Sunday, April 28, 2013

Justice League of Street Food - April 27, 2013

Justice League of Street Food returns in 2013! They teased their rallies would end, but they were back for more. They cited Denver's W-line for the celebration cause, but I'd accept spring weather and more food tracks as causes.
With 580+ saying they're going on the JLSF Facebook, you need a strategy. Coordinate with friends, arrive early, scout out the trucks.
First up was spirit sampling from Santa Fe Spirits, Downslope Distillery, and Stranahan's. They were giving generous sample pours for cash donations toward local charities. Santa Fe Spirits featured an apple brandy, a gin comprised of 6 botanicals from the Santa Fe region, and vodka. The gin and vodka were notably smooth. The Santa Fe rep was really friendly, informative, and did a great job promoting her product.

Downslope was a little lax in contrast. After discovering the ruination of Stranahan's whiskey, it's become important to learn as much as possible about spirits advertising themselves as locally made. I'm more likely to support Santa Fe Spirits efforts because of their knowledgeable answers.

My suggestions: know your product, listen to the question and answer the question with a direct answer rather than a rote response. Also, because I want to sample and enjoy your unique products, maybe have a small trash can nearby (for the generous pours) and some water to clean the palate. This was particularly needed when I sampled Downslope's Pepper Vodka and tried their rum and whiskey next. The peppery spicy vodka completely destroyed my ability to discern their other spirits.
Next up was our regular favorite, Biker Jim's. They weren't clearly advertising today's JLSF special, but it was the rattlesnake and pheasant dog with diced jalapenos.
I was expecting a dog with character and a spicy kick. In reality, it was mild and the onions and cream cheese dominated. It was ok, but cheers for splitting it in half. I would have preferred the elk jalapeno cheddar which delivers the venison and spice.
Biker Jim's was adjacent to Quiero Arepas. I was complaining to my friend that I didn't see the sense in paying $8 for Venezuelan street food. The woman pictured above overheard me and proceeded to show off her fully packed carne mechada arepa. Color me more intrigued, but I can get similar empanadas and arepas for less cost at the Empanada Express Grill. Sorry QA, but your ROI seems low.
Next up, my friends custom ordered a bowl from the Crock Pot truck. Their motto is slow cooked gourmet cuisine. You get to customize your bowl with 3 different subcategories and can add extra. Their bowl contains Thai jasmine fried rice, savory pulled pork, chimichurri, and fire roasted corn salad. They ecstatic about the pork, so I had to have a taste! Savory and rich, a heart plugger.
The Squirm Burpee Circus has arrived! Their practice space is nearby and they randomly showed up with some of their show's nifty gadgets and spectacular spectacles. They put on an amazing show and I discovered they will be performing at Elitch's this summer. Check them out!
This is the Petite Royale from Capt'n Crabby. They were offering one other crabby item, The Petite Crab Cake, and corn on the cob dipped in Old Bay butter. Chips are included in the price and you can't swap out items if you're hankering for bell peppers instead of spring mix with your crab cakes. Note: We'd like to opt out of the chips. They taste good, but we'd rather opt in than not being able to opt out.
These might have been JSLF's best buy. These are pierogies from Baba & Pop's Kitchen. They offered two options: potato & cheese topped with caramelized onions, bacon & sour cream; and pulled pork topped with green chile & sour cream. They were priced 3 for $4 or 6 for $6. The pulled pork definitely won me over while the potato & cheese were solid. I was more of a fan of the caramelized onions and bacon than the pierogies' filling.
This picture illustrates my biggest complain against the Justice League of Street Food. So many people love bringing their dogs, but the animals were suffering in the heat. There was very little shade and no available water. Dogs were constantly seeking the beer woman's ice wagon.
Otherwise, the only shade was near the trucks. I wouldn't mind bathing in the Denver Biscuit Truck's savory fumes.
We ordered The DBC Club featuring buttermilk fried chicken, bacon, cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato, chipotle ranch. This was the true winner. Thick, crunchy bacon, spicy sauce, flaky biscuit, tasty breaded and fried chicken. I want more!!
Just as there are winners, there are losers. Meet the Bliss Roll from Yatai Food Cart. It has avocado, mango, wakame (edible seaweed), rice and included wasabi mixed in. Cream cheese was an optional add-on. It sounds good, but it was created in such a way that all the flavors blended together. It did absolutely nothing for me.
One truck that caught our attention was The Denver Pie Truck. The kids working the truck were on top of their game even before the party started. We scouted the location and discovered the Lemon Ice Box pie was the best choice. When we were nearly finished, we stopped and ordered the Lemon Ice Box pie. Guess what? The 5" pie written on the dry eraseboard was not available, only the little ones were. The pie had good lemony flavor with some crust at the bottom. Overall, not remarkable or interesting. Except for the Inventing Room, JLSF dessert trucks strike out.
The final truck was Fat Sully's. I miss them from when I lived 3 blocks away off Colfax. Large NY style slices, piping hot. I wished they had a specialty pizza for the event like they've done in the past.
Overall, the Justice League of Street Food is a party for everyone. I think it's a great excuse to enjoy different Denver neighborhoods, hang out with friends, enjoy special foods, and appreciate unusual entertainment.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rioja - Denver Restaurant Week

