Foodies Eating Diverse and Unusual Platings (FEDUPs) is what we call ourselves. There are ten of us, plus the occasional "understudy" who is invited when not everyone can attend our once-monthly get-togethers at restaurants across the vast ethnic spectrum in and around Denver. (We have long joked that to withdraw from the group would make one a FEDEX.) The FEDUPs have made it a mission to sample every cuisine we can poke our forks into.
My prompt to form this group stems from my obsession with food, a passion that led me to diarize every morsel that passed my lips for a year, and causes my partner, Peter, and me to plan (often several days ahead), strategize (organize the shopping and the mise en place), and invent (often from whole cloth) our own personal cuisine at home.
Given my upbringing (Elmira, New York), it could have been that I would have spent my adult life eating the '50s-style grub that fed our family of seven: beef liver, potatoes, pot roast, chicken (generally done one way — roasted), iceberg lettuce with the kind of dressing you got dry in a pouch and shook up in a cruet with vegetable oil (never olive oil). Never did I experience anything exotic or challenging (unless you count the time when, at the annual family reunion, I witnessed the beheading of a chicken and its subsequent dash around the barnyard looking for all the world like a chicken with its...well, you get it). But as an adult, I did a lot of traveling and learned to seek out regional favorites around the United States and international cuisine in each of the many countries I visited over the years (a happy consequence of my 45-year career as a concert accompanist and opera and ballet conductor).
I "got my appetite wet" (thanks, Mom) and never let it dry out.
It was not known outside our foodie gang that one of its members was Jason Sheehan, whom we first followed in print, then met in person. Most of the time we picked places that Jason had already written about favorably right here. To my knowledge, he was never recognized while lunching with us; I gave him the nom alimentaire, or "eating name," of Sanjo (an anagram of Jason), which was what we called him in the restaurants. It was because of Sanjo that we were able to get authentic kitfo, Ethiopian raw spiced beef, at Arada; blood sausage at the now-defunct Buenos Aires Grill (the sausages weren't on the lunch menu); and, best of all, a feast in the molecular-gastronomy mode at O's (a most special treat in that Ian Kleinman himself cooked tableside for us).
Getting ten individuals to sample as many diverse dishes as possible is no mean feat. Before our visit to Phoenician Kabob last week — our first foray without Sanjo's input — I studied its menu and pored over online reviews.
To say that the approach to Phoenician Kabob is unprepossessing would be the understatement of the decade. From behind the Capitol to forever, East Colfax Avenue is littered with diners, carry-outs, liquor stores, less-than-savory-looking folks prowling the street, and no fewer than six Pete's locations (only one of which, the Bank Bar & Grill, doesn't bear the "Pete's" moniker). I was grateful that my old Buick wouldn't inspire any untoward temptations, with its dings and two paunchy front tires (the product of slow leaks — you know, like the kind you have when you're over 65 and you get up in the middle of the night to pee).
Fortunately, once you slide past the threshold of Phoenician Kabob, you enter a different universe, one in which there seems to be more hope than is evident in the exterior world from which you just escaped. The room is modestly spacious, the tables replete with white tablecloths and cloth napkins, and you're welcomed by a smiling greeter who just might be the owner, depending on the exact moment when you exit the wormhole from Colfax to Kabob.
Ibrahim Daleh and his wife, Victoria, opened Phoenician Kabob in July 2008, and both were on hand during our lunch. When I made the reservation for our ten-top, I asked the young lady who answered the phone to enumerate a few items that were a) favorites of their clientele or b) most highly thought of by the staff. The first thing she mentioned was the lentil soup, the only soup on the menu. Then she rattled off a few other specialties, including chicken shawarma and the Sultan Combo (gyros, chicken, falafel, hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh and stuffed grape leaves), which to me sounded like a refuge for the less-adventurous gourmand, given the generally recognizable names of all that stuff.
The advantage of a gang of ten meant I didn't have to order everything just for myself. I intended to spread the bounty and solicit comments, but warned my friends ahead of time that I would be a little manipulative about ordering (so what's new?). My plan was to have everyone order their own entree, but start out with a round of the less-familiar-but-intriguing-sounding apps: fouel mudammas (marinated fava beans), kibbeh (a Middle Eastern version of the fried-in-dough appetizer typical of nearly every world cuisine, this one stuffed with beef, lamb, pine nuts and onions), ara'yis (another meat mixture served inside two pitas, like a quesadilla). Although the FEDUPs don't generally do much by way of dessert, I knew it would be a disservice not to sample the baklava. Or the lentil soup, for that matter.