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Denver’s Mexican food landscape ballyhoos taco trucks and humble taquerias, rustic cantinas and modern bistros run by Mexico-born chefs reimagining the dishes of their childhood. Navigate the streets of the city to discover shrimp aguachili rooted in the State of Sinaloa, complex Oaxacan mole, savory street tacos summited with spit-roasted pork and fiery salsa and bubbling molcajetes stewed with meats and seafood. There’s a staggering repertoire of Mexican restaurants to make you happy for days.
This same-name sibling of the original Kachina Southwestern Grill — a staple in the Westminster suburb — anchors the chic Maven Hotel on Denver’s Dairy Block, a mixed-use development in Lower Downtown (LoDo) that’s poised to become a flourishing culinary destination. The Denver outpost, which also lays claim to a separate cocktail lounge called Poka Lola Social Club (the swanky, retro-romantic ambiance calls for your cocktail-hour finest), is atmospheric with a large neon-hued wall-length mural of a woman parading feathered earrings and sunglasses reflecting a desert sunset. The main dining room, a mix of adobo accents, marble tables and orange and turquoise banquettes that pay homage to the colors rooted in the Southwest, is the perfect foil for the food, a creative (but not overreaching) cannon of tamales, empanadas, chicken, beef and seafood dishes, excellent New Mexican posole and the restaurant’s signature Navajo tacos.
Chef and prolific restaurateur Richard Sandoval (Tomayo, La Sandia and Avon-based Maya) introduces a progressive and eclectic wave of global flavors at Toro Latin Kitchen + Lounge, the newest dining destination inside Cherry Creek’s classy Hotel Clio. Sandoval’s menu, absent culinary guardrails, latches on to ingredients from Brazil, Argentina, Asia, Japan, Venezuela and, of course, Mexico, the result of which is a melting pot of vivacious flavors that dazzle on the plate. Contemporary banquettes and dark-wood tables share space with hand-painted bull murals (“toro” means “bull” in Spanish), private tequila lockers and a dedicated ceviche bar from which dishes like the aji amarillo ceviche with hamachi, mango and cucumber, emerge. A large, open-air patio, softly lit with strands of white lights and decked out with swanky lounge furniture, is a hotspot for happy hour. Get the smoked swordfish dip and pair it with a mercado margarita with jalapeño-infused tequila, passion fruit and hibiscus-rosemary foam.
A long-standing landmark on Larimer Square, Tamayo, the brainbox of prominent Mexico-born chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval, specializes in creative spins on traditional Mexican cuisine. Like the innovative food — tuna tartare guacamole, smoked brisket tacos, crab and shrimp enchiladas and corn husk-wrapped grilled striped bass — the décor is striking, the handcrafted cocktails modern and bold. Behold a legendary Colorado sunset on Tamayo's swanky rooftop lounge, a lovely oasis that’s also ideal for lingering over bottomless margaritas during Tamayo’s popular weekend brunch.
Long before Denver became a city steeped in Mexican cuisine, there was La Loma, a hallelujah of Colorado-style green chile, gigantic margaritas, nachos and fajitas. Since its inception in the 1970s, the restaurant has occupied three different locations, including its current residence in the heart of downtown Denver. The rusticated space, decked out with exposed red brick, gold-framed southwestern art and wrought-iron accents, features an open kitchen and separate bar area that buzzes with weekday happy hour revelers sipping cerveza and snacking on the obsessive mini chile rellenos, hot, crisp-crusted and swelled with gooey cheese. There’s also a second outpost in suburban Castle Rock.
From the owners of Soiled Dove Underground — and the former Tavern Downtown and Cowboy Lounge — this Mexican restaurant and cantina on the 16th Street Mall struts a visually stimulating color palette, textured walls muraled with whimsical Day of the Dead art, hanging star light fixtures and sunken loungey booths surrounding artistic tables, one of which is a lettered conversation piece that spells “LOVE.” And the built-for-sharing menu of modern Mexican dishes, coupled with street tacos and traditional Tex-Mex classics, exhibits a genuine love of Mexican foodstuffs, while the tequila and mezcal collection — more than 200 bottles — proves that the bar team is more than a little enamored with the agave plant. To drive the point home, there’s even a mezcal lounge on the mezzanine level, which peers over the lively downstairs bar and dining room.
