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.

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