Four Days in Denver

We recently escaped the summer heat to spend a few days near Denver. I wanted to go mountain biking, and we all wanted to stroll around as a family without getting flayed and fried under the sun. We also didn’t want to drive a lot, and we wanted to visit some friends living in the southwestern part of Denver.

By the time we weighed our options, we wound up with three nights in Golden, with the last night in Denver. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind if you travel to the Denver area.

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Cool Hotels – Not Easy to Find Near Golden

Maybe it was because we picked the weekend of the Buffalo Bill Days Festival (which is a far bigger deal than we possibly imagined), but we just couldn’t find a place to stay right in the middle of Golden. This put us a few miles away, so we had to drive to the city center. That’s a huge bummer because it’s always better to walk – and parking in downtown Golden isn’t exactly easy.

Even early planning won’t help you avoid getting relegated to an anonymous chain hotel in the middle of a strip mall complex. You’ll find some B&B places if you book early – but I know not everyone loves B&Bs.

Denver Golden Railroad Museum
In front of a live steam engine that gives rides around the park. Unfortunately, there were no fist fights taking place on top of the cars while the train was in motion.

Railroad Museum is a Hit

Our 2-year-old had been consuming a steady diet of the train-themed cartoon Chuggington on Netflix. That made a stop at the Colorado Railroad Museum a must. And it was a pretty solid hit. She loved taking a ride on a narrow-gauge train pulled by a steam engine, and she couldn’t get enough of watching the model railroad.

And she was clearly paying attention: We showed her a lump of coal for the steam engine – and a month later while camping, she held up a black rock she found and asked if it was for the train. Clearly, the place made an impression. And you’ll like it even if you don’t have a kid. My favorite part was watching locomotives get restored in the roundhouse: There’s clearly some knowledge and skill at work at the Colorado Railroad Museum.

Beer Falls a Bit Short

Colorado is known for its microbrew culture. Think of all the awesome breweries like Oskar Blues, Avery and Great Divide that call Colorado home. I had high expectations and they didn’t exactly get fulfilled in Golden. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed an insatiable thirst for the juicy New England-style IPA, and that still-emerging style wasn’t prevalent.

I just didn’t get a hold of many brews that blew me away; the exceptions were a gluten-free IPA that tasted way better (at the Holidaily Brewing Company) than you might expect, and a barrel-aged Belgian (at Barrel & Bottles). You can check my untappd activity to see if there’s anything around Golden or Downtown Denver that will appeal to you. On the other hand, I did find a lot of enthusiastic and friendly brewery employees.

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The Little Owl serves first-rate espresso drinks in downtown Denver.

And Where’s the Good Coffee?

Small towns like Golden often have great coffeehouses. And Golden does have nice coffeehouses that are welcoming and comfortable. But they don’t seem to have figured out how to make a decent cortado or cappuccino. Maybe it’s because the typical customer is coming in ordering quad-soy-extra-foam-eighteen-pumps-of-flavoring lattes. Whatever is going on, we had to go to Boulder to find a decent cappuccino at the Laughing Goat. And there was a perfectly terrific coffeehouse in Denver called The Little Owl.

golden bike shop mountain bike denver
Plus-sized wheels can just bite me.

Great Mountain Bike Culture

You will literally stumble over great bike shops in Golden that are eager to rent you a bike. For the most part, the rental fleets seem to skew a bit enduro rather than cross country. That, and my own procrastination, are how I would up with a Surly Karate Monkey sporting 27.5+ wheels from Golden Bike Shop. I suppose this bike would be great in snow, or on a fairly flat trail. But if you’re going to climb like 1,600 feet in five miles, you’ll hate this bike. Which I did. The only thing this bike did well was descend in a straight line.


The trails I rode were pretty decent; there’s a gradual climb out of town, and then a pretty steep grind to the top of a Mesa. From there, the trails circle the mesa with some options to cut across the center. If I’d been on my Santa Cruz Superlight, I would’ve had a way better time.

Do yourself a favor: Reserve your rental early.

If I visited this area again, I’d probably lean toward Boulder. It’s a much more busy, crowded area. But it might be worth it for better trails and a good chunk more options for those who also ride road bikes.

Back to the Dinosaur Days

I enjoyed a reunion with a great friend and former band mate – we decided to split the difference in locations and meet at Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison. So we had two adults, a toddler and a drummer to entertain – not an easy order to fill, considering a drummer’s lack of intellect and attention span!

