Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Denver food

Denver is not a foodie city. It has no particular signature dish, except perhaps the Denver omelet, but let's face it, the Denver omelet is not particularly unique. (Oddly, I saw more places selling Philly cheese steak sandwiches than Denver omelets. I wonder if Philly's full of Denver-omelet-specializing diners?) Most of our meals were not exceptional, or were things that were unusual for us only because they don't have that in our area (and sometimes when we travel, we slum it at a place like Wendy's just because we can't get that at home). Plus, the hotel we stayed at for most of the trip (after the convention was over) had a free breakfast, and not just a muffin and a banana, but a full buffet with an omelet station and everything; so a third of our meals were that. We also had a couple of times when a lunch had enough leftovers to become dinner too. So in the end, we only had a handful of meals that were of any note. And of these the two most interesting were the most, and least, expensive meals we had.

The honor of "most expensive" easily falls to The Fort. This is a pueblo-style building in the red rock area southwest of Denver, but if I tell you that it has a sort of cowboy frontier theme, you will get entirely the wrong idea. You'll probably imagine some mocked-up Wild West town where people in ten-gallon hats and six-shooters are either yelling "yeehaw!" or having quick-draws at high noon, accompanied by sagebrush. The Fort is certainly historical, but not quite that histrionic. It's more focused on the pioneer period, which covers the wagon-trains heading west during the gold rush, and the ranchers herding cattle through the prairies. The staff are in vaguely period garments, but not costumes; it's more subtle than that. The women wearing long skirts and shawls, the men in puffy-sleeved shirts, for instance. The building has a pebbled courtyard and lots of timber inside, but it does not have a steer-head skeleton, a Colt 45, or a cactus everywhere you turn; it just has period building materials.

The food tends to focus just enough on period meals to be interesting, without being either Hollywood or realistic to an extent that it wouldn't also be tasty. For instance, I had a prickly pear beverage which is approximately the sort of thing they would have been drinking in the area 150 years ago, but it was neither slavishly historically accurate (so much that it might not please the modern palate) nor cinematically goofy. (Even so, I didn't like it too much. But that's just because it turns out that while I love the prickly pear lemonade Bolthouse used to make -- why did they stop!?!? -- I don't really like prickly pear on its own.) They also use a fair amount of "game" meat, though they don't actually hunt buffalo, they buy it from sustainably-run local farms that raise buffalo, quail, and the like for that very purpose.

Siobhan had a game meat platter, while I had a pork belly and campfire beans dish that I eventually realized was basically the precursor to "pork-n-beans". I also tried an intriguing appetizer: pickled jalapeƱos stuffed with honey-sweetened peanut butter. They had a nice heat burn, but the combination didn't work as well as I might have liked. In all, the food was good, and the experience interesting and enjoyable (and I'm not even referring to how good-looking the hostess was in that), but I don't know if it was worth the huge bill. Still, I am not much of a fan of game meats, so I'm not really the one who should judge.

On the way to Roxborough State Park we had no lunch plans, but Google Maps showed there was a Sonic and a pizzeria in the village of Roxborough Park on the way to the park proper, so we figured we'd grab something on the way in, but we didn't decide ahead what it would be. We got to the one shopping center that is the village center, and pulled in, but before we could alight upon Sonic, to what did our eyes appear, but a little strip-mall-type restaurant called Tamale Kitchen. We later learned it was one of a small Denver-area chain, which had started by some people selling tamales door-to-door. But you wouldn't know it by visiting; it just looks like any little strip-mall restaurant run by locals.

I suppose technically the meal we got was not the cheapest in total dollars, but it was certainly the cheapest in dollars per amount of food, and since it ended up making three generous meals, it was easily the cheapest per meal. We stared befuddled at the menu as we read about "family pack #1" which had:
  • 12 tamales (red, green, or a mix)
  • 12 tortillas
  • 1 pint of beans
  • 1 pint of rice
  • 1 pint of chili
  • a two-liter bottle of Pepsi or Diet Pepsi
for $21. Back in Vermont that would be a fantastic price; I would expect to pay twice that much. And restaurants in Denver were uniformly much higher in price than back home. So this deal was just amazing. They had several other platters which mixed in tacos and/or burritos, at similarly amazing prices.

