It hasn't been a good year for our economy, but it's been a stellar year for the Denver restaurant scene, which continues to produce culinary heroes and push the envelope. I can't even begin to guess how many meals I've eaten in restaurants over the past year, but I'm fairly certain it numbers close to 400 -- maybe 500. And along the way, while surrendering my belly to taco trucks and taco shacks, pop-ups and sidewalk cafes, fine-dining palaces and everywhere in between, I've had some simply unassailable dishes --faultless dishes that are permanently attached to my brain, dishes that I'd go back for time and time again.
Herewith, my eleven favorite foodstuffs of 2011 -- and one more to usher in 2012.
Mexican cuisine is awash in moles, and in Oaxaca, one of my favorite food cities in the world, there's a different mole for every day of the week. But in the States, save for Los Angeles, where there are dozens of Oaxacan restaurants, mole -- at least proper mole -- is difficult to find. Luckily for us, we have Tarasco's, a Mexican/Latin restaurant that feeds my mole obsession with two different versions, including a remarkable mole verde, greener than money, greener than an enchanted forest, greener than Kermit the Frog. Made with poblano and jalapeno peppers, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, crushed almonds and cloves, it's a riot of texture and spice, generously draped over long-simmered, crisp, caramelized shards of pork. You know the eggs Benedict that litter the breakfast menus of just about every cafe and diner in Denver? These are not those eggs Benedict. No, at D.J's Berkeley Cafe, eggs Benedict are held in higher esteem than your overall happiness; they're more sacred than marriage, more royal than Kate and Wills. I've tasted way more than my share of eggs Benedict, most of which I would never commit to: The eggs stand still, the hollandaise comes straight out of a pre-mixed pouch, the muffin is burnt, soggy or stale. But the eggs Benedict here -- most notably the New Mexican Benedict, a bluff of fragile poached eggs and ropes of fire-roasted poblano chiles straddling two intensely spiced chorizo sausages resting on a smear of cheddar polenta -- are magnificent mounds of fierce early morning sunshine that make you fall, hard, in love with their sex appeal. And the scratch-made hollandaise sauce, singing with lemon, is good enough to drink. There are a million dishes on the behemoth menu at Jai Ho, and some of them are very, very good. But the esoteric Indian restaurant in Aurora, with its unapologetically relaxed service and springy booths that bounce with every butt move, could serve just one dish -- and one dish only -- and we'd be the first in line to wrap our jaws around it. That dish is the chili gobi, an Indo-Chinese plate filled with florets of cauliflower smeared with spices, perfumed with garlic and ginger, tossed with long-cooked onions and barbarically, vigorously laced with the intense thrust of chiles. It's an exhilarating adrenaline rush that extends far beyond a wallop, and you'll need to pump a tankful of beer down your gullet to extinguish the burning flames. Thankfully, the bar is well-stocked. It goes by an Italian name -- frico caldo -- and in someone else's hands, it might be nothing more than a standard potato cake. But it emerges from the kitchen of Frasca Food and Wine in all its exquisite elegance: triangles of crisp-edged Yukon Gold potatoes enhanced with onions and Piave and crowned with dots of speck and a cilantro-laced mound sharpened with a thimbleful of sherry vinegar. One order is never enough; neither is two. But that's the thing with Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson: He can make even the pedestrian potato taste better than, well, just about anything. Troy Guard, chef/owner of TAG and TAG| Raw Bar, has roots in Hawaii, which may explain, at least in part, why his board at TAG swims with shellfish and fish, including things like Maine diver scallops puddled in a parsnip vanilla puree and sushi rolls tucked with yellowfin or lobster. His fish-infatuation, however, skims across oceans far and wide, and he embraces a universe of sea creatures that you rarely, if ever, find on Denver restaurant menus. To wit: South African black ruff.
