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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.
Within 15 minutes of taking a seat on the covered patio at Long Shots Bar & Grill, I witnessed one patron get cut off by our motorcycle boot–wearing waitress after admitting he was nine beers deep, another hit the ground to do a few pushups between drags on his cigarette (yep, you can smoke there), and yet another knock an enormous glass of cheap red wine all over herself. Oh wait, that last patron was me, having too much fun to care about the mess.
Consider Long Shots—introduced to me by 5280’s associate food editor Callie Sumlin—the Wheat Ridge bookend to beloved southeast Denver biker bar, Piper Inn. Whereas the latter serves old school Chinese food (in addition to pub grub), Long Shots supplements its burgers and such with pho and noodle bowls. Why? ‘Dunno. Isn’t it my job as a reporter to ask? Rest assured that I did, only to have the Laotian gentleman who leases and runs the kitchen as an independent operation decline an interview request, preferring to remain anonymous. Isn’t it my job as a reporter to ask again? Perhaps. But there are instances in which I’d rather be enchanted by a little mystery than enlightened by facts. How a deep-dark watering hole and pool hall next to a truck stop on a gritty corner of suburbia came to offer the likes of stir-fried duck and mussel curry counts among them.
The same goes for the origin of its “Vietnamese sandwich.” Not only does this thing bear zero resemblance to the iconic banh mi (other than a few garnishes like cilantro and cucumber), it isn’t even technically a sandwich, arriving on the plate as a pile of unassembled ingredients. Nevertheless, it’s a delight, featuring your choice of marinated, grilled meat—get the richly flavorful, surprisingly tender lamb—along with buttered Texas toast, of all things, rather than the standard mayo-spread baguette. For a side, try the deep-fried green beans, bright and snappy inside the thick batter; in fact, the freshness and crispness of veggies here counts among the kitchen’s hallmarks.
Even better are the stuffed grape leaves, a staple of stateside Vietnamese restaurants that splits the difference between traditional “bo la lot” (ground beef wrapped in wild betel leaf) and Mediterranean dolmas. (It also exemplifies why the concept of culinary authenticity is so vexed: as people migrate and make do with what they’ve got in their new homes, hybrid cuisines organically emerge. They’re no less authentic for starting out as adaptations.) Here, grilled beef and rice fill the tangy, blistered rolls, sprinkled with chopped peanuts, carrots, and scallions and accompanied by classic nuoc cham for dipping.
And so the wacky menu goes: For every standard Buffalo wing, there’s one stuffed with ground pork, rice vermicelli noodles, wood ear mushrooms, and lemongrass; for every jalapeño popper, there’s a summer roll. It’s all so incongruous that I can’t help but wonder whether Long Shots is named for the odds that such a strange concept could work. But I’m not going to ask.
4400 Ward Road, Wheat Ridge, 303-403-0227