Denveater - Deconstructing Colorado Cuisine, Dish by Dish

Comida Cantina at The Source: Ready to Rock Your Whole Face Off

You’ve long worshipped at the wheels of Tina, Rayme Rossello’s big pink taco truck; perhaps you’ve hit up the Longmont brick & mortar upon occasion, only to wish it was just a smidge closer to the downtown action. Amigos—insert wild guitar lick here—THAT DAY HAS COME. Denver’s own Comida Cantina—the first outlet to arrive at The Source, that ultra-cool one-stop shop of boutique purveyors you’ve been hearing about, which over the next month will see the launch of Peak Spirits’ CapRock Farm Bar and a liquor shop, The Proper Pour; cult brewer Crooked StaveAcorn, the new restaurant from the geniuses behind Oak at Fourteenth; a cheese retailer called Mondo Market; Babette’s Artisan Breads, whose killer loaves you’ve encountered at Cured; & much more, including a butcher counter, florist & produce vendor—opens TODAY.

A few weeks hence, the chefs will begin to throw some specials into the mix, but otherwise the menu & the bar program are exactly the same as those of the flagship. So you can count on the same attention to detail that has always distinguished every morsel & drop Rossello’s crew turns out—corporate hacks have shredded the integrity of the word artisanal, but remember when it meant something?—be it the use of Tender Belly bacon in the griddled tacos that also contain jalapeños & a cheese blend of cotija, smoked gouda & asadero;

the sourcing of fresh bolillo rolls from the aformentioned Babette’s for the tortas—in this case citrus-&-chile-marinated fish, served alongside veggie escabeche;

the fact that the refritos on the nachos—presented almost more like a casserole—are cooked in housemade chicken broth & a touch of lard;

or the perfection that is the flan, which shows not an ounce of the gelatinousness of lesser versions, just creamy caramel richness:

It all adds up to the truth about Mexican cookery, whose essence is complex & even subtle—not despite but precisely because spice is so key to its balancing act. Comida brings the color & the freshness as well as the fire every step of the way—as with the watermelon-jalapeño margarita that will kick you where it counts (behind it are the hot fried tortillas—not chips, whole rounds—with guacamole).

As with the housemade crema studded with more jalapeños & cucumber, along with all the other salsas offered here, including an eye-popping carrot habañero & sprightly pineapple pico de gallo.

And these tostadas stuffed with roasted chicken & poblanos.

And the savory, tequila-based, tomatillo-&-guava-laced Cabana.

Even these chocolate-chip cookies, alongside Mexican wedding cookies, are spiked with rum.

Gorditas, quesadillas, sides that show Rossello’s Southern roots—jalapeño grits. smoked gouda-sweet potato mash—& virgin beverages like housemade horchata & aguas frescas round out the menu, while the cocktail program is supplemented by beers, wines & sipping tequilas & mezcals.

This place is gonna earn every kudo it elicits.

Comida Cantina on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Michocoán Pico de Gallo at Adelitas Cocina y Cantina (& much more)

After the apparent disaster that was 3 Monkeys Cantina, amid the ongoing disaster (i.e. “construction”) zone that is the Platt Park stretch of S. Broadway, I didn’t have high hopes for its successor, Adelitas Cocina y Cantina. But a look-see last week raised the stakes considerably. Not only was the crowd fairly lively for a late Sunday afternoon, but both bar & kitchen comported themselves with enough integrity & flair to indicate this Michocoán-themed joint might actually have a fighting chance of survival. (Even the handsome scroll of a menu points to attention to detail—& that “mezcalrita” behind it was exquisitely balanced: smoky but not too, sweet but not too.)

Take the pico de gallo made with not vegetables but chile powder-spiked ”seasonal fruit” marinated in orange & lime juices & served alongside warm (yay!) chips. Served in a gigantic goblet, it was a simple affair, composed only of fresh pineapple & mango—but nonetheless impressive, a) because I sure as hell wouldn’t have the patience to dice what must be huge amounts of 2 of the world’s most annoying fruits to prepare & b) because the result was ultra-refreshing, all tart-sweetness highlighted by hints of salt & smoky spice.

I genuinely liked everything else I shoved in my hole, too. Guacamole rarely sucks, but that’s not always to the credit of the chef, some of whom are prone to adding way too much stuff that isn’t avocado—which should entirely dominate, as it does here.

