When I discovered Chowhound—back at the turn of the millennium—it was a bare-bones message board for gastronomic misfits who subscribed to the front-page manifesto of its founder, Jim Leff: “Foodies eat where they’re told,” he wrote. “Chowhounds blaze trails.” I was just starting out as a food writer, and it read like a call to arms.
Today, Leff’s scrappy sanctuary for geeks “who know where the good stuff is” has morphed into a slick CBS-run resource for, you guessed it, foodies. And I’ve become all too aware that writers viewed as gastronomic trailblazers from one angle may look like cultural interlopers from another. And yet the Chowhound in me still yanks the leash: I’ll always believe that sniffing out the smallest hole-in-the-wall is a more critical mission than splurging at the latest hot spot. At the very least, I might taste a dish I’ve never tried. At best, I may actually learn something from a new (to me) experience—about the cuisine in question, about the part of the world it comes from, maybe even about myself and my own assumptions, good or bad.
So come with me on this web series tour of hidden gems in and around Denver. And if you have any favorites off-the-beaten path, please share them with us all in the comment section below.
Though it borders RiNo, the Cole neighborhood is no RiNo. It stands a bastion of old Denver, its quiet streets lined with quaint turn-of-the century homes, not hot spot after hot spot spilling with crowds. Which makes the little finds it does contain all the more special. Case in point: Cajun-Creole watering hole NOLA Voodoo Tavern & Perks.
The name alone is a charming mouthful. NOLA, obviously, is a reference to New Orleans, where owner Henry Batiste grew up; Voodoo, he says, “means the opposite of hoodoo. Hoodoo’s bad, voodoo’s good.” And as for Perks, “In New Orleans, we say lagniappe—something extra. But people here don’t understand that word, so I used ‘perks.’ It’s your birthday, let us know, we buy a shot for the bar and we toast you.”
If that sounds welcoming, it is. Service is genuinely warm and down-to-earth (traits I’ll take over napkin-folding, crumb-sweeping polish any day). The space, too, is cozier than you’d guess from the dive-bar exterior, filled with festive Crescent City memorabilia as well as with families—whose presence seems fitting enough when you consider that Batiste’s menu is laden with family recipes, from mom’s gumbo to grandma’s étouffée.
You can order that étouffée solo, but you can also get it on the Cajun cheese fries—spiced waffle-cut spuds smothered in mozzarella as well as the velvety stew, chock-full of sweet Gulf crawfish. Other deep-fried delights include textbook hushpuppies—hot and crunchy outside, soft and light inside, with a side of aïoli—and chicken gizzards, an organ meat you don’t want to chew over too much but you will want to chew on, intensely rich as they are and accompanied by thick, creamy house-made tartar sauce.
On the non-fried side, humble red beans with rice spring to life after hours of cooking thanks to their distinctly aromatic blend of seasonings—a secret, of course, as is the recipe for the zippy olive giardiniera Batiste puts on the muffaletta. At first, you might be disappointed to see that the legendary sandwich of his hometown doesn’t come on the namesake round roll. But just taste it: layers of corned beef, ham, salami, melted Provolone, and the olive aforementioned olive salad on French bread make for chewy, salty, tangy satisfaction any way you slice it.
Now I’ve got high hopes for the catfish po’ boy as well as the house wings, which come doused in yet another secret sauce. Batiste is justifiably proud of it all, and it’s easy to believe him when he says he “wants to make sure you leave here happy.” Just don’t try to take that Hurricane cocktail with you as you go the way you can in the French Quarter—easy as it is to forget you’re in Cole and not NOLA.
2231 Bruce Randolph Ave., 720-389-9544