Dispatch from Denver: Binghamton Son Shuns Spiedies

Remember that old slogan with a name like Smuckers, it has to be good? Well, if you're from in or around Binghamton, you might think: with a name like Lupo, it has to be spiedies. Spiedies are a Binghamton staple, and Lupos is a big name in the marinated meat arts in these parts.

So when my colleague, whose surname happens to be Lupo, encouraged me to try her son's restaurant out during an upcoming trip to Denver, I wasn't sure if I should just expect a marinated chicken breast sub, or what.

Her son, Jesse Lupo, is sous chef at FNG Restaurant, a new hot spot in Denver right next door to a Detroit-style pizza shop, and utterly devoid of the crunchy granola stoner aesthetic the Mile High City sometimes serves up. I was visiting my friend Big Hungry Jill in Denver, and she had never dined at FNG, so we added it to our schedule.

FNG is exceedingly cool inside, but not so trendy that it comes off as pretentious or intimidating. They're playing rock music, and the clientele is a mix of olds and youngs. I'm pretty sure I've officially crossed over to the old side of that equation, so the fact that our server didn't show any outward signs of disgust at our hideous countenances helped put us in a partying mood.

We ordered the mac and cheese with green chile as an appetizer, because that's completely sensible, and told our waiter that we craved a word with his sous chef. The cavatappi pasta was al dente, the cheeses were rich and well-blended between sharp and round to add tons of flavor, and the green chile was savory rather than off-the-charts spicy. The kicker was the topping of toasted, crushed goldfish crackers, which added texture but also a secondary cheese flavor that was surprisingly complex. I would have guessed it would just be gimmicky, but the crackers actually added to the satisfaction of the dish.

Jesse came out to greet us, and was delightful, of course. FNG has an open kitchen, and we were there on a Saturday night, so the joint was jumping. The fact that Jesse took the time to come out and say hi, and then returned to bring us a charcuterie and cheese taster on which nearly every single item was house-made, was kind of amazing. The Colorado fruit mostarda might have been my favorite item on the board. It was a mix of pureed fruit and mustard seeds that made that whole sweet/tang thing really come to life. We also loved the house made salami, which was garlicky and silken in texture. I highly recommend this starter if you visit.

Lamb dip is not a sandwich I've ever seen on a menu before. It is now a dish I wish would appear on many more. You like a French dip, correct? Of course you do, because you're wise. Who doesn't like a chewy roll topped with tender roast beef just begging to be dipped in a well-seasoned beef jus? Now swap out the beef for lamb, a protein that almost always outpaces beef for meaty flavor (it does in this case). Grilled onions and red pepper pesto added sweetness to what can sometimes be a salt bomb, and the jus in this instance was robust and delectable - very rich.

Jill went for the gusto with the chicken fried steak. That thing was stellar: crowned with fiery/savory green chile sauce and served atop a mountain of mashed potatoes. The crunch on the steak was perfect and somehow uncompromised by the sauce, and a few crisp-tender green beans were draped over the pile to make you feel less guilty about the carb and fat overload. Every element of this plate was given the individual attention needed to make the whole thing come together deliciously. No one item stood out, but everything balanced and worked together. That's the mark of a kitchen in harmony.

Jill and I began to joke at this point about how our slogan should be "I'm so full," but we ordered dessert anyway, because it seemed like the right thing to do. Maybe it was the numerous Bang Your Head cocktails we had consumed by that point guiding us? Passion fruit foam is a compelling temptress. Or maybe I earned the name Big Hungry for a reason. In any event, the desserts at FNG are just a legit as the rest of the eats.

The banana cream pie was Jill's favorite - it was a thick banana custard with just a few thick slices of fresh banana, but a decadently buttery graham cracker crust. I preferred the Oreo pudding. Sounds boring, right? Wrong. It isn't easy to made a chocolate pudding this dense, smooth, and rich with dark chocolate. Sprinkling it with crushed Oreo cookies is pretty simple, but the whole here was worth more than the sum of its parts. Trust.

I liked more than just the food and individual attention we received at FNG. The vibe there is really cool - we were seated at a big, communal table right near the open kitchen, and made quick friends out of the folks next to us, who were eating the gorgeous slabs of focaccia with cheese and loaded tater tots. The environment is loud, but not so much so that you can't talk across the table without shouting. And that open kitchen lends an energy to the dining space that's kind of infectious. You see those guys hustling on the line, and smiling while they're cranking, and you just want to have a good time.

Our Lupo is making really good food out west, and there's nary a marinated chicken sub in sight. If you head to Denver, you should pay him a visit, and tell him his mom misses him.

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