According to Guard, TAG is the only restaurant in Denver that's serving the fish, a blunt-snouted South African species that's been known to wander a long way from home, even surfacing in the waters off the southern coast of Massachusetts. But even if it were a bottom feeder existing on leftovers lingering on the floor of a moody swamp, I'd still fall hook, line and sinker for the swimmer, which, in Guard's very capable hands, becomes a superb dish. Topped with pea sprouts, its flesh, fringed with a slight char and glamorously silken but firm, straddles a heap of edamame beans and turmeric-dusted artichokes that gets a big boost of adrenaline from the lagoon of kabayaki sauce spiked with the citrus of yuzu and saltiness of soy.
Pig-snout tacos from Guadalajara Authentic Mexican BuffetFirst and foremost, Guadalajara Authentic Mexican Buffet, while being a buffet, is anything but monotonous. It is, in fact, a spectacular pageant of chafing dishes swelled with just about every Mexican dish under the blazing sun: barbacoa; menudo; posole, one with pork, the other with shrimp; ceviche de pescado; tacos dorados; tinga de pollo; fried fish; enchiladas de roja and verde; fish and shrimp soup; costilla de puerco; nopalitos; a half-dozen salsas; and at least three, maybe four dozen more dilemmas that vie for your attention.
It's all good -- surprisingly, impossibly good -- and it would take you weeks to eat your way through the blizzard of opportunities. You can do that in good time, but before you assail your stomach with the buffet, march your ass straight to the back, next to the super-sized beverage refrigerator, where there's a carnicería/taqueria that hustles meat by the pound -- carnitas, pollo, barbacoa and chiva -- and tacos al vapor, filled with any of those, or meats like buche, pig's stomach cleavered into soft, wiggly, jiggly fragments. There are pig's ears and tongue, too, and pig snouts, or trampa: rosy scraps of unadulterated pig fat, braised until they're tender, with just a slight elasticity that lends itself to a gentle chew. They're succulent and salty, thankfully devoid of nostril hairs, served with a scattering of with diced onions, cilantro and splashes of tomatillo salsa. And, yes, they're a delicious exhilaration.
Every single time I go to Cafe Brazil, I feel compelled to study the menu -- a menu that I've all but memorized -- even though I nearly always order the same dish, a plate that's been on the board for two decades, ever since Cafe Brazil opened in its original location in north Denver in a Pepto-Bismol pink hut that was roughly the size of a newborn's big toe.
From day one, owner/chef Tony Zarlenga has pumped out some of the best seafood dishes on the planet, most notably his spicy, flavor-bombed stews from Brazil's Bahia state -- stews like the South American cazuela colombina, an herb-scented tomato broth buoyant with shrimp (and chicken, although you can substitute sea scallops), pungent with Gorgonzola, reddened with dende oil and dusts of cayenne pepper, and mellowed with the soothing coax of coconut milk. I've trained myself to eat it as slowly as possible, purposefully refusing to finish my plate -- not because I can't, but because the leftovers give me another day to contemplate how I can intravenously push all that brilliance through my veins.
The culinary landscape is currently experiencing a Brussels Sprouts revolution, which says a lot about the way the food tide is turning in this country. The sprout, once a submissive throwaway cabbage-y thing that was reduced to defective mush after being plunged into hot water and boiled to oblivion, has come full circle slowly, but steadfastly becoming the saint of the vegetable world to professional chefs and home cooks.
Restaurants are having a ball with the leafy little orbs, bumping them up with bacon (and more bacon), roasting them the same way you'd roast root vegetables, using them to brighten up salads, and frying them, which is what Elise Wiggins, the executive chef from Panzano, is doing in her kitchen. She pan-fries the sprouts and leaves -- blow on them and they'll flutter like a cluster of pencil shavings -- until they're slightly charred and crisp, splashes them with apple cider vinegar, tosses them with toasted pistachios and crowns the mound with slivers of green apple. It's an impeccable dish of flavors and textures that's about as good as it gets.
"This is the oven that nearly bankrupted us," says Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson, peering into the behemoth Stefano Ferrara oven, a floor-to-ceiling monster, shipped direct from Italy, that's constructed from volcanic rock culled from Mt. Vesuvius. It's a stunning piece of craftsmanship that makes us drool with envy, but the pizzas that emerge from that 1,000-degree oven -- blistered masterpieces that take all of ninety seconds (or less) to rise from the embers -- make Boulder's Pizzeria Locale better than unicorns and rainbows, butterflies and blow.
