Denver's South Federal is full of surprises. On a recent Sunday afternoon, my wife and I found ourselves driving south from Alameda to an old favorite of ours, Tacos y Salsas. I haven't written about Tacos y Salsas yet, and thanks to my fleeting, TV-conditioned attention span, I was momentarily distracted by a large sign less than a block away from Tacos y Salsas, and I won't be writing about it this week either.
TV also taught me the art of impulsivity, and that moment of distraction was all it took for me to pull a U-Turn on Kentucky, just a few feet short of our original goal. Actually it was two signs that distracted me, and both tugged longingly at my heartstrings. One was advertising tacos al vapor, which are deliciously fatty and flavorful steamed beef tacos, not all that common in Denver; while a second, larger and more attention-grabbing sign advertised Tortas de Tamal.
Tortas de Tamal are very special to me despite possibly sounding very ridiculous (and dry) to many. I understand this logic: why put a hunk of steamed dough inside a hunk of baked dough? Well, in Mexico City, where someone somewhere has already tried anything you can think of inside of a torta, tortas de tamal are commonplace.
When I was living in Mexico City, just about every morning before work, I would stop on the corner near my in-laws house and get one. From the first morning I tried it I was hooked. It really wasn't all that dry, probably because the tamales were served fresh from a steaming pot; and it was definitely hearty and satisfying. And for about 15 pesos ($1.50 back then), I would get one along with a fresh squeezed cup of OJ.
My wife was equally excited about our detour, being that we have never seen anyone offer up this Mexico City specialty here in Denver. In fact, it is so uncommon even in the rest of Mexico, that we never thought to even look for one here. We practically burst through the door and scrambled up to the counter to order, but not before taking a couple seconds to shake our heads in disapproval at a third sign, bright yellow and advertising the place itself. It featured the stalest and unfortunately emblematic stereotype of Mexican culture -- the sleeping drunk under a cactus, clad in serape, sandals and sombrero. "Leobardo's Taco Shop," it read.
Inside Leobardo's, any transient disappointment we may have felt outside was quickly dissipated by a friendly chat with one of Leobardo's cooks, Elias. Elias is from Pachuca, and although not the owner, he was rather proud to tell us that he too had never seen another Denver-area restaurant with tortas de tamal. Pachuca is about an hour drive from Mexico City, so Elias was familiar with the notorious sandwich from his proximity to the city. He admitted to us that, like many non-Chilangos, it didn't sound all that appealing to him when he first heard about it. He began to politely give several explanations for this (he was really quite friendly and enthusiastic), then motioned to us to come in a little closer, as if he had a secret to share. He then asked us to excuse the expression he was about to use, but the first thing he thought when he heard of the sandwich was, "...que puerco!"
Literally he meant, "what pigginess", or more loosely translated, "who is the fat-ass who wants to eat that?!" He hoped we weren't offended. No, I assured him. There are many things that I take offense to, but being indirectly (or directly for that matter) called a pig is not one of them.
Needless to say, we ordered tortas de tamal, one green and one red. We also ordered a couple of tamales de elote (corn) and a taco al vapor just for good measure. Que puerco, indeed.
The tortas de tamal came out and they looked different. I will digress for a moment and rant a little about the state of torta bread here in Denver. For some reason it is universally too soft. The other alternative found around here is the too-hard bolillo roll. Happily in between the two is Telera bread, what is commonly used throughout Mexico for the torta, and is hard and crusty on the outside yet soft on the inside. It is the perfect torta bread, and I can't imagine it is that hard to make, but for whatever reason, I have not seen it used here.
Needless to say, I wasn't surprised to see the soft, mushy bread come out with our tortas de tamal, but I was surprised to see that they had been grilled. Traditionally, if the bread is warmed a little, it would be with steam, like that used for cooking the tamal. Elias explained to us that because the bread is a little soft, he decided to start grilling it, to give it a crisp. I admit that it was better than what it would have been otherwise, but it still lacked the authenticity of the true torta de tamal. Also, the tamales were small, so next time I will get two tamales per torta for proper tamal to torta ratio. And the taste? Well, it is not an authentic torta de tamal, but the nostalgia factor was high, so overall I liked it. The red and green tamales are quite good and I would recommend either to those who may also have a hole in their lives where the torta de tamal once was, and to those who have never tried it, or worse, dismissed it as too ridiculous.
The tamales de elote were not good. They looked good, filled with chunks of corn. They smelled good, like steaming corn bread baked with lard. But they were mushy and fell apart too quickly. They had a sweet corn taste, but otherwise were under-flavored and bland.
The taco al vapor was very good--at least part of it. The steamed beef was moist and tender with a rich flavor of being cooked slowly. The red salsa was dark and smoky, the green sweet and sharp with onion; both were adequately spicy. The tortillas, however, were of the packaged variety, and were simply dipped in oil and grilled whereas with this type of taco they ought to be steamed. (For a great taco al vapor, click here.)
Overall it was a great meal, and for that I can only thank my aptitude for distraction and my ability to impulsively act on it. Leobardo's is new to the south Federal scene, and shows much promise in its early months. There is a drive-thru window which they plan to put into use soon. One of the signs outside also purports that it is open 24 hours a day. It isn't yet, and even though our friend Elias smiled as he verified the new hours, his eyes said differently, as he surely knows he will have his share of overnight taco and torta-making shifts. Until then, visit Elias and his crew all week long during the 16 or so hours they currently stay open during. As for us, we took our piggy selves to the lot next door and bought a half pound of rosted piñones.
825 South Federal.
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