Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Best Tortas in Denver: Las Tortugas

I think that on his L.A. show a couple years ago Anthony Bourdain talks about his confusion about finding good food in strip malls. It makes sense, because Bourdain lives in New York City, where strip malls are not that common. I am from Chicago myself, where strip malls are also somewhat rare. Actually, I have always looked down on strip malls, because on the rare occasion that I found myself at one, it was usually full of sterile chain restaurants. So I understand how strange it is to find good, unique, diverse ethnic food in the mass-produced, uniform and forgettable entity that is the strip mall. And in Denver, much like in L.A., there is a lot of good to be found in the strip mall.

So it should come as no surprise that a couple of weeks ago I found myself sitting at Las Tortugas, waiting for some food and staring out a window at a parking lot. That’s right, I was in a strip mall. Again. For some reason I had a strong urge for a most unholy Mexican sandwich: the Torta Cubana. And as all my decision making is uninfluenced by television, it is an eerie coincidence that a week or two before my craving Mr. Bourdain aired a television show in San Francisco where he was filmed eating a certain large, greasy sandwich of the same name.

Las Tortugas has, by my count, the best tortas in Denver. The Tortugas on Alameda near Tejon is my favorite only because for the longest time they didn’t even have a sign. The building is in a small strip mall or sorts (of course it is) with something like three parking spaces and absolutely no indications outside (like a sign) that there was anything inside open for business, yet it was always packed. In fact, the way I learned about it was from the guy who sold me my washing machine, and he had to describe exactly what color it was and what the two shops next to it were so that I could triangulate and find it.

Ever since then I have been going back with some regularity. This day I found myself waiting in the Aurora branch, which I think has always had a sign, but still sits tucked away in the far corner of a strip mall on Peoria and Del Mar. In more efforts not to draw too much attention to itself, the words “Las Tortugas” are noticably absent from the marquee that lists all the other shops at the strip mall. I don’t know what the owner has against a little marketing, but he certainly hasn’t seemed to need it. Make food this good and the people will find you.

Ten minutes later and I was still waiting. At Las Tortugas, which means “the turtles”, the sandwich makers, or “torteros”, take their sweet time. It seems like it should be fast but it isn’t. Not really sure why. When watching the torteros at work (easily spotted by their t-shirts which all say TORTERO on the back) they seem to be moving pretty fast and have some efficient-looking torta-making stations set up on the grill and counter. The system looks flawless. And the end product is pretty much that. Just slow.

Oh well, no use wondering about it. My agua fresca was ready. Agua fresca, or fresh water, is any combination of fresh fruit or vegtables blended up with ice. I ordered, and always order, a Crazy Agua, which is pineapple, strawberry and orange. All blended fresh. I walked slowly back up to the counter to pick it up. The restaurant itself has a great Mexico City vibe besides the laid back tortero dudes taking their time. The walls are decorated with large black and white photos of Mexico City street scenes, Spanish is the only language being spoken, a soccer game plays out on television, a banner of the owner’s favorite soccer team hangs over the counter, bracelets are being sold next to the cash register and beneath that is a vibrant display of fresh fruit.

Back at my stool I place my crazy water on the stainless steel counter top and reflect some more on strip malls, lechón, TV—you know—the big, important themes of life. Several more minutes pass, ten to be more or less exact, and my name is being called again up front. My Cubana is ready. I am hungry, which is good, because my sandwich is huge. Let me give you a visual:
/ Grilled Bread (in butter) \
- Mayo
- Avocado
- Chipotles (or optional jalapenos)
- Onion and tomato
- Melted Cheese #1
- Grilled Chorizo
- Fried Egg
- Deli Ham (also fried on grill)
- Melted Cheese #2
- Grilled Pierna (Pork Chop)
- Grilled Milanesa (strip steak)
- 2 hot dogs, charred, sliced into halves
- Refried beans
\ The other slice of bread, also grilled in butter /

and a Second Visual...

