Johnny Curiel comes from a proud family of chefs – his mom, dad, and sister are all executive chefs. He joked with me, however, his parents didn’t initially encourage being a chef because they knew firsthand about the long hours and immense hard work it requires. Nonetheless, it was in his blood and he couldn’t turn away from it.

Thus, he started young in kitchens. At age 14 he began washing dishes in his dad’s kitchen in Mexico. At age 18 he traveled across Mexico to learn the time honored food traditions from each state of his home country. When he turned 21 he joined Richard Sandoval, where his cooking brought him to D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Guadalajara, Oaxaca, and Aspen. Next, he joined Troy Guard where he worked at Guard + Grace, Los Chingones, and Mr. Tuna. He did a quick consulting stint at Bar Taco (new neighbor to Centro) and then he joined the Big Red F team as the Executive Chef of Centro on November 1st, 2017.

Centro (950 Pearl Street) has been a downtown staple since 2007. It’s been a longtime favorite happy hour location of mine – that amazing indoor/outdoor patio, margaritas, fresh salsa, and chips do the trick. I even wrote about them in 2011

Johnny’s new salsas: Salsa on the left is Macha (hails from Veracruz) where it’s actually very creamy and is peanut and chiopotle based. 

However, it’s gone through an evolution of its food and since I’ve lived here (2008), this is the best refresh and upgrade I’ve tasted at Centro with Johnny’s creations.

When asked how much of the menu he changed, he said, “99 percent.” He notes he kept the avocado salsa and that’s about it. You can also see the menu has expanded with far more options which include more seafood than before. Just like Johnny – ambitious and pushing the envelope.

When asked about how much creative freedom he was given, he smiled and said although he was open to guidance and feedback, they wanted to see what he could bring to the table (no pun intended) and gave him the reins. He dug right in. Because of his connections in Mexico he is able to bring in fresh herbs and otherwise difficult-to-find ingredients in regular shipments to the restaurant. His focus was infusing very special regional cuisine from every state of Mexico across the menu, up-leveling the cuisine, while being creative yet approachable.

Johnny shared that he wanted to be sure to include interesting sides on the menu because he wants to encourage sharing and family-style eating; just how he grew up in Mexico. The sides are hardly a throw-away – like their esquites dish (below): sweet corn salad, with limo aoili, dehydrated mole negro and cotija cheese or their pan-seared carrots which look like a carrot castle when they come out with greek yogurt (one of Johnny’s favorite ingredients) candied walnuts, and fresh fennel.

There are six tacos on the dinner menu, all of which are under $5. For lunch, there are tortas and bowls – which are not on the dinner menu. The two meal services vary quite a bit in the food they offer, to cater to different styles.

Johnny and his team cook everything from scratch and often many of the dishes are lengthy to prepare (to be done right) like his mole negro which takes 1.5 days to make, or the achiote pork collar is smoked for 8 hours, and one of their vegetarian dishes, the banana leaf tamal, takes two hours just to thoroughly clean the large leaves.

Tumbada (arroz la tumbada, a traditional Mexican dish prepared with rice and seafood – also known as the Yucatan’s ‘hangover cure’): Pan seared octopus, gulf shrimp, bay scallops, roasted garlic, guajillo peppers, lime, over a red pepper sofrito rice.

When asked about his favorite dish on this diverse and sophisticated menu, Johnny doesn’t hesitate when he shares it’s the slow roasted lamb taco made with chile guajillo, pan-seared tortilla and tomatillo-chile de arbol salsa. It’s a simple taco and he suggest squeezing the lime over the taco for the right taste. When asked why it’s his favorite, he shared it reminds him of his childhood and it’s exactly how his mother made it for him after church every Sunday.

Bottom Left Taco: Pork belly carnitas, black bean refritos, salsa oaxaca, avocado. Top Right Taco: Slow Roasted Lamb (the Johnny fave).

Finally, I was surprised to learn he has no pastry chef and he also makes all the desserts everyday. He insists he keeps it simple but upon trying his tres leches cake (below) it’s anything but straightforward in the best way possible. Instead of traditional milk, he uses mezcal eggnog, goats milk caramel, strawberry chile di ablo preserves, and whip cream integrated with greek yogurt atop a sugar cookie. I suggest pairing with a glass of Mezcal while you’re at it.

I encourage you to try this completely overhauled menu under the new chef direction.

