ribbon commodity," he says. "But the reason why it works so well is that while a lot of other food shows just show great footage, we try to tell a story by explaining cultures through food. We can come to Denver and spend time in the largest Mongolian community in the country, and we love that."
And while there are a coalition of food personalities who find it amusing to poke fun -- sometimes ridicule -- the very same people who make their shows a success, Zimmern doesn't play that game. "I remember the crossroads in my career, he says, "where I was in Japan and the guy I was interviewing handed me this horrific frog concoction." He had a choice, he recalls: "I could either make fun of the guy who handed me the frog, because of of his voice or whatever, or I could remind myself of the reason why I was there." He made the right choice -- to choke it down -- because, he stresses, "otherwise I'd be like every other asshole out there. I'm not that asshole."
He says, too, that Bizarre Foods, which has taken him everywhere from Namibia to Chengu, has made him the "luckiest guy in the world" -- and that's not simply because he gets to eat pig brains boiled in tongue-searing chile oil...although that's definitely a perk of his travels. "I love what I do, because we're concerned with the story in front of us," he explains. "This isn't standup; I get to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, where I want to do it, and the show is about what interests me as a chef, and it's about being open-minded and getting fantastic food stories."
And Denver, he says, has fulfilled his expectations. "It's amazing to see what's going on in Denver and meeting people who are fulfilling a full and robust eating life. I've wanted to come here for a long time."
Zimmern is here (sorry about the rain, you pig uterus fiend) for the duration of the week, and his itinerary is likely to include stops at Euclid Hall, Biker Jim's, Coors Field, Continental Sausage and the Buckhorn Exchange.
Whatever he eats at those joints -- sausage is obviously on the docket -- the dinner at Parallel Seventeen may be his most memorable. "I feel like a schoolgirl before the big varsity football fame on a Friday night," said Zimmern after his first spoonful of pig uterus. And just in case you missed it, here's a recap in photos.
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Ant larvae beignets. Ants...front and center. Jellyfish salad. Basil seed caviar Gekkeikan saketini. Goat agnolotti. Tom yum taley with pig uterus. Fermented soybean spring rolls with hot mustard. Duck tongue confit with corn flan. One of Nguyen's pet Silkie chickens. This one got a reprieve, but its brethren was dinner. Coq au vin with Silkie chicken -- beaks, feet and the rest. Coconut caterpillar torte. Leftovers....