We opted for the bus tour instead of walking the whole thing. We don’t mind walking, but we weren’t 100 percent sure what the route was like. This wound up being a good thing because the driver/docent/tour guide had a lot of great info. He even presented it in small words for the percussionist among us.

I won’t spoil any surprise – let’s just say that there’s a lot of enlightening info presented in a very entertaining way. You’ll come face-to-footprint with the past, and the whole experience is one of the better deals you’ll find. Eight bucks for the whole thing. Super cheap! (As Alfred E. Neuman might say.)

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It took awhile before she was ready to leave the pretend vet clinic.

A Little Museum Action

Our last official stop in Denver was the Children’s Museum of Denver. It is entirely possible that the little person would’ve stayed there until she fell dead asleep at an exhibit. The pretend vet clinic and fire truck were enough to be a hit, but there was also a cool bubble-blowing room that would keep people of any age occupied for a good long while.

(Side story: The fire truck area had a photo montage of A Day on the Life of a Firefighter. I recognized something missing, and asked my wife if she noticed what major firefighting activity was missing. She nailed it at a glance: They’re not hitting on women.

There was also a camping exhibit that had people of all ages pretty happy. In short, visitors to Denver won’t go wrong if they kill some time here with their little people.

What About Food in Denver?

2017-09-11_10-04-27Well, we can’t honestly say that any of the food in or around Golden blew us away. There was a nice, friendly sushi place called Maki that got everything right … but it was pretty much what you’d expect from a good sushi restaurant. Back in Golden, though, we found some great places. We literally walked by Ali Baba Grill in Denver, and were amazed at the quality of the gyro, babaganouj and hummus. They were also extremely friendly, which always helps. If I lived in Denver, I’d be a frequent visitor. Our last meal in Denver was at Maci Cafe – I could also eat here regularly, plowing through the panini selection. They also have a terrific nitro cold brew on tap, along with awesome coconut macaroons for dessert.

48 Hours in Atlanta – Business Travel Edition

I recently had a chance to spend 48 hours in Atlanta. Since it was strictly for business, I didn’t have much time for recreation. Any fun I had would come in the form of a tasty beverage following a meal following a session in the hotel gym.

This was my first time in Atlanta; a co-worker described it as a generic southern metropolis. I was extremely pleased to find out that this is not actually the case. With very little time or effort, I found local flavors all within walking distance of my hotel (it’s fair to admit that my walking distance might not be yours – on a recent trip to New Zealand, I averaged more than eight miles of walking every day).

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Mexico and Korea collide in all the right ways at Takorea.

If you ever travel for business and wind up in Atlanta, especially in the Midtown area, here are a few places you should visit in Atlanta in the hours before or after your work activities.

Takorea

I am generally the last person to hop on the fusion of cuisine. It took me years before I gave a Vietnamese-meets-Mexican place near me, and I felt foolish once I discovered how much I liked the food – even if it wasn’t exactly authentic.

With that experience in mind, I made a snap judgment on this Korean-meets-Mexican place. Good move. The Uber Bop bowl at Takorea was loaded with banchan, pork, an egg and just the right amount of spice. Finishing it was a challenge, but I gladly accepted. You might also do well with the bulgogi quesadilla.

I also found a fairly impressive list of local beers, both on draft and in cans/bottle; the server recommended the Blind Pirate Blood Orange IPA, which went nicely with the heat from the Uber Bop. The service is also very friendly, but in a genuine way rather than "the corporate suits will fire me if I’m not sugary polite" manner. In short, I’d take Takorea home with me in a second.

48 hours in Atlanta
I always look for a real cappuccino when I travel. And no, Starbucks doesn’t count.

The Dancing Goats Coffee Bar – Midtown

I love it when a barista gets excited about making a cappuccino. What that means is "everyone has been asking for sickeningly sweet drinks, and now I’ll get to show that I have some real barista skills without tons of sugar getting in the way."

That was the reaction I got both times at The Dancing Goats. Both times, the cappuccinos were of solid quality. They were definitely a quantum leap past a Starbucks cappuccino. I’d place them in the top 20 percent of caps I’ve had, but they wouldn’t get into the top 10 percent. That’s still a solid performance.

