Sunday, October 4, 2009

Denver al Pastor Take Two: Los Carboncitos

Last Saturday night my life once again came full circle as I found myself in the middle of plates and plates of al Pastor. If you are new to this blog, then you might not know exactly what Pastor is. Simply put, it is marinated pork that is stacked on a spit, then slow roasted and charred before being sliced off onto a taco, torta or any other vessel of one's choosing. Now that we are all on the same page, I'll get to the point and tell the tale about what may be the best pastor Denver has to offer.

Los Carboncitos’ original location is on 38th and Pecos. The bright yellow and orange façade is at once inviting and overwhelmingly bright in the midday sun. You can’t miss it. And you don’t want to. By night the almost-day-glo-yellow walls are tamed under the light of the street lamps, but there is still no mistaking it. Inside it is nothing special, but the staff is friendly enough and the food is so good that tables and chairs are just a bonus. 

We entered and picked a table. We were about to sit down but the waitress stopped us as the table we chose was still dirty from the last customers. She kindly escorted us to a new, clean table, and then graciously offered to turn on the light above so we would not have to dine in poorly lit conditions. We consented. To do so, she climbed on top of our table, flicked on the switch and a bright beam of light shone down on us. She deftly hopped down, gestured for us to sit and looked at us, pleased, as if to say: "There you go, a clean, well-lit table", and we pretended not to notice her dusty footprint off to one side. A little dirt never hurts anyone (usually). Who cares? And why haven’t I got to part about the pastor yet?

I had been mentally preparing for this moment all day. The waitress came back with the menus which we glanced at as a formality. I ordered for our table: pastor, pastor and more pastor. She returned with the drinks first. Average, but slightly watery horchata and agua de Jamaica ("Haa-my-kah"--hibiscus iced tea)--normally one of my favorites, but this time tasted a little of artificial sweetener. But the drinks weren’t what brought us here. In fact, they still have no liquor license so drinks don't really bring anyone here.

What does bring me here is the fact that Los Carboncitos does Mexican food right.  They advertise themselves as an authentic Mexico City restaurant, and they represent the "D.F." well. They do things like huaraches, a Mexico City specialty. Huaraches are thick, oblong-shaped, deep-fried masa dough (used to make tortillas)  spread with refried beans, sprinkled with cotija cheese, any variety of toppings, and of course, meat. (Like pastor, for example.) The huarache is named after, well, the huarache, which means sandal, and the huarache at Los Carboncitos is about a size 14. So imagine a big Shaq-sized sandal of fried tortilla dough piled with enough pastor for eight or nine tacos: piping hot, steam emanating from between the pastor pieces, fresh cheese starting to melt a little--absolutely incredible. We cut into the crispy base with the knife, divided it up between us, and in less than a minute it was gone. 

The second Mexico city delight of the evening was the alambre. Alambre translates to wire. A wire has absolutely nothing to do with what I am about to describe, but in this case it probably refers to a skewer--as in skewered meats and vegtables. Though no longer skewered, an alambre in Mexico City (and at Los Carboncitos), is a bunch of chopped up meats grilled together on a flat-top grill with diced onions and bell peppers. Towards the end of the grilling, copious amounts of cheese are added and the result is a sticky-mess-of-a-good-time. It is served with a bunch of tortillas and is usually eaten as individual, self-made tacos. We had ours with --surprise--pastor. My friends had never had an alambre, and loved the Carboncitos alambre. I though the flavors were indeed good, but the little cheese it had was clearly tossed on as an afterthought and barely melted.  I'm going to chalk that up to an off night, because I have seen some good looking alambres come out of the kitchen and this one, though tasty, was a little sad. 

The third, final and by far the best Mexico City specialty we devoured that night were tacos al pastor. The tacos al pastor at Los Carboncitos are divine. Each bite is spit-roasted perfection. I've written paragraphs and paragraphs on the virtues of tacos al pastor. I've described again and again their perfect smoky-sweet-spicy taste. I've also explained why they will likely never quite compare to Mexico City's pastor (think raw pork rotating on a spit for hours on end under a hot sun and US Health Department). But given that, the tacos al pastor at Los Carboncitos are as close as I've had to their Mexico City cousin, despite coming off the spit and getting a second (over) cooking on the grill. There is the right amount of char, yet the thin slices of meat stay surprisingly tender. The traditional and simple toppings of pineapple, cilantro and onion are all there too. They really are amazing. This picture sums it all up:

Everything at Los Carboncitos is home-made: the tortillas, the huarache, the four fabulous table salsas. Even the footprint on your table--it's all fresh. Also, everything I wrote about today is likely best with pastor. But everything can also be ordered with any number of meats and meat combinations. The next menu item that I probably ought to try (but may never get to because I always order pastor) is the huarache cubano, which is like the bastard stepchild of the horrendously hedonistic torta cubana. It doesn't even get a description on the Carboncitos menu because the list of ingredients (hot dogs, ham, pork, steak, etc) is either too long or too intimidating to actually put to print. 

Satisfied yet slightly paralyzed from the amount of eating we did, we leaned back in our respective chairs to catch our respective breaths, then stumbled out onto 38th to find a beer with which to wash down this unforgettable meal. Why haven't you gone to Los Carboncitos yet? Here's the menu. Go! 

Los Carboncitos on Urbanspoon

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