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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.
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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.
What would you expect to find behind the door of a Westminster strip-mall storefront called Aspen Lodge Bar & Grill? If you’re picturing a casual locals’ lair with an alpine vibe, you’ve nailed it. Weathered woods and mounted skis (not to mention still-standing Christmas decorations) give this place the rustic coziness of countless mountain-town pit stops. And if such a setting seems ideal for diner fare and pub grub, you would also be correct—think standard comforts like omelets, fried fish, quesadillas, and wings.
So far, so straightforward. But this story has a twist: Aspen Lodge is run by a gracious, gregarious Turkish-born chef-owner, Mesut Cetin, who dots his down-home menu with dishes from the Eastern Mediterranean. Nothing too exotic, mind you—we’re talking familiar stuff such as dolma, kofta, and baklava. Still, it all makes for a charming surprise.
Cetin, who grew up in Ankara, opened his restaurant five years ago with no particular plan to introduce his guests to the food of his homeland, which he describes as essentially a cross between Greek and Arabic cuisines. In fact, he considers his Philly cheesesteak, of all delightfully random things, to be Aspen Lodge’s signature menu item. (In case you’re wondering, he’s never actually lived in Philadelphia, though he has worked in kitchens up and down the East Coast, from Boston to Miami.)
I can’t yet vouch for the sandwich, but I can attest to the winning way Cetin has with meat in general. Take the Turkish plate, a generous, parsley-sprinkled pile of flank steak grilled with onions, peppers, and tomatoes and served over rice. The meat is so juicy and flavorful I had to ask him his secret, but he swears there isn’t one. Apparently I’m not alone in being unconvinced. “People say, ‘You don’t want to tell us,’” he laughs, “but I have an open kitchen on purpose, so you can watch me. I use salt, pepper, and olive oil, nothing else. Simplicity brings better flavor out.”
The same goes for his gyros (to use his word, though there’s a Turkish equivalent in “döner kebab”). Since there’s no room for a vertical spit in his tiny workspace, he does a bang-up job with nothing but a flattop and a mixture of minced beef and lamb, adding the tender, intensely savory slices to everything from eggs to burgers to serving them atop a round of warm pita, garnished with crumbled feta and housemade tzatziki.
On the vegetarian side, Cetin’s made-to-order dolma shine: the rice-stuffed grape leaves are snappy and sunny with loads of lemon. (He jokes that his own mother rates them an eight out of 10.) And then there’s his grilled zucchini, as simple as it sounds but for an eye-popping tower of toasted French bread, held together with a toothpick, at the center of the plate.
Come on a Thursday for Turkish Night, and you can try your share of the above menu staples as well as otherwise-unavailable dishes such as mint-tinged lentil soup based on a family recipe, and “patlican ezmesi,” a smoky, tangy dip of roasted eggplant and walnuts. If you’re especially lucky, you may wander in on a day when Cetin is offering a special like moussaka. And if he stops by your table to say hello, as he most likely will, be sure to toast him with a shot of raki, an anise-flavored aperitif akin to Greek ouzo. For bringing us a taste of a region so rich in culinary history, stretching back from the Ottoman to the Athenian and Persian empires, he deserves the kudos.
8125 W. 94th Ave., Westminster, 303-425-8833