Finally, Centro has many weekly specials that can’t be missed. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Monday all night happy hour – 3 to 6 p.m. and dishes are $6 or less, beer cans for $3, $5 margs.
  • Sunday is family night and kids eat free (plus at night, they feature different live bands).
  • Tamale Tuesdays (they get taco tuesday is played out) so try seasonal tamales for $2.
  • They also serve brunch Saturday and Sunday with weekend specials.

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The Plant Collective – Digital Cookbook

by Grace Boyle on December 17, 2017

The Plant Collective is an e-cookbook featuring more than 50 plant-based recipes from 32 leaders in food + wellness compiled and created by a friend I grew up with, Emily Rose Shaw.

The e-cookbook donates 60% of all sales to Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project which helps build school gardens and teaches sustainable food practices to students.

The contributors range from Amanda Chantal Bacon of Moon Juice fame, Thea Baumann  of Goop, PLANTLAB and many more which makes for an eclectic and robust community. As Emily shared, “I have such respect for every single contributor in this book, who show up daily expressing their passion for the culinary and healing arts.”

When asked about the e-cookbook Emily shares that the book is about “community as it unites leaders in food and wellness who believe food is medicine, creatively demonstrating how delicious, pleasurable, and beautiful healthy foods really are.” The focus is on finding new, creative ways to use fruits and vegetables and healthier versions of holiday favorites.

The e-cookbook has sections in: small bites, small plates, mains, sweets and drinks rounding out options for everyone. This book appeals to the “vegetarian superfoodie”, but Emily believes that anyone could find a healthy recipe they would enjoy.

The photos in the recipe are vibrant and bright making for a beautiful digital resource.

Some of the recipes are unique and ones that may not be in your everyday cooking (I love a little reach) like the matcha cheesecake truffles or golden bechamel spaghetti squash with pine nut parmesan and some are simple and healthy like the lemon garlic beans or olive oil mashed potatoes.

This digital cookbook is available for $20 in an online format/PDF for easy consumption. Perfect for the holiday season, especially given the charitable effort of this beautiful cookbook. You can purchase the book here.

Happy holidays! Happy eating.

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Vacation: Ambergris Caye, Belize

by Grace Boyle on November 1, 2017

Earlier this year we went to Belize for some much needed R&R.

I hadn’t been to Belize before but was intrigued because there’s a direct flight from Denver (yes, Southwest!) and the flights are essentially as short as a flight to the East Coast for us. Price wise, it allowed us to really get away and to another country, but they were really reasonable. We went in July which is the beginning of their rainy season, but we had sunshine almost everyday and the rain at night cooled it off. Pro tip: Be sure you pack your mosquito spray, that will be needed.

Besides the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Belize has the second longest reef in the world. Although we aren’t divers, we love the ocean and snorkeling so it was a huge plus.

Belize is an English speaking nation, as well. They’ll take US dollars most anywhere, but their currency is the Belize dollar (about $0.50 US = 1 Belize Dollars is the current exchange rate).

We decided on Ambergris Caye (pronounced “key”) which is one of the islands off the coast of mainland Belize. There’s just one town there, San Pedro which does have a small airport.

Transportation: 

We flew into Belize City which has many flights on the mainland. Many tourists travel to the islands which are most commonly: Ambergris Caye or Caye Caulker. You can take a cab from the airport to the ferry and ferry to the islands or you can take a small plane from Belize City to the islands. We took the ferry because it’s a bit cheaper, but next time we’ll take the small plane.

On the island of San Pedro there really aren’t any cars. Most everyone drives golf carts and they’re available for rental by many different providers. If you stay at a hotel they’ll likely be able to arrange for rental.

Stay:

We stayed at Matachica, a small, remote, boutique resort and spa north of the hustle and bustle of San Pedro.

Matachica Casitas

Matachica Deck

There are just 32 thatched casitas and then there’s the main lodge, restaurant/bar, pool, and spa. Instead of opting for a generic hotel room, the bungalows were private, spacious, and very serene. Some casitas were oceanfront but even the ‘further away’ ones, were probably just 200-300 feet from the beach.

Our casita had a spacious bathroom with double sinks, a front room with a couch, luscious king size bed with hanging canopy mosquito net, and front porch with hammock. They’re all named after fruit, ours was Dragonfruit.

Casitas

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Photos Courtesy: Matachica Resort

We researched a lot of hotels and resorts on the island. We tend to stray from large and all inclusive and we wanted something more intimate and special. It’s also kid free. Matachica really exceeded our expectations and I couldn’t recommend it more.

