MOUTHING OFF

Eat and be merry: Nothing works up an appetite quite like a day of Christmas shopping. Hey, the energy required to repeat "No, thanks, I'm just looking" a thousand times in three hours to salespeople haunted by the bonus checks of Christmas Past was enough to make me start munching on stale candy canes. Instead I headed over to the Mediterranean Health Cafe, at 2817 East Third Avenue, for something a little more rejuvenating. This long, narrow space is slightly off the beaten path, below ground level and sort of hidden at the end of a strip of stores, but it's worth seeking out, because it offers consistently good food at a more reasonable cost than many of its better-known counterparts in Cherry Creek North.

And the name says it all. The emphasis is on foods from the Middle East and Italy, mostly vegetarian (they do offer fish) and cooked with healthier oils and lots of herbs. For instance, the falafel sandwich ($4.25) was a pita full of spicy chickpea croquettes fried in canola oil for a clean, crisp flavor. And the lemon juice in the mozzarella-smothered eggplant parmesan ($6.95) actually brought out the sweetness of this oversized berry (no, the eggplant is not a vegetable) and heightened the tanginess of a marinara teeming with parsley and basil. Even the vegetarian chili ($3.50)--the dish to avoid in many so-called health-food restaurants because it usually comes out tasting like a Deadhead made it from old ticket stubs--was flavorful, spicy enough to make store clerks keep their distance and packed with many more vegetables (not squishy ones, either) than the standard kidney beans.

Meat lovers would enjoy the shepherd's pie ($4.50) at Canos Collection, 235 Fillmore, an itsy-bitsy store tucked away on the top level of Cherry Creek Plaza. This six-table cranny is apparently one of the town's best-kept secrets; for seven years Welsh owner Joyce Mahn has been serving lunch--great lunch--weekdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I've never heard a word about it. Such a deal! Lunch runs $4 to $5 (in addition to shepherd's pie, she cooks up chicken pot pie, Cornish hen pasty and seafood quiche) and includes a small basic salad with a mild vinaigrette, cinnamon-tinged applesauce, a pot of tea and a scone with Devon cream and jam. It's bloody marvelous.

The word finally is out about Kenny Sonoda's Lower Downtown, at 1620 Market Street. This is Sonoda's second location (the first is at 3108 South Parker Road in Aurora), and it's a beaut. The lower-level restaurant is ocean-blue and filled with fish tanks as well as some of the freshest and most flavorful sliced specimens available in the city. I stopped by for a few pieces of octopus, mackerel, salmon and tuna (sushi ranges in price from $3 to $6 for two pieces), all impeccably fresh. A bowl of Sonoda's pungent miso soup ($1.25) and an extra side of sushi rice ($1) were all I needed for a healthy energizer before taking on the bustle of The Shops at Tabor Center. Which, by the way, is losing its Hooters come January. The restaurant will relocate to the corner of 19th and Blake streets--to be closer to Coors Field, of course. This Hooters could have been renamed "Weenies" to reflect its new, government-appointed male waitstaff, except the chain still refuses to comply with federal suggestions that it be more politically correct.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner