It also means I can take my babies out taco-hunting without fear of frost bitten toes (though that would be a good story for them to tell their own kids one day). Such that it was that I found myself with my wife and boys under the hot March sun in a mostly empty parking lot on the Southwest corner of Zuni and Evans.
We were here to meet the notorious Mantonat, who came through yet again with another spying of a spit stacked with pork loins dripping with pastor marinade. This pastor was being slung from a food cart called "Tacos el Sampa",
There are not as many things that make me smile as much in my Denver food bubble as finding a new spit of pastor--especially one in the open air--and El Sampa's spit was indeed glorious. Save for the missing pineapple sitting atop its skewer, it would stand proudly among its Mexico City cousins.
Although there was no pineapple to be found roasting on top, there were fresh slices spread on the tacos themselves. The meat, as US hyper-hygiene standards require, was not cooked directly on the spit but rather on the neighboring grill, which I suppose is better than being cooked both places. And because of the obligatory grill-pass the taquero hacked off meat in large careless chunks, not needing to take the care to shave off only the outer cooked layer. But even with the uneven thickness of the meat cuts, it ended up being well-charred and not overcooked.
The flavor of the pastor was a little subtle and might have benefited from a longer soaking, or a more concentrated marinade. The salsas, however, were excellent--both the red and the green had that homemade casera taste--and packed a respectable amount of heat.
While the pastor in itself was worth coming back for, the carne asada was superb. By far the best I've had in recent memory anywhere in Denver. It is so often overcooked and dry, but this grilled and chopped steak was terrifically tender and flavorful.
The Tacos el Sampa folks hail from Puebla, a city known for its Tacos Arabes. There are many, many different ways to cook tacos arabes as I have learned since talking with the Sampa taquero, but as far as I can tell no real consensus save that they should be spit-roasted and served tightly-wrapped in a thin flour tortilla.
When we were questioning the taquero about the tacos arabes at El Sampa, there was quite a bit of confusion in our back-and-forth despite the fact that we both spoke Spanish. It wasn't clear, for example, what kind of meat they were using. He kept saying "carne blanca", or "white meat", which I would then try and clarify by saying, "pork." Thought instead of nodding he just kept saying "carne blanca" and never really verified that it was actually from a pig. Now usually unidentified meat is a "bad sign" and my general rule would be that if the guy making your tacos isn't crystal clear as to what meat he is using then you probably don't want to hang around his taco stand long enough to be the one trying to figure it out.
But seeing as how I'm not that picky (I'm pretty sure I have unknowingly eaten my share of both canine and equine meat in my travels) and I really wanted to try his version of tacos arabes, I went with it. The first thing I did when he handed me my taco was to unfurl it to examine the meat. You would think that when I saw that it was clearly not white I would have returned it, tossed it in the trash or in some other way question my taquero's general competence or lack thereof. But no, my curiosity and consistent knack for making bad decisions was such that I took a big bite.
As I was saying: it was not white, nor was it all that pork-like as far as I could tell. I didn't have the time to examine it all that closely (I was holding an impatient, squirming toddler in one arm), but I concluded that it had the color and consistency of steak and let's leave it at that. It was covered in a dark red-brown sauce that tasted like a sweet barbecue sauce. It was a little peppery and tangy but it was not spicy. It was good. The thin flour tortilla, one of the best parts about the taco arabe, was both crispy and soft. It is like a mini-burrito without all the extraneous lettuce, rice and other fillers. It is all meat. What meat exactly remains to be discovered, but meat it was.
I jest of course and in no way mean to imply that Tacos el Sampa is serving anything other than USDA-inspected meat from a commonly consumed farm animal. I'm sure that there was just some confusion on my part (there still is), and please don't let my sarcasm deter you from sampling any and everything on the El Sampa menu. That being said, if anyone else wants to weigh in on the "what's that meat" debate please leave a comment or send me an email. And even if I made the taco arabe unappealing (though I'll restate for the record: I liked it a lot) the carne asada and pastor are ready for you to join them for some spring and summer outdoor taco fun.
Taco el Sampa is located on the corner of Evans and Zuni in Denver, CO.