Sunday, November 27, 2011

Maria Empanada: Buenos Aires Comes to Lakewood

A couple weeks ago my wife and I (and babies) went to a party hosted by our friend of Cuban descent. We arrived late--extremely so-- as is our custom (or flaw depending on how you look at it), so our ropa vieja and other Cuban delights had to be re-heated in the microwave. While I was waiting for my plate to heat, I espied on other guests' plates the uneaten edges and leftover bits of Argentino-style empanadas withering away in the afternoon sun.

In other eras of my life, half-eaten empanadas would have been a step up from my usual meal, and it did cross my mind to reach over onto my neighbor's plate and sample his cold, already-been-chewed-on pastry. But I didn't really know too many people at this party, and I try not to embarrass my wife in front of her friends when I can help it, so I restrained myself and let it be.

A plateful of Cuban food later I was content and had just about forgotten those empanadas, but as we were leaving I saw a black-white menu on the counter; it read: Maria Empanada. I proceeded to stuff it in my pocket only to get a glare from my wife that read: "We don't take things from other people's homes without asking." Point taken, and since our hostess was busy with goodbyes, and all the hugging and kissing that goes along with that, I made the questionable call to try and remember to check out Maria Empanada as soon as possible.

Luckily my memory for eating potentially great food is better than my memory for the rest of life's more mundane tasks, and a few weeks later we made the trip to Lakewood to check it out.

Maria Empanada is an inviting little building that Buenos Aires native Lorena Cantarovici recently opened on Mississippi just East of Sheridan. Made to look like a rustic log cabin (it used to be a BBQ joint), it practically glows with welcoming warmth on an otherwise grungy street ripe with strip mall storefronts and half-empty parking lots. The inside is cozy and has a simple elegance that will make you want to stay all day, but the small space only has two tables and four chairs so the preferred method of ordering is take-out.

The empanada spread was thin when we entered, but it was an hour from closing and Lorena gladly offered to make us anything we wanted if we were willing to wait about seven minutes. With both babies asleep in their car seats on the floor we couldn't think of anything better than to catch our collective breath and sniff at the aroma of baking dough as it wafted from the kitchen.

In addition to the empanadas, there is also a lovely display of Spanish Tortillas and Argentine Tartas. After about three minutes of staring at these savory cakes, we decided we definitely needed to take home a couple slices.

Soon after the empanadas started to appear, and the very attentive man at the register arranged the dozen in a box, painstakingly labeling each on the lid above.

He then asked us if we would like any dipping sauce. From the four options we picked the chimichurri and the hot red salsa. We loaded it all up in our arms, excited to get home and enjoy our Argentine feast.

As is my wife's custom (a product of being raised in a big city where being cheated is the norm), on the way to the car she scrutinized the receipt and pointed out that we were charged for the sauces. That's like having to pay more for the salsa on your tacos, or for a packet of mustard for your hot dog. Sure it was only 70 cents on top of a 30-some dollar tab, but as they say, it's the principle of the thing.

70 cents worth of chimichurri and a mild hot sauce

Seconds later, however, I forgot all about being nickel-and-dimed for my chimichurri as I was biting into a spicy beef empanada and loving it. Still hot from the oven, the dough was flaky and slightly crisp. It was delicate but just hardy enough that the juicy fillings didn't leak all over my lap. The beef was not spicy in the least when you eat as many tacos as I do, but we are talking Argentina, Che, and if I closed my eyes and concentrated, I think I could taste that Porteño "kick".

Upon arriving home and re-warming our haul in the oven, I dug into a traditional beef, which has raisins on top of the spicy beef ingredients of olives, onions, peppers and eggs. This Argentine classic is what I had been hoping for when I first espied that menu and it did not disappoint. Even reheated it did not lose any of its crisp, flaky allure, and the subtle sweetness of the occasional raisin rounded out the strong, savory olives.

The only one I didn't love was the Blue Cheese that also came stuffed with melted queso fresco, walnuts olives and eggs. All the flavors, even the fresh-baked excellent dough got lost in an abyss of pungent cheese. The earthy Mushroom empanada, however, had just the right amount of cheese, and with plenty of simply seasoned sauteed mushrooms, this was one of my favorites.

The classic Ham and Cheese along with the Tango (ham, cheese, bell peppers, onions) were also excellent as the simple flavors let the dough shine.