Pozole is the name of the game at this festive Five Points spot steered by chef/owner Jose Avila, who grew up in Mexico City and — lucky for us — brought his culinary culture to The Mile High City. His pozole, of which there are five variations, is plumped with nixtamalized housemade hominy sidekicked with the requisite companions: cabbage, thin-sliced radishes, lettuce, lime wedges and potent white onions and, if you wish, avocado and chicharrons. The soft-lit pozoleria — the only one of its kind in Denver — pays homage to Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, with skulls and murals on the bricked walls, and the bar has a terrific cocktail program, most notably the madre facka with poblano agave, tequila, mezcal and a clever garnish composed of a lacy skeleton leaf procured from guava trees.
The owners of Birdcall, Homegrown Tap & Dough, Park & Co. and Park Burger are behind this rollicking, modernist and hipster Baja-inspired Mexican destination in the heart of Washington Park. The gorgeous quarters are ambient eye candy, with sea-hued tile, cowhide-covered barstools, light fixtures constructed from repurposed motorcycle parts and kaleidoscopic murals. Think swanky coastal club meets sophisticated urban glitz. Perdida is home to Mexican street corn-on-the-cob dotted with cotija cheese; citrus-spiked ceviche involving snapper, shrimp and bay scallops; chile-crusted carnitas tacos with charred pineapple and adobo sauce; carne asada paired with a sweet potato enchilada; and zarrandeado, marinated and butterflied striped bass matched with chayote and papaya slaw. There are a lot of Mexican restaurants in Denver, but few with the kind of accomplished bar program paraded by Perdida whose cocktail syllabus an ode to artful mezcal and tequila potions.
Ceviche, raw fish or seafood marinated in fresh citrus juices, slashed with fresh chiles and cilantro and potent with raw onions, is easily one of the best culinary gifts the states inherited from Mexico. And at Mr Peralto Mariscos, a stuccoed corner plot in Sunnyside, the ceviches are arguably Denver’s finest. The convivial dining room, humming with patrons slurping obscenely huge platters of ceviche and equally large seafood cocktail goblets plunged with shrimp floating in a tomato broth, pulsates with Mexican music. The cooks in the open kitchen add to the clamor, the thwack of their knives an indication that you’re about to embark on a delicious feast. The long syllabus of ceviches is offset by several chile-intensive aguachiles spiked with lime, shrimp dishes served every which way, seafood tacos and soups and molcajetes pointing skyward with crab legs, fried fish filets, clams and shrimp ribboned with strips of bacon.
The newest endeavor from ridiculously talented celeb chef Dana “Loca” Rodriguez (Super Mega Bien, Casa Bonita and Work + Class), this Lower Highland (LoHi) hotspot showcases the best of Mexican street food: cod ceviche, queso fundido, delicious fried tacos swelled with cheese and smashed potatoes, housemade chorizo wrapped in still-steaming blue corn tortillas and flavor-bombed al pastor Colorado lamb tucked inside a banana leaf and paired with both blue and white corn tortillas, a heavenly avocado sauce and salsa. Embark on a tasting tour of Rodriguez’s own line of small-batch tequilas and mezcals and raise your glass to good vibes, great ambiance enlivened with sultry Latin music and some of the most weaponized margaritas in the city. Also. Don’t even think about forgoing the caramel-laced flan; it’s decadent.