I did mention already that this was a most unholy sandwich. If this creation sort of scares you, that is understandable, and know that the rest of the Tortuga menu is filled with much more reasonable and equally delicious tortas. The Cubana is something I crave about once a year. It feels like Thanksgiving after you are done, but greasier and with hot dogs. I don’t think I need to describe how it tastes. It tastes fucking amazing. When I finished my sandwich, and yes, I finished my sandwich, I sat in my car for a good 10 minutes thinking, “Why did I finish my sandwich?” I felt like vomiting a little, but in a good way. I felt happy and sated yet moaned in pain. So I sat in my car looking out over pavement, parked cars and anonymous store fronts watching the sun settle in behind the clouds until I could move enough to start my engine, engage the clutch and drive away.
Las Tortugas has at least two Denver-area locations for your convenient enjoyment. D-town: 1549 W Alameda, A-Town: 712 Peoria St and somewhere in Commerce City I think.

Las Tortugas Aurora on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Denver al Pastor Take One: TacoMex

I had tacos al pastor at my wedding. It's incredible. I know. Pastor tacos at my wedding. (For more on pastor and my obsession with it, see my first post.) And its not just that I ate a couple tacos al pastor at my wedding, or that I got drunk and my best man and I slipped out for some tacos, but I had the whole spit turning away in the center of the room and a smiling taco guy with a big shiny, sharp knife to do my biding. And that he did.

It was a surprise actually, put together by my bride who loves me dearly. For even though she knows that my love for pastor borders on the obsessive, and that there was a distinct possibility that I would faint, run and hug the taco man, or in some other way embarrass myself upon first seeing it, she knew that our happiest day should include pastor somehow and for that my love grew even stronger (for her, of course).

So when I entered the patio where it was awaiting it was all shock and awe: dazzling lights, red, rotating spit, cameras flashing, “oohs” and “ahhs”. I played it cool. Like it was perfectly normal to have a spit of taco meat at my wedding, but on the inside I was screaming like a schoolgirl. And next to my perfect pork of a present was its master, with a mischievous smirk on his face, rapidly sharpening his knife and looking me in the eye with one eyebrow raised like he knew my destiny exactly-- and controlled it as well. And then, though he was across the room and no one else heard it, he whispered in his heavily accented English, “My dear guest! I am the taquero, your host. Welcome... to Fantasy Island!” Entranced, I nodded “yes” that I understood. Then he turned to the room and clapped his hands: “Smiles, everyone... smiles!”

“Yes!” I finally blurted out. And the party began. The after-party, actually: DJ spinning old soul, laughter, glasses clinking, the din of dozens of simultaneous conversations. Everyone pretty deep into a whole afternoon then evening of drinking and dancing, and the alcohol-primed stomachs immediately lined up for the goods. The line stayed 10 or 12 deep all night long. My taquero sliced and sliced and plated and plated until he must have been exhausted, but never did he slow. Never did he break a sweat and never did the smirk leave his face until he paused, shocked I think, to see that a mere hour had passed and he already needed to run back to his taco shop and get another spit of meat for the ravenous crowd.

That was then. My wedding in Mexico, D.F. Thinking back now, I miss the pastor tacos of Mexico City, but I have found some pretty worthy contenders here in Denver. My wife and I (just me) have made it our (my) mission to seek out the best of Denver’s tacos al pastor and tonight we return to an old haunt, TacoMex. Located on East Colfax near Syracuse it has long been one of our favorites for pastor, so I guess it is appropriate and inevitable then that my first blog post about Denver involves a return to this fine establishment and a sample of my favorite meat on a spit.

First, however, a disclaimer: tacos al pastor in the US, though sometimes excellent, don’t usually stack up to the home of pastor, Mexico City. I think that might be (it is) partly (completely) the fault of our (over) sanitary Department of Health (booo!) that frowns upon a thick slab of raw pork sitting out on the sidewalk for hours on end and only being slightly charred by an intermittent exposure to flame. Even the places that do have pork on a spit outside have to stick it on the grill before serving it. In Mexico the paper thin slices of pork come right off the spit onto your tortilla and are perfectly crispy and tender, delicate and packed with tons of fresh flavor. Nevertheless, the marinade itself is pretty key, and even with some over-cooking, I have had plenty of great tacos al pastor in Denver.

