Mouthing Off

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Bested of Denver: When compiling the Food and Drink portion of the annual Best of Denver, my toughest task is keeping up with the places that either close two weeks before the issue comes out, lose the chef who made the kitchen cook, or drop the item we're about to laud. At least twenty restaurants in line for a prize in 1996 no longer served the almost-award-winner--240 Union's toothsome version of pecan pie was a goner--and about half as many restaurants just up and closed right before the June 27 edition went to press. We stayed busy fact-checking right up to the end.

The fat-checking had stopped a week or so earlier. Making the call between close contenders was enough to give me a headache--and, in some cases, a bellyache. For instance, the cheesesteaks at Taste of Philly (2432 S. Colorado Blvd.) and Philadelphia Filly (1585 S. Pearl St.) are both good, but they're very different from each other and from the winner at Famous Philly Cheesesteak (850 S. Monaco Pkwy.), where the cooking was the most consistent. I found Taste's meat overcooked on one visit and the cheese unmelted on another; the guy who waited on me both times was so rude I thought I was in Philly. (Interestingly, all three places boast owners from Philadelphia.) At the Filly, everything about the cheesesteak--which is referred to as a "gourmet," rather than an authentic, version--was perfect except for the roll, which either got too soggy or fell apart. I even drove to Olde Philly Towne (120th and Sheridan in Broomfield) to try its cheesesteak but was disappointed with the tasteless rib-eye the kitchen used.

Another hotly contested category is Best Hamburger. In 1994 and 1995, the medal went to the Cherry Cricket (2641 E. Second Ave.), which was a contender again this year; Annie's Cafe (4012 E. Eighth Ave.) was also at the top of the list. But in a back-to-back-to-back taste test, I found that the meat had more flavor at the Trinity Grill (1801 Broadway), and the award went there. Another back-to-back contest, during which I raced from one place to the next in order to keep both contenders fresh in my tastebuds, was held for hot dogs. Although the award ultimately went to New York Delicatessen (1543 Champa St.), hot on the heels of that dog was one at Great Chicago Hot Dog & Grill Co. (50 W. Littleton Blvd. in Littleton), where an order of the "works"--here a Red Hot done in traditional Chicago style with mustard, onion, relish, dill pickle, tomato, hot pepper and celery salt--brought an excellent beef dog with fresh ingredients on, alas, a bun that couldn't take the pressure. My thanks to the reader who provided that tip, though.

Other readers' recommendations were hard to fathom--and harder to stomach. The pizza at Italian Slice Pizzeria (1018 E. 17th Ave.) was actually a candidate for "worst pizza I've ever eaten except frozen": Dripping with grease, cheap cheese and sauce with a funky plastic taste, this slice hit the garbage can before I'd even crossed the street. Although the green chile at Panaderia Aguas Calientes (9075 E. Colfax Ave.) was too thin and runny to be a winner, I managed to eat all of it--as well as a very good, if not quite award-winning, bowl of menudo that featured a strong tripe base and lots of fire. And while I wasn't at all thrilled with the raved-about burger at Mutdear's (4900 E. 35th Ave.)--the pattie was too slick with grill grease and likely had been frozen--the half-rack of pork ribs was surprisingly decent and a deal at $5.

I couldn't find anything good about einstein bros. bagels. Although I usually avoid chains, several einstein locations have popped up around town in the past six months, and I thought I should try to find out what makes them so popular. At the 300 E. Alameda Ave. outlet, I sampled a plain bagel with cream cheese and lox (given the skimpy amount of salmon, which wasn't enough to cover even half of the bagel, this was way overpriced at $4.50) and a wallpaper-paste broccoli-cheese soup filled with blobs of floury soup base. The onion bagels were so chewy I almost pulled my front teeth out trying to take a bite, and the container of cream-cheese topping with herbs had some watery substance floating in the center. More alarming than that, though, was the fact that einstein's sports a bubble-gum-type machine where anyone--including the three eight-year-olds I saw--can get a handful of chocolate-covered espresso beans for a quarter. You don't have to be Einstein to figure out what those kids were like once the beans kicked in.

Their antics were nothing, however, compared to the high I got from the copious amounts of chile pepper in the chicken wings at Wings of Fire (18757 E. Hampden in Aurora), where five sauces in degrees from mild to "volcanic" are offered. While the wings were well-cooked, I found the sauces too much of a variation on a theme with little flavor beyond the heat. But for anyone looking to numb himself before a dentist appointment, "volcanic" is definitely the way to go.

Going, going, gone is the fate of one Best of Denver pick, which lasted exactly two weeks after it was awarded Best Tenth-Inning Watering Hole. Last Friday the Terminal Bar, an institution in LoDo (it was immortalized in a Tom Waits song and once had three happy hours daily that coincided with post office shift changes) was purchased by Dave Query and company. Query plans to open a seafood restaurant similar to his JAX in Boulder--which will be quite a change of pace for what had been just about the last dive left in lower downtown. Denizens of the Terminal (also known as the Billabong, thanks to an odd attempt to cash in on the short-lived Crocodile Dundee craze) tried to give it a proper sendoff Thursday, but longtime owner Nancy Archer had already closed the bar in anticipation of the sale. No word yet on the fate of the jukebox. And Matt's Diner in Golden, which won Best New Old-Time Diner, was sold to a couple from Texas shortly after the issue came out and is now going by the name Jake's Diner. Jokes Matt Faykosh, "If you'd printed a week earlier, I could have sold it for another $1,000."

If you happened to miss this year's Best of Denver issue, it's still available--on Westword's Web page, at www.westword.com. While you're there, check out online editor Chris LaMorte's story (a Web exclusive) on Denver's cybercafes. At Jitters (1523 18th St.), where Denver's coffee-and-computer connection began a year ago, owner Matt Haggstrom has scaled back on Internet services, and currently only one PowerMac remains; up in Boulder at Caffe Mars (1425 Pearl St.), owner Rick Bourgin decided to pull the plug on computers and instead is turning the place into a wine bar--"analog as that might seem," LaMorte reports. But you can still get your java/Java fix at Majordomo's (1401 Ogden St.) and Netherworld (1278 Pennsylvania St.). Or try a new PC-based arcade, V.Kaf (234 Broadway), where virtual reality bytes.

The Cafe listings that follow Mouthing Off are now available on the Web, too--where you can search them by assorted categories, right down to Ethiopian or places with patios. Do go there.

--Kyle Wagner

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