I’d be lying if I claimed that hobnobbing in the hottest dining destinations isn’t an occasional perk, but I didn’t get into food writing 15 years ago for the glamour. On the contrary, my heart was set on, well, hearts—and brains and feet, and all the other nasty bits I might encounter at the immigrant-run holes in the wall and street carts I was obsessed with exploring. These spots became my headquarters for mounting a campaign that, I hoped, would ultimately win readers’ own hearts and brains when it comes to discovering the wonders of world cuisine.
Thanks to the Internet—where the foreign can become familiar with the click of a button—that mission has become much easier. The savvy of the American dining public is such that the average hipster hot spot can now serve everything from rattlesnake and sea urchin to pork livers and lamb kidneys without much ado. Even so, my work here is not done. This became clear to me recently when I realized some of my most exciting meals in this town took place in now-shuttered restaurants: heady Nigerian stews of afang (a leafy green) and egusi (melon seeds) alongside pounded-yam fufu at Hessini Roots; curried frog’s legs and lemongrass-steamed periwinkles at the Red Claw; and El Olvido’s Jaliscan-style carne en su jugo, for instance. Those closures inspired me to revisit three of my other favorite eateries, all still open for exploration:
La Calle Taqueria y Carnitas (1565 W. Alameda Ave., 720-583-6586) is a great place to learn how quickly strange flavors and textures can morph from challenging to comforting. After all, with tacos, you’re starting on familiar ground; from there, it’s a simple matter of skipping the asada and al pastor in favor of, say, cueritos (pickled pig skin) and buche (stewed pork stomach). Both are meltingly tender, deeply savory-sweet, and instantly addictive.
Just a few miles (and yet continents) away from La Calle, Cantonese kitchen Hong Kong BBQ (1048 S. Federal Blvd., 303-937-9088) is home to a delightfully simple and pungent vegetable dish I crave time and again: lettuce in pickled tofu sauce. Wok-tossed romaine leaves arrive wilted and warmly bathed in a milky, nutty, lightly spicy broth you could almost mistake for a thin Alfredo—but no, it’s jalapeño-laced fermented bean curd. Try the salt-and-pepper duck chins, too. They may look disconcertingly like alien-skull fragments, but close your eyes and you could easily be eating fried duck wings.
And then there’s African Grill & Bar (18601 Green Valley Ranch Blvd., 303-375-7835, africangrillco.com). The Ghanaian family that runs this Green Valley Ranch spot will stretch your culinary horizons halfway around the world. Start with moimoi, a steamed black-eyed-pea pudding speckled with carrots and peas that amounts to a tangier, earthier cousin of zucchini bread. Then move on to the tuo zaafi. A smooth mound of cassava and corn flour reminiscent of bao, the steamed buns of dim sum fame, this dish is smothered in a fierce, funky stew of spinachlike ayoyo (jute leaves), okra, and tomatoes cooked in palm oil, all enriched with hunks of meat (I recommend lamb or goat). Though composed almost entirely of ingredients little-known stateside, it tastes—after just a few exhilarating bites—like home.
In fact, that is what’s so wonderful about dining adventures: For all the thrills along the way, the experiences ultimately lead you to a whole new understanding of comfort food. This is home cooking from all around the world.