By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(From Sensi magazine) – I always know when I’m about to taste something great at a restaurant. It happens when I point to an item on the menu or a dish on another table, and then point at myself, and the waiter starts shaking his or her head vigorously from side to side while pointing at me.
“No, that’s for old Vietnamese people (or Venezuelans or Eritreans). It’s not for you. You wouldn’t like it,” they have told me in various languages. Then I tell them: “I want to eat what you eat.” I keep pointing and nodding until they give up and bring it to the table. Persistence has paid off in the discovery of treats such as jade-green Chinese broccoli glistened in the wok with sesame oil, garlic and ginger. The aroma alone was a mind-altering experience.
The only way to move beyond the same old sweet and sour pork or the enchilada combo plate No. 2 is to go places that make you squirm just a little, at least until you eat. Ignore the naysayers who insist that Denver’s ethnic dining scene is too vanilla. Exactly the opposite is true. A coterie of cool Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and other familiar eateries includes exotic islands of Filipino, Guatemalan, Malaysian and Ethiopian fare in Denver, Aurora and even in the beige suburbs.
Some of the eateries are small, inexpensive and hidden in strip malls with rough parking lots and no frills. That’s usually a sign that these cafes are the real thing operated by an immigrant families who welcome newbies who want to taste and learn. Other cultural dining destinations are elegant places with appropriate service, fare and price tag.
Don’t be afraid of ordering where there is a language barrier. If you wonder how to eat the food, ask or watch how other diners wrap a morsel of Ethiopian kitfo in injera bread or eat a bowl of Vietnamese pho.
I love that disoriented feeling I get after a two-hour immersion in Cuban or Iranian flavors, aromas and table chatter. I may not be able to take an overseas vacation this year but that doesn’t mean my palate has to stay home and be humdrum. Here is a taster of some of my favorite international haunts to get you started on a multi-cultural road trip.
When you taste a bowl of soup and your head feels like it’s going to explode there are two possibilities: a) You overdid it on the Purple Kush appetizer, or b) You are slurping tom kha at US Thai where the very air is infused with capsaicin from all the frying chilies. The small, humble Edgewater eatery dishes curries, stir frys, noodles and soups packed with layers of spice and super-fresh vegetables. However, even the menu’s so-called “mild-plus” level will make you sweat. For a good time bring along a self-described hothead and dare them to order their green curry “Thai hot.” Bring a towel for the sweat and the tears.
US Thai, 5228 W. 25th Ave., Edgewater; 303-233-3345
The scent of saffron and rosewater and a comfortable atmosphere put Surena in a different class and you in a happy place. Persian cuisine is tough to find in Colorado and the kitchen turns out well-made platters with fluffy basmati with fall apart lamb shank or a beef tongue sandwich with mushroom sauce on chewy lavash flatbread. Pair a beef kabob with grilled onions, tomatoes and jalapeños with a glass of wine and cap it with nutty sweet baklava.
Surena Persian Cuisine, 9625 E. Arapahoe Road. Centennial; 303-792-5000; surenarestaurant.com
Make a pilgrimage this summer to the land of butter and sugar located conveniently in the foothills of the Rockies. Denmark-born master bakers Ronny Tronoe and Diana Honoe craft first class kringles, strudels, coffee cakes, cardamom-flavored buns, densely seeded loaves, and even glazedfilled “Danish.” This bakery and café is a joy for all the senses but if you arrive in an elevated state you may need to workout afterwards like raiding Viking to balance out the carb load.
Taste of Denmark, 1901 S. Kipling St., Lakewood; 303-987-8283; tasteofdenmark.net
Take your shoes off as you enter this serene cubbyhole of a pub tucked next door to its famously raucous Boulder cousin, Sushi Zanmai. Wonderful small plates matched to a extensive sake and beer list fill Amu’s menu. Try the yellowtail carpaccio with roe, citrus and greens, and the chawan mushi, a quiche-like custard with chicken, shrimp and shitake and enoki mushrooms.
Izakaya Amu, 1221 Spruce St., Boulder; 303-440-0807; izakayaamu.com
Cabbage rolls and kielbasa are dished in generous portions at this fast casual Polish eatery but the line out the door is for the pirogies, Poland’s greatest gift to global comfort food. The boiled or pan-fried dumplings are filled with mashers and cheese or onions, ground pork or feta and spinach. Owner Cezary Grosfeld crowns them with everything from caramelized onions and sour cream to green chile sauce.
Pirogies Factory, 3895 Wadsworth Boulevard, Wheat Ridge; 303-425-7421; pierogiesfactory.com
Step up for real Mexican street food like tongue tacos with lime and cilantro dished by a staff of steely-eyed women. I have a hard time not ordering the burrito stuffed with cheese-stuffed chile rellenos and smothered in smoldering pork green chile. Visit on the first Friday of the month when the Santa Fe Arts district is bustling with openings.
El Taco de Mexico, 714 Santa Fe Drive, Denver; 303-623-3962
Before you head out for one of the first tours to Havana, do some research first. Before you get in Cuba Cuba’s front door the sinuous beat of Cuban music seeps into your hips. A mojito or Cuba Libre can assist the loosening process along with a ropa vieja empanada. The menu includes a memorable Cubano pressed sandwich and pretty plates of Lechon Asado, fall apart pork shoulder with onions, maduros (rice and beans) and a black bean reduction.
Cuba Cuba Café and Bar, 1173 Delaware St., Denver. (Also in Highlands Ranch); 03-605-2822; cubacubacafe.com
You can’t get a beer at New Canton BBQ, plus it’s cramped and noisy from all smoked duck being chopped and there are only a handful of seats. Fans line up anyway for take-out pork ribs, duck congee and beef chow fun dry-style. Big plus: It is right next door to Aurora’s H Mart, our favorite Asian mega-supermarket.
New Canton BBQ, 2751 S. Parker Road, Aurora; 303-369-7500
Philippines Sunburst Grill, 2295 S. Chambers Road, Aurora; 303-752-6389
Malaysia Makan Malaysian Cafe, 1859 South Pearl St., Denver; 720-524-8093, makanmyfood.com
Italy Carmine Lonardo’s Market, 15380 Smoky Hill Road, Aurora, 303-699-4532; carminesitaliandeli.com
Africa African Grill, 18601 Green Valley Ranch Blvd, Denver; 303-375-7835; africangrillco.com
John Lehndorff is the former dining critic of the Rocky Mountain News. He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU. Podcasts at: news.kgnu.org/category/features/radio-nibbles.