Thursday, January 10, 2013

Oh My, LoHi: Loncheria Mexicana has Closed, but La Mexicana Taqueria is Still Around

Long before the LoHi nickname became commonplace, 32nd and Zuni was one of Denver's great old school corners. OK, it still is a great corner, though in a much newer way-- and anytime a neighborhood gentrifies as quickly as this one has, old businesses shut down and new ones open up that completely change the face--and soul--of a neighborhood.

For example, now gone for some time is a place I wrote about just a couple years back: Loncheria Mexicana, which served, among other Colorado Mexican standards, a quality, smothered carne asada burrito. The funky, small space sits unoccupied again, but I can't imagine anything quite as--well, Mexican-- will replace it. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it's worth pointing out--and thinking about: a unique, diner-style, family run Mexican lunch spot is gone for good.

Closed and Closed again

Looking back some years, the Aztec Sol was one of the first attempts at some of this gentrification-- a sort of edgy mix of Mexican bar with a large tequila selection and a few modern twists to try and attract some of the newer and younger residents. It was actually a nice attempt to blend the old with the new that was inevitably coming, but sadly it didn't make it, and now in its place is the perfectly fine, but slightly plain, Highland Tap. Our friends, who live just steps from what was Aztec Sol and is now Highland Tap, had a stray bullet hit their house seven or eight years ago. They sometimes joke about preferring the old sounds of occasional gunfire to the continuous parade of loud drunks leaving the Tap at two in the morning.

Of course flying bullets are not something anyone should have to live near, and besides less random violence, gentrification has also meant a slew of great restaurants and options for families that never existed before. But when a neighborhood starts to lose everything that it once was in a period of just a few years, it's hard to think that is good either.

Enter Mexicana Taqueria which, despite having its adjoining mini-mart turned into a trendy bike shop, sits undisturbed. It's not historic like some of the disappearing Italian joints that also dot the hood, but it's been around since 1996, which is like ancient history as fast as Denver has been growing over the past few decades.

I hadn't been to Mexicana since starting this blog, so we did a slow drive-by before heading in just to make sure it was still there. Gladly, it was. La Mexicana Taqueria is the kind of place that greets you in Spanish. The clientele also mostly speak Spanish. Although, incredibly friendly and welcoming, there are little to no attempts to cater its menu or services to anyone other than those coming in for a good meal of unpretentious Mexican.

We had never been there for breakfast, and rolled in just as it was opening (8:30am) with babies in tow. The breakfast menu is rather small at La Taqueria--just five items--with four being egg dishes like huevos rancheros, and one a plate of cheese enchiladas covered in fried eggs: enchiladas montadas. I ordered that and it was pretty damn good--though one egg was fried over-medium and the other came out over-hard, but the red salsa was excellent.

My wife, in a half-asleep homage to her new-found Colorado Mexican side, ordered tacos dorados, which came out, of course, as three fried tortillas in a half shell, filled to the brim with shredded chicken and topped with lettuce and crema.

Being Mexican Mexican, she was expecting little rolled-up taquitos or flautas; but apart from the shape, they were the same thing. And they were actually very good. The tortilla was freshly fried and the chicken, which is often so plain in many taquerias, was well-flavored and moist. The highlight, however, and what I remember from my other trips to this restaurant, was the table salsas.

In particular there was a dark green, smoky, roasted salsa that killed. I ended up making a taco out of my enchilada (with part of my boys' tortillas) and dousing it in this salsa it was so good. (Speaking of, why aren't there more tacos de enchiladas?)

Breakfast, with its limited selection, is probably not the best meal to enjoy at Mexicana Taqueria, but the place was starting to fill up when we left. However I do remember loving a smothered burrito, a chile relleno and a plate of tacos I had there years ago. I, for one, like it enough that I will visit again soon--though I must admit it will be in part because I just want it to keep being there too.

Places like the Mexicana Taqueria are fading away fast, and they offer the potential to be a bridge between the new and the old in a quickly changing neighborhood like LoHi--and what better way to build bridges than over a plate of enchiladas? (Or down the street at Panaderia Rosales over some freshly baked pan dulce?) Gentrification is inevitable and entrepreneurship via capitalism is not at all sentimental or nostalgic. That being said, patronizing places like this taqueria--which makes great food at great prices--is a way to keep some of that old flavor around. That might not be important to everyone, but all too often we don't know a good thing until it's long gone.

  La Mexicana Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Night of Unforgettable Enchiladas: Is Tarasco's My Favorite Mexican Restaurant in Denver?