It was luxurious, peaceful, oceanfront, and everything was very personalized. Even when we arrived by boat, they had our favorite drinks waiting for us.

Besides the beauty, the service was perhaps the most impressive. Everyone knows you by name, they’re so committed to ensuring your stay is seamless, and there’s a lot of thought and care into the resort. Speaking to and become friends with so much of the staff, they also share it’s one of the best places to work on the island. We hugged them all one by one as we left, they made our stay so wonderful.

We loved how there were no clocks, wireless, or even television in the casitas. We truly unplugged and in the connected world we live in, a week free of technology was blissful. Don’t worry, the main lodge has wireless if you so require it.

The restaurant and bar, Mambo, made it easy for us to eat there a good amount of the time (breakfast was included in the price). Since you’re north of the island by a few miles, you would have to traverse a bit to eat which we certainly did, but again our M.O. was to relax and not have to do much of anything which was perfect. I must add, in some ways the food felt a little overpriced for what it was and it felt Americanized to me but I understand they’re catering to their audience. Overall, it was good and if you stick to the more Belizean dishes and fresh seafood, you’ll be good.

I’ll also add – order the coconut mojitos – they’re dangerous, as you’re laying on the beach they keep bringing them to you with seemingly perfect timing just as your drink runs out. Even if you don’t stay at the resort, you can go there for dinner and/or drinks which I recommend just to see it. Often their own boats will pick you up from your said resort to bring you.

Belize Beach

 

We booked a couples massage one day and they also have many daily activities they can book for you. We went reef fishing, snorkeling and flats fly fishing (Belize is very well known for its fly fishing).

Belize Fishing

All the snapper we caught from reef fishing, was brought in right to the chef of the restaurant, and they cooked it for us. It was probably one of the best meals of the trip. Can’t beat the freshness.

fishing

fish caught

Snapper Four Ways

The Food + Drinks: 

Here were our favorite restaurants and bars on the island of Ambergris Caye.

El Fogon: This firewood style Belizean restaurant is in the town of San Pedro off a side street. It was one of our favorite meals of the trip. I ordered the coconut curry shrimp with coconut rice – they’re known for their stews like this that simmer all day in the hearth, so definitely order something akin. The whole snapper (below) had been grilled over an open fire and was incredibly fresh.

Whole Snapper at El Fogon Belize

Estel’s Dine by the Sea: They serve breakfast all day in this cute beachfront house in San Pedro. Order the fry jacks and ask for a drizzle of honey – Belizean deep fried dough. The menu is written on a chalkboard and combines traditional Belizean breakfast alongside your standard omelets and french toast. I recommend the large breakfast burrito or the huevos picture below next to the fry jacks.

Estel's

Rojo Beach Bar: This is near Matachica so it’s north of the island if you stay in San Pedro. We only had snacks here, but I loved the infinity pool, the dogs running around, the casual vibe, games, and ocean front bar. Great place to hang and have drinks and to get away from the bustle of San Pedro. Here’s a view of my giant rum punch off the side of the pool.

View from Rojo

The Dive Bar: We only went here for late night eats but I think it’s a great ambiance for live music and to enjoy the open air bar.

The Dive Bar

Truck Stop: This felt pretty touristy to me, but it’s still a cool ambiance. They’re a shipping container food park and beer garden. There are different stations for food, dessert, and there’s a bar. We stopped by after dinner on our way home from San Pedro and enjoyed a movie out back over the water as they often host movie night. I love how the addresses are often as descriptive as: “1 mile north” in San Pedro (as in, The Truck Stop). They’re only open Wednesday through Sunday until 9 p.m.

Truck Stop

Sun DeckAbout a five minute walk north from Matachica, is a tiny hole in the wall beach shack. This will be the least touristy place you visit in Ambergris Caye. There are just a few plastic table and chairs inside, and picnic table seating on the deck. Don’t be daunted by it’s outward appearance. It’s a few steps from the water and it was some of the best jerk lobster we had the whole trip alongside some plantains and rice. The owners is so kind and I’m so glad we stopped in. If you want an adventure and try something off the beaten path, make a stop.

Belize Sun Deck

Bonus:

  • We love the hot sauce that’s made in Belize – Marie Sharp’s. It will be everywhere you eat but we brought so much back with it. I personally love the Original Hot – it’s a carrot based blend and the perfect amount of spice and tinge of sweetness.
  • Belikin Beer: We enjoyed the light, easy to drink Belizean beer, Belikin. Be sure to try it.

