Sunday, June 30, 2013

Taqueria El Valle of 38th and Federal

The other day, Father's day, to be exact, my family and I set out to celebrate what should be considered a stunning achievement: I have been a father for over 2 years and my kids are (1) still alive, (2) have all their limbs, and (3) have not spent any time in jail. It's really more than I could ask for and brings tears to my eyes. Besides getting eight pairs of socks to commemorate the occasion, I got to pick a breakfast celebration location. That's how we found ourselves pulling up to a strip mall on 2925 W. 38th Ave just East of Federal.

I've written before about the strip malls of Denver, and how they hide some of the city's finest gems. I used to get surprised by this but I realize now, after 12 years in this town, that is just the way it is out West. Of course some of our city's finest eats are in the ugliest of strip malls: South Federal and basically all of Aurora are essentially one big strip mall. But I digress. It wasn't just that there was a good restaurant in this Sunnyside strip mall, it was also a telling representation of what this part of Denver is becoming.

On one end was our destination: El Valle Mexican Restaurant, and on the other a hip, line-out-the-door brunch spot. The parking lot, too, showed the diversifying diversity (that is, the gentrification) with Subarus on one end and big pick-ups on the other. The sad difference was, there was no line out the door at El Valle; in fact it was empty.

We walked in anyway and were greeted by a remarkably cheery server who sat us in one of the rigid wooden booths facing the street--or, um, the parking lot. We were served a still-hot basket of chips with a bowl of fresh-though-mild red salsa with big chunks of cilantro alongside a bowl of steaming pinto bean dip. The bean dip became quite the focus of attention in our 4-top, as my Mexican wife who claims to hate beans, went on and on about how much she loved this particular cup of beans; while I pointed out that every time she reminds us how much she doesn't like beans, it is while stuffing beans in her mouth. In the meantime, our boys, who really do love beans and would readily admit it, had eaten more than half the bowl. It really was good, and it is always a good sign when food that restaurants give away for free has been carefully prepared.

We ordered from the diverse breakfast menu; diverse, that is in the sense that they had both kinds of Mexican food: the Colorado green chile kind and the kind you find more of below our nation's border. We were inspired by the former, and ordered up some wonderfully sounding cultural blends of which, of course, there are infinite possibilities.

I had a smothered burrito filled with machaca. Smothered means lathered with green chile of course, and this was the gravy-like Colorado kind, and packed a nice spicy kick. Machaca usually means dried beef, and is common in Northern Mexico, but this was more like shredded beef. It also had eggs, potatoes and all the other breakfast burrito fixings wrapped up in a giant flour tortilla. It was nothing less than excellent.

My wife had what I believe was called something like a Mexican breakfast skillet. This sounds like something you might get at the Village Inn, but apart from the expected sizzling oval-shaped cast iron plate, this was a much more flavorful meal than could be had at any run-of-the-mill breakfast stop. The fresh chunks of chorizo, grilled onions, peppers, and potatoes made for a great breakfast taco with the accompanying tortillas. And my wife did her own smothering, you guessed it, with those lovely beans.

Gentrification is what it is, and will always happen in every city, but a neighborhood like Sunnyside is a special place, and I hope that it can find some balance like is found in this strip mall, although it would be nice to see a few more Subarus in front of El Valle. If not, the fate of El Valle might go the way of so many other restaurants in nearby hoods-- in fact El Valle was displaced from nearby LoHi not too long ago. If it were to altogether disappear, regardless of what the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood ends up being in the next five or ten years, that would be a shame.

Don't get this El Valle confused with Aurora's El Valle, but either way, you can't go wrong

Taqueria El Valle on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Three Out of Seven Ain't Bad: Representing Central America at El Tamarindo

I've driven past the large cowboy boot atop a sign advertising the space on the Southeast corner of Syracuse and Colfax many times. I even stepped inside the boxy building beneath the sunset shadows of this infamous footwear (years before starting this blog) when it was a Salvadorean place. I tasted a good assortment of food from Central America's smallest country only to see it shuttered the next time I tried to go. I wasn't heartbroken, as I can often be when my favorite little restaurants close down, as there are other good pupusas just down the road, but since it has been at least two other places (including one sketchy night club that I think really was called La Bota) since that time, I was understandably hesitant to venture back inside when it re-opened a couple years back as El Tamarindo.

I finally did go the other day, when a craving for some East Colfax fried masa had me scratching my head for a new option on this well-trodden strip of city where Denver meets Aurora. We settled on Tamarindo, which claims to be the only place in Denver where one can enjoy cuisine from all seven countries of Central America.

