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

1 comment:

  1. I miss this place. Nothing like stumbling two blocks at 2am to grab pastor.



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