My Favorite Denver Restaurants

This is list is going to be updated as I find better places to eat. I guess my greatest qualification to make this list is that I eat out every single day living in LoDo.

Ultreia

Tucked away in Denver Union Station is a small and very authentic Spanish restaurant. Get the Trio de Jamon with a wine pairing. They have a real Jamon Iberico on display, their bar is extensive, and the Ulteria font is inherited from a winery in Spain.

The Collective Green Eatery

The best avocado toast!

Aloy Modern Thai

The Khao Soi dish reminds me of curry my mom made. My favorite part is that half of the noodles are uncooked above the soup allowing me to have cooked and crunchy noodles in one dish.

Matsuhisa

Yes, I’m a Nobu fanboy but I really don’t think the other high end sushi places around are as good.

 

Making Nigiri Sushi, combining Nobu and Nozawa

There’s 3 parts to Nigiri:

  1. The fish, obviously but unless you’re a fisherman or know a supplier most of us are stuck with whatever sushi grade fish is at the supermarket so this part will be only briefly touched on.
  2. The rice, I’m going to attempt to emulate Chef Nozawa’s technique here.
  3. The vinegar, a closely guarded secret by any sushi chef. My recipe is based off of the one given in Chef Nobu’s cookbook. If you can find a physical English copy of that cookbook it’s probably worth more than $100 right now.

Ingredients

  1. Rice: 3 cups (720 ml)
  2. Water: 3 cups (720 ml)
  3. Seasoned Vinegar
    1. Red Rice Vinegar: 2/3rds cup (160 ml)
    2. Coarse Sea Salt: 4 teaspoons
    3. Sugar: 1/2 cup (100 grams), granulated, highly refined
    4. Hon Mirin: 1 scant tablespoon
    5. Kombu: 2 sq. inch (5 sq. cm) sheet
  4. Sushi Grade Fish

Small Batch Vinegar Portions for One Cup of Rice:

  1. 3 tablespoons and 1.5 teaspoons Red Rice Vinegar (save 1 tablespoon for end)
  2. 1 and 1/3rd teaspoons salt
  3. 2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons sugar
  4. 1/3rd tablespoon mirin
  5. 1/2 sq. inch kombu sheet

 

Sourcing Ingredients

Rice: Chef Nozawa says he sources his rice “from a Japanese company that grows their rice in the Sacramento Delta”. Not very surprising since California provides a lot of the sushi rice for the US. It’s pretty easy to narrow down that he’s likely talking about Koda Farms, a 3rd gen Japanese owned family operated rice farm in Dos Palos. They designate their medium grain Kokuho Rose table rice as “outstanding for sushi”. Just so you know, Chef Nobu prefers Koshihikari short grain rice from Japan.

Rice Vinegar: Chef Nobu specifies Red Rice Vinegar made from Sake Rice Lees for his recipe. The website Chef’s Wonderland has a featured article on akazu red vinegar and it’s obvious from the depth of said article that they know their stuff. They recommend a brand called Yokoi as used at three Michelin starred restaurant Sushi Saito and many others. Yokoi has three red vinegar varieties Shugyoku, Kohaku, Edo-tannen-su, described as traditional, distinct / sharp, and dark / umami. They also sell a “rice vinegar” but that still is typically used as part of a recipe. The only supplier I could find online that would ship to the United States is Kabuki Knives. In their description they describe the Shugyoku variety as a “traditional Edomae sushi tradition” and the Kohaku variety as “Yokoi’s most popular red vinegar standard in Edomae… the most used red vinegar in sushi restaurants that use red vinegar”. I’d probably go with the crowd on this one since I have no idea about making sushi the traditional Edomae way.

Hon Mirin: Hon Mirin is sweet sake so the real stuff is alcoholic and thus is sold in the liquor section, there are imitations that alter it to get around the liquor tax. The stuff is hard to find if there’s no Asian markets near where you live. The New York Times published a great article titled “Catching an Elusive Japanese Flavor” about it. One of the three brands mentioned in this article is Takara. Takara Sake in California is one of the largest producers of Sake in the US and they sell exactly one variety of their Mirin online.

Kombu: Chef Nobu also specifies sourcing Kombu from Rausu, JP. This specific variety is known to have a high glutamate content. The brand I use is called Kawashimaya, mainly because I like the product label and images, that may seem like a shallow decision but it looks far more professional and quality than the others online.

