Where To Have A Weird Dining Experience In Denver, Colorado

casa bonita What do you get when you mix a 300-pound gorilla, giant skulls, a 30-foot waterfall, battling pirates, ’50s-era carnival games, taxidermy, flamethrowers, a mariachi band and mediocre Mexican food? The Denver area’s kitschiest restaurant, Casa Bonita.

Once you enter, you’ll go through an amusement park-style line system. For some reason, the restaurant thought it would be a good idea to have guests order their food at the door, before waiting in line with a tray for food and then a separate line for a drink. Oddly, you still get an assigned waitress once you sit, to do what I’m not sure. The host will put a flag on your table, and when you need something you raise it.

While the food and service are subpar, what you really go for is the atmosphere. A mix of tacky play land, circus performance and “Alice in Wonderland” surreality, you’ll be wondering what could possibly come next as you pick at your overpriced burrito. During my meal, I saw two pirates ferociously fight over a princess, Olympic-skilled divers flipping into an indoor lagoon, fire eating dancers and a giant ape chasing a safari guide with a butterfly net. I was even serenaded by a Mariachi band. Moreover, I had a caricature drawn, was hit by a pink light saber, wandered over an indoor wooden bridge, got lost in a bubblegum pink tea room and stared out a submarine window at plastic fish bobbing in a milky man-made ocean. Basically, it’s a lot of fun, and worth a few hours just for the shock value. Just make sure to bring your inner child, and a fully charged camera.

Summer travel: best U.S. cities for localized food lovers

best cities food loversWhat’s that you say? Summer’s half over? Those of us living here in the Pacific Northwest had no idea, given the lack of sun in these parts. But even if you’re getting slapped by the mother of all heat waves, it’s still early in the season for the best produce summer has to offer. As for where to get great food featuring locally-sourced ingredients? Allow me.

Some cities are inextricably linked with food; they’re destinations unto themselves if you’re the type who plans trips around meals. I do. Museums are great and all, but personally, I’d rather eat.

As a longtime proponent of sustainable agriculture, I want to support local growers as well as get a sense of place when I take a trip (that the food be good is still number one). That’s why a city like Santa Fe is so intriguing to me. The cuisine is rooted in the state’s history, indigenous peoples, and native foods, and there’s a fantastic farmers market. The fact that Santa Fe is beautiful in its own right seals the deal.

If you also let your appetite guide your vacation-planning, I’ve listed my favorite U.S. cities in which to stuff my face, based upon repeat visits or previous/present residency. It’s like choosing a favorite child, but someone had to do it.

Seattle
I currently reside in Seattle, and work at a cheese shop in the 14-month-old Melrose Market in Capitol Hill. So perhaps I’m a bit biased when I say that Melrose rocks. But really, I don’t think I am. It’s the best thing to happen to Seattle since Pike Place opened in 1907 and became the model for public markets nationwide. But Melrose isn’t a tourist trap, and you won’t find anyone hawking crappy t-shirts. It’s housed in two adjacent, restored historic automotive shops built entirely of reclaimed materials; there’s a soaring cathedral ceiling, and lots of exposed brick.

[Photo credit: Flickr user La Grande Farmers’ Market]

The Benefits of Buying Eco-Friendly Local Foodbest cities food loversAlthough home to just four dedicated retail spaces and a wine bar, sandwich shop, and restaurant, Melrose has garnered lots of national media attention. The Calf & Kid (aka My Day Job) is a European-style fromagerie, while Marigold & Mint is a lovely little nook full of antique apothecary jars and cut flowers and produce from the owner’s organic farm. At Rainshadow Meats, without question one of the finest local/sustainable butcher shops in the nation, there are hard-to-find cuts like pork cheeks, and excellent housemade charcuterie.

There’s also Bar Ferd’nand, a miniscule wine and tapas bar, Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop, and the jewel in the crown, Sitka & Spruce. Chef/owner Matt Dillon’s farmhouse mod space features an open hearth, room-length communal farm table, and rustic but refined, hyper-localized cuisine–this time of year look for foraged mushrooms, local goat cheeses, halibut, and Juan de Fuca spot prawns. Do.not.miss. Next door, Taylor Shellfish Farms–one of Washington State’s most beloved growers of oysters and Manila and geoduck clams–just opened a retail shop where you can scoop live shellfish from tanks, or puchase live Dungeness crab or housemade geoduck chowder.