We would definitely go back to Belize. There was a lot of warmth in the people and there’s so much to do and see, not to mention their rich history and culture.

And no, none of this was sponsored. These are just genuine recommendations from places we really adored.

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BarHelix Cocktail Lounge Opens in RiNo

by Grace Boyle on October 27, 2017

Kendra Anderson, also known as “Swirl Girl“, is the epitome of class and hospitality. As our paths have crossed in the Denver food scene for years, I’ve always respected her sommelier chops, advocacy for drinking pink (rose!) and love her elaborate stories of the dinner parties she hosts. Although it’s her first time as restauranteur, she’s no novice. Kendra has gone to culinary school and subsequently worked in catering, events, and wine for more than a decade.

Kendra Anderson

Photo Credit: BarHelix

I was delighted to learn of her five years in the making dream, with opening BarHelix, a swanky, evocative, yet classy bar in RiNo. Described as part bar, part lounge, and part restaurant they opened at 3440 Larimer Street on October 3rd. The namesake is after the shape of a corkscrew.

INTERIOR

The space and design elements are influenced by 70s glamour. Each detail Kendra has personally touched and designed.

The backsplash behind the bar showcases ebony, grey, and silver tiles that glisten in the light. Kendra said she wanted that piece to be reminiscent of a disco ball. The bar top is white quartz and the bottom part of the bar is flanked by glowing bubbles (hello, champagne). This front bar area has unfinished cement floors, with red walls, and hanging circular chandeliers orbs.

Bar Helix Bubbly Bar

In the front room there’s bar seating, a long community table, and a few low tables for small groups. For warmer summer months, there’s also an outside patio with accordion glass doors separating the indoor/outdoor space.

The back space, brings you past a small bar with a few stools that peer into the open kitchen to watch the chefs at work. In back you’ll find yourself in a more intimate lounge that has lower lighting (and subsequently no windows).

Bar Helix Back Space

You’ll find the ‘negroni wall’, an homage to Kendra’s favorite drink. The drink photos are all taken by Kendra over the years, showcasing her favorite negronis from around the country.

Negroni Wall

There’s a private booth with plush gold and black pillows that can host groups, high-top tables, and lower coffee table seating with hues of pink, black, and gold to complete the intimate spacing in the back room.

Back Bar Bar Helix
Back Bar

LIBATIONS

The bar is focused on cocktails that are seasonally inspired, made with wine-based spirits, beer, cider, and sake, and of course, approachable by-the-glass wines.

Fresh to Death Cocktail

Speaking of negronis, there are four negroni cocktails such as the Exotic which is espolon blanco tequila, campari, and doulin rouge or the A Pain in the Ass which is CVC vodka, sake, and ginger-lime simple syrup. My personal favorite was A Bad Bitch of rittenhouse rye, aperol, and blackbery simple syrup. I can’t help but love that despite the swank, the first beer listed is Miller High Life, yes, the champagne of beers and in quotes on the menu it says: ’nuff said. 

COLLATION*

The food surprised me the most (in the best possible way). I knew the drinks and space would be nailed, but the food takes it to another level. The kitchen is helmed by Chef John Hadala, most recently of Il Posto. And just like the creative, often edgy drink names, the food goes there, as well.

Kendra

Kendra holding their Fancy Crudité Tray

First, I love when the menu items are things I can’t get at many other places, if at all.  To give you an idea: Crispy Creamy Balls which are porcini mushrooms arancini, Dirty Popcorn for snacking on made with huitlacoche-jalapeño butter, the Naughty Waffles made with splendid tater tots with pickle-brined buttermilk fried chicken and sriracha-wildflower honey aioli, and the Hot Sex on a Platter which is a house-made blueberry pop-tart topped with foi gras are just some of the small plates to grace their menu.

Rangoons

Rangoons – jumbo lump crab, savory cream cheese, charred scallion, sriracha sweet + sour

Finally, the Bump + Bubbles is probably what you need to try if you’re a first timer to really commemorate the occasion. Instead of going with the Ballerific Caviar Service for $80 (which you can and should because they also come with Pringles) you can ease into your evening with the Siberian reserve caviar ‘bump’ on your hand, alongside champagne.

bar helix Bump & Bubbles

Photo Credit: BarHelix

They aren’t messing around.

I love how BarHelix is edgy, classy, and sultry all at the same time. The drinks are well thought out, the food is experimental and creative, and the space is warm enough to cozy up with your girlfriends, but just perfect enough for a sexy date night.

