Is it too late to make a New Year’s Resolution? If I’m still allowed, I have a good one.
I vow to not eat crappy hotel bar cheeseburgers. There are simply too many good joints serving too much amazing food to waste time and money on food I know is going to be mediocre at best. Especially when the good joints are cheaper, funkier, and way more fun.
Three Days in Denver
On a recent series of business trips, I visited Three Joints in Four Days. To prep for that trip, I went to Flavor Town USA, the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives fan site, to find restaurants in Dallas, Chicago and Nashville. That plan worked out so well, I did it again when I went to Denver for three days.
In those three days, I had bison ribs at an American Indian joint, pork shoulder in powdered sugar at a neighborhood bar, chili dogs at a transplanted New Jersey diner and one hotel breakfast (most hotels can at least make a decent omelette).
Tocabe is a small joint at the corner of Lowell and 44th, on the west side of Denver. I arrived during a snow storm, so the place was almost empty. There were just two other parties in the restaurant.
I walked up to the counter and ordered from their relatively small menu. This is a place that specializes in doing a few things very well. The bulk of the menu is stuffed fry bread, nachos on fry bread and bison ribs, the dish they made for Guy on Triple-D.
I ordered the ribs, green chile stew and a beer.
My food was up in about 10 minutes and it was great. The bison ribs were leaner and a bit tougher than beef ribs, as you’d expect, but they had a deep, hearty flavor that was to die for. The house-made blueberry barbecue sauce was sweet, fruity and spicy in just the right proportions. Excellent.
As good as the ribs were, the green chile stew is what would make me go back to Tocabe. From the roasted corn to the tender pork chunks to the hot, hot green chiles and the prominent black pepper kick, there was nothing not to love about this dish. As Guy would say, it was “off the hook”. It was “on point”.
My love for the green chile stew must have been noticeable As I was leaving, the guy who took my order gave me a small bowl of stew for a midnight snack. Sweet!
Total for the ribs, stew and a beer? 18 bucks. Are you kidding me?
Next time I’m in Denver, I’m trying some of that stuffed fry bread.
Day two took me to Steuben’s, a neighborhood bar in east Denver. I went with a co-worker who was up from L.A. Steuben’s must be popular with the locals, because we got there at 6:20 on a Thursday and there was already a line out the door.
We watched great looking food go by for 40 minutes and finally got our table. It was worth the wait.
We started with Steubie Snacks, a bizarre dish made of braised pork shoulder cubes that are then deep fried and tossed in salt, pepper and powdered sugar. As weird as it sounds, they were excellent. I asked the waiter how they came up with this combination. He said there was an accident in the food truck one day and the staff ate the results. It was good enough, they perfected the recipe and added it to the menu.
For my entree, I had a chile relleno and a side of crispy, pan fried Brussels Sprouts. South Western food and Brussels Sprouts might not go together, but they both looked so good I had to try them.
Neither disappointed. The relleno had a great balance of heat, acid, and chicken. The batter was crisp and light. Not greasy or soggy at all. The Sprouts were awesome. Crispy, with little burned edges and tender centers. If you don’t like Sprouts, these will make you a believer.
Total damage for 2 guys, appetizers, wine, entrees and extra sides? $66. Cheap.
My last day, I was smack dab in downtown Denver thinking I had to grab something quick before heading to the airport. I turned the corner and ran into Sam’s No. 3.
Triple D features two types of restaurants, funky new joints that are pushing the boundaries of traditional cuisines and old establishments that are doing the classics in the classic style. Sam’s No. 3 is definitely the later.
According to the menu, Sam’s No. 3 is the last of five restaurants founded by New Jersey transplant Sam Armatas in the ’20s. The chain had died out, but was re-established by Sam’s son and grandsons.
No. 3 is now on the 1st floor of an office building, but it stays true to its diner roots with lots of booths, chrome and a classic diner menu.
I had two beers, a Coney Island dog and fried cheese curds. Everything was good and worth ordering again. But, for me, there was a problem with the authenticity of the dishes.
A Coney dog is not just a chili dog by another name. For someone who grew up north of Cincinnati, a true Coney dog is made with a finely ground beef sauce that is closer to Cincinnati chili than to a traditional chili. When I was a kid, my aunt and uncle owned an ice cream stand and my aunt made the definitive Coney dog. While good for a chili dog, Sam’s couldn’t hold a candle to my aunt’s Coney dog.
Updated – I spent my whole life assuming the Coney Island Dog came from Coney Island NY. Then I mentioned this post to two co-workers from Brooklyn. They looked at me like I had two heads. Apparently, the Coney Island Dog doesn’t come from NY, it’s a Mid-West specialty served from Chicago, through Flint MI down to Cincinnati. Who knew?
The fried cheese curd had its own troubles. Anyone from the mid-west knows that cheese curd and cheese are two different things. Cheese curd is produced in the first step of cheese making. It’s the solids that come from souring milk and adding rennet. This curd is usually pressed into models, packaged and aged to become cheese.
But it can also be eaten as soon as it solidifies. In this state, it’s called cheese curd and it has a mild flavor and distinctive rubbery texture. Cheese curd is also known as “squeaky cheese” because of that texture. I know rubbery cheese doesn’t sound appetizing, but trust me, when it’s really fresh it’s awesome.
Sam’s fried cheese curd totally lacked the squeaky texture of true cheese curd. It was more like fired mozzarella. It was really good fired mozzarella, but it wasn’t curd.
Rating Sam’s for the food they served, a chili dog and fried mozzarella, I’d give them an A. Rating them on the food they promised, a Coney dog and fried cheese curd, I’d give them a B-.
Still, I had a good chili dog, fried cheese and two beers and still got out of there for $16.
What am I complaining about?
Over the next several weeks, I’m heading back to Chicago, to New York and possibly Florida. All of these locations look ripe for some good eats.
All I have to do is walk out of the hotel lobby and look around.