Sea Salt: I like to use Okunoto Agehama Salt inspired by a YouTube video from Great Big Story. The specific brand from that video isn’t available online but others from that region made with the technique are.

Section 1: Rice Prep

  1. Wash rice with cold water. Stir and rinse quickly. Strain and repeat until water is clear.
  2. Allow rice to soak in cold water for 25 minutes.
  3. Cook the rice with an electric rice cooker, use the sushi rice setting.

Interestingly enough Chef Nozowa notes…

The rice cookers that produce perfectly steamed rice are the same ones you can find in every Chinatown or big box store. The problem with that is they aren’t certified for use in restaurants. Which makes producing batches of rice in a large capacity kitchen either illegal or impossible.

Basically saying that his trouble is finding a rice cooker with restaurant grade certification that works as well as the small batch versions you find at home. He ended up designing his own restaurant grade rice cooker to fit his needs. Surely enough though, in his “Warm, Loosely Packed Rice” video, one of the rice cookers pictured seems to be a standard Zojirushi.

Section 2: Seasoned Vinegar

  1. Combine seasoned vinegar ingredients into saucepan save 3 tablespoons of vinegar.
  2. Bring to boil over high heat.
  3. Turn off heat after sugar dissolves.
  4. Remove kombu.
  5. Cool to room temperature.
  6. Add remaining 3 tablespoons of vinegar.

Section 3: Sushi Rice

  1. Pour seasoned vinegar over cooked rice in a handai.
  2. Quickly but gently fold the rice with a shamoji to mix all of the seasoned vinegar into the rice.*
  3. Spread rice into a thin even layer and smooth out the rice.
  4. Cover with a lid.

*Chef Nozawa mixes his rice with vinegar for exactly 200 seconds but that’s with a specialized machine so… not much help there.

Section 4: Cutting the Fish

You really don’t feel like a sushi chef unless you’re cutting the fish huh? Finding pre-cut sashimi pieces at the local supermarket seems like cheating to me but that method is mentioned as valid in Nobu’s cookbook. Just know that if you do decide to cut it yourself, you’ll have a bunch of bits leftover that aren’t nice rectangles. Maybe make a poke bowl with those bits but you’ll have to consume it the day of, don’t eat leftover fish raw.

According to Nobu, the ideal fish slice is 3 by 1 by 0.25 inches. Nozawa’s slice seems to be slightly shorter, wider, thicker, and definitely more rectangular. I’ll confirm exact measurements when I grab take out again instead of pulling out a ruler at the table. Angle the knife so that the cuts come out in this shape, at the head your knife should be more vertical, at the tail more angled. Cut the filet across the sinews, not parallel. In other words, your cut should form an X with the stripes, not run alongside them.

Section 5: Forming Nigiri

This is probably best taught on YouTube but I recommend reading Nobu’s cookbook for this. The basic idea is to place the fish on the fingers of your left hand and shape by using the fingers of your right hand and curling the left hand. The instructions are clear in the book with pictures for each of his 12 steps. That’s right, 12 steps. Including a wall of text here describing how to form Nigiri probably wouldn’t be much help so I defer you to the book or other sources with images.

A mock label for my own brand of sushi rice seasoning. It probably will never come to market but it’s fun to dream.

My Favorite Vietnamese Restaurants in Little Saigon, CA

It may come as a surprise to hear me say that I don’t particularly like Vietnamese food, despite being Vietnamese. There are however, a few dishes, at a few places, that do make the cut. Little Saigon and surrounding area is home to the largest population of Viet people outside of Vietnam so I’d be willing to bet this list includes some of the best Viet food outside of Vietnam. I’ll start with everyone’s favorite dish:

Pho: Phở Vè Dầy Dòn with quail egg at Pho Quang Trung. I prefer the one on Westminster over the one on Bolsa. Something about the cuts of meat, they do it very right here. They’re usually out of quail egg unless you’re early.

Photo of Cococane - Garden Grove, CA, United States. ($6)

Nuoc Mia: The Original Cococaine with kumquat at Cococaine. Right next to OK water, this store keeps true to it’s FOB heritage by being half fruit market, half juice store with amazing taste in EDM music. They’re usually out of kumquat… our community has some supply chain issues.

Photo of The Vox Kitchen - Fountain Valley, CA, United States. The Vox Kitchen

Bo Luc Lac (aka shaken beef): SALTADO at The Vox Kitchen. They do Viet modern fusion really well.

