Maybe it was the sweet-potato-filled doughnuts at Paris Baguette that did it. Perhaps it was Zilla’s killer kim chee dumplings that provided the “a ha” moment, but early in her research for the “Food Lovers’ Guide to Denver & Boulder,” Ruth Tobias realized she was spending a lot of time tasting in Aurora.
“I knew that many ethnic places existed in Aurora on an intellectual level, but once I started looking, Aurora became my mecca,” she said, while munching on naan and chutney recently at Jai Ho, one of her favorite Indian eateries in the city.
Besides cornering the market on real Korean fare (such as sticky, savory sweet red bean mochi at Dah Won Rice Cake), she marveled at the city’s large number of African cafes dishing Somali, Ethiopian and Ghanian fare and enthused about the the shopping opportunities at H Mart, Arash International Market and Rancho Liborio. “It’s just amazing,” she said.
Her freshly published volume from Globe Pequot Press is a culinary tourist’s dream that reveals everything from temples of good taste to breakfast bakeries, plus the best food trucks, food shops, farmers’ markets, artisan breweries and distilleries, and world-class dive bars. She tucks in information about food festivals and recipes from chefs. It was designed to spotlight the state’s hottest food locations — Denver and Boulder.
She’s the first to admit that that becoming a Colorado food writer certainly wasn’t on her radar when she was growing up in Oklahoma.
“I wasn’t a foodie but my parents took us to some of ethnic restaurants,” Tobias said. After college she worked for a few years as an editor in the book publishing business, “but I wanted to write my own stuff,” she said. Living in Boston in 2000 she began exploring her culinary obsessions.
“I was 30 and I always wanted to be a food writer,” she said. Her break was finding a want ad as an assistant to a food writer which led her to edit the Boston Zagat Guide and contribute to the “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America.” A Colorado resident for four years, her day job is writing and editing for the the Boulder-based Sommelier Journal, but she started chronicling her culinary adventures at her engaging, smartly written dining blog. That’s how an editor at Globe Pequot Press found her and contacted her about writing the “Food Lovers’ Guide to Denver & Boulder.”
The company has published numerous guides to various destinations including the classic “Food Lovers’ Guide to Colorado” penned by Eliza Cross Castaneda in 2002.
For Tobias, the dream assignment came with certain challenges beyond finding adjectives to describe different tastes. The bistro, trattoria and burger joint research had to be crammed into just a few months. “I was eating at four or five places a day at one point — not a whole meal but at least a dish,” she said.
“I just gave myself over to it and started eating. I was surprised I only gained five pounds.”
And the more time she spent on field trips in the metro area, the more cool destinations she discovered. “The food scene in the Denver area is so dynamic. Restaurants are opening every week. I wanted the book to be comprehensive so I kept adding places. It’s the unexpected little food finds after a long day — that’s why you do it,” Tobias said.
The bigger problem is that eateries she loved kept closing so she had to keep replacing them. Some places such as Tao Tao Noodle House and Korea House closed after the book was published.
In the aftermath, Tobias has some advice for would-be foodies. If you’ve moved here from another urban area, shelve your snobbery and grab a martini.
“The cocktail scene here is one of the best,” she said, noting the roster of first-class mixologists at local restaurants and bars. “I’ve also not come across a city with as many dive bars that are so welcoming to everyone.”
By all means, be inquisitive and always bravely walk into unknown strip mall dining spots. “It’s just one meal and it’s usually cheap,” she said. And while the sundae guk — blood sausage soup — at Seoul BBQ might not be your cup of tea, the scones at the English Teacup and the brats at Bender’s just might be. In fact, if you want to make it easy, Tobias recommends just eating your way up and down South Parker Road.
While being an omnivore is a job requirement, there are still some dishes she hasn’t warmed up to. “I don’t like natto and I probably never will,” she said. Natto is a stringy, slimy Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans.
But to her, the worst tastes are the mundane insults. “Really, the stuff I mind the most is the boring, came-from-a-factory food,” she said. “That’s a shame.”
After finishing up a beetroot fritter and a glass of Indian shiraz wine, Tobias just had one question:
“Have you been to El Chelate? It’s a Mexican/Salvadoran place down on Colfax. At the counter I swear they have the best banana bread I’ve ever tasted in my life. It’s amazing.”
One food lover’s select Aurora destinations and dishes
In the freshly published “Food Lovers’ Guide to Denver & Boulder” (Globe Pequot Press), Ruth Tobias includes a substantial number of restaurants, bakeries and markets located in Aurora which, she writes “is particularly rich in holed-up gems of all ethnic bents.”
Here are a few of Tobias’ Aurora favorites and menu finds from the book:
• Chef Liu’s Authentic Chinese Cuisine, 562 S. Chambers Rd.; “fish fillet stir-fried in smoky ‘numbing chile oil’ … making you sneeze and giggle all at the same time”
• China Jade, 12203 E. Iliff Ave.: “eggplant and pork in velvety garlic sauce”
• Guadalajara Authentic Mexican Buffet, 11385 E. Colfax Ave.: “pork ribs in cactus sauce”
• Hessini Roots International Cafe, 2044 Clinton St.: “egusi … ground melon seeds cooked with onions and habaneros in palm oil”
• Jai Ho, 3055 S. Parker Rd.; “intriguingly aromatic medhu vada”
• Maandeeq Eat African Cafe, 1535 S. Havana St.: “huge platters of goat meat”
• Seoul BBQ, 2080 S. Havana St.: “pan-fried kimchi”
• Arash International Market, 2720 Parker Rd.: “a halal butcher counter”
• Rancho Liborio, 10400 E. Colfax Ave.: “At the seafood counter, crawfish, baby octopus and green mussels sparkle”
To read Ruth Tobias’ food blog, visit ruthtobias.com/denveater