In the cities and towns of Mexico, restaurants like La Calle can be found on just about every street corner, but in the Valverde neighborhood, there is nothing quite like this cramped taqueria filled with the nearby workforce, families and taco zealots swigging cinnamon-spiked horchata, slurping roasted goat meat soup from smoldering bowls and eating soft-corn tortillas surfaced with slow-cooked pork, raw onions, a shower of cilantro leaves, a squeeze of lime and a swipe of fresh salsa, of which there are about six, most of them aimed at testing your capsicum tolerance. Proceed with caution.
After clocking hundreds of miles on wheels, this former food truck finally found a permanent home in a visually stimulating storefront in the hip Baker neighborhood. The menu isn’t as edgy as some of the patrons who take up residence at the counter, but the food is really good, which is to say that you’ll find the full culinary canon of Mexican crowd-pleasers: warm chips and properly seasoned guacamole, green chile-smothered french fries with carne asada and stretchy Mexican cheeses, beef cheek tacos and goat meat tacos, a burger heaped with roasted poblano peppers and nacho cheese sauce, a bulging California-style burrito and cheese enchiladas blanketed in a mellow green salsa. If you’ve got late-night cravings, there’s an abbreviated menu —and a convenient walk-up window — to satisfy them.
"For truly amazing flavors, El Taco de Mexico is a must," says “Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern, who visited this iconic Art District on Santa Fe iron throne during a stopover in The Mile High City. El Taco de Mexico, he went on, is "Denver's quintessential taqueria," unleashing the "best menudo and tacos in the city." Locals wholeheartedly agree with that declaration, lining up morning, noon and night for the al pastor tacos specked with onions and cilantro, the chile relleno burrito smothered with a mind-blowingly good green chile and the menudo, Mexico’s antidote for hangovers. Make no mistake: It’s a dive with a yellow Formica counter, but it’s also the most beloved taqueria in town. And the fiery salsa is legendary.
Chef and restaurateur Troy Guard is renowned for his bold restaurant portfolio, and Los Chingones, located in the hip and artsy RiNo ‘hood, is no exception. The rollicking, bi-level taqueria, splashed with eye-catching murals and Mexican folk art, is full of artistic flair. The food deserves props, too. Start with a salsa flight and guacamole and work your way up to the octopus or Kobe beef tacos. You’ll also find an innovative cocktail roster that spotlights tequila, best imbibed on the sprawling rooftop deck overlooking the city skyline. So popular is Los Chingones that it’s branched out to multiple locals across the city, including the Denver Tech Center and Central Park.
Owned by brothers Jason and Kris Wallenta (the duo also presides over White Pie, a Connecticut-style pizza restaurant), Dos Santos, residing in Uptown, brings the flavors of Mexico City to 17th Avenue’s restaurant row. The compact menu, accentuated with traditional and contemporary guacamole preparations (get the flight) and aguachili, an assemblage of lime-cured shrimp, onions, avocado and Serrano chiles, is most notable for its soft corn tacos, headliners that include the Del Mar, a heavenly layer of beer-battered shrimp, sliced cabbage, pickled onions, fried leeks and habanero aioli. The industrial-cool space, bedecked with exposed brick and reclaimed wood accents, also parades a spirited bar that serves classic cocktails, wine, craft beers and margaritas that pack a punch.
One of the many attributes of a tortilla — in this case, corn — is its versatility. The humble tortilla is a blank canvas on which to tinker, and that’s exactly what chef-owner Kevin Morrison does at Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey, his trifecta of dynamic Mexican joints in City Park, Governors Park and Highland. The griddled tortillas are a perfect vehicle for the pan-roasted shrimp and scallops with avocado crema and pico de gallo, or the sweet-and-sour-braised pork belly with candied garlic and cilantro-and-cabbage slaw. But why stop there when you can get crispy beef tongue tacos, steak tacos and a terrific vegetarian number with lacy cotija cheese, avocado and roasted tomatillo salsa? There’s not a dud to be found on the taco train, a declaration that extends to the rest of the menu: queso fundido studded with chorizo, guacamole and chips, chicken chicharrones and, for dessert, churros paired with a Mexican hot chocolate sauce. Everything, of course, taste even better with a cerveza or margarita, both of which you’ll find in abundance. And, yes, there’s plenty of whiskey, too.
