Sunday, May 1, 2011

Denver al Pastor Take 10: Toluca Mexican Restaurant in Westminster

You know that taco smell? Not the enticing aroma of chopped meat sizzling over grill, but rather the odor that lingers on your clothes and hair-- that seems to ooze from every pore of your body--after you spend any amount of time in any respectable taqueria. It is the smell you carry into your office after a taco-lunch at which your co-workers jealously sniff in the air as you pass. It is the smell in your lovely wife's hair as you snuggle up and fall into a restless taco sleep after a late-night taco run; and it is the smell that you still have on your jeans when you go to put them on the next day. And although I don't dislike this clingy olfactory residuum on my clothes, breath and wife; I must say that it is not the most agreeable smell on a baby.

I learned this a couple weeks ago when my wife and I dined out for the first time with our babies at Toluca Mexican Restaurant in Westminster-- and even though the righteous taco-smell we left with forced us to  change and sponge down our babies once home, Toluca is much more than a taqueria. In fact they have a full bar and a large, though minimalist, and mostly pictorial menu that includes a wide variety of Mexican specialties. But it wasn't carne asada or menudo that we were here for. No, I dragged my family all the way up to Lowell and 92nd specifically for some tacos al pastor thanks to some some enticing photos sent to me a few weeks back.

Tacos al pastor are, of course, my raison d'etre (if you remember, they even made their way into my wedding) so when someone shows me pictures like that it doesn't take long for me to track down their source (although it takes me longer these days that ever before). When we arrived at the out-of-the-way strip mall from whence aforementioned spit originated I immediately asked to see the meat-stack they had going that night; and when I asked if I could take a picture, they invited me right back into the kitchen to check it out.

The staff at Toluca is incredibly friendly and inviting. They seem to do their best to take care of each and every customer, and for people like me that show a particularly keen interest in the going-ons of the kitchen, they are especially cordial. In fact after I had snapped a few photos it wasn't long before Victor, the affable patriarch of Toluca came out to talk with us himself.

By this time we had before us heaping plates of tacos al pastor and tacos de pescado. He introduced himself and immediately we began talking pastor. The first thing he did was apologize for the small size of the current spit, which as we all know is meaningless when it comes to taste, but nonetheless Victor was right: more pastor is better. When he sensed that I was more than a casual eater of tacos al pastor he disappeared into the kitchen and emerged seconds later with his secret spice rub for me to sniff.

This is a most unusual from my experiences in my wife's native Mexico City, where pastor recipes are guarded with ferocity and debate rages on not only about which taqueria has the best, but who invented it in the first place. But Victor is from a small town in the state of Puebla, so I guess he is more relaxed about those things, and it's not like he told me all the details-- but a whiff of the rub mix was strong with cumin and garlic.

It turns out that Victor is really passionate about his cooking. A few minutes later he emerged from the kitchen with a mole that he had just made from scratch. "No Doña Maria in there," he told us, referring to the ubiquitous (and remarkably decent) grocery-store jarred mole. "Mole Poblano," he proudly told us again. Made from scratch. Making mole from scratch is a tedious and delicate process and his did have the complex taste of a well-crafted version: smoky heat, bitter, earthy and rich. I was becoming more and more impressed with Victor and his little Westminster outpost.

It turns out he has always had a penchant for food. He started out years ago making carnitas at home and slinging them from his car by the kilo all over Denver and Aurora. He then did the same with tacos and as his business grew he took over Toluca Mexican restaurant a year ago.

At this point I had not had a chance to take more than a couple bites of my pastor, and as happy as I was to talk food with this man, my first bites of pastor were so good that I was practically drooling over my plate as he talked to us. Indeed these tacos al pastor are among the best I have had in Denver, and I can see how outside over open flame sliced right onto a taco (how Victor does it when he caters outside) it could be unrivaled in the metro area.