TacoMex has changed owners at least once I think in the last few years. I actually hadn’t been there in about a year when we strolled in last week on a Saturday night. They are one of the few places that actually puts a spit outside and roasts their pork in the open air. When we got there about 9:30 the spit was out and so was the crowd.

The whole scene is like being transported back to Mexico. There is a woman selling bootleg CDs from her car on the curb asking you, “Que le doy? Que le doy?” (literally, what can I give you?) In the parking lot guy with a grocery cart is hawking cheap plastic toy guitars and mohawk wigs and seems genuinely angry to be turned down. The main attraction, however, is the big tent canopy set up in front of the entrance, surrounded by hungry customers awaiting their tacos al pastor, watching the meat being sliced off the giant spit. All pretty typical for TacoMex on a summer weekend night, but new to the mix this year was another grill next to the pastor filled with simmering sausage. It was a circular steel or iron comal-type grill with 4-5 foot long sausages boiling in greasy sausage juices coiled around the center which stuck up from the grease like a black, deserted island. Like a big sausage grease donut. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I was pretty much raised by TV and have watched one too many syndicated Simpsons episodes but, “Mmmm. Big sausage grease donut,” were actually the words that first passed through my head as I stopped to drool before going in to order.

Inside we ordered. Pastor of course. That was the plan. But that sausage was looking fine. It was chorizo and longaniza, which is a spicy sausage similar to chorizo but definitely with its own unique flavor. We also learned they had a pot of suadero out there: extra tender beef with all the fat left on.

We brought our ticket outside to the pastor guy who was shy to have a picture taken, but did slice the meat up proper and (regrettably) tossed it on the grill and mixed in some pineapple which was (also regrettably) canned. (In an ideal situation the pineapple drips over the spit as it cooks and the acidic juices help to soften the meat, or so I’m told.) Meanwhile, his taquero amigo grabbed a metal spatula, reached into the sausage donut, deftly sliced off a hunk of longaniza and dropped it in the exposed center where it immediately began to sizzle. As he chopped it up with a few short spatula strokes the aroma it gave off turned more than a few heads.

The pastor was not as flavorful as I remember but it was still pretty damn good, and overall TacoMex has a solid marinade. Pastor recipes vary immensely and are all top secret, but here you can taste the complex mix of indgredients like dried and roasted chiles, garlic, vinegar, cumin and maybe cloves. I think. Go online (you are online already) and search and you’ll see how varied they can be.

The suadero was good too, with big chunks of meat and fat so tender you could bring grandma even without her dentures. It melted in my mouth and had a subtle, yet full flavor. But it was the longaniza that stole the show that night. It was bold, spicy, rich and satisfying. It was crispy from the grill but still soft on the pallet and was so flavorful that my next pastor taco got a little lost in the longaniza aftermath.
TacoMex continues to please and I’m not sure why so much time passed since my last visit. But while the pastor was good, it was the tacos de longaniza that will bring me back next time.
Go directly to TacoMex and get yourself some 99 cent tacos. 7840 E Colfax Ave, Denver, CO.

Taco Mex on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Frito Pie Country

Leaving the mountains from a recent camping trip we drive north into the town of Monte Vista. It’s endearing to me the way Colorado (and the entire US) bastardizes our foreign-named cities. Back in my native Chicago, we honored the French by naming one of our suburbs Des Plaines, which we then pronounce, well exactly like it looks-- In English, that is--- "Dess Planes". Here in Colorado we have mostly Spanish names to befoul. My favorite is Denver's own "Ga-la-pay-go" street. Ask a local where "Ga-LAH-pa-go" street is and they'll shrug. Even better is that a lot of the Chicanos in Colorado will use a Spanish accent to say Denver like "Den-bear" yet when they head South they pass through "Del Nort" instead of "Del Nor-teh". My wife is from Mexico and all this makes her shake her head disapprovingly, and I love to take her East on I-70 towards "Lie-mun" which she insists on calling "Lee-MOAN".