The space seats 75 guests. They’re open 4 p.m. to midnight, Tuesday through Saturday.

Find Them:

3440 Larimer Street Denver, CO | insidethehelix.com

*noun: a light, informal meal (preferably consisting of sensual bites).
All photos by Grace(full) Plate unless otherwise noted.

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Zolo Grill Celebrates 23 Years

by Grace Boyle on August 21, 2017

In March, Zolo Grill, from the infamous Dave Query (Big Red F) turned 23. Amazingly enough, they’ve remained in the same building since opening in 1994! This is legitimate because in the transient town of Boulder and the oscillating restaurant industry, it’s difficult to not only be successful but to stick around and stick through it.

Chef Justin Goerich has been part of the Big Red F for the last 10 years and with Zolo for the last five. He just released a new menu where they’ve put more of an emphasis on Colorado’s local bounty while sticking to some favorite standbys. He also notes they’ve adding more ‘heat’ to the menu in terms of spice and kick that they haven’t had before.

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Chef Justin Goerich (who was also on Chopped)

He assured me, dishes such as their banana cream pie and empanadas that have been on since the beginning haven’t been removed. He laughs knowing their regulars may have his head if he were to remove the favorites. Otherwise, they did a large overhaul that they haven’t done in a long while (note: seasonally they slightly adjust the menu four times a year).

“Southwestern is the original Colorado cuisine,” says Goerich, “our goal is to keep those traditions vibrant and alive. We want to stay true to our region’s roots, while at the same time showcasing the depth of flavor and versatility of this incredible food culture.”

I respect that they make everything in house from their smoked chorizo, to pickles, to salsas, fry-breads, and desserts.

grilled panela, chicory salad, preserved tomatoes, pickled egg, smoked serrano aioli, pepita crackers

A play on queso – they chose a panela cheese, grilled it then added a chicory salad, preserved tomatoes, pickled egg, smoked serrano aioli, and house made pepita crackers.

pan roasted duck breast

Pan roasted duck breast with jalapeño fritters, garlic asparagus, and red chile-honey jus.

grilled pork blade steak

Grilled pork blade steak with ancho-molasses lacquer, fried hominy pork cheek and pickled sweet corn hash, fresno chile-cherry jam.

Churros

Cancela dusted churros with cinnamon-sugar fritters and strawberry-chile purre.

banana cream pie

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The infamous banana cream pie – everything is made in house. It takes almost three days to make. This is probably something you’ll want to split but also not forget to order.

Zolo is open for brunch Saturday & Sunday 10:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.; lunch daily 11:00 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.; happy hour daily 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.; and Dinner daily at 4:00 p.m.

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Justin’s Cucci’s Fifth “Opus”: El Five

by Grace Boyle on June 28, 2017

I’m a fan of whatever Justin Cucci does. He always pushes the envelope with his concepts, design, and food and El Five is no exception.

In what he’s calling his “opus” and fifth restaurant in his impressive restaurant group, Edible Beats, El Five opened to the public on May 3rd in their LoHi location (above Sushi Ronin). Just north of their sister restaurant, Linger, El Five resides on the fifth floor overlooking the Denver city skyline to the East and around back, also boasting mountain views to the West.

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The restaurant is inspired by Mediterranean inspired tapas from Spain to Greece, and even focusing more on Israel, Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon curating “tapas de Gibraltar”.

El Five Denver Interior

Only available by elevator, you enter the space to an open kitchen in the middle filled with retro Egyptian cinema posters from the 40’s lining the wall, antique Moroccan lamps hang from the ceiling, kaleidoscope mosaic mirrors line the wall, and vibrant bright Turkish carpets fill the floor from fuchsia to mustard yellow.

El Five Retro Egyptian Posteres

The space has a complete 360 degree view with the city skyline deck to the East and on the back side, a lounge area with couches, small wooden tables, and mountain views. It’s likely the best views in the city based on having both sides of our beautiful Colorado landscape.

West Side El Five

When you do go, because if you haven’t, you must here’s what you should try: matzah ball soup dumpling, the crispy cauliflower yufka, charred baba ghanoush with eggplant, lemon goat yogurt, pomegranate molasses, and smoked almonds, and their amazingly unique ash roasted carrots.

It’s fabulous. Grab a seat out on the patio facing the city, enjoy a fresh cocktail, and dig into the unique food and scene. You won’t be disappointed.

Find them: 2930 Umatilla Street, Suite 500 | elfivedenver.com

 

 

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