Sample local food and sip Colorado wines in downtown Boulder.
The weather forecast does not look promising for the fifth annual Taste of Pearl (Sunday, April 13, from 2 to 6 p.m.), but a maximum of 500 foodies will already have their $75 tickets in hand and would not miss this downtown Boulder event, no matter what. Fifteen local restaurants pair with 15 Colorado wineries, with 15 best boutiques and galleries hosting tastings. All are within strolling distance of each other along the pedestrian mall and adjacent blocks.
A portion of the proceeds (and I don’t know what portion) go benefit Boulder’s Emergency Family Assistant Association (EFAA), but organizers have indicated during the Taste’s first four years, more than $32,000 has gone to EFAA to help those in the community whose immediate needs for food, shelter and other basic necessities could not be adequately met by other means — therefore, “Emergency” is the organization’s first name.
The $75 ticket includes food and wine samples from all participating restaurants and wineries; keepsake wine glass; re-usable wine carry bag; compostable (or re-usable, as you wish) wine plate that holds both wine glass and food to taste; $5 off a bottle of wine from one of the participating wineries; and special offers for t attendees at hosting retail locations (including exclusive drawings, free gifts with purchase, discounts and more). Tickets are available online or in person on event day beginning at 12:30 p.m. at the Visitor Information Center (1303 Pearl Street, in front of the courthouse).
Second opinions of best Denver restaurant neighborhood
Westword readers’ choice of South Federal has Denver’s best food neighborhood in their just-completed Street 16 polling was a surprise to many — not the least of whom were the publication’s editors themselves. In a followup “Cafe Society” item in the pril 5-11 print edition, the editors noted that “Lower Highland [which lost to South Federal in the final round] can take some consolation in the fact that in the Best of Denver 2012 the entire neighborhood of Highland was named the Best Restaurant Neighborhood by the readers. And the editorial pick? The Pearl Street Mall in Boulder.” I weigh in on the side of the editors rather than the readers on this one. Of course.
SALT’s happy hour has fine offerings — but with limitations
Not realizing that it is closed on Monday as well as Sunday evening, my husband and I thought we would try Pearl Street Steak Room at happy hour for an affordable burger or lobster roll, but with the door locked and the lights off, we kept going east to SALT The Bistro, whose happy hour still had a bit of time left on the clock.
We’d probably go there more often if happy hour pricing didn’t end at 5:00 p.m. upstairs and 6:00 p.m. When we arrived at around 5:40 p.m., and when we weren’t enthusiastic about Cellar seating, the hostess said that happy hour was also available at the bar. She meant literally at the bar, not at a table in the bar area. so we hopped up on barstools and ordered –wine for me, draft beer for him and food both from the happy hour and regular menus.
Shug’s Low Country Cuisine fills a void in downtown Boulder for those who love Southern food. Sure, there’s the incomparable Lucile’s Creole Cafe, but it serves only breakfast and lunch, plus it’s small and the lines often spill onto the sidewalk. Last summer, Shug’s took over the space on the next block vacated by the b.Side Lounge, which was better known as a music venue and late-night spot than for its food — mainly small plates that serves as foils for the cocktails.
When Shug’s opened in early summer, I figured that an establishment whose last name is “Cusine” rather than “Lounge” would be more about food — and I’d heard that their fried chicken was one of the best in town. It has been on the to-try list for a while before my husband and I finally ambled in on a recent weeknight. Shug’s decor is simple and a bit old-fashioned. The comfort decor of tables simply set with white cloths and flower vases add a homey, from-the-garden touch. Large black-and-white images of Southern scenes hang on the walls and also fit so well with classic Southern cooking. A few folks were at the bar and a few tables were occupied, so we happily took what seemed like the best table in the place, a small one tucked in an alcove next to the front window.
Here’s the cautionary note from our experience. A party of four was at the next table, and it wasn’t until we working on a glass of wine, a draft beer and a basket of bread with our meal on the way that the assult our ears began. There was blaring speaker right over our neighbor’s table, which made them talk loudly. Then the music started in the back room, called The Shack at Shug’s, but no one bothered turning the speakers off. Result: our neighbors kicked up their volume. I noted the dueling music on the comment card, and mentioned it to the waitress as well. Much to Shug’s credit, out of the kitchen came someone seemingly in charge with an apology. He didn’t introduce himself, but I see from the website that it was owner/chef Sean Shelby. It’s always a good sign when a complaint or problem doesn’t stop with the waitstaff. The food was good and very reasonably priced, and we already knew we’d return for that. but we’ll be more likely to return thereafter if the conflicting music issue has been resolved.
Price Check: Appetizers, $6-$10 (and only one is $10); main dishes, $10-$18; sides, $4-$8; desserts, $6.
Of Colorado’s six Rio Grande Mexican Restaurants, five are on the Front Range and one is in Steamboat Springs. The Boulder location is a short walk from our house, which is good considering the potency of their famous margaritas. I only order one. My husband sometimes has one and a beer. But three is the max for anyone. Each customer from skinny-minnie young women to linebacker-size guys is limited to just three. I have often said that no one who starts with a marg really knows what the Rio’s food is like, but everyone likes it — thanks to tequila.
Founded in Fort Collins in 1986, the Rio opened in Boulder not long after that and alighted in a couple of downtown locations before roosting at 11th and Walnut. The cavernous space is happily broken up into a big, loud bar to the left of the side-street entrance, a quieter but still lively L-shaped dining room to the right, beyond that a covered porchhalf with overhead doors that can be pulled up in good weather and beyond that, a small strip of seats along the Walnut Street sidewalk. And there’s rooftop seating too with great views.
My husband and a friend or sometimes two used to make a “Rio Run” every few weeks, and occasionally I’d tag along too. Chips and salsa, chile con queso, usually combo platters for the guys and fajitas or perhaps a fish taco for me were our routine. One of the regulars now lives in Wisconsin, so the Rio dropped from our routine. When the weather started to warm up, my husband and I made a Rio Run of our own.
The menu has been tweaked over the years but has fundamentally the same, which is a hallmark of reliability. Good, fresh versions of standard dishes prevail, including meatless options in all categories. Chile con queso aside, the food always seems lighter and fresher than most Mexican restaurants — maybe because they don’t drown everything in sauce and blanket it with melted cheese, and also because instead of iceberg lettuce they use romaine and they seem to find fairly tasty tomatoes for the shredded lettuce/chopped tomato duo that is de rigeur at most Mexican/Tex-Mex eateries. We took one of the sidewalk tables, enjoying the warm air and the passing parade, and slipped into our Rio Run routine by starting with margaritas.
Price check: At dinner, sharable appetizers, $6.95-$9.59; entrees, mostly $7.95-$12.95; the online menu is parsed into several subcategories, which I didn’t get into here.
Firefighters spent a good part of yesterday extiniguishing a blaze in a downtown Boulder building that housed four food businesses
From across the Pearl Street Mall, the building on the southeast corner oftoward Fourteenth and Pearl looks unsathed. Firefighters battled yesterday’s two-alarm blaze mainly from the roof and the second floor. No ground-floor windows were broken, which is amazing. Hurdles Jewelry on the Pearl Street side had some water damage, and the four food places on the Fourteenth Street side had various degrees of damage. From north to south they are Oak at Fourteenth where the fire appears to have started, Belvedere Belgian Chocolate Shop, Tee & Cakes bakery and cafe, and Smooch Frozen Yogurt & Mochi. A closer look tells the tale of fire and water.
Hot new Boulder restaurant has good genes but still some kinks to be ironed out
A few Mondays ago, my husband and I headed to the then-quite-new Oak at Fourteenth (or OAK at Fourteenth, as they write it), but it was closed for a private party. I finally got there for lunch this week with three gal-pals. In the meantime, I’ve personally known or heard about several people who fell head over heels for it and have already been there two or three or more times. It’s always that way with someplace very new and very cool, but those latest-and-greatest enthusiasts often have short attention spans. A few have already shifted their focus to The Pinyon, an even newer (one week old today) Boulder restaurant. Sic transit loyalty.