We took advantage of that claim, ordering the first thing on the menu: Garnachas de carne from Guatemala. A scoop of beef and potato picadillo covered a thick circular base of fried masa not unlike a sope, that was topped with a cabbage slaw, salsa and grated cotija-like cheese. Not sure how they rate on the "just-like-back-in-Guatemala-scale", but every part of it was delicious and it was a fabulous start to our meal.

Next up was a baleada, a Honduran quesadilla-like staple made with a super soft flour tortilla, this one stuffed with silky refried beans and rich crema. It was outstanding, and good to see after the Honduran food truck I stumbled upon last year seems to have disappeared.

The rest of the food as far as I could tell was strictly Salvadorean. And when we ordered the combo platter for four, it became nothing less than a Salvadorean feast.

The feast of course included pupusas. Wonderful, wonderful pupusas. They had that perfect char, a nice proportion of gooey cheese and things like squash, chicharrónes and beans; and though the slaw topping was a little wilted, the bright tomato salsa saved it, as did the respectably spicy house made habenro sauce.

The empanadas were deep fried and filled with the same beef picadillo as the garnachas, which is to say, they were excellent.

We also had the Salvadorean-style enchiladas, meaning nothing like the Mexican or New-Mexican rolls of tortilla most of us know. They are more like a sope as well, and these were just OK as the masa tasted old, and the chicken was flavorless. Also on the not-so-good side were the gigantic tamales. They looked great: fat masa rolls still steaming on top of their banana leaf husks--but they were not great. If it was 1988 and I were my high school self again, I would have said they were, "straight nasty." Dry, flavorless and filled with large chunks of overcooked meat.

The current owners are from El Salvador, which makes sense, given the menu bias. They didn't seem to represent all of Central America that well, but to be fair I didn't get a chance to go over the menu in excruciating detail. I didn't see the typical plates like gallo pinto or vigaron from Nicaragua or Costa Rica. Panama and Belize? Not too familiar with their platos tipicos, but didn't see anything on the menu from there either. So if you are in the mood for some good dishes representing 3/4 of northern Central America, El Tamarindo is your place. In other words, if you want some good Salvadorean food and maybe a sampling of other neighboring countries' dishes, check it out, and if you have time (read: you don't dine with 2 year old twins) maybe you'll see the other Central American specialties I missed. 

El Tamarindo on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mile High Vienna Beef and Baseball

While it is true that pork and baseball share much in common, and go together like only sweet swine and our nation's past time can, summertime and ball games also beckon for beef. Given that many of you might think I am craving an all-beef hot dog or a big juicy burger is probably part of the reason I have such a hard time finding a beef around here, because they aren't as common as they should be.

Still don't follow me? In Chicago, where the beef was born and bred, you say "beef" and mouths start watering, as clearly you are talking about the Italian beef sandwich. Of course, in Chicago most everyone is fat (literally 67% of the population is overwieght or obese according to their own website), so I'm not saying that is necessarily a good thing, but it sure would be nice to find a really great beef in this town, and if it takes adding a few more inches to our collective waistlines, might it not just be worth it?

I have had some pretty good beefs in and around Denver but again and again readers have directed me to Mile High Vienna Beef on Santa Fe. For whatever reason I have still not made it down there, but last year they opened up a stand just steps from the ballpark downtown, and now that my boys are of baseball-going age, we ended up there a few weeks into the season.

Judging on appearances, mile high Vienna has everything it needs, which is to say, it s pretty plain looking-- just some sports memorabilia, a TV and a big menu board. Beef requires nothing fancy, and in fact it probably is safe to say that its good taste is inversely proportional to the fanciness of the place where it is served. Based on this science-like fact, I was looking forward to my first Mile High beef. 

We ordered dogs for the kids which were pretty straightforward. I didn't try them, as I was here for bigger and better things. My wife was apparently ready for even bigger things than me, though I'm not sure it was better.

That is a picture of a large Italian sausage under a full sandwich's worth of Italian beef. The picture does not do its size justice, and I don't think any picture would really give you the full experience. In order to really understand what it was like, you only had to listen to my wife's groaning and moaning after eating only half of this monstrosity.  

I, on the other hand, for once in my life, ordered somewhat responsibly, and stuck with a simple beef with hot peppers. 

It was a decent beef. The meat was tender, the giardiniera hot, the bun thoroughly soaked, and it had a nice, full, beefy taste. One of the better I've had in Denver's city limits. I'm not so hung up on finding a perfect beef any more in Denver, though with all the Chicagoans that continue to move here en masse, and the Chicago-style pizza joints that have recently opened (and on my radar), I wouldn't be surprised if a really great beef comes along soon. Until then, Mile High Vienna Beef will do the trick though I think I'll be trying a few Chicago dogs next time I am there. 

Mile High Vienna Stand on Urbanspoon


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