A Federal Case: Eating my way up the boulevard
Federal Boulevard is one of the most interesting stretches of pavement in the entire United States. The cultural and economic diversity represented in a few densely populated miles means that you can drive past looming Victorian mansions, the playground of the Denver Broncos, llanteros selling retread tires, Vietnamese seafood markets, strip clubs and seemingly more medical marijuana outlets than traffic lights without ever hitting your turn signal.
The end of the line? Bubba Chinos on South Federal Boulevard.
Or you could take the number 31 bus and cover a good distance with time to scope out the tortillerias, pho houses and loncherias that dot the route. The smells of roasted green chiles and fried spring rolls mingle with diesel fumes while the bus navigates a seemingly endless construction zone of shifting lanes, cruising lowriders, school buses, and delivery trucks.
If you're like me, those storefronts with blinking signs, hand-lettered boards and mysterious aromas represent a riddle to be solved, an answer to life's most nagging questions. Why am I spending $12 on a hamburger when Grandpa's Burger Haven tells me it's #1 on the big bun? Why do so many people on this street - male and female - wear pajama pants in public? Are corn tortillas really any more "authentic" than flour tortillas? What's the deal with those Buchanan Scotch whisky Spanish-language billboards?
I'll attempt to answer these questions and more while I eat my way up the length of Federal Boulevard within Denver city limits, which by my reckoning is bounded on the south by Bubba Chinos (3000 South Federal) and on the north by El Taco Veloz (5145 Federal). I'll skip the national chain restaurants (which are best left to the wit and wisdom of Jenn Wohletz) and the per-scoop Chinese restaurants (because they add nothing of interest to the landscape), but I'll do my best to hit every dining room, take-out window, bar stool, and fiber-glass booth where food is served - in geographical order.
Why? Because I love Federal Boulevard, and because it's the only way I know to give you the grand tour, to experience it as more than what presents itself every day as I drive to work or head downtown, mostly using the street as a route to get somewhere else. I want to talk you along for the ride, introduce you to Federal Boulevard as a place where life happens and where good things await behind dubious doors. Or maybe bad things, but that's part of the adventure.
These won't be restaurant reviews in the strict, Craig Claiborne sense of the word, but will instead be overviews or impressions of the neighborhoods, the restaurants, the people and the vibe.
So what's first? My intent was to stop at Bubba Chinos, the southernmost outpost of the Denver culinary frontier on Federal, and order a smothered Mexican hamburger -- with chicharrones -- and some equally smothered chili cheese fries. My goal was to give a blow-by-blow comparison of these dishes with the same dishes from Chubby's, the queen mother that spawned a sprawling brood of offspring, including the various Bubba Chinos, and, arguably, a citywide passion for green chile.
The reality was a completely empty restaurant with a sign at the cash register indicating that the credit-card machine was out of order (and I was not carrying cash).
Better luck next week.