How do you prepare for a Denver snow day? I eat at great restaurants as Denver Restaurant Week kicks off. This post is a long time coming, but I feel productive as I enjoy my last day in Europe. Life was so busy when I left Denver February 25. The Rocky Balboa Blowout Weekend started that Friday, DRW started Saturday night, and I had to leave that Monday.
If you love food, you must prioritize these experiences. I actually forgot about Denver Restaurant Week this year, but once I saw a friend post about her first DRW restaurant choice I flew into action from Madrid, Spain. I thoroughly searched the DRW restaurant list for restaurants fitting my criteria:
1. A restaurant I haven't attended or did in a very limited manner
2. More than 3 courses or very inspiring courses
3. High Yelp rating
I began opening tabs and then emailing restaurants for reservations. I probably sounded desperate: "Hi. I'm a Denver local currently based in Madrid, Spain. I tried getting a reservation through Open Table, but couldn't because it's disabled during those dates. Please don't make me call you because international rates are expensive (before I discovered GooglePhone in my Gmail account). I'm desperately missing my Denver restaurants and am free between 5-9pm. Please let me in with a friend. Thank you."
My friend, JessieMcD, came along for this Rioja adventure. She leapt at the chance to dine at Rioja's Chef's Table. It's funny, but they apologetically said they only had the Chef's Table available. Yes, please, twist my arm.

Intermission: the last two pictures show Jessie delighting in Rioja's fabulous bread. They range from herbal, fruit, and italian spice with cheese varieties. Decadence. Apply the butter and salt as liberally as you like.
Our waitress was immensely helpful. She explained Rioja's DRW menu, noting that their entire menu is offered with some surcharges in some areas and 2-3 shared plates because of their size. As an added bonus, they offered two specials included for DRW with no additional surcharge. My friend and I started with the shared "picnic basket" with a trio of artisan meats, warm pine nut crusted goat cheese, Italian Mountain gorgonzola, olives inside the cabbage centerfold, truffle fennel salad, orange confit, and almonds. This was finger food at its best.
Being seated at the Chef's Table helped our decision making process immensely. At several points, we asked our server what certain menu items. This and her fine descriptions helped narrow our choices. I selected the salmon special as pictured above.
My friend's pork tenderloin was the taste bud winner with its rich cardamom brine and applewood smoking. It was pure pork decadence.
The Chef's Table also led to indecision, most notably with desserts.
I wish I had better descriptions for you, the reader, but this post is 6 weeks overdue. Just know that Jennifer Jasinski is a master in her kitchen. You can trust Rioja to give you a fulfilling and sublime dining experience.

Borimechkata - The Bear Fighter

Welcome to the Borimechkata restaurant. This restaurant, named after a Bulgarian legend, "The Bear Fighter", features native Bulgarian dishes in a traditional setting. My group seated ourselves off to the right. I lagged behind admiring the decorations, noting the upper level, and looking at the traditional dolls.
This restaurant is great for social and more intimate settings, as that couple is warmly demonstrating.
Before we start with the food, I should start with what is on the table. Notice the sturdy pottery containing salt and pepper. Then admire the dishes filled with a spicy and mild herb and salt mixture. 
One of the best ways to enjoy those mixtures is to order the bread. The thick charcoal decorated bread. Tear it off with your hands and dip or pinch the mixture. My favorite was the spicier variety. In the background, you'll notice my yogurt drink. I like it best with a healthy dose of salt mixed in. Gives it a nice flavor.
Our dishes steadily arrived. To my left is the Shoppski appetizer with curds, strained yogurt, mayonnaise, onion, red pepper, dill and garlic. It was good, but way too strong for me. There was also the Shoppska salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, onions, feta cheese, and an olive. I saved the salad for last and was satisfied with my decision. Munching the vegetables was a good way to finish.
Next was shkembe v maslo, pork belly and stomach. They came with a very strong garlic sauce and chilli seeds. The belly and stomach was too soft for me, almost as if they were trying to slither away in my mouth. Except for the Shoppski appetizer, I had consented that my group order whatever they saw fit and think I should try.
Rather soon, we received our 500ml of warm Rakia, a traditional Bulgarian spirit. It is their version of firewater with a brandy base. I received so many warnings leading to this order. Yes, I know it's strong. Yes, if you think I should drink it warm, I will. Yes, I can handle my higher proof beverages. Yes, I will be fine tomorrow. Carbonation gets me, firewater doesn't. Go figure. We went 6 rounds before we ran out.
There's nothing like high proof spirits to bolster my food eating spirits. I needed all I could get before I braved the grilled chicken tails (aka chicken butt). I don't want to recount this, but let's go. You have to just pop it into your mouth and work the meat off the little circular bone. It had a nice grilled taste and the meat fell off the bone relatively quickly. However... that mental factor. One was enough for the rest of my life.
I didn't receive a medal for eating the last dish, but we did get the Hero's Appetizer with smoked sausage on shish, ribs, pork fillet, pork liver, and nervous meat ball. The sausage with onions and nervous meat ball were my favorite items. I did try everything on that immense platter. I have to say that this restaurant knows how to make use of the entire animal. I can't imagine how much protein and iron I downed in this wholly comprehensive meal. 
We finished with a traditional Bulgarian folk dancing demonstration. These things happen when eating with dancers.

