The twelve days of Christmas on Federal Boulevard
This week marks a year since I started my trek up Federal Boulevard for the weekly A Federal Case series. I've hit 53 eateries in just under six miles -- a distance I could easily cover in less than twenty minutes, depending on traffic and luck. But in taking a year to travel the distance, I've gained an appreciation for the subtle differences in the way dishes are prepared from place to place; I've noticed the pride that waiters and restaurant owners have in serving the food of their home countries; I've experienced the wonder of tasting things completely new to me. Sure, I ate a few bad meals, but the fiery sauces, slow-cooked meats, and fresh and unusual greens have been more the norm than the exception.
Since its Christmastime, I've picked my twelve favorite dishes of Federal Boulevard so far, each representing a gift that the cooks and servers of this street have given me. Here they are, in the order that I originally ate them -- from south to north. Maybe there's a new pair of pajama pants from Santa waiting under my tree for me to wear out the next time I getting a craving for any one of these.
See also: Twelve best Thai restaurants in Denver
Mark Antonation Great carnitas; lousy photo.
2250 South Federal Boulevard
Tender chunks and shreds of pork are hard to get wrong, and I've had many good plates of carnitas in this town, but the mound of crisp-edged goodness that's Café Chihuahua's ode to the noble pig stands out for its almost confit-like texture -- bathed in its own fat yet not greasy, perfectly succulent and brilliant in its simplicity. Pork is the primary and dominant flavor, its savory richness mitigated only slightly by a steaming tortilla redolent with earthy corn.
2) Pecan tarts at San Antonio Fresh Mexican Bakery
Mark Antonation The shelves at San Antonio Bakery are always filled with sweet confections.
2007 South Federal
The pecan tarts at this Mexican bakery aren't the most emblematic Mexican pastry, but they capture the gooey, nutty, buttery pleasure of Southern pecan pies that were prevalent during my childhood in north Texas, where we picked pecans on the farm of a family friend. The empanadas are worth the risk of a sugar coma, but I'd never leave this place without a couple of pecan tarts to wash down with strong black coffee.
3) Camarones aguachile at Torres Mexican Food
Mark Antonation Raw shrimp marinated in lime and chile sauce.
1597 South Federal
This dish was an eye-opener for me, both figuratively and literally. I'd never heard of aguachile -- a preparation similar to shrimp ceviche, only with grass-green serrano or jalapeño chiles pureed into the lime marinade -- until I visited Torres with a friend who hails from Mexico's capital city. Now it's one of my favorites dishes, too, as much for the raw shrimp with its almost crunchy texture as for the tongue-searing sauce cooled by lots of fresh lime juice and slices of cucumber.
4) Hu tieu mi nam vang at Pho Le
Mark Antonation Heart-warming soup at Pho Le
1195 South Federal
The pho at this tidy Vietnamese house of noodles holds its own against the many brimming bowls to be found on the Boulevard, but the rich and complex depth of flavor of the broth in this pork-based soup almost convinced me to forsake pho altogether. The addition of thin-sliced pork heart, bobbing quail eggs and a whole new roster of condiments -- fresh Chinese celery leaf, pickled garlic cloves -- meant a new love for me. I still have a soft spot for the simple pleasure of pho, but when I want to abandon myself to a passionate rendezvous, Pho Le's hu tieu with egg noodles is the only thing that will satisfy.