Likewise, my vegetarian enchiladas were all about the intensity of fresh flavor—stuffed with savory, mushroom-studded sauteed spinach & smothered in an appealingly sour, citrusy salsa verde alongside refried beans & nice, fluffy rice. Behind it are pal A’s tamales,

which I didn’t try, nor did I try @Mantonat’s tacos de lengua, but he praised the properly cooked tongue, & his AOK is good enough for me. I did, however, sample the tomatillo salsa on the side, which had a more sweetish-tomatoey cast than I expected from its color—which called to my mind my beloved, Worcestershire-esque Costa Rican Salsa Lizano

as well as the Director’s enchiladas suizas con mole: though not the most brilliantly complex version of the sauce I’ve ever encountered (Tarasco’s is better for sure), it was certainly acceptable, with plenty of that dark ancho savor.

Based on 1 meal, I’d be willing to wager Adelitas could break whatever curse the brujas negras of Denver real estate have placed on this joint.

Adelitas Cocina y Cantina on Urbanspoon

Noshes for the New Year: Camarones agua chile at Torres Mexican Restaurant

I’ll add my digits to Mark Antonation‘s 2-thumbs-up in Cafe Society this week for the camarones agua chile we shared during a recent meal with Denver on a Spit & c. at Torres Mexican Restaurant. Though akin to ceviche, it was different in a few key aspects: the shrimp—not chopped but rather butterflied whole—were, like the sliced cucumber & onion, still basically raw in their marinade of not merely citrus but a red-pepper flake-dusted purée of lime juice & serranos. The electric effect was one of savory melted sorbet—a fascinating discovery I won’t soon forget. (And did I mention healthful? A worthy inclusion in the diet-friendly New Year’s series for sure.)

I’d never heard of vuelve a la vida either until I ordered it; essentially cóctel de mariscos stuffed with scallops, shrimp, squid, oysters, & avocado, it was notable for being much less ketchupy-sweet, more tomato-brothy, than the standard—& thus more refreshing.

Both the tostadas generously topped with diced shrimp, octopus, whitefish, tomatoes, chiles & onions

& the caldo de pescado con camaron (which came with rice & warm tortillas) were simple, honest, generous & fine;

of the chicken mole

& the enchiladas suizas, I took only a small bite of the creamy (but not drippy), well-spiced beans, but I’d take Mark’s word for it that neither dish was worth returning for.

The margaritas on the other hand, might be, at least when quantity takes a front seat to craft—& sometimes it sure does,

especially on a cold winter’s night among friends in a cozy joint filled with regulars who set a festive mood.

Granted, that was broken by my accidental dash-&-dine, as said friends fended off a rather menacing floor manager while waiting for me to answer their increasingly worried calls. It’s all fun & games until someone stiffs the house.

Torres Mexican Food inc. on Urbanspoon

Pinche Taqueria: All that & a bag of chips—mostly

After all the slavish mania surrounding the Pinche taco truck & its brick-&-mortar extension, I finally headed in the other day, salivating at the thought not of what so many have been calling the best meal in town—but rather of the way that I’d relentlessly expose what would surely prove to be an emperor in ludicrously opulent new clothes. After all, the Director—who knows his local taquerias y loncherias inside & out—can barely muster a shrug for the jammed little Colfax joint, despite its shoulda-been-dream location on the ground floor of his office building. A taco purist, he bristles at all the bells & whistles sounding over what he feels should speak straightforwardly for itself in the language of slow-cooked meats atop simply garnished palm-sized tortillas—never mind at the extra charge they entail (chump change indeed).

But here’s the thing: as I’ve opined ad nauseam, authenticity’s a bugaboo. On that score, I’ll only reiterate my belief that so long as you know by heart the rules of the cuisine in question and opt to break them in good faith, you’re golden. The fact that Guy Fieri apparently botched the living hell out of General Tso’s doesn’t mean the Chinese-American neo-classic can’t be a pleasure, however guilty. To put it another way: Olive Garden’s chicken Alfredo pizza, bad; lovingly crafted New York-style pies, though far from the Neapolitan original, good.

And damn it all (the Director’s opinion included), Pinche’s output is mostly very good. In fact, the only item I actively disliked over the course of 2 visits—once joined by Denver on a Spit (DOAS; his take on our meal here) & his missus, once by Mantonat & Amy—was the fish taco (top of picture): the battered pescado bland, cold, bordering on limp. Bummer—but hey, nothing wrong with the creamy slaw, pineapple guacamole & pickled onions surrounding it.

Meanwhile, the tacos de lengua (pictured bottom) ruled. Diced & cooked to a light crisp with a tender chew, the tongue lolls in its own umami richness; neither a dollop of tomatillo salsa nor a sprinkle of raw chopped onion nor an intense squiggle of chile-&-honey-spiked mayo can obscure it, only highlight it. I didn’t try the “green eggs & ham” (top right)—a brunchtime combo of pork belly & scrambled eggs doused in tomatillo green chile—but the pork-belly taco I have tasted,

the sweet-&-sour-tinged “agridulce” with cilantro slaw, a fat clove of candied garlic & a side of jus, is just swoony. That there’s the cotton candy of bacon.