Photo of Tan Cang Newport Seafood - Santa Ana, CA, United States. 5lb Lobster Noodle

Lobster Noodles: Newport Special Lobster at Tan Cang Newport Seafood. A staple at weddings but if you have a family to feed I bet they’d love this.

Photo of Kim Su Seafood Restaurant - Westminster, CA, United States. Clams with ginger and green onions

Clams at Kim Su: I can pretty much finish a plate of these my own and I use the rice to soak up the sauce. As a kid this was my favorite food, my cousins and I would stack clam shells practically to the ceiling we ate so much.

Photo of Song Long Restaurant - Westminster, CA, United States. Salmon Hollandaise

Salmon with Hollandaise sauce at Song Long: You know why we make such good bread and sandwiches? Because we were colonized by the French. And we got this dish out of it too.

Photo of Brodard Restaurant - Fountain Valley, CA, United States. Grilled Pork Spring Rolls  Nem Nuong Cuon

Spring Rolls at Brodard: Honestly I’m not the biggest fan of spring rolls but this restaurant is a staple for this iconic food so it gets a spot on the list as well. Don’t take it to go, it looks like something that can be packed for later but once it gets soggy the magic is gone.

Taco Maria, America’s Michelin Starred Taco Restaurant

Tucked away in Orange County California is America’s only Michelin starred taco restaurant. Now that claim is solely based on the Michelin guide’s online results for the word taco but it makes for a good title.

Service

Tacos Maria is small, upscale, and contemporary with attentive staff and unique flavors. We sat outside in lovely evening weather, the surrounding center was empty and quiet. They turned on the heater at our request later in the evening. My friends and I had to make a reservation two weeks in advance and we took the last time slot for the week at 8 pm on a Thursday. Their service was excellent serving silverware to the correct positions, never letting our drinks empty, and resetting chairs / napkins when a guest stepped away for the restroom. The food however did take a while to get to us after we ordered.

Menu

As I understand it the menu changes and this one was labeled Summer 2021, a mixture of the food they were serving before the pandemic and the take out they were serving during the pandemic. Between my friends and I we ordered everything on the menu. With a bit of sampling I can confidently say everything they serve tastes amazing. I ordered the molle de pato, the duck was cooked well and came right off the bone. The fig mole had a very strong flavor in my dish and perhaps they could have toned that down a bit. The arrachera was my favorite of my friends’ dishes and I’ll probably try that one next time.

Drinks

My favorite drink was the classic margarita made with agave wine instead of tequila and came with a rim of black salt. The agave wine made the flavor smoother than tequila and although I was a bit bummed at first, if they eventually get a liquor license I hope they keep the agave wine option. Something of note, the texture and taste of the salt stood out to me as well. I attempted to have them put that salt on more of my drinks but they couldn’t accommodate my request due to strict portioning.

Vegetable Accompaniments 

The entrees could have been eaten alone but we all put them into the blue corn tortillas to create tacos. I’d say the charred avocado and the jalapenos are a must for the building the tacos. They also give you a dark “salsa” that reminds me of the chili oil found in Asian dishes.

Other Thoughts

Some people tell me that like good sushi ruined regular sushi for them. These tacos may as well have been their own genre of food. I’ve tasted no Mexican food like it.

Cost

Dinner came out to be about $120 a person for shared appetizers, shared vegetables, two drinks each, and one entrée each. We all agreed that it was worth it.

Amazing Tacos and the Western Space Launch Range

If you’re stationed at Vandenberg Space Force Base (and all space operators will start at Vandy Land for tech school) you probably live in Lompoc (pronounced lom-poke) or Santa Maria. While Lompoc is cheaper and a shorter drive to base, if you want things to do, I’d recommend Santa Maria. Lompoc’s saving grace however was its amazing Mexican food. It’s close enough to Vandy to stop for lunch as well. My favorite tacos are from Angela’s. They’re underrated compared to Floriano’s though I will concede Floriano’s green sauce is the best sauce. The best move is to stash a bunch of Floriano’s green sauce on an occasional run there and get Angela’s tacos the rest of the week… yeah I had tacos everyday. If you don’t want to go to two places, Angela’s makes a great spicy salsa for their chips that pairs well with the tacos. #justspaceforcethings

A Visit to Keens Steakhouse

I was staying in Manhattan for the weekend and I’d been craving steak for a month. Steak is my favorite food next to sushi and on special occasion I often visit Maestros. It was my family’s restaurant of choice for many when I was younger, we often secured a private room for parties. I’m also fond of Ruth Chris and Gallagher’s, all amazing. In my search for Peter Luger I found that it’s actually across the bridge, a bit too far for me so I made a reservation at Keens.

