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A Quick Trip to Denver 

Inexpensive, tasty meals off the beaten restaurant path

I'm ashamed to say that although I've lived in Colorado these past eight years, I've only visited Denver a handful of times. And I'm doubly ashamed to say I've never partaken of the excellent restaurant scene that exists in Denver.

What was I thinking? What kind of extended brain malfunction was I having? At any rate, now that I've bucked the trend, I hope to spend many (and more frequent) weekends in Denver, soaking up the big city ambiance and sniffing out good places to eat.

My past visits to hotel restaurants have usually resulted in pretty mediocre fare. I always had the impression that those restaurants wouldn't stand on their own, and were for the most part supported by the hotel. I was surprised to find a different story at the Adam's Mark in Denver.

With at least two restaurants and two bars to choose from, it appears that any of them would be successful even without the hotel. We ate in the Trattoria, which was so packed for Easter brunch that we could hardly move through the lobby to check into the hotel. We avoided the brunch crowd and came back for dinner, when the lobby and the restaurant were both quieter.

With only one meal we obviously couldn't sample the menu extensively, but we were quite pleased with what we ordered. Despite not having a children's menu, they were able to accommodate us with a nice grilled cheese sandwich and French fries for the three-year-old. As for the adults, we liked the Cobb Salad and the Blackened Prime Rib Sandwich ($8.25), a nice, beefy, tender piece of prime rib, nicely trimmed of fat, which came on a yummy, chewy roll with a side of creamy roasted red pepper aioli for dipping.

If you happen to be running around Denver without the time to stop for a proper sit-down meal, or if you're looking for something on the thrifty side, then check out the Avondale Supermarket, in the Avondale Plaza on Colfax. The entrance to the grocery store isn't very clearly marked, so be careful that you don't wander into the department store-cum-flea market next door.

Besides offering over a dozen different brands of chicharrones (fried pork rinds), this little market features an impressive fresh produce section adjacent to a huge selection of dried herbs, the likes of which you won't find at any market in the Springs. But forget about all that and head left past the cash registers, and go all the way back to the deli counter. Just follow your nose and the smell of something incredibly delicious in the air.

Don't be put off by things you can't identify or can't pronounce in the deli case. The important things will be immediately identifiable, like the two kinds of freshly made salsa and the guacamole -- smooth, fresh and tart. You can order a kick-butt burrito at the deli, for only $1.50 each. It's a steal, believe me -- a smooth blend of earthy beans, ground meat and shredded beef, all rolled up in a fresh flour tortilla. Don't let the first couple of bites fool you, though. The burrito is intensely flavorful from the first bite, but you won't start to feel the heat building on the back of your tongue until the fourth or fifth bite. That's when to start dunking the end of your burrito into that cool guacamole. We bought burritos, chips, guacamole, drinks and a big bag of homemade gingerbread pigs for about $10, and we were very, very happy.

There are lots of bargains to be found when dining in Denver, and we found our next gem in Caf Euphrates, a small Middle Eastern restaurant on 17th Ave. I'll admit that at first glance, this place is a little, well, eclectic looking. The dcor features a mix of square and odd little round tables with lots of mismatched chairs. Along the wall of the restaurant are five truly enormous booths, most of which have seen better days. In fact, the furnishings in general look a trifle on the run-down side. But the food at Caf Euphrates is to die for, and the family that runs the place is warm, friendly and welcoming.

A nice sampler is the Euphrates Plate. Hummus and falafel are served alongside beef and chicken shish kebab. The hummus formed a silky smooth pool at one end of the plate, with a nice balance of fresh lemon and garlic spiking the smooth chickpeas, and a small drizzle of mild olive oil over the top. The falafel, served with a cup of tart and tangy yogurt and cucumber sauce, was crunchy on the outside, not greasy at all, making me long for a pita bread stuffed with falafels and sauce. The interior of the falafel was hearty but fluffy, earthy and aromatic, without a trace of greasiness.

The shish kebab is not served on a stick, but rather is composed of strips of juicy, herb-marinated chicken, chunks of beef and grilled peppers, onions and mushrooms, served over a bed of rice. The chunks of beef were huge, meltingly tender and bursting with juice and flavor. I've paid a lot more for steaks that didn't have this much flavor, and I kept raving to my husband about how good this was, mopping up the juice and the hummus with warm, fresh pieces of pita bread.

A variety of plates grace the menu at the Caf, such as the Falafel, Hummus and Gyros plates. The gyros aren't served wrapped in a pita -- the meat is sliced and served over rice. It's nice when you've got the time to sit down and enjoy your meal, plus you don't have to worry about it dripping down the front of your shirt. The gyro meat, too, we found to be tender and juicy, but I'm completely biased in favor of my shish kebab, which I think was the better choice.

If the server tells you they have homemade baklava, indulge -- you won't be sorry. This baklava was loaded with cinnamon in all those flaky, chewy layers of phyllo, and it wasn't cloyingly sweet as some baklava can be. It was a nice ending to the meal, and didn't leave us feeling weighted down. And speaking of not being weighted down: this feast cost us less than $20!

The moral of this little story is: When you grow tired of the dining scene in the Springs, try a weekend in Denver to freshen your outlook. You don't have to break the bank to get a relatively convenient sampling of some excellent food.

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