Also a kick in the knickers is the brunch taco called “Pinche hash” (at 12 o’clock on the below-pictured plate). Undergirding those luscious scrambled eggs in green-chile hollandaise is a disk of shredded, browned potato & caramelized onion whose thinness belies its fluffy texture—not to mention its filling of literally mouthwatering, like gland-activating, carnitas. And finally, the chicken taco (at 10 o’clock) is a homey, earthy delight with spinach, salty-sharp cotija & chipotle & sour creams.

No, it’s not inherently, intuitively tacoesque; those toppings would be just as good slopped into a bowl over cilantro rice. But so what? If the big flavor picture’s honest & true—& it is—I don’t care how it’s framed.

That said, ya gotta heart the presentation of the queso fundido—light, hot, fresh chips spilling from the paper bag they’re scooped into.

As for the stuff itself—not a dip so much as a fork-twirl & pull—I vote for the tequila-spiked, tomato-brightened, strangely more flavorful & velvety vegetarian version; DOAS & I couldn’t help but notice, upon ordering the carnivore’s alternative, that the chorizo was lacking compared to that in our neighbor’s order. As a result, it seemed drier & duller. Then again, it was still bubbling, melted cheese, so olé etc..

And the much-ballyhooed churros con chocolate? The slightest hint of grease burn notwithstanding, the airy, buttery interior couldn’t be more winning—frothy, pleasantly bittersweet sauce not even required.

Just as a side note, the salsa trio doesn’t top the samplers at Los Carboncitos, Chili Verde or even Lola Coastal Mexican for zest. But they’re ultra fresh, which counts.

So I’ll be back, happily, with or without the Director.

Pinche Taqueria  on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: El Paraiso’s machaca con huevos

Sure, it’s a mess, not least for being to-go in this case, but that’s what’s so great about this breakfast dish from El Paraiso. Machaca generally refers to dried, shredded beef that’s cooked so it’s no longer dry but still pleasantly chewy. Combining with scrambled eggs—as is, according to Wikipedia, popular with Chihuahuan miners—it’s served with refried beans, Spanish rice & handmade tortillas; the last time I had this much fun mixing everything up all together was when I was 8 & I’d let the ice cream melt so I could mash up the birthday cake into it & make soup.

Right On! Hatch Green Chili Festival & Cookoff at Centro Latin Kitchen, 9/11

Tacos Jalisco Keeps It Verdadero

When I moved here 4 years ago almost to the day, one of the 1st things I did was log on to Chowhound in search of the city’s main Mexican squeezes. The thread I found was rife with what I now know to be among the usual suspects: El Taco de Mexico. Chubby’s. Santiago’s. Jack-n-Grill. Tacos y Salsas. Los Carboncitos. Patzcuaro’s. And Tacos Jalisco, which I finally crossed off the list this week—with a flourish.

The moment I set foot in the main dining room, in all its lively if well-worn warmth, I had a good feeling—starting with the fact that I hadn’t yet slid into the booth where pals M & A were already holding court when the kid manning the host stand asked me (from behind, even), “Can I get you something to drink?” Like there wasn’t a moment to lose. Young man, you’re going places.

In that spirit, while perusing the entrées (M recommended the Camaron Diaz, which A & I actually used up a few precious seconds of our lives looking for), we ourselves wasted no time ordering snacks on top of the chips & salsa trio that come out pronto—starting with queso fundido.

Having been traumatized in my youth by “kwaysoh” as served in the Meximerican joints of the Midwest, I hadn’t ordered anything of the kind in years. Turns out it’s not, in fact, glue de Velveeta. It’s real Mexican melting cheese like Chihuahua or asadero, in this case mixed with crumbled chorizo. That’s it & that’s all—pure, simple, salty & luscious.

Same goes for the chicharrónes (technically a side dish). If a bowl full of seasoned, deep-fried pork rinds with chunks of meat still attached here & there doesn’t speak for itself, I don’t know what does.

Being unsure how the poblano plate differed from the chiles rellenos, I ordered it. The answer: not significantly. The poblanos are topped rather than stuffed, & they’re not breaded—but then, that’s true of some versions of chiles rellenos I’ve encountered. What I remain unsure of is whether they actually yielded the advertised mushroom cream sauce. If so, I didn’t see or taste it amid the cheese & chicken—which was itself a slight disappointment; I’d assumed it would be shredded, which is neither here nor there, but the chunks were tough & a little dry. Still, all mixed up with guacamole & sour cream, diced tomatoes & shredded iceberg alongside perfectly good beans & rice, it went down nice & easy.