I wouldn’t recommend their donuts since they’re a bit on the dry side. Dancing Goats is roomy and has reliable wifi sans password. And yes, they have water for the taking and the staff is very personable and talkative (as long as it’s not the morning rush).

48 Hours in Atlanta
Brewery perfection: The Torched Hop


The Torched Hop Brewing Company

After arriving, checking in and getting dinner, following Google Maps to The Torched Hop was my first priority. This is nothing less than an absolutely perfect local brewery – from its open, airy space to its mix of brewed-onsite and guest selections, it’s the sort of place that would be my Number One choice if I lived in Atlanta.

You can check my Untappd profile for evaluations of everything I tried in my flight and beyond. I’d have to say, though, that the flagship Hops-de-Leon IPA was my favorite. The biggest surprise was the Holy Citramony; I’m typically not a lager fan, but this IPL was carbonated perfectly and actually packed with hops.

The service is largely DIY: I would go to the bar when I wanted something. There did appear to be table service and desserts, but I didn’t take advantage of either of them. Maybe next time.

Finding Fun in the Maryland Suburbs

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The Pop Shop – a great little place to visit in Frederick, Maryland.

During a recent post, I dropped a reference to visiting the Maryland suburbs. I’ve counted up all the time I’ve spent in that area for work and family visits -- the total stands right around seven months. That’s a good chunk, and I still find little to love about it. I can never find a decent espresso drink out there, and good breweries or restaurants are also way too scarce. It seems like everything is a Starbucks or a Chili’s. Good news, though – I actually found a few cool things in the Maryland suburbs this time. I’m going to focus on two new towns I hadn’t visited before -- and actually liked.

Ellicott City

I’ve spent very little time near Baltimore. Most of the in-laws seemed clustered around Rockville, until the sister-in-law and her husband got a place closer to Baltimore. About 10 minutes down the road from it, we found a cool little town called Ellicott City.

It has a river, a railroad and a bunch of nicely kept brick buildings. One of these fine buildings is home to the Ellicott Mills Brewing Company. Unfortunately, it specializes more in German-style beers, and they didn’t have an IPA or a stout. They still served a fine plate of fries and a nice late-night chocolatey dessert, along with some great advice about other local pubs and breweries that are worth a visit.

English: David J. Brantley Maryland Suburbs
A view of the main drag of Ellicott City. English: David J. Brantley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We visited the next day for breakfast, where we had some nice egg sandwiches at Bean Hollow. If you know the difference between a dry cappuccino and a wet cappuccino or know what a macchiato really is, Bean Hollow’s coffee won’t impress you. This is a frequent problem in Maryland. We took some time to wander the streets – Ellicott City is full of antique shops and other kitschy stores. It’s definitely a fun place to spend the better part of a day. Just beware all the paid parking.

Frederick

After a few days, Sarah and I just wanted to get OUT of the sterile, endless tract of laboratories and chain restaurants that define Rockville and Gaithersburg. So we took a 30-mile drive to Frederick. Before we arrived, the terrain actually started to roll and have a countryside flavor to it.

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The Community Bridge mural in Frederick. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We found a place to park, and started to wander the downtown Frederick district. It’s full of cafes and shops, much like Ellicott City. But it’s a lot bigger, and a bit less rustic. The North Market Pop Shop was one of my favorite finds – think of it as a microbrew store for high-end sodas; I drink a soda only every few months, usually because I find a place that offers something with real sweeteners instead of high-fructose corn syrup.

There’s also a cool knife shop called Edgeworks, which offered a better selection than anything in my home city of 4 million people. We also struck out coffee-wise in Frederick, though. Again on the plus side, I found a very fun record store (yes, real vinyl) called The Record Exchange. I picked up some coasters made from old Iron Maiden albums!

If you need to kill a day, Frederick is definitely a good place to do it. It’s a pleasant change from the typical Maryland suburbs.

One last thing: I have to imagine that some of the less-business focused areas in the Maryland suburbs have to be awesome on Halloween. That area just as a great Ichabod Crane colonial feel to it. I could see kids having a great time hitting the streets and scaring each other out there.

 

 

Strangers in My Underwear – My Case Against Valet Parking

For the most part, I keep rants out of my blog. I like to keep it fun. But man, the proliferation of valet parking in my city is really getting to me.

Valet parking has its place. Like in big cities with labyrinthian parking schemes, draconian parking laws and crappy weather. Here in Phoenix, most places have easily accessible parking. And we get 7 inches of rain a year.