My absolute favorite of the night was the Spinach. In the middle of this sauteed-spinach-and-onion-filled empanada was a hard boiled egg yolk. The meaty yolk and the gooey spinach were perfect together, and once again, the flavors were enhanced by the wonderful dough.

Cantarovici also makes Argentine Tartas, essentially a large pie with a flaky, empanada-like crust. We chose the Vegetable tarta. It was densely packed with finely julienned veggies (carrots, zucchini, bell pepper, onion) and a ton of fresh flavor. It was delicious.

And finally we tried a simple Tortilla Española. The layers of thin potatoes were perfectly cooked, as was the egg holding it all together. Bits of red and green bell peppers rounded out this well-executed, tasty tortilla.

The good of paying money for miniscule amounts of sauce is that it teaches one conservation. Maybe that was the point. In a move true to my Midwestern upbringing that would make my mother (and mother-in-law) proud, instead of throwing out the remains as I might have with free salsa, I put both almost-empty containers back in the fridge. It was only yesterday, almost two weeks after our empanada run that I felt compelled to finally throw them out.

There is still 7 or 8 cents of sauce left in there!

Cantarovici's empanadas have that home-cooked feel, and they should, as each is hand rolled and baked fresh continuously throughout the day. All in all I was impressed. Having spent a bit of time in the Capital Federal de Argentina, I would say it is well worth a trip to visit for a taste of a Porteña-made empanada right here in Denver. I only hope she is able to expand the seating options at some point, as it is such a great space. 

Maria Empanada on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tacos y Salsas y Zombies: A Denver Taco Institution Opens Downtown

Saturday, October 22nd I found myself with my family and our friends on an evening stroll through the surreal and rather impressive gathering of zombies in the Denver Zombie Crawl on the 16th Street Mall. The Mall was literally packed with walking-dead look-a-likes, many head-to-toe in incredibly detailed costumes and make-up jobs. I imagine an entire evening of zombie impersonation requires one to be well-fed and more than a little drunk, and the surrounding bars and restaurants were overflowing with the undead. Hungry ourselves after our saunter, we decided to check out the newest  of the Tacos y Salsas branches (the eighth if you are counting) on Stout Street just off the Mall.

In contrast to the zombie mania just steps away, we walked into Tacos y Salsas and were greeted by a nice young lady who escorted us to a booth. But before we could sit down we were intercepted by an absolutely crazy--albeit friendly--employee who shook all of our hands and insisted that he knew me--get this-- from television. Although I can't say that this has happened ever before, I wasn't all that surprised, as I've always thought that my uncanny resemblance to the great LDP (or more likely, as I have confessed in another post, an older, creepier version of Cory Haim as Lucas) has potential to create confusion. Whatever the reason, after our initial greeting, each time he passed our table, he gave me several exaggerated winks and excited points, or winkpoints, and laughed in a half-maniacal, half-nervous manner.

I start every morning like this, too. 
Photo Source

Since Tacos y Salsas opened its downtown location earlier this year, I have been extremely happy to see what I view as a legitimate taqueria move to the Mall. Despite this, I have also been concerned that they would, for lack of a better expression, "gringo-up" the place, including the food. Our server, though he might have scared off both Mexicans and non-Mexicans alike, was case in point that Tacos y Salsas was not out to pander to what can be a mundane mix of tourists and business folk that frequent the Mall.

Guys on the back of the booth, hard at work. 

The decorations were another story. Many restaurants that market their food and services to those not accustomed to Mexican food with spice, depth or flavor often go overboard on the "Mexican" decor in order to presumably make up for their otherwise lack of Mexican-ness. In that vein, your first impression of the newest Tacos y Salsas branch might lead you to believe that they had gone this route in anticipation of a more bland clientele. But this place is beyond the typical Mexican-kitsch, and whoever was in charge of designing it went absolutely over the top. Every booth, table, chair and other adornment you can think of was a faux-ceramic creation featuring some "typical" scene from some "typical" pueblo in Mexico.

Lady on the table: elated with my salsa

If nothing else the visual impact was in itself stunning for the sheer assault of bright color, sombreros and serapes. And if that weren't enough (it was), along one wall running the entire length of the long space was a mural in the grandest of forms featuring as its centerpiece a lovely airbrushed woman under a Tacos y Salsas canopy tent.

