Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Denver al Pastor Take 3: Tacos Junior

It's been about a month now since I've written about tacos al pastor. It's not that I haven't been eating them, but I get stuck in a rut--albeit a very delicious rut--of going to the same two or three places because I know what to expect. One reason for starting this blog was to force myself to break out of that mold and start exploring some other places.

Tacos Junior is one of those places. Of Tacos Junior's several Denver metro locations, one is inside the Azteca Ranch Market on East Colfax at Moline in Aurora. I actually used to do a fair amount of shopping at Azteca, an adorably chaotic small Mexican grocery store that carries decent produce, has excellent butchers and of course, sates my Mexican wife's nostalgic cravings-- from fresh nopales to the South-of-the-border version of a Twinkie. So because of this, I've passed by Tacos Junior dozens of times, but always with a cart full of groceries and excuses; and even though their spit of pastor is larger than life, I never once stopped in.


This doesn't do it justice. It may be 3ft tall.

If you know me, or if you've read this blog a few times (I feel like I know you), you may think that this sounds crazy. What one would expect me to do upon seeing a spit of pastor this big would be to drop my groceries, leave my poor wife to sweep up the broken jars and load the car, and push my way to the front of the line. But I never did. In fact one time I actually drove two miles West down Colfax to Taco Mex to get my pastor after leaving Azteca because I was craving it so badly. Habits are a bitch, and as they say, die hard.

But it wasn't just me being set in my ways. I heard once that it was a large chain restaurant (I kinda hate those) from California or Texas or Northern Mexico (I'm pretty sure it's just a local chain), and the decor seemed kitsch and forced for my taste. The ceiling, for example, is painted with clouds and parrots, the taco counter is framed by a faux-eave that resemble a beach hut, and Jesus floats on the wall behind the cashier on a mural of a beach/ farm scene (maybe to keep an eye on the register). Whatever the reason, my taco instinct said, "no".


Jesus vacations in Tacos Junior.

So what brought me here after all these years? Just to find out what it was all about, I guess. And it is a oft-praised and popular (I mostly hate that too) taco stop. Plus, did I mention, the al pastor spit they have is incredibly huge? If nothing else it is likely the largest and most well-manicured spit of pastor around, and I have to respect that.

From big spits come big tacos. There is a lot of meat in the tacos al pastor here. And they come con copia, that is, with two tortillas, which are hand made, but nevertheless dry. The slices of pineapple are fresh, too, always a bonus in any Northern territory. The standard diced onions and cilantro top it off. The taste? It was good. I mean, it's pastor--but it wasn't great. It certainly isn't the best I've had in Denver. The first time I went the meat was not charred well if it was charred at all, and the beauty of proper pastor meat is that the slices are thin and tender, but also slightly charred. There should be a crispy, smoky first bite followed by tender sweetness with a spicy finish. This meat was way too sweet (in a bad way).


It looks like pastor...

A couple weeks later, I had second thoughts. I mean, that pastor spit was so beautiful it haunted me in my sleep. It is expertly cared for, and it is obvious that someone openly and without shame loves that over-sweetened hunk of marinated pork. Again, I respect that. So there I was standing in line and this time something I previously overlooked caught my eye: Taco Arabe. The Arabian Taco, an homage to the people who likely inspired the taco al pastor-- the Lebanese, is a specialty of Puebla. The Taco Arabe is a bunch of pastor rolled up with grilled onions and cilantro in a very thin flour tortilla, also known as pan arabe, (possibly an homage to the pita?). It even comes wrapped in that thin gyro-tissue-paper. I unrolled my mini burrito-gyro-looking thing and was happy to see that this time the pastor was sliced thinner and charred perfectly. I added some red salsa, rolled it back up and took a bite. These thin tortillas were better than the dry corn ones, and the taco Arabe was better than the standard taco, but still, even cooked properly, the pastor is too sweet.



Taco arabe, tacos de carnitas, sopes

My taco-sense (sort of like spidey-sense, but more delicious) was right about the pastor, but there are plenty of good things here. I highly recommend the deep-fried things: sopes, huaraches and picaditas-- all different versions of thick tortilla masa fried to a crisp. The sope is stacked tall with beans, meat, cheese, avocado and the works; the huarache is usually meat, beans and cheese only; and the picaditas are simply red or green salsa topped with fresh cheese. The salsas are fresh and spicy but the green has too much onion. The best meats are the carnitas and, suprisingly, the chicken, which is shredded in a chipotle sauce. The asada (steak) is good, but needed a lot of salt, which any God-fearing Mexican sprinkles on any taco regardless, so I guess it works out. Wash it all down with 32 oz of made-to-order fresh fruit or vegtable agua fresca of your choosing--everything from mango to cucumber.


Sope

Tacos Junior has all kinds of good stuff, and is worth a visit, but if you are in the mood for an authentic al pastor experience, keep driving. 11505 E Colfax Ave in Aurora. There's parking in the back, too.
Tacos Junior on Urbanspoon

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