Jordan Wallace, Pizzeria Locale's high priest of dough, spent nearly four months in Naples honing his craft, and his pizzas, ultra-thin, light platforms of bliss, are mounted with the best ingredients lire (and dollars) can buy. We can't wait to chew our way through the entire board, but for now, the mais pizza, smeared with creme fraiche, dotted with fresh corn the color of the golden sun, blotted with lightly applied mozzarella di bufala and sheeted with translucent slices of prosciutto crudo, is my heart's obsession.
Keegan Gerhard, Denver's confectionaire extraordinaire, is renowned for his sensational sugar sensations, which he, along with his wife, Lisa Bailey, deliver in abundance at D Bar Desserts, their groovy bake shop in Uptown. But while Gerhard has always had the baking thing down pat -- his sugar shack pimps cookies, cakes, cupcakes, shakes, doughnuts and ice cream sandwiches, among other guilt trips -- it's his savory creations that are suddenly attracting long lines of devotees, and you can count us among the many ardent admirers who are jonesing for elbow room at the counter to wrap our lips around whatever he's delivering from the kitchen.
Starting with the Crue fries, an irresponsible, wholly irresistible mound of Parmesan-dusted, ballpoint-pen-thin potatoes. But Gerhard doesn't stop there: He smothers the fries with melted Jack and cheddar, crumbles of really good bacon and snips of chives and then crowns it all with zigzags of housemade ranch dressing. You'll push the heap away more than once in an effort to pretend that you can't possibly eat one more bite, and then the second a staffer swoops in to take it away, you'll snatch it back and slap her hand for daring to try.
Several years ago I hopped on a plane to Las Vegas -- not to push my luck playing penny slots, but to eat at Lotus of Siam, which I did, three times in one day. And then, fat, drunk and deliriously happy, I boarded a jet back to Denver. And I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat, because Lotus of Siam -- the original joint in Vegas, not the imitator in New York -- is the best Thai restaurant in the country, in part because of its nod to the cuisine of Isaan. (Jitlada, in Los Angeles, is a close second.) And for years, I've prayed to the gods of fish sauce, lemongrass and lime leaves that a Lotus of Siam outpost would magically appear in Denver.
I'm fairly certain that won't happen, and that's okay, because when Utumporn Killoran, who runs the Thai Street Food cart on the 16th Street Mall, opened a same-name brick-and-mortar this summer in Aurora, there was no longer a reason to mourn. From her tiny kitchen, which she runs with her husband and son, Killoran re-creates at least an approximation of the Lotus of Siam experience.
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There's nothing on her tidy menu that I don't love. My favorite is the noodle jelly salad, which doesn't have jelly at all but exposes a soupy mound of glossy glass noodles tangled with ground pork, shrimp, cilantro, tomatoes and mint, pungent fragrances and the flame of fiery red chiles, the heat of which makes your stomach quake like a coin-operated waterbed. It's salty and sweet, sour and spicy, and it's quite possibly the best Thai dish I've had all year. Unfortunately, you can only get it on Saturday, the one day that Thai Street Food is open.
Earlier this year, the Squeaky Bean, one of my favorite restaurants in Denver -- and maybe anywhere -- shuttered after lease negotiations fell by the wayside. And for several months, Bean owner Johnny Ballen and Max MacKissock, the restaurant's amazing executive chef, scoured the city for a new space to resurrect the Bean, which they finally found downtown at 15th and Wynkoop in the historic Saddlery Building. In the interim, however, MacKissock, Ballen and many of the original Bean counters congregated earlier this month at Cafe Options for a pop-up dinner, at which MacKissock made my jaw drop through the concrete. Every single dish was exquisite, but his lamb creation -- lamb belly-wrapped lamb loin plated with whipped sweet potatoes, green garlic soubise, borage blossoms (which taste like cucumbers), crisp kale leaves, dots of mint gel and frisée -- more than personified MacKissock's unspoken vow to ensure human happiness.
2012 is going to be a very good year.