On Havana Street: an international mission
International Restaurant Week will be celebrated in my 'hood starting tomorrow, the party banging up and down the most interesting mainline it contains: Havana Street. This is the week when everyone is encouraged to get out and get weird, to try something they've never tried before, to (occasionally) overpay at already ridiculously cheap little ethnic restaurants all up and down Havana in celebration of the beautiful diversity that has kept me happy and well-fed, living on the outskirts of Aurora's Little Everything, for the past seven years.
Twenty-four restaurants are participating this year, each offering a deal for those willing to put down their Bic Macs for a moment and shove some noodles, some injera or some bulgogi in their mouths instead. Donations are being taken at every participating restaurant for Food Bank of the Rockies (which is greatly in need of canned tuna, ham, beef stew, chili, baked beans, soup, canned fruit and vegetables, peanut butter, jelly and pasta, so be generous), and all of these places (with the exception of, say, Carl's Jr. or Qdoba) are greatly in need of your business.
Me? I will likely be avoiding all my regular Havana haunts for seven days because I like them best in their non-International Restaurant Week state.
I like sitting down at Han Kang during the quiet hours of the afternoon when the staff breaks for lunch, and watching Asian soap operas on the big TV in front. I like having breakfast at Pho 79 with all the neighborhood families, the grandparents and the kids. Yes, to a certain extent, I am a snob. But like a New Orleans-ian avoiding all the beads and boobs and barfing by bailing out of the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, I feel this is my right -- because this is my neighborhood and I get plenty of international kicks the other 358 days out of the year.
That said, I do have some suggestions for maximizing your fun on Havana Street during the festivities -- for getting the most bang out of your international tour of one of the best food neighborhoods in the area.
First, eat at odd hours. Pho and a slow-drip cup of Vietnamese coffee is one of the greatest breakfasts in the world, and I can't believe that more people don't eat the way my Vietnamese neighbors do. Sure, Pho 79 (and even the newer and less popular Pho 53 next door) will probably be busy as hell during the lunch and dinner rushes, but at ten in the morning? I guarantee you'll be able to find a seat and slurping down noodles within minutes.
Second, try something new. If you're willing to come all the way out to Aurora to eat Korean food in the first place, I'm guessing you've probably had bi bim bop before. So why not try one of the massive bowls of crab soup at Han Kang? Or bring a couple of friends and splurge on a round of soups at Sae Jong Kwan before you dig into your plate of Korean barbecue. Better still, check out one of the new(ish) African restaurants that have started popping up in the area and go for doro wat at Nile or Somali grub at Maandeeq.
Three, make a tour of it. Go for pho; maybe hit Woody's for wings; then try Chef's Noodle House for udon, potstickers and stroganoff; then Sae Jong Kwan (again, because yes, it is that good) for dinner. And don't limit yourself to just the restaurants listed among the 24 participating, either. In this neighborhood, you can't chuck a rock without hitting some excellent little hole-in-the-wall place where, for five bucks, you might end up having a meal that changes the way you look at cottage cheese or eels forever.
Also (and this is a highly personal suggestion), I'd advise you to stay away from the "special" menus offered this week. Mostly because these menus may not represent the best talents of the kitchens -- and the prices also seem somewhat out of line. Basically, what I'm saying is participate in full, not just in spirit. Really dig in and see what Aurora's cooks are capable of. I promise that you won't be disappointed.
Remember, I eat for a living. And when I'm off the clock and forced to scramble for my own dinner? I rarely have to drive more than ten minutes to find something amazing. In my neighborhood, every week is International Restaurant Week.
And I couldn't be happier.
For more on this stretch of International Restaurant Week, go to www.OnHavanaStreet.com.