Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern has been roaming in and around Denver the last few days. Zimmern is on a three-destination journey—Portland, Denver, and Napa—filming stories for his Bizarre Foods show. Tuesday afternoon at El Taco de Mexico, Eater Denver caught up with Zimmern to debrief on his impressions of Denver and his quest for great Mexican food, hunting highs, and adventurous eating.
How did you choose Denver as a destination for your show. What was the process? What we do is we develop a list of shows at the beginning of every year that we think has the potential for offering us the best group of stories and with interesting foods. The stories and characters come first. We then spend months hammering that out, doing research, making phone calls, often talking to people like you—folks who are on the ground. Then we decide whether there is enough in a city to make it a final choice. There is a list of some 40 shows initially proposed that gets narrowed down to 30 then down again to the 20 shows that we actually shoot and air. So, Denver made the cut on a whole bunch of different levels: the obsession with testicles, the ethnic foods, the game, the falconery, the Mongolian community etc.
Our show is highly curated, like a few others, very driven by the person making the show—in this case, me. Tony Bourdain's show is the same way, but most shows are not created this way. On this show we do what interests me. If it doesn't interest me, it rarely will make it on to the bulletin board.
What can Denver look forward to seeing featured on Bizarre Foods? First, our Denver show fans can look forward to seeing a whole story on Denver's obsession with testicles.
We heard you had some testicles. How were they? They were fine. I am looking forward to tomorrow when I am going to taste some more testicles in some restaurants with someone who knows what they are doing when they cook them. Something other than a bar snack.
So, the ones you had were cooked by someone who had no clue what they were doing? The ones we had were ...fine. We made two stops at places where they are essentially sliced frozen testicles, crumbed, and deep fried in oil that should have been changed back when Eisenhower was president. It angered me—I wanted to just say - come on, don't you at least want to change the oil?. There is nothing wrong with serving fried testicles, it is actually a great way to serve them but there is a way to fry and a way not to fry.
This was not your first testicle experience. One could say you are a testicle connoisseur, right? Not my first experience, yes, most definitely a testicle connoisseur. I started to count and stopped at 60—the number of animals whose balls I have eaten. It is extraordinary. I can even tell you specifics. I bet you know an emu has balls. Well, they are black. The meat of the emu testicles is black.
What else is on the roster for the show? We did a story on falconry. Yesterday we were hunting with birds of prey which was awesome. We went hunting with a Gyr Falcon and red tailed hawk. We got jack rabbit and pheasant.
What about Mary Nguyen of Parallel 17? What kind of a story should we expect? The Mary story has different aspects on our show. Mary is a modern American woman, and she is Vietnamese, living in Denver, owns and operates her own restaurants, is part of a very large extended ethnic family here in Denver and also likes to do these dinners for the Denver Adventurous Eaters Club. We went shopping with her for the dinner at P17, we are going to the dinner tonight and Sunday we were at her house for a family dinner. For this weekly mid-day family dinner, Mary's mother starts cooking on Thursday.
How was the family dinner? The food was unbelievable. There were some 35 people who came. At an event like that, you want someone's Vietnamese mom or grandma to be cooking. Mary's mom is from Hu?—a region I am familiar with—and the food she cooked was just extraordinary.
What were the highlights? Mary's mother made a gelatinous dumpling with tiny pieces of chili-seasoned tiny dried shrimp that was to die for. She also made bánh bèo hu? a traditional dish from that region that was extraordinary.
You posted pictures of a Mongolian barbecue—where was that? That was our Mongolian family meal. There is a large Mongolian community here. Denver has a Mongolian sister city, Ulaanbaatar. The artist who did the Denver's sister city sculpture, Tsogtsaikhan Mijid, a very famous artist both in Mongolia and here, lives in a modest home here in a development with hundreds of neighbors. A couple of times a year, he puts up a ger, a traditional Mongolian tent, and he and his family roast a whole sheep.
How was the Mongolian feast? Amazing. His wife is an extraordinary cook. Mongolia is a meat and milk culture. They don't do a lot of vegetables but she developed a few side dishes that go well with the sheep. She did a cabbage slaw and cooked peppers with onions and tomatoes. She also did a salad with onion and paper-thin slices of lung and stomach—paper-thin, all julienned. I thought it was so smart. It was seasoned with lime juice and salt - very simple but she just knows how to do it right.
Earlier today, you were at Chubby's; what did you eat and how was it? I had their famous Mexican burger burrito. It was good. In the 2 a.m. stoner food category, yeah, it is what it is. There is a huge community of people for which that kind of food no longer holds interest. But there is always a line at the original Chubby's, always, and that is what makes it one of Denver's iconic dishes. It didn't interest me as much as this place, and the food is not in this league. However, if I am with six of my friends and I am the designated driver and we are leaving the bar after watching the football game we are probably going to Chubby's where I can drop them off and then I am probably coming over to El Taco for a bowl of menudo.
El Taco de Mexico is a Denver institution and some say the best restaurant in Denver. What are your thoughts on that? Well, that's funny. I can see that. I once wrote a blog post about a small Vietnamese place in Minnesota called Que Nha. I basically said it was the best restaurant in the city. No wine list, no waiter, but incredible food. Varied techniques, superb flavors, and El Taco is extraordinary in the same way. The sophistication and the quality of cooking here is impressive. I bet there isn't another restaurant in town that can use as many varied techniques. It is hard to imagine that one kitchen can do menudo that good and tacos al pastor that are that amazing.They are awesome.
What have you been most impressed with so far in Denver? I am careful about judging these things half way through a trip but what impresses me here is that nobody takes themselves too seriously. This is a very big relief. There aren't a lot of people here who jump up and down to say look at me, look at me, look at me. Denver is a performing space where people do this for the love of doing it, there is a nice dining scene, the economy is good and people go out to eat. Yes, there is a downtown and there are lots of downtown restaurants as in any city. But if you go up on Federal Boulevard or down here, the ethnic dining, it is lovely.
What is on the agenda for Wednesday? We will go by some swankier gastro-pubby type places to try their things tomorrow. I am looking forward to it. Then the Ballpark neighborhood and then I have to get some sleep.