The chili was actually chili sauce, and it was good chili sauce, and way more than you needed for everything else in the meal. The tamales were also very good. Not the best I've ever had, but certainly closer to the best than the worst. The green ones were a little skimpy on filling, but the red ones were quite generous on filling, so it evened out. The rice was nothing special, but the beans were very good.

We both had lunch from it, then I ate more for dinner, and well into the evening. It was too good to let any of it go to waste. I even used some of the chili sauce to dip hush puppies in (don't knock it, it worked really well). All in all, it was very good. Not fine cuisine good, but for $21 for that much food, you'd expect it to be awful and still cost a lot more, but it was darned good. If I could buy a package like that at home, I think we would cook half as much as we do.

There were some other meals that I'm sure Siobhan has documented extensively on Chowhound or Yelp or something, and some of them were good, but they were the kind of good you might expect to find in any city. We had a fairly good deli, but nothing to even sit in the shadow of Carnegie Deli; we had some all right Mexican, but not really a lot better than even the Mexican we can get in Vermont; and so on.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Denver activities

Most of what we did in Denver can be divided up into two categories: window-shopping, and visiting parks and wilderness. The former leaves me very little to talk about, because Denver's shopping areas were dreadfully dull. You know how the local mall is like 90% clothing stores? Denver's malls are like 98% clothing stores. The first mall we visited, if you took out the clothing stores, jewelry stores, and restaurants, you'd have about three things left. One tiny Lego shop, a chocolatier, and a Microsoft store. The other big mall, and outdoor shopping area, weren't much different. There were a couple of kitchen shops, a huge store that sells nothing but containers for other things, and multiple Starbucks in the same mall... and those were the highlights. The 16th Street pedestrian mall was even worse: pretty much nothing but chain stores.

About the only store that was much fun to visit was a Guitar Center. Though not as much as it might have been if it had been possible to buy stuff there! There was also a tiny shop called The Pilot Shop we kept seeing signs for on the way to our hotel (at the small regional airport), so we stopped in one day just to sate our curiosity. (About half the store is kitschy things like model planes, T-shirts, and bumper-stickers, of interest to people who fly; the other half is specialized things like headsets, ILS charts, and FAA regulation books and checklists.)

So we spent most of our time visiting the various nature areas, parks, and wildernesses that happened to be convenient to our location and the weather. Weather wasn't always with us: it was chilly, threatening to rain, and cloudy a lot, and in fact, after a late winter in Vermont where it was wet and cold the whole year, it finally got warm for the first time right after we left, at which point it was cold in Denver. Even so we got a fair amount of sunlight.

Our first stop was the quaint village of Manitou Falls, in the Colorado Springs (or, as the signs all say, Colo Spgs) area. It's not just a charming touristy town. It's a CHARMING TOURISTY TOWN at the top of its lungs. It makes Stowe look reserved. It makes Ogunquit seem organic. It makes Port Jefferson seem sincere. We didn't linger very long, though; the deli we were getting lunch at didn't open until pretty much when we had to run to make our reservation, so we got our food to go.

The main thing Manitou Falls has going for it, apart from small, cutesy shops selling things no one needs, is being the base of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. This is a pretty expensive ride, but it's really quite incredible. Unfortunately due to high winds we couldn't ride to the top (and graciously, they reduce the exorbitant ticket prices accordingly... to still exorbitant, but less so, prices). We only got to Windy Point at 12,000 feet. The views were still spectacular, and the ride well worth it.  The conductor does a great job of keeping the trip entertaining.  Still would have been nice to be able to say we got to the very top (14,100 feet or so).

After this, we went to the Garden of the Gods.  This is a pretty big park that is mostly notable for having some amazing, huge rocky formations, mostly of that strikingly red rock native to the area.  Some are huge, some are balanced, some are oddly shaped, and all are pretty breathtaking.  In between is an awful lot of arid wilderness, along with some nicely designed trails and roads.  A light walk of a couple of miles got us amongst and alongside the biggest of the rock formations, and gave us great views from all directions, both of the rocks and of the crazy people climbing them (despite the many, many signs saying not to do so unless you were a professional with a license), plus an exposure to the wilderness itself (though we didn't really see any wildlife apart from the occasional bird).  After the walk, a set of roads lets you drive through the rest and see most of the remainder of the great views, rocks, and wilderness, which provides a nice balance: you get to see everything in a huge park even if you're not up to doing huge long hikes.  Anyone who visits the area should give Garden of the Gods a few hours; best of all, it's free.

Back in the Denver area we visited Cherry Creek Park, which is referred to as Denver's backyard.  This is the kind of park that's mostly focused on activities: picnic areas, fishing, boating, swimming, and the like.  Which is not to say there wasn't wilderness and trails, but given that it's mostly a big open area with very little vegetation taller than your knee, it's really more suited to activities than feeling like you're out in the middle of nowhere (you can still see Denver from pretty much all points, even though it's many, many miles away).  Some of the activities are a bit unusual, such as a shooting range.  The most interesting was a model RC airplane field: space set aside by the park, and then maintained and equipped by a pair of local RC plane fan clubs.  No one was flying the day we went due to high winds, but that let us get a better look (since technically we weren't supposed to be allowed into the area).  It's incredible how much stuff they have, including runways wide enough to drive a minivan down.  These people are serious.  (So much that RC cars are entirely banned, because, after all, those people are just playing with silly toys.)

Roxborough State Park was a bit more wilderness-park-like.  No camping, but lots of hiking, and it was hilly enough that you couldn't see the whole park from any single point.  We took one of the easiest trails, and it was just about as much as we could do -- though in warmer weather we might have felt a bit more comfortable on it, but even so, we probably wouldn't've been up to the challenge of any of the other trails.  The park had a few "learning about nature" signs that were really strikingly self-congratulatory and effusive, but once you got away from the visitor center, it was just a lovely park with interesting plants and rock formations and a nice sense of isolation and quiet.  Also a lot more vegetation than we'd seen elsewhere, though even here the trees were short, stunted, twisted oaks.  No tall pine forests like we might have imagined (that, it turns out, is more common on the other side of the Rockies).  The picture here is a ground-clinging cactus growing at the foot of a twisty oak, a juxtaposition that seemed unusual.

We didn't end up driving up into the mountains and over them (or through them, as there's a tunnel on one of them), largely because the weather never quite seemed right for a drive like that.  Some other time we need to see the Colorado Plateau, the land on the other side of the Rockies (that includes a lot of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico), where there are both the tall pine forests, and the kind of dry arid land that you can call "desert" without disclaimer.  All in good time.

We didn't do a lot of museum-like stuff. We intended to visit the Denver Mint, because, how often do you get to tour a U.S. Mint? But it turns out they only offer a small number of tours each day and you have to book far in advance, and we let the window of opportunity slip away. We had also considered the Molly Brown House, but it wasn't open the one day we were looking to go to it.  So in the end the only place we visited was the Denver Firefighter's Museum. Which was pretty cool, really. It's not too large, only took an hour and a half or so to visit, but it was also reasonably priced (more so since we got a Groupon coupon for it), so it was a fairly good deal.

I think it was more fascinating for Siobhan because she has less exposure to firefighting and its history than I have. My parents were in the volunteer fire department in various capacities, and so I went to any number of open houses, picnics, firefighter's competitions, and the like, as well as some time hanging out at the fire department (I remember playing Atari 2600 on the (for that time) huge TV they had in the rec room). I even took some first aid, CPR, and babysitting courses there. Looking at plaques with pictures of firefighter training towers isn't as wowing if you've actually climbed up in one, and hearing about how the response system works isn't as amazing if your mom was a dispatcher and you had a CB in the house for years picking up the calls.

Even so, there was a lot for me to learn and be impressed by. Particularly interesting was the early part of the museum which covered the history of the fire alarm process -- from the time when it was someone shouting "Fire!" and everyone running for their buckets, through the installation of dedicated telegraph wires and cog-wheels with coded locations making ticker-tapes in various departments, to the modern computerized systems, and everything in between. There were also some fascinating historical tidbits about Denver's history with firefighting. And no matter how exposed you are to firefighters, you can't help but get a bit moved by some of the accounts of their bravery, sacrifice, and dedication.