We arrived at noon after finishing a few mimosas over a rowdy Sunday brunch. The restaurant was dim and the host was polite despite my friend and I being underdressed in our rain coats and jeans. The host of course was in a tasteful black jacket and bowtie. The restaurant seemed empty at lunch (COVID era) and there were plenty of open tables even though only the downstairs portion of the restaurant is open for lunch. Soft music played in the background; our waiter asked us what was for lunch in a hush voice. I ordered the mutton chop and my friend ordered the filet mignon.

The first thing I noticed about the mutton was its size, it’s a big cut. Though I slowly realized that there’s a lot of bone taking up that space so I was able to finish it, barely. I’ve never had mutton before, but I enjoyed it a lot. There’s some meat hanging off the side of the cut that has a really strong flavor. The meat is a little bit awkward to cut around the bone. It’s probably not going to replace my love for steak but I could see myself getting this whenever I’m in the area. If you haven’t tried mutton chop, I’ve heard this is the place to try it.

The fries were top notch: salty with amazing crispy texture and served at a perfect temperature. My friend commented his steak was the best he ever had. Though take that with a grain of salt because he’s an anti-foodie, adverse to trying new foods, he doesn’t quite like visiting a large variety of restaurants.

After the meal, the waiter handed us off to the host who showed us the playbill President Lincoln was holding when he was shot, blood splatter, brain matter, and all. Keens has a history related to theater, it’s on the back of their menu. Also of interest was Babe Ruth, Pres Roosevelt, Pres Hoover, and General Douglas MacArthur’s pipes in a case. Some more modern pipe owner’s names were by the door. I was hoping to get my pipe up somewhere since I saw that they sold them, there was one missing above my table but I imagine the club is pretty exclusive. Lastly, I looked for Albert Einstein’s pipe but the host told me it was stolen. Whoever has Albert Einstein’s pipe comment below, I’d pay a pretty penny for it.

An absolutely hilarious superstition I read about stems from family members breaking the pipe of the deceased so that it could no longer be used. In a sort of reversal when a pipe falls from the ceiling the myth implies that a member has died.

I wish Michael Jordan’s steakhouse was still open in Grand Central but next on the list is Peter Luger!

Nobu vs Matsuhisa

Everyone knows about famous sushi restaurant Nobu, a favorite of Hollywood celebrities and Roxanne. But few know about its sister restaurant, Matsuhisa. For those of you that haven’t made the connection, Chef Nobu’s full name is Nobu Matsuhisa and he’s given his last name to a few restaurants in the Colorado Rockies (there’s also one in Beverly Hills but it has its own website for some reason).

There are currently three Matsuhisa restaurants. One in Denver, Aspen, and Vail. Matsuhisa is basically a Nobu for your annual ski trip. Nobu’s are often found in affluent areas and Matsuhisas make no exception, Aspen and Vail are two of the nicest ski resorts in the country.

This past weekend I was skiing in Aspen, the restaurant is easy to spot from the street in downtown. The Aspen location looked pretty small, understandable because space in Aspen is very limited (Moncler even had to send a runner from their stock room three blocks away when we asked for different sizing). The Denver location was roomy, occupying the bottom floor of a building in downtown as seen in the featured image. I’ve seen pictures of the Vail location and that one looks the nicest to me. I’ll be going to Vail in a few weeks and hopefully will get it to check it out. Anyways back to Denver…

Denver is currently not allowing dine in because of COVID-19 but my friend and I stepped into their location to order. The door was consistent with the large wood designs I’ve seen at Nobus before and the interior looked upscale as well. The menu looked the same as Nobu’s but I only eat nigiri and waygu so I mainly payed attention to those sections. Matsuhisa Denver was really only missing the ocean views typical of the Nobus back home.

The host was polite and immediately came to help us. After we ordered he showed us a seat in the waiting area and offered us water. The food was nicely packaged making it look like we just finished shopping at a boutique. They even included an envelope with a letter thanking us for our patronage. The package included a few complementary cookies and more than enough soy sauce, both kinds, regular and low sodium.