The Tacos y Salsas Matron

If this were a conversation instead of a platform for me to endlessly rant and rave as I see fit, this would be where you, dear reader, might say something to the effect of: "Shut up and tell me about the food." Decoration and staff insanity levels can only tell one so much about a place, and what we all really want to know about the new downtown Tacos y Salsas location is: Did they change anything about their food?

I ordered pastor like I always do from Tacos y Salsas though I'm never sure why. It does come from a spit in their Federal and Colfax locations (though I didn't see one here), but it is chunky, not crisp and has a decidedly "adobada" flavor to it. Nevertheless the words just roll off my tongue when I am there (as they do in many other situations in my life, some less appropriate than others). Its taste and texture was the same as the other locations as far as I could tell which is OK, but still nothing all that special.

I also tried the barbacoa taco (beef not goat) and at first bite wished everything I ordered that night had this luscious, tender beef in, on or all over it. Although I can't compare it to the other locations (as for some reason I had never ordered this before), the barbacoa that night was phenomenal.

Although now usurped by the barbacoa, carnitas was one of my Tacos y Salsas staple meats. This night I ordered them in gordita form. It was slightly over-fried and was stuffed New Mexican-style with chopped lettuce, onions, tomatoes and a yellow-white mix of cheese. Not what I was expecting and not my favorite toppings for a gordita, but nonetheless it was good and--no surprise-- I ate it all.

By the end of our meal, the crazy man who knew me from television ended up being pretty much just another nice and mostly attentive server--that is, until it came time to pay. In classic Mexican market-stall fashion, when my friend and I started to hand him our cash to settle our $24 tab, he insisted that he didn't have change for our two twenties. In fact, when he spied the ones in my wallet (yes he was trying to look in my wallet) he asked me to hand them over. We explained that we were splitting the bill so would also have to split the change, but he just gave us a loud sigh and an exasperated look. Knowing this game all too well I shoved the two twenties into his hand, and though still annoyed, he pulled out an unwiedly wad of ones, fives and tens; and proceeded to count off our change with a look like he was doing us a favor. Ridiculous, but classic.

It is good to see from my small sampling that night that Tacos y Salsas has seemingly stayed true to the Mexican food (and its taco-stand anti-change-making roots) it is known for--even on the 16th Street Mall. It isn't the best taqueria around but it is all-round solid in its tacos and for a late-night joint downtown it simply can't be beat.


After the meal we were lured back out onto the street to parade around in the growing madness of what seemed like even more zombies, by now all the drunker and more, well, zombie-like than before. It was pleasantly chaotic. From everywhere zombies were lurching, wrestling, moaning and--much to the displeasure of several tourists I saw (but not to our children)--jumping out from behind corners and startling whoever happened to be walking by.

Tacos y Salsas on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tarasco's New Latino Cuisine: Masterful Mole and More

Many, many weeks ago my wife and I met some friends in what was a rare but much-needed rest during my frenetically-paced September. Completely wired and simultaneously tired from a month-long toxic mix of caffeine, a computer screen, and squealing infants all through the wee hours of the night, I decided it was time to finally check out a place that had been at the top of my list for a while now. I am referring to Tarasco's Nuevo Latino Restaurant which was recommended to me at least two years ago by the knowledgeable Examiner reporter Thomas Spahr for its made-from-scratch mole.

Mr. Spahr

Mole is something that is hard to find done right. There are good moles around town to be sure (El Diablo, Laughing Ladies, Chili Verde, El Paraiso to name a few), but the best I have had Stateside have been those I have made in my own kitchen using Patricia Quintana's Mulli recipe book as a guide. When Mr. Spahr touted Tarasco's as Denver's best, I knew I had to go. I just didn't plan on taking two years to get there.

If you have ever arrived at Tarasco's and ordered mole from its menu without an explicit recommendation from someone else then I commend you. Located just South of the busy Alameda and Federal intersection, it is understandable that you would drive right past it on the way to one of your other favorite taquerias, pho shops, Banh Mi bakeries or other "ethnic" eateries. If you originally set out to find Tarasco's, it would be no fault of yours if you missed it, as it is hidden at the end of a narrow parking lot, and there doesn't seem to have been any concerted effort to advertise its presence closer to the street. If you did manage to get as far as the parking lot, you would have had to push your way through the thick plumes of smoke coming from the dispensary next door and fight off your sudden growing sense of apathy.