Be forewarned, though. While there are a lot of activities for the kids, including a chance to try to get into gear quickly, a model house to practice fire drills in, and a truck you can climb into, there is not a pole you can slide down. There are several poles, of course, but there is no sliding.

The museum's definitely worth the time and money. Even if you don't find the subject matter interesting, I suspect the museum would serve to make it become interesting for you.

Friday, May 06, 2011


Over the month's end we spent a week in Denver, because of Siobhan having a work conference there, and extending it a few days. The first couple of days Siobhan was in her conference, and I mostly just goofed off in the hotel room -- I looked into things I could do near the hotel, but none of them were more compelling than just relaxing. I'll do a few blog posts about our adventures in Denver, on various subjects. This one will be overall impressions.

The most striking impression of Denver is that it's flat. You look on the map and you get the idea that, sure, it's in a valley, but it's in a valley in the Rockies, it's a mile up, it's got to be at least hilly, and feeling like there's mountains nearby. But it's not just a valley, it's a huge, huge, huge plateau. You can get in a car and drive for an hour and never once cross a hill of any size, or feel like the mountains are nearby. It feels like you're in Iowa or Kansas. There are distant mountains on the horizon but they are so far away that you can't see them if there's even a single story building in the way, and they don't ever seem to get closer. They feel like they're in another state. For all that you're up high in the mountains you will feel like you're on the plains. Heck, Long Island feels hillier.

I also got the impression in my head that there'd be woods, and Siobhan got that even more. Isn't that how you picture it? But when you're there what it really looks like is a midway point between the scrub-covered deserts of the southwest, and the open prairie of the midwest. It's dry, rocky, and almost entirely devoid of trees. Everywhere.

That's not to say there isn't natural beauty. Once you get out of the city, into the parks and wilderness areas, there's an austere beauty, a combination of the vast (incredible-sized red rocks, huge open vistas) and subtle (the low-key life of the arid almost-desert). It just wasn't the kind I imagined it would be.

People talk about the "Mile High City" altitude effects, and we were even warned to bring some extra painkillers for the headaches, but I never really felt it. It's hard to be sure if there was ever a time I wouldn't've been as out of breath in lower altitude; a few times I did a fairly long hike, including almost three miles to a supermarket for supplies (the second half with a backpack full of heavy stuff), once on a trail in the hills, and I don't think I got more out of breath than I would have back home. Of course, up Pikes Peak, I felt it, but that's a whole other ball game.

Another thing I didn't know about Denver was that it had a sizable Hispanic/Latino population. I suppose I didn't have any preconceptions about its ethnic mix. I didn't give it any thought, but if someone had asked, I would likely have guessed it would have the same kind of mix that most any big city would have. I didn't expect any particular ethnicity to be more prominent than any other. One of the nice things about this particular surprise was a great dinner, but I'll save that for another post.

One particularly odd thing is that, on three separate occasions, we saw rabbits. And not even out in the wilderness, in the city. Once, at our hotel, there was one on the grass who didn't even run away when we pulled up in the car and then walked past him, not more than a few feet away. Another time there was a group of three of them in a tiny patch of grass in between a giant office building and an under-construction Ikea (which of course was far, far bigger). I don't think I ever saw a squirrel, though. I suppose rabbits do fine in dry, treeless climes, but I was still surprised to find them in the city, and so much more fearless than anywhere else I've ever encountered rabbits.

Denver's people were uniformly polite, especially on the roads, where virtually no one ever sped, traffic tended to move in an almost uniform block, and it was quite rare to have trouble changing lanes or making your turn. It occurred to me that the legendary standoffishness of New Yorkers is, in a way, a sort of courtesy. When you live in a massively crowded crush of people, personal space, privacy, and isolation are valuable things, survival necessities. Not making eye contact and not being chummy with strangers, the things people from other parts of the country take as being cold and distant, are a way of respecting other people's space, not intruding. When a city is more sprawly (and good lord but Denver is sprawly, on account of that whole "huge flat area" thing I mentioned), a certain level of cordiality becomes the mark of courtesy, because no one needs to cultivate their isolation, since they can always get some if they want some.

