Carmen, A Tapas Grill & Bar
609 W. Midland Ave., Woodland Park, 686-6492
We struggled at Carmen when we first reviewed it in 2013, appreciating a heartfelt nod toward finer dining in Woodland Park (which offered a couple highlights) but lamenting missteps that kept it from excelling. Not much has changed, as we experience a mixed meal amidst a bar decor that's best described as a garage sale of signage, everything without being anything. Pints ($5) from Woody P's Bierwerks (a blonde) and Ute Pass (English IPA) breweries fall short, especially the latter, with zero aroma and scant hop. Two scallops ($10) under fried quail eggs in a piquant, black-peppery caper sauce fare well, if a dollar or two high. Ricotta gnocchi ($12) with a creamy Carbonara's bacon and pea profile pleases more at the price, popping with ample shaved Parmesan, but suffering from Texas Toast-sized (burnt) garlic bread. An $18 walleye special bears nice crunch from clever quinoa crusting, but bland flavor, tasting only like the tartar sauce in which we dip it. — MS
Ai Sushi & Grill
4655 Centennial Blvd., 266-5858, aisushi.co
This Garden of the Gods sushi spot took home bronze in last week's Best Of, and it's been a while since we'd been by — so we checked in. Tempted by the colorful house rolls, we enjoy a Centennial Roll ($12.95) that wraps light-but-crunchy tempura soft shell crab legs, topped with slices of freshwater eel and hamachi, plus a savory, oddly orange unagi sauce.
We also order a sushi lunch ($14.95), which includes miso soup and salad, six pieces of nigiri (chef's choice) and either a California or spicy tuna roll. When there's raw fish on the plate, anything that doesn't make a diner go "wow, that's so fresh" should raise eyebrows — and while the nigiri's serviceable, it's not the freshest I've had. But the spicy tuna roll has a noticeable kick to it, which pleases, and the creamy ginger mayo dressing on the salad provides an enjoyable sweet-savory twist. Plus, the menu hosts a wide selection of other traditional Japanese eats, plus teppan tables. — GS
Rocky Mountain BBQ
Mobile business, rmbbq.net, 210-0084
Now celebrating their third year in business, Austin, Texas, transplants Chad and Katie Davis' barbecue operation merits attention. They post their week online in advance, which makes finding their food easy.
We try a pulled pork sandwich ($8.49), tender but lacking in smokiness on a substantial bun. We order it with a sweet barbecue sauce, which bears commendable savoriness and spicing. A chopped brisket sandwich ($8.99) comes mixed with a sauce blend of that sweet and a spicy peach habanero, again pleasant. But with the brisket tacos (two for $8.49), topped with pico de gallo and bell pepper in corn tortillas, we sample RMBBQ's extra-hot peach habanero, made with pepper seeds in and a little Carolina reaper. The burn builds and lingers, but not viciously so — think clear sinuses, a few Scoville units shy of hiccups. Whatever your heat preference, there's no wrong choice — good meats and damn good sauces pervade. — GS