From the old 14th Street Grill, it inherited a wonderful location, pleasantly sized space, big windows facing 14th Street that bring in the light but not too much foot traffic and a small patio seating area. Oak’s own changes are a reutilization of the open kitchen and the talents of creative team, Steven Redzikowski captaining the kitchen and Bryan Dayton helming the bar. Dayton is known as one of the best mixologists around, and it seems that much of the lunch crowd had no hesitation to imbibe in his creations. If I had, it might have taken the edge off my observations and I would most likely have slept all afternoon.
There’s a lot to like about Oak, and once it completely finds its footing, I have no doubt that this good place will become even better. Partners Dayton, Redzikowski and GM Annie Polk have immaculate credentials, so expectations were sky-high and the buzz deafening even before the doors were open. Perfection is a great challenge for a brand new place.
The food has some innovative twists and the wine list is imposing, but overall, the lofty expectations and relentless local foodie buzz still present a dilemma. While Oak is mostly very good, excessive anticipation magnifies even small flaws. The waitstaff is still a bit under-trained. During our first 15 minutes, there were at at least four loud flatware fumbles when someone dropped forks and/or spoons and/or knives on the wood floor while setting or clearing a table. At least there were no glassware or crockery crashes.
The lunch and dinner menus list dishes either as “shared plates” and “large plates,” but these categories seemed somewhat random to a quartet of writers and editors like us. The mac and cheese, for instance, is listed as a “shared plate,” while the soup and salads are among the “large plates.” The four of us were given two different lunch menus, and of course, the grilled toast with wild mushrooms that we wanted as a starter turned out to be no longer available.
The oddball bread service seems both chintzy and wasteful. One piece of very good bread is placed on each bread plate, and a cube of perfectly soft and spreadable butter sprinkled with a bit of salt (left) is placed in the middle of the table. However, once a slice of bread is finished, no one offers a second slice and worse, someone swoops over and removes the plate. And the partly used butter is whisked away too. A request for another piece of bread therefore means not only soiling one more plate, but delivering a fresh cube of butter.
The cheese-avoider among us spotted a salad on the menu that listed the key ingredients, except for the cheese. She’s too nice to have sent it back, but she spent a good part of the lunch picking cheese out of the greenery. In a place like Boulder with more than the usual percentage of vegans, the omission was surprising.
Lunch — at Last
Now that you’ve read about matters that would be minor in a new restaurant had there not been so much spin about this one, here’s what we had for lunch:
When it came to coffee and dessert, the service got weird again. We ordered two coffees and one tea. We had a choice of medium or dark roasts, which is wonderful. The tea didn’t come and didn’t come, and when the tea-drinker asked to cancel the order, a server apologized, brought a fine selection of teas and did not charge for them. That wasn’t the weird part though. The sugar bowl came with large-crystal turbinado sugar — and dinky little salt spoon. No white sugar or sugar substitute was even offered.
Of course, we decided to share a dessert, and of course, this took much deliberation. We settled on a espresso mousse topped with a layer of dark chocolate and a unbuttered, unsalted popcorn. I’m afraid I was the only one who liked it. I’ve had popcorn as condiment with ceviche, soups and other foods in Ecuador, and I kind of like that mild crunch contrast to soft foods. One of my friends dug under the popcorn to reach the sweet stuff, and another who “thought” the dark chocolate would be “different” ate very little.
When all was said, done and devoured, I found Oak at Fourteenth full of promise that would already been kept if the opening profile had been lower and word-of-mouth had gone along with ironing out early snags. At the end of lunch, we shared out observations with Annie Polk, who I think genuinely was interested in the feedback. While Oak’s lunch prices are a few dollars higher than at most downtown Boulder restaurants, the house was full of happy eaters who seemed content to be paying off the renovation as well as paying for the innovation. And I certainly have no issue with that seal of approval.
Price Check: At lunch, there’s a bit of price overlap between the ‘shared plates” ($5-$13, with most $8-$10) and “large plates ($9-$15).
Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news. For address of any restaurant, click on the Zomato icon at the end of the post.