Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Black and White Soul

it's raining rain
it's raining snow,
tell me where you wanna go. -"Speedbumps", Luna

A small black knot of life, huddled together, one umbrella. The delicate lace of the snowy, young, branches draw them away from us. Who are they? Where are they going? Afternoon Tea, Ladies' Lunch? I wish I was there, then. I’d love to experience that day. The smells, tastes, colors, warmth and sensations of that black-and-white, coming to life.

The sun is actually shining today, melting the last few patches of dirty white snow, I hate it! “Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” I don’t feel like winter should be over yet, I have so much more baking and cooking that I want to do. I have an herb garden to plan. I have books to read. Fires to sit in front of. Teas to taste. A snowy winter life to live. I can’t be cast out into this lukewarm weather!

My crisis is not existential, it is weather related.

Monday, February 11, 2008

If at First You Don’t Succeed...

After surviving a stressful week, Friday night came upon us with the injunction to “go out, eat something comfy, and relax.” After a bit of brainstorming, this guy and his doll decide that 75 cent PBR’s and some perfectly fried cod are the answer.

So out the door we go heading down Broadway to GB Fish & Chips. After a few short minutes the beautiful Union Jack looms large in front of us, but wait, what! From whence cometh this mass of SUVs and Mini-vans that now populate the whole of GB’s parking lot? Happy hour at our favorite booze and batter bastion had turned into Union Jack’s Jolly Jamboree! Not a seat to be had in the house, rug-rats throwing darts at the floor, future anonymous alcoholics filling their bottles with PBR. As my vision began to blur and my head to spin, my wife pulled me out of that place just in time to prevent a total, non-alcohol induced black-out. Whew, back in the fresh air of Broadway, filling my lungs with sweet diesel fumes. Ok, let’s try something else.

Light-bulb, bling! La Praviana is just a few blocks further down Broadway. If you haven’t gone to La Praviana, boy, you are missing out. It’s this great little Salvadorian restaurant that makes the greatest pupusas in Denver. Pupusas are corn masa filled with either black beans and cheese or cheese and chicharron or lorroco flowers with cheese, well, you get the picture. They look like pancakes and are served with a curtido topping. This is chopped cabbage, carrots and jalapeno in vinegar. Truly good, a pile of these pupusas are, they are. Oh yes, they are! As we expectantly approach the ramshackle building that is La Praviana, we find that all our thoughts should have been in the past tense. No pupusas, no lorroco, no Negra Modelo, no Pan con Pavo, NO La Praviana. All gone, closed-up, shuttered, just like our enthusiasm for an easy, comforting meal.

But I’m not ready to give-in; I will have a relaxing meal. “Isn’t there this little Chinese-American restaurant just a little further down Broadway?” I ask, trying to stay positive and cheery over the deafening roar of our empty stomachs and the audibly black thoughts that are pulsing from our hell-bent-on-murdering minds. Not a good suggestion, apparently I’m not the only one that is having second thoughts of finding sustenance on Broadway tonight.

Then out of the blackness, she says, “What about JJ’s?”

Oh, J.J.’s how I take you for granted! A place so wonderful, it feels like having dinner at home. Except we usually can’t understand the staff, and we don’t make hot-pot at home. (Although, our neighbors downstairs are always smoking it!) JJ Chinese Seafood Restaurant at 2500 W. Alameda is the place to go for traditional Chinese food from Guangdong province. We drove up to an empty parking lot. The way our night was going, we immediately start wondering, "are they closed?" "JJ’s is always hopping." "What's wrong?" We are relieved as we walk in and see that everything is a as it should be, we’re just earlier than most. We settle in with our pot of tea and quickly decide on our old favorites: half a Peking duck, beef with black mushrooms and an order of fried-bread. As you walk into JJ’s you immediately see what they are known for. The large tanks full of eels, ling cod, lobsters, crabs, and a motley assortment of other denizens of the deep, scream seafood! When a guest orders fish or lobster, one of the cooks comes out with a big bucket containing the fresh aquarium catch and lets the guest O.K. the selection.

But I just wanted some crispy little duck, tucked into a mini-bun with hoison sauce. Nothing exotic, just delicious. JJ cooks up duck in many amazing ways. Try the shredded duck with enoki mushrooms, divine. I hear the Duck with XO sauce is also spectacular.