For some reason, though, there are some restautants with fairly small lots that are blocking out the majority or all of their parking for valet parking. This saves their patrons from having to walk, from the farthest space, perhaps 100 feet. I’m going to name names here: The Vig, Tommy V’s/Tomaso’s and Havana Cafe are the worst offenders. Each has a lot the size of a postage stamp. The Vig is particularly offensive - its management forces customers to either turn their keys over to a valet attendant or park across the street for the privilege of dining there. It pains me to say anything bad about Tommy V’s because of its great food and excellent staff, so call this a case of tough love.

I’m going to explain the problem for these restaurateurs: Valet parking is, in essence, like handing my underwear to a stranger, having him wear said underwear while I dine, and then tipping someone for their safe return.

I really, really like my car. Everything about it is exactly the way I want it: the mirrors, the tilt of the seat, the radio station, the loose change, the breath mints. It is a mobile extension of my living room.

Strangers do not belong in my living room. And I am certainly not going to pay for having them there.

Let me add this all up in bite-sized pieces.

1. I can walk. Arizona is sunny and pleasant, and there is sufficient parking to be had.
2. I don’t want someone I don’t know driving my car.
3. If you try to force the issue, you’ve lost me as a customer.

So far, I’ve been to each of these establishments one time each in the five years in which I’ve lived less than two miles from them. Contrast that the uncountable number of times I’ve been to Pita Jungle, Fez and even Parlor. In fact, Parlor has only been open a few months, and I’ve been there more since its opening than the three valet parking offenders combined in five years. Without the valet parking, that would change*.  Can you really afford to lose that business for a “service” many people don’t even want?

*Of course, I still consider Parlor far-and-away the best pizza in the area, and far better than the over-hyped and pedestrian Pizzeria Bianco.

Four Places in Tahoe to Go Grubbin’

From tahoe

You can only cram in so much skiing, especially when the slopes are icy. There comes a time each day when you’ll have to troop indoors for a bite. Or sometimes before you board the lift.
I can’t say North Tahoe cuisine titillates the tongue. It’s a lot of Mexican food, steaks and pizza. But there are a few neat little places tucked around, if you know where to look. Let me save you some time driving up and down the winding roads. In no particular order --

FiftyFifty Brewpub – There’s a lot to like about this spot in Truckee. And I’m not just talking about the oak-aged barleywine, which is a rare treat you shouldn’t miss. But you can also get some great entrees. I went for a BLT served with seared ahi tuna. And get this – FiftyFifty offers a side of black beans! Far healthier and tastier than fries or chips, no? I’d like to go back and try a pizza. The service was also excellent.

Tahoe House – Our hostess at the Firelite Lodge pointed this one out to us. We never would’ve found it otherwise, since it’s just off the junction that splits Tahoe City traffic to either Truckee or Homewood. If you head toward Homewood, Tahoe House is just a few hundred feet away. They brew really strong coffee by the cup (no sitting around and getting sour here) and have awesome baked goods. My coffee paired nicely with a smoked ham and gruyere croissant. I also stocked up on some goodies for the plane ride home: a rum ball, a slice of chocolate cappuccino coffee cake and a slab of pecan fudge – each tasted even better than it sounds. I was tempted to also grab some homemade smoked trout, but I would’ve endeared myself to none of the passengers. Load up on the desserts because they’re the best you’ll find around. The décor is also very homey Swiss style.

Jason’s – This became our favorite spot in King’s Beach. You could eat healthy with some decent veggie angel hair, or go for a burger or porterhouse. Jason’s also has a decent salad bar, a friendly vibe and a very good staff. The desserts are pretty good (though not as awesome as Tahoe House), as are the spiked hot cocoa drinks. Parking can be tough – be sure to look around the back of the building for more spaces if the front is crammed.

Gear and Grind Cafe – This is an awesome spot in Tahoe City. They brew seriously strong coffee, and it doesn’t sit around getting stale. You order it, they grind it, they pour hot water over the filter. BOOM! Serious coffee. And they make a great ham & egg croissant, too. If you’re lucky, Sierra the Calm but Friendly Shop Dog will appear to hang out with you. She is most excellent company. They also open early and can set you up with supplies you might need before you hit the slopes or trails. Lots of good reading material on-hand if you’re solo that day. A very friendly staff, in both the cafe and sports portions.

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