Upcoming posts will talk about the things we did in Denver, the places we went, the travel itself, and of course the food.

Monday, May 02, 2011


On a recent flight to Denver, I found that my new tablet was not cutting off sound to its internal speakers when I plugged in headphones, which meant that everyone else on the plane could hear it. So I stopped using it and switched over to the Kindle, where I was about 85% of the way through the lengthy 1990 novel Earth by David Brin. I finished it during that flight.

I've been reading this book a chapter or two at a time for several weeks now. At first, it had that sprawling quality that some of Brin's novels have, where it's hard to keep track of all the different characters while it's not yet clear how they'll relate to one another, or what the central storyline is about. (Not all of Brin's novels are like this; Kiln People has a fairly straightforward narrative, for instance.) This was even more true because Earth tackles the incredibly challenging task of doing a near-future prediction, being set about fifty years into its future, so it spends a lot of time exploring that setting and establishing it. Every chapter, for instance, ends with a little snippet from the world -- a posting to a Net forum, a transcript from a TV show, a news article, etc. Few if any of these are central to advancing the actual plot of the book; some reflect it, but many aren't even related to it, and they all are primarily there as a way for Brin to show us his imagined version of the world. While these are fascinating stuff, early on they tend to further the sense of the story being fragmented and hard to keep track of. (I suspect this would be felt less if I had sat down to read it a hundred pages at a time, instead of a dozen pages every few days.)

It doesn't take long for the storyline to start to coalesce -- that is, for one of the various things going on to rise to prominence as the central plotline. That said, that central plotline starts, by about a quarter of the way through the book, to seem like it's going to go a certain way, and then near the halfway point it seems like it's on its way to resolution, and then it turns out that was just part of what the story was about. That keeps happening until eventually you get to where you're no longer even trying to figure out what, at the end, you'll have said the book's story was about. You're just going along with the narrative, which is more like what real life is like -- you don't exactly look at the events in the newspaper and wonder how the story will end; while one incident might "end" for a while, it's still just part of a larger tapestry of other events that go on, and don't necessarily have an ending lined up.

And yet the story does indeed build to one of the most powerful and compelling finales I can think of in any science-fiction novel ever. And while some out-there stuff happens, it's not like Kiln People, where the end starts feeling like an essay at times, trying to get you to buy into a premise that's so busy being mind-blowing it has no time left to be whapping you in the face with impact. The mind-blowing bit here is quick, and has been set up for so long that it's both surprising and totally out of the blue, and yet perfectly ready for you to accept. And it doesn't slow down the "oh my god" of the surrounding stream of events and twists.

So the book, in the end, has three things going on. First, a really compelling, rich, plausible yet surprising, and insightful vision of a possible future. (Brin gives us a short essay at the end which helps explain some of how challenging this is, and why it ended up the way it did, which only enhances my appreciation of the task and how well he did with it.) Second, a broad spectrunm of interesting characters, situations, and occurrences, some of which end up central to the main storyline, some of which are more incidental, but almost none of which end up going quite where you'd guess. And third, a storyline that builds up so much intensity that by the end it's hard not to end up laughing and crying at almost every page.

The book also is striking in how much of it is really very visual. This is way, way too big to make into a movie. But given a big enough budget -- and it would really need a very big budget -- it would make an incredible three-year TV series. Except of course that there's absolutely nothing in here that would serve as the ending of each episode or season. What I'm imagining is just a sixty-hour-long movie, which I mostly want to see because I would love to see so many of these visuals realized. And because, unlike many novels, very, very little of it is the kind of thing that you have to strain to convert to a visual medium. There's no great need for voiceovers of internal monologue (there's some, but not as much as a lot of books that live and die on it) and not a lot of stuff that you couldn't see (though one long scene set in a pitch-black cave complex would be tough to translate).

Much to my surprise, I find myself asking the question, do I like this better than, the same as, or not as much as Startide Rising? I have loved Brin's work enough to consider him one of my top two or three sci-fi authors, but even while I've loved to bits so many of his books, I didn't expect to see anything threaten Startide Rising. But this might be it. I'm not quite decided, and I probably won't. It's enough to say it's in the same area -- which makes it one of my favorite sci-fi books of all time.