Besides the almost perfect taste, my favorite part were the absolutely perfect slices: thin, delicate and slightly charred; crispy but with plenty of marbled layers of gooey fat. Exactly how pastor should be sliced. Fresh pineapple balanced the bold flavor of the marinade and I'll say it yet again because it bears repeating: a superb taco al pastor.

The slice of pastor is ever-so important and I appreciate the efforts that Victor and his taquero go through to make every slice so thin and delicate. Too many taquerias take a great marinade and just about ruin it by carelessly hacking away at the meat, resulting in big, uneven chunks. In the US this has become all too commonplace and I let it slide because options are few and far between, but in Mexico City, the arguable home of pastor, these places wouldn't last a week with hack knife-jobs like that. In fact in the DF they take it to another level altogether and slice so quickly and deftly that the slice literally flies through the air and is caught on the tortilla-- never once touching a hand or plate.

It wasn't too long before I had mowed my way through the huge taco plate and ordered two more small tacos al pastor. It was at this time that Victor engaged us in a conversation about another hard-to-find Mexican specialty, Chiles en Nogada. This seasonal dish is served in conjunction with Mexican Independence Day in September and is a gloriously patriotic plate of a stuffed roasted chile (green) topped with a cold sauce of walnuts and goat cheese (white) and sprinkled (red) seeds of a pomegranate. He wanted my wife in particular to sample his sauce as this is one of her absolute favorites, and while his sauce had more of a heavy sour-cream taste (versus delicate goat cheese), it was still quite good and is another item that will keep us on the hook to return soon.

Before I forget, my wife's fish tacos were also very good. A mixture of shrimp and grilled fish, they were fresh and the fish was not over-cooked. It was no taco al pastor, and I can't imagine a scenario that would have me ordering those tacos while that spit of meat was roasting so close by. Nevertheless, if fish tacos are your thing, I would venture to say you would like these tacos.

I got my second round of tacos and as I was going to take my first bite Victor signaled to me as he was coming out of the kitchen. Beaming, he tilted the plate in his hand so I could see the perfect Mojarra Frita he was about to serve. He gave me a look like, "You know you want this." I did, but I was too full of pastor.

Before leaving I did something that I almost never do. I told Victor what I do in my spare time and told him I would like a picture for my piece. He responded the way most taqueria-owners do when I tell them: "A blog?" Then a look that either says: "What the hell is that?" or "What's wrong with you?" But true to his amiable ways he consented with a big smile even though I'm not sure he understood exactly what I wanted to do with this picture, and brought me back into the kitchen so that his family and cook could pose as well.

Toluca Mexican Restuarant is home to some great tacos al pastor but I also saw--and sampled-- a lot more. Victor and his mostly family-led crew are attentive hosts and purveyors of excellent Mexican food from tacos to regional specialties like his mole poblano and chiles en nogada. And in addition to being a family-friendly restaurant they do have that full bar along the back wall (which always makes family-time much more fun). So I encourage you to head on up to 92nd and Lowell in Westminster to visit Victor and company for some of Denver's finest pastor.

Toluca Mexican on Urbanspoon


  1. I am so very glad that you were able to trek up to my part of town to review the tacos al pastor at such a dive-y looking place that I have driven past, without stopping, approximately 1500 times. And to find out they do Chiles en Nogada as well! Oh, I am ashamed. And not a little hungry.

  2. So glad as well that you made it up here to try, seeing as how about a week ago I told him you would be :-D (didn't know it would be this soon)...After those pics from first friday I had to make it over there (the problem was I noticed the spit a little to late (thinking they only busted it out on weekends) and ordered two other items. After deciding to get up while waiting and ask about their pastor they both immediately opened up (very friendly to begin with, but you could tell pastor was a passion of theirs). I showed them pictures on my phone of them from your blog (he actually grabbed my phone and walked around the restaurant showing it to others) and confirmed that they (spit and all) will be at the Cinco De Mayo/first Friday celebration downtown! They also said that Friday and Saturday nights (weather permitting) until around 10pm they take the spit right outside of their restaurant! Love reading your blog and being new to Denver it's been an invaluable resource for me!



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