Monte Vista, our lunch destination, is a fine example of this phenomenon. The original Spanish settlers of the region (and my wife) would think to call it "Mon-teh VEES-tah". It is, however, known as “Monty” by the locals here. It's American now. And it is so very American to take what was once foreign and change it to be ours. (U-S-A!) Take burritos for example. A lot of Mexicans, believe or not, have never had a burrito. Seriously. It was likely invented in Northern Mexico but was then stolen and made famous here in the good ol’ US of A. Now you can’t think of a burrito without thinking of a particular large, sterile chain of restaurants. (I know you already did and yes they do have good burritos).

No burritos on this trip. The Frito pie was my destiny that day. Frito pie is a dish likely inspired by the Mexican dish, chilaquiles. Chilaquiles vary quite a bit but essentially are made of fried corn tortilla pieces or thick tortilla chips with salsa poured over the top, sprinkled with cotija cheese, diced onions and served with a dollop of sour cream. The Frito pie is, well, made with Fritos, and topped with red chile (chile con carne), lettuce, onions and cheddar cheese. I imagine what happened was that someone along the lines didn't have tortillas handy so opened up a bag of Fritos. Salsas had evolved already into the American-style "Chili" so it only made sense to pair the two, chilaquile-style. Boo-ya! A new piece of Americana and a cultural legacy of a dish was born.

Eating a Frito pie in a town called Monty is endless metaphor for the mixing of Mexican and American cultures—or maybe the better metaphor is the Americans changing something that was Mexican, calling it better and claiming it as their own. Yes, that is much more our style. (U-S-A!) Whatever happened, the important thing is that it caught on and Frito pies can be found all over our Southwest and I love them. I really love them. And I always have to have them as soon as I travel anywhere south of Salida (Suh-lie-duh).

So back to our trip which had us close to the New Mexico border, that is, deep into Frito-pie country. Usually the best places to find them are the roadside hamburger stands that all the southern Colorado and New Mexican towns have. Monty was no exception. JBs was actually a step up in luxury from a typical hamburger stand and had modern comforts—like inside seating and bathrooms. And the inside was a sight to behold. It was two rooms and a long hallway and every single square inch was covered in amateur acrylic paintings. It was an assault of color (and possibly on taste) and impressive if for no other reason than the compulsiveness either of the painter, who's bio could be found at the counter, the restaurant owner or both. The paintings were all framed in cheap wood frames. There were images from all over the world but mostly of mountain scenes and the one constant was that proportion and perspective seemed left to chance. In one an elk was as tall as a pine tree. In another the walls of the

church were reminiscent of an MC Escher sketch. A lot had a white home-printed label with black block text on the frame describing the location. Some had a price. In a couple places one was missing from the wall and the bare wood paneling of the restaurant showed in its place giving the impression that someone bought one of the paintings. The overall confused collage of paintings was in itself a wonderful work of art and I instantly developed a certain affection for the place.

Where the paintings stopped, the booths began and they were classic red vinyl. There was only an old cowboy eating in the corner alone when we entered and the contrast of the bright, sunny day made it seem a little darker than it actually was, reminding me of a locals-only bar that you're not sure you want to enter. But turning to order we were greeted by a harmless teenage boy and his older sister. Anyway, the important part is that on the wall menu under the category of "Other Goodies" was my Frito pie. Perfect. I ordered that and my travelling companion the green chile cheeseburger, another wonderful Southwestern favorite that I'm sure will be the subject of another entry soon. We chose a booth under my favorite painting: a bear in a campsite eating a fish (maybe) and you couldn't quite tell if he was supposed to be growling or smiling and it was kind of both so he just looked silly drunk and rabid for his food. So we plopped down in the booth and it sank a good foot more than I anticipated so the table was extra high like when you were a kid and needed a booster seat but didn’t want it. And under the painting of the shit-faced bear gleefully munching away on his fishy-burrito-looking meal we dove into our goods. It wasn't the best Frito pie I have had. It was a little salty. But a salty, sort-of-average Frito pie is still a Frito pie and the fries were fresh-cut, skin-on goodness. My eyes popped out of my head a little and my face had the fiendish grin of a certain bear that hadn't had a Frito pie in way, way too long.