If I understand the definition of alambre correctly, it specifies the technique of cooking on skewers (the word literally means “wire”); I believe that’s how Los Carboncitos uses the term on its menu. But it’s applied more loosely to a particular type of taco that contains bacon as well as ground beef or steak (&, in this case, ham), as well as peppers & onions & all the usual trimmings. Chop & char, that’s all right by me meatwise, especially when contrasted with fresh, crisp, cooling veggies & squirts of lime—though the peppers were a little too crisp, not quite softened/blackened by the grill.

Speaking of telltale markings, M pointed out the pale lines on the surface of the warm corn tortillas that indicate their pass down a conveyor belt—housemade versions are, after all, an unfortunate if understandable rarity around here (I hear Araujo’s might offer them; true? Any other tips?).

No qualified praise, meanwhile, for A’s camarones adobados—it was simply great: fresh, firm, sweet shrimp slicked with a sauce that boasted the consistency of marinade, not too thick, & a well-seasoned balance between smoky & sour elements.

Since the Director couldn’t join us, he asked me to bring him some tacos de carnitas & al carbon—as good as M’s not least for offering up a whole blistered jalapeño that we split with wide, watering eyes.

Amid the furious fleet of mobile loncheras, it’s good to remember there are some brick-&-mortar longtimers out there that aren’t budging.

Tacos Jalisco on Urbanspoon

El No No

Surely I’m not the first to refer to El Noa Noa as such. And if the kitchen’s as inept as it was during my one recent meal there, I won’t be the last.

But maybe it isn’t. Maybe the fact that the place has been packed with hordes for years isn’t merely proof of the spell the lovely patio casts, shady & cool with greenery & a burbling stone fountain. Maybe the food usually rocks, & my experience was a total fluke.

Somehow, though, I doubt it. And I’m not throwing good money after bad anytime soon to find out.

Too bad, because the house salsa—fresh enough to compensate for the stale chips, chunky with tomatoes, peppers, & herbs, vibrant & smoky by turns—would have constituted reason enough to return (& the sole recipient of the extra star in this barely-2-star review) had the rest been merely adequate. Had the margarita not been a watery ruin. Had the carne adovada not been toast.

Had the ceviche not contained shrimp with a musty odor. Had the beans not been paste (& that’s coming from someone who likes her refritos creamy with lard).

Had the steak nuggets on the Tacos D.F. (the name being an attempt at street cred) not been so shockingly tough & gristly that 1 bite would have been 1 too many, except that 2 were necessary to confirm that the first was really that bad.

A no-no indeed.

El Noa Noa on Urbanspoon

El Olvido: A Q&A with Denver on a Spit

Every so often, Denver on a Spit & I, along with our adorable significant others, meet up to chow down & chew the fat. Since we last met at Red Tango & Silla, Mr. & Mr. Spit have been rather preoccupied by the arrival of twins, but we finally got the chance to reunite & meet the equally adorable tots over a mellow lunch at Jaliscan newcomer El Olvido. What follows is his take on the experience; for my take, click here.

Set the scene—what’d you think of the atmosphere?
I would think referring to anything going on in El Olvido that lonely Saturday afternoon an “atmosphere” would be stretching it, but if I had to describe it in a word, it would unfortunately have to be “desolate.” That being said, the lone server/host was incredibly friendly & helpful, and I was glad to see a couple kids running around as we decided to bring our boys.

That being said, we were there in the middle of a day on a Saturday at a place named after a famous mariachi song about drowning one’s sorrows in tequila & listening to mariachi. Maybe we should go back when the sun is setting & open up a bottle of tequila on the patio. Maybe they even have Mariachis. They should.

Drinking has a way of enhancing the ambiance for sure. Can you explain the difference between what you were drinking & what I was drinking?
Michelada is beer served with a concentrated, fresh-squeezed lime juice. Your Michelada roja also has things like Clamato, a clam-based tomato drink (and the only tomato drink with its own reaggeton song). Sometimes there are even oysters floating in them. [Hot damn!—Denveater] I am a beer lover who is not afraid to admit that I love my beer with ice, juice or clams. It is most refreshing while swinging on a hammock under the hot sun & listening to waves lap on the shore of a white-sand beach, but it’s also good for an early summer brunch on South Broadway, I suppose. Another bonus is that they have a couple Mexican lagers on tap—Dos Equis & Dos Equis Amber on that day.

