From humble taquerias to refined bistros and cantinas, The Mile High City’s culinary landscape is brimming with terrific south-of-the-border restaurants that represent just about every region of Mexico. Here, you’ll find shrimp aguachili rooted in the State of Sinaloa, spice-studded Oaxacan mole, al pastor street tacos and bubbling molcajetes stewed with seafood, beef, chicken or vegetables. Take a bite out of Denver’s staggering repertoire of possibilities at these delicious spots that showcase the best of the best.
Lola Mexican Fish House
With an enviable view of the Denver skyline from its buzzing patio and a hip Highland clientele, Lola is one of The Mile High City's most coveted spots for Mexican-inspired cuisine that’s long on ambiance and even longer on flavor. Do what everyone else does and start with the guacamole, handcrafted at your table from a litany of ingredients, including Chimayo chile powder, garlic and Serrano peppers. From there, move on to the elevated shrimp ceviche and favorites like the cochinita pibil with roasted poblano grits and corn tots, or the red snapper, a whole fish that’s served fried with pickled tomatillo tatar sauce or grilled with chimichurri sauce. The food doesn't require embellishments, but you’d be remiss to forego a margarita. Lola features more than 200 tequilas, which may explain why Food & Wine magazine named it one of the top five places in the country to drink tequila.
A long-standing landmark on Larimer Square, Tamayo, the brainbox of prominent Mexico-born chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval, features 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 staple 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. 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 tucking into the restaurant’s ballyhooed mini chile rellenos and green chile.
Otra Vez Cantina
From the owners of the Tavern, Soiled Dover Underground and Cowboy Lounge, this downtown 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 Otra Vez Cantina's 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.
Kachina Southwestern Grill
This same-name sibling of the original Kachina Southwestern Grill—a staple in the Westminster suburb—anchors the new 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, New Mexican posole and green chile and the restaurant’s signature Navajo tacos.
Latigo Modern Mexican Restaurant
From Ignacio Leon, chef-owner of Los Carboncitos—one of The Mile High City’s most popular taquerias—comes Latigo Modern Mexican Restaurant, a high-design, rustically elegant Mexican restaurant in the Ballpark ‘hood that celebrates the flavors of Oaxaca, Mexico City and Veracruz. Leon’s confident cooking, a repertoire that includes vividly tart shrimp ceviche, molcajetes stewed with seafood, beef, chicken or vegetables, enchiladas and tacos, and chicken draped in an earthy mole, is offset by a thoughtful beverage scroll that favors mules and margaritas, most of which are elevated with fresh-squeezed fruit juices and, if you’re partial to heat, a thrust of jalapeños.
El Taco de Mexico
"For truly amazing flavors, El Taco de Mexico is a must," wrote Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern, who visited the iconic Santa Fe Arts District taco joint 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, tattered booths and a kitchen crew of stoic women who aren’t particularly amenable to idle banter, 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 (River North Art) district, 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 branched out to the Denver Tech Center; it’ll be a trifecta when Guard opens his third location in Stapleton this summer.
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.
Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey
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 duo of dynamic Mexican joints in City 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 punctuated with chorizo, guacamole and chips, chicken chicharrones and 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.
Adelitas Cocina Y Cantina
At Adelita’s 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.
El Chingon Mexican Bistro
It doesn’t matter that there’s usually a wait and no stools at the bar when there are beautiful dishes at the ready from chef David Lopez who, along with his family, oversee this bustling Mexican restaurant that resides in a charmingly remodeled old cottage in Berkeley. This is a place where you’ll experience genuine hospitality and traditional and contemporary ingredients that are woven into magical creations on the colorful plates. Lopez is an ambidextrous chef, as practiced in vegetarian marvels as he is in fish and meat matters, which means that the rellenos filled with an organic wild mushroom medley are every bit as compelling as the seared duck breast with duck-fat mole. The bar program exceeds expectations, too, thanks to its scroll of fresh craft cocktails and small but formidable wine list.
Uno Mas Taqueria Y Cantina
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 and Alamo Placita. Owner Patrick Mangold-White 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.
By Lori Midson