If your headed south of town, get hungry and happen to be near Monte Vista, stop at JBs. It won't disappoint. 217 N Broadway St, Monte Vista, CO.

Fishing for Chorizo

Denver On a Spit went mobile recently for a fly fishing trip to the South San Juan Wilderness. My guides were long-time friends and Denver natives who have been trying to get me into fishing for years now. Despite these efforts, this was my third time fly fishing in the past eight years. And although it is still new to me, and although my "friends" stuck me in a pair of inch-thick neoprene waders that made all the other fly-fishermen we saw point and giggle, I like it. Actually, I think I'm what you call a natural, though no one has put it in those terms exactly as of yet. Regardless, it’s a great way to get out and spend some quality man-time with old friends, escape the rat race and be in nature with the fresh air and all that.

When planning the trip, my first thoughts turned, of course, to food, and in particular to eating freshly caught trout four different ways over the four day trip. I was surprised to learn that we weren’t supposed to even keep, much less eat, these fish we were catching, and that doing so would be harmful to the delicate balance of the alpine ecosystem—or something righteous like that. (One of these guys is a labor rights lawyer so the whole weekend was filled with alcohol-fueled righteousness.) I was even more surprised that these two companions of mine almost never eat the fish they catch. I was, however, in the end promised that we would actually try to catch some fish at a nearby reservoir, which I was told made for very boring fishing, very much beneath these fly-fishermen, but if it would shut me up we could get some big fish that we could cook.

It ended up that we weren’t able to catch any of those fabled lake fish, and well-thought out, logical excuses abounded. But I was fine with that because the alpine meadows we visited over the last several days were so gorgeous, and the weather so perfect that it was a fabulous trip even if I did not eat any fish that I caught, held upside down, cooed to, unhooked, caressed and with mixed emotions let go. So instead of fish, on the last night, we had to improvise.

I believe there to be a Denver city ordinance requiring that all residents must go camping at least once a year (or at least own a vehicle that looks like it should be out camping). But all too often people think camping means eating crappy canned beans and hot dogs on a stick (OK, I admit, that is good too, and should continue). But why not spend a little time, get creative and eat well? That brings us then, to the first recipe installment of Denver on a Spit.

My non-righteous friend and I shopped for this trip without any real plan. He is a fabulous cook and I can hold my own so we figured we would just get what looked good and then work it out. So when we got back to camp, fish-less, apart from two full bags of frosted animal crackers (they looked really good in the store), we had apples, chorizo, potatoes, onion, garlic, tomatoes and dried chiles. No fish, but not bad.

We first cooked the chorizo in a cast-iron dutch oven. In the leftover grease we starting browning the potatoes. We then added an apple, diced onions and garlic, and braised the whole thing in some beer with a dash of salt and oregano until the potatoes were soft. For the salsa we roasted the tomatoes, garlic, onions and dried anchos in a cast iron skillet until nicely blackened then roughly chopped them, mixed them together and finished it off in the same pan, frying in some oil to help the flavors come together. In the end it really worked. The spicy, flavorful chorizo was highlighted perfectly by the tart, sweet apple and balanced by the onion and garlic, while all the greasy goodness was soaked up in the browned potatoes. The somky-sweet salsa gave it even more depth and flavor. It was actually really good. If we had tortillas it would have been an incredible, restaurant-worthy taco. Denver's elite foodies would galdly cough up $24 for three little ones at Denver’s own Tamayo.

In the end, it was a perfect night under the stars, around a fire, cold beer in hand, enjoying a fine meal in fine company in peaceful serenity occasionally interrupted by the sound of digesting half a pound of chorizo and the crackle of the fire.

