A year of nibbling

The 20 local tastes that wowed my buds in 2017

Hapa Sushi Chef Jefferson Liu with a firecracker roll.
Susan France

I remember the soulful taste, chew and aroma of the braised ham hock at Jin Chan Zhang in Boulder as if it was yesterday, all the fatty fall-apart meat, sweet soy glaze and bok choy. The square Palermo pizza at Louisville’s Pizza King speaks to me in Sicilian in murmurs of chunky tomato sauce over mozzarella, herbs, olive oil and crispy corner slices. Those were two shining taste highlights of 2017.

Other folks track their steps or the birds they’ve seen. Nibbles is my decades’-old public diary of the bitefuls that moved me enough to recommend them to you.

Here, in no particular order, are best things I’ve tasted in Boulder and environs among the approximately 365 breakfasts, 365 lunches and 365 dinners of the past 52 weeks. If you visit these places, be sure to say “Hi” for me. Let me know what you think — or suggest bites I should experience in 2018 — at nibbles@boulderweekly.com.

• I loved the combo plate at Kalita Grill Greek Cafe in Boulder, especially the shawarma with tzatziki and a side of memorable falafel balls with hummus.

• The top single bite of the year was smoked pulled chicken and mac-n-cheese on a house-fried potato chip with hot and tangy sauce at UTurn BBQ in Lafayette.

• I found familiar comfort in a messy, classic firecracker roll at Boulder’s Hapa Sushi with shrimp tempura, avocado and cucumber topped with spicy tuna and masago mayo. When I finished it, I wanted another. Still do.

• Quick, familiar Indian fare at a café is a regular treat, but it was a meal months ago at Broomfield’s comfortable, modern Azitra that still makes me smack my lips; first-class chicken tikka masala in a great creamy tomato sauce and cheese naan used to snag paneer chunks from the saag.

• Yes, Taco Tuesday is rampant in Boulder. However, I chose Smoked Prime Rib Thursday at the original Boulder Beer brewpub. I recall thinly sliced beef in genuine au jus piled on a bun with some punchy horseradish cream. That’s ale food.

• When I finally get my DNA tested I expect to find a percentage of Ethiopian. Tasting spicy lentil sambussa, yebeg alecha (lamb stew) and carrot salad at Ras Kassa’s Ethiopian Restaurant in Lafayette felt like coming home. Pass the injera.

• Some bites are worth the drive. That’s true of the mighty bison ribs at Tocabe Native American eateries in Denver and Greenwood Village. The oven-braised, grill-charred meat is great with berry barbecue sauce and nicely fluffy fry bread.

• I’m so glad my breakfast roll research took me back to Lucky’s Bake Shop in 2017. Besides the mind-blowing pecan sticky buns, the artisan baklava-like pistachio, honey and rose bun made me grin.

• Two artisan joys are married in the Gooey Cooie ice cream sandwich at Sweet Cooie’s Ice Cream, a retro scoop shop in Denver. Halved brioche doughnuts are filled with bright, lemon meringue pie and other super-creamy ice creams. They offer tastes on small metal teaspoons — the better to present the chill flavor.

• Sandwiches of another kind caught my attention at Button Rock Bakery in Lyons and Lafayette, as in giant chocolate-coated cookie sandwiches filled with real buttercream frosting. Also recommended: Zesty, sugared gingersnap cookies.

• Some pleasures are so simple you wonder why more places don’t serve them. A good example are the zeppoli at Mama Mead’s Pizzeria in Longmont. Small bites of leftover pizza dough are fried and served warm with powdered sugar.

Don’t miss: Bialy with cream cheese and smoked salmon, Moxie Bread Co., Louisville; Cinnamon rolls, Walnut Cafe, Boulder and Lafayette; Smoked brisket and cheesey corn, The Rib House, Longmont; Vegetable korma, Tiffins Indian Café, Boulder; Chicken mole enchiladas, Los Carboncitos, Denver; Loroco pupusas, Pupusas stand, corner of 95th Street and South Boulder Road, Louisville; Flu Shot Soup, Taste of Thailand, Denver; Cajun-style smoked gator, Brooks Smokehouse, Aurora; El Cubano sandwich with fried ripe plantains, Frijoles Colorado Cuban Café, Lakewood; Dim sum takeout (rice bundles, BBQ pork buns, custard tarts), Celestial Bakery, Denver; and peach breakfast rolls and plum peek-a-boos, Slice O’ Life,  Palisade.

Local food news

The 12 Point Distillery will open in 2018 near Ras Kassa’s on South Public Road in Lafayette. … The post-fire rebuilding process at the famous Rocky Flats Lounge south of Boulder is continuing. There is no ETA yet on Friday fish frys. Reelfish Fish & Chips in Lafayette is filling the regional void with nights featuring fried fresh walleye flown in from Red Lake, Minnesota. … If you are working in the food industry locally on New Year’s Eve, stop by Basta in Boulder for its annual restaurant worker brunch on New Year’s Day.

Global combo-comfort foods

A recent Nibbles column about an Eastern Colorado cafeteria lunch dish of red chili with cinnamon rolls prompted a reader to ask if it was related to “The Slopper,” the famous Pueblo-created combination of open face cheeseburgers submerged in pork green chile. There is a Nebraska bakery that serves chili in bread bowls made from cinnamon rolls. Both delicacies are reminiscent of the South Australia “floater,” a meat pie overturned in a bowl of steaming pea soup with a splash of tomato sauce on top.

Words to chew on

“Here’s why texting at the table bothers me: It takes attention away from the moment. To me, dining in a restaurant is a reprieve, a break from the day. Cell phones aren’t in your moment; they’re in someone else’s. You suddenly become the third wheel. It’s unconsciously meant to send the message that they’re busier, more important than their non-texting dining companions.” Restaurant critic Michael Bauer

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU, 88.5 FM, 1390 AM, streaming on kgnu.org). Podcasts: news.kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles