Your road map to Denver's quirky cuisine.
Thanks in part to Andrew Zimmern, the Travel Channel's "Bizarre Foods" guru, adventure eating is becoming the latest dining trend, with gastronomes pushing their palates in search of the next edible wonder. "I think most people who are into it are just open to new ideas, cultures, and ingredients," says Jon Emanuel, organizer of the Denver Adventurous Eaters Club and executive chef of Project Angel Heart. "I like the idea of using ingredients to their fullest while acquiring appreciation for them." While film crews travel the world in search of balut (fertilized duck eggs) or hakarl (putrefied shark meat), we've compiled our own list of culinary curiosities right here at home.
The dish: These nutty-flavored goodies are hardly sweet and far from being a pastry. Instead, sweetbreads are the thymus glands of any young animal—veal sweetbreads are often considered the best because of their tenderness and creamy texture.
Where to get it: Before the dish reaches Aix's 17th Avenue dining room, the meat must be soaked in water for several hours, blanched, trimmed, and pressed. Chef-owner Rachel Woolcott's delicious seared veal version ($13) is served with roasted apples, cracked pepper, sea salt, and a caramel sauce that delicately balances the salt of the sweetbreads. Aix Restaurant and Wine Bar, 719 E. 17th Ave., 303-831-1296. www.restaurantaix.com.
The dish: Despite the name, geoduck (pronounced "gooey duck") is actually a giant soft-shell clam that resides in the salty waters of the Pacific Northwest. Weighing in around three pounds, the clam has a tubelike siphon that can grow up to three feet in length. One of the odder looking sea creatures, geoduck also tastes fishy and can be very tough.
Where to get it: Kevin Ho's legendary JJ Chinese serves geoduck ($11.95) and dozens of other eccentric menu items, such as jellyfish and duck tongue. If you're up for a challenge, order a heaping plateful of the cold chicken claws ($5.50). JJ Chinese Restaurant, 2500 W. Alameda Ave., 303-934-8888.
Rocky Mountain Oysters
The dish: Whether you call them calf fries, prairie oysters, Montana tender-groin, or swinging sirloin, we all know what these things really are. The "oysters" are slightly grainy in texture but taste reminiscent of their namesake creatures from the sea.
Where to get it: The appetizer menu at the Fort restaurant is one of the few places in the metro area where you can find RMOs. Order the Historian's Platter appetizer for a selection of the fried oysters, bison tongue, bison sausage, guacamole, and jalapeños stuffed with mango and whipped peanut ($28 and feeds four). Other items to consider: roasted bison marrowbones served with a port-bison reduction ($18), or bison eggs, which are pickled quail eggs wrapped in bison sausage and then fried ($10). The Fort, 19192 Highway 8, Morrison, 303-697-4771, www.thefort.com.
The dish: Described as a Mexican truffle, huitlacoche (pronounced wheet-lah-KOH-chay) is a fungus that grows on the inside of ears of corn, causing the kernels to swell and blacken. The taste is smoky-sweet and reminiscent of a mushroom.
Where to get it: Richard Sandoval's Latin-Asian restaurant Zengo serves a rustic braised beef short ribs entrée ($27) topped with huitlacoche and mushrooms and barbecue sauce. Or, head to Tamayo for Sandoval's crepas de huitlacoche ($17), two mushroom and huitlacoche crêpes accompanied by a delicious poblano chile sauce. Zengo, 1610 Little Raven St., 720-904-0965; Tamayo, 1400 Larimer St., 720-946-1433, www.modernmexican.com.
The dish: Just as it sounds, this dish features the muscled cheeks of young cattle. As the cheek is braised, the muscles slowly break down and the meat becomes extremely tender.
Where to get it: Rioja's slow-braised veal cheek entrée ($24) is served on a bed of crispy root vegetables, topped with a shaved fennel-apple salad, and accompanied by a very rich star anise-apple reduction sauce. Rioja, 1431 Larimer St., 303-820-2282, www.riojadenver.com.