Tell me about your huge salad. In particular, how was the dressing?

I love that they have a Caesar salad on the menu. I always find it funny that so many Italian restaurants have this salad on the menu, effectively laying claim to a Mexican invention. It was actually very good, rather eggy, & its enormity was a nice prep for my huge plate of carne en su jugo.

And what was your take on that?
Carne en su jugo? All dishes should have such great, simple & descriptive names: meat in its juice.

I have to admit that I don’t have much experience with this dish. It is a traditional dish of Jalisco (sticking with the tequila & mariachi theme), although in my native Chicago there are so many Tapatíos that it is pretty commonplace there. In Denver, El Olvido is the only place I know that serves it. Again, I don’t have a gold standard to compare it to, but I wished for something a little richer and thicker. That being said, after a sprinkle of salt I absolutely devoured my large order without a problem.

Likewise. What about your fair lady’s tacos?
Fish tacos of battered & deep-fried red snapper. It was an interesting, fusion-type plate, topped with ranch dressing of all things. They were actually quite good.

Overall, what’d you like/dislike about the place?
I liked the carne en su jugo, & I appreciate what the chef is trying to do here: focus on a few specialties & not worry about the menu-for-the-masses. There are no enchilada-burrito-chile-relleno combo platters here. I didn’t dislike anything, although the interior is a little drab. The unfortunate part is that the lack of patrons does not bode well for the staying power of El Olvido. Hopefully they will make it.

Hear, hear.

El Olvido on Urbanspoon

Chili Verde’s Pueblan Pleasures

Though Eder Yañez-Mota moved to Denver in 1999, his brother Hanzel and father Andreas are much more recent transplants from Puebla, an hour southeast of Mexico City. Together the trio and their crew recreate old family recipes at Chili Verde, which has electrified the corner of a quiet residential block in the Highlands with its bright green trim outside & in—and its superb regional Mexican repertoire.

What distinguishes Pueblan cuisine is its French influence, according to Eder; after all, he points out, Cinco de Mayo does not celebrate Mexico’s independence from Spain, as many Americans believe, but from the Napoleonic empire. Hence the presence on the menu of crêpes—and hence, in his view, the unusual incorporation of fruit (raisins, peaches, plantains, apples) into the ground beef that fills the signature chile relleno (relleno, of course, means “stuffed”).

Perish the thought of anything even remotely like a jalapeño popper, which Tex Mex–style chiles rellenos tend to resemble. This dish is complex, elegant, and devoid of the thick breading in which your average sports bar coats and deep-fries the poor things. “Where we’re from,” Eder explains, “it’s quite expensive because it’s a seasonal dish, served from October to December.” Even here, where it’s served year round, the kitchen sometimes runs out of the pomegranates whose seeds are usually sprinkled on top; then, he admits, “we have to use red berries just to give it some color.”

Actually, when I had it recently, there was no fruit topping at all. But the fact that it didn’t therefore fly all the colors of the Mexican flag—green, white and red, as is traditional—didn’t make it any less emblematic of the regional cookery. As striking as the filling is, it’s the creamy nut sauce that’s most novel for those used to a smothering of chile, cheese, and little else. Tasting it, I had a strange vision of carrot cake, convinced I detected nutmeg. Wrong, Eder corrects me: it contains “Mexican sour cream, sugar, and nuts” (primarily walnuts). That’s it. And clearly, that’s enough.

You can also get the chile filled with asadero cheese—“like mozzarella,” says Eder—instead of beef. But whatever you do, don’t ignore the chips and salsa that arrive at your table first thing. They’re no token gesture; the salsa macha in particular (below right) is wonderful.

“It’s pretty much olive oil and straight-up roasted serrano peppers. We make it every day—it’s a pain,” Eder laughs. Maybe for him; for me, it’s blistering bliss on a tortilla triangle.

Mexican ceviche or cebiche (citrus-marinated fish/shellfish) tends to be chopped a lot finer than the chunky Peruvian version (which may or may not contain corn &/or sweet potato, a nifty twist). That’s neither here nor there in terms of quality; I like it all so long as it’s cold & tangy, with fresh/firm seafood & a little spice.

Confessedly, I am not a fish taco aficionado—I dunno, too much mild whiteness, they just kinda bore me. But as they go, these are A-OK, with ripe avocado & a drizzle of chile aioli, a proper dollop of curtido, & the best part, excellent refritos with a sprinkle of queso mexicano.

In a word, encantador.

Chili Verde: 3700 Tejon St.; 303.477.1377; Lunch and dinner Mon.-Sat.; $7-$13.

Chili Verde on Urbanspoon