Culinary memo to IACP conference-goers: Eat ethnic

Between April 1 and 4, more than 700 professional foodniks -- writers, editors, columnists and critics, culinary directors, cookbook authors, food stylists, recipe developers, nutrition experts and food and restaurant PR flacks -- are expected to share in a little culinary camaraderie, namely the kind that comes packed into a food conference like the one hosted by the International Association of Culinary Professionals at the Sheraton Downtown Denver.

It's cool that a bunch of food-obsessed geeks are planning to romp through our restaurants, espousing their killer genius culinary knowledge in similarly suitable gastro-temples -- places like Rioja, Jax Fish House, Lola, the Palace Arms and the Fort, all restaurants that are part of the conference's optional wine dinner events.

But let's keep it real: The conference registration fee wasn't exactly cheap ($595 if you registered early, $655 if you didn't, and $705 if you were really tardy), and once you start tacking on extras, like the $50 ($75 if you're not an IACP member) Art and Science of Cured Meats session, for example, you might begin to wonder if you really want to drop another $170 at Jax, which is the sticker price for that conference wine dinner.

I love Jax. A lot. But do you have any earthly idea of how many crazy-good ethnic meals you could get in Denver for $170? This is a city that has some of the best foreign-born joints in the country, and if it were me, I'd think globally and eat locally. Here are a half-dozen ethnic dens that should be mandatory hits during anyone's trek to Denver.

1. El Taco de Mexico, 714 Santa Fe Drive. Get here during the crush of
lunch rush and you'll have to jostle with the throngs of regular
heavyweights for booth space, counter space and elbow space. Your
eardrums will bounce out of their canals from the reverberating echos
of cleavers whacking the meats on the cutting boards. In other words,
it's the perfect platform for a chile relleno burrito generously ladled
with spicy green chile, or asada, beef cheek, brains or tripe tacos
jacketed in corn tortillas specked with onions, cilantro and streaks of

2. Las Tortas, 5307 Leetsdale Drive. It's a Cinderella story, really, of two friends who went on vacation to Guadalajara, fell truly, madly, deeply in love with tortas, came back to Denver and opened an authentic torta temple that doesn't try to do anything other than tortas -- which it does extraordinarily well. The Mexican sandwiches are roughly the size of a sea turtle and come smeared with refried beans, mayonnaise, avocado and chipotle sauce and stacked with everything from fried eggs and ham to carnitas, barbacoa, steak and pineapple.

3. Pho Van Noodle Souper, 427 South Federal Boulevard. If you're looking for the best kind of pho-fillment, look no further than this exuberantly furbished noodle house with a really stupid name that's really fun to say ... fast. It would be worth the trip here just for the plastic Jell-O-orange Asian spoons (I'm always tempted to pilfer one), but the enormous menu peddles some of the best pho in the city -- huge steaming bowls of salty, slow-cooked broth bobbing with translucent white onions, green onions, noodles, flank, tendon, tripe and whatever else the kitchen feels like lobbing in. The pho, of course, comes with a thicket of greenery -- lime wedges, jalapeno rings, sawtooth, violet basil leaves -- and a heap of bean sprouts. Two words: pho-king awesome.

4. Chopsticks China Bistro, 2990 West Mississippi Avenue. All kinds of Chinese restaurants litter our Mile High City streets, but this is one of the few spots where you'll find xiao long bao, or Shanghai-style soup dumplings, tender pouches of ground pork and scalding juice that erupt in fits and bursts on your tongue. And here, the hot and sour soup, forgettable elsewhere, is tarted up with Chinese vinegar, the aromatic, spicy broth plunged with real bamboo shoots, nubs of tofu and cables of pork and tender chicken.

5. US Thai Cafe, 5228 West 25th Avenue. The cooks here refuse to dull or dumb down their food for Americanized palates, which explains, at least in part, why I've seen them shake in uncontrollable fits of laughter when a tongue-Thai'd wimp can't take the heat. The magical, deeply flavored curries -- red, green, massaman, panang and jungle -- are loose cannons of fire, every bite more deliriously delicious than the last.

6. Arada Ethiopian Restaurant, 750 Santa Fe Drive. A cruise down Colfax Avenue exposes a reservoir of Ethiopian choices, but Arada, Denver's best African haunt, is located in the artsy Golden Triangle 'hood wedged between taquerias, art galleries and clothing boutiques. Here, in chef-owner Haime Asfaw's unofficial social center for Ethiopian immigrants, big platters of porous, spongy, slightly sour injera, made with liberal portions of tangy teff, share space with warmly seasoned vegetable and meat stews -- or, if you're adventurous, kitfo, a heap of butter-tossed minced raw beef cloaked in a pungent paste of ground spices.

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