Should you make it over to the Scandinavian-flavored Ballard neighborhood, be sure to dine at La Carta de Oaxaca (get there early or be prepared for a very long wait). Seattle can’t do Mexican food to save its life (I speak as a native Californian), with the exception of this Oaxacan treasure, where everything is made the slow, traditional way. Best of all, two of you can fill up–including beers–for under 30 dollars. For a more upscale treat, hit Bastille, a truly beautiful bistro featuring produce and honey from its rooftop garden.
best cities food lovers
Portland, Oregon
Portland has a vastly different vibe from easy-going Seattle. And while the attitude may be a bit much at times (do not raise the ire of a barista), it’s also got a phenomenal food and mixology scene (and yes, better coffee than Seattle). There’s no one neighborhood with all the great eats; they’re scatted throughout the city: Southeast, Pearl District, Alberta Arts District

Carnivores won’t want to miss Beast or Olympic Provisions (which also makes its own charcuterie for retail). There’s Cheese Bar, which specializes in beer parings, six glorious farmers markets, distilleries, artisan ice cream, and new favorites Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty (wood-fired pizza in the former–and much-missed–Lovely Hula Hands space) and Little Bird Bistro, the sister restaurant from former Food & Wine Best New Chef Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon.

If street food is your thing, Portland is swarming with food trucks, carts, and stands: Mississippi Avenue and downtown are both hot spots; check out Food Carts Portland for the inside scoop. If you feel the need to work off some calories in between food cart visits, (this is one of the best cities for outdoorsy types, after all), sign up for the Grub on the Go bike tour with Portland Urban Adventures.

Santa Barbara
I grew up near Santa Barbara, and have lived there a couple of times. It’s truly one of the most picturesque cities in the world, and over the course of 30-plus years, I’ve watched it evolve from sleepy small town to L.A. North. Spendy boutiques aside, Santa Barbara really didn’t start turning into a sophisticated dining destination until about five years ago.

The original hidden gems focused on locality–Bouchon, and the venerable Wine Cask (which recently changed hands and is now co-owned by the very genial owner of Bouchon) are still going strong. The executive chefs at both restaurants now lead farmers market tours, which I highly recommend. Both the Saturday and Tuesday farmers markets are major community events, and the sheer breadth of offerings–dozens of varieties of citrus, tropical fruit, olive and walnut oil, goat meat–is dazzling. Seafood lovers won’t want to miss the Saturday Fisherman’s Market, held at the Harbor.

The Hungry Cat
is my favorite restaurant in town (it also has a raw bar), followed by the superbly fresh Arigato sushi. Milk & Honey makes fantastic cocktails (and the small bites aren’t bad, either), as does Blue Agave. My true addictions, however, are Lilly’s Taqueria–a downtown hole-in-the-wall where for under five dollars, you can stuff yourself senseless on the best street tacos this side of the border. I also never fail to get an adovado or carnitas burrito at Taqueria Rincon Alteño. The same guys have been running the place for at least ten years, and it always feels like coming home.
best cities food lovers
Oakland, California
Nearly a decade of living in Berkeley, on the Oakland border, has enabled me to see this much-maligned city grow up, both aesthetically and culinarily (it’s always had a great Chinatown and taco trucks). In the gentrified Temescal neighborhood, you can literally hit a different restaurant every night of the week on the block between 51st St. and 49th St. on Telegraph Avenue. There’s Asmara for Ethiopian, Chez Panisse alum eateries Bakesale Betty and Pizzaiolo; Doña Tomas, and the new outpost of San Francisco’s wildly popular Burma Superstar (delicious). On 44th, late night chef’s haunt Koryo has great, cheap Korean bbq. Just around the corner: the wonderful Sunday Temescal Farmers Market.

Nearby, on 51st and Shattuck is the new Scared Wheel Cheese Shop, while down on Grand Avenue, by Lake Merritt, is Boot and Shoe Service (sister to Pizzaiolo), Camino (chef/owner is longtime former Chez Panisse chef Russ Moore). Don’t miss Market Hall Foods in nearby trendy Rockridge.

Brooklyn
I admittedly don’t know Brooklyn well; I couldn’t tell you how to get from Point A to Point B. But I know that some of the best food in New York lies within this dynamic borough. In Williamsburg, keep an eye out for Leeuwen Ice Cream’s roving, butter-colored truck–after you enjoy the heavenly pizza at Fornino. I also love the Brook Farm Genbest cities food loverseral Store, which has all manner of lovely vintage and vintage-inspired items for the kitchen and dining room. Bedford Cheese Shop and Stinky Bklyn (in Cobble Hill) are two of the country’s finest cheese shops, full of esoteric domestic and imported selections.

Over in Bushwick at Roberta’s, chef Carlo Mirachi, a 2011 Food & Wine Best New Chef winner, fires up pizza and other treats in his wood-burning oven, and utilizes produce from his rooftop garden. If you’re still hungry, other tasty stops: Fatty Cue or Fette Sau (both in Williamsburg) for barbecue, Saltie for crazy-good sandwiches, (Williamsburg), and the oddest ice cream flavors ever at Sky Ice (Park Slope). Be sure not to miss the various weekend Brooklyn Flea markets, where you’ll find all manner of good-to-eat treats, artisan beverages from Brooklyn Soda, and retro kitchen equipment. Note: every Saturday is the Flea’s new dedicated food market, Smorgasburg, in Williamsburg.

