Ethniche: Eating my way around the globe one month at a time
When I decided to start writing A Federal Case, I did so out of sheer curiosity. I live in a neighborhood that borders Federal Boulevard, a street that has served as an occasional dining destination but also as a conduit to other areas of the city. At the time, I was driving Federal more than just about any other street in Denver and as I passed the same restaurants over and over, I wondered why some became popular while others languished in obsurity. It seemed too daunting to sample my way through them based on anything other than a strict geographical order, and so a blog was born.
So long, Federal. Hello, Hawaii!
As I chomped my way through stretches dominated by Vietnamese and Mexican eateries, I slowly learned about the specialties by name and region. In the Vietnamese restaurants featuring elegant dishes and phonebook-thick menus, I started ordering not just by number but by the Vietnamese words that had previously been just unintelligible strings of syllables: tom for shrimp, bo for beef, kho often indicating a dry version of a dish generally served in broth, banh encompassing a range of flour-based products from thin rice crepes to crusty baguettes, depending on the modifier -- banh mi, banh khot, banh xeo, to name just a few.
In Mexican restaurants, I studied the permutations of green chile, from our homegrown, pork-studded gravy in shades of beige, cream and orange, to the thinner and Hatch-heavy New Mexico style, to the pure and vibrant purees emanating from various regions of Mexico. And of those regions, I sampled seafood specialties of Nayarit and Sinaloa, rich pork goodness from Michoacan, playful and indulgent street fare from the Distrito Federal, the beef-leaning burritos and tacos of Chihuahua, and the luscious moles of Puebla. I bristled every time I heard someone proclaim that Denver lacks good Mexican food; on just one street there is so much variety, quality and passion wafting from kitchen stock pots and grill tops that we should count ourselves lucky to live at a crossroads of established multi-generational local cooking and a continuous influx of immigrant recipes and techniques.
Scattered between the many pho joints and taquerias were a few top-notch Chinese noodle houses, barbecues and bakeries; a lone Thai shop peddling bright and zingy plates seasoned with lime, galangal and smiles; venerable American diners and burger huts; and even, briefly, a pizza place. In a little over a year, I completed what wine aficionados might call a vertical tasting -- a deep sampling of a single vintner's yearly variations. But with those few outliers, I found myself craving a horizontal tasting. Rather than restricting myself to one region of Denver (like, say, Colfax Avenue -- that unraveled, and unrivaled, ribbon of asphalt about which so much has already been written), I wanted this cartographic splatter of suburbs to be my culinary travel brochure of the many cultures, nations, regions and ethnic groups represented in restaurants peppering the undulating square miles that include Aurora, Littleton, Lakewood, Commerce City, Broomfield, Westminster and yes, even distant, sparkling Boulder.
So instead of a grueling slog up or across a narrow cross-section, taking my chances from block to block, I'll instead focus on one style of food, one month at a time, across the entire metro area. Growing up in a Ukrainian-Canadian family introduced me to cultural dishes both comforting and scary. Nothing warmed my belly and soul like pillowy pierogi smothered in butter-soaked onions or home-made pork sausage permeated with smoke and garlic. But there were also jiggly platters of fish in aspic, headcheese studded with parts unknown, and musky blood sausage that I could barely look at, much less put in my mouth. I always had to try at least a bite, and those early, cringe-inducing nibbles slowly turned to curious cravings and then to out-and-out addictions. Combining that with a liberal dose of life abroad led me to an appreciation and curiosity for what families around the globe put on their tables on a daily basis, what they eat to celebrate, to honor their heritage, or to simply give warmth and sustenance.
I may eat Southern barbecue four weeks in a row followed by a month of Peruvian or Sichuan. If I get the itch, I'll dive into Polish or Czech or other Eastern European national cuisines. What's up first? For the month of May, I'll eat my way through the plate lunches, Spam specialties, and island eats of this city's Hawaiian restaurants. I'll only be visiting each restaurant once, so these (as with a A Federal Case) won't be critical reviews. I'll just be exploring, taking snapshots of how Denver restaurateurs and cooks -- new or entrenched -- interpret the foodways of their chosen styles.
And just like on Federal, I expect to find hidden gems and local favorites even in the most unlikely niches and grottos. Authentic, traditional, fusion or mash-up: ultimately I'll be searching for just straight-up tasty.
For the entire culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.