Overall, I had a great time at Borimechkata. The food was robust as the bear fighter himself. I felt that I received a great representation of Bulgaria's native dishes here.

Sofia Samplings

Striking Sofia, land of McDonald's and these unique underground shops. Until I visited Sofia, I had never seen so many McDonald's in a foreign country, even two across the street from each other. Then there are these little shops strewn all over the city. Need something fast and want to practice your third world squat? Squat down and order something here whether it be smokes, water, candy, or other "necessities".
However, this is not a blog for Maccas. It's for visually stimulating Bulgarian food like the breaded yoghurt, housemade charcoal grilled bread, yoghurt soup, and peppadew peppers topped with more Bulgarian yoghurt at The Red House.
It's for the Beans in Furnace dish with smoked bacon, peppers, tomato, and onions. This was a very hearty meal and a wonderful start for my Sofia stay. Yoghurt, as demonstrated above, is a regular staple in the Bulgarian diet. I asked several people about purchasing the bacteria cultures, but did not have much luck.
This is Tarator soup from O!Shipka, a highly recommended pizza restaurant. This Tarator featured dill and garlic. While here, I also learned how not to pour water. Bulgarians have a custom of pouring wine (read first paragraph) on a relative's grave and it is done very specifically, so if you do it in a restaurant, it might be shocking. Hold your glass in your right hand and twist your wrist clockwise to pour.
This was one of my favorite spots for a small, but filling bakery snack. According to my translator, the bakery's name translated and spelled in English was Bomato. However, I can't find this bakery on my maps or TripAdvisor. It is next door to the Luciano Padovan store at 1 Vitosha Boulevard.
The second time I returned, I enjoyed a dense, glutinous roll, poppy seed cake with caramelized orange, and a Bulgarian white cheese and spinach (? it was green) muffin. The food is nutritious, fresh, colorful, cheap, and very good.
Further toward the NDK building, you'll find many more low level convenience shops and this very popular outdoor pizza place. The lines cycle through quickly and you'll get this large pizza slice for 2.50 Lev. This is at the corner of Vitosha Boulevard and Patriarh Evtimiy. The cheese was most noticeably delicious, then the red pepper, and finally the underlayer of meat.

That wraps up my smaller Sofia restaurant experiences. The food is hearty, the yoghurt plentiful, and the people friendly. English menus abound. Oh! One final thing: order the yoghurt drink. First, try it without salt. Then add some salt, mix it in, then taste it until you have a sweeter saltier flavor.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Made in Home - Sofia, Bulgaria

I spotted Made in Home during a TripAdvisor search for Sofia restaurants. Customers mentioned "take foreigners there", "feels like home", "unique", and "healthy". I forgot the name and lost my Google Maps tab, but I had a vague idea where it was. This morning I headed toward my favorite bakery, but decided to walk on the right side of the Palace of Culture.
I accidentally found Made in Home. The graffiti drew my attention and I peered inside. I was immediately struck by the unique decor, so I decided to walk inside. Apparently, you can sit anywhere you like, so I sat at a reclaimed desk. You'll notice that most of the tables and chairs appear reclaimed. Above, the leftmost table is a reclaimed door over a low wall.
Bird cage and canning jar lights dot my ceiling partition. This ceiling is also covered in old newspaper clippings and music sheets. The other ceiling is specked with burlap sacks. Each chair is unique. Female friends chat to my right as American and foreign college students chat about long distance relationships, American vs UK "The Office", and making whip sounds with your fingers.
I was first presented with a Bulgarian menu.
It appears like a small children's novel with captivating drawings buttressing the words.
Each page and menu book is unique.
After I ordered, they brought a small cup with napkins, fork, and knife. The table is already sat with herb laced olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a pepper grinder, and delicious salt. Dried sunflowers and growing herbs dot the windowsills. It's a cozy spot away from today's rain.
The first menu item that arrived was the roasted red pepper chutney with Bulgurian white cheese and grilled pita bread dotted with sesame seeds. The pepper had a natural sweetness to them as if cooked with olive oil.  The salty Bulgarian cheese complemented the peppers. I laid waste to this dish, scooping the pepper chutney with my thick fluffy pita bread. I only wish there was more bread.
This whetted my appetite for my second dish, bulgur with peas and mint. A simple dish, yet not to be taken lightly. Do you see the steam rising on the left side? Maybe enlarge the picture. Each bite started with a mint steam waft at the back of the throat. The bulgur possessed a soft texture and tasted buttery. The peas were delightful and there was purple onion hidden about. I crave more.

Made in Home
Angel Kanchev 30A,
Sofia, Bulgaria