JJ’s hasn’t disappointed us yet. Since the staff’s English is limited, you won’t get a very good description of what you will be eating, if you want to be adventurous, but you’ll be alright. Last time we were there, we ended up with a selection of cold plates. Special House Chicken, for instance is a plate of cooked and de-boned chicken that is then refrigerated. The beef and soy sauce appetizer is also cold. Very tender thinly sliced beef, with a nice sauce. Both different, but good. Unless you wanted a hot meal.

As we finished our meal, sipping our tea, dipping our fried-bread into a little dish of condensed milk, and watching the crowd around us delight in their food, we couldn’t help but smile. Yeah, that was good. What got off to a rocky start, paid off in the end. “If at first you don’t succeed, fry, fry a hen...or duck."

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Comida Callejera?

Just this week, the corner in front of my office was graced with a new addition. If you walk by the corner of 15th and Market, you'll find "Fidel" a Cuban-food street cart. For most readers of this blog, it is no surprise that I am not shy about trying street food (see Biker Jim's, Mixiote). A cornerstone of Mexican culture IS comida callejera, street food. Not having time to go down and personally check-out the food at "Fidel's", I asked a co-worker if he knew what they were serving or if he had tried it himself. Oops! The expression on his face told me that I might as well have asked if he was in the habit of licking fire-hydrants. "You don't like Cuban food?", I asked, innocently. "It's not that, I just don't like street food."

Too Shocking! I know that the stands out there vary from good to unspeakable, but I would never consider writing-off a whole style of food. Would you? Ok, that's NOT a rhetorical question. I'm curious to know what you all think of street food. Check out the POLL: "DENVER STREET FOOD" on the right column and let me know what you think. If you have favorites or reasons while you'll never have a street-taco again, comment below.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Warmth on a Cold Day

We woke up this morning to a beautiful blanket of snow. Well, most people around here are getting quite tired of it, but I still love it. One of the comfort foods I enjoy when it snows is Pho. When we're up for the drive to Federal Blvd., the home of Denver's best Vietnamese joints, we head over to Pho 79. It's a bit harder to get out there for lunch, however, so we are happy to have Parallel 17 close at hand. Just outside of downtown at 17th and Franklin is one of the coolest little spots, with GREAT Pho! Yup, I used both caps and an exclamation mark in that last sentence. Parallel 17's Pho deserves it.

If you don't know Pho, (pronounced "fuh", according to the folks at the Parallel) it is a Vietnamese noodle soup with herbs and vegetables. An excellent New York Times article, from serveral years ago, described it as the "national breakfast of Vietnam." In the places that specialize in Pho, the steaming hot beef broth and rice vermicelli is served with any one (or more) of a myriad of protein choices. There is beef tenderloin, tripe, tendon, brisket, meatballs; also some serve chicken or shrimp selections. This beautiful bowl is presented with a plate of fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, mint), limes, chiles, bean sprouts and sauces (hoison, sriracha hot sauce, etc). Then you go at it, creating your own flavor combinations. A Vietnamese profesor mentioned in the NYTimes article that "pho could be taken to mean ''your own bowl.'' While most other foods are served communally, soup, he said, is a rarity among Vietnamese dishes in that it is created individually for the individual." So don't be afraid to try mixing it up.

If you ARE a Pho-natic (so much better that a Pho-Nazi, sorry), you might wonder at Parallel 17's Pho potential. First of all, you say, "it's in Uptown"; strike one. Second, it is a beautiful little corner storefront; too, clean to infuse the broth with the appropriate depth; strike two. Third, the music and general vibe of the place is more Soho than Saigon; and your out! But hold on a minute "ump", give this place a chance. Let me explain my criteria for good Pho. It's simple, the broth has to be great. Deep and rich, lots of beef bones cooking for a long time.

Parallel 17 has it.

Monday thru Friday, Pho is what's for lunch (11:30 - 2:30) at Parallel 17. My favorite is the beef "carpaccio" pho plus oxtail. This "carpaccio" is very tender, rare, thinly sliced beef that cooks-up to a medium-well in your boiling broth. Yum, got's to try it! Grab your chops and slurp up those noodles, don't be afraid to splash around. I seem to ruin a good shirt everytime I have Pho, but it's worth it. You'll sweat a bit, or alot if you spice up your bowl. On a cold winter day, isn't that a what you need? Let the Russians have their banya and the hipsters can have their Yoga, I'll sweat it out in my Pho at Parallel 17!