A couple of months ago my wife asked me where I would like to have my birthday dinner. Table 6? Frasca? Insert fancy restaurant name here? Almost without hesitation I blurted out: Tarasco's. She laughed a little but understood, and proceeded to secretly call the owner to try and set up a surprise private birthday tasting menu, and make sure they would have enough room in their small dining room for us and eight or ten of our friends. When he kept speaking to her in English, she told him she was from Mexico as well. "Oh," he told her, "Only Americanos call to ask questions and make reservations. Just come in and and we'll set you up."

If you don't already know, Tarasco's is owned and run by young and affable Noe, a native of Michoacan, a place rich in culinary tradition and well-known for its mole. Tarasco's has, without a doubt the best assortment of moles I have tried in Denver-- and while I can't say for sure they are the best in town, they are good enough that I have stopped looking elsewhere.

We were seated in the middle of the small and homey dining room. My lovely wife quickly negotiated the first courses that started with a cup of Tarasca soup, a typical dish from Michoacan made with a base of beans, cream and tomatoes, but with a smoky depth, hint of heat and crisp freshness unlike anything I've had in a long time. An amazing way to start what would be an unforgettable feast.

Next was a very good cup of red pozole. It lacked the goodness and rich flavor that comes from a slow-cooked pigs head like the best of Mexico City's pozoles, but it was good nonetheless.

Our next plate was a quartet of grilled nopales, of course. My wife is enamored with this hard-to-find-done-right-outside-of-Mexico dish, and the Tarasco's version is indeed stellar. It was polished off in no time and served as a nice build-up for what was to come.

Here is where the night gets a little hazy. After the nopal plates were cleared, a flurry of enchiladas poured through our table. I'm not sure I even captured all of them on film, but needless to say each one was uniquely exquisite.

Let's say we started with the mole verde and the mole siete chiles. I have had both of those before at Tarasco's, though in previous visits it was always poured over a plate of luscious carnitas. Can't say I necessarily prefer the enchilada version more, but the tortilla does provide optimal soaking of the delicious sauce and I even made a couple tacos filled with nothing but the mole when nothing else was left. Incredible.

The mole amarillo was a special that night and again was unique and divine. I believe it gets its color from corn masa and tomatillos, but its taste is layered and complex.

Many moons ago I posted a recipe for enchiladas mineras, a delicious regional specialty of Guanajuato. I wondered aloud in that post if anyone in Denver made them. Now I know. It so happens that one of the cooks is from Guanajuato, so it is with this stroke of luck that they have arrived in Denver on a menu somewhere. If you still haven't tried them, now would be a good time.

The tortillas are soaked in a guajillo-based sauce and the filling includes carrots and potatoes. I make mine with chicken as well, but this simple, common version was every bit as delicious without the meat.

I think my favorite dish of the night came last. It was an extraordinarily simple plate of enchiladas de espinacas. The sauteed spinach drenched in red chile sauce matched perfectly with the crumbled, sharp cotija. The tortillas were soft, dipped in a green salsa and stuffed with more of that excellent--and I mean excellent as in perfect--spinach.

We finished our meal with flan, lovely sweet corn tamales, and a beautiful, tear-jerking spread of churros. The flan was delightful, as was the tamal. In my younger days I could have eaten tamal, flan and the entire plate of churros. But alas, we were here with others, which meant sharing food.

I think a few months ago I said something stupid (ok, I do that every week) about how hard it was to find a good plate of churros in this town. I had completely forgotten about Tarasco's. Now I don't have to worry about overpaying for my churro-fix either.

This was the type of meal where you become sad that the human body has evolved to feel fullness. I could have happily kept eating for the pure pleasure of those delicately balanced flavors dancing on my tongue. But alas the too-slow peristaltic process of digestion signaled the end of yet another meal--but what a meal it was.

People frequently ask me what my favorite Mexican restaurant is. It is such a hard question to answer, in part because what, in the end, is Mexican food in the United States anyway? It can mean so many different things. There is so much to consider and I like the whole gamut, from the green chile smothered, yellow-cheese-topped burritos to a parrillada de pescado to a delicate Oaxacan mole. That being said, if I don't consider taquerias, I must admit that Tarasco's is my first choice for a good spread of Mexican food. And until I come across something better, I am going to say it: Tarasco's is my favorite Mexican restaurant in Denver.

Tarasco's New Latino Cuisine on Urbanspoon


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