At Adelitas Cocina Y Cantina, a spirited Mexican restaurant in Platt Park, you’ll need to plan ahead if you want to take advantage of its super-popular Taco Tuesdays, a day-long throng of warriors that arrive in droves and brave the waits to feast on $1 tacos. But while tacos get plenty of attention on the menu, you’d also be wise to consider the mole enchiladas, carne asada and rustic posole — a crimson-stained stew brimming with pork and guajillo chiles. On the side: onions, cilantro, diced radishes, cabbage, lime wedges and soft tortillas. If you walk on the wild side, swirl in a spoonful of the compulsively addictive (and hot) habanero salsa. And while you should definitely order a mezcal margarita, it won’t dull the pain — but an horchata might. If you want a post-dinner libation, proceed directly to the intimate mezcaleria directly behind Adelitas.
The union of tacos, tortas and pupusas absorb the menu at Uno Mas Taqueria Y Cantina, a duo of festive taquerias, with outposts in Platt Park, Alamo Placita and Fort Collins. The staff subscribes to a garden-to-plate/farm-to-table philosophy, unearthing seasonal produce from his own gardens, greenhouse and farmland and sourcing his chicken, pork and beef from Colorado farmers. The pork belly tacos, rubbed with coffee and ancho chiles, will dare you to order an another, while the beef tongue tacos, punctuated with jalapenos and tomatoes, drizzled with Mexican crema and dotted with crumbled cotija cheese, are in step with the adventurous tastes of the neighborhood. Craft beers and a collection of more than 70 tequilas provide requisite lubrication.
Olde Town Arvada is a suburban food-lover’s Eden, in part because of polished restaurants like Teocalli Cocina, whose kitchen is spearheaded by chef Julio Gaspar, a native of Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, and the former kitchen magician of the now-closed Lola Coastal Mexican. It’s easy to make a fiesta out of the superb tacos, the griddled corn tortillas crested with everything from short ribs, Oaxacan and Chihuahua cheeses, diced white onions, avocado salsa verde, cilantro and consume to the equally delicious tamarind-and-chipotle-glazed pork belly tacos with pickled red onions. But the tacos aren’t the only notables: The margaritas are spectacular, as is the chunky guacamole studded with green chorizo and the Oaxacan cheese enchiladas sauced with a deep-flavored mole poblano.
Garibaldi, its white walls splashed with graffitied, hand-written notes that extol the virtues of the spot’s tacos, huaraches, cactus paddle rellenos, gorditas and carnitas, might be the kind of Mexican joint you’d dismiss out of hand, mostly because it’s attached to a Conoco station. That would make it a novelty. As well, the Englewood pitstop may be the only place in The Mile High City where you can eat a Yucatán-inspired queka, a quesadilla made with fresh masa that’s fried and glutted with white cheese, epazote and chicharrons, crunchy chunks of fried pigskin. The expansive menu shows reverence for quality ingredients, tradition and passion, and the food, deep in flavor, is some of the most rhapsodic in the city.
Foodwise, the most compelling reason to make the jaunt to Golden, the town that gave us Coors-Molson Brewery (and the scent of roasted malt in the air) is Xicamiti (pronounced Chee-ka-me-tee) La Taqueria Bistro, a turquoise-hued restaurant whose shrine to mezcal — a triangular wooden display complete with Day of the Dead skulls and skeletons — is reason enough to fight for a parking place and, most likely, a table. This is a quirky place, and if it’s not terribly busy, which is a rarity, it’s possible that you’ll hear a dissertation from your server about owner Walter Meza and his unwavering obsession for the cooking of Mexico. But when you taste Meza’s street tacos plumped with grilled poblano peppers and corn, onions and molten white cheese, you’ll understand what the fuss is about. And when you take the first bite of his savory corn flan with fresh berries, it’ll become more than a fetish.
By Lori Midson
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