I estimate that Matsuhisa is slightly cheaper than Nobu. Maybe 20% cheaper. 8 pieces of nigiri and a roll cost me about $70 before tax and tip. Comparing the same item on the menu, Salmon nigiri is $5 per piece at Matsuhisa Denver and $7 per piece at Nobu Malibu making Matsuhisa basically 30% off Nobu. Of course a restaurant on the Malibu coast is probably going to have more overhead costs. I know for a fact that Nobu prices vary depending on the location. Perhaps I’ll make a blog post later on the cheapest place to get Nobu; though I think I’ve already answered that, the cheapest place to get Nobu is at Matsuhisa.

I haven’t been brave enough to try other sushi places in Denver since it’s far from the water but I very much enjoyed the food at Matsuhisa. I think I’ll be visiting Matsuhisa more often because it’s basically a cheaper Nobu. I guess whether you’re wintering in the Rockies or you’re staying in Denver like me, Matsuhisa does the job of satiating that Nobu craving for high end sushi.

My Favorite LA Restaurants

I never recommend that anyone visit LA without a local guide. The tourist attractions are disgusting but the city is just filled with amazing places scattered here and there. Listed are a few of my favorite restaurants. While LA doesn’t really have a “local delicacy” like Nashville hot chicken or Texas BBQ, it has the largest diversity of amazing food. One can easily find world class anything in LA.

The Favorites

Sugarfish ($$$)

This is my favorite restaurant. You can find this sushi spot scattered around in LA and NYC. They don’t take reservations. It’s normally served omakase but you can order a la carte too. I recommend trying the omakase trust me menu at least once. My favorite item is the albacore. I can’t find a place that serves albacore the same way, it’s delicious.

Rock Sugar ($$$)

Whenever someone asks me for food from “my culture” I take them here. It’s a very modern interpretation of SE Asian food. My favorite item is the beef skewers. My favorite thing to do is eat all of the appetizers and skip a main course. The service is excellent, they are attentive and even give you warm towels after you finish finger foods. If you want Pho, don’t get it here. Go to Little Saigon where all the Vietnamese people live.

CoCo IchiBanya ($$)

A Japanese curry chain that’s made its way over to California from Japan. I love the chicken curry cutlet with omelet. They don’t mess around with the spice either.

Wurstkuche ($$)

Great place to hangout in the Art’s district. They have sausages for a snack and an amazing tap room. All of the beers are matched to their own unique glass. Get drunk then go walk to the nearby art galleries!

Bottega Louie ($$$)

The famous macaroon place from Paris. Those little cookies aren’t cheap but they are so good. It really must be difficult to perfect that texture. It’s a nice place to sit down while waiting for Sugarfish to call your reservation or while shopping on rodeo.

Salt n Straw ($)

I’m not too big into ice cream but this is the unanimous favorite among my family. My favorite flavor is Honey Lavender.

La Colombe ($)

More popular on the east coast, these have started springing up in LA. My favorite coffee, the Oatmilk Draft Latte. Feels like you’re drinking a coffee flavored cloud.

Nobu ($$$$)

So famous they rap about this place. A celebrity hot spot for sushi with stunning views. I haven’t had the chance to visit the one specifically in Malibu but they’re supposed to be consistent no matter which location you visit. You must call for a reservation or you will not get a seat. You can find these in high end neighborhoods around the world.

Original Ave 26 Tacos ($)

Of course you want some tacos while visiting California right? Well if you aren’t visiting El Gordos in San Diego, try this LA fav. It has three locations all not on 26th (update: the Lincoln Heights location has closed down, they don’t update their website). The most convenient location is at 816 W 8th, this location closes early though so go for lunch.

Honorary Mentions

Ajisen Ramen ($$)

My favorite ramen place. I get the ABC ramen. It’s a chain so you should be able to find these around. Honorary mention to runner up, Shin Sen Gumi which allows for noodle refills and is a great value!

Marugame ($)

Udon served cafeteria style.

Castle BBQ ($)

If for some reason they don’t have all you can eat KBBQ where you’re from, try it. I can eat pounds of brisket with brisket sauce, salt, and oil. Maybe a radish to cleanse the palate here and there.

Omomo ($)

My favorite boba place! The drinks are so creamy and yummy.

Unhealthy LA Traditions

Original Tommy’s ($)

Best chain of chili burger and chili fries.

Pinks ($)

LA famous hot dog place. Yes, the hot dog snaps when you bite into it.

Howlin Rays ($$)

Nashville hot chicken that would give Nashville a run for their money.