One-stop shopping

Next, as you pondered whether or not you should open the door and step inside for some Mexican food, you would not be alone in having second thoughts, as the outside walls are plastered with signs touting the great--indeed "los mejores perros calientes"-- hot dogs. If you decided to enter, you were greeted with even more signs tempting you to try the hot dogs (I didn't have any, but even a bacon-wrapped Mexican hot dog can't beat a good mole). If by now you hadn't already ordered a hot dog (because you now had the munchies), you sat down to open a busy menu full of many typical Mexican platters. If you made your way past the first page and onto the second, there was a small section of "Especialidades". Here were your two mole options. If you ordered them, well done.

The hot dog sign is bigger than the restaurant sign

To be fair I have not sampled the hot dogs or many other dishes from the Tarasco menu, but for your first visit here there are really only three places you need to look for ordering options: One is the "Specials" board on the back wall, the second is the aforementioned "Especialidades" section of the menu and third are the items highlighted with an "*". It is not really clear what the asterisk refers to, but take it as a subtle hint (versus the explicit hot dog signs) that will take you down a path of great Mexican food.

From the asterisk-ed menu items we started with the guacamole. A mash of avocado with any combination of cilantro, onion, tomato, garlic and chiles is bound to be good, but the Tarasco's version was truly great. It was full of big chunky onions, copious amounts of cilantro and healthy portions of both tomatoes and jalapenos. I believe it was even mixed and molcajete-d to order.

The nopales were my wife's favorite, as this Mexican cactus is not often on Mexican restaurant menus in our city--much less done two ways. She chose the nopales asados over the ensalada and we were not disappointed. The grilled nopales were perfectly cooked so as not to be rubbery nor particularly slimy, and simply seasoned with salt. A generous squeeze of lime and a few dabs of a hot red salsa made for one of the better nopales I have had on either side of the border.

Tamales de elote might seem like a redundant choice: corn masa filled with corn--but the corn filling inside of these steamed corn masa appetizers was creamy and sweet; and over the top was drizzled that typical and fabulous Mexican crema, which is much more like crème fraîche than your usual sour cream.  

For the mole there were two options, a red "siete chiles" mole and a green tomatillo-based one. Each (I preferred red, my wife green) is the the kind of plate where you may very well find yourself "mmmm-ing" out loud as you savor every rich, complex flavor. As you feel the chile's heat slowly build in your mouth after layers of sesame, garlic, cumin (and too many more to even guess at or list) you may smile or even burst into spontaneous laughter that you could have a mole this good in a place this far from Mexico. In fact I have eaten my fair share of moles in Mexico, and besides a few experiences of very literal mole nirvana--one at a table with Chef Quintana herself, the others during a homestay in college with a family in Morelia--Tarasco's was better than most of them.

The siete chiles: dark and rich; bitter, nutty, sweet and then pleasantly spicy. I got mine with shredded pork carnitas. Absolutely incredible.

The green mole: lighter and more acidic likely from the tomatillo base. Also a rich and complex mix of flavors but without as many layers as the red siete chiles. Still it was an excellent mole and reason enough to make a trip out here.

Other menu items sampled at our table that night were impressive as well. A highlight was this house-made huarache piled high with among other things thick cuts of nopales and smothered in the excellent red mole.

I could go on and on about the great food we had. In fact I will for just a bit. It is worth mentioning that Tarasco's also has an impressive assortment of fresh made liquados (shakes) and jugos. There are more combinations of fruit and vegetable drinks than would seem necessary, and the health benefits of many are found lining the walls of the restaurant along with Mexicanismos, or dichos (sayings), that are always good for a laugh. My favorite, loosely translated, read: "Guns are loaded by the devil, and fired by pendejos."

One last menu item I need to cram in here are the churros. For whatever reason I have had the hardest time finding a good churro in this town, and Tarasco's has one of the better ones I have tried. It was nothing special; just perfectly fried, sweetened and served piping hot. A fitting way to end one of the best Mexican meals I have had in Denver.

I am kicking myself (which is a step up from the usual: other people kicking me) for taking my sweet time to eat at Tarasco's Nuevo Latino Cuisine. The crew and owners of Tarasco's clearly take pride in their food and take the time to do things the right way. The result of their careful efforts was for us a most memorable Mexican meal. I would urge you not to make the same mistake I did and get to Tarasco's as soon as you are able. And maybe next time I'll get around to trying that hot dog, but only if it's covered in mole.

Tarasco's New Latino Cuisine on Urbanspoon


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