Over the years, Duy Pham, currently chef/owner at Kyoto at 7301 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton and ex of just about everywhere, has told me a lot. But he was almost breathless when he got me on my cell last Wednesday, talking so fast that he was tripping over his own words and had run out of superlatives before our conversation was thirty seconds old. He was talking about the new JJ Chinese — now his favorite restaurant, filled with all of his favorite everything, and where he'd already eaten twenty times since owner/chef Kevin Ho (formerly of Ocean City) opened it a couple months ago at 2500 West Alameda Avenue.
That's just down the street from the big plaza that's home to Pacific Ocean Market — where I go for enoki mushrooms, knives, coffee and barbecued pork. And Super Star Asian — my main connection for dumplings, sticky rice, more dumplings, steamed bok choy, salt-and-pepper shrimp, dumplings and dumplings, but not chicken feet, since I don't like the chicken feet at Super Star. Instead, I go across the parking lot to King's Land for the chicken feet in black-bean sauce.
But Duy quickly got my mind off of chicken feet. "They have tanks...live king crab, live eel, live ama ebi," he said. "Oh, you've got to see it, man...Open 'til midnight every night...three hundred pounds of live ama ebi every week...geoduck.... He's got the craziest fish I've ever seen in my life."
Although I occasionally disagree with Duy on certain dishes and certain rooms, I trust his tastes in almost everything. He has a mind and a palate unlike those of anyone I've ever known. That's why I always take his calls, and that's why I always listen when he talks — when I can keep up with him, that is.
"The place is always busy," he told me. That's just like the old days at JJ Chinese, except that the original space, at 1048 South Federal Boulevard (which is now a buck-a-scoop joint), sat maybe fifty people, and this space is much bigger, much nicer, much more comfortable. "It's inspiring, man. For all chefs, all foodies. For everyone," he continued. "My favorite thing there is the duck tongue in XO sauce. You've got to try it. More than any other restaurant out there, JJ is the one that I keep craving, non-stop."
And not for nothing, but Duy has never been one to deny his cravings. Twenty times in two months? Even for Duy, that's saying something.
We must've talked for a half-hour about JJ, arguing about dumplings and chicken feet. After that, we talked about Chi Bistro ("Chi Whiz," February 22) and discussed some of the reasons why that place became such a black hole of suck, then about Toast ("At Last," January 18) and how much we both love the pancakes. Finally, we got around to talking about Kyoto and how things were going for him there.
"We're moving up the ladder a little bit, you know? Increasing sales," he said. "There are good days and bad days." Now that he's an owner and gets to see the books every night, he's been amazed at how a restaurant can bring in tens of thousands of dollars every month and still show no profit — the margin between success and failure being so thin, the math so cruel.
Lucky for Duy, he said he's got a "huge following" that comes to Kyoto specifically for his kitchen's specials (almost a dozen of them each night), for omakase spreads at the sushi bar, his chef's tasting menus. The chef's tastings are Kyoto's biggest sellers, which means the most popular thing on Duy's menu isn't on the menu at all.
"It changes every time," he explained. "With every person. I try to do three things live every time, and no fusion. Each plate is either...I don't know. If it's French, it's going to be very French. Asian, very Asian."
I asked him what he had on the board for that night, and he had to think for a minute.
"Uh...I've got uni — live uni," he finally replied. "Kangaroo. Some ramps. Oh, and Copper River salmon. You know, the season just started yesterday, so hopefully I'll be getting a delivery tomorrow. Fresh. But I don't know what I'll make. This restaurant is my playground."
Leftovers: When Jack Martinez, founder of the beloved Jack-n-Grill at 2524 Federal Boulevard, franchised his New Mexican restaurant concept to Anthony Javazon, the Jack-n-Grill at 16221 East 40th Avenue became a favorite stop for recalibrating the tastebuds after flying into DIA, and earned a Best of Denver 2007 award.
But Javazon recently decided to go his own way and has turned his restaurant into Cantina Margarita, an independent joint keyed to serving the massive influx of business and hotel guests in the area. "It's a Mexican bar and grill," GM John Douglass told me when I got him on the horn this week. "With a twist."
The twist is that not everything in the place is Mexican. The Cantina offers salads, seafood, simple sandwiches and upscale steaks in addition to fish tacos, churros and burritos from the contemporary Mexican canon. "I don't know about you," Douglass said, "but when I go to some place like Chipotle and get one of those big burritos for lunch, afterwards I don't want to go back to work; all I want to do is take a nap. So we're just trying to offer something lighter to meet the demands of our business clients."
Over at 7057 West Alaska Drive in Lakewood, Frisco's Deli & Market has gone the way of Emogene and Johnny Rockets — down in flames. The phone's disconnected and there's brown paper over the windows, but there are signs of life inside, because a new deli is taking over the Belmar space.
And finally, Denver will soon have one less Italian restaurant to kick around: Il Fornaio will close its LoDo restaurant at 1631 Wazee Street by the end of the month.