Check out my trip album on flickr.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Inspiration

The inspiration for this blog, and for me chasing down good food in Denver or wherever I am, goes way back to the first times I had Tacos al Pastor in Mexico City. Since then, I have had a new appreciation for food of all kinds, but it always seems to come back to this.

Picture this: Mexico City. 24 million people. Bright lights, night sky cloudy and glowing orange, cool air and slight mist of a rainy afternoon now past; car splashing through puddles with my Chilanga wife at the wheel, expertly weaving in and out of traffic while laughing away on her cell phone as only she can do. Then we suddenly u-turn and slow down so as to be coached into a parking spot some three inches longer than our car by the ubiquitous guy on the street who is there to "watch" your car. 

We are here. And there it is. Our evening destiny. Contrasted with the otherwise dark night, under a singular swinging light bulb, through an opening in a grimy semi-transparent canopy: a glorious upside-down cone of red-marinated pork on a spit being expertly turned, charred, sliced and loved (yes, loved) by a man whose knife skills would rival that of any trained classical chef in the world. But instead of slaving away in some boring and dry 3-star hotel restaurant, he stands here in just one of what must be millions of taco joints in this city. With proud red stains on his mostly white apron, he is sharpening his knife and bantering with the regulars who circle him and his altar of pork with casual reverence. Flames are shooting from cinder blocks behind the spit, while conically stacked pork loins artfully arranged rotate in place and a pineapple skewered through the top, drips lovely juices all over.

We enter the plastic, tent-like canopy that covers the restaurant's exterior and extends it almost into the street. We sit facing our pleasure at a small wooden table with napkins, salt, limes, green and red salsa. We welcome the relative warmth of being so close to the flame of the rotating spit in the otherwise cool night. And the smell is amazing. I glance at the laminated menu on the table out of habit then make eye contact with the taco man himself.

"Buenas... seis tacos al pastor con todo, por favor." Six tacos, with everything.

"Tres para mi," chimes in my wife, who also has a love of pastor but in a much saner, reserved and somehow sadder way (sometimes, for example, she orders steak tacos, but I still love her).

"Y dos Victorias." I add in.

He throws down the tortillas to warm and immediately goes to work. It is a thing of beauty. He takes his large knife, sharpens it skillfully while looking around, barks our beer order to a waitress, smiles. Winks. He is king here. He knows it. All the other taco cooks are behind the counter on the inside, slaving away on other, lesser meats, and quesadillas, alambres, even chicken. Here our man, glowing-- he is now, spurred into action, actually glowing in his own greatness-- puts down his sharpener, grabs a warm tortilla from the comal, turns the spit to where the newly crisped pork awaits his touch and gracefully goes to work.

In a matter of seconds he has sliced paper thin strips of pork. "Fffffpp, fffffpp, fffffpp," from the spit, and as they slide off they all land squarely on the tortilla in his other hand several inches away from the spit itself. Meat never touching hand. Then reaching with the knife up to the top in quick strokes, “fffp, ffp, ffp”, the pineapple flies off, is airborne, and like there was a magnetic attraction (and there likely is), like there was no other place it could end up, it comes to rest on top of the pork; and harmony and balance come momentarily to the universe (or at least to me and my tacos). Then in a matter of 40 seconds or so, eight more just like it.

Great skill is before me, and I recognize it although I maybe admire this man more than I should. Regardless, I take it in. Then waking me from my amorous gaze the plastic plate slaps down in front of me. Red pork, yellow pineapple, green cilantro and white onion artfully balanced on the light brown canvas that is the tortilla. A real masterpiece. In the pork hall of fame (that should be opening soon I think) this would hang proudly alongside bacon, Serrano ham and other pork classics. I close my eyes and breathe in the steam. Is there any smell quite like this? Tangy, spicy, sweet, sharp, smoky, porky and lovely. OK. First bite. It's been too long...

Tacos Copacabana can be enjoyed in Mexico City and is consistently rated as one of the best in the DF.


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