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.
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.