The twelve days of Christmas on Federal Boulevard

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This week marks a year since I started my trek up Federal Boulevard for the weekly A Federal Case series. I've hit 53 eateries in just under six miles -- a distance I could easily cover in less than twenty minutes, depending on traffic and luck. But in taking a year to travel the distance, I've gained an appreciation for the subtle differences in the way dishes are prepared from place to place; I've noticed the pride that waiters and restaurant owners have in serving the food of their home countries; I've experienced the wonder of tasting things completely new to me. Sure, I ate a few bad meals, but the fiery sauces, slow-cooked meats, and fresh and unusual greens have been more the norm than the exception.

Since its Christmastime, I've picked my twelve favorite dishes of Federal Boulevard so far, each representing a gift that the cooks and servers of this street have given me. Here they are, in the order that I originally ate them -- from south to north. Maybe there's a new pair of pajama pants from Santa waiting under my tree for me to wear out the next time I getting a craving for any one of these.

See also: Twelve best Thai restaurants in Denver

1) Carnitas at Café Chihuahua

2250 South Federal Boulevard Tender chunks and shreds of pork are hard to get wrong, and I've had many good plates of carnitas in this town, but the mound of crisp-edged goodness that's Café Chihuahua's ode to the noble pig stands out for its almost confit-like texture -- bathed in its own fat yet not greasy, perfectly succulent and brilliant in its simplicity. Pork is the primary and dominant flavor, its savory richness mitigated only slightly by a steaming tortilla redolent with earthy corn.

2) Pecan tarts at San Antonio Fresh Mexican Bakery

2007 South Federal The pecan tarts at this Mexican bakery aren't the most emblematic Mexican pastry, but they capture the gooey, nutty, buttery pleasure of Southern pecan pies that were prevalent during my childhood in north Texas, where we picked pecans on the farm of a family friend. The empanadas are worth the risk of a sugar coma, but I'd never leave this place without a couple of pecan tarts to wash down with strong black coffee.

3) Camarones aguachile at Torres Mexican Food

1597 South Federal This dish was an eye-opener for me, both figuratively and literally. I'd never heard of aguachile -- a preparation similar to shrimp ceviche, only with grass-green serrano or jalapeño chiles pureed into the lime marinade -- until I visited Torres with a friend who hails from Mexico's capital city. Now it's one of my favorites dishes, too, as much for the raw shrimp with its almost crunchy texture as for the tongue-searing sauce cooled by lots of fresh lime juice and slices of cucumber.

5) Roasted duck with steamed buns at Hong Kong Barbecue

1048 South Federal Whole glazed and roasted ducks hang from hooks under hot lights at the counter of Hong Kong Barbecue, their skins glistening like bronzed sunbathers slathered in tanning lotion. An order of the duck, sliced thin to slip into puffy white steamed buns, looks like more skin than meat, which is just fine with me. The meat is tender, fatty and almost as rich and gamey as pork, but the skin crackles with salt and spices. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about this dish.

6) Pot stickers at Lao Wang Noodle House

945 South Federal Lao Wang has earned a reputation for its xiao long bao, the finicky soup dumplings that require perfect timing or risk collapsing, congealing or turning gummy. Lao Wang's pot stickers, however, require no flourishes, no explanations, no admonishments to eat or miss the moment. They may be the homely stepchild on the menu, a second choice for many, but I love the crunchy, almost blackened crust and the soft interiors, especially when touched with a hint of black vinegar. Sometimes culinary pleasure is nothing more complex than feeling your teeth slice through a skin of tender dough with just the right resistance.

7) Pho at Pho Duy

945 South Federal Pho Duy has won


's Best of Denver three years running, for good reason. The broth encompasses the complexity gained from slow cooking and the brightness of fresh ingredients. I like a combination of rare steak for a hint of iron and blood, sliced brisket for down-home beefy comfort, and thin-sliced tripe for the chewy texture and hint of farmhouse funk. But get it the way you like it, because it's going to be good no matter what. Just don't overdo it with the sauces and condiments, at least not right away. Close your eyes and let those interwoven hints of star anise, ginger and beef bone wash over your tongue.

8) Pork belly banh mi at New Saigon Bakery and Deli

630 South Federal There's no shortage of banh mi bakeries on or near Federal Boulevard, but New Saigon Bakery stands out for the freshness of its bread, the variety of fillings, and the attention to hitting the perfect ratio of crunchy, shredded vegetables, tangy sauce and savory charcuterie. My favorite is the pork belly; an early lunch will certainly earn a warm baguette, so that the meat and fat melt just a little bit into the bread only to be saved from heaviness by rocket bursts of raw jalapeño and cilantro.

9) Corn tamale at Tarasco's

470 South Federal Tarasco's solo tamale, served on its open husk on a small white plate, would fit into any procession of dishes on a tasting menu from the country's most intellectual chefs. It's the artistic expression of corn, corn texture, corn aroma and the subtle delineation between fresh sweet corn kernels and dried field corn formed into dense masa. But that's ridiculous, because no chef trying to invent, provoke and impress could ever conjure something so inherently traditional and basically satisfying. Tarasco's tamale is first and foremost food, made and served with care and love and a generous dose of crema. What you taste is pure and good and exactly what it's meant to be.

10) Goat hot pot at Viet's

333 South Federal Viet's goat hot pot was the strangest and most unusual combination of ingredients I've had so far on my journey: lotus root, turnip leaves, Chinese celery, taro and a few vegetables I couldn't give a name to, not to mention toothsome goat ribs in a broth so full of spices that the meat took on a yellow hue. And it wasn't just some experiment in weirdness; the flavor of every bite had its place and added layers of homey satisfaction of the whole. It also came with a grayish, slippery sauce that combined the fermented funk of natto, cider vinegar and blue cheese into one bizarrely addictive poke at my Western notions of what a condiment should be.

11) Large double cheeseburger at Grandpa's Burger Haven

23 South Federal A double cheeseburger on Grandpa's six-inch bun is more food than is reasonable for one person, more food than is probably safe. It's the kind of sandwich that makes the rest of the world hate America. But there's no way in hell I'd ever leave even a single bite behind to languish unappreciated in its blue checkered wrapper. It is the evil combination of war-era processed cheese, industrially produced ground beef, a big-Ag fluffy white-bread bun, and Florida winter tomatoes that roll out of the truck rock-hard and flavorless. And I wouldn't change a single thing.

12) Pork tongue tacos at El Taco Veloz

400 Federal Simply the best meat on the best handmade tortillas I've had anywhere in Denver. The diced tongue is soft, mild, lightly seasoned, and worthy of eating noisily. But if for some reason you want something more complex than meat and tortilla, El Taco Veloz also excels in the art of molding and grilling sopes, so you could do worse than a pyramid of savory pork tongue atop a smear of frijoles refritos atop a crisped boat of masa.

For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.

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