My other top picks for great food, made with local ingredients:
Chicago
Denver/Boulder
Santa Fe
Portland, ME
Drop me a line and I’ll be happy to give you some tips on where to get your feed on!

[Photo credits: Portland, Flickr user qousqous; courthouse, Flickr user Silverslr; Vietnamese food, Laurel Miller; pizza, Flickr user h-bomb]

“Best restaurant in the world” El Bulli to close for two years

Dedicated foodies with dreams of dining at El Bulli, long considered to be one of the best (and often the best) restaurants in the world, are in for some disappointment. The mecca of molecular gastronomy will be closing for two years, in 2012 and 2013.

The restaurant, which is located on the Catalan coast of Spain and has received the coveted Michelin 3-star rating, was named the best restaurant in the world for the fourth straight year by Britain’s Restaurant magazine and is considered to be one the places any food-lover must dine at before dying. Chef Ferran Adria assured devoted fans that though El Bulli will close temporarily, it isn’t gone for good. He did say that there may be some major changes in store though. “In 2014, we will serve food somehow. I don’t know if it will be for one guest or 1,000,” he said.

What’s the reason behind the closure? The Guardian cites Adria as saying that the long hours – he regularly puts in 15-hour days – were getting to him. Though Adria has also said before that El Bulli is not a profitable business, due to the limited seatings and the labor required to do each one. Perhaps the new model will be a better moneymaker.

Thinking you can try to get in before El Bulli shuts its doors? Think again. Seatings for 2010 have already sold out, so unless you are extremely well connected, you’re out of luck. Not that you had much chance of getting a seat anyways. The restaurant only serves 50 guests per night, six months out of the year, and according the UK Guardian, more than 2 million people have vied for a mere 8,000 seats over the past few years.

Where to get your freedom fries in Denver

Next week, an estimated 70,000 out-of-towners are expected to descend on Denver, Colorado for the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Thousands of political activists will arrive hungry for change and hungry for dinner. And what better appetizer than the official food of American politics: freedom fries. (But they’re still called French Fries everywhere outside of the Capitol building.)

Denver Westword has just announced its 2008 Best Of Denver awards, including the category for Best French Fries in the city. The winner is Encore Restaurant located at 2550 E. Colfax Avenue. Encore’s eclectic menu features mid- to high-end American fare, including the townspeople’s favorite fries: “perfectly cooked, heavily salted shoestrings that are unbelievably addictive – particularly hit with a drizzle of spicy mustard that’s just one step (heat-wise) below that stuff you get in Chinese restaurants and about ten times more delicious than a squirt of French’s could ever be,” according to Westword.

For more dining favorites in Denver, view the entire list of Best Of winners here, or check out the DNC’s dining guide here.

Must-Eat Restaurants at Concierge.com: A Running Tally

I haven’t eaten at any of the picks on Concierge.com’s growing list of must-eat restaurants and I’m feeling hungry. The list starts out with Concierge’s recommendations and is continuing to grow as readers add their own options. Next to each entry are up and down arrow icons where readers can vote on each suggestion. At first, I thought the must-eats would solidly fall in the expensive and fancy. On the contrary. From what I can tell, must-eats come in a variety of packages. The Concierge list includes:

French Laundry in Yountville, California. This one has been named the best Restaurant in the World. To eat at the best is a two month wait. Once you are dining, give yourself three hours to savor the experience. If you can’t wait that long, the restaurant’s Web site offers three recipes you can try at home. I looked over the first one and I know one friend and three of my aunts who could make Parmigiano Reggiano Crisps with Laura Chenel Goat Cheese Mousse to perfection.

Also in California, The Chez Panisse in Berkeley has a menu that changes nightly. Since there is only one option per course per night, I suppose you check ahead to make sure what is being served is something you want. Here’s what is being served this week. The names of dishes are like lines from poetry–each sounding fantastically special. If you don’t want the full course meal, you can go to the café upstairs. Here you can either choose the fixed menu or order dishes separately.

Sienna, Italy is the place to head to try the gastronomic wonders of Osteria le Logge. Concierge likes this one because of its blend of fusion dishes and Tuscany favorites. The decor interested me. There is a blend of artwork and literary influences.

Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, Maine sounds like my kind of place. This is lobster at its best at what looks like a roadside stand. Here’s where you can interact with other people waiting in line since that’s what you do before you order. Dining is outside on picnic tables. This is a seasonal restaurant so don’t head there until the middle of April. It closes in October.

Porcão in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is another restaurant that I seems like a lot of fun besides serving yummy fare. One word Concierge uses to describe it is raucous. Plus the food is wheeled out and served at your table.