Monday, January 17, 2011

Denver al Pastor Take 9: The Tent Next to La Flor de Michoacan in Thornton

Lately I've been in a lull when it comes to restaurants and new food experiences. Don't get me wrong, I've had some good food here and there, but nothing mind-blowing, and mixed in have been some disappointments as well. And then there was the other night. Every once in a while a restaurant or food experience will remind me why I spend countless hours of my already busy life seeking out, eating and writing about food in the first place. And that is exactly what happened the other night when following the lead of a friend I made my way into the heart of Thornton to the Carniceria y Taquieria La Flor de Michoacan to track down a spit of pastor.

It's shouldn't be surprising that this rejuvenating experience involved tacos al pastor. It has been a long time since I've written about a good taco al pastor, and for those of you that don't know, please click here or here to see just how deep my passion for this marinated pork-on-a-spit goes. You ought to (and might already) know that while many places in Denver advertise pastor on the menu, very few have it roasting on spit like it was meant to be.

"Exquisite and Delicious"

But back to that night. It was not the Carneceria that I was after per se, though we wandered to the back of it where they also sell tacos only to elicit a confused stare from the guy when we asked for pastor.

"Aqui no hay," he stated, passing his hand over a relatively enticing (but a little old-looking) guisado buffet as my heart sank into my stomach thinking we had arrived too late and missed the pastor bounty.

"Afuera?" I asked. Outside? He only shrugged, mumbled something about being new and disappeared back into the bowels of the store. In fact this guy was so clueless about the existence of pastor just a few steps away from him that if I hadn't already seen the tent at the side of the building I might have panicked a little.

We wandered back out of the little store and into the tent that was actually more like a lean-to conglomerate of brick, concrete and wood with the canvas facade of a tent. They had not run out of pastor.

Quite the opposite, in fact: The taquero was sharpening his knife, eying the stacked meat and grinning like a man who is at that moment happy to be doing exactly what he is doing. Before him was a lovely spit of marinated pork with a proper chunk of pineapple over its top. In the grill next to him bubbled chorizo sausages and chopped steak. Behind him a smiling woman who took our orders and motioned for us to sit.

We made our way to some plastic chairs in the back, away from the music of the ubiquitous CD vendors. As primitive as this set-up was, there was of course a flat-screen TV, and during our entire meal it was blaring Al Extremo, a nightly highlight reel of car crashes, natural disasters and general tragedy. The tires screeches and gratuitous screams of horror from the TV were partially silenced by the heater in front of us, which was essentially a miniature jet engine. In fact despite the cold on the other side of the canvas we were instantly boiling hot in front of this super-powered propane heater.

The chaotic din, the smells of frying meat, the dark, temporary shelter that was all-too permanent created an oasis of Mexican street life--it was only the occasional gust of frigid air through the cracks in the wood that reminded us we were just fifteen minutes from downtown Denver.

Our tacos came shortly after on small Styrofoam trays with a bounty of grilled onions and a grilled jalepeño. The salsa bar was pretty standard but featured an excellent smoky red and a tremendous tomatillo-avocado salsa.

The taco al pastor was excellent. I will have to go back and try it again before I put it towards the top of my list, but based on this experience it was close. The meat was sliced a little thick but it was charred well and the marinade was very good. It might have been a little sweet, but then again, I went a little overboard with the pineapple, which was self-serve up at the salsa bar.

Below is round two, less drenched in salsa though not pineapples. Equally as incredible. Though I have to admit the environment of this taco stall enhances the flavor significantly.

The tortillas on all the tacos were soft, and oily in a good way. On them I tried all the rest of the tacos that they had to offer that night. Chorizo is always good, but here it was a little better than average being that it was grilled to order in the open air of the tent. I followed that with a moist and tender taco de carne asada which was equally as good.

I finished the night with a couple of cabeza tacos. The specific meat can vary, but it is slow-cooked with steam and comes from various places in the cow's head. When done right it is succulent to the point where it falls apart in your hand. The flavor of La Flor's cabeza is rich and this taco rivaled the pastor.

La Flor de Michoacan reminds us how little is needed to create a meaningful, unforgettable food experience. No smoke and mirrors, hell, not even four solid walls. I needed a night like this to feel invigorated about food again. I've said a couple times before that certain places in Denver have felt like being back in Mexico, but they don't compare to crossing the threshold of this tent. Here I really felt like I entered a different world, and it was such a surreal experience that after getting back into my car and driving home, it almost didn't seem like it could have happened. I don't throw the term around loosely, but this is about as close as you can get to an "authentic" Mexican taco experience in this town-- both "real and honest" and "true to the original".

There are very few places like this in our fair city and I feel somehow reassured and good again just knowing that it is there. Surely this place won't be for everyone (you want to know your way around a taco stand), and for that matter I hope everyone that reads this doesn't rush out to go there (OK, I won't flatter myself, that never happens). In fact part of me struggled to even write about this place-- preferring to keep it to myself and my close friends-- and even after I publish it I think I will still have second thoughts. But I trust that those that go there will do so because they will know what to expect, crave and respect that; and will savor every single moment.

Visit Carniceria y Taquieria La Flor de Michoacan en Thorton at 2001 North Coronado Parkway on Friday, Saturday or Sunday starting at 4pm and go directly to the tent. If you also happen to need some freshly butchered meat, or are low on some groceries stop in the store itself and stock up. 

Carniceria y Taqueria La Flor de Michoacan on Urbanspoon


  1. Very, very cool. This is one that will excite The Director for sure.

  2. It's been a long time since I had tacos de cabeza. My mom roasted the head - they were always a treat because the meet was so tender and juicy.

  3. A must see, must taste, must stay, must support, must! AMAZING AMBIANCE!!! The Al Pastor was delicious (definitely up there with Tacos Veloz) and like stated, the avocado salsa was a must have as well as the grilled onions and jalapeños.

  4. Did you see Andrew Zimmer and the Bizarre Food episode in your native Chicago? They had pastor at Maxwell Street Market. The pastor was on a spit cooked with a device that held charcoal vertical chamber. We have to make one!

    Btw, they prefer a larger cut to the meat to get a stronger pork flavor. I tend to agree.

  5. Lorenzo - Thick meat is OK if they can get that char, but I still like it thinly sliced. Nice video, I